Bhutan is a happy place

Taksang, better known as Tiger's Nest, located on the edge of a cliff near Mount Bonte La in Bhutan.
ARLINA ARSHAD

When I visited Zambia in August 2014, it was the 50th country I had visited in my 55 years of life.

What would be my 51st?

My wife Nimmi said "Bhutan"- it's off the beaten track, with mountains, forests and rivers and highest global gross national happiness index.

I was sold on the idea!

So we booked a tentative 8D/7N tour with a Bhutan-based tour operator for US$280 (S$376.80) per person or RM2,500 (S$839) per couple per day in November.

It is only after agreeing on an itinerary and making payment upfront that the tour operator submits an application for a visa.

The package covered the tours, our hotels, three meals a day, a sports utility vehicle, and a driver and guide.

Everything is covered so no additional out-of-pocket expenditure. Known as the Culture Tour, our itinerary covered west Bhutan.

For Malaysians, the most convenient access to Bhutan's international gateway of Paro is via Bangkok.

The flight takes about three hours, including a brief stop in a border town in India.

Even before landing, we were thrilled by the view of snow-capped mountains.

What fascinated me was the plane manoeuvring through what appeared to be tight spaces in between mountains.

We hit the ground running with the attractions which included monasteries, fortresses, stupas and nunneries.

Dating back to the 15th century, their colour, upkeep and varying histories had always interested us.

All buildings - be they homes, shops or offices - had a standard design.

It was required of them.

The landscapes reminded me of Switzerland and there were a lot of open spaces and the absence of litter.

We were a bit worried about acclimatising to the altitude (Paro was at 2,200m) but we didn't seem to be affected.

But still, what about the next morning's hike to the iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery at 3,200m?

Tiger's Nest was built in the 7th century into the rock face at the mountain edge and is an architectural marvel, and visually stunning.

We somehow comfortably managed the five-hour round-trip.

This visit is the highlight of our lives so far.

Our tour of eight days was clustered around four towns: Paro (two nights), Haa (one night), Thimpu (two nights), Punakha (one night) and Paro again for one night prior to departure.

While distances between these towns were not great, ranging from 70km to 130km, the journeys took between two to four hours.

Reasons for the slow commute included narrow mountain roads, ongoing work and the 50km speed limit.

Among the highlights were driving through Chelela Pass - at about 4,000m, the highest drivable pass in Bhutan - where we experienced light snow.

From Haa to Thimpu, the drive was almost entirely through alpine forest which was delightful, especially with the autumn sunshine.

While in Paro and Haa, we had the good fortune to witness their communities celebrating the 60th birthday of the much-revered King's father, on Nov 11.

Primarily using dance as their expression, the activities were held in public spaces.

As the capital and seat of government, Thimpu has its unique set of buildings such as the Palace and Parliament.

One of its major attractions is the impressive Buddha Point.

Built on a hill, this temple houses a seated Buddha statue.

Claimed to be one of world's largest, at a height of 51.5m, it could be seen from kilometres away.

Buddha Point also offered a clear view of Thimpu.

My favourite stop was Punakha where we did two treks of about two hours each.

The first to a fertility temple, a highly unusual place of worship, to say the least, and the second to another temple built on a hill overlooking the Punakha Valley.

What made the treks special was the pleasure of walking through communities - families working in the rice fields or sitting on their land, enjoying the evening sunshine after a hard day's work.

Completion of the second trek brought us to the river where we donned our life jackets and started whitewater-rafting.

Being the dry season, the river was slow and rapids gentle.

Still, that did not stop me getting soaked by a rogue wave.

Soon after our ride ended two hours later, we began the four-hour drive to Paro.

Arriving in the dark, we only had time to have dinner and sleep before leaving for the airport the next morning.

What a wonderful journey!

A return visit, this time to the central region, is on the cards, albeit at a more leisurely pace than we had experienced.

Which leaves the question, what will be the 52nd country I shall visit?

I have been told Croatia is stunning.