My horse was stuck chest-deep in mud. It had been raining all night and into the morning. We were 3,300m up in the Himalayas, with four hours left of daylight; barely enough time to reach our destination.
There are no roads to Laya Village, the highest settlement in the kingdom of Bhutan, and one of the most remote villages beginning at 3,800m above sea level. The path to Laya is made of steep piles of rocks, and muddied paths worn over time by the footfall of the Layap people and donkeys as they traverse to and fro from the main cities to trade. Besides helicopter, no vehicle can access the settlement.
This is the Bhutan you haven’t seen and it’s where we were headed.
Mountain gods, it’s the nickname given to the Layap Bhutanese, who travel with ease from as far as Paro through mountain passes and towering rocky climbs up to remote villages, where nomadic yak herders and cordycep harvesters live. Even so, this is also home to the tallest unclimbed mountains in the world—the Bhutanese respect the mountains and they are to remain unclimbed. Despite warnings, a group of Japanese tourists attempted to ascend the snow-capped mountains, and met a dark fate after torrential rain and mud slides; a testament to the Bhutanese superstitions.
I’m here in the kingdom with Blue Sky Escapes, a boutique travel company that specialises in immersive personal journeys which allow travellers to access the inaccessible. “It’s the sole remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, which is carbon negative and with a population smaller than the Maldives—what’s there not to like?” explains founder and CEO of Blue Sky Escapes, Krystal Tan. Together with her partner and co- director Chervin Chow, Martin Yeoh (our videographer) and I followed them on a recce trip to discover much more than we bargained for.
Only five aircraft fly internationally from Bhutan, with even fewer pilots who are permitted to land in what was the most stunning landing I had experienced to date. Weaving through mountain landscapes and sharp turns that brought me close to experiencing an atmospheric barrel roll, it’s simultaneously an impressive and terrifying commercial flight.
And here is where I found myself with my horse stuck in mud. Our predicament was preceded by what we thought was the worst of it; chased by a swarm of angry bees whose hive had been disturbed. The horses were generously loaned to us by the governor of Gasa.
We were scouting an alternate route to Laya Village. The most traversed route to the village prior to our journey was via the infamous 24-day Snowman Trek—by traversed, I mean less than 100 tourists every year embark on the trail. The Snowman Trek is one of the most beautiful and difficult treks in the world, due to altitude, distance and duration in the Himalayas.
However, we were looking for a different route that should have taken two days. We began via vehicle on winding roads from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha and finally Gasa. The road ended there and we switched to the Bhutanese way: by foot.
We passed construction works on the earlier parts of the trek, indicating the amount of change happening in Gasa in order to make the mountains more accessible for new initiatives to preserve the Bhutanese traditions, such as the Laya Run and Highlands Festival. Tourism is now the second largest economic contributor in the landlocked kingdom that imposes a USD250 minimum daily spend on tourists (for peak months). Bordered by Tibet and India, with an arc of Himalayan mountains reaching altitudes of over 7,000m, Bhutan was formerly quite isolated and only opened its doors to tourism in 1974. As a gift from the previous king, Internet and television was introduced to the country only in 2000.
Gasa was one of the poorest districts prior to 2004, but now stands as the wealthiest per capita, thanks to the harvesting of the highly valued Himalayan cordyceps, an herb used in Chinese medicine. With that wealth comes change, along with the introduction of electricity to Laya two years ago. Customs unique to the village, such as conical bamboo hat weaving, yak herding and tent making, are disappearing, but with these new initiatives such as the annual Highlands Festival, the royal family is seeking to preserve tradition.
Wary about the over-reliance on cordycep harvesting, which is scarce and seasonal, the governor of Gasa is developing other enterprises to develop the district, such as organic farms. Gasa is one of the first in Bhutan to encourage pesticide-free farming.
Back in the mud, after pushing and exclamations by one of our guides, my horse finally found the motivation to help himself climb out of the recently formed mud pool. We hadn’t anticipated days of rain, which had led to slippery, precarious trails. The start of our journey had been delayed as we were hoping for the rain to stop and the mud to dry. “Even with regular Blue Sky journeys, the experiences are almost always unpredictable. There could be situations when a car gets stuck at a river crossing—like in Mongolia, for example. When you’re dealing with less-touristed destinations, you could find yourself caught in a really remote place where it’s starts to hail or snow, or the ground gets slushy from rain. There’s always some degree of uncertainty—like when we got attacked by a swarm of bees en route to Laya—and that’s not something we can control,” reasons Tan. “That’s the whole point of undertaking such a journey— you’re giving yourself to the wild and interacting with your environment.”
Seeing firsthand the kind of dedication Tan and Chow put behind curating each experience is impressive. I was struggling to get one foot in front of the other later in our climb. Yet, without so much as losing her breath as we ascended higher into the mountains, Tan always had an eye out for minute details, and directed our troupe of guides and helpers on how to make the Blue Sky experience more comfortable for clients.
While our shoes were caked in mud, we’d still end each day at a campsite with a full dining tent, and enormous sleeping tents where we were able to stand up fully and which came with bed frames and thermal blankets. Thick rugs were rolled out over the ground in our tents and hot water bottles were provided in the evenings before we slept, to ensure not a single toe got too cold in the chilly dampness of the mountains.
Bespoke travel companies are on the rise, especially with the digital age of information overload. “There’s a trend of people who are sick of cities and want to get away and go deeper to get the local experience. The idea of novelty has become a priority for the modern traveller now,” Tan observes. She points out how Iceland is a prime example of how social media has inspired people to venture out and explore, with tourism in the small country expanding exponentially in the last five years as a direct result.
“Holidays are no longer about finding an upscale resort, spending the day by the pool with cocktails; people are now searching for new experiences and want to be cured of boredom. They want to be challenged and come back with a story to tell.” Experience has become the new luxury.
As Tan and Chow cover remote destinations that are less travelled, they understand that the level of business orientation on the ground is not as sophisticated as we’re used to in Singapore. “You need to be madly obsessed with the details and always on your toes, especially since you’re designing somebody’s once-in-a- lifetime journey.”
Once-in-a-lifetime journeys are what people are seeking, if her company is any testament to that. She was still juggling her full-time career as a corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer, and while working on the company part-time, Blue Sky Escapes broke even in 20 months. It was then that Tan decided to take the plunge into dedicating all of her time to help her clients reach extraordinary far-flung destinations. “We want you to go on a journey of self-discovery and come back with a story to tell, and a different outlook on life.”
Far-flung indeed, for just as dusk fell, our trusty steeds reached a small village tucked between the mountains, overlooking the clouds. We had crossed mud slides, rushing rivers, meadows and forest. We had climbed treacherous rocky inclines to find this quiet settlement.
As we slipped off our horses and stretched out our arms, we looked out over the pillows of clouds and pockets of blue sky. Where we stood, there was nothing between mountaintop and the universe. We had escaped to the top of the world.
To book your once-in-a-lifetime journey, go to Blue Sky Escape’s website.