AS A ROSY dawn breaks over the top of the mountain, the crystal cold air fills with the long, elephant-deep, haunting sounds of dungchens, the nearly six-metre-long ceremonial horns played by monks in Tibetan Buddhist festivals and ceremonies.
Hundreds of Bhutanese from surrounding villages have been arriving since before daybreak, bundled up against the December weather, yet the frost on the grass is now melting as the sun begins burning the thick white clouds hiding the distant snow-peaked Himalayan mountains bordering Tibet.
Bhutan's beautiful 22-year-old queen, Jetsun Pema, arrives with Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, taking their places in an embroidered tent. Drums begin to roll, cymbals clash, and masked dancers – some animal- or demon-headed – leap and whirl in elaborate ancient costumes; then gods, spirits, deities, phallic-headed jesters appear, while a bare-bodied levitating yogi fights off temptations of sex and wealth in the wintry mountain air.
I'm attending the annual Druk Wangyel Tsechu Festival at Dochula Pass, which lies above 3,000 metres. I'm still amazed that I'm actually here. On my first trip to Bhutan in 2005, an elderly, crinkle-faced nun ended our conversation by saying, “You will come back.” She said it twice, as if a forgone conclusion. As I boarded the plane in Bangkok seven years later, I thought about her prediction.
This tiny Buddhist kingdom, slightly larger than Switzerland but with only 700,000 people, and squeezed precariously between the world's two most populous nations, China and India, continues to sustain its traditions and protect its fragile natural resources while transitioning slowly and selectively from the Middle Ages to modernity.
The blueprint for change is gross national happiness (GNH), an index introduced at the end of the 1980s to avoid uncontrolled, uneven growth and inequality. What sounds like an idealistic, feel-good philosophy is an extremely detailed set of policies and guidelines to measure development and prosperity through well-being and environmental protection rather than consumption and exploitation.
But there are signs of the challenges the country faces in maintaining its unique identity while engaging the outside world. After landing at Paro Valley, I'm off in an SUV to Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan, a four-hour drive away.
“It's become busy,” says my guide Tharchu, as we pass through Thimphu. There's a real-estate boom; a lot more buildings and hotels, plus markets, nightclubs, restaurants and shops. I see one called 8-Eleven. I see Bhutanese teenagers in jeans, dresses, cotton hoodies, though traditional dress is still worn regularly: an intricately woven tunic called a gho for men and a gown called a kira for women. There are satellite TV dishes and people, young and old, are yakking on mobile phones.
We continue along the country's only highway, a barely two-lane, sometimes bone-rattling road with blind curves, no shoulder guards, steep drop-offs and thousands of fluttering prayer flags hung between trees and stretched across valleys.
At cloud-shrouded Dochula Pass – the site of the festival – I walk around the 108 chortens built to honour those who died in a 2003 skirmish with India. We continue, winding through forested mountains, but make another stop to watch an archery contest – the national sport.
Soon we descend into Punakha's open valley, with sun-covered hills thick with blue pines. The climate is semi-tropical, and the land produces mangos, passion fruit, bananas and guava. We drive alongside the emerald-green Puna Tsang Chu, where monks are washing their maroon robes. Rows of poinsettias, or the Christmas flower, grow wild along the roadside. Then up a winding road I arrive at my destination.
Uma Punakha is the Como group's latest luxury outpost in Bhutan, opened in late 2012. This spectacular, richly designed lodge is smaller and more intimate than its sister property, Uma Paro, with just nine deluxe rooms and two villas for a maximum of 22 guests. The resort is perched on a hill high above the surrounding rice paddies, offering cinematic views of the breathtaking valley. I love seeing the morning mountains ringed in clouds like soft scarves and the sun breaking through to wake the valley. It's like the first morning, something timeless and transcendent.
While here, I visit Punakha Dzong, known as the Palace of Great Happiness, the secondoldest dzong in Bhutan, built in 1637. With their whitewashed, high stone walls, which can be two metres thick, dzong were originally fortresses against Tibetan invasions. Today, they're monastic and administrative sites where spiritual and secular activities coexist. In a huge hall I marvel at a thousand Buddhas intricately painted on a wall; on another one is a detailed mural of the 12 stages of Buddha, from birth to death to nirvana.
Another day I'm off to Chimi Lakhang, a temple inspired by a divine madman known for combining Buddhism with sex, drink and song. Also called the Temple of Fertility, it was built in 1499 on the site where Lama Drukpa Kunley subdued a terrorising demoness with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” (i.e., his penis).
In the late afternoon, I'm relaxing with a glass of wine on the large stone terrace fronting the hotel's living room-style lobby, thinking wouldn't it be wonderful to have one of those traditionally styled houses and spend, if not a lifetime, longer than a holiday, experiencing the seasonal changes, maybe even learning archery? There's a slogan I've seen while travelling around Bhutan: “Happiness is a place.” I couldn't sum up being here any better.
The next day, we return to Uma Paro, hidden away in a park-like, pine-treed hillside setting overlooking Paro Valley. It's colder here at 2,500 metres, with sky so brilliant it seems Photoshopped: the colour that sky is actually supposed to be.
I visit the small town of Paro with streets of richly decorated houses and small shops selling antiques and handicrafts from Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. Nearby, across a traditional wood-covered bridge, is Paro Dzong, built in 1644. Included in scenes from the 1995 film Little Buddha, it's officially known as Rinchen Pung Dzong (“fortress on a heap of jewels”), where once were stone-throwing catapults on top of its massive, inward-sloping walls.
The last full day I'm up before sunrise for a hike to Taktsang Lhakang. It's considered a moderate-to-hard climb, about two hours, past moss-clad fir trees, evergreens and a waterfall, but I'm still huffing and puffing and frequently stopping until a pregnant Bhutanese woman passes me; from then on I just gulp the clean, chilled air and refuse to stop again.
It's worth the chest-expanding labour. Clinging to a vertical granite wall about a thousand metres above the valley floor, this is one of Bhutan's most spectacular and holiest sites, attracting pilgrims from all over the country. The monastery's name means “tiger's nest”, based on Guru Rinpoche visiting this spot in the eighth century on the back of a flying tigress, bringing a Tibetan form of Buddhism to the country.
There are several legends about its amazing construction. My favourite is how the founder of the main temple, Gyalse Tenzing Rabgye, cut his hair and threw it into the abyss below. Rocks grew from the strands, which were used for the temple's foundation. Not so hard to believe: the monastery seems to have grown right out of the cliff face and held there as if by supernatural glue.
Earlier, I'd wisely booked the hotel's Bhutanese hot stone bath, and now I'm being rewarded: soaking in a rejuvenating, skinsoftening soup of camphor leaves, Himalayan salt and hot river stones that crack and steam, releasing minerals to relieve my aches and pains. Then a body-melting massage.
As I ready to leave the next morning, Tharchu meets me. Smiling, he says, “There's a saying that if you visit Bhutan twice, you'll come here a third time.” I believe him.