Even before I arrived in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and happiness capital of the world, I knew Bhutan was going to be unlike any other place I’d been before. With an unusual commitment to compassion over capitalism and happiness above all else, the tiny landlocked Buddhist Kingdom measures the wellbeing of the country and its people not just by Gross National Product, but by ‘Gross National Happiness’.
It’s a contagious concept. As Druk Air flight 131 weaves through the lush forested mountains of the Himalayas, my newfound Bhutanese friend Kezeng taps me on the shoulder to wake me. “Miss, we’re coming into Paro,” he says with a big, friendly smile tilting his hand from side-to-side as a reminder of his earlier warning about the somewhat precarious approach the plane makes to landing.
On arrival we are greeted by swarms of happy, friendly and handsome Bhutanese men garbed in the traditional white-cuffed gown-like ‘gho’, knee high socks and black shoes. Amongst them my guide, Yarab, is waiting to escort me to my home for the next week, Uma Paro.
Part of the COMO Group of hotels and resorts, Uma Paro delivers everything the Uma brand promises – a luxury boutique hotel with an authentic approach to service, style and travel adventure. Meaning ‘Living House’, Uma delivers a unique experience inspired by the geography, spirituality and friendly indigenous culture of its location. The offering is a stylish but personalised and holistic escape with individualised programs for wellness, fitness and rejuvenation, complemented by healthy, organic COMO Shambhala cuisine.
Making the most of its hilltop setting, Uma Paro offers spacious, understated elegance with captivating views over the Paro Valley to the mountains beyond. Built in the style of a grand traditional Bhutanese home, the hotel has a modern, but natural aesthetic that maintains the cultural integrity of its location. My room is the perfect sanctuary for the week that is about to unfold. With a king-sized bed, comfortable furnishings in gentle natural tones, a hand-painted traditional Bhutanese wall design, a TV (I never turned on), a comfy reading chair to soak up the view and a big dose of serenity, it feels strangely more like ‘home’ than my apartment back in Sydney.
I’m here to do a five-night “Yoga, Culture and Camp Retreat” hosted by Uma Paro’s resident yoga teacher, Marie Baker. It’s just myself and a few other guests on this retreat that includes daily yoga, hiking, unique cultural experiences and adventures.
Uma Paro’s approach to the way it carefully crafts each guest’s stay fits in perfectly with Bhutan’s approach to tourism. The only surviving Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, this tiny country of just over 700,000 inhabitants was virtually unknown to foreigners until the 1970s. When former King Jihme Singye Wangchuk ascended the throne in 1972, he decided to open Bhutan’s borders and modernise the country, albeit cautiously. Its tourism strategy favours a high value, low impact approach to visitation from the outside world (there’s a hefty US$200 per day visa which covers basic accommodation, meals and a guide).
Landlocked between China and India, Bhutan is in many ways centuries removed from the economic giants it shares its borders with. Yarab might have an iPhone and my hotel room might have high-speed internet access, but almost 90 per cent of the population still make a living from subsistence farming and trading in bartered goods. Compared to the industrialisation and consumerism of my Western home, the simplicity of this country is startling and intriguing.
I’ve arrived a day early to acclimatise. Giddy with excitement, or perhaps the effects of altitude, I reluctantly take Yarab’s advice to “rest and drink lots of water”. It’s good advice. To keep up with the pace here you have to slow down. So I find myself surrendering to the pleasures of gentle forest walks and letting time slip away watching misty clouds embrace the Himalayan ranges.
On the mat
For the first three days of the retreat we meet Marie for two-to-three hours of yoga, Pranayama and meditation every morning and evening.
A New Zealander by birth, Marie grew up in Australia and after completing her yoga teacher training with Louisa Sear at Yoga Arts in Byron Bay, found herself at Uma Paro via a chance email circulated during a stint in Bali. She has been in Bhutan for 14 months and tells us that the experience has helped heal a broken heart and grown her.
Marie’s Vinyasa-style classes are challenging but rewarding. Her gentle manner and fun sense of humour inspire us beyond our perceived limits of body and mind. By the end of the second day my body is shaking off the effects of travel and my desk-bound life and it becomes easy to take Marie’s advice to “keep a single focus and be still”. I felt brave enough to revisit my nemesis – pigeon pose – after years of knee troubles, but it was through the Pranayama and meditation practice that I was really able to settle into the deep sense of nurture and stillness I felt on this retreat.
“Focus on the breath is the thing that changed my yoga practice and my life,” says Marie. She translates her experience through her teaching as she guides us through a full spectrum of Pranayama techniques ranging from nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing) to Ujjayi, kapalabhati and dirga pranayam (three part breathing); and meditation techniques including virasana (single-pointed focus), sukhasana (stillness) and mantra styles with the instruction to “take a mudra if it feels comfortable and authentic”.
Off the mat
With our days top-and-tailed by yoga with Marie, the hours in between are spent with Yarab. As part of Bhutan’s measured approach to tourism, every tourist to enter the country must be accompanied by a guide. At first it feels odd to have so much attention bestowed upon me, but in the mood to surrender I discover Yarab’s presence is a blessing.
Yarab is gentle, kind and curious about the world outside his country, and equally passionate about sharing his knowledge about his own culture. He quickly moves from being a guide to a new friend openly sharing his home and family, his country’s history and complexities with us. After all, he says with the Buddhist acceptance of reincarnation, “you have come to visit me, so perhaps we were mother, father, brother, sister, friend in a past lifetime.”
With Yarab we explore the strikingly pristine pine-forested hillside that surrounds the lush Paro Valley, share lunch with ‘Farmer Tshering’ who supplies Uma Paro’s vegetables, visit monasteries built in the 17th Century, and are blessed by monks in a long life puja (blessing). Along the way, we undertake a kind of crash course in Bhutanese culture under Yarab’s tutelage.
Buddhism is entrenched not only the daily lives of its people, but also the national identity of Bhutan. There are more than 2,000 temples, monasteries and dzongs, whitewashed fortresses scattered throughout the landscape that serve as the religious, administrative and social centers of their district.
There is a deep respect for religion and the monarchy (even though at the former King’s bequest the country is now run by a democratic government) and religion creeps into secular life and conversation. The Bhutanese talk casually about things like dogs barking at ghosts, magic, folklore and lakes packing up and moving because the deities who live in them are unhappy with the way the humans are treating them.
The highlight of my stay is the two-day trek to one of Bhutan’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery), via Bumdra Camp.
Sitting on top of a mountain at 3,800 metres, the steep climb to Bumdra Camp is taxing. Although the path is easy to navigate, the thin mountain air and uphill challenge means that it’s not long before the views aren’t the only thing taking our breath away. So we’re grateful for the training that our yoga and pranayama practice has given us for the five-hour uphill climb to our campsite and surprisingly emboldened by Yarab’s mantra of “the journey is the happiness, not the destination”.
The team of porters and horses that accompany us provide a makeshift village for us including personal sleeping tents (complete with side tables, white linen and floor rugs), and separate tents for showering, dining and yoga. The magic of sitting around the campfire under a full moon is matched by waking up above the clouds.
The breathtaking Tiger’s Nest is sits precariously on sheer cliffs, 900 metres above Paro Valley. Our descent there takes us through remote mountain paths where few foreigners have trodden before, changing forests, more monasteries and temples to one of the most holy sites in the country. Legend has it that centuries ago Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava and the ‘Second Buddha’) flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon. Built in 1692, it was damaged in a fire in 1998 and was partially rebuilt. The way in which the monastery clings to the cliff defies logic and it’s hard to tell where the rockface ends and the built walls begin. Inside monks, devotees, tourists and a resident cat wander through the intricate network of individual buildings and rock caves that meld into temples joined together by wide stone staircases and steep wooden ladders.
Back at Uma Paro it is time to hit the COMO Shambhala Spa. The COMO approach to holistic wellness encourages the combination of bodywork and healthy organic cuisine to complement the physical and cultural activities built into the program. I opt for the signature Bhutanese Traditional Hot Stone Bath and Massage treatment. It begins with a long soak in a bath covered with Himalayan flowers, warmed by hot river stones that crack and steam to release ache-relieving minerals. It’s followed by the COMO Shambhala massage – an hour-long ticket to bliss with aromatherapy oils – before I’m wrapped in a gown and served a cup of the Spa’s yummy ginger tea.
On our last night we celebrate our blessings, time together in this special place and newfound friendships.
Before I arrived here I was captivated and intrigued by the idea of Bhutan. On departure, I am left besotted by its beauty, purity and the devotion of its people. I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m also weirdly happy within myself. I’ve discovered a new aspect of happiness that is not dependent on good things happening, but happiness for its own sake. So maybe this Gross National Happiness thing works. As modernisation and the impact of globalisation creep in, I pray that this rare country will also keep its own single focus and stillness. Tashi delek (good luck and blessings), Bhutan. Tashi delek.
Implemented in the early 1970’s, Gross National Happiness (GNH) was part of the former King, Jigme Singye Wingchuck’s visionary modernization plan that sought to build an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture.
Grounded in Buddhist values, the premise of GNH is built around the idea that social development takes place when material and spiritual development happen concurrently. In some ways it’s like a national experiment in ‘do what you love and the money will follow’.
What apparently began as a casual, offhand remark by the former King became a serious concept that was developed into a sophisticated instrument to measure the population’s general level of wellbeing and guide for the country’s economic, environmental and development plans.
A precursor to modern approaches to trying to make the world a better place, GNH is built on four solid pillars including: the promotion of sustainable economic development (including its approach to tourism and the management of its natural resources), the preservation of cultural values and heritage, conservation of the natural environment and good governance.
Uma Paro is located approximately 10 minutes drive from Paro airport.
Throughout the year Uma Paro offers a full calendar of yoga and adventure retreats including mountain biking, trekking and visits to colourful Buddhist, as well as personalised escapes with individualised programs for wellness, fitness and rejuvenation. The five-night Yoga and Culture Camp retreat starts at USD$3,094 (single occupancy) including government taxes and visa fees. For information about upcoming yoga and adventure retreats or bespoke programs www.comohotels.com/umaparo/
The COMO Group operates Uma Paro Retreats in Bhutan and Bali, COMO Shambala Resorts in the Caribbean and the Maldives; and Metropolitan escapes in Bangkok and London. For more information visit www.comohotels.com
Getting there: Druk Air flies to Paro from Bangkok, New Delhi, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Kathmandu. An entry visa is required before you can book on Druk Air.
Visas: Uma Paro operates as a fully licensed travel agency and ground handler meaning the hotel will arrange Druk Air flights plus visas, government taxes and all full-service treks, biking or day excursions.
Stopover: Flights for Paro leave early to avoid the Himalayan cloud cover, so it is worthwhile hubbing via Bangkok and starting your COMO experience early by staying at Uma Paro’s sister hotel, The Metropolitan Bangkok.
© Kris McIntyre 2010. This article was originally written for Australian Yoga Journal