BHUTAN can change you. You are silenced by its beauty, humbled by the open hearts of its people, and saddened by the fact that you will have to leave this true Shangri-La one day, and that the world has darkened your own heart so much that you cannot live here forever.
But, as my friend Audrey said, we can always carry the happiness of Bhutan with us wherever we go. This Himalayan kingdom is everything that the mythical mountain paradise could be, a small land of endless green hills cloaked in snow in the winter, and pine trees that share the skies with colorful prayer flags, tied on posts or strung over ridges so the wind can carry petitions to the gods. The valleys are filled with sheep, crystal rivers and people who deeply love their wise king so much they won't let him step down!
Squeezed between its chaotic neighbors, India and China, and most recently, Nepal, Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist land, and its people practice a complex kind of tantric Mahayana Buddhism called Drukpa Kagyu. Almost each family boasts of a son who becomes a monk, sent to live in one of Bhutan's stunning monasteries and dzongs, centers of both secular and religious authority, where monks and government administrators share space in centuries-old buildings that are architectural wonders in themselves.
It is in the monasteries (called goembas or lakhangs), however, where even the most skeptical traveler can find a silence that is truly not of this world. Inevitably, some of these monasteries are difficult to reach, like Chimi Lakhang in Punakha, sitting amidst beautiful rice fields and dedicated to a beloved Buddhist saint, the colorful "Divine Madman" Lama Drukpa Kunley; or even the quiet little Cheri Goemba, overlooking the Dodina Valley near Thimpu, where a young monk served us sudja (tea with milk and butter) in his little room.
In some parts of the stairs, with no hand railings, there is nothing between you and the wide open space, and we stuck gingerly to the face of the mountain. At the halfway point, before the final climb to the monastery's doorstep, a beautiful waterfall gushes from the rocks
Probably the most imposing and famous of all, however, is Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger's Nest, which was seemingly impossibly carved from the side of a cliff over nine hundred meters above the floor of the Paro Valley. Estimated to have been around since the ninth century, Taktshang peeps down through low clouds, a holy site to where Guru Rinpoche, one of Bhutan's most important religious figures, was believed to have flown on the back of a flying tigress, and where he meditated for several days.
There are three vantage points on the way up to Taktshang. First stop, after an hour's uphill hike, brings you to a chorten (stupa) festooned with prayer flags at two thousand, six hundred meters, a short walk from a cafeteria where hikers usually stop for meals. The way up is covered in lush greens, with the occasional rhododendron flowers blooming on the mountainside. You can stop here, sipping tea, with the monastery looming above you in the seemingly unreachable distance. But we were in for a pleasant surprise: our guide, Tshering, had a permit to enter the monastery, which can be visited only by special arrangement.
The next leg is another hour's climb up to about three thousand meters, to a viewpoint on the same level as the monastery. The air is cool and fresh, the view spectacular. Our bodies were warmed by the climb, but even after just a few minutes' rest, we could again feel the chill on our skin. This wasn't the end, however; getting to Taktshang means crossing a huge chasm by walking down and up stone stairs, over seven hundred in all, another half-hour's journey. In some parts of the stairs, with no hand railings, there is nothing between you and the wide open space, and we stuck gingerly to the face of the mountain. At the halfway point, before the final climb to the monastery's doorstep, a beautiful waterfall gushes from the rocks, under a bridge and down to the valley.
Finally, entering Taktshang, we left our shoes and belongings with the guards and walked into a religious ceremony, where the monks chanted and banged drums in a temple that was hazy with incense. We had already been blessed with perfect weather, not too hot but with no rain; inside the temples, we were blessed further with incense and holy water, poured into our hands and spread over the tops of our heads. Outside, we reveled in the magnificent view, with only the sound of chanting and the whistling wind.
Before climbing back down, we peered into the cave where the Guru sat in meditation, feeling the palpable power of this sacred site. We left some money in offering for temple repairs, and a monk tied bright-colored prayer strings around our necks. I wore mine for weeks until it broke, a constant reminder of the peace I found after the hard climb to the Tiger's Nest.
This is first of three excerpts we're running from the book Connecting Flights, a travel book, an anthology of poems, stories and essays by 20 Filipino writers on 20 foreign destinations. Edited by Ruel S. De Vera, with poems, stories and essays by Dean Francis Alfar, Butch Dalisay, Lourd De Veyra, Karla Delgado, Chato Garcellano, Ramil Digal Gulle, Jing Hidalgo, Alya Honasan, Marne Kilates, Sarge Lacuesta, Ambeth Ocampo, Charlson Ong, Manuel Quezon III, D.M. Reyes, Sev Sarmenta, Alice M. Sun-Cua, Yvette Tan, Joel Toledo, Krip Yuson and Jessica Zafra.