Danny is a pretty regular six-year-old. He likes superheroes and still believes in the tooth fairy. With a younger brother with whom to always pitch a fight, he is forever gathering any weapon to improve his chances: toy guns, catapults, plastic soldiers that work very well when thrown at rapid fire. But there is a thoughtful side to him as well. There’s the way he observes before he speaks, and a kind, inquisitive spirit that keeps him open to new things.
There were those who thought I was mad to take my son to Bhutan. I understood there would be challenges, especially taking a small boy to an altitude of 7,381 feet. I was warned that some journeys required 11 hours on switchbacks, how a few adults even experience motion sickness traveling these terrifying Himalayan roads. Others contended that the complex Buddhist culture would go right over his head; he’s six, for God’s sake. But I reasoned that if Danny could buy iPad games with neither my permission nor assistance, then he could surely be affected by children his same age leaving their families to live as monks. In the company of his mother, he could not only cope with but also be inspired by the extreme privilege of being in a country that for a large part of the 20th century had pursued an extraordinary policy of self-imposed isolation. I reasoned the benefits outweighed the risks, not least because I have already seen little transformations occur on trips to Africa in the past. With Bhutan—which imposes a visitor tax of $250 per person per day in order to keep the leeching effects of mass tourism at bay—I hoped my son might continue to discover that deep impulse to inquire that comes from being immersed in living cultures very different to one’s own.
So I stocked up on Diamox to help Danny through the altitude and briefed him on the country’s nuts and bolts. It may have taken 20 minutes for him to find Bhutan on a map—at 14,824 square miles, the country is about the size of Switzerland—but it was Danny who came up with the notion that the monks would have never seen the sea (he, on the other hand, looks out at the English Channel from his bedroom in Dorset, England, every day). Bhutan is landlocked, hemmed in by China to the north and India to the south, a geopolitical stress point that helps explain why this sliver of the Himalayas should have chosen to withdraw from the world for so long. We discussed reincarnation, Buddhism and how the Bhutanese eat meat, though all the animals are slaughtered outside the country’s borders in a double standard that helps keep the population’s spiritual hands clean. He liked the fact that Bhutan’s only traffic light was introduced and abolished within the space of a few weeks. I suspect he didn’t understand what distinguishes gross national product from gross national happiness, the latter being the kingdom’s famously unconventional measure of its own successes. Nor did he understand the complex constitutional change that recently took place when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk—affectionately known as K4, or the fourth king in a dynasty established in 1907—abdicated in favor of K5, his Oxford-educated son, whom he tasked with overseeing the country’s political transition into democratic elections in 2007 and 2008. Yet few foreigners are aware of these great leaps forward—the establishment of a sophisticated free health care system, education for everyone—because even now, Bhutan only sees around 35,000 tourists a year.
So I thought we had a handle on the basics by the time we flew into Paro, one of few valleys long and wide enough to accommodate a runway (a second airport is slated to open this fall in Bumthang, in central Bhutan). I was also feeling relatively confident about the trip because my outfitter, New York– and Bangkok-based Remote Lands, had already shown an extraordinary level of expertise, its 33-page itinerary for our seven-night trip sensitively skewed toward a six-year-old, with special arrangements for soccer matches at monasteries and lessons in the national sport of archery. This was how to do backcountry Asia, I figured: child-friendly activities, safe drivers and exceptional hotels (reassuringly, leading Asian brands like Taj, Aman and COMO are all present in Bhutan), along with some high-end camping thrown in. Yet we had all failed to predict that Bhutan to a six-year-old is worth even more than the sum of such orchestrated events, that all he needed was for everyone to stand back and let the magic take hold.
It is common practice in Bhutan to consult an astrologer at key stages in one’s life. On our first day, we do exactly that and go to Pangri Zampa, a 20-minute drive outside Thimphu, where the astrologers reside.
Danny sits cross-legged on the floor. At first he doesn’t pay much attention to the disclosure that he was a monk in his previous life; he finds it more interesting when he’s told that if he isn’t good, he may come back as a rooster or monkey the next time around. There will be temptations ahead: Danny will grow up to be “a flirty man,” the astrologer says, which, if he manages to resist, will overrule the rooster threat and bring him back as a man. Then the astrologer-monk looks at him long and hard and says he must worship Buddha (or “Budder,” as transcribed in Danny’s journal that night). He must use his hands to enrich himself and surround himself with animals—yaks and such—which he should always treat with the utmost respect.
Great. For the next seven days, Danny won’t eat meat. But at least he starts to draw, encouraged by the astrologer-monk who somewhat uncannily identified the one thing Danny loves. And so begins the journal, a book of drawings Danny uses to communicate with the Bhutanese children he meets. There are young monks he interacts with in Neyphug, outside Paro, among whom are orphans and underprivileged boys—for a long time the monkhood took delivery of boys as a way not only to bring merit to the family but also to cope with poverty—and others at the temple of the “Divine Madman” in Punakha, where Danny gifts the boys a soccer ball and they teach him how to blow a flute. They play a Bhutanese version of tiddledywinks with pebbles and crowd around Danny’s journal as he sticks in seeds, banknotes and badges of the kings.
Not that drawing is Danny’s only means of connection. Nearly all Bhutanese speak English from a very young age. This we learn on our first afternoon, when we visit a sanctuary for takin, a beast the size of a fat cow with two-toed hooves, a blubbery rear and an almost grotesque protuberance for a nose. Danny says the animal looks odd. A Bhutanese schoolboy standing nearby turns to him and remarks, “Not so strange, not as strange as your octopus.”
It is Danny who says the prayer flags decorating Bhutan’s mountains look like thousands of medieval spears. There is something ghostly about them—the pale gray and white lung ta, or “wind horse,” flags put up on tall wooden poles in memory of the deceased. We see more and more of them the higher we go, the idea being that the wind will carry the prayers to wherever they need to reach.
We are traveling to Bumthang, an eight-hour car ride from Thimphu. We summit three of the country’s high passes, one of which, Pele La, rises up to nearly 12,000 feet. Even in the Chinese and Indian Himalayas, I haven’t seen a landscape this pristine: about 65 percent of Bhutan is under forest, about 26 percent is protected and 9 percent declared a biological corridor. Strands of lichen hang eerily from forests of blue pine and oak. Vast rhododendrons cling to vertical cliffs, and ancient hemlock bursts up from deep ravines. There is a powerful sense of life breathing from all the green. Rivers run beneath us, heard but not seen, while the occasional white chorten emerges from shuttlecock ferns. This journey, which is treacherous in parts with narrow ledges and signs of recent rockslides, takes us to the country’s spiritual heartland, where Buddhism first took hold.
But forget the religious part for now. Amanresorts, which has five small lodges in Bhutan, allowing the company’s so-called Amanjunkies to make a comfortable circuit, has created in Bumthang the best of its hotels. At 16 suites, Amankora Bumthang may be smaller than the company’s headline-makers in the likes of Bali and Phuket. Nor is there a pool. But the location is precious, nestled in orchards flanking Bhutan’s 19th-century Wangdichholing Palace. Each evening guests can watch the monks run across the grass to say their prayers in the temple hall. How easy it could have been to ruin this setting, but the lodge architecture most sensitively combines the pared-back modernity of designer Kerry Hill with the equally undemonstrative local vernacular (by law, the Bhutanese have to build their homes in the traditional style). One can literally inhale the sense of place: the burning juniper, the smell of pomegranates, apples and fresh grass. And so, with a night’s deep sleep in hand (at six years old, such basics still matter), we visit Bumthang’s Jambay Lhakhang, a pre-Buddhist seventh-century temple with a stone floor made shiny from the prostrations of the devout.
The moment occurs soon after Danny turns the prayer wheels and ventures into the inner shrine. The walls are filled with dragons, ghosts and all manner of “deemonds” (Danny’s spelling of “demons” that I discover later in his journal). He has not only entered one of the oldest temples in Bhutan but also the pages of Narnia—Buddhism’s misty, magical world of dwarves, gilded thunderbolts and daggers, demigods and angry gods. The stories keep getting better: This very temple was built where the left foot of an ogress fell after being slain by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in 659.
After crossing perilous suspension bridges, visiting a Swiss cheese factory and almost bumping into a praying queen, we are taken to Tamshing Lhakhang. In this dark, atmospheric temple, we try on the 500-year-old metal chain mail once worn by Terton Pema Lingpa, otherwise known as the Treasure Revealer, the armor now donned by the devout as they circumambulate the goemba three times. I watch the chemistry kick in. Our local guide, Namgay, is becoming Danny’s warrior-teacher as he regales my son with tales of scrolls written in fairy scripts, of monks and madmen journeying among these Himalayan peaks on the backs of flying tigers—places to which we will be traveling in the days to come. In Bumthang, the cradle of Buddhism, Bhutan has come alive not through the thrills of whitewater rafting but in looking for the faces of Tolkienesque creatures illuminated by the butter lamps. Our visits to these monasteries are oftentimes accompanied by the sound of drums, conch horns and the patter of a score of little feet no larger than Danny’s own.
Do tigers really live in the woods?” Danny asks me when we arrive at our campsite in Punakha, a five-hour car journey from Bumthang. In parts of Bhutan it’s true, I say; however, I am more worried by the positioning of our tents right now. It is almost dark, the glacial river closer than I like and rising with a burst of monsoon rains that have fallen on higher ground. I am reassured that all will be well, but still, I had a great-aunt who drowned on her honeymoon in a Himalayan river she fatally misjudged. As to the accommodation, it is comfortable enough—not quite the African safari experience, even if there is a hot shower, mattressed beds and electricity. But to a six-year-old, this is Shangri-La.
At first he spends his time catching fireflies. Then in the light of the campfire he sees a bow—raw silk strung on traditional bamboo—hanging off a tent. To Danny, a weapon such as this makes sense of all those fortressed dzongs with their watchtowers and cantilevered bridges we visited on the way.
Next morning Danny is up early to do target practice with Namgay (how elegant this man is in his immaculate gho, white cuffs, knee-high socks and leather shoes). I leave them together while I size up more of the valley. Punakha is on an upward curve right now. This popular area already has its Aman, part-occupying a beautiful Bhutanese farmhouse built by a former chief abbot of Bhutan. And next March, COMO Hotels and Resorts opens its second Bhutanese property, an 11-room lodge with a dramatic location overlooking rice fields and a bend in the Mo Chhu River; it’s well poised to become not just a stop on an itinerary but a first-class retreat.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Danny lost most of the arrows in the long grass beside the river, we wouldn’t have gotten away from here in time to see two of the best religious sites in all Bhutan: Chimi Lhakhang, which is a temple dedicated to the “Divine Madman” (the stories and frescoes are perhaps less suitable for a six-year-old: The monk Lama Drukpa Kunley is best known for sticking his phallus in the mouths of demons in order to defeat them), and Taktsang Monastery, or “Tiger’s Nest.” Perched 3,000 feet against a vertical rock wall above the Paro Valley floor, this is the most photographed site in all Bhutan. It is where Guru Rinpoche famously reached, by way of one of his consorts, a flying tigress. Nor is it just one building but a sophisticated complex, burnt down in a butter lamp fire in 1998 and rebuilt in 2005.
Compelled by such stories of danger and derring-do, Danny is happy to make the three-hour journey by horseback from the road-end, walking alongside royal bodyguards who carry statues of Guru Rinpoche and sacks of rice for 300 monks and VIPs. Tomorrow there is to be a ceremony and a visit from K5, hence all the golden silk that fringes the temple. And the prayer flags—hundreds of thousands of them—strung across the final ravine before Taktsang’s entrance. Danny, who can’t stop staring at the lama in yellow and orange riding alongside him, is trying to work something out. I wonder what it is. Eventually I hear him ask Namgay about the flags of color roped between cliffs above our heads. “How do they get them up so high?” he asks. Namgay pauses, then says with a smile: “They shoot them across with their bows.”
I can’t be sure if this is true, but then, what does it matter? Danny considers this man to be his oracle, his entry to another world. On this remarkable seven-day journey, a six-year-old has found his own private beyul—those magical hidden lands that appear in Himalayan folk songs to those of faith and pure heart.
Bhutan Travel: The Details
Remote Lands’ (remotelands.com) bespoke itineraries in Bhutan usually incorporate one or more of the five Amankora lodges ( amankora.com), a room at the new Taj Tashi (tajhotels.com) in Thimphu or the top villas at Uma Paro ($ uma.paro.como.bz). It can also arrange visas and book flights with the national airline, Druk Air ($ drukair.com.bt). Trips start at $1,000 per person, per day, double occupancy.
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