Charlie's search for awe and wonder through the Kingdom of Bhutan


Hear from Travel Operations Manager Charlie about his journey through the Kingdom of Bhutan, which took him deep into the heart of the Himalayas, through valleys of emerald green rice fields and up to the stark, glacial peaks.

Sitting on a low stool in the kitchen of a nunnery that is built into the cliffs above Paro, Bhutan’s second-largest town, my attention was entirely consumed by the stories of Sangay, a quietly spoken nun with soft features and frameless glasses who had spent the last three years, three months and three days in isolated meditation and was now moving gently around the room preparing tea.

This moment in time came at the end of a journey through the once-forbidden Kingdom that had taken me into the heart of Bhutan’s varied landscapes, storied culture, and intrinsic spirituality.

Naturally, Bhutan has all the abundant environmental beauty that one might expect from a Himalayan nation. Endless valleys host rivers of emerald-green rice fields flowing on the breeze, meandering their way through towns, villages and beyond. Climbing out of the valleys, isolated farmhouses cling to impossibly steep, densely forested mountainsides while monasteries perch quietly on ridge lines that would have once been almost entirely out of reach. Higher still the vegetation succumbs to the altitude, giving way to the stark rock and glacial ice that is synonymous with the high Himalayas. Depending on the time of year, bursts of wildflowers add yet more life to the landscapes that host an array of migratory and endemic species, each an important component of a finely balanced ecosystem.

It feels almost gratuitous to talk of expansive, dramatic views such is the regularity with which they unfold as you move through the country. Especially given that the natural wonders are so harmoniously complemented by architecture so detailed that it demands you take enough time to notice the stillness it creates.

Taking that time to move slowly from valley to valley not only allows for appreciation of the topographical, floral and architectural variety within the geographically small nation, it also creates space to explore the subtleties of a culture that is as intensely traditional as it is rapidly developing.

Some of the once out-of-reach monasteries are now eminently accessible. In my case it was via a beautiful, lung-busting hike but, had I been more thoughtful, I could have opted to take the steep, winding road in our air-conditioned Toyota. Either way, spending time at Chorten Nyingpo and receiving an invitation into the daily life of the young monks that call it home was an opportunity to witness a way of life that has been largely unencumbered by external influences but, now contends with developments in infrastructure and technology that are allowing the outside world in.

Another such invitation was from a family who have for generations been using traditional methods to make prayer flags. History emanated from every corner of their ornate home making for an intriguing juxtaposition with the latest generation, seven-year-old Tshering, a model of childish exuberance and enthusiasm who was more adept at playing the piano on her tablet than she was at utilizing the precise amount of ink needed to create a clean rendering on one of the flag’s colorful panels.

With each passing day, an issue became more apparent. The problem was not one of contention or juxtaposition between past and future, it was me as an observer not fully comprehending the nature of the society that I was being introduced to.

Intertwined with the development in Bhutan, there are deeply embedded constants that act as ties, linking the past, present and future of this great nation. The much-cited Gross National Happiness is, through a Western lens, a superficial societal metric. In the hearts and minds of the Bhutanese people, it is understood to be an ancient guiding principle that is entirely in keeping with the values that are so sincerely held they appear almost innate.

With its origins in Buddhist teachings, Gross National Happiness is a powerful expression of the primacy of a flourishing human society living in harmony with nature. That is the through line, the connecting theme that has guided generations past and will guide the monks of Chorten Nyingpo and young Tshering into their adult lives, helping them to navigate the exciting developments that inevitably lie ahead of them and their country.

So, with a new appreciation of a collective commitment to human flourishing, I found myself on that low stool in the kitchen of a nunnery that is built into the cliffs watching and listening as Sangay moved and communicated with a stillness that seemed transcendent. A moment in time that was a microcosm of the journey that I had been on.

Outside lay the expansive drama of an exquisite landscape: pine forests cascading to the valley below and climbing the mountain above. Inside was the dramatic intricacy of layers upon layers of human experience and understanding. Suspended in the midst of it all was a transformation of perspective.

After a week of allowing myself to focus my time and attention on my immediate surroundings, the noise of the world had quietened enough for me to hear the whispers of an internal language that speaks through sensations rather than words. With it, Bhutan had allowed me to discover a sense of awe and wonder on a scale that I had not before believed possible.

Inspired to visit Bhutan?

Get in touch with Charlie and our Travel Team to start planning your own unforgettable experience in Bhutan.

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