Bhutan – The last Shangri-la

Shangri-La – an imaginary paradise on earth, a remote and exotic location, a faraway haven or hideaway of idyllic beauty and tranquility, best describes Bhutan – Land of Thunder Dragons.

Young boy in “Gho”

Bhutan lies in a different world that is carbon negative, where there are more trees than people, more silence than noise, more happiness than sadness, more wealth than money can buy, more natural beauty than man made concrete jungle and only country in the world where authority cares more about peoples’ lungs and lives than the profit of cigarette companies.

Paro Airport

The trip to Bhutan was very short – just 4 nights/5 days since we decided to skip Punakha and visit only Thimphu and Paro. We were welcomed by Ms Dema, our Guide cum Driver for the tour, as we touched down at Paro airport around 3:30pm. We reached our Hotel at Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, after a smooth 90 minutes drive.

View from Hotel Room

The majestic Hotel Ariya is located near the hills offering a panoramic view of the city. We decided to take a well deserved rest since we started from home at around 3:30am. Bhutan Time is 30 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time. Both Paro and Thimphu are located at about 7,000 feet above sea level. There are less chances of suffering from altitude sickness but it is better to take precaution well in advance.

 Changangkha Lhakhang Temple

On Day 2, visited the Changangkha Lhakhang Temple, located above central Thimphu. This Temple was built in 12th century by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo on a ridge overlooking the town. Local people traditionally come here to get auspicious names for their newborns or blessing from the protector deity ‘Tamdrin’. Outsiders are not allowed inside the Temple or even locals are not allowed to enter the Temple unless they wear the traditional Bhutanese dress.

The Takin

Later we visited the Takin Preserve. The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. Legend has it that the animal was created by the great Buddhist yogi, Drukpa Kuenley, and it can be found only in Bhutan and nearby areas. Taxonomists place the animal in a category of its own as it is not similar enough to any other animal to fit established categories.

Thimphu Chorten

After lunch, we visited the Memorial Chorten also known as Thimphu Chorten. This stupa is located at the heart of Thimphu city and was built in 1974 to honour the 3rd King of Bhutan – Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who is popularly known as the “Father of modern Bhutan”.

Buddha’s statue

Later we visited the Buddha Point (Kuensel Phodrang). It holds one of the largest Buddha’s statue in the country at around 170 feet, made of bronze and gilded in gold. Visitors can also get a good view of the Thimphu valley from this point.

Guide at Simply Bhutan

Since it was Saturday the National Library was closed. Instead we visited “Simply Bhutan” a Folk Heritage Museum that is privately owned. It connects people with the rich Bhutanese Folk heritage and rural history through exhibits, demonstrations, educational programs and documentation of Bhutanese rural life. The tour starts off with guests being offered the local Bhutanese wine ‘Aara’ which is fairly strong. A quick introduction about the Royalty shows how much the Bhutanese love their Royals. The Garden of Phallus in Simply Bhutan features larger-than-life phallus statues, which could be embarrassing to some. There is also on display, some of the ancient jigs, swords, spears etc. What follows next is the song crooned by women when they pound the dirt during Home construction. You are then given a brief on the masks and their importance in Bhutan. Tour of a traditional (erstwhile) Bhutanese kitchen in next where age old pots, pans, pestles and copper plates are all on show. Tourists are entertained to a slow-moving

Pema Tshering at work

Bhutanese dance where tourists are also welcome to join the performers. Butter tea is served (with rice flakes) during the performance. You are also given one shot at Bhutan’s traditional game – Archery. We also met Bhutan’s cerebral palsy ‘foot’ artist Pema Tshering, who was busy carving a masterpiece from a block of wood.

Trashi chhoedzong

We concluded the day’s sightseeing with a visit to Trashi chhoedzong, or ‘the fortress of the glorious religion’. This is one of the most impressive buildings situated along the right flank of the Thimphu river built in 1641 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, who unified Bhutan and was later reconstructed in 1962 by the 3rd King His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. This impressive fortress and monastery houses Secretariat building, the throne room of His Majesty, the King and various government offices. There is also a huge Monastery, which houses a large number of monks. On the way back we visited a row of shops (about 70+) called the Local Crafts Bazaar. This is the best place to purchase mementoes or souvenirs in Bhutan. Most of the entry tickets are priced at INR 300 per person and some of the monuments even offer Free Guide service, that is included in the price.

River Paro

On Day 3 we started for Paro, our last destination. Paro is about 50 kms from Thimphu. The road winding through the Wang Chhu and Paro Chhu river valleys, before crossing Paro town, is extrenely picturesque. We stopped on our way for few minutes near River Paro to soak in fresh unpolluted air and to also taste the sweet river water.

Ta Dzong

After checking in at Olathang Resorts in Paro, we visited Ta Dzong (Fortress) originally built as a watch-tower, which now houses the National Museum. The extensive collection includes antique thangkha paintings, textiles, weapons & armour, household objects and a rich assortment of natural and historic artefacts.

Rinpung Dzong

Later we visited Rinpung Dzong, meaning (“fortress of the heap of jewels”), which has a long and fascinating history. Along the wooden galleries lining the inner courtyard are fine wall paintings illustrating Buddhist lore such as four friends, the old man of long life, the wheel of life, scenes from the life of Milarepa, Mount Sumeru and other cosmic Mandala. On the way back to the Resort we stopped at the city centre of Paro for some shopping and light refreshments. You could see only Indian tourists everywhere. Sometimes I felt as though the Indians outnumbered the Bhutanese especially at Paro.

Tiger’s Nest

Day 4 was an important day since we were scheduled to visit the most important landmark of Bhutan – Taktshang Monastery or Tiger’s Nest at an altitude of about 10,200 feet above sea level. It is the most famous monastery of Bhutan, perched on the side of a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. It is said that Guru Rinpoche arrived here on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery and hence it is called “Tiger’s Nest”. This site has been recognised as a most sacred place and visited by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 and now visited by all Bhutanese at least once in their lifetime. The hike to the monastery is extremely tough for people not used to hiking or trekking. It is supposed to be 5 kms both ways but I felt as if it was 10 kms both ways. We hired a pony while ascending the hill for about half the distance. Later we have to take about 800 steps, that winds up and down right upto the main Monastery. The path is not smooth all the way and the steps are uneven at many places. It took us about 3 hours to reach the Monastery. The entry fee is INR 500 per person, that includes Guide charges as well. Personal belongings are not allowed inside the Temples and hence we had to wait for almost an hour to get lockers to store our belongings. The Guide provided a detailed explanation of all the 5 Temples. The Temples have withstood 2 major fires in the past but it is indeed a wonder, that such a Temple was built on a mountain cliff few centuries ago. The return trek was more tough than I had imagined, since the path was slippery at many places and altitude sickness struck me, that made me feel extremely nauseated. Fortunately it did not rain during our entire stay at Bhutan else the trek to Tiger’s Nest would have been very tough. After about 3 hours, we reached the base and I was extremely relieved to see Ms Dema waiting for us, to take us back to the Resort.

Ms Dema our Guide and Driver

On Day 5 we bid goodbye to Paro and Bhutan. It was such a memorable trip though a short one. The Bhutanese are very warm and friendly people and most of them speak Hindi. They are known to be the happiest people living on this planet and that reflects on their smiling faces. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The cost of stay, food and travel within Bhutan is not so expensive. However, the airfare from any Indian city to Paro in Bhutan (Airport is located here) costs on an average INR 10,000 one way per passenger. The one way fare from Kolkata to Paro for 1 passenger costed INR 8,500 for a 50 minutes flight, though tickets were booked 2 months in advance. If you take away air fare from the total cost, it is cheaper to visit Bhutan than many Indian cities.
  • There are couple of things that I want to clarify a) Indian currency notes of denomination 500 and 2,000 are widely acceptable, though I was told to carry only 50 and 100 Rupee notes and b) the quality of India Food available in some of the Restaurants, beat even those in India. I was surprised to see even Gujarati items available at a restaurant in Paro. However those who love spicy food can taste the local Bhutanese cuisine.
  • The local currency Ngultrum is equivalent to Indian Rupee. Indian rupees are widely accepted here. Bhutan is ruled by the Royalty, who are adored by the Bhutanese people. Bhutan is a welfare State, where Education and Medical related expenses are borne by the Government. More females can be seen engaged in traditional and non-traditional occupations. Our driver was a lady, who said her husband takes care of their children and even cooks food for them.
  • Young men and women in Gho and Kira respectively

    Bhutanese men and women take immense pride in wearing their traditional dress and you may hardly find people wearing western outfits. The men in Bhutan adorn themselves in a knee length, robe-like cloth which is wrapped around their bodies and nicely secured with a belt. Known as ‘Gho’, this outfit forms a pouch-like area in the upper part and is used for storing various things, traditionally betel nuts but now mobile phones. The women folk in Bhutan can be spotted in an apron like a dress, called ‘Kira’. This traditional outfit is a long ankle-length dress. Super comfortable and easy to be dressed in, women prefer to wear this outfit most of the time.

  • Phalluses (male private part) are not an uncommon sight in Bhutan. You will find the Phallus images or the carvings in wood at every souvenir shop. It seems, the symbol is meant to bring good luck, promote fertility and harmony and ward off evil spirits. The symbols date back to the 15th century, when the eccentric Buddhist teacher Drukpa Kunley, known as the “Divine Madman,” popularised the symbol when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
  • Bhutan borders India and Tibet (China) and is a predominantly Buddhist country with a population of about 7.5 million only. Surrounded by the Himalayas, its high altitude and inaccessibility has allowed it to remain cut off from rest of the world. However since mid 70s, Bhutan has started to allow limited tourism.
  • Bhutan is called “Land of Thunder Dragons” because of the violent and large thunderstorms that whip down through the valleys from the Himalayas. The contrast in temperature from the Indian plains and the high mountains of the Himalayas also creates dramatic cloud-scapes that can be seen as you drive over the high mountain passes.
  • In 1974, the first international tourists were allowed into Bhutan by invite only. Today it’s fully open for tourism, but at the high cost of $250 a day per person. This charge is not applicable for tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives. However, tourists from other countries have to arrange their travel through a government authorized tourist agency, but once they arrive everything is taken care of from food, stay to transportation and guide.
  • Bhutan is the first country to switch from the western ideal of Gross National Product to “Gross National Happiness,” which is achieved through 4 foundations: good governance, natural environment, sustainable growth, and cultural values.
  • Bhutan is the first country to have outlawed tobacco in 2004. Although, in 2012 the laws were loosened but still it is rare to see people smoking on the streets. However, drugs and alcohol have continued to create problems and the Government has started a program to educate and deter citizens from abusing or using the smuggled narcotics.
  • The capital city, Thimphu, has no traffic lights but just white-gloved traffic officers. When the city tried to install some lights there was a public outcry, and they were promptly removed. I also witnessed no mad honking as we witness in India. There are absolutely no 2 wheelers or 3 wheelers on the streets of Bhutan and perhaps this is the reason why the pollution level is so low. However you will find many Altos and small cars on the streets. Public transport is sparse, with few mini buses on the road.
  • Buddhism is the official religion, followed by Hinduism. Buddhism is state sponsored and the Dzong’s (Fortress) and Temples are maintained and supported by the Government. The national sports of Bhutan is Archery.
  • In 2001 Bhutan lifted its ban on TV and Internet, the last country in the world to do so. But today it is not strange to see computers and cell phones in the hands of teenagers especially in the capital city of Thimphu. Wifi is easily available at Hotels and other public places to stay connected with the outside world. Indian SIMs also work in Bhutan but the roaming charges are very high.
  • There are perhaps more dogs than human beings in Bhutan. The Government has started a drive to reduce the dog population by starting a mass sterilisation program. But you cannot avoid the barking of dogs at night, that may disturb your sleep and put you off completely.
  • Since Bhutan experiences heavy rains from June to August and hence it is advisable to avoid visiting this place for these 3 months. Between November to February it is cold while March to May, the weather is very pleasant. In May you will not even require light woollens.
  • Bhutan is one of the only countries in the world where citizens have a constitutional obligation to preserve and protect the environment. You need to visit before it all changes. The western world is slowly creeping in despite best efforts from the Government.

Acknowledgements:

  • Cox & Kings Travel Company for organising this trip for me and my family
  • Ms Dema for being such a wonderful driver and an informative guide
  • Hotel Ariya at Thimphu (2 nights) and Olathang Resort at Paro (2 nights), for providing excellent hospitality during our stay at Bhutan
  • DrukAir for on time arrival and departure causing us no heartburn

& above all the people of Bhutan for being such wonderful hosts to us

Watch this wonderful video while touching down at Paro Airport

Watch these young ladies performing local Bhutanese dance