Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Recently in a travel article, there was listed the ’10 safest destinations that aren’t involved in conflict’. Not a bad list but Bhutan was overlooked (possibly unheard of!) but, in my view, should have been top of the pile. Anyway – it’s a hidden gem and hopefully you will get a feel for one of my favourite countries when you read on.

Chortens & Himalayas – Dochula Pass in Bhutan


Once you have experienced the delights of Bhutan, you will want to return time and time again. It’s one of those destinations that if you tell someone that you are off to Bhutan, the comment is: “Where on earth is that?” And this is what makes this astonishing country so fascinating. It’s off the beaten track and is a truly magical, relatively unspoilt destination. You won’t find backpackers here and visitor numbers are strictly controlled.

School Kids in Bhutan National Dress

Archery – Bhutan’s National Sport


So – where is Bhutan? It’s a tiny kingdom squeezed in between the eastern Indian state of Assam to the south and China to the north acting as a neutral and natural buffer between two countries that don’t particularly like one another. Intriguingly Bhutan is a democratic constitutional monarchy – a rarity in these times and the locals revere and adore the Royal Family who are very much ‘hands on’ with their subjects. I’ve travelled to Bhutan a couple of times and the one thing that stands out is that there is an intense pride in their king and country. It’s a place that once visited really gets under your skin in the best possible way.

Chillies are No.1 staple of the Bhutan diet


Bhutan is mountainous with the eastern Himalayan chain in the northern part of this lozenge shaped country – you are never far from stunning views. Valleys are deep with rushing rivers and fertile terraced river flats and hillsides. Millet, red rice, other grain crops, chillies and vegetables are the principal crops and there is a thriving dairy industry producing high quality produce including superb cheeses. The mountainsides are heavily forested with conifers and deciduous trees and at altitude there are vast swathes of Rhododendrons. The national tree is Cupressus sempervirens. I’ve seen Luculia growing, species of Tibouchina and in the warmer semi-tropical river-sides, exotic Impatiens and ferns that have 1.5 m long fronds.

Lichen and fern forest at Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan


Travelling around is by mini coach over a road system that is thankfully being upgraded – it’s not easy in such mountainous terrain! The passes traversed are around 2,500 to 3,500 metres. If you suffer altitude sickness, then there is an easy medical remedy to control this. The hotels are generally traditionally built, usually fairly modest but always comfortable and for those who are desperate to stay in touch, you might even get Wi-Fi! But the appeal of the country is that these 21st century ‘must haves’ are quite limited – quite refreshing! The local beer is excellent and whilst the food won’t win culinary contests it is ample and very acceptable.

Traditional Folk Dancing

The Tree of Life


What is extraordinary is that Bhutan does not operate on Gross National Product. The 4th king decided that this approach was not to be the focus but instead it would be one of Gross National Happiness. This is not a gimmick and it actually works and the responsibility of the government and the current 5th king will always be to focus first and foremost on maintaining the peace, tranquillity and prosperity of the nation.

Takin – the National Animal


The countryside has dramatic Buddhist monasteries called Dzongs situated in stunning locations. These feature massive prayer wheels, sacred Bodhi trees, prayer flags and incredible ornate wooden decorations.

Punakha Dzong


The most important Dzong is at Punakha at the confluence of two rivers and is where all monarchs are crowned. The other really famous monastery is that of Taktsang better known as Tiger’s Nest. It clings to an almost sheer cliff face 900 m above the Paro Valley. The climb up is challenging – I’ve done it once and for the fit or those who like ‘giving things a go’, all the huffing and puffing is worth it.

The fabled Tiger’s Nest

Tigers Nest & Prayer Flags


So that is Bhutan in a nutshell – a gorgeous country of only about 700,000 happy souls. The scenery is magical and who couldn’t fall in love with a country that has the Blue Poppy (Mecanopsis grandis) as its National Flower!

I will be taking a tour to “Bhutan, The Land of The Thunder Dragon with a ‘side dish of India” for Opulent Journeys from 4-22 October 2017. Why don’t you come with me?

[Go to Garden Travel Hub for more information on Bhutan, The Land of The Thunder Dragon with a ‘side dish of India or contact Opulent Journeys:]

Domesticated Yak in Bhutan

Ready, aim fire! The amazing cannonball tree

Whilst on holiday in Sri Lanka in March 2016 I visited the very impressive Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, not far from Kandy. The history of the gardens dates back to 1371 however the existing site was chosen in 1821 and it has since undergone several transformations over the decades to now be considered amongst the best botanic gardens in the sub-continental region. Continue reading “Ready, aim fire! The amazing cannonball tree”

Sri Lanka garden tour: a piece of serendipity

Sri Lanka was never on my list of gardening destinations. A tiny island off the south east coast of India, the former British colony of Ceylon, it was associated in my mind with cricket and tea but never gardening. Then when I had been working as a Tour Leader for Renaissance Tours for a few years, a friend, John Ekin, persuaded me to consider a tour to Sri Lanka. Continue reading “Sri Lanka garden tour: a piece of serendipity”

Of spice and tea

As someone who came to the study of landscape history from a love of flowers and gardening, I write surprisingly little about horticulture. So, to make amends, this whole post is about some of the plants we saw on our recent trip to the southern Indian state of Kerala. Continue reading “Of spice and tea”

Lonely trees

Do you ever see a tree and think “Where did you come from, where are your parents, how did you get here?”? I occasionally ponder these questions when I see a tree that seems to be the only one of its kind growing in the area. Continue reading “Lonely trees”

The Rock Garden at Chandigarh

It started in 1965 as an illegal development on protected forest land. Its creator was inspired by Le Corbusier’s use of concrete in the city of Chandigarh, yet what he produced is folk art that stands in extraordinary contrast to Corbusier’s modernist city. For the first ten years of its life, it was entirely secret, its existence known only to the lowly government worker who was behind its painstaking creation. Today it hosts thousands of paying visitors every day, and the site and its creator receive countless awards and regular international press coverage. Continue reading “The Rock Garden at Chandigarh”

You say Burma – I say Myanmar

Hilary and I have just spent two blissful weeks of the second half of October in Myanmar and we are still dreaming about this amazing country. I guess everyone can recall Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic and incredibly brave leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma, but little else. We were no different! Continue reading “You say Burma – I say Myanmar”

Real, or not? Dubai, Chelsea & Aalsmeer

Some things you see when you’re travelling are amusing or thought provoking, and it’s nice to have a blog like this to share them. I’m very lucky to lead a garden tour to Europe each year, taking in the Chelsea Flower Show and visiting great and small gardens in different countries. On a loose theme of “Is it real or not?” here are some quirky items from my recent trip.

Continue reading “Real, or not? Dubai, Chelsea & Aalsmeer”

Basils – sacred and fragrant

Over the weekend I purchased a Tulasi plant (Ocimum tenuifolium, prev Ocimum sanctum) known as sacred, or holy basil. The plant is renowned as the most sacred of Indian plants, having great medicinal properties as well as being highly auspicious to have in the garden. Continue reading “Basils – sacred and fragrant”

An Indian Adventure

I’ve been asked to write about our experiences (plus some plant info!) on our recent trip to India. Our third visit to India (it won’t be the last) and each time somewhere different – it was to Assam first for just over a week and then down south to Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Continue reading “An Indian Adventure”