In the land-locked Bhutan, known to be the last Shangri-La in the world, lies Phobjikha Valley. Phobjikha Valley, a 4-hour drive away from Punakha, is an expansive glacial valley. After several days of visiting countless untouched monasteries at Thimphu and Punakha, I didn’t know what to expect from an unassuming place in the middle of the Black Mountain region.
Though a detour for most Bhutan tours, Phobjikha Valley is worth the long journey off the main highway. Upon arrival, my family and I had a full-course meal at a local homestay. We conversed with the Bhutanese hosts and ate on pillows on the straw floor. Our lunch was a typical Bhutanese meal complete with butter tea, red rice, chili with cheese, and dried beef. Unlike any other cuisines I had tried, Bhutanese food is unique; it draws influences from its neighboring countries: India, China, and Nepal. In Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom in the world, people rely heavily on dairy products (such as butter, milk, and cheese) because they don’t kill animals; all the meat is imported from India. Initially, it was strange to find butter in my tea and cheese in my vegetables. Nonetheless, as a self-proclaimed foodie, I enjoyed the gastronomic experience.
After our meal, we began the Gangtey Nature Trail, a relatively easy 2-hour hike compared to the famous Paro Taktsang (also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery) hike. Although nothing can truly beat the majesty of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (since it is, after all, a monastery that literally hangs off a cliff), the Gangtey Nature Trail is a completely different kind of beautiful. We started at a small hilltop overlooking Gangtey Goemba, a Buddhist Monastery in Phobjikha Valley, and then proceeded to head downhill through flower meadows. Going downhill was tricky since the rain made the trail quite muddy—in retrospect, it’s probably best not to travel to Bhutan during the rainy season, as it makes hiking and even driving on the highway dangerous. Despite the slippery slopes the flower meadows were tranquil. We even wandered through a quaint village, Semchubara. It was picturesque; many Bhutanese farmers were harvesting rice in the fields. From there, we walked through a dense forest, where the fresh air smelled like pine. It was the most serene part of the hike.
After being surrounded by tall towering pine trees, we walked into the open valley, made of marshy land and grassy pastures where farm animals graze. The Phobjikha Valley was akin to the green, vast meadows from the “The Hills Are Alive” scene in the Sound of Music. This valley is most known for the globally threatened black-necked cranes from Tibet that visit during the winter season; the valley is rich in faunal biodiversity and is the home of 13 other globally threatened species. Although I didn’t get the opportunity to see the black-necked cranes myself, the vast meadows were truly breathtaking on their own, making a return visit during the winter a must for me.
Having been raised in the Philippines, an archipelago, all my life, with pristine beaches just a couple hours away from home, I thought I had seen all manifestations of untouched natural beauty. However, after travelling to Bhutan—a country my parents didn’t even know existed—I realized I was wrong. With little to no expectations, I had no idea how much scenic splendor our world could have. Walking through the pines, marshy land, and grassy pastures, I had never felt so moved and elevated by my surroundings.