Setting off from the India-Bhutan border
Our week-long trip to the happiest country in the world happened during the end of May. We, a group of 19 people, including two toddlers, and our eight-month baby, stayed at Jaldapara in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal, 28 kilometers from the India-Bhutan border, before leaving for Thimphu the following morning.
Jaldapara is famous for its national park and has the largest population of Indian horned rhinoceros. We were put up at The Mystic Forest hotel, a jungle resort amid tea gardens.
The next morning, we had breakfast and started for Phuntsholing, the border town of Bhutan, from where we had to board our coach for Thimphu. The India-Bhutan border is separated by an ornate gate which indicated that we had now entered a new country. Bhutan is nestled between Nepal, India and China. It has adopted the policy of high-value, low-income to limit the numbers of visitors. It charges most foreign tourists $250 per day of an all-encompassing fee, covering transportation, guides, room and board.
As our cars drove into the town, we could clearly see the difference in architecture, municipal cleanliness and orderly planning. The city was embellished with wooden houses and concrete houses, but in the traditional Bhutanese style.
One of the most distinctive features about the people in Bhutan is their traditional, unique dress; men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe, tied at the waist by a belt called Kera; and women wear the Kira, an ankle-length dress comprising a rectangular piece of woven fabric. Kira is worn with a wonju, a long-sleeved blouse, and a toego, a short jacket outside that.
Indians, Bangladeshis and citizens of Maldives do not need an entry permit to get into Bhutan. But we must show our passports or ID cards to get permission to go around the country. We stopped at Hotel Sinchula for lunch, following which we got our passports checked at the immigration office. We were surprised that we were the only ones there. We also met our guide, Yeshi Dorji. The weather was very pleasant as it was raining.
After all the formalities, we sat in the coach and took off for Thimphu, which is nearly 165 kilometers from Phuntsholing. But since Thimphu is located at a high altitude, it took us nearly six hours to reach the capital city. When we reached Thimphu, we were surprised to see that there were no traffic signals! But there were traffic policemen at intersections.
Bhutan is relatively new to tourism as it opened its doors to visitors in 1974.
An interesting thing about Thimphu, and the other cities in Bhutan, is that the buildings all look very similar with the architecture involving a lot of domes and arcs. As we spoke to our guide, we got to know that Bhutan is the only country which measures GNH or Gross National Happiness as an indicator of its prosperity. The natives live by their traditions and values, and look forward to development in the cultural way.
The national dish of Bhutan is Ema Datshi, said to be a fiery blend of green chillies and cheese. We were shocked to learn that there is no dessert in the Bhutanese menu!
Education and medicine are free in Bhutan. The Bhutan government believes in treating all its citizens equally. Our guide told us that there are no rich or poor sections in the society. Everyone has to pay the same tax. Now we slowly came to understand why Bhutan is the happiest country in the world.
We checked into our hotel in late evening, and were pleasantly surprised to see that our bags were carried by the female staff. The buildings in Bhutan have a maximum of five floors, and there are no lifts. We found it quite astonishing that the women were so strong to take our baggage to our respective rooms.
We freshened up in our rooms and came down to the restaurant to have Indian dinner and were so tired that we went off to sleep. Our baby was observing and trying to understand what was going around her. For her, it was a sudden change of atmosphere and locality, since it was her first trip ever. However, she was quite happy to be surrounded by people who were showering all their attention on her.
The next morning, we had a sumptuous breakfast and left for Buddha Dordenma. Locally called the Buddha Point, it is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue made of bronze and gilded in gold, and towers over the mountains. Buddha Dordenma is said to be one of the tallest seated Buddha statues in the world at a height of 169 feet. The statue houses more than 100,000 smaller Buddha statues, also made of bronze and gold-gilded. We had a breathtaking view of the statue and the valley.
Buddha Dordenma statue, Thimphu
After taking in the magnificence of the statue and its surroundings, we headed to see the National Memorial Chorten, or the stupa. It was built in 1974 to honor the third Druk Gyalpo (meaning Dragon King, or the King of Bhutan), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. The stupa is also considered to be the “most visible religious landmark in Bhutan.” People come here to spin the giant prayer wheels and circumbambulate around the chorten.
We were swept away with the mystique ambiance and tranquility at the chorten, and breathed in the positive energy that enveloped the area.
Takin – Bhutan’s national animal
Our next stop was the Motithang Takin Preserve, the home of Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. Native to Bhutan, the animal looks like a mix of goat and moose. It was originally a mini-zoo. We also spotted a barking deer at the preserve. On our way back to the hotel, we got a view of the Thimphu Dzong (Tashichhoedzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress) and the Parliament building. We were in for a surprise when our guide showed the king’s palace amid the huge fortress. We expected to see something really magnificent and huge, but it turned out to be much smaller than the caving buildings around it.
Tashichho Dzong Fortress, Thimphu
After lunch, we took some rest and got ourselves pampered with some head and shoulder spa at the hotel.
Later in the evening, we walked to a handicrafts market that was at a walking distance from our hotel. We ended up buying souvenirs and wall hangings from the market.
The following morning our guide took us to the national folk heritage museum, which gives an insight into the Bhutanese material culture and way of life. The museum is set up in a three-storied, 19th century traditional house.
In addition to artefacts from rural households, we saw an impressive collection of typical household objects, tools and equipment, which were used in a traditional household. The museum was surrounded by paddy, wheat and millet fields, and comprised a traditional water-mill with mill stones.
While we marveled and discussed all that we saw in the museum, we reached the National Library.
Before we could get into the library, we were stopped and were awestruck by the resplendent rose garden outside it. We got so immersed in looking at the different coloured roses and taking photographs that the guide had to usher us into the library.
The library was established to preserve ancient texts. It is also a great example of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Most of the books are printed or written on long strips of handmade paper stacked between pieces of wood and wrapped in silk cloth.
And soon it was time to move on to our next destination – Punakha. A few minutes after we set off, our coach driver suddenly made way for a line of expensive cars, and we came to know that they contained the King of Bhutan and his bodyguards.
Punakha valley is a three-to-four-hour drive from Thimphu. It was once the capital of Bhutan and is the winter residence of the central monk body, Thimphu being the summer residence.
On the way, we stopped at Dochula Pass, a mountain pass in the Himalayas situated at an elevation of more than 10,000 square feet. It has 108 memorial chortens, or stupas, called Druk Wangyal Chortens, built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed when fighting the Indian rebels in 2003.
One can see the highest peak in Bhutan, called the Mt. Gangkar Puensum, from the pass.
When we reached Punakha district, we were taken to the fertility temple, also known as Chimi Lhakhang (Lhakhang means monastery or temple), which stands on a hillock amidst the rice fields. We walked for nearly half an hour uphill. The temple was built by the Drukpa hierarch and Ngawang Choegyel in 1499, following which it was blessed by a maverick saint, named Drukpa Kunley also known as the Divine Madman.
Families and childless women from Bhutan and around the world come here to take blessings to beget children and to get names for their kids who are yet to be born. The current Lama hits the women on their head with a 10-inch ivory, wood and bone phallus. Throughout the temple, one can find phallus symbols in paintings and carvings.
The land of Punakha is very fertile with Po Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers flowing through the valley.
We reached our hotel, which overlooked the beautiful valley with the river, rice terraces and mountains. We had the evening by ourselves, and we all got together to play a game of Mafia, following which we had dinner and went on to dream about the beautiful country and wondering what we had in store the next three days.
We woke up to the mist-covered Himalayas, and it felt like being in heaven. We took off for our first stop, Punakha Dzong, which is situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers and must be arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country and one can witness woodworks of highest standards. Since we visited at the end of spring, we could still see the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees.
The dzong houses most of Bhutan’s national treasures. To reach the dzong and the six-story Utse (central tower), one has to cross the Bazam (bridge). When you cross the bridge, you come across a steep wooden staircase that is designed to be pulled up.
Inside the dzong, there are three courtyards, one is for administrative functions and comprises a stupa and a Bodhi tree. The Utse is in the second courtyard and in the third and the most important courtyard, is the main temple and the temple holding the national treasures. You can find exceptional murals on the temple walls which depict the life of Buddha.
Visiting the dzong was purely awe-inspiring.
Behind Punakha Dzong lies the Punakha Suspension Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. It connects the dzong to the nearby villages. The mountains surrounding the bridge from all sides give a breathtaking view of the entire area.
Power packed Paro
Our days in Bhutan were closing in very soon. We headed for Paro, our final destination in this amazing country.
In Paro, we were welcomed by a cool breeze and light rains. The lush greenery around us was a treat to the eyes and health. We were mesmerized by the beautiful resort which was surrounded by the countryside and landscape.
We were up on the final day of our Bhutan trip for the most awaited Tiger’s Nest trek.
Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang, is a monastery is one of the most revered monasteries and Bhutan’s pride. A trip to the country is incomplete without a visit to the monastery. Tiger’s Nest is precariously perched on a cliff nearly 10,000 feet off the ground and stands above a forest of blue pine and rhododendrons.
We started the trek at 9 in the morning, but were worried if we would be able to make it to the top with our baby. We bought walking sticks for all of us (and were later quite thankful that we did). We took a pony ride for half way until we came to a quaint cafeteria. The pony ride itself was quite eventful as the ponies tended to veer on the edge of the mountain; a misstep could cause them to fall over.
On the way, the baby, whom our guide Yeshi was carrying and walking (!), became quite uncomfortable and cranky, so a couple of us got down from the pony, and took the baby and walked until we reached the teahouse. We had coffee and snacks, and then hiked up since horses go up to only half the distance. We left the two toddlers and two family members at the café because it was a tad difficult for them to climb further.
Our guide told us that the second part was easier than the first. Even then, it was a tough climb as the path was steep and rocky, but the rest of us managed it with intermittent breaks, when we caught our breath, admired and photographed the astonishing views of the valley. The baby was now very cooperative and the weather was pleasant. The paths opened up to panoramic views of the valley and hills brimming with pine trees. It seemed that the entire universe was trying to help us reach the monastery. Tourists coming back from the monastery cheered and encouraged us to walk further. They also took our photographs as they were surprised to see us bringing such a small baby on the hike.
On our way we could see colourful Buddhist prayer flags fluttering wildly in the wind, and a series of prayer wheels. And when we finally reached, the view atop was worth all the trouble and was simply surreal. All our tiredness vanished as our eyes beheld the view in front of us; it was jaw-dropping.
The way up to the shrine comprises two flights of stone steps, one going down the ravine, the other going up the monastery, a total of nearly 800 steps. There are several temples inside the monastery with statues of Guru Rinpoche and other Buddhist deities and religious paintings.
The legend behind Tiger’s Nest has it that Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, flew to this site on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon. After that, he meditated here for three months, three months, three weeks and three hours.
Soon it was time for us to march back, this time on the downward slope. On the way back too, we stopped at the tea house and munched on whatever we could lay our hands on. We had one final pristine view of the monastery and commenced the last leg down. When reached the starting point, we saw the area abuzz with a minimarket selling souvenirs, trinkets and handicrafts sold by women. We bought some stuff for us and some for gifting to friends and family back home and got back to the resort.
With a heavy heart, we bade adieu to the demure country, embalmed in mysticism, and came back home completely in awe with its beauty and impressed with its hospitable people.