Bhutan: An enchanting mountain nation is becoming a magnet for A-list celebs

Tucked into the Himalayas is a beautiful, remote kingdom where spirits are appeased, the mountains are sacred and there is only one major road.

Tucked into the Himalayas is a beautiful, remote kingdom where spirits are appeased, the mountains are sacred and there is only one major road. 

For centuries Bhutan remained isolated from the rest of the world  -  indeed tourists were forbidden to enter the country until 1974. 

Gradually, however, it is opening up  -  though it still has fewer visitors annually than Peru's Machu Pichu has in one week. 

What it lacks in quantity, though, it makes up for in quality. Discreetly, Bhutan has been becoming an A-list destination. 

I wanted to explore the country to discover why Cameron Diaz, Keira Knightley and supermodel Gisele like it so much they keep coming back.

Bhutan's only airport is in the town of Paro, rather than the capital Thimphu. The flight is suitably dramatic. 

Our small plane banks steeply, slaloming around a series of mountains before nosediving on to the tarmac. 

Disorientated from the flight, as we drive through Paro I feel like Alice in some medieval wonderland.

The houses are painted white, with carved and painted windows, hay drying on the upper storeys, and swathes of chillies hanging from the red rooftops. 

Several have phalluses painted on their walls. 'In honour of the Divine Madman,' explains my guide Kinley. 'He was a Buddhist saint who would vanquish demons by hitting them over the head with his penis.'

On the outskirts of Paro we notice a man who is wearing the Bhutanese traditional 'gho'  -  a woven cotton tunic worn with knee socks  -  and firing an arrow from a state-oftheart aluminium bow imported from America. 

I'm impressed by the fluency of his English. 'Of course,' he smiles. 'Everybody's word-perfect. We learn it at school.'

My hotel, the Uma Paro, is one of a series of retreats owned by fashion tycoon Christina Ong, boasting the flawless service and attention to detail for which sister properties such as Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos or Uma Ubud in Bali are famous. 

My butler drives me to my villa in the blue pine forest above the reception. The wood burning on the fire smells sweet; the rooms are softly lit with dishes of candles; the great, deep bed looks out on to uninterrupted views across the valley.

To ease into the new time zone I book an hour of yoga. The New Zealand-born instructor, Marie, leads me through a series of stretches and later, floating in the great wooden tub in Uma's bathhouse, with water heated by hot river rocks and strewn with marigolds, I concede that Cameron and her pals have a point.

Next day, walking in the hills, there is no hint that we are in the 21st Century. There are dragonflies and the clouds of butterflies I remember seeing as a child in England. The only sound is the roar of the Pa Chu river. 

'Do you see the tsa-tsa?' Kinley asks, pointing to clay pots shaped like spinning tops that are tucked into rocks. 'They are mini-stupas [shrines]. If a man is too poor to build a fully sized temple, instead he will make one of these and bring it into the hills; it will bring happiness to him and merit.' 

Bhutanese life is suffused with Buddhism, the state religion. Several times we see schoolchildren out, unsupervised, picking litter on the paths to holy places to earn spiritual merit. Dogs roam about and, as Buddha's creatures, a man can gain merit by feeding them. 

The approach is even evident in government: Gross National Happiness is enshrined in the constitution, of equal importance to Gross Domestic Product.

Wandering through Paro's market, I pause to photograph the heaps of red rice, asparagus and chillies  -  the national dish, ema datse, consists of chillies baked in yak's cheese. However, traditions are being challenged in the mountain kingdom, particularly after the lifting of the ban on TV and internet in 1999. 

The behaviour of Bhutan's more westernised youngsters is starting to clash with the conventions of the older generation and, as if to demonstrate, Kinley plays me his favourite songs on his Nokia phone; one is a religious chant, the other an Eminem rap.

Bhutan's most revered prophet, Guru Rinponche, brought Buddhism from Tibet in the eighth Century, reaching the country on an even more interesting flight than my trip with Druk Air  -  on the back of a winged tigress. 

He alighted on the top of a sheer cliff 3,000ft above the Paro valley floor, and spent three months meditating there in a cave. In a remarkable feat of engineering, in 1692 a monastery was built over the cave called Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger's Nest. In 1998 it was burnt down and painstakingly rebuilt with the help of a cable lift.

Without a winged tiger, the ascent is a solid, two-hour trek. Halfway up is a teahouse with a look-out point where Kinley and I pause. Here the dust trail stops and we have to negotiate steep steps cut into the cliff.

At the great bronze entrance to Tiger's Nest, a crimson-robed monk leads us into dark prayer rooms adorned with effigies of Rinponche in various terrifying manifestations. Centuries of worship hang in the air. 'It is the most spiritual place in Bhutan,' whispers Kinley, laying an offering  -  a can of Pepsi  -  at Rinponche's feet. 

Outside, strings of brightly coloured prayer flags flutter in the wind. I sit in the shadow of an immense prayer wheel, eating a bright, crunchy Japanese salad prepared in Uma Paro and packed in a picnic tiffin box.

Today Bhutan uniquely straddles ancient and modern; in 20 years this balance will have changed and, despite a daily tourist tax starting at £130, it will not for much longer be beyond the international tourist trail.

The A-listers are right. Go now, before the Western world seeps in, and before the secret gets out. 

Original article published in The Daily Mail, in September, 2010

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