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“How was the landing?” our guide, Tshering, inquires with a mischievous smile as we pile into the car.
He knows how the landing was. Like they all are at this tiny airport sandwiched between soaring Himalayan peaks. Rough.
In fact, Paro’s international airport (the only one in Bhutan) is known as one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Just 8 pilots in the world – all from the Bhutanese national carrier, Druk Air – are qualified to land there.
Strong winds whip through the valley and pilots have to weave through dozens of houses scattered on the mountainside. Not to mention contend with a runway shorter in feet than the town’s elevation. All of these factors can result in a landing that some have deemed “terrifying.”
I wouldn’t call our landing terrifying. But I would definitely say that of all of my landings (and there have been a lot) it was by far the most alarming. The kind of landing that requires a stiff drink and a mastery of the brace position.
The kind of landing that leaves you wondering, “Did we land or were we shot down?”
Luckily, the only casualty was the lens cap sitting on the empty seat next to me. It went flying on impact and was never recovered. RIP lens cap. You will be missed.
But we arrive safe and sound from Kathmandu. And now we’re in the capable hands of our guide for our stay at Uma Paro, Tshering, and our driver, Karma.
Months ago, when I first starting planning my stop in Bhutan, I mentioned it to my friend Jill at London’s Sunday Times Travel Magazine. She said I must check out Uma Paro by COMO Hotels.
When I look at their website, I can see why Jill recommended it. It looks like a slice of Himalayan heaven nestled on a mountainside overlooking the valley. And now, all these months later here we are, in Bhutan and headed for Uma Paro.
What is Bhutan known for?
Known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” Bhutan is the only surviving Buddhist kingdom of the Himalayan region and faith is an integral part of daily life.
Surrounded by Himalayan peaks, sweeping valleys and pristine countryside, the entire kingdom is home to just over 700,000 inhabitants. And 90% of those residents are hill farmers living in villages.
Until the 1960’s Bhutan was completely off the tourism radar. In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the Golden Throne and made a number of innovations intended to modernize the country by developing industry and agriculture.
Forget GNP, how about GNH?
Perhaps the most famous is the measurement of the nation’s well-being not just by Gross National Product but by Gross National Happiness. And that’s not just a tourism motto, it’s an official policy passed by Parliament.
Bhutan is perhaps one of the most unique destinations I’ve ever visited. It’s the only country I’m aware of that requires a “Daily Minimum Rate” per visitor. The fee is $180 US per night plus assorted government fees, visa fees and surcharges.
All of this can add up to a pretty hefty price tag for longer stays. And that doesn’t even factor in what you’ll spend on airfare and hotel. But I figure any place with this steep of an admission fee has to be hiding something pretty special behind those golden gates.
The plan for Bhutan
With just two days to devote to Bhutan, we decide to stick close to the country’s only international airport in Paro.
Sitting high above sea level at 7,500ft, the town of Paro is the Kingdom’s second-largest after the capital, Thimpu. Paro also happens to be the location of my primary objective for this trip, the magnificent Tiger’s Nest monastery.
Perched high on a sheer cliffside at 9,650ft, the Tiger’s Nest is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of the Himalayan kingdom. It’s something I’ve drooled over in pictures for years.
I’ve always dreamed of coming here to make the climb to see it up close and this is finally my year.
Uma Paro by COMO
It’s a quick ride to the hotel with a “free car massage” (as Karma calls it) thrown in along the way thanks to a little road construction near the airport. We arrive at Uma Paro by Como – uma means “living house” – and are greeted warmly by our butler, Dhan. He’s is joined by the rest of the friendly staff attired in their traditional dress.
Bhutanese men wear the gho, a long gown belted at the waist. And women wear an ankle-length dress called the kira, which is hand-woven with rich traditional patterns.
Dhan gives us a quick tour around the hotel grounds before showing us to our villa (#16) perched high above the valley. We booked a standard room and are beyond thrilled to be upgraded to a spacious two-bedroom villa.
There are definitely a few perks to traveling the Himalayas during low season!
Our villa is simply spectacular. It smells of mountain air and eucalyptus, like a spa, with hardwood floors and hand-painted artwork on the walls. Plus, there’s a spa treatment room cleverly converted into a comfortable second bedroom for Shannon. We have the luxury of space for the first time on the trip.
It is tempting to chuck the whole hiking plan for tomorrow and just lounge around in the villa enjoying the view.
But, of course, we’ve come here for a reason and it isn’t a massage…or is it? No, no, that isn’t it. Hiking, that’s right.
Tshering helpfully suggests a 1 ½ hour acclimation hike for this afternoon. But we politely decline, deciding to take our chances with the altitude tomorrow. So after settling in for a while, we head down to the Bukhari restaurant for dinner to fuel up for tomorrow’s big hike.
High-Altitude Hiking…Objective: Tiger’s Nest
We start out our first full day in Bhutan excited for our big hike.
It’s a perfect sunny day and we couldn’t be happier about that. Since this is the middle of the rainy season, we were fully prepared to make the hike in heavy rain if we had to.
The 8th century Taktsang, or “Tiger’s Nest” is a highly revered Buddhist monastery built into a sheer cliff face at a dizzying height of 9,678ft. It’s the landmark of Bhutan and likely the only photo you’ve ever seen of this tiny Himalayan kingdom.
We arrive at our starting point at the base of the mountain in Paro Valley around 8:30am.
Over the next 2-3 hours we’ll be ascending more than 2,000ft from our current altitude of 7,500ft. Some people use horses for the trip to the top. But not Shannon and I, we’ve decided to tough out the hike figuring the reward will be all that much sweeter.
I once ran a marathon at 7,000ft altitude, it was a nightmare.
I vowed then and there that I would never do anything athletic at altitude again. Though it’s entirely possible I was delirious at the time. Yet here I am; staring up at a monastery that is a mere white dot on a cliff soaring above the clouds.
Tshering breaks my daydreaming with a joke about Brad Pitt and Seven Years in Tibet (I suspect trying to distract us from the challenge ahead) and we’re off.
Hiking at altitude
The first hour isn’t so bad. Steep, yes, but we take short breaks for water and press on.
By the second hour we have reached the mid-way point. Here, we take a rest at the brilliantly-located café on the side of the mountain. At the café you can stop for tea, take a break and enjoy a lovely restroom facility with an actual toilet should the need arise.
We have a quick cup of tea, use the facilities and get back on the trail. We can see our objective clearly now and are excited to keep going.
Tshering tries to tell us the second part of the trail is the easy part. There are steps all the way up to the monastery, he says. He’s right about the steps, but wrong about the “easy.”
What he fails to mention is that navigating from one mountain to the next (where the monastery is located) is tricky. It involves a significant descent, a bridge crossing and then a final ascent back up the stairs leading to the monastery.
It is beautiful, but challenging.
Tibetan prayer flags
Colorful prayer flags are strung all along the trail and they increase in number as we near the monastery. Prayer flags originated in Tibet and are found on mountain ranges all across the Himalayas.
Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each color which represent the five elements. Red for fire, blue for sky, white for air/wind, yellow for earth and green for water.
According to Tibetan tradition, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements. Prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. Tibetans believe that the wind will spread the goodwill and compassion through all pervading space.
Arrival at Tiger’s Nest Monastery
The final stretch of the hike is grueling. Yet, when we finally arrive at the entrance to the monastery, aching legs and ailing lungs are all but forgotten.
It is absolutely magnificent. Just as I have always imaged it would be. It is a triumphant feeling to have finally reached the top.
You can’t bring electronics inside the monastery so we have to store our belongings in a locker before entering. We also have to don our rain jackets (which thankfully we didn’t need on the trail) since entrance requires covering your arms and legs.
Tshering walks us through the various rooms of the monastery. He regales us with the folklore and legends associated with the site throughout history. It is a truly fascinating tour.
Heading back down the mountain
Eventually it’s time to begin the hike back down the mountain. This part is far easier and quicker than the hike up (though definitely tougher on the knees).
At the base of the mountain, we enthusiastically rejoin Karma and pile in the car. We enjoy a few more “free car massages” courtesy of the less than level roads on the way into Paro town.
We make a stop in Paro to explore the town a bit and do some souvenir shopping. The we head back to the comfort of our villa at Uma.
Best. Shower. Ever.
That night we join General Manager, Norman, and mascot Freddy for dinner in Bukhari. Then, we retire to the villa and take turns soaking in the decadent tub.
We are tired but, all in all, in pretty good shape considering.
Wrapping up an amazing visit to Bhutan
Sadly, the next morning it’s time to say goodbye to Bhutan. After the smog and chaos of Kathmandu, Bhutan is a sanctuary of peace and sanity. It is the anti-Kathmandu and I could’ve stayed for weeks. Especially in that villa.
Like the Everest flight, luck was on our side with the weather. We are so thankful to have enjoyed a perfectly gorgeous day for our hike. The hike to Bhutan’s incredible Tiger’s Nest Monastery is definitely one of my top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Bhutan is so incredibly unique. I know for sure that I’ve just scratched the surface with my short visit to Paro. I may be leaving today for Thailand but the soul-cleansing spirit of Bhutan and the simple concept of measuring life by Gross National Happiness will stay with me forever.
Disclosure: Accommodation provided by Uma Paro.