Where to Go Next: Magical Bhutan
The dzong hung there, perched out over the valley. It’s massive facade peeking in and out of the mists that swirled up the gorge and around mountain peaks in the dawn light. From inside the dzong, the faint ringing of bells and otherworldly chanting of monks drifted up the road to where I was standing. We had camped next to this massive, ancient fortress for the last two nights and I woke before dawn to wander up the road in search of photos from yet another extraordinary day while traveling across the Kingdom of Bhutan.
It’s December, the air is cool, but I am comfortable in a cozy fleece and I know by mid-day, it will be sunny, in the low 70’s and perfect. The weather here reminds me of dreamy, fall days in a western U.S. mountain town. It’s been like this almost every day since I stepped off the plane in the beautiful city of Paro.
I landed in Paro over a week before and was met by our trip leader Sencho and a driver. We then loaded up the van and enjoyed the beautiful hour and a half drive to the hotel in the capital city of Thimpo. Meeting up that evening with more of the group, smiles and introductions were made and we then headed out to dinner. Right from that first evening, there was this excitement in everyone’s eyes; this sort of, electricity. We all knew we were about to begin the trip of a lifetime.
Bhutan is truly a far, far away land sitting on the flanks of the Himalaya—the most legendary mountains on earth. Its culture is so different that everyone you come in contact with is extraordinarily interested in everything about you, and you with them. As a nationality, the people of Bhutan were the most open, beautiful and welcoming I have ever met. Always smiling and interested to see and meet you. Many times I was invited into people’s homes for no reason other than I happened to be passing by. The people here are warm, seem happy and as a country, it just feels safe. After all, this is the only country on earth that measures gross national happiness.
One of the unexpected bonuses of traveling in Bhutan is that English is taught as a second language from an early age, so most speak it well and the language barrier is very minimal. This comes in handy whether you are haggling on the price of prayer flags or sitting down to hear someone’s life story.
The roads, I would say, are not for the faint of heart. This place is rugged beyond imagination and I found my mind wandering often as to how or why they would ever put a road on the side of this or that mountain. The reality is that they have no other choice. The land consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers, which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains.
One of my favorite realizations was recognizing that I was witnessing and experiencing the most intact ecosystem I had ever seen—culturally or environmentally. The Kingdom began opening up very slowly to outsiders in the 1970’s and since then, because of tariffs and restrictions, only a limited amount of people visit every year, further preserving the ancient culture and simpler, older way of life.
We journeyed cross-country, visiting many various cultural sites such as the gravity-defying Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to cliffs 3,000-feet above the Paro Valley. We cruised up over windy, 10,000-foot passes and wandered under hundreds of whipping prayer flags. We stayed in swanky hotels and put our feet up in a luxury safari-style camp. We slept in tents next to the former King of Bhutan’s dzong and partied with monks.
Warming up with a few day floats, we rafted one afternoon on the mellow Pho Chhu and then a couple days on the fun and rowdy Mangde Chhu before starting in on the Drangme Chhu. The Drangme was to be the real business end of our three-week adventure. Our six-day and five-night journey was to be the second-ever decent of the upper section of this rarely-seen river system. Two of our guides from Bhutan were part of the first expedition and they explained that that first trip was at higher water and after a couple days of our own float, said that with the current conditions, this was a completely different river and much, much more difficult. More technical and bigger holes than the first descent, this was the most adventurous river trip I had ever been part of. Running two rafts and three safety kayaks, we scouted, portaged and pin-balled our way down this amazing and rarely-seen gorge. The river eventually drops down into jungle and crosses over into India. Stories were told, new ones created and even a few rapids were named. We heard all sorts of animals and a few were seen. We shared beaches with tigers and leopards. The proof was in finding their tracks on more than one beach. There were monkey sightings and one evening, a wild boar cruised the shore across from our camp. On the final day of our float, some of our crew even spotted a leopard hiding along the bank.
We then floated out of the magical land of Bhutan and into India, taking out in Royal Manas National Park and staying at Bonsbari Lodge. Waking early the next morning, we walked a few steps down the dirt road, back into the park for one last adventure and climbed aboard the backs of Indian elephants for a guided safari. This was something that had always been high on my bucket list, so while we did not see any other big mammals, riding on elephants and spending time around such amazing creatures was enough for me.
There is this feeling in Bhutan that is hard to put a finger on. It is in some ways obvious and at the same time fleeting because there are so few places like it that I have ever had the chance to experience. I was seeing a place that in some ways is still as it was hundreds of years ago, basically unchanged. Although I suspect—fortunately and at the same time unfortunately—headed down a slope towards modernization that is irreversible. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see it now, rather than in 20 years. This trip is a game changer. Mind expanding and soul filling. I’m sure I will be digesting the experience for many years and really, probably the rest of my life.