Soaring On The Wings Of Dragons | Journey to the hidden kingdom of epic MTB trails in Bhutan

Heading to Bhutan feels like stepping into a time machine. It’s a land where men wear mediaeval-looking robes, and every corner whispers stories of majestic dragons, sacred gods, and fearless saints battling demons. It’s like living in a world where magic and miracles are part of everyday life. 

Bhutanese culture thrives on rich traditions and values that prioritise harmony and compassion. Buddhist traditions are deeply ingrained in daily life, and the nation actively promotes peace, kindness, and overall harmony. 

Travelling to the wonder of environmentally and spiritually rich Bhutan is a unique experience.
Bhutan is the world’s first carbon-negative country, largely due to its vast forests that cover 70% of the land.

Bhutan takes tourism seriously, but in the best way possible. They believe in high-value, low-impact tourism, meaning they want travellers to enjoy their beautiful land while leaving behind the faintest footprint. So, it’s our job to be mindful of how we explore and do our bit to protect Mother Nature.

Bhutan is also uniquely suited to our sport. Believe it or not, the King of Bhutan himself is a mountain biker. In fact, he’s the only person in the country cruising around on an e-MTB.

After some epic biking adventures in Eastern Tibet and Nepal, Bhutan shot to the top of my must-visit list. So when the chance to roll with a group organised by H+I Adventures popped up, I jumped at it faster than you can say, “adventure time!”

It was possibly the best snap decision I’ve ever made. To join a group of six Irish mountain bikers, together in the spiritual wonderland of Bhutan — it felt like fate had cooked up this trip just for me. I was so excited that they agreed to have me on board.

Now, here’s where the nerves kick in. With only a month to prep for some serious high-altitude riding and trails rated as “advanced” (diversity in downhill trails, tough climbs, long distances, and steep hike-a-bike sections), my excitement quickly turned to jitters.

Arriving at Paro, Bhutan’s main airport tucked between mountains, is like entering a different world. Only a few pilots are trained to land here.

With its stunning architecture, the airport is easily the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The team’s warm welcome with traditional scarves adds an extra touch of charm to the whole experience.

After our sleepy drive to Thimphu, the capital city, our crew gathers at the hotel. Here, we are greeted with Bhutanese beers and our mountain bike guides. We spend time getting to know each other and hearing about the plans for the days ahead. Although exhausted from our travels, we’re pumped to get our bikes ready for the adventure ahead.


Do a wheelie!

Meet Pelden Dorji, our mountain biking guide and one of the kindest souls.

Not only he is a skilled mountain bike guide, he has been crafting journeys through Bhutan that blend immersive cultural experiences with adventure since 2008. His genuine love for his country shines through in every pedal stroke as he effortlessly shares his wealth of knowledge about Bhutan’s culture and landscapes.

With Pelden by our side, we’re not just on a bike tour, we’re on an unforgettable adventure with a friend who makes every moment fun and every detail perfectly organised. Travelling with him is an absolute pleasure from start to finish!

The Zen Crew Assemble: Dave, Eilis, Rob, Brian, Pelden, Gav, Mark, Kristina, ST.

Hitting the Thimphu trails full throttle!

Day one kicks off with some elevation acclimatisation: riding or hike-a-bike at 2,500-3,000m. Excited is an understatement. No one knows what’s in store, but we’re shredding like there’s no tomorrow.

That first day was quite a romp as we all pedalled out the spider webs — for more reason than one. Following Mark down the hill? Well, let’s just say it’s an adventure in itself. Though his wild moves sometimes end in spectacular crashes, he always bounces back with just a few scratches and a grin.

Most of the trails aren’t exactly made for mountain biking; they’re more like hiking paths. And this time of year, when they’re dry and carpeted with leaves, bikes can get wild. And so can we!

After seeing Mark get a bit loose, I thought it’d be safer to follow Dave — until I watched him somersault over the bars and off-camber into a bush. As I rushed over, worried sick, guess who’s right there beside him, brushing himself off too? Yep, Mark.

Temple, flags, sun, Eilis and Dave. This is Bhutan.

Day one is always a survival test, whether we’re tasting dirt or gasping for air on those high-altitude climbs. Back home, my rides are a breezy two hours, with no backpack full of snacks and camera gear. Today’s ride was meant to be an easy intro, but I’m realising I definitely didn’t train enough.

But despite the challenges, the adrenaline is pumping now! Hitting some of the enduro trails in bone-dry conditions feels like second nature to me. It’s like being back in Tassie during the summer, and all thoughts of exhaustion melt away, replaced by sheer excitement for what lies ahead.

Soak up the views. And get your muscles working, we’ll be doing this a lot!
Despite discovering that Bhutanese bushes bite back, Mad Mark was all smiles.
The first day was a survival test, and Rob hit the ground pretty hard.
Pelden making sure we stay hydrated post-rides.

Pelden’s got his top rider, ST, joining us for this trip. ST is a beast on the trails, a skilled mechanic, and someone who lives and breathes mountain biking. Not only is he powering up those hills like it’s nothing, but he’s also the kindest, most down-to-earth guy you’ll meet.

As I gasp for air on the high-altitude climbs, burdened by my heavy backpack, ST offers to give me a push. If you’ve ever experienced being pushed from behind by someone on an e-bike, you’ll understand the feeling. Yet, ST had no e-bike. Just pure strength and generosity.

Later, on one of the most challenging days with the longest climbs, ST took on the extra weight of my backpack and gave a push to Mark, who then pushed me along. What is this kid made of?

ST is the humblest powerhouse. He will carry you, two bikes and ten backpacks if you need.

Our hotel is in downtown Thimphu, making it easy to check out the scene as we walk to dinner. It’s the main spot in the country for dining and nightlife, with all kinds of food—even some international options if you can’t handle the spicy stuff!

Chilli in Bhutan is not considered an ingredient or a spice. It’s the national flavour! So, you’d better get your guts ready. We’ve been having a great time exploring the city, getting to know the culture, learning about the country’s values and traditions.

National memorial stupa in Thimphu with a gathering crowd of locals.

We also have our first encounter with Bhutan’s national sport — archery!

The Bhutanese’s enthusiasm for this sport is infectious, and it’s no wonder they consider archery the jewel in their cultural crown. Watching an arrow zip through the air and hit a target 100m away is an experience like no other. When the opposing team dodges out of the arrow’s path, we can’t help but wonder how many close calls they’ve had. If a shot misses its target, the opposing team erupts into a lively dance and chant.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of it all.

It might seem like an accident waiting to happen, but these guys throwing up distractions in front of the opposing team’s target know what they’re doing.
Traditional Bhutanese dance in traditional clothing. (Kira and Gho)
In Bhutan, there are no streetlights. A few years ago, a set was installed, but locals found it impersonal, so the dancing traffic police were re-instated.

Heading to Punakha district

The next day, we started our journey from the capital to the Punakha district, located in the western part of Bhutan. Known for its beautiful scenery and rich history, the district is full of lush valleys and terraced fields that highlight Bhutan’s cultural heritage and stunning landscapes.

Here we spend the next few days riding and exploring.

Traffic jam in Punakha.

Bhutan has some wild tales in its folklore, but none quite like the legend of Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman or the Mad Saint.

He’s known for his Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom and is even hailed as a fertility guru. His temple, Chimi Lhakhang, is nestled in the Punakha district. The surrounding villages are famous for their buildings proudly decorated with large phallus paintings.

I only discovered this story later, so when I first saw this artwork covering an entire house, it completely blew my mind. Can you imagine painting your house with such a ‘unique’ decoration?

Locals proudly decorate their houses with phallus paintings for good luck and to drive away evil spirits.
Being blessed in the valley of the Divine Madman.

Today, we’re hitting the Madman Trail, named after the legend himself.

Starting at 3000m above sea level, we’ve got a bit of a hike-a-bike ahead of us, climbing up to 3,500m.

It’s amazing how the altitude affects us. Even a seemingly gentle incline that we’d usually breeze through has us puffing as we push our bikes up. But at least we’re surrounded by the beautiful forest, which makes the struggle a bit more bearable.

Oh, and guess what? Mark has pulled off another one of his epic crashes, this time on an uphill! He ended up in a tangle with Eilis’ bike and landed headfirst on a rock. Thankfully, the helmet gods keep his melon safe.

Pelden’s claiming this trail is his favourite, but I’m starting to catch on that he says that about every trail we hit! I can’t blame him, though — they’re all incredible. So raw and unexpected, just choose your own adventure as you slide down the hills.

Eilis, beware the flags!
Taking a much-needed break to catch our breath, we are well above the top of Mount Kosciuszko at this stage, and there is still further to climb. These forests are alive with magic.
Frothing all the way!! Yeeeesssss!!

The Madman trail is magical. So remote and wild, surrounded by blooming rhododendrons.

The singletrack is buried under fallen leaves, but that doesn’t faze those mad Irish as they fly through. I just follow, eyes shut, yelling with joy as we take on whatever comes our way.

There’s no feeling quite like reaching the bottom, everyone grinning from ear to ear, knowing that we survived another wild ride. And believe it or not, that’s just the warm-up for the morning. After filling our bellies with a picnic lunch, we’re off to tackle the next adventure.

How does that taste, Dave?
Bhutanese are very creative and practical. What a way to catch some shade on a hot day.
Yeeeeeww!! ST charging again!
Mark got to the Pelden’s first aid kit pretty well throughout the trip. But he took it all in stride and still had a blast on the bike.
What’s up, Gav? Another epic day of biking? How about another Druk Lager?
Not just us, but even our bikes are looked after every day!
So they are fresh and ready for another adventure. Thanks guys!
Every Bhutanese house has an altar room. It’s often the most decorated room in the house.

After another day of thrilling rides in Punakha District, we left our bikes behind to explore the sights, visiting a temple, and even rafting down the valley for a new perspective on this breathtaking scenery.

The main site of this region we visited is Punakha Dzong, meaning ‘The palace of great happiness’. An ancient fortress-monastery built in the 17h century with the idea of preserving Buddhist values. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in all of Bhutan. It’s also the second largest and second oldest dzong in the country. Serving as the winter capital of Bhutan until the 1950s, it remains a sacred site and administrative centre, embodying the country’s immense cultural and religious heritage.

Paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle! Hold on tight!
The majestic Punakha Dzong (fortress) is located between two main rivers Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which means male and female.
Some more creative hats!

We were blown away by the generosity and warmth of the Bhutanese people. No matter where you go, they treat you like family and feed you like royalty. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten this much before, but I just can’t say no to trying everything on the table.

The food is bursting with flavour. Some of the dishes are spicier than I can handle, so I had to be mindful of the chilli situation here. Especially when they say: ‘It’s not too spicy!’

Please, eat. After serving our food, the owner of this family restaurant joined us for dinner. What an honour!
Hmmmm more butter tea, please.
Distilled wheat alcohol cooked in egg. Anyone?
Or perhaps Tongba? A traditional warm millet beer, served in a wooden container.
Brian showing the boys how to wear gho, the traditional robe. Can’t take them anywhere!
Gav finally doing that wheelie, crossing the bridge of prayer flags in style.

For the next couple of epic days, we explore the Punakha District. There were more mountains that left our lungs in tatters, but also big descents with formidable exposure and rock gardens.

We ride through lush forests, dodge jumping monkeys, and indulge again in delicious local foods. All while staying in beautiful homesteads and lodges nestled among the mountains.

Riding through the valleys, farms, and tiny villages feels like stepping into a dream from another time. I can only take it all in with my eyes, and there is no time to stop to capture it all on a big day of riding.
This pretty well sums up the feeling when you finally reach the highest point of the day.
A gang of monkeys jumped across the trail and vanished faster than we could scream: Banana!
Simply breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude.
Subba taking care of our bikes all the way.
Gav entertaining some of the locals.

And now off we go, back to Paro for another round of riding and exploring. The drive back serves as a well-deserved break for our legs, allowing us to soak in the scenic views.

Sadly, the entire country is facing bushfires, shrouding the Himalayan peaks in a blanket of haze. The scenery is still incredible and we’re enjoying every moment of this adventure. 

The smell of the bushfires is heavy in the air.
UD, our exceptional driver, was so smooth on those crazy roads. We’ve been very well looked after.
Want some chugo? This is a traditional dry hard cheese. Let’s see how long it takes you to chew through it without breaking your teeth!
A traditional hot stone bath is a must when visiting Bhutan.
Now that is some jug of beer! We’ll need two of those please. A stop at a brewery in Paro is a must after all the riding.
Boom! More riding ahead!

Hitting singletracks in Paro and reaching the highest point!

In our final days of riding, the fatigue — and altitude — are beginning to set in. But our confidence is soaring high, as we shred the trails once again.

Our journey reaches its peak at 4,000m before we embark on a thrilling 2,000m descent, stopping at the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery. Built in the late 17th century, the monastery sits precariously on a cliff edge 3,000m above the Paro Valley.

Yeeeww! Gav using the thin air well above 3,000m to his advantage.
Brian pulling off some acrobatics.
The unstoppable Rob bombing into the forest.

When visiting temples and monasteries, it’s customary to wear long sleeves and cover your legs, but we’re caught off guard by a new rule prohibiting shorts — even though our legs are covered with knee pads and long socks!

As we awkwardly tuck our shorts into our knee pads and remove our shoes to enter, I can’t help but chuckle.

Between the altitude, exhaustion, and a pesky stomach bug, it’s hard to keep a straight face when we look like a bunch of circus performers.

The impossibly majestic Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
We get to ride all sorts of trails, even a temple. Dave and ST testing out their suspension.
The impenetrable jungle.
Is anybody home?

Spirits are high, though we’re more focused on finding our Zen through the descent.

Battling high altitude headaches we roll down steep hiking trails, dodging rocks, boulders, awestruck tourists and locals. 

We’re just soaking in the sheer thrill of it all. And when we finally reach the bottom, it’s time for celebration—beers, cheers, and laughter all around! What a wild end to our epic adventure!

Cheers big ears! It has been an incredible trip with this crew.

Gathered for our final dinner, everyone’s faces show a mix of bliss and exhaustion.

When the next day arrives, it’s time to bid farewell to my riding companions and new pals who are leaving me behind.

I’ve chosen to extend my stay for a few more days. It gives me a chance to fully immerse myself in this beautiful country and take some time to relax after all the heart-pounding excitement.

Megatower-yay!! The steed that got me through.
You ever get the feeling that someone is watching you?
Young shredders joining us for a pedal in Thimphu.
Blessed by flags and no backpack! That just brings smiles for miles! Thanks Pel!
Another traditional sport, Khuru (darts), is as popular as archery in Bhutan. Nuts.
You can hear them chanting from miles away!
Pooches of Bhutan. The locals cherish and care for their street dogs. It’s impossible to resist giving them a pat. Just look at the face!

The country and its people are so beautiful. So picturesque and colourful. I’ll miss the incredible architecture, decorated with hand-paintings. I had a real struggle on my hands trying to resist triggering my camera around every corner. 

What amazes me is the genuine contentment of the Bhutanese people with the little they have, their circumstances, and their lack of desire to travel or explore extensively. Despite being surrounded by majestic mountains, they don’t feel the need to conquer them; instead, they view them as sacred to the spirits. 

This makes me ponder: what drives us Westerners to relentlessly explore and conquer mountain peaks?

While there’s a gradual shift as they integrate more aspects of the Western world into their everyday lives, I feel that it’s us who have much more to learn from them.

Sunset in Thimphu.
Environmentally friendly scaffolding.
The valley of Paro shrouded in clouds.
Did she just feast on raw meat? Ohh no, just an old tradition of chewing on doma (betel nut). Phew.

Travelling to countries like Bhutan always opens my eyes, humbles me, and shifts my perspective. One of the reasons I came here was to feel the spirituality and contentment. To find stillness. 

But somehow, the thrill of riding wild trails with incredible and fun people took over. It dawned on me that what I sought, I found in an unexpected way. Through the adrenaline of mountain biking, I entered what’s known as the Buddha state: living in the moment, day by day, free from thoughts of the outside world or work back home. 

There’s a good reason why this is called the ‘Spiritual MTB Adventure’. Despite the premium price tag that may cause your wallet to protest, you truly get what you pay for and even more. You can leave all your worries behind and simply go with the flow, knowing you’ll be taken care of from start to finish.

H+I Adventures, along with their incredible guides, will give you the journey of a lifetime, one that will linger in your memories for years to come.

Tashi Delek!

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