Happy valley: the mood-lifting beauty of Bhutan

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Happy valley: the mood-lifting beauty of Bhutan

It might be wholly inaccessible right now, but Bhutan – the world's most sustainable country, which proudly charts Gross National Happiness – might be the perfect tonic after *gestures broadly* all this

Harriet Charnock-Bates

BY Harriet Charnock-Bates26 November 2020

Bhutan is a land of spiritual merits and meandering myths. Wedged between India and China, the last great Himalayan kingdom measures contentment in place of currency, and the startling beauty of its mist-shrouded landscapes is enough to baffle language.

In the shadows of snow-cloaked Jomolhari, Paro valley’s forested flanks bristle with a sense of the supernatural. Statue-filled chortens dot the roadsides, prayer wheels pirouette in the wind, bells clang atop rocky scarps and the chanting of maroon-robed monks echoes from sprawling, high-perched lhakhangs.

Of all Bhutan’s lures, the cliff-clinging Tiger’s Nest takes the prize as the most legendary, and though the punishing climb to reach it is not for the faint-hearted, the dizzying heights afford unparalleled panoramas across the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Beneath the clouds and back on the valley floor, the ceremonial lighting of auspicious butter lamps at the Samtenling Monastery is as spirit-lifting an experience as it is surreal.

An hour’s drive east along a single ribbon-like road lies Thimphu, the kingdom’s ever-evolving capital. Press on further still, through the Dochula Pass and swathes of fecund, jungly foliage, and the sub-tropical lowlands of Punakha emerge from the mist.

Here, rice paddies the colour of Chartreuse stretch out for miles, rammed-earth farmhouses dot the grassy riverbanks and a heavy haze hangs in the air. All towering white walls and technicolour murals, the gilt-panelled dzong dominates the landscape, and the ramble toward the Chimi Lhakhang – a temple built to honour the so-called ‘Divine Madman’ – draws an endless stream of canoodling couples looking to capitalise on its fertility-giving fame.

Bounded by the lofty Black Mountains and strung with sun-bleached prayer flags, the hushed Phobjikha valley is as serene as they come. Its far-reaching emerald wetlands are home to Himalayan black bears, wild boar and in the winter months, scores of sacred black-necked cranes. Revered as symbols of longevity, these waif-like, wisened birds command a great deal of celebratory brouhaha when they swoop in to escape the piercing cold of the Tibetan plateau, and when November 12th rolls around, the courtyard of the fabled Gangtey Goempa erupts into a riot of colour and chaos in their honour.

Mapped west to east across the kingdom’s jaw-slackening valleys, dwarfed by thickly forested peaks, the four Six Senses Bhutan lodges lend a sense of context to their out-and-out otherworldly surroundings. With its incense-tinged prayer pavilion and glassy reflecting ponds, the Thimphu outpost cuts a real dash, conjuring thoughts of a zhuzhed-up dzong, while the most low-lying of the lot – hunkering down amid the farming heartlands of Punakha – is a more mellow timber-clad affair; a lesson in ravishing rusticity, if you will.

That said, its cantilevered cocoon of a lounge, jutting out above the mountain-view pool, keeps the whole thing feeling satisfyingly swish. Though miles apart in altitude and aesthetic, there’s not a dud among the four of them, and so conscious-soothingly light are the lodge’s footprints, it belies their good looks almost entirely. Consider each one a preposterously spoiling jumping-off point for life-affirming expeditions by the truckload.

If you’re seeking some post-2020 serenity, explore our collection of Bhutan boltholes…

All photos by Louis AW Sheridan