The Land of the Thunder Dragon beckons with its pristine environs of flowing rivers and cloud-tipped mountains, thrilling nature trails, rich cultural heritage, wholesome cuisine and a smile to greet you wherever you go. Bhutan is rightfully the happiest country in Asia
As the airplane begins its descent into the sole airport of Bhutan, we are kindly informed by a young local that this is one of the most precarious landing areas in the world, for Paro airport is situated between the ranges of Kanchenjunga and Mt. Everest. Precarious, perhaps, but breathtaking, most certainly. The sheer serenity offered by the green mountainous landscapes and priceless clean air of Bhutan is what you are welcomed by. We have landed, safely, and humbly count our blessings to be in the remote country with a population of 740,000, one that opened its doors to tourists as late as 1974, then set a $200 compulsory cap per day for tourists in 2012 and today, is gradually emerging on the global radar as one for the bucket list!
As we traverse the length and breadth of the holy nation, a reliquary of sorts, fluttering prayer flags wave to us, prayer wheels call out at monasteries and shrines, sacred mantras carved in stone along hillsides beg a closer look and butter lamps immerse you in their light, as they hold the manifestation of Buddha’s luminous clear wisdom eyes, removing the darkness of ignorance. Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan with majority in number, followed by Hinduism. So we further see symbolism in the structures that depict the Buddhist way of life and its teachings, the most striking being the architecture of Bhutan – regulated by a system known as the Driglam Namzha for the construction of dzongs (fortresses) and everyday buildings. In temples, chortens such as the National Memorial ‘seat of faith’ in Thimpu, hotels, homes, shops, almost everywhere, the ornate carvings on wood and wall paintings bear the dragon, the swastika and the graphic phallic symbol, the latter, to ward off evil. And of course, the famed spots that captivate, educate and elevate the mind of the eager tourist, from Buddha Point to the Folk Heritage Restaurant, the Punakha Dzong to Tiger’s Nest, the Craft Bazaar to Thimpu market, and much else in between.
Kuensel Phodrang – Buddha Point
Bhutan bliss, as we like to refer to our sojourn, began with Buddha Point, overlooking the Thimpu valley which at night offers a ravishing view. As one makes their way up to the point which is a short drive away from Thimpu city’s centre, the enormity of the tallest bronze statue in Asia looms closer until you are standing beneath it in awe. The 169 ft. high bronze Buddha was made in china, gilded in gold, transported here and now sits peaceful atop the meditation area, soon to be completed with 100,000 miniature statues within. You learn of the significance of dorji the thunderbolt of power that lies at the feet of Lord Buddha and the bowl of alms cupped in his palms. Happiness and peace spread across the land, that’s what you feel here at Buddha Point.
Folk Heritage Restaurant
A visit to the three-storeyed museum in Thimpu, once a traditional Bhutanese house, will take you through historical artefacts and lifestyles of the people, and follows a seasonal rhythm; meaning you get something new every time you visit here. Yet UpperCrusters that we are, what awaits us at the table is what gets our interest most peaked. And what a table awaits at the Folk Heritage Restaurant with traditional floor seating as the preferred option.
Butter tea with salt – suja – starts off the tastes of Bhutan served with roasted rice crisps and fried corn nibbles. What arrives next is intriguing, in a traditional container, potent as can be, is ara. Made mostly of wheat or rice, the fermented/distilled liquor can be consumed with bits of fried egg in it as well. Interestingly, the commercial production and sale of ara is prohibited as the government insists on discouraging the evils of excessive alcohol consumption. So we sip on ara, devoid of egg bits, and tick another must-do off the list! Then begins the motherload which we devour from wooden bowls, one each: khulee – mildly sweet buckwheat pancakes, warm pumpkin soup for the soul, red rice, juicy brinjal, cauliflower and peas, muddled ferns, crispy asparagus, cucumber with nigella seeds, scrambled egg with cottage cheese in butter. In the land where the fiery chilli pepper is used generously as a vegetable, spice appears the norm. So you have the national dish, Ema Datshi – chilli (ema) and cheese (datshi) and Kewa Datshi – with the addition of potatoes (kewa). Chilli features yet again in the beef chilli fry and Jasha Maru – a minced chicken and tomatoes dish. Seeing as how dessert is not a tradition at the end of a Bhutanese meal, it’s the sweetest baby plums one can taste and sweet paan to finish off our meal. But we’re not done yet, for shinja – herbal tea made from licensed mistletoe – makes its way to us. “Good for the bones,” we are told by the smiling lady chef who was an IPS officer before retiring to the kitchen to serve fresh, organic produce just the way you should eat when in Bhutan, and famished.
Thimpu Market and Craft Bazaar
Those red hot peppers, that crunchy asparagus and muddled ferns, etc, are all found in abundance at the Thimpu market, bustling, as the capital itself. It’s small, in narrow lanes and packs in all you need on a grocery day out. Turnip heads, dried trout, dried chillies and more in abundance. It’s the Weekend Market, organised under the Norzin Lam (river), though, that has the crowds thronging to select from a wide array of farmer produce inclusive of textiles, bamboo and yak butter.
While we missed out on the Farmers’ Market, the Craft Bazaar was in our fortune, organised on Tuesday and Wednesday in the same area. Neatly aligned bamboo huts offer genuine Bhutanese products, thus contributing in the preservation and promotion of traditional arts and crafts such as painting, sculpting, weaving, tailoring, embroidery and the like. Traditional attire such as the gho for men and the kira for women are also available. As we were draped in the same for our exciting cultural experience of Bhutan, we realise why dressing daily to work requires a very early start!
One must rise before the sun does to get an early start on the long drive from Thimpu to Punakha. Pass the 108 Druk Wangyel chortens covered in a dreamy morning mist, and relish a few street side cheese momos while the road block clears. Once you reach the second largest and second oldest monastery in Bhutan, however – with the wild Po Chhu (father) river on one side and the calmer Mo Chhu (mother) on the other – it’s all worth it. The Punakha Dzong, in the Punakha Wangdue valley, acts as the harbinger of winter, for it serves as the religious centre of the chief abbot of Bhutan who makes his visit at the start of winter.
Fascinating aspects of a tour through the six-storey monastery make it a must-visit on a Bhutan itinerary. For one, the coronation of the dashing King Jigme Wangchuck and his wedding to the stunning queen Jetsun Pema that took place in the religious courtyard; the other two being the monastery and administration courtyards. Then, there is the silent reflection once inside the temple and knowledge of the customs and rituals associated, inclusive of the art of courting among young lovers. ‘A guy can enter into the girl’s bedroom, stay with her for a few days, if the parents and the girl, of course, agree, then he’s in’. Yes, amusing and interesting. It’s girl power here in Bhutan, where the daughter inherits the property and has a say on her future husband and more. We like!
Paro Taktsang – Tiger’s Nest Monastery
For nature lovers with a predilection for adventure, the world famous Tiger’s Nest is a trek to accomplish, an experience to cherish and a memory that will last forever.Perched atop a cliff in the upper valley of Paro, the breathtaking temple appears perilous at close to 12,000 ft. high. Yet the grit to accomplish this feat keeps you going and the fear works as adrenaline once you set off. Sure there are ponies at Nu 700 – NU for ngultrum (the currency changed from, and equivalent to, the rupee in 1974) – to help you halfway, though nothing beats on foot. Through the slush, light rain and up the winding steep terrain, we trod, reaching the beautiful Taktsang Café at approximately 9,000 ft, warm up with a steaming cuppa and carry on. From here forward is where it gets steeper and the temple reveals itself by the step, offering glimpses through the hazy air on a cloudy day. And once you are at Tiger’s Nest, you realise the enormity, in terms of religious significance, of the Himalayan Buddhist temple.
Thousands of visitors make their way from one langkah (temple) to the other in the monastery connected through wooden stairs, and find Tiger’s Nest nestled literally in a corner above. As the tale goes, the monastery was built in the 9th century around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) is said to have meditated in the 8th century. He flew there from Tibet on the back of Yeshe Tsogyal, whom he transformed into a flying tigress for this purpose. Padmasambhava’s body imprint can be found in the wall of a cave at one of the temples here. As bodhisatvas stand at various points of Tiger’s Nest and even reside here, one will learn that this is a regular way of life for the monks who travel up and down on a daily basis, and devotees as well. We learn of a fire causing havoc in the 1950s which had people carry stones all the way to the top to assist in its redevelopment. Along the route to Tiger’s Nest, a trekker is accompanied by blue pine trees, prayer flags and kiosks, and an eerie feeling of solitude, of calm. And after an approximate five hour trek, the elation of achievement will have you shouting out Sir Edmund Hilary’s words with abandon, ‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’.
Bhutan bliss draws to a close in Paro, with the impressively lit Paro Dzhong sitting serene amidst a dark night sky, as we relish a meal at the most popular hotel in the city – frequented by the Queen Mother on her visits here, as well as celebrities, Lara Dutta and Matt Dillon among the number. So Sonam Trophel gave us our last tastes of delicious Bhutan – pork and veg momos, ginger potato, spinach in cheese, Black Pork, Jasha Maru and gulab jamuns, too, as we toasted with a few Druk beers to an unforgettable journey.
‘Bhutan is expensive’ is the gripe that most naysayers, even some well-wishers, may share with you, but travel cost is not that varied form other holiday packages, and direct flights to Paro from Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta are in effect now, thanks to Druk Air, the royal airlines of Bhutan. ‘High value, low impact’ is the policy the country’s tourism council has adopted; and it works to attract visitors like us, keen on retreating to a space untouched and brimming with cultural heritage and environmental cover at an expense that is worth the penny. You take back a lot and come back for more.
Take Prince Charles, who looks back on his hike up Tiger’s Nest in 1998 with a picture of him holding a walking stick to remind him of his achievement. The leggy Kill Bill lass Uma Thurman is among the first celebrities to visit Bhutan; not surprising, for Thurman senior, a former Buddhist monk, would frequent the luxury Zhiwaling hotel ensconced in the hills of Paro. Exclaiming on the spirit of generosity that characterises the place, the sultry Ghost star Demi Moore knew this is what she would take back when returning from Bhutan after undertaking the first trek of her life in 2002, and discovering a poster of herself on the walls of a video store in the process. For ‘pretty man’ and Buddhist Richard Gere, it’s the serenity of the nation and a visit to the Gangtey Gompa monastery in the east that count most. For us back home, of course, the treasured Dil Se highlighted the beauty of Bhutan years back, and today, it’s the Mountain Echoes literary festival held at the majestic Taj Tashi hotel in the capital that has literati and glitterati paying a visit each year.
It’s summer, and a light shower follows us in Bhutan. The skies are as blue as ever and the air couldn’t be fresher. Sure, we lucked out on sampling a yak burger and bundling up by a wood fire in the icy winter, but do we rue the opportunity to be here now? Absolutely not! For Bhutan, any time of the year, is Bhutan. Where Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the index by which the country’s prosperity is measured. Where mountains are sacred with the highest number of them untouched. Where you know what it means to be at peace with yourself, to be happy. Whoever said happiness is a place, rightly defined Bhutan by this, for it is shangri-la on earth.
This travel feature was published in UpperCrust Magazine, Oct-Dec 2014, used here with permission from the publisher