By Philip Watson
Six months before Sol Campbell dramatically disappeared during his last season at Arsenal, in order to “sort his head out”, he travelled to Bhutan.
He and his then girlfriend, society interior designer Kelly Hoppen, stayed at the quietly chic and luxurious Uma Paro hotel; they trekked through the majestically beautiful Himalayan mountains of this small, secretive and uniquely unspoilt Buddhist kingdom; and they enjoyed massages and holistic treatments in the hotel’s supremely stylish spa.
Sol was so relaxed and carefree during his stay that apparently he even kicked a ball around with some of the locals on a pitch near the hotel. By all reports, he was happy and contented. Yet, all too soon, his relationship with Hoppen would end acrimoniously and the deep personal crises that have dogged his life and career would return. It makes you think that if one of the most serene and stress-free places in the world couldn’t help save our Sol, then, sadly, he really must have been in trouble.
Certainly, Bhutan is in a world of its own. A largely feudal country isolated and unchanged for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Bhutan, which is about the size of Switzerland, started to get roads, telephones, schools, hospitals and a national currency. The number of Western visitors to the kingdom was so small they could all be named.
While tourist numbers began to gradually increase after the country’s sole airport was built in 1983, the ruling monarchy remained mistrustful of outside influence and keen to protect their distinctive culture, identity and environment.
So they came up with a canny plan that remains in operation today: they would restrict tourist numbers by allowing only their own national airline, Druk Air (total fleet: two Airbuses), to land at the airport, and place a minimum cover charge of $200 a day on all visitors. The policy has undoubtedly worked, if only to dissuade the hoards of backpackers who travel through India, no doubt high on the knowledge that marijuana grows wild and extensively in Bhutan, to make the journey north. Today, no more than 13,000 people a year visit the country.
The kingdom’s rulers have also gone much further in their desire to maintain the integrity and individuality of their country. It’s compulsory for all Bhutanese to wear national dress – long, plaid or brightly coloured, wrap-around robes – in public; Bhutan is the only country in the world in which cigarettes are absolutely banned; and archery, long favoured by successive kings, is decreed the national sport.
Suspicious of western ideals and consumerism, television and the internet were not permitted until 1999. Spiritual welfare is valued more highly than national wealth. “I am not as much concerned about the Gross National Product,” the reigning king has said, “as I am about the Gross National Happiness”. This is, of course, a supremely convenient dictum for a man who has four wives (all of them sisters), an untold personal fortune, and who rules over a population of whom 80 per cent are still subsistence farmers.
It all makes Bhutan a fascinating mixture of the medieval past and rapidly-changing present. On the one hand, the kingdom is like an exclusive spiritual travel club for today’s global super-rich. On the other, it’s like being a pioneer traveller from a century or more ago – you’ll see precious few other tourists and local people are still curious to see and meet westerners.
For those looking for a holiday that provides a very special sanctuary from an increasingly homogenised world, then Bhutan cannot be beaten. Not only is at that fleetingly perfect stage in its development – it’s advanced enough for there to be a handful of luxury hotels, but pristine enough for there to remain a real sense of discovery – but everywhere you venture in Bhutan the country beguiles and transports you.
This is a country of inimitable and extraordinary beauty, of snowy, vertiginous mountain peaks stretching west to Everest, of forest wildernesses dripping with strands of moss, of patchworks of terraced rice fields that, from up high, look like the gills of giant fish.
It is a kingdom of spirits, ghosts, yetis, medicine men, flying tigresses and reincarnated lamas (even the Bhutanese name for the country, Druk Yul, translates as “land of the thunder dragon”). With is billowing clouds that smudge the mountain tops and gently float down into the valleys, it’s as if you are suspended somewhere between the earth and the sky.
Bhutanese wooden houses, some oddly reminiscent of Swiss chalets, and dzongs (grand fortress temples) are also finely and brightly decorated with paintings of lotus flowers, mythical animals and auspicious symbols. The people are handsome, gentle and graceful; it’s as if their particular branch of Buddhism, tantric Mahayana, has bestowed upon them a calm, generous and benign enlightenment. This has to be one of the most inspiring, and photogenic, places in the world.
It is also unparalleled for trekking; Bhutan is like Nepal 50 years ago, before its overexploitation and civil wars. The day after I’d been on a 30km cycle ride – all downhill, dropping 1,200m or more – I walked with a local guide from Uma Paro to the incredible and sacred Taktshang (or Tiger’s Nest) monastery.
Perched on a ledge high up on a mountain, and clinging to the rocks like a fragile bird’s nest, the revered Buddhist monastery is reached via a steep and challenging three-hour climb of around 900m. Along the way you pass pine forests, waterfalls, spectacular views back along the Paro valley, and fluttering prayer flags, the mountain breezes carrying their inscriptions to the heavens.
Mostly, we walked in quiet reverence, the silence broken only by the plangent calls of a Bhutanese trumpet emanating from the monastery above. The Tiger’s Nest may be Bhutan’s most famous landmark and attraction, but we passed just six other tourists during the whole day. It felt like going to the most magical and secret place on Earth.
Way To Go
Greaves Travel (0870 850 2497, greavesindia.com) offers tailor-made tours of Bhutan, with a stopover in Kolkata (Calcutta), from £2,395 pp inclusive of five nights at Uma Paro and three nights at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. British Airways (0870 850 9850, ba.com) flies from London Heathrow to Kolkata three times a week; flights start at £397 return.
© Philip Watson 2007/2019