Bhutan is one of those destinations that to this day is still shrouded in mystery; one of the few places left in the world that is still reluctant to bring itself into the 21st century.
This small landlocked country sandwiched between India and China is predominantly Buddhist and has just 800,000 citizens. What I love the most about Bhutan is that at every turn there are picturesque dzongs (fortresses) and chortens (shrines), evergreen landscapes that stretch for miles, iridescent rivers and the sound of prayers which seem to hang in the air. It is a truly special place.
At the core of Bhutan’s culture lies the 13 arts and crafts, known as Zorig Chusum, that are deeply rooted in Buddhism and are an essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage.
These 13 traditional arts and crafts are taught to the young, a practise that has been ongoing for centuries. In the West you would be hard pushed to find teenagers studying calligraphy, sculpting, embroidery and masonry to name just a few, yet here it is way of life and one that at least for the foreseeable future they do not plan on changing.
It is also well-known that Bhutan prefers to base its success on its Gross National Happiness over its Gross Domestic Product, which gives a fascinating insight into how much the country values its people.
I also adore that the Bhutanese have the utmost respect for all living organisms, whether it be the forests, which cover seventy percent of the country (there is a law that states at least 60% of the county must be forested at any time) or just for each other.
Respect for our environment really is such a splendid thing especially in modern times when matters like this are so important to the health of the Earth. This is very obvious when one visits; I was personally amazed at the clarity of the rivers and the fresh and clean feel to the air.
In an ideal world one would take in multiple stops in Bhutan to allow for a fuller understanding of the country and its traditions and history. However in this frantic world where time is so precious, many travellers can only visit Bhutan for a short time, so if this is the case I would recommend that one ensures Gangtey Lodge features on the itinerary!
This gorgeously charming twelve-bedroom lodge is quaint and homely without compromising on service or luxury; indeed they have over 50 staff to ensure that all guests’ needs are taken care of!
Designed to blend in with the traditional Bhutanese farmhouses that dot the area, the lodge has been built – and is operated – to the highest standards of sustainability. Local and recycled materials were used during construction and all wastewater is recycled and food waste composted.
The Lodge showcases fabulous ornate local woodwork whilst blending together indulgences such as Swedish log-burning stoves and English roll-top baths, which sit magnificently under the expansive windows allowing one to unwind whilst still taking in the glorious valley views.
The hotel encourages guests to switch off from their everyday lives and instead connect with the local environment and cultures. As such they have no televisions and instead I recommend that one fully engages with all the wonderful experiences on offer here!.
The hotel has quite an informal feel but it does not compromise on service - which is faultless - or luxuries. There is no dedicated restaurant instead the spacious lobby operates as a functioning multipurpose space, there is also a glorious outside terrace in which one can soak in those infamous Bhutan panoramas or curl up besides the fireplace should the weather take a turn for the worst.
Gangtey lodge offers you a wonderful opportunity to explore the local area of Phobjikha Valley, immerse oneself in the local community and experience well as the local Buddhist culture.
The lodge has a close relationship with the local community with many locals being employed and has a close connection with the local Shedra (Monk School) which is just a short three minute walk away. The local Shedra is home to some 250 monk students who range in age from 12 to 40 years old.
Gangtey Lodge’s connection to the Shedra allows guests to immerse themselves in the local culture and experience the local Buddhist practises first-hand. For me, this was the main draw of a visit here.
The Shedra itself has an important role in the community; while many students come for religious and spiritual fulfilment courses in Nyingmapa Buddhism, in reality most students come because their families are too poor to keep them at home.
The Shedra does not receive any financial aid from the government and solely relies on sponsorship and support from the Gangtey Trulku Rimpoche, the 9th body reincarnate of Pema Lingpa. Taking part in the local Shedra experiences means that one is supporting the school, its projects and the monks themselves.
There are some wonderful, enlightening rituals that can be experienced at the Shedra. For me, one of the most moving experiences was that of the Morning Prayer service. We needed an early start to get ready for what is referred to locally as the Tara Ceremony. This is very important as the morning is considered by Buddhists to be the time at which the body and mind is the most pure.
After the prayer ceremony we can accompanied a monk teacher on his morning round and had the opportunity to learn more about the monks’ daily lives, as well as ask all of our questions. We then enjoyed a local breakfast in the courtyard of the monastery.
One can additionally take part in the evening prayers, which takes place around dusk and can be combined with a mediation class. We also witnessed the monks debating which gave us a fascinating insight, delving deeper into the traditions of Buddhism.
Should one wish to have a private and tranquil experience, I recommend participating in the lighting of the butter lamps, personally led by a senior monk teacher. This is a significant ritual accompanied by prayers in which the lighting of the butter lamps represents relief from suffering and provides you with a guiding light to find enlightenment.
Another fantastic part of the Bhutanese culture is the hoisting of prayer flags to bring good luck. As we travelled through Bhutan I saw colourful prayer flags that have been a major part of the culture for centuries. Prayer flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and merit and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings.
We saw prayer flags raised outside homes, hung on hilltops, bridges and places of spiritual importance, and we had the opportunity to witness the prayer flag ceremony being performed at Gangtey’s Shedra.
One can also wear the traditional Bhutanese dress to the monastery or even to dinner. The local dress is colourful and has evolved over thousands of years; men wear the "Gho", a knee-length robe that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as a "Kera" whilst women wear the "Kira", a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a "Tego", with an inner layer known as a "Wonju".
One of the most exhilarating parts of our stay was when we participated in the national sport, archery! There are some very accomplished archers at the lodge who delighted in teaching us about one of the country’s favourite pastimes.
Gangtey, also known as Phobjikha Valley, is one of the most stunning destinations in Bhutan, typically reached via the Dochula Pass where on a clear day one can enjoy 360-degree panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain range.
On our visit to Gangtey we enjoyed a stop during the drive to take in the beautiful view of the 108 chortens, built on the hill by Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo for the security and well-being of His Majesty the King of Bhutan.
At some 3,000 metres above sea level Gangtey is a glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains and is a designated conservation area bordering the Black Mountain National Park. Many a visitor has marvelled at its beauty, and it is often described as "the most beautiful spot in the most beautiful country in the Himalayas"! A fine testimony indeed!
There are gorgeous nature trails and we took a walk through the valley to see all the flowers, plants and wildlife, though you can cycle if you prefer. We stopped at the information and observation room where in the winter one can watch the endangered black-necked cranes who stay here over the season.
The observation room is equipped with a high-powered telescope from which you can look out over the valley and catch the best view of these elusive birds.
From the Gangtey Goenpa Monastery, situated at the head of the valley, we took in the exceptional views of the Bhutanese countryside.
This is the location of the annual Black-Necked Crane Festival in November, which raises awareness and understanding of the importance of conserving the endangered cranes. The festival itself is quite a sight to behold with locals including school children performing folk songs and dances and conservation-themed dramas.
Depending on your interests, I recommend that you plan a visit in April or May to see the resplendently vibrant rhododendrons, whose colourful petals can be seen throughout the country.
Alternatively time your visit with the arrival of the elusive black-necked cranes who arrive from the Tibetan Plateau and stay from November to early March. The Black-Necked Crane festival is fantastic to see, and usually happens over the second weekend in November.
This fantastic lodge offers one the most immersive experiences with a true and unfettered insight into Bhutan’s Buddhist religion and all of its fascinating traditions and cultures, as well as the opportunity to immerse oneself in the pristine mountain wilderness. Please do contact me for more information about holidays to Bhutan.
Images provided courtesy of Gangtey Lodge and copyright to Ken Spence.
Video created by Human Eyes.