Bhutan – the land of Vajrayana Buddhism and one of the world’s happiest country evokes images of the stupendous Eastern Himalayas, hill-top monasteries (Gompas) and warm hospitable people. Growing up in the North East of India meant that there were many childhood buddies who were of Bhutanese origin – chinky-eyed, short height and with typical Mongolian features. And Oh God! Weren’t they one-of-a-kind – their love for the great outdoors was phenomenal.
Today, as the world grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic and a sense of hopelessness envelopes the inhabitants of planet earth, the Bhutanese formula of “Gross National Happiness” seems to be the right prescription. Out here in the Himalayas, prosperity is measured not in terms of concepts like GDP or Per Capita Income, but by the level of happiness of its citizens.
According to Annie Kelly, Correspondent, The Guardian (UK):
It’s suitably uplifting welcome to visitors to this remote Himalayan kingdom that opened its borders for the first time less then 50 years ago. Today, it has gained mythical status as a real-life Shangri –La, largely for its determined and methodical pursuit of the most elusive of concepts – national happiness.
Such is the kingdom’s obsession with happiness that way back in 1971, the country outrightly rejected the GDP and put in place the concept of GNH (Gross National Happiness) where prosperity is measured by taking into consideration citizen’s spiritual, physical, social and environmental health.
It took a tiny Himalayan country to come out with a stark warning that Planet Earth is on the verge of an economic and environmental disaster. The UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a more holistic approach towards development in the year 2013 that found the support of 68 countries.
The nations Gung-ho stance when it comes to safeguarding happiness of its citizens finds expression in the words of Bhutan’s Minister of Education – Thakur Singh Powdyel thus:
It’s easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich. Yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world.
So with happiness in mind, as you embark on your journey through Bhutan, you’ll observe uplifting mantras embossed on hairpin bend mountainous signposts that reiterates the value of life rather than the value of speed – One liners like: “Let Nature be your guide”, “Life is a journey! Complete It!” and so on.... welcomes you to this kingdom of bliss.
Although the capital city of Thimpu along with Paro are both much preferred by global visitors, yet the pace of life is not as peaceful as you would like it to be due largely to the invasion of modern day civilization – multi storied apartments, offices, cars speeding around .....Bear in mind the fact that authentic Bhutan lies in the countrysides and picturesque villages, where the pace of life is unhurried, sparsely populated and as visitors, you can actually experience the semi nomadic Bhutanese lifestyle to the core.
Phobjikha Valley – a mesmerising glacial valley besides the ethereal Black Mountains is an ideal Bhutanese hamlet-valley where the century’s old rural Bhutanese way of life still sustains with great vibrancy. In this part of the woods, the ancient Vajrayana Buddhism has been practised for centuries together and at the monastery here you can actually have a date with wizened Buddhist Lamas. Legend has it that the monastery (1613) was built by Gyalse Rigdzin Pema Thinley - grandson and re-embodiment of the great Bhutanese treasure hunter Pema Lingpa. Needless to say the Phobjikha monastery is the largest Nyingmapa monastery. A fabulous six-hour mountain drive from Paro (nearest airport) is all you need to figure out the fascinating semi nomadic Bhutanese lifestyle, which the entire civilized world is so anxiously wanting to comprehend! More so now with the Covid-19 pandemic that has left the developed world absolutely clueless.
Where will I stay in Phubjikha Valley? In rustic mountain cottages? In Bhutanese homestay accommodation or in a sketchy Himalayan log hut? Well, you have all those options open! Yet, Phobjikha’s rise to fame in Bhutan’s tourism landscape is due largely to the pioneering efforts of the outstanding Gangtey Lodge – a 12-room lodge designed to perfection by Australian architect Mary Lou Thomson who together with owner Khin Omar Win first conceptualised the idea of setting up a luxury boutique Bhutanese-style farmhouse property at Phobjikha Valley.
It all began back in 2003 when the duo – Khin Omar Win and Brett Melzer were toying with the idea of launching hot-air balloon expeditions in the Bhutan Himalayas. After a lot of rummage and fact checking, they decided to zero in on the majestic Phobjikha Valley as their logistical hub. Today, Gangtey Lodge is credited with the honour of introducing Bhutan’s first commercial hot air ballooning experience.
The 12-room Gangtey lodge is uniquely Bhutanese and the harmonious amalgamation of Bhutan’s Vernacular Wood & Stone architecture with contemporary design patterns - absolutely marvellous and a treat to ones’ senses. The ingenuity of the master architect – Mary Lou Thomson is evocatively Bhutanese – brick walls, dark wooden furnishings, stone floors etc... ushers in a sense of harmony that is hard to desist.
Gangtey Lodge’s innovative and out-of-the-box architectural experiments where the stress has all along been on safeguarding local vernacular architecture has earned them numerous global hospitality design awards - Winner of the Travel & Leisure Global Design award for 2014, The Conde Nast Johanson’s Best Destination Hotel for 2015 to name just a few.
Thanks to the superlative efforts of the owner and the architect - this luxury lodge not just offers hot-air balloon rides, which usually commences from September, but a bewildering array of Himalayan experiences ranging from immersive cultural experiences, villages walks, first-hand experience of Vajrayana Buddhism and an array of treks that takes you to never-before-discovered mountain settings deep into the heart of this fascinating Himalayan kingdom.
Phobjikha’s quintessential grassy meadows are ideal grazing grounds for cattles and horses and the valley being swampy means that it is a paradise for migratory birds - black-necked cranes for instance! Stately blue pines, maple, birch and rhododendrons offer a touch of sophistication that only Mother Nature could offer.
The valley is rich in wildlife and is actually a bio-diversity hotspot - Wild Boars, Sambar, Himalayan Black Bear, Muntjacs (barking deer), Himalayan Serow, Leopards and Foxes makes it a great wilderness zone. Make it a point to highlight your chosen adventure options at the time of reservations to Gangtey Lodge.
The other day, I was going through the literary works of Thomas Cook Travel Blogger Ratna Sehgal whose article entitled Why Bhutan is The Happiest Country in The World, wherein she delves deep into the Bhutanese psyche and offers tremendous insight into the ancient Bhutanese philosophy of happiness.
At one stage of her research she quotes:
Did you know Bhutanese think about death at least five times a day? Now this might surprise you if you are not on the spiritual side. Who contemplates death when you can think of much better things? Bhutanese believe that death is a part of life, and they accept this reality quite practically. According to them, thinking about death relieves you from external expectations. It helps you encounter problems and make the big choices in life. Also, some researchers say that when people contemplate death, their mind automatically search for happy thoughts.
WOW! Isn’t that incredible.
Before I wind up, I can’t resist those immortal words of Linda Liaming in praise and adoration of Bhutan:
If I had to name the biggest difference between Bhutan and rest of the world, I could do it in one word – Civility.
Traveller’s fact file
Best time to visit. Bhutan is at its best visit around the months of October, November and December. The temperature during the day varies from 5 degree Celsius to 8 degree Celsius. Try to coincide your trip in the month of November when the annual Crane Festival takes place. However, if you are an avid trekker, Phobjikha Valley is best visited in the summer months. Gangtey Valley Nature Trail is one of the most preferred hiking trail in the valley.
By air. Bhutan’s only international airport is located in Paro, 1.5 hrs drive from the capital city Thimpu. Druk Air, the national carrier of Bhutan operates routine flights to and from Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Bodhgaya, Bagdogra, Guwahati, Bangkok and Singapore.
By bus. Buses are readily available to Phobjikha valley from Thimphu on Thursdays and Saturdays. The bus journey starts from Thimphu to Phuentsholing all the way to Wangdue at 7:00. There is also a direct bus from Wangdue to Phobjikha. Journeytime is 6 hours.
By cab/car. By far, the best option to reach Phobjikha Valley is by cab. Hired cabs are available from Thimphu to Phobjikha costing BTN 2278.