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Asia travel

Bhutan's mountaintop monasteries - a trip into timelessness

Bhutan's mountain-top monasteries have existed unaltered for centuries, writes Graeme Green

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 3:48pm

THE WOODEN FLOORBOARDS vibrate. A bassy trumpet sounds again, sending out more tremors, then the rest of the orchestra joins in: funereal drums, crashing cymbals, chanting and, over the top of it all, wailing trumpets made from human thigh bones.

The musicians are all red-robed, shaven-headed monks sitting cross-legged in the hallway of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan's holiest fortress and monastery. They make a powerful sound. "When they play very loudly, that means they're chasing away the negative forces," says my guide, Tshewang Penjor.

We've arrived early at the dzong (monastery). A few younger monks join me on the balcony, also curious to watch and listen to the strange, fascinating ceremony of music and prayer. It feels, like many things in Bhutan, that what I'm seeing and hearing is exactly the same as it's been for centuries.

Tradition and religion are both important to the people of Bhutan. The country runs according to principles of Gross National Happiness - GNH rather than GDP. One of the main pillars of GNH is preserving the country's national dress, architecture, language, religion and culture.

Although the government opened the country up to tourism in 1974, it has resisted mass tourism which it fears might have a negative impact on the country. This means the nation has maintained its character.

Punakha Dzong was formerly the seat of government. More recently, the country's popular king and queen were married here. Now, it serves as the winter residence for the chief abbot and about 1,000 monks. There's a flurry of excitement as we arrive.

A door opens, then Bhutan's chief abbot steps outside and walks along the path with his entourage and police escort. The chief abbot is Bhutan's highest ranking Buddhist, on an equal footing with the king. Bumping into him here is like visiting the Vatican and seeing the Pope.

Surprised men and women rush to form a line along the path, bowing their heads to receive a blessing. Tshewang seems delighted: "We rarely see him. This was a great moment."

We climb the steps and go inside the cool courtyards of the grand, white monastery. Along from the main hallway, I find another room filled with golden religious statues, where a Buddhist master leads young monks through music and prayer.

From here, we head into the countryside and climb a hill to Chimi Lhakhang, often known as the Temple of the Divine Madman. It's named after a Tibetan Buddhist master, Drukpa Kinley, who's famous across Bhutan for having had sex with up to 5,000 women.

"It was a way to liberate women, to cure them of suffering or take away their sins," Tshewang says. I must try that line next time I'm in a bar.

Chimi Lhakhang has a reputation as a fertility temple. When childless couples want to conceive, they come here to pray. Tshewang leaves offerings on the shrine including a bottle of rice wine. "The Divine Madman loved girls and he loved wine. I only have wine for him, no girls," he says, laughing.

On the way to Punakha from Paro, we stop to explore the capital, Thimpu, then drive over the 3,140-metre high Dochula pass, which is covered in colourful prayer flags.

The small Uma Punakha hotel I'm staying at looks out over the green Kabesa Valley and the Mo River. I spend the afternoon walking across the hills close to a chorten (a shrine) decorated with statues of deer and white lions, then unwind in the evening in the hotel's spa.

I eat turnip leaf and some cheese soup along with spinach momos (dumplings) outside on the terrace, next to a large, warming clay firepot. There are tiny lights across the valley and, up on the hilltop, white prayer flags blowing gently with the wind.

We cross over the high Dochula Pass again and spot a couple of big yaks on the hillside on the way back to Uma Punakha's sister hotel in Paro. It's surrounded by fragrant pine trees and has a long field for archery, Bhutan's national sport. On the edge of the town archers use hi-tech bows to hit a target 145 metres away.

Back at the hotel I use a traditional bamboo bow to try and hit the target. At 80 metres away, it feels like a remote possibility. After my 22nd or 23rd arrow, I hit the target. My coach, Thinley, looks as surprised as I do.

I leave the hotel and trek, with Tshewang and a horseman called Cencho, up into the mountains towards Bhutan's iconic Tiger's Nest monastery.

Most travellers walk up and down in a day, but we're taking a more interesting and scenic route by camping overnight at Bumdra monastery, at an altitude of 3,800 metres, before descending to Tiger's Nest the next morning.

As we hike I can feel the effects of the altitude in my legs and lungs. Cencho whistles as we walk, and chides any horse who strays from the path. For several hours we climb through forests of blue pine trees, then, as we reach greater heights, the pines give way to Himalayan oaks draped in lichen.

It's a warm day, but a gentle snow shower falls as we near the top and crackles softly as it hits the trees. After a short, steep, killer climb the trees open out to reveal a plain used for grazing yaks in summer, and Bumdra camp comes into view. Bumdra monastery is built into the mountainside. Monks spend years living up here, many in isolation, meditating and hoping to reach enlightenment.

The hike was worth the effort. It feels very special up here, with pure mountain air, blue skies and drifting flakes of snow. We can see across Paro valley to the snow-capped Himalayas.

Bumdra monastery's caretaker monk stands on the balcony at sunset and blows a horn that sounds across the valley. We eat a hot dinner and drink hot tea before bedding down for the night. It gets intensely cold up here, but the spacious tents are furnished with beds, blankets and thick warm sleeping bags.

The morning scene, light rising over the mountains, is great to wake up to. Tshewang and I drape colourful prayer flags from the trees and set off.

Few see Tiger's Nest from this vantage point, a side-on view of the monastery, built in 1692, clinging to the granite rock face. We climb down ladders cut from split tree trunks and ascend the steep steps to the entrance. The monastery is filled with the smell of incense. Caves and rooms contain shrines and golden religious statues. But it's the views that impress, looking out over the Paro valley and the distant peaks of the Himalayan kingdom.

Then there's a little more climbing, up and out through a winding path walled in by waving prayer flags. Then it's all downhill, as we head back into the warm valley of pine.

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Getting there
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Singapore, where you can catch onward flights with Druk Air (drukair.com.bt).

When to go
Spring (March to May) and winter (December and January) are the best times to be in Punakha. The in-between months can be rainy or very hot.

Staying there
Green stayed at the Uma by Como, Punakha (from US$400 for a valley view room, including breakfast for two) and Uma by Como, Paro (from US$300 for forest view room, including breakfast for two). Como Hotels offer two-centre stays and Himalayan Explorer packages ranging from three to seven nights. comohotels.com/umaparo. Go to tourism.gov.bt for more details on Bhutan