Floating over Bhutan, in a hot-air balloon

Bhutan's monasteries, such as this one on the left, have not been overrun by mass tourism. The 400-year-old multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery (above) stands on a ridge. Balloon pilot Cary Crawley (above, centre) with Mr Brett Melzer and his wife
Monks pulling a hot air balloon (above).PHOTO: KEN SPENCE
Bhutan's monasteries, such as this one on the left, have not been overrun by mass tourism. The 400-year-old multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery (above) stands on a ridge. Balloon pilot Cary Crawley (above, centre) with Mr Brett Melzer and his wife
Balloon pilot Cary Crawley (above, centre) with Mr Brett Melzer and his wife Khin Omar Win, who started the hot-air balloon service in Bhutan. PHOTO: KEN SPENCE
Bhutan's monasteries, such as this one on the left, have not been overrun by mass tourism. The 400-year-old multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery (above) stands on a ridge. Balloon pilot Cary Crawley (above, centre) with Mr Brett Melzer and his wife
The 400-year-old multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery (above) stands on a ridge.PHOTO: KEN SPENCE
Bhutan's monasteries, such as this one on the left, have not been overrun by mass tourism. The 400-year-old multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery (above) stands on a ridge. Balloon pilot Cary Crawley (above, centre) with Mr Brett Melzer and his wife
Bhutan's monasteries, such as this one on the left, have not been overrun by mass tourism. PHOTO: KEN SPENCE

There is a new way to experience the exotic kingdom - in a hot-air balloon

It is dawn in a remote and majestic valley in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

As my daughter Hannah and I wait in a frosty field in the early-morning chill, we are served coffee and tea in china mugs laid out on a linen-covered table.

Finally, just as the sun rises over the snow-flecked mountains to the east, the preparations are completed. Six of us climb somewhat apprehensively into a large wicker basket.

Then, with one last blast of flaming gas into the great red canopy above us, we begin to float upwards.

Our team of young helpers cheer. The inaugural flight of the world's highest commercial hot-air balloon service is under way.

For the next hour, a light breeze propels us gently down the majestic Phobjika valley and, as the sun burns away the mist, we revel in the scenery unfolding all around us.

On both sides, the valley's forested flanks - the lair of leopards, bears and wild boar - rise steeply to the skyline.


    Drukair, Bhutan's national airline, offers direct flights from Singapore (www.drukair.com).

    From US$10,824 (S$15,200) a person, the Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers a 12-day Bhutan Journey itinerary that includes four nights at Gangtey Goenpa Lodge (www.gglbhutan.com), ballooning in the Gangtey Valley, stays at the luxury Uma Paro and Uma Punakha hotels, and a night in the capital, Thimphu.

    Tailor-made arrangements include flights, all meals, guides, private transfers and visas.

    Visits to Bhutan have to be organised by an international travel company working with an official local agency.

To the north, the 400-year-old, multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery stands on a ridge, dominating the valley physically and spiritually.

We drift serenely southwards, following the silver ribbon of the Nakey Chuu river as it snakes through bogs and water meadows.

We float over gold-roofed temples and small white stupas, over clusters of colourful prayer flags and white-washed Bhutanese farmhouses with wonderfully ornate wooden windows, over the rich brown earth of freshly tilled potato fields.

We pass over horses, cows, the odd shaggy yak and a pack of feral dogs that bark furiously at the huge translucent globe high in the sky above them. Knots of early-rising schoolchildren and the odd peasant farmer stand and watch, amazed, the apparition gliding over their heads.

The breeze picks up as the valley narrows, and so does our speed. Our pick-up truck is far behind, jolting along the rutted track that is the valley's only road.

Far below, our helpers are splashing through bogs, laughing and panting as they desperately try to keep up. We progress so smoothly, so silently, that it seems the earth is moving, not us.

Eventually, Mr Cary Crawley, a professional balloon pilot from England, brings us gently down. The basket bumps three times along a grassy meadow and ends up on its side.

Future passengers will be greeted with champagne and taken away on horses, but not us - this being merely the experimental first flight.

Nobody minds. We're all exhilarated - even the two officials from Bhutan's civil aviation department who have come to inspect a form of transport they know nothing about. We climb out, shake hands, high-five and take pictures.

"I told you we'd do it - and we did," Mr Brett Melzer declares triumphantly as he embraces Ms Khin Omar Win, his wife and business partner.

Their elation is entirely understandable, for the flight is the culmination of a decade-long venture that can be described only as quixotic.

Ms Win, who was raised in Britain, met Mr Melzer, the footloose son of an Australian oilman based in Singapore, after she returned to her native Myanmar in 1997 to work for the UN Development Programme.

Together, they pioneered balloon rides over Myanmar's famous Bagan temple complex.

As "Balloons over Bagan" flourished, they branched out, opening a luxury lodge in the jungle of northern Myanmar that was accessible only by air.

In 2009, the regime crony who owned the airline that served Malikha Lodge, forced them to sell it to him by suspending all flights.

Undaunted, the pair resurrected an idea they had shelved while building the lodge - ballooning in Bhutan, another exotic and little-known country that was just opening up to the world.

They employed Mr Crawley to explore the crumpled kingdom of soaring mountains and plunging valleys created when the Indian sub-continent collided with Eurasia.

A balloon could not be launched or retrieved on the rocky plateaus and snowfields of Bhutan's highest peaks, or in its dense southern forests.

Phobjika, at 3,000m, was the only place Mr Crawley found that was sufficiently wide and empty, but there were still problems.

First, it was the winter home of hundreds of "thrung thrung karmo" - endangered black-necked cranes with six-foot wing spans and flamboyant mating dances.

Second, it was on the outer edge of the tourist circuit - a six-hour drive along the twisting, bucking one-lane ribbon of pot-holed tarmac from Bhutan's only international airport that is grandly called the "national highway".

The Melzers promised not to fly the balloon until the cranes leave for the Tibetan plateau each spring. They overcame the second problem by building a beguiling US$4 million (S$5.6 million), 12-suite boutique hotel in this most improbable location.

Gangtey Goenpa Lodge - opened in 2013 - stands on the same ridge as the monastery. It is unsigned, reached by a dirt track and looks from the outside like two farmhouses connected by a low barn.

But inside, its floor-to-ceiling windows and long balcony offer breathtaking views of the sublime, cloud-wreathed valley.

The wood and stone are local, but the wood-burning stoves in each suite come from Switzerland, the fancy bathtubs from England and the fabrics from Australia - all shipped to Calcutta and trucked overland, along with the US$100,000 balloon which was made in Britain.

The 45 staff, who greet every new guest with a song of welcome, are mostly villagers trained from scratch - even the masseurs - and delightfully enthusiastic.

Scandinavian chef Sara Rezgui produces gourmet Western, Asian and Bhutanese dishes, even though - apart from the yak ragout - she has to import fish and meat from India because Bhutan's Buddhists will not kill animals.

The central lounge, with its leather chairs and big log fires, generates a collegial atmosphere among the guests.

And the valley, Hannah and I soon discovered, offers all sort of unexpected delights.

Electricity, television and mobile phones have all reached Phobjika in recent years. Its inhabitants have discovered that potatoes are a lucrative cash crop, so no longer live semi-nomadic lives, and the "national highway" is being upgraded to two lanes, so it is no longer so cut off.

But otherwise, Phobjikha's traditional way of life remains intact.

Hannah and I watched boy monks in wine-red robes hurling foot-long, home-made darts at a distant target in a game called "kuru". We watched villagers compete with astonishing skill at the national sport of archery: dressed in ghos - the traditional Bhutanese knee- length tunics - and using bamboo bows, they regularly hit a small wooden post 140m away, prompting celebratory dances from their team-mates.

We explored the courtyards and temples of the ancient monastery as monks performed religious rituals with horns, drums and a mournful pipe called a "kangling", fashioned from human thigh bones. "We dig them up at night or import them from Nepal," a guide explained when I asked where the bones came from.

Six elite young monks called Tulkus solemnly told us how they had been identified in infancy as reincarnated Buddhist masters.

We visited, but could not enter, a meditation centre ringed by barbed wire, where monks live alone in cells for three years, three months and three days, talking to no one and receiving food through hatches.

One other place we could not enter was a chamber deep inside the monastery containing a mummified "yeti".

Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner gained access in 1991 and certainly saw the desiccated corpse of something.

"Nailed to the wall by the back of its scalp was the hide of a 'red yeti'," he wrote. "I was trembling with excitement. Bones were still attached to the relic's hands and legs, and from its head, which was largely bald, hung a long, black hank of hair."

Legends and superstitions abound in these parts. We were told that the cranes respectfully circle the monastery three times clockwise when they arrive each winter.

Doorways have raised thresholds to prevent the stiff-limbed dead from entering.

Homes are adorned with murals of tigers, snow lions, dragons and serpent-eating garudas, and of giant, erect, sperm-trailing phalluses.

We hiked through fragrant pine forests where rhododendrons were bursting into flower.

We biked to a hilltop at the far end of the 12.8km valley where - to our astonishment - the lodge had prepared a handsome picnic lunch served on a table laid with glass and china.

We watched a village woman shearing a struggling black sheep with hand clippers, met a young shepherdess protecting her flock from leopards and foxes, and ran into a herd of yaks being driven up to their high summer pastures by a young boy.

We spent a night in a peasant family's home - helping them milk cows and churn butter, sharing their simple food and strong rice wine, playing games with their enchanting children as we sat cross-legged around their kitchen stove.

Bhutan was almost completely sealed off from the outside world until the 1970s, but now welcomes tourists.

Foreign visitors quintupled from 23,480 in 2009 to 116,209 in 2013, and luxury new hotels are proliferating.

However, the government wants to avoid the mass tourism that so often destroys the very attractions that it feeds off, so visitors are obliged to spend at least US$250 a day.

So far, its efforts are working.

Bhutan's spectacular dzongs (fortresses) and monasteries are not yet overrun, or ringed by tacky souvenir shops.

Its many festivals and masked dances are still staged primarily for the Bhutanese, and have not morphed into commercial shows for foreigners.

Mountaineering is forbidden because it angers the deities who live on the country's snowy peaks. Buddhism still dominates the country's way of life and its people still seem driven more by their legendary pursuit of happiness than of money.

The Melzers' project accords with those efforts.

The 30m-high balloon is a magnificent sight as it floats serenely down the valley. The occupants of its wicker basket can survey the valley without intruding on it.

Appropriately for a country known as Druk Yul, or The Land of the Thunder Dragon, the huge red globe is emblazoned with golden dragons, while the occasional bursts of flame from its butane cylinders resemble nothing so much as dragons' breaths.

Chogyal Zangpo, a senior monk from the monastery, blessed the balloon before joining its second flight, and again after landing.

"I've had a wonderful experience," he said.

"I'll remember it all my life. I often watch the birds flying above, so now I know what they see."

Martin Fletcher, a former foreign and associate editor of The Times of London, travelled as a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company.

  • This story first appeared in the July 2015 edition of The Life digital magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "Balloon over Bhutan".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Floating over Bhutan'. Print Edition | Subscribe