Like many good jokes, the one about Paro's airport runway being the longest bit of straight road in Bhutan is seasoned with truth. The countless valleys of the tiny Himalayan kingdom are knitted together with a dizzying network of hairpin bends like a road mandala. Even the descent to the only international airport offers adventure worthy of Biggles. To the left, Mount Everest spears through the cloud line like a monster from the deep (the national carrier, Drukair, sits newcomers on that side for the best view), before the plane banks dramatically left, then right through the coin slot of the Paro Valley. It's a white-knuckle ride featured on any list of the world's most terrifying landings.
As the first lesson in a kingdom steeped in a deeply lived spirituality, it's a good one. The 825,000 people in this devoutly Buddhist nation believe in karma, but it's also worth giving kudos to the 20-odd pilots licensed to fly this route, each trained to ignore warning signals about the closeness of the surrounding mountains. This traveller lore is duly confirmed with our pilot as we make our way into the bracing crispness of the high-altitude air.
"It's fine on a clear day," he says with twinkle-eyed understatement. "It becomes more interesting when it's foggy."
Nearly five decades after opening up to its first trickle of foreign tourists, the global optics on Bhutan haven't shifted all that far. To outside eyes, it's a country still wedded to the exotic. Dzongkha is the national language; ngultrum is the currency. "Druk" means "dragon" (yes, you've just arrived by dragon air). The tout-free streets of the capital, Thimphu, are crowded with locals in national dress. Most men wear a gho, a draped woollen tunic worthy of Comme des Garçons, with voluminous sleeves hemmed in dazzling white; women an ankle-grazing dress (kira) and smartly cropped jacket. Karaoke bars and smartphones are ubiquitous, but advertising signs are not. There's plenty of development going on, but a government decree has kept buildings to a six-floor maximum, as well as a uniform design best described as Swiss chalet meets Chinese pagoda. Rare is the building that isn't embellished with some of the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols such as the lotus flower, golden fish, white conch and the endless knot.
The Land of the Thunder Dragon certainly does good window dressing. With the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas as brooding backup, what immediately grabs you is the sense of a place jealously guarding itself against outside influence.
Sandwiched between China and India – its main trading partner, protector and recipient of its abundant hydropower – Bhutan still marches to the beat of its own drum. The world's only carbon-negative country, thanks in part to a law that at least 60 per cent of its territory be covered in forest, it was the last nation to introduce television and the first to ban plastic bags and smoking. It is a place so deeply (and famously) focused on the wellbeing of its population that it is wedded to the unorthodox social and economic metrics of Gross National Happiness, a concept first floated in 1972 by the fourth Dragon King (he has since abdicated in favour of his equally popular, Elvis-quiffed son) and now enshrined in the constitution.
The tightly regulated rules of engagement for tourists are an example of Gross National Happiness in action. The government charges visitors from outside the region between US$200 ($298) and US$250 ($370) a day, depending on the season, a fee that includes a guide and a driver. It's described as "low-volume, high-value" tourism, engineered to protect the country's priceless twin resources of culture and environment.
Seeing the kingdom with Aman is a sure-fire way to increase anyone's gross personal happiness. The first international operator to open in the country 16 years ago, the resort group's softly-softly approach to high-end tourism is well suited to Bhutan's unflappable serenity. The Amankora ("kora" means "circular pilgrimage" in Dzongkha) is a journey around five lodges spread through the central and western valleys of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Phobjikha and Bumthang. It's a greatest hits of the Bhutanese countryside, showcasing the striking differences found in a country only 300 kilometres east to west.
The work of the late Australian architect Kerry Hill, each of the lodges exudes low-fi luxury. Designed as modern dzongs – fortress-monasteries with stern protective walls and cloistered courtyards – the buildings blend in with the environment and pay a very Belle magazine homage to Bhutanese architecture. Façades of white-washed rammed earth topped by traditional carved wooden roofs are all stylish mystery with just a touch of James Bond villain's lair. Interiors bring the warmth, thanks to acres of clean-lined honeyed timber and touches of stone.
Spacious guest rooms follow the same layout from lodge to lodge (all the better to find the hairdryer and power adaptor, my dear) with a day couch perfect for lolling beneath picture windows, a standalone central bath from which you can survey your mini-kingdom, and a traditional bukhari wood heater – a metal fire box of fierce strength.
Each lodge understands the power of a dramatic entrance. In Phobjikha, we pad across a soft, pale green carpet of fallen pine needles; in Punakha we walk across a suspension bridge laced with prayer flags to a waiting golf buggy that zips through orchards and rice paddies to an ornately decorated former farmhouse still owned by the royal family.
The lodge in Thimphu, perched on the lip of a forested gully five minutes' drive above the capital, has the most understated location. The queen mother lives next door – we do but see her passing by in a small but important-looking convoy. If she's lucky, she, too, falls asleep to the sound of the stream burbling over rocks and the muffled swoosh of pine trees.Thimphu's main market is a short walk away. It's a two-storey Shangri-La bazaar full of colourful aisles of fruit and vegetables, where the mostly organic Bhutanese produce is prized over cheaper Indian imports. There are endless varieties of rice, strings of dried yak cheese lozenges (suck them or wear them as a necklace – take your pick). All the accoutrements you need for a head-warming, betel nut-chewing buzz will set you back just 20 ngultrum (about 42 cents).
And there are chillies. American food writer Ruth Reichl once declared Bhutanese cuisine the worst in the world, but perhaps she simply couldn't take the heat. Chilli is the opiate of these masses. It is to Bhutanese food as butter is to French. Red chillies can be seen everywhere drying on flat tin roofs, while their fresh green cousins star in the national dish of ema datshi, a fiery stew combining them with the ubiquitous crumbly farmers' cheese that is used as a condiment, seasoning and sauce.
The hoarding, smuggling and general chaos experienced a few years ago, when the Bhutanese government banned the import of chillies from India over pesticide concerns, is a measure of their importance. The market aisles are crowded with chillies every which way. Fresh is best, but there are plenty of dried and powdered varieties, "mostly for chilli emergencies, and for porridge," says our guide Tashi.
It's easy to be a vegetarian here (vegans – refer above to the virtually inescapable cheese factor). It's also surprisingly easy to be a carnivore. True to the ever-pragmatic path of the Middle Way, the Bhutanese – even the monks – are enthusiastic meat-eaters who take their animals to India for slaughter. They say prayers to atone for their dinner. Even here, forgiveness is easier to ask for than permission.
At Zombala in the heart of town, people scoff pork, beef or chicken momos beneath a TV screen playing Indian music videos. Lines form at lunch and dinnertime, and, judging by these juicy dumpling pockets served steamed or fried with lashings of chilli sauce, momo FOMO is a thing in Thimphu.
It soon transpires that Bhutan's reputation for breathtaking scenery isn't simply a metaphor. Up here on the world's top floor, the air is thin enough to make climbing a minor set of stairs a major feat of endurance. The de facto national symbol, Taktsang Lhakhang, or Tiger's Nest monastery, overlooking the Paro Valley, is the primary lure for many travellers, but it would be foolhardy to attempt the climb without acclimatising.
True to organised religion the world over, Bhutan's clergy gravitates to the higher ground. Hiking and monastery visits are therefore an enticing job lot proposition, and in a land with more monks than soldiers the "seen one temple, seen 'em all" syndrome does not apply. Billowing incense and droning mantras are the constants – as are the flickering butter lamps, which have been implicated in countless monastery fires – but thanks to a colourful, almost animistic theology mixing Tibetan Buddhism with a belief in ghosts, evil spirits and hyper-local deities, each one has its own captivating story.
At Dodeydrak Monastery, hidden in the hills high above Thimphu, the water level in a golden pot locked inside a cloistered mountain cave is said to go up and down of its own mysterious accord. Supernatural pots are just one part of the mystical mise-en-scène. An official sign near the start of the two-hour climb – more of a wade through air that feels like it has been stripped of its oxygen molecules – politely informs us that drinking, smoking or being noisy is likely to bring about sudden rain and hailstorms.
The monks, clad in claret robes and colour-coordinated polar fleeces, are gracious to the visitors who come gasping into their village home. We're invited into their cell-like sleeping quarters for sweet milk tea and a snack of the roasted rice tossed with butter and sugar known as zau. In the rudimentary kitchen, a mountain of potatoes waits to be peeled for the monks' simple communal dinner, augmented by a rice cooker that could fit a small cow.
As we witness time and again in Bhutan, the metaphysical and everyday rub shoulders with nonchalant ease at Dodeydrak. Riotously coloured altars overlooked by super-life-sized images of deities are busy with incense and fruit, flowers and chimes, packets of crisps and soccer balls (because even monks need to eat and play). Dishes of water are placed as an offering, because water is plentiful and free, and therefore does not discriminate between rich and poor. Besides, it might be useful to put out the butter-lamp fires.
High in the hills above the village are hermit caves where the most hardcore monks sit meditating in solitary silence for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours at a time, blissfully unaware of global politics and celebrity gossip. Below it, the well-tended football pitch is testament to Bhutan's other national religion. As with many monasteries around the land, the 180 soccer-mad monks play every afternoon before prayers in a fiercely contested league based on their home regions. For one young monk who entered the monastery at the age of eight, his team being top of the ladder is as close as he has been to home for several years, thanks to his Bumthang village being a 12-hour bone-jarring bus ride away followed by a six-hour walk.
Travelling in Bhutan is not a quick affair. The nation welcomed its first paved road in 1962 and even now the 50 kilometres separating Paro and Thimphu takes about 90 minutes. That's fast going in a country where hazards range from minibar-sized potholes to catastrophic landslides or a calf suckling its mother in the middle of the east-west highway. Until a few years ago, traversing the length of the highway was an epic journey of indeterminate length. Now, it's a single yet solid day of driving – "or two days or maybe three days, depending on if they're renovating the road or not," says Tashi.
Consolation for the lack of speed comes from passing old-growth rhododendron forests, yaks with surfer-dude hair grazing on the side of the road, and the endlessly diverting safe-driving signs ("If you are married, divorce speed"). Hundreds of tiny stupas known as tsa tsa, made from clay and sometimes mixed with the ashes of the dead, nest in mountain crevices, each one carefully placed with a separate incantation. Bright prayer flags flap and flutter in the breeze, crowning every available hilltop and strung in criss-crossing lines across mountain passes.
Bhutan's forests are a biodiversity refuge, a Noah's ark for the Himalayas. There are leopards and tigers in these parts. There are red pandas and black bears. An arguing family of golden langur monkeys perches in tree branches before the crossing into the remote Phobjikha Valley. At the approach of every winter, flocks of rare black-necked cranes fly over Tibet's snowy peaks to roost here. They're considered an auspicious sign by this valley of potato farmers, who say they circle the Gangteng Monastery clockwise three times on arrival and departure to 15th-century saint Pema Lingpa.
Imposing, ornate, and judging by the team of woodworkers and stonemasons who have been restoring it for most of this century, in perpetual need of repair, the monastery watches over the peaceful valley. The road down to Gangtey village passes stalls selling yak-tail brushes for altar cleaning before the landscape gives way to lichen-draped blue pines hugging grassy meadows. Local archers face off in their medieval garb of embellished satin tunics and vivid sashes. They use modern Chinese compound bows, taunt each other in song across the 28-metre-long range and drink enough rice wine to make you worry for the safety of competitors, spectators and stray dogs.
In short, Phobjikha is captivating. Electricity only arrived here a few years ago (the fourth King was worried it would disturb the black-necked cranes) and the valley retains an air of being suspended in time. Hot and cold running water are still a rarity, and the stay at Aman Gangtey reaches its atmospheric apotheosis with a traditional hot-stone bath in a farmer's shed.
This luxe-ified version of the locals' regular bathing session is part of its program to provide guests with one-off experiences in each of the lodges. In Thimphu, it was gratifying to hear a monastic astrologer predict I'll live to the age of 96 (unless I venture north of Melbourne in October 2022), but it's hard to beat a huge wooden tub heated by stones plucked from a roaring fire, inside a candle-lit shed with its doors flung open to the valley. Six stones and two hours later, twilight mingles with the faint chanting of monks, drums and bells drifting down from the magnificent decaying monument on the hill.
Another day, another valley. Monks continue to materialise. On our departure from Phobjikha, at the top of Lawala Pass, the ninth reincarnate Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche and his followers are consecrating a new stupa built to ward off evil spirits. Prayers are chanted, clouds of incense released. The slender gold horns known as dungchen intone their low, mournful note into the chill mountain air. Onlookers huddle deep into their jackets against the cold, but after our slow climb over the Dochula Pass and down into the Punakha Valley, the mercury starts to rise and it feels almost like spring despite the mid-November date.
It's little surprise this sub-tropical valley is the winter home of Bhutan's monastic leaders. When the mercury drops, they decamp from Thimphu to their majestic 17th-century dzong Druk Pungthang Dechen Phodrang, or "the palace of great happiness" at the auspicious confluence of the Pochhu and Mochhu rivers.
Punakha's Chimi Lhakhang, the fertility temple of Drukpa Kunley, is a more ribald affair. The "divine madman" of the 15th century, and one of Bhutan's most revered religious figures, he practised his own bacchic brand of Buddhism involving wine, women and risqué poems. The original anti-establishment cool cat, he cast out demons with his penis – his "thunderbolt of wisdom" – which accounts for the giant phalluses painted on houses throughout the valley, some of them emitting a thin stream of cosmic sperm.
The Bhutanese have no word for goodbye. The closest Dzongkha gets is "log jay gay", or "we'll meet again", but they do know the power of a good farewell. Most Bhutan itineraries end at Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger's Nest). One of the wonders of the Buddhist world, it's a testament to human vision, endeavour, and building things in very hard-to-reach places.
Legend has it that Padmasambhava, a Buddhist saint known as the Guru Rinpoche, flew on a tigress's back to bring Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century and meditated at this spot for three years, three months (and all the rest). Nine-hundred years later, in 1692, this pagoda-topped complex of eight temples was built around his cave. Gutted by fire in 1998 (butter lamps, yet again) it was painstakingly rebuilt.
From the Paro valley floor 900 metres below, it resembles a delicate child's construction clinging for protection to a cliff face against the sheer drop below. Even close-up it looks like a puff of wind could carry it away.
Young and old make the hike. People climb in hiking boots and heeled sandals. Some take two hours to charge up the dusty switchbacks of the boulder-strewn path, others half a day. Young Indians blast music from portable speakers and belled horses jangle along, carrying the lazy and infirm halfway before leaving them to their own devices and reserves of willpower.
The rambling complex has many more stairs to test weary legs. Tucked deep inside is the cold cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. His golden, life-sized statue is said to be the only thing that survived the fire. A room of flickering butter lamps is blessedly ringed with extinguishers.
In one last approximation of the Buddhist way, the Tiger's Nest is best appreciated from outside looking in. Hundreds of steps down and then back up again, a ledge on the other side of a vertigo-inducing drop offers the best vantage point. You can stand a long time here at the top of the world, gazing through the valley's soft light at the Tiger's Nest in all its improbable, madly impractical glory. Stand long enough and you're likely to start doubting if the usual laws of physics apply to this magical country, and whether what goes up really must come down.
Thai Airways International has multiple non-stop flights from Australian cities to Bangkok, thaiairways.com. Stay overnight at an airport hotel before catching the early-morning Drukair flight to Bhutan (via Calcutta). Request a left-hand window seat to see Mount Everest on approach to Bhutan. drukair.com.bt
Where to stay
Amankora Double-occupancy suites are about $1550 per night (about $1450 single). Rates are subject to a further 20 per cent government tax and service charge, an FIT (foreign independent traveller) surcharge of about $60 (double) or $40 (single) per day, and government royalties of about $65 per person per day. There is also an additional visa application fee of about $40 and sustainable-tourism fee of $10 per person. Amankora rates include accommodation, all meals and house beverages, airport transfers to and from Amankora Paro or Amankora Thimphu, and visa-processing assistance. amankora.com