I GAZED forlornly out of the plane window, but there was no sight of the world’s rooftop. Instead, humongous cotton-candy clouds enveloped us.
As they began to obscure what remained of the azure sky, green patches peeped through from down under. Gradually, a vibrant sea of undulating hills revealed themselves.
Our hitherto uneventful descent into Bhutan then made a plot-turn.
We gingerly navigated some bulbous hillocks, coming so close to cliff sides that the plane’s wing tips seemed to high-five hysterically waving trees.
My heart was racing, but I took comfort that others — like me — were grasping their armrests involuntarily.
Following one graceful bank to the left, our skilful pilot made a perfect morning touchdown in Paro’s gorgeous sun-kissed valley.
Most tourists plan their Bhutan visits around tsechus. These jubilant Buddhist festivals — a number of which take place from June to September — are dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, an 8th-century Buddhist saint credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan.
During the Thimphu Tsechu that I visited last September, the main thoroughfare of the world’s only capital city without traffic lights was converted into a massive pedestrian-only fairground.
Thousands of locals, dressed in their resplendent traditional costumes, turned up at the magnificent fortress, Trashi Chhoe Dzong, to celebrate the afterlife through an uplifting mix of song, dance and comedy.
I experienced a more intimate festival at Gangtey, 200km east of Thimphu. This small village is famous for its proximity to the picturesque Phobjikha Valley, where hundreds of endangered black-necked cranes roost every October.
At Gangtey Tsechu, which takes place in late summer, a toothy grandma beckoned me to sit next to her in the front row of the goemba (monastery) to watch the iconic mask dances up close.
An open-air cinema screened the latest local blockbuster, and pop-up gambling stalls drew large crowds.
I explored the farmhouses and saw children chase one another with plastic toy guns. Under shady trees, families enjoyed festive picnics. Smiles, laughter and acknowledging nods were abundant.
A scenic three-hour mountain drive from Thimphu to Punakha via the panoramic Dochula Pass brought us some fleeting encounters with curious beauties and beasts.
As we approached a grassy bend speckled with yellow summer wildflowers, a brown, antlered deer made eye contact with us from a distance, before scampering into the bushes.
During a rest stop, three inquisitive long-tailed magpies peeped from the branches above.
Meanwhile, a flirty butterfly showed off its luminous wings at Chimi Lhakhang, a temple built in honour of Drukpa Kunley, a 15th-century wandering ascetic popularly known as the Divine Madman.
His promiscuous behaviour inspired fortune phalluses to be decorated on the facades of many farmhouses.
After a full day exploring pretty Punakha and its stunning 17th-century fortress that sits prominently at the confluence of the roaring Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers, I found a hairy-legged centipede for company in my hillside hotel room.
Brush strokes from heaven
I spent a night in a rustic farmhouse in Punakha.
Awoken by a symphony of dogs barking and birds chirping, I was in time to witness sun streaks surround rice terraces, turning them into fields of gold.
In the background, a mist-shrouded mountain range began to cast dramatic shadows onto Punakha valley, as farmers streamed out in tractors and giggling children marched to school.
After a hearty breakfast, capped with homemade rice wine for the road, we made our way to Chele La Pass.
I was taking note of the multiple ominous road signs as we drove up the steep 3,800m pass, like “One who drives like hell is bound to get there”, when I noticed a dazzling white pyramid in the sky.
“That’s Jomolhari!” my guide Kuenzang said excitedly, as he pointed past fl uttering prayer flags at Bhutan’s tallest mountain. He was a little surprised at Jomolhari’s appearance, as summer monsoon clouds usually hide it.
Nature had more in store for us — two rainbows appeared next to the 7,326m-tall snow-peaked giant.
A spiritual moment
My final day in Bhutan was reserved for its most fabled attraction.
For nearly two hours, I endured burning thigh muscles while on a steep trek up to the sacred Taktshang Goemba, or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings precariously to a near-vertical cliff.
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tigress to subdue a demon there.
Just as I reached a three-quarter mark viewpoint, monks in the monastery began chanting. Their hypnotic mantras echoed through the hills to Paro Valley below and put me in a state of zen.
I realised then that the fairy-tale monastery was best appreciated from afar, without my laboured pants — or dozens of others’ — drowning my thoughts. I stared at the monastery from the quiet viewpoint. Kuenzang stood next to me, silent. After taking a few photographs, we headed down to a tea house without looking back.
Over cups of tea, we talked animatedly about life, our future and philosophy, and caught up like old friends from a previous life — only now reconnected by a spiritual moment.
I flew on Druk Air to Bhutan via Kolkata to Paro International Airport.
■ Plan your trip in advance as local tour packages get fully booked early, especially during the peak spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) seasons.
■ From June to September, a vast number of festivals like the more popular Thimphu, Gangtey and Haa Tsechus take place. Moderate monsoon rains may hamper travel to remote areas, but this is when high-altitude wild flowers are in full bloom, and alpine scenery is most spectacular.
■ All tourists (except Indian nationals) must pay US$200 (S$265) or US$250 per person, per day, depending on the season. This daily land tariff includes accommodation, transport, food, a personal guide and driver, but excludes airfare, tips and personal expenses.
Solo backpacking is not permitted and a pre-booked tour package must be arranged. A reputable travel agent like Druk Asia (www.drukasia.com) can organise trips.
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