As our small plane weaved bumpily through dozens of houses scattered across the steep mountainside below – coming within clipping distance of the roofs – I held my breath. My knuckles were as white as the snow-capped mountains outside, and I could feel the blood draining from my face.
Arriving at a destination via an airport runaway that’s considered to be one of the most treacherous places to land anywhere in the world isn’t your typical start to a relaxing week-long holiday. This runaway – all 2km of it set in a deep valley and on the bank of a river – is considered so dangerous that only eight pilots across the globe are qualified to land on the narrow stretch.
But as the pilot swerved our Drukair plane for the last time, skilfully straightening us up to land, I couldn’t help but look out of the window and take in the clear blue waters of the Paro River in east Bhutan, and the lush green foliage carpeting the Himalayas. This stunning view dissolved my fears for the few more shaky moments before we finally made it safely on to terra firma. I couldn’t stop grinning, relieved, as I walked down the plane’s steps into the picturesque town of Paro, which was just a taster of this beautiful landlocked country nestled high up in this world-famous mountain range.
Bhutan has always been at the top of my bucket list as the perfect destination to re-centre and be at one with nature. At first glance it seemed the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of a modern city life in Dubai. I’d come with a friend to unwind at a new retreat hosted by Illuminations, a popular wellness centre located in JLT. On offer was an itinerary filled with healing workshops and seminars on how to live life to the fullest, challenging treks and sightseeing outings focused on fearless living – all set against a beautiful backdrop of awe-inspiring views.
Now, catching my breath after the bumpy journey from Dubai to Paro via Kathmandu, I discovered I was one of 22 people who had signed up for the retreat led by Denis Murphy – a renowned energy healer and holistic guru.
Paro lies in the west of Bhutan and is surrounded by sharp snowy peaks of up to 5,500m tall. But it wasn’t to be our final stop; a winding 54km drive to Bhutan’s capital city of Timphu lay ahead.
Other than red betel nut spit stains splattered across the ground (betel nut is chewed by locals in walnut-sized balls the same way as people chew tobacco), this sparsely populated country (it has a population of less than 1 million) is incredibly pristine. The distinct and quaint homes lining the streets of Paro and Timphu towns were a complete change from the modern high-rise buildings I was so used to in Dubai.
Deciding to go five star was probably the best decision I’ve made in a long while. We arrived 90 minutes later at the grand and impressive Taj Tashi hotel where we would be spending the next three nights. I took in the beautiful blend of the typical Dzong architecture on the outside, with its towering exterior walls resembling a fortress, and the modern settings of a tasteful luxury hotel on the inside.
Large, intricately carved wooden bells were hanging from the ceiling of the lobby, where we were welcomed by friendly staff and given traditional white scarves as a gift before being shown to our rooms. Mine was enormous and beautifully decorated. Most rooms offer breathtaking views of the mountains that surround the valley and I was lucky enough to be given the corner room, which overlooked the Buddha Dordenma statue that was part of our sightseeing itinerary.
The bathroom, with a regal standalone bathtub, was a feature in itself – almost as large as the bedroom and a haven for relaxation. For those picky about where they lay their heads, there’s even a pillow menu to choose from. After serious deliberation over which one to select, I decided on the ones that were already on my bed! I was tempted to hide away in them – they were so soft – and not go out hiking and sightseeing with the rest of the group. But there was a lot to see and I eventually prised myself away to enjoy dinner.
The hotel boasts three restaurants and a lounge area. For our first dinner we dined at Chig-Ja-Gye, serving traditional Bhutanese cuisine. The walls of the restaurant are adorned with old-style gold leaf paintings and horned musical instruments called dhungs. Service was impeccable and the food didn’t disappoint. A must-try is the Ema Datshi, a fiery dish made of chilli peppers and cheese – delicious!
Mornings at the Taj Tashi couldn’t be any better, with breakfast being served at The Thongsal, with its huge bay windows overlooking the magnificent mountains surrounding Thimphu. After a wonderful sleep I ate hot pancakes and fluffy omelettes, which have never tasted better and set me up for a full day of sightseeing and workshops.
Our first was on how to discover the deep and hidden powers of the human mind – not much of an ask! I couldn’t wait to get started within this spectacularly natural scenery – lush and beautifully mountainous. ‘The perfect classroom,’ I thought as I met the rest of the students on the lawns outside.
Between various healing workshops – switching between tackling our biggest fears and boosting positivity – we had time to explore the capital and the surrounding landscape. Thimphu is the centre of commerce and government in Bhutan, and the only capital city in the world that does not have traffic lights, with roads being manned day and night by arm-waving policemen.
The city (which is more like a town) is lined with restaurants, bakeries, shops selling local handicrafts and hotels, all built in quaint multicoloured wood. Led by our guide called Sonam we headed to the National Memorial Chorten, a large white structure with a golden spire situated close to the city centre.
The Chorten, which was built in 1974, is dedicated to the third king of Bhutan and is a place frequented by locals who pray and chant while walking around the memorial. Later Sonam took us to visit one of the tallest buddha statues in the world.
A bronze and gold-plated structure, it rises 51.5m high with 125,000 smaller Buddha statues inside. The breathtaking views from ‘buddha point’ are worth braving the freezing chill for, I realised, standing atop a hill overlooking the stunning Thimphu valley. With a panoramic view of the city below and the majestic mountains all around, it would have been nothing short of gross injustice to ourselves had we not taken a mandatory group selfie.
Back at the hotel, I headed straight to the Jiva Spa to experience its famous hot stone bath. This involved submerging myself in a tub filled with traditional local herbs of kempha and heated local river stones that release and impart minerals upon impacting with the water – the perfect antidote for my stressed muscles.
The next morning, after another good night’s sleep and a light breakfast at the Thongsel (the hotel’s airy all-day coffee shop), I felt ready to explore the must-visit Tashichho Dzong, an architectural treasure, which Sonam took us to see.
The building is replete with traditional Bhutanese carvings, paintings and murals and dates back to 1216. It was destroyed by fire in 1772 and a further three times since then seriously damaged by an earthquake and flash floods. ‘It’s indestructible,’ Sonam laughs. Now it’s used for housing and stands as the government’s main office in Bhutan.
Later in the week, after a couple of days of intensive workshops, we were on our way back to Paro for the next leg of the retreat.
Paro is the perfect place to stay if you are a nature lover and in need of some peace and quiet. Avoid February when the famous Punakha festival takes place each year – locals dress up as warriors to re-enact the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan in 1639, which saw Bhutan defeat Tibet, then parade to the Mo chu river bank with a lot of fanfare.
The one attraction that cannot be missed is a hike up to the Taktsang Monastery, also known as the Tiger’s Nest. The monastery is built on the edge of a 900m-high cliff – they did say the retreat involved facing our fears!
The hike up can take anywhere from two to three hours depending on your level of fitness. You can rent a horse to do most of the hard work until you reach a point where you have to climb steep steps leading to the monastery.
Most of us in the group decided to brave it by foot while two of the wiser ones trotted up on horseback. It’s a tough and challenging climb but it offers some of the most stunning and memorable views of the Himalayan Mountains.
As we made our way up, Sonam told us selfies are prohibited on the steep ascent. ‘You’d be shocked at the number of tourists who have lost lives while leaning back, arm outstretched to capture the view,’ he says. Death by selfie? No thank you! At the peak I sat, looking out at the scenery, feeling literally on top of the world. It was amazing.
The next day we visited Chimi Lhakhang in Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan and a temple dedicated to the 15th-century figure, the Divine Mad Monk, who was known for his unorthodox ways of teaching. A visit to the temple entails another hike, this time 3km through barren rice paddy fields. It is said that Chimi Lhakhang was a monk who was notorious for being a rebel in his time. But the monks we met in the temple were as calm and friendly as one would expect.
The temple is a symbol of fertility and is often frequented by couples who are looking to conceive children. We also learnt Bhutan is the only country in the world that follows GNH, or Gross National Happiness, instead of the widely followed GNP, or Gross National Product. In other words Bhutan measures its prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels. It is no wonder that the Bhutanese are such a smiley bunch.
I was already feeling close to discovering a new level of contentment, which our expedition leader Denis said is the ‘key to our long-term happiness’.
The fresh air, incredible landscapes and sights steeped in thousands of years of history are enough to make anyone smile, but teamed with the retreat’s useful workshops and seminars I felt the stresses of modern life effortlessly ebb away as the week drifted by – a little too quickly for my liking, because all too soon it was time to say goodbye to Paro and hello again to our home in Dubai.
Ready to take on the heat and negotiate the never-ending rush hours of the city, I packed my bags feeling rested and re-centred. That is, until I boarded the plane to Paro to fly home – hoping to arrive in one piece again and with my calm and rejuvenated mindset intact.