Pham Kieu Loan

Discover Bhutan – a kingdom synonymous with mountain-top temples, pilgrimages and simple joy

Tiger's Nest - the most famous temple in Bhutan

There are beautiful memories of a journey, tucked neatly into a box along with  thousands of other memories. There are stories about unforgettable destinations we’ve visited that make us smile whenever we remember them. There is nostalgia that tugs at my heartstrings whenever I recall this special place.

I opened a small bottle of lemongrass essential oil, a souvenir from my trip to Bhutan – the “Druk Yuk country” (Land of the Thunder Dragon), and waited for a Bhutanese friend to email me.  Suddenly, the room filled with the scent of lemongrass, reminding me of Bhutan’s sunny green fields and distinctive Lungta flags fluttering in the wind. How I longed for glorious pink cherry blossoms, narrow winding trails through primeval forests, the tender face of a street vendor, and the shy smile of the little girls I met along the way. My eyes grew teary as I thought about one special little girl. Meeting her in Bhutan was a blessing.

By a stroke of fate, I made a spontaneous decision to visit Bhutan. After a five-hour flight from Bangkok, Thailand, I arrived in Paro – the only city in Bhutan with an international airport, excited to explore this small country with less than 700,000 residents, located between the two largest and most-populated countries in the world: India and China.

My first impression was of the traditional Bhutanese clothes – Gho (for men) and Kira (for women) – proudly worn at all times. My young local tour guide gently patted his shirt’s flap and told me how his Gho was hand-woven during his grandfather’s time. My heart sank a little, as I recalled my daughter in her new white Ao Dai, which I’d gifted her on the first day of a new school year.

The biggest spring festival in Paro

Bhutan’s nature is majestic and untouched. Known as the land of temples, Buddhist flags fly everywhere. The Bhutanese are friendly and kind, as reflected by their simple and pure outlook on life. They believe in the law of Cause and Effect, as well as karmic fates. They are compassionate, do good deeds for others, and follow principles of Ahimsa. Seeing my affection for the dogs I met on the roadside, my tour guide smiled and said: “Bhutanese believed in Samsara, so you might have been one of these dogs in your previous life.” His comment made me laugh and think about this. In life, all beings are born equal, and will eventually return to dust. Why would we keep hurting ourselves and others because of our own Trivisa – or “three poisons” in Sanskrit: greed, anger, and delusion?

On the journey from West to East, only one 2.5m-wide trail winds through the forests to connect all the pilgrimage routes in the country. The trail is both rugged and precipitous. Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Trongsa, and Jakar (Bumthang) were my stopping points. Everywhere I went, the atmosphere was peaceful and pure with colorful flora and fauna. There was no need for frivolous grandeur nor gilded sparkle. The villages and towns of Bhutan had their own charm. The houses have whitewashed brick walls, wooden roofs and square-patterned doors that give neighborhoods a harmonious similarity. There are many temples in the mountains, especially Paro Taktsang, one of the most sacred places in Bhutan, also known as the Tiger’s Nest temple.

Bumthang was my last stop. I regretted being unable to stay longer in this enchanting valley in Central Bhutan. Vast green fields were covered in spring blossoms. Abies densa (Bhutan fir) forests were dotted around magnificent houses. Buddhist flags fluttered in the wind. The ancient temple with its impressive murals, and the burgundy shades of the strolling monks’ robes made me feel as though time had stood still.

I left part of my heart behind with a little girl, who, according to Buddhist philosophy, could be my child in the next life. One morning, while wandering around to take photos, I saw her walking to school. Noticing my gaze, she smiled shyly and hid behind her sisters, watching me as I spoke to them. When her sisters walked away, she stood still. Her sisters pulled her forward, but she was reluctant to move and kept turning around to gaze at me with expectant eyes.

Cherry trees blossom in the spring in Paro

Unable to resist, I opened my arms and called her over. She quickly snatched her hands away from her sisters and rushed over to hug me, her cheek rubbing mine and her tiny arms circling my neck. I sat in silence, hugging her in the middle of the road, in the warm morning sun, with the fresh lemongrass scent from her kira all around. I couldn’t stop my tears from falling, because this unknown little girl from this unfamiliar land touched my soul so deeply it hurt my heart to say goodbye. From that moment, I realized I was no longer a tourist. This place felt like home. I will return whenever I need to seek holy solace.  

At last, a response arrived from the friend I’d made on my pilgrimage to the Tiger’s Nest. She wished to invite me to her house one day to enjoy a cup of tea, enjoy the tranquility of Bhutan’s spring breeze, and join me in wishing for all the best things in life to come true.

What am I waiting for? Bhutan is not just a place that inspires nostalgia, but already a vital part of my life!