(This piece was written for an online magazine)
Legend says that a famous Tibetan saint heard a loud thunder when he was building a monastery and the thunder sounded like the voice of a dragon preaching the Buddhist teachings. He named the monastery Druk and started a religious sect called ‘Drukpa Kagyugpa”. This religion became the state religion and the country was named Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The name Bhutan was given by the British. It is derived from the ancient word “Bhotania”, which meant “end of the land of the Bhots” (Tibet).
To the locals this place is and will always be Druk Yul. It is the land of abundance, beauty and extremely happy people. Bhutan claims to be the happiest country in the world and the reason behind this is the Gross National Happiness, a phrase coined by the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. My parents and I decided to visit Bhutan and confirm firsthand what we had heard.
If you are an Indian travelling to Bhutan all you need is a passport and a love for the mountains. Indian nationals don’t need a visa to enter the country. We don’t need to pay the Royalty fee either, which is 250$ per person per night. The easiest way to get to Bhutan is by air. Druk Air, the national airlines of Bhutan, flies regularly from the international airports at Kolkata and Delhi to Paro. The aircraft is an ATR 42- 500, smaller than the usual airbus and the journey takes 1 hour 15 minutes.
Bhutan begins to surprise you the minute you land. The landing strip (yes! there is just one) is in between two mountains with a river, the Paro Chhu, flowing next to it. Paro gets its name from this river. It is considered to be one of the World’s most challenging airports to land in and my mother sure was holding on to her seat till the plane touched the tarmac. The airport is small and for the first time in many years I got off the plane and walked straight into immigration. No aero bridges or buses carting me around. My first whiff of Bhutanese architecture started at the airport. The building is multicoloured with wooden panels, small arches and paintings, with a sloped roof that is green in colour. There is a rule that all houses in Bhutan should follow the same style and if a person wants to build something else they need a permit to do so.
The best way to see a place is by road. Our first journey was from the airport to Thimphu, the capital city. Bhim, a small man with a large smile (their claims were coming true) was our driver for the trip. You can also book a taxi only till Thimphu for 700INR or 700 Ngultrums, the currency of Bhutan. The drive takes an hour and a half counting the few stops in between and is breathtakingly beautiful, with the river on one side
and lush green mountains on the other. We stopped at two places en route. First up the Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge, it is a suspension bridge that is made entirely out of iron chains, over the Paro Chhu. It was built by Thangtong Gyalpo in the 13th century. As spooky as it may seem in the beginning, conquer your fears and walk across. This is one stop you will never forget. Our second stop was at the Chuzom meaning “The confluence”. This is where the Paro Chhu and Wang Chhu (the river that flows from Thimphu) meet. The sounds of the current drown everything else out. There is a toll gate at this point and you will keep wishing the queue took longer. The rest of the drive is serene. You see mountains and more mountains along the way, peach trees growing everywhere and beautifully built houses that look the same but are still so different.
|The Tachogang Lhakang suspension bridge!!! We crossed it|
Thimphu is the most modern of all the cities in Bhutan. The main market is a long road at the city center and most hotels are located around the area. We stayed a little away from the market at Upper Motithang, because we wanted a view of the valley. Our hotel, Peaceful Resort, was a fairly priced 4 star hotel (2500INR-3500INR/ per night) with a fantastic view of the valley and a very lazy dog named Bruno. The rooms are minimally decorated with big beds and connected balconies, ensuring you start a conversation with fellow visitors.
|Hi Brunooo :)|
All shops in the market accept the Indian Rupee so don’t worry about exchanging currency after you reach. We reached during lunch and made our way to a restaurant called Tandin. The entire place is wood paneled and overlooks the Wang Chhu. The Bhutanese cuisine has a lot of options for both vegetarians and non vegetarians. Indian food is easily available but being as adventurous as possible we decided to eat some local food and were pleasantly surprised. The happiest country loves chillies and everything from their curries to salads has them in it. My favourite dish is the Kewa Datshi, a simple looking dish with potatoes, cheese and chilli that is eaten with hot rice. It is delicious and so addictive that this was all we had throughout our trip. There are different variants of it made with mushroom and chicken as well.
|Kewa Datshi (With potatoes) Emma Datshi (Mushrooms) Hoegaay Salad ( chillies, capsicum and more chillies) and Rice.... A typical Bhutanese lunch.... Absolutely delicious :D|
The market has hundreds of shops that sell local handicrafts. The Thimphu handicrafts emporium is a great shop that has some lovely masks at decent prices and you can bargain too! When in Bhutan, a mask, the local dress (Gho and Kira) and a prayer wheel are must buys. If you are in the capital on the weekend don’t forget to check out the Weekend Market at Norzim Lam. People from all over Bhutan come here with their wares. It is a treat to the eyes and the ears too, because the shops are kept right along the river. The treats don’t stop here. Thimphu’s places of attraction are one of a kind. Most tourists opt to take taxis on a day tour and see the entire city. They charge 1000Ngultrums per day, 1500 if you want a guide. Our guide’s name was also Bhim.
|The weekend market... I could shop here forever :)|
Places to visit in Thimphu: National Institute of Zorig Chusum (Thirteen Arts): It is an arts school that provides instruction in the traditional 13 arts of Bhutan. The main subjects are painting, sculpting, embroidery and wood carving. There are courses that take 6 years to complete. It is a treat to the eyes and the soul as you watch hundreds of students carry on generations of artistic tradition forward and doing it happily. The Zorig Chusum gift shop sells all that the students make and a part of the earnings goes to the individual student.
|A student working on his Buddha drawing at the Zorig Chusum|
The National Library of Bhutan: The national library isn’t too far away from the art school. This place has such an old world charm, it has huge windows, teak wood shelves and a lovely painting of the Buddha when you enter. Walk in to see the world’s largest book called Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan, on display.
The Trashi Chhoe Dzong: The Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the main attraction of Thimphu. Dzong means fortress though nowadays it houses both civic offices and monastic bodies. The King and his cabinet of Ministers work here and so do the head Monks. This Dzong is open to the public only after office hours (5pm – 6pm) on weekdays and (8am-6pm) on Sundays. The central courtyard (Dochey) is of magnificent proportions and accommodates the locals of Thimphu during the Tsechu Festival. Tsechu meaning “day ten” is celebrated on the tenth day of the Tibetan Lunar Calendar. Similar to the houses all over Bhutan it has wooden panels on the windows, small arches and beautiful paintings of Bhutan’s history all over the walls. You can spend an entire day here and will still not be able to do this Dzong full justice.
Motithang Takin Preserve: There are many things specific to Bhutan, like the Takin. If you haven’t seen a Takin in Bhutan, you will never see one again. This animal is an odd mix of a goat and a bison. Try getting to the preserve early morning and you might just be able to feed one.
|Weird looking Takin|
|At Dochula, Chortens for all the saints|
Once we had taken in all that Thimphu had to offer we made our way to Paro. There are buses from Thimphu to Paro every half hour and the ticket would cost 50-100Ngultrums depending on the bus. You have share taxis that are more common and they charge 300Ngultrums per trip. We met the Chuzom again and sat on the banks of the Paro Chhu as we saw a plane land. Unlike Thimphu, Paro is a very relaxed town, where afternoon siestas seem longer than usual. The market place is much smaller than in Thimpu but the handicrafts and the prices are almost the same. Most visitors go to Paro to see two things, the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) and the Paro Dzong. Most hotels will offer a bird’s eye view of the Tiger’s Nest and a few offer a taxi to the Dzong and back. We decided to see the Paro Dzong before we made our way to the hotel.
|The view from the Paro Dzong|
Unlike the Thimphu Dzong, the Paro Dzong is run entirely by the monks and if you get there during lunch time you can hear more than 200 monks chant. Even though most Dzongs are similar in their construction the Paro Dzong is more spectacular because of the view from the lower courtyard. It is picture perfect. There is a historic museum very close to the Dzong that holds a vast collection of masks, definitely worth a visit.
The resort we were staying at was Ugyen Phendeyling Resort. A 3 star hotel (2000-3000INR per night) that offered a good view of the tiger’s nest and served a mouth watering Kewa Datshi, that still makes me salivate.
Our last day in Bhutan ended on a high. We started our trek up the Tigers nest at the crack of dawn. The Taktsang stands on the edge of a cliff at 10,240ft. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava flew to this spot on the back of a Tigress. The trek up takes two and a half hours, with a little stop at the cafeteria halfway, for tea. A word of advice, don’t walk up with a local, you will never match up to their speed. Even though everybody worries about climbing up it is walking down that is more difficult. The closer you get to the Tigers Nest, the more it will defy your imagination. It is an experience of a life time and was a surreal ending to our trip.