Bhutan: A Sojourn Through The Magical Kingdom
Bhutan, I stood there bathing in scanty sunlight, on a fiercely cloudy day, while I couldn’t hear even my thoughts as the winds cleansed every bit off me. The ringing of tiny bells, the wildness of the prayer flags, a lady in a Kira with a basket and her dog, climbing down the trail amidst stupendous mountains, and a backdrop of a Lakhang. Bhutan is where every frame has magic woven into its texture.
Nestled between the two mammoth nations of India and China, Bhutan, known as “The Land Of The Thunder Dragon”, is a Himalayan haven. With tourism entering the country as late as 1974, and democracy even later, in 2008, Bhutan is a destination for explorers and wanderers who seek unblemished lands to quench their constant need to find something new. Most people who visit, do so to unravel the secrets of peace, cultural integrity and joyful reputation that Bhutan and its people siphon so proudly. The country can be visited by every traveler alike, be they in search of exhilarating natural views, eclectic art, adventures in the forms of treks, epicurean food, or an assemblage of mythology blended with architecture.
Entering this virgin nation was quite a task up until the late 20th century. With the advent of roads only in the 1960s and a sinuous runway amidst jagged mountains, Bhutan has welcomed tourism with humongous effort on its part. There are two means of entering Bhutan, via road through the India Bhutan border at Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar; or by air through the Paro International Airport. Visa is provided on arrival; however, it is advisable to ensure that you reach the immigration office checkpost well in time to avoid unnecessary delays.
My visit to the country was during the rainy month of May. Nestled in the Himalayas, the country has very little chances of being warm. During most of my visit I faced short showers, beautifully soothing temperatures and hints of sunlight from amongst laden clouds. A warm jacket and rain coat did the trick and kept me comfortable throughout the trip. I entered Phuentsholing through Jaigaon in West Bengal and was stunned by the immediate differences visible. The first thing to be noticed was the lack of traffic signals in the country. For a place where technology has only recently made its mark in, it is commendable how the citizens are able to maintain discipline enough to follow necessary traffic rules without requiring any stimulation. Phuentsholing can provide you with all things necessary for your journey onward. I headed to Thimphu, the capital city of the country to begin my sojourn of a week amidst the mountains.
Thimphu is the bustling capital of the country. It is the center of commerce, religion, culture and the governance of Bhutan. Phuentsholing and Thimphu are the only places you get to stack up on currency. Although Indian currency is accepted across the country, these two locations give you access to ATMs in case you need them. Thimphu can easily be called the most modern city in the country. It has an abundance of restaurants, shopping malls, cafe’s and night clubs to indulge in.
I started exploring the city with a visit to the National Memorial Chorten. Chorten is a monument dedicated to the Buddha and is circumambulated by Buddhists and visitors alike throughout the day as a mark of offering prayers . Buddhists refer to it as the mind of the Buddha. My guide, Pema Wangdu, beautifully explained certain ideals and ethos propagated by Buddhism. I listened to him, stunned, while correlating it with my own belief system while constantly walking around the chorten with many others. It is safe to say that I left a little more enlightened than what I was upon arrival. It was indeed a fitting start to my odyssey.
The Tashichho Dzong, dzong meaning fortress, is a beautiful example of Bhutanese architecture. Situated on the banks of the Wangchhu River, the Dzong houses various departments of the government, the throne room, offices of the King and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. A must watch is the flag hoisting/lowering ceremony held at the Dzong. I was able to catch the flag lowering ceremony at 4:00 pm and was mesmerized by the glimpse of Bhutanese culture.
Dominating the skyline of the city is a humongous statue of the Buddha made in bronze and gilded in gold. At a height of 51.5 meters, it is one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The Buddha Dordenma statue is located on a hill in the Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and emanates an aura of peace to the world. The Bhutanese hope that it will soon be declared the 8th wonder of the world.
My next destination was Paro at a distance of roughly 50kms, that takes a little over a couple of hours to reach, considering that you are required to traverse through winding mountain roads. While the small town has a beautiful shopping street with a view of the Paro Dzong, the most coveted place to visit once you are in Paro is the Taktsang Monastery.
It is said that any trip to Bhutan is incomplete without a visit to the monastery. Perched on top of jagged cliffs, Taktsang is considered to be a focal point of Bhutanese religious beliefs. It is sought after by pilgrims and tourists alike. Known for its unique location, the complex of temples, caves and dwellings can be accessed only via a trail passing through lush pine forests decorated with colourful prayer bannerettes. The precariously placed monastery looks inaccessible from the valley adding to the aura of adventure that surrounds the short trek upto it. It is believed that guru Padmasambhava alighted at one of the caves, conquered a demon and meditated for years together. What’s more interesting is he is supposed to have arrived on the back of a flying tigress. This legend is what granted the monastery the name Taktsang that means Tiger’s nest.
A walk down the shopping street that offers innumerable shops for souvenirs ensured that my evening passed quickly. The street offers plenty of options to dine in and get a taste of the local delectable cuisine consisting of Ema Datshi, Kewa Datshi, Shakam Shukam and Red rice amongst a few of the most sought after dishes to eat. My next visit was to the Rinpung Dzong which is popularly known as the Paro Dzong. It houses the monastic body of Paro, the office of the district administrative head and judge of the Paro district. It is one of the few Dzongs that allows you to climb to the temple of Goddess Tara, the female representation of Buddha, atop the central tower of the fortress.
Dochula Pass and Punakha
My final destination in this tarriance to the country was Punakha. The highway leading upto Punakha passes through Thimphu and the Dochula Pass. About 130 kms away, reaching Punakha takes roughly about 4 hours with the roads offering scintillating views of the mountains and the dense Royal Botanical Park.
The Dochula pass is popular for its 360 degree view of the Himalayas forming a majestic backdrop to the 108 chortens built there. Known as the Drunk Wangyal Chortens, the construction of these 108 chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, in honour of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck and to honor the Royal Bhutan Army soldiers killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents. The Dochula pass is is also home to the temple Druk Wangyal Lakhang which is famous for its unique cartoon style modern murals.
Punakha is known majorly for two things- one of the most beautiful Dzongs ever made, The Punakha Dzong, and the unabashed murals of the phallus complete in all its details on the doors and walls of every building in the district. The Punakha Dzong served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907. It is one of the most majestic structures in the country and has hosted some of the most momentous occasions of Bhutan; the latest being the wedding of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his fiancé, Jetsun Pema. Built on the confluence of the rivers Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, the fortress resonates enchantment to each and every beholder. The approach and grounds outside the walls of the fortress are covered in Jacaranda trees bestowing it with a lilac glow when the flowers are in bloom. Lucky for me, I got a chance to witness the sublime spectacle. While the structural beauty is overwhelming, the fortress is even more important to the Bhutanese as it contains the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, known to be the unifier of Bhutan, as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is considered to be the creator of the stronghold of a unified nation state and is the one who gave Bhutan the unique cultural identity it is known for in the world.
Known as the fertility temple, the Chimi Lakhang was built in the late 15th century as a memorial to the Buddhist leader Drukpa Kunley. More popularly referred to as the Divine Madman, he was said to have introduced Buddhism amongst the locals through a means that was highly frowned upon by authorities, but which struck a chord with the locals. He spread peace and love through an active bacchanal sex life full of wine and women. Legend is that he destroyed demons with a tap of his penis which turned them into protective spirits. His phallus is thus known as “The Tunderbolt Of Flaming Wisdom” and is considered to be a source of fertility and wisdom for his followers. Tourists and believers flock to the temple to be blessed by an actual over sized wooden representation of the organ used by monks to bless women and men who come to seek blessings to beget children.
It is true what they say of Bhutan, it is a happy country. It is a country which is unparalleled in terms of its governance, its cuisine, its architecture, its religious beliefs and more importantly its people. The peace and fun loving citizens of the country can be said to be highly influenced by India, especially because most of them are fluent in hindi and are huge fans of Indian soap operas. As told by my guide and many of the people I interacted with, Mihir’s return on Indian television produced as much excitement in Bhutanese folk as it did in the households of India. It is important to remember that the only means to travel around the country is in cars across precarious Himalayan roads which are well built, but nonetheless might be of some discomfort to those who are not used to it. All being said, Bhutan will envelope you in its glory. I have only been able to explore a faction of the beautiful country and am already aching to traverse through the rest.
Time stops in Bhutan and the moment you step back into your world from the myths and fantasies of the land of the thunder dragon, you immediately get drawn back to it and yearn for your next visit to the magical kingdom.
Planning a trip? Let us help you out!
Best time to visit: It really depends on what you want to do, so lets categorize accordingly,
- Exploring the major cities and towns – March and April / September to November (take note that these are peak seasons)
- Festivals – These are usually timed during the peak seasons, however, do check the annual festival season before booking tickets
- Trekking – Most treks are open throughout the year other than during January & February. Please take note that Bhutan being a Himalayan country will be quite cold during nights throughout the year
Network and Internet Connectivity: WiFi is available at most hotels. For mobile phone connectivity, you can get local prepaid sim cards of Tashi Cell or B Mobile at Phuentsholing itself.
Language: Everyone can converse in English, and most know how to speak Hindi. You may thank Hindi TV serials for that.
Commute: There is only one international airport in Bhutan which is at Paro which hosts multiple flights from various countries. Inside the country, all travel is to be done by road. So in case you have motion sickness and are travelling across cities, carry your medicine along.
Visa: While you do not need a passport to enter the country, you are required to take a permit from the immigration office at Phuentsholing. They give you permits for 7 days applicable for Paro, Thimphu and Phuentsholing. To explore other locations or stay in Bhutan for longer, you will need to procure further permits mainly from Thimphu.
Vehicle Permit: As far as permits for your vehicle is concerned, you will get it at the office of “Roads and Safety Authority of Bhutan” at Phuentsholing itself. You will be required to submit copies of your RC book, Driving license and the Entry Permit.
Currency: Please carry cash along as ATMs are scantily available. You Indian cards might or might not work. Indian currency is prevalent everywhere.
Shopping: Paro and Thimphu have really expansive markets to splurge in. However, consider Phuentsholing as an option to shop cheap in case you’re passing through.
Food: Both vegetarian and non vegetarian food is readily available. Killing of animals is prohibited in the country so all meat is procured from India. It is advisable to feast on fresh fruits available in small shops across the country, even on the highways.
What to be wary of: Most places to visit in the country are either religious or related to the royalty. Please consider dressing up in accordance to not hurt the sentiments of the locals.
Thoughts to Text by – Ishita Ganguly