Photo by Haley Douglass
Photo by Haley Douglass

Exploring the Kingdom in the Clouds

Haley Douglass, a staff member at National Geographic Expeditions, explored the last remaining Buddhist kingdom of the Himalaya on our our Wonders of Bhutan trip. From chili cheese to waterfall-powered prayer wheels to a spontaneous karaoke night with a twist, find out what she loved best about her travels in Bhutan.

What was your favorite activity on this trip?

Each day of the trip felt like a new highlight, but the ultimate was our hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery—the most famous pilgrimage site in Bhutan. We left our hotel at 6:00 a.m. in order to be the first group on the trails. The sun crested the mountain and the early morning mist dissipated just as we got our first view of the monastery. It felt magical. After about three hours of hiking uphill (with a tea and coffee break along the way), we were the first guests to arrive at the monastery. While visiting the first temple within the complex, we heard the trumpet of horns and followed the sound into a second temple, where a group of monks began prayers. Our group sat in silence for about 20 minutes listening to the drums, horns, and voices brought together in prayer. That rhythm and cadence followed us as we descended the mountain and will remain with me as an everlasting memory of Bhutan.

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Describe your most memorable moment.

While staying in Punakha, one of the travelers in our group noticed a sign for karaoke near our hotel. After dinner one evening, a bunch of us prepared our singing voices and headed over. We were a diverse group from multiple countries, ranging in age from mid-20s to 70s, and we were the only non-locals at the karaoke venue. The music books on hand offered Bhutanese, Indian, and “Western” songs. No artists were listed with the titles, and we had fun trying to guess which songs would actually play. “Macarena” ended up being a slow ballad from the 1940s! It was a great evening with new friends.

What dish should everyone try when visiting Bhutan and where is a good place to find it?

Chili cheese! You don’t have to look hard to find it, as chili cheese is served at every traditional Bhutanese meal. Bhutan grows a lot of chilies, and you’ll see locals drying fresh chilies on the roofs of their homes. I enjoyed chili cheese with potatoes, another traditional dish served at most meals. You can even try chili cheese-flavored Happy Chips, a Bhutanese potato chip brand.

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What is special about Bhutan?

Our guide told us that the Bhutanese believe the mountains have spirits. In fact, that’s the reason no one is allowed to climb the summit of the tallest mountain in Bhutan. I felt a special mystique as we traveled along narrow roads through the Himalaya. While driving around a curve in the mountains we would suddenly come across a prayer wheel turning with help from a nearby waterfall. Around a different curve, we would find tiny painted stupas placed in the crevasses of large rocks. At various elevations, we were either above the clouds or inside of them. Bhutan left me with a sense of wonder and awe.

What’s a hidden gem you stumbled upon while traveling?

Every single prayer wheel felt like a hidden gem, even though they were ubiquitous throughout our journey. Each one was beautiful and unique. We saw prayer wheels while driving through the countryside, while hiking through rice paddy fields, and while exploring new cities. My favorite ones were found alongside streams or waterfalls, with the flowing water turning the wheel and a bell clanging with each rotation.