Marvel Maison

The combination of the archaeology, the food and wine experiences, the swimming and the generally relaxed atmosphere made for a very enjoyable tour. There was a high attention to detail. Our main tour guide was very enthusiastic and highly qualified. Excellent.

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Bhutan – where happiness is a way of life

I’ve travelled fairly extensively but I have yet to visit a country as distinctive as this. In fact, it is so unmistakably different that I felt I had journeyed to another planet, even though my flight from Kolkata to Paro was barely an hour. A joyful planet where simplicity rules the way to happiness. 

Bhutan’s individuality becomes apparent from Paro airport itself. All other airports I’ve been to have been homogenised by the gloss of stores housing the same global brands, all posited on a bedrock of conspicuous consumption. But this airport was not only sans any brands but bare of shops altogether, save an unassuming lady selling mobile phone SIM cards across a small table, as you exit the arrivals area. 

I’ m in the middle of the bustling city of Kolkata as I begin writing this article but my mind is still holding onto the  experience of the most magical country, and finding happiness in Bhutan.

Paro airport, the only international airport in Bhutan, is one of the trickiest airports in the world to land in. Planes manoeuvre between mountains to land on a runway that feels like a road. Seeing my plane park, conjured the sense of a car on a beautiful road. The airport building, symbolic of the ubiquitous and particularistic architecture you find throughout Bhutan, feels like an ornate house at the end of a road. The simple embrace and informality that begins with the design of Paro airport continues, as a sensibility, throughout the country.

I often travel solo in Europe and the USA, but seldom in Asia. Bhutan was to be a solo trip to a country where I knew no-one. However, the easy friendliness of the Bhutanese people is such that I felt I had gathered friends whilst making my travel arrangements with the Bhutan Tourism Board and with hotels where I stayed.  

An hour’s drive from Paro airport, the capital Thimphu was my first stop. I took in greenery, architecture, the summer sun and conversation, as my guide explained, ‘we Bhutanese don’t feel any need to be greedy’. Historically, due to its geography, Bhutan has been a very isolated country. It has never been conquered – literally and metaphorically – and this has kept it pristine and unadulterated from the excesses of the world at large.

Hugged by mountains, my arrival at my hotel in Thimphu – the beautiful Le Meridien was marked by warmth. Stores showcasing and selling the best of Bhutanese art and crafts lead to the impressive threshold of the hotel. I was welcomed with a white scarf denoting peace, a hot towel, tea spiced with ginger and lemon and the serenade of tranquil Buddhist music. The hotel is one of a five star chain yet it carries a boutique feel. My suite was marked by the luxury of sleek, contemporary furnishings and the view of both my room and living room had the lure of the mountains that carry the city of Thimphu.

On the my second and last night, I returned from a day’s sight seeing to an adorable ‘cuddly toy’ on my bed and a miniature kira, the national dress for women in Bhutan. The toy was made most imaginatively from towels and the kira was a take-home-memento from a hotel that associates luxury with care. The hotel staff were perpetually helpful, bending over backwards to make my stay unforgettable. 

The experience of Thimpu as a city was brimming with peace. It does not carry the hustle and bustle of typical capital cities. Sitting high and adroit in the mountains of Thimphu is the Dordema Buddha. Recently constructed, it is one of the highest statues of Buddha in the world. The views it accords at the zenith it sits at, are expansive and serene. I was struck by chants from the Sikh prayer ‘Eko Ankar’ reverberating from an event being held in its grounds.

A second must-do experience in Thimpu is the Cherry Monastery trek. Depending on your level of fitness, the uphill climb can take between one to two hours but the serenity of air, the embrace of pines and the breathtaking views make it entirely worthwhile.   

For a date with Bhutanese fine dining in Thimpu, the Chig Ga Gye at the Taj Tashi Hotel is a combination of the best of Bhutanese cuisine, culture and hospitality. Named after the 108 temptations enumerated in Buddhism, the menu represents different regions of Bhutan. 

The Kakuru Jaju – a pumpkin soup with simmered vegetables and served with buckwheat pancakes, is exceptional. Their version of the national dish Datshi is outstanding. Churm marp, steamed local red rice is another unmissable dish. I also attended the hotel’s pre-dinner tea ceremony and blessing by the llamas, which was followed by a folk dance presentation around a bonfire, on grounds surrounded by rose bushes.  

From Thimphu, I travelled to Wangdue via Punakha taking in the Dochula mountain pass on the way which is at an altitude of 3200 feet. One of the highlights of my trip was my visit to the Wolakha nunnery in Punakha. Most of the nuns appeared to be very young, possibly even teenagers and pre-teens. Perpetually smiling and affable, they were otherwise busy studying or going about their daily tasks like the upkeep of the temple on its grounds. Atop the mountains, where the breeze was so invigorating that it entirely lifted the heat of the 35 degree sun, the location of this nunnery in itself felt meditative.

Punakha is also home to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and apparently the second longest in the world. It is just by Punakha’s famous Dzong, i.e. fortress. Walking across it felt like being on a balcony swing just that this time below were the raging teal waters of a glacial river. Clouds were hanging so low that they could have almost been snatched to play with. The reach of the mountains seen from the bridge were as far as the eyes travelled; to beyond people. That night I stayed along the river at a resort called Kichu. My room balcony had rushing waters running just below it so I slept and awoke to river sounds. It was not a 5 star hotel but safe, confortable and beautiful in its layout where the staff, characteristic of Bhutanese hospitality, went the extra mile.  

My last stop was Paro, my favourite city in Bhutan. The mountains of Paro are extremely pretty and seem at complete ease overlooking paddy fields. I took long walks on meandering roads under the watch of these mountains and clear summer skies.

In Paro, I was struck again by the infallible hospitality of the hotels I stayed in – the Como Uma and the Le Meridien Riverfront. Como Uma Paro carries a boutique sensibility in every sense of the phrase. The lush furnishings in its lobby carry a quiet presence. My suite had what felt like, a 360 degree view of mountain forests with the tree branches leaning in at my window panes. The Bose sound system, ready with a Buddhist music CD, meant I did my morning mediation to crisp, reverberating chants, after which I attended a lesson in archery, the national sport of Bhutan.

In the evening, I experienced the traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath and massage. In a fragrantly lit hut amongst pine trees, a tub with water at 40 degrees and medicinal herbs from the surrounding forests, was prepared. Being a very hot day they brought the water temperature down by a degree or two. I was asked to sit in the ‘medicinally activated’ waters for 20-30 minutes. There were ice cubes in a bowl and lots of water to hand and a gong bowl to hit to call the masseuse in earlier, if needed. The bath did ease my muscles, sore from trekking. The massage that followed was among the best I’ve experienced. Lloma, my therapist, chatted to me easily about the simplicities of life in Bhutan.

The Le Meridien Paro Riverfront takes from its name, as the river glides by it. I would watch the river glide along the mountains from my room. By now I was becoming inured to the easy friendliness of the Bhutanese people, to the nurture inherent in their hospitality. Each day during dinner the hotel staff would come by to check in on me – to ask how my day went and if I needed any help with planning the next day. They shared stories of Bhutan – their stories, of their ‘humble King’, their history and their people that have become part of my treasure trove; that gave me an insight into why research has labeled Bhutan the happiest country in the world. 

On the day of my departure I had an early morning flight. This did not allow me time to have my favourite buckwheat pancakes at the Le Meridien hotel restaurant for breakfast. Just I was getting into my taxi, a staff member came running towards me. With a paper bag in hand, he said, “Madam, we thought you would like to have the buckwheat pancakes along your journey home”; not knowing that by doing so, they’ve made me feel ‘at home’ in this wondrous country.

Source:Citizen Femme:

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5 Monasteries In Bhutan You Need To Visit

Travellers looking to explore the Buddhist Kingdom and delve into the history and heritage of the country can visit the numerous temples, originally built to protect local communities and which have turned into museums housing cultural and religious artefacts. The impressive architecture of the fortresses typically consist of courtyards, temples, administrative offices and monks’ accommodation.

Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is known for its dramatic landscape, ranging from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys dotted with monasteries and dzongs. 

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

The Lowdown: Taktsang Monastery, known as ‘The Tiger’s Nest’, is Bhutan’s most iconic temple standing on a sheer cliff edge 3,120 metres above the Paro Valley. The temple is only accessible by trekking two/three hours through pine forests and mountains. But the trek is worth it, as once you reach the summit, you’re rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding majestic mountains and valleys, as well as the chance to see brightly coloured prayer bannerettes symbolising protection and good luck.
Gangtey Monastery

The Lowdown: The Gangtey Monastery is an important monastery of Nyingmapa school of Buddhism, situated in the Wangdue Phodrang District in Western Bhutan. Offering views of Phobjikha Valley, the area is home to the country’s rare Black Necked Cranes. Explore the Valley’s cultural heritage and traditions, as well as attending the Annual Black-Necked Crane Festival, held in November each year. The festival sees over 300 cranes migrate and you can learn about the importance of conserving endangered species and the history of the area.
Trongsa Dzong

The Lowdown: The Trongsa Dzong overlooks the Mangdecuhhu River in the centre of Bhutan and is easily visible from anywhere within the town. The impressive temple is closely connected to the royal family, with both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruling from Trongsa. If you’re travelling to the dzong, you can discover the history of the area, as well as take part in local celebrations such as ‘Trongsa Tshechu’, the annual winter festival. Open to locals and travellers alike, the festival celebrates Buddhism and the country’s heritage.Punakha Dzong

The Lowdown: Dubbed ‘The palace of great happiness’, Punakha Dzong in Punakha served as the capital of the country until the early 20th century. It takes pride as the second oldest and largest dzong in Bhutan, and the inside is adorned with beautiful interior and intricate decorations, including murals and handcrafted woodwork and paintings.
Trashigang Dzong

The Lowdown: Situated in the eastern most corner of Bhutan, Trashigang town is set on a scenic hillside on the edge of the Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh. The dzong was built in the 17th century to defend the east against Tibetan invasions and is strategically situated overlooking the Dangmechu River. Today, the fortress remains a hub for traditional arts and crafts, cultural events, rituals and annual festivals.

Source:About Time:

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Bhutan: Kingdom of the Sky

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As our plane begins its descent towards the small airstrip at Paro International Airport, the Captain asked us to brace ourselves for what was expected to be a very bumpy landing.

I was painfully reminded that this remote Himalayan airport was reputed to be so dangerous that only eight pilots in the world are qualified to land there. 

Paro Airport in Bhutan is 1.5 miles above sea level and surrounded by the tortured topography of jagged mountains, with towering peaks of up to 18,000 ft tall. The treacherous runway is just 6,500 feet long – one of the few in the world shorter than their actual elevation above sea level. Until July 2011, just one airline, Drukair – Royal Bhutan Airlines, was allowed to use the facility.

Despite the perilous landing conditions, the views over the lush and verdant Paro Valley, with its sacred Buddhist temples, a scattering of historic buildings, pristine rivers and remote mountain villages, instantly remind you this is also one of the most beautiful countries in the Himalayas.

The short flight from Kathmandu in neighbouring Nepal, with Drukair’s new 48-seat, ATR 42-500 twin-turboprop, short-haul regional airliner took little over an hour, and being propeller-driven, provided what was unquestionably one of the most nostalgic scheduled flights I have ever had the good fortune to board, and possibly the most dramatic view of Himalayan scenery I have ever seen. 

At this high altitude, flights into Paro are only allowed during the daylight hours and under visual meteorological conditions, in which the pilot must make his judgements by eye, rather than rely on instruments as would be the case in night flights. 

The cool mountain air embraces us as we step off the plane in the tiny, dusty valley town of Paro, our faces immediately freshened from the stifling humidity of the cabin and anxieties of the hairy landing. Beyond the rudimentary airport buildings, and vision of the imposing Rinpung Dzong monastery, standing sentinel in the distance, the lush foliage of the Paro Valley shimmers in the bright morning sunlight, at once mesmerizingly beautiful and peaceful. 

Tucked away between China and India in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan remains a uniquely distinct country. Few explorers have been granted permission to visit this long-inaccessible Kingdom, now a democracy, where life quietly unfolds to the rhythm of traditions amidst the magnificent, unspoilt landscape. 

Bhutan, officially the Kingdom of Bhutan, has been remarkably successful in preserving its Buddhist culture while also drawing on the benefits of Western know-how, such as environmental conservation and improvements in public health and education. 

This landlocked country was influenced early on by Tibetan civilization, but over time it developed its own original culture. Today Bhutan’s culture is unique in its characteristics and achievements in ecology, spirituality, politics, architecture, textiles and other crafts, and remains clearly distinct from other Himalayan regions. It continues to be a place of stability and serenity within a part of the world that is increasingly conflicted. 

Bhutan – known to its people as Druk-Yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ – is pivotally positioned between those two Asian giants, India and China. To the north lies Tibet, along with the imposing barrier of the Himalayas, while extending to the east, south and west are the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim. 

Much of the land is covered in lush and varied forests. Broad-leaf trees and conifers occupy three-quarters of its 46,500 square kilometres, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, and with an estimated population of only 700,000, it is one of the least populous nations in South Asia, second only to the Maldives. The verdant valleys and steep mountain slopes of the rich central zone are carpeted with a patchwork of rice paddies and fields of barley, wheat, millet and buckwheat. 

Bhutan is situated on the same latitude as Morocco. Its climate is governed by monsoons which contribute to its extraordinary ecological diversity. From south to north, in the space of a mere 130 to 150 kilometres, weather conditions shift from semi-tropical to temperate (in the country’s central zone) to alpine. With its narrow plain of dense and often impenetrable jungle to the south and the Himalayan barrier to the north, the country has its own natural defences. 

Bhutan’s central zone is its cultural cradle and the historical heartland of its people. The region is composed of a series of basins, whose inhabitants were totally economically self-sustaining until fifty years ago, and from west to east there is a string of glorious valleys, like reliquaries enshrining the many spiritual and artistic aspects of Bhutanese culture. To the west lie the town of Paro, and Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan and its largest city, and, to the centre and east of the country, the rich valleys of Bumthang, Trongsar and Lhuntse situated at between 2,000 and 3,500 metres. 

Further to the east, there are the low-lying valleys of Tashigang, Merak and Sakteng, home to the Sar-chupa, the ‘People of the East’, who speak a different language from Dzongkha, a Sino-Tibetan language that is the Kingdom of Bhutan’s sole official and national language, spoken by over half a million people. 

North Bhutan is a series of towering peaks rising from 3,000 metres to over 7,000 metres. Jomolhari, sometimes known as “the bride of Kangchenjunga”, is the highest peak in Bhutan, and reaches 7,326 metres, capped with the eternal snows of the Great Himalaya. Bhutan’s semi-nomadic yak-herders live on these northern slopes, enduring the rigours of the Himalayan climate and bringing their herds to graze in spring at between 4,000 and 5,000 metres. 

The Tibetan name for Bhutan, Lhojong Menjong, means ‘The Southern Valleys of Medicinal Herbs’ and the dense forests of these Himalayan foothills are rich in plant life known for their medicinal properties. The steep slopes shelter a number of rare and endangered species such as the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis grandis), Bhutan’s national flower, as well as a great variety of beautiful orchids and rhododendrons. Most of the region – 26 percent of the country as a whole – has been designated as a national park, a further indication of how highly the Bhutanese government values and respects the environment. 

Bhutan is home to the elusive snow leopard, or ‘ounce’ (Panthera uncia), and the white-bellied or Himalayan musk deer (Moschus leucogaster), as well as numerous other species, and even tigers have been photographed here at an altitude of 4,000 metres. The wealth of Bhutan’s diverse flora and fauna, its exceptional forest cover, the abundance of clear-flowing rivers, generous rainfall, and its small population, are all resources that have played an important role in the evolution of Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage and represent major economic assets for the country today. 

In Bhutan, history and spirituality are indissolubly linked. It is said that there, ‘the earth is Buddhist and the sky is Buddhist’. The mountains are seen by the Bhutanese as ‘recumbent elephants’, ‘proudly poised lions’ and ‘garuda birds taking flight’. The plains are lotus flowers with their eight petals unfolded; the little cut-out pieces of sky in a rock face are ‘gakyil’, “circles of joy”, or ‘phurba’, triangular daggers. The lakes are shaped like horns of plenty or cups of ambrosia. The whole landscape is sacred. Every valley is a site of pilgrimage and every rock, cave, forest and river has a history. In one place, a hermit meditated; in another, a spiritual master left his footprint on a rock; in yet another lies the home of a guardian spirit of the earth. 

Many of these sites are barely known outside the valley where they are located, while others have a quasi-mythical reputation throughout the world of Himalayan Buddhism. Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the 8th century Indian Buddhist master, is said to have concealed a great many spiritual treasures at Paro Taktsang, the prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex located in the cliffside of the Upper Paro Valley. 

Famously known as ‘The Tiger’s Lair’, the monastery clings to a cliff, 3,120 metres above sea level and is one of the most imposing visitor attractions in Bhutan. Small wonder, during their Royal visit to India and Bhutan in 2016, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge trekked to the summit of this famous monastery, going one better than the Duke’s father, Prince Charles, who on a 1998 trip broke off his hike to the sacred site to paint a watercolour of the complex from afar. 

Several months after Prince Charles visited Paro Taktsang in 1998, a fire broke out in the monastery and it was completely destroyed: the temple being hard to access and emergency assistance was near impossible. However, Bhutan’s own popular monarch, His Majesty, the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth ruler in his family to take possession of the crown, immediately ordered the reconstruction of this national treasure, and it has since been restored to its former splendour. 

My own three-hour trek to the monastery at Paro Taktsang was an unforgettable experience, thanks largely to its isolated location and the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and emerald green valleys. Looking at the complex from the bottom of the cliff, it seems almost impossible to reach the monastery. In fact, there are three mountain paths leading to the sacred site. The first path is a trail passing through the pine forest and decorated with brightly-coloured bannerettes symbolizing protection from evil forces, positive energy, vitality and good luck. The other two paths pass through the central plateau, called “a hundred thousand fairies plateau”. 

Kurje Lhakhang, at the heart of Bhutan in the Bumthang Valley, is another major pilgrimage site. This imposing 8th century monastery is the final resting place of the remains of the first three Kings of Bhutan and is well worth a visit. Mönka Nering Senge Dzong, ‘The Fortress of the Lion’, will take any visitor to this holy site on a journey of spiritual immersion. Blessed by Padmasambhava and his female disciple Yeshe Tosogyal, this renowned place of worship is a small plateau ringed with rocky peaks and glaciers, located at over 4,000 metres, which takes several days to reach by walking along boggy paths in semi-tropical rain forests, but living as I do on the west coast of Ireland, I had no hesitation in joining a trek to this sacred site, for a brisk walk through a peat bog in search of a nesting bird or rare butterfly has become an almost daily ritual for me in recent years, although in County Kerry, I am very unlikely to encounter birds such as the Black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), Great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), or the beautiful Satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra). 

Bhutan is a veritable paradise for bird lovers and ornithologists. Over 670 species of birds have been recorded here and many more are yet to be discovered. Around 50 species of the known birds are winter migrants, and these include ducks, waders, numerous birds of prey, thrushes, warblers, flycatchers, bee-eaters, finches and buntings. 

The values of Buddhism and the natural world are deeply imbedded in the minds of the Bhutanese people. Some of the larger monasteries, like the one at Thimphu, house more than a thousand monks. Every hilltop has its little temple or shrine surrounded by prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the mountain streams keep the prayer wheels turning night and day. There are hermitages scattered throughout the mountains and the forests, where many monks, nuns and lay practitioners devote themselves to meditation. The religious calendar is filled with majestic ceremonies and sacred dance festivals and, since the principal monasteries celebrate the festival of the Tenth Day (tsechu) at different times in the year, the celebrations tend to be ongoing throughout the country, literally one after another. 

Bhutan has two main religious schools, both derived from Tibetan Buddhism: the Drukpa Kagyu tradition, which is followed by virtually all state-run monasteries, and the Nyingma tradition, observed by a large section of the population and of the independent monasteries. 

There is so much to see and do in Bhutan, which is rapidly developing a reputation as a premier destination for adventure sports. Set as it is amongst the majestic Himalayas, the Kingdom is the perfect location for all manner of exciting outdoor activities including hiking, trekking, kayaking, mountain biking and fishing. Whether its rafting down crystal clear, glacier-fed rivers or trekking through lush, virgin forests, Bhutan offers a one-of-a-kind experience for travellers seeking adventure in an unspoiled and unexplored environment. All the necessary arrangements for these activities can be made through your local tour operator. They will provide you with well-trained and experienced guides to ensure your safety at all times. 

A wide variety of accommodation is available in Bhutan ranging from luxurious 5-star hotels and mountain retreats, resorts and spas, to much smaller community-based boutique hotels, cosy little guest houses and “homestays” in traditional Bhutanese family homes and settings. However, the most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese daily life is its mouth-watering cuisine but be prepared for its spiciness. Extremely hot chillies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy. 

Ema Datshi is among the most famous dishes in Bhutanese cuisine, and widely recognized as the national dish of Bhutan. It is a spicy mix of chillies, green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms and a delicious local yak cheese known as Datshi, which is sometimes swapped for regular cheese. The dish is a staple of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. 

Often referred to as the ‘Land of Happiness’ by its people, this secluded Himalayan idyll is one of the world’s most beautiful, yet mysterious places. Bhutan’s ancient cultural traditions have continued to grow despite the current technological restructuring. Only since the mid 1970’s technology has come to this otherwise sacred land. Small wonder many notable mountaineers, such as Eric Shipton, Chris Bonington, Joe Tasker and Dougal Haston, fondly named this blessed place the ‘Kingdom of the Sky’. 

Bhutan has since become the ultimate tourist destination for adventurers, spiritual awakenings, and serene visages. Should you find yourself in South Asia over the coming months, I would urge you to pay a visit, for you’ll be well rewarded for including the Kingdom of Bhutan in your itinerary. This place is quite simply a land where solitude is sublime.

Source:OX Magazine:

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