27.5142° N, 90.4336° E
‘Bhutan feels quiet, veiled in mystery, very tranquil, and just pristine.’
Gems in this
Bhutan isn’t the most straightforward place to visit. Typically, you fly into the smoky haze of Delhi in India, then transfer to a small local airline, which will drop you deep into the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. It’s this unknown that drew Adam Brown, Creative Director and Founder of menswear label Orlebar Brown, to Bhutan.
Almost every year since he started his label (more than 15 years ago), Adam has left the UK to travel to an environment he has never been — to explore a desert, climb a mountain, or hike through a jungle. He’s been trekking in Namibia and hiked the volcanoes in Chile. It’s these trips and the photos he takes that often inspire a full spectrum of colors in the next Orlebar Brown collection. Yet nowhere is more intoxicating than the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, cradled in the Himalayas. But before you arrive, there are visa requirements and applications, and very few guidebooks or websites with information on what to do and where to go. The country is at once one of the world’s most beautiful, and mysterious, places. Adam gives us a glimpse of his own transcendent experience in Bhutan, filled with memories of mystifying mountain landscapes, monasteries built on cliffs, dumplings at roadside, and luxurious jungle stays.
On growing up in Southeast Asia
I was born in Malaysia. My father worked for a marketing consultant business, so he used to travel around doing different projects with different brands and businesses out there. We started off in Malaysia, then we ended up in Hong Kong, and then we moved to Japan.
On being an expat child
It was a different upbringing to the one many of my friends had growing up in the UK. I went to an international school, I made a lot of local friends, and friends from all over the world. It definitely opened up my mind at quite a young age.
On who inspired you to travel and explore
It was my grandmother who essentially brought me up. She lived with us from the age of four. She was one of these people who had really lived — she had left home when she was 20, and ended up in India and Borneo and all around the world. She ended up buying a rice field up in the mountains in India and lived this rather remote, nomadic life. She was a woman of a certain type. She liked adventures and she enjoyed stories. She never stopped encouraging us to go and see the world. I think that was probably a huge influence on me. She lived with us when I was young and every morning I'd go into her room, and she’d tell me a story — something about her life.
On starting out as a photographer
I was one of those people who didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no vocation, natural vocation. I ended up working in the voluntary sector with charities for about eight, nine years. I worked in HIV clinics, prisons, and in children's charities. Then I went back to college, and I studied photography. By this point, I was about 30. And I was terrible. A dreadful photographer. I took photographs, rather than being a photographer who takes beautiful pictures, but I did work. I worked as a jobbing portrait photographer for about six years, and I had various editorial, private and corporate clients, but I was never going to get advertising jobs. There were lots of babies crawling around sitting rooms, rather than big, flashy ad campaigns.
On starting a fashion business by chance
I was in India, staying at a hotel. I was wearing my swim shorts and I went to lunch, and I got asked to go and change. And that was literally it. I sat on a sun lounger by the pool afterwards, just thinking about this. I realized: I don't want a swim short. I want shorts I can swim in. So I threw this idea around and I came up with a concept. I was looking for something. I was 40 by this point and I hadn't found the thing that I was really excited to get up for in the morning. I developed a tailored swim short that was based on the traditional pattern of a man's pair of trousers, and I did a three-day start your own fashion business course. I spent nine months getting a sample together and made 1000 pairs, put them in a storage unit and started hustling to sell them. It wasn’t that I was a fashion designer, I just had an idea for this product, and I made it into a reality. The story of holidays and travel and great places you can go wearing these shorts built up around the product line.
‘For me, one of the joys of travel is being in an environment that has a sensory difference, or challenges my perception of space, environment, altitude, smell and temperature.’
On the places Orlebar Brown has taken you
They tend to be cities or places where we can do work and business. Occasionally we go somewhere really interesting on shoots, but they don't tend to be in the middle of nowhere. More often than not the places I visit tend to be reasonably accessible: places we can move the crew around and stay at. America has been very important, Australia too. The brand tends to be where people holiday — New York, Miami, LA, and Sydney.
On the pull of Bhutan
I got to a certain age where the travel that I was doing, because of my work, tended to be to expected places. When I was younger, I used to go on adventures, and the whole idea was going traveling with your friends or by yourself, and getting lost and having experiences that you wouldn't normally have. Then when I started working, that changed — it became rather more professional, and honestly a little bit repetitive, you know, going to places several times a year, and so having the same sorts of experiences. I reached the point where I wanted to go somewhere that I'd never been before. For me, one of the joys of travel is being in an environment that has a sensory difference, or challenges my perception of space, environment, altitude, smell and temperature. Bhutan is one of those places. The country has only been open to tourists since 1974, so relatively recently. And I believe only a certain number of tourists are allowed in a year. You have to apply for a visa and it’s a bit of a process.
On how you travel in Bhutan
There’s the bare-knuckle adventure backpacking and camping out overnight, or the more comfortable, perhaps touristy way, with a guide, which is what I wanted. I wanted to be looked after, to have a schedule. Aman Hotels have five incredible lodges [Paro, Thimphu, Gangtey, Bumthang and Punakha] and you get a private guide. It's incredibly privileged, fortunate, and luxurious — it’s the ultimate way of doing it. And my hidden secret: the best guide ever is Choney Dorji, find him out on Instagram and direct message. It was the trip of a lifetime for me! But what drew me there was the fact that not many people had done it. It seemed untapped — the hiking trails, like Dodeydrak Hike in Thimphu, provided new experiences in nature I’d never had. I liked that.
On the natural and man-made beauty
The landscape is extremely diverse too. There are green meadows with yaks grazing on them, tall rhododendron trees and colorful flowers. One minute you are surrounded by rice fields, the next you are driving up and up a narrow, winding road to this huge, fabulous monastery, perched on a cliff edge — Tiger’s Nest. It's just insane, and it was built in the 1700s. It’s vast, but is just balancing on this cliff edge. It feels surreal, and you think, ‘Why build up there?’ I also recommend Punakha Fortress in Punakha, Gangtey Monastery, and Jambay and Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang.
‘One minute you are surrounded by rice fields, the next you are driving up and up a narrow, winding road to this huge, fabulous monastery.’
On the Gross National Happiness index
In Bhutan they don’t measure their success through their economy and financial wealth. They measure success by national happiness, which shows what is important to their culture. Sure, people want to make money, but the government measures the country's success by Gross National Happiness (GNH). It’s a measurement that has been adapted to identify four groups of people — unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy.
On remaining unaffected by other cultures
Bhutan shows us that if you don't bring in other influences, you can be very content with who you are, you can be very happy. Of course, there are benefits of being influenced by other cultures, and the joy of meeting different types of people. But there is also something pure in remaining relatively untouched. I remember going to an archery festival, which is their national sport, and all these people were there shooting bows and arrows and eating food on the grass together. It was like stepping back in time, before computers. There weren't huge bright lights and fanfare, just a simple celebration, and everyone was having a lovely time.
On the food
It’s simple, honest and traditional, very influenced by Indian and Chinese cuisines. We were in Bhutan to go hiking and we’d go out for these long 12-hour hikes, and then on the way back we’d stop off and get dumplings at the side of the road. It became a bit of a ritual.
On how Bhutan inspired you creatively
I walked around those landscapes, and I took photographs of rocks, trees, roots, and grass. Within those photographs, I’d get palettes for whole seasons. From the grays in the rocks to the yellow mold to the green mosses growing, to the plants and the browns of the dirt, or maybe there's a dead tree or something. The way they all sat together, it inspired me, the way they just came together in nature, and then they ended up on a shop floor.
‘I walked around those landscapes, and I took photographs of rocks, trees, roots, and grass. Within those photographs, I’d get palettes for whole seasons.’
On a window or an aisle seat
It depends what class I’m flying. If I've managed to bag a business class seat off the business, I couldn't care where I'm sitting, I'm just so delighted to be in business. If I'm in the back, that has to be the aisle.
On Bhutan in one word
From the moment you fly in, you get a sense that things are incredibly basic. The international airport in Paro is small, the roads are few and far between, and it feels like this place has been hidden from tourism and the rest of the world, which it has — I visited 50 years after it opened up to tourists. There's an honesty about it, it's very untouched by any form of influence, really. This culture has been allowed to develop naturally over hundreds of years without modernity and technology. It feels quiet, sort of veiled in mystery, very tranquil, and just pristine.