As we entered the border town of Phuentsholing of Bhutan, through the Indian town of Jaigaon in West Bengal, there was an immediate transition from chaos to calmness. Everyone seemed to be happy and wore a smile on their faces. People spoke fluent English. Dorji, our chauffeur for this 10-day trip, informed us that English was the teaching medium at all schools here. It is only about seven years since Bhutan, a geographically-isolated and landlocked country, opened up to visitors. Perhaps they were happy in their own world and did not see a need to promote tourism. No wonder this country measures its prosperity in terms of Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product.
Dressed in the traditional Bhutanese attire called gho, Dorji greeted us with kuzu zangpo or ‘hello.’ Colourful and checked, gho covers them from head-to-toe and as a mark of respect to their king, they keep their arms covered. Of the myriad travel routes one can take in Bhutan, we decided to travel the Thimphu-Wangdue Phodrang-Paro-Phuentsholing circuit. During our ride to Thimphu, we saw Bhutanese women walking past, clad in an ankle-length dress called kira. Wrapped and folded around the body, it was pinned at both shoulders with striking silver brooches – it was worn along with toego, a short jacket.
The journey through the vertiginous ribbons of road looping through Bhutan’s daunting and gorgeous terrain began. I could not stop admiring the effort of the Dantak (Border Roads Organisation) that build and maintain these impeccable roads even at altitudes as high as 13,000 ft. All through, Bhutan is festooned with colourful flags carrying prayers on the wings of wind.
Land of the Thunder Dragon
During our drive to the capital city, Dorji filled me up with tidbits on the culture. Druk meant dragon, he said, and the Bhutanese refer to their country as Druk Yul – Land of the Thunder Dragon – while they like to be called Drukpas. So much so that Bhutan’s only airline is called Druk Airways. It was radically refreshing to know that Bhutan is a women-dominated society. I noticed that there were more women everywhere– as executives, workers or just passersby– than men. In fact, women here inherit the ancestral wealth and property and a man goes to live in her house after marriage. Soon, we started to see rhododendrons everywhere in full bloom – pink, purple, white and yellow. It seemed like our timing to travel –in April – was perfect. Bhutanese call them ethometho – a remedial medicine for pneumonia too. Of the 5,000 species of plants including 600 types of orchids, 45 types of rhododendrons, 400 types of mushrooms and some 300 odd species of medicinal plants, the Bhutanese have chosen the Blue Poppy as their national flower, not the rhododendron.
Thimphu spreads over the valley formed by the Wang Chu, chu meaning river. Unlike most capital cities, it has no high rises and even a simple petrol pump is built according to the traditional Bhutanese style, making it beautifully consistent. Quaint, colourful and artistic, this city oozes class. We stopped by an exquisite looking hotel and had our first meal – dal-chawal with spicy pickle on the side.Thimphu has a great mix of attractions –both traditional and contemporary. The places of worship had a meditative calm and time seemed to stand still. I experienced this at Changangkha Dzon, one of the oldest temples dated back to the 15th century. Young Buddhists chanted hymns and blew bugles in worship of the eleven-faced Buddha, considered the guardian deity of children. The National Memorial Chorten, ‘the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan,’ is an impressive white dome with golden spires gleaming in the sun and framed by the lazuli blue sky. Built in 1974, the paintings here depict tantric Buddhism and the colourful prayer wheels are uniquely humongous.
For lovers of art, visits to the Art School, Folk Heritage Museum and the Paper Factory are a must. The school teaches dance forms, folklore, handicrafts and performing arts, providing a means of employment to many. I visited a 200-year-old Bhutanese home in the museum – it was fascinating to see how their unique wooden homes could transform into an all-season house. Someone has wisely said, ‘If I had to name the biggest difference between Bhutan and the rest of the world, I could do it in one word – civility.’ I agree wholeheartedly.The culture of Bhutan – with respect to literature, customs, religion, monastic practices, music, dance and the future – is reflected in Thimphu. It has a pretty active nightlife too and if you want to disco, head to the Buzz Club or Space 34. Dorji had promised to show me a bird’s eye view of Thimphu, so, in the evening, we undertook a long, winding climb up to the BBS Tower and savoured a mesmerising sight. On our ride back, we saw both the official residence of the king (his palace) and the impressive edifice of SAARC Convention Centre that now houses the National Assembly and ministries. We took a stroll around the city centre’s clock tower, soaking in the chic European-like ambience, before returning to our grand resort, Terma Linca –expensive but indulgent.
About 70 km and three hours from Thimphu past some stunning countryside, we reached Wangdue Phodrang via the Do Chula pass at 10,150 ft that offers stunning views of the Eastern Himalayas. We’d started very early to catch a glimpse of Mt Jhomolari, Bhutan’s highest peak, and hoped for clear skies but luck didn’t favour us. The Druk Wangyel Chortens or the Chortens of the Victory of the Druk Gyalpo are 108 striking chortens built at the Do Chula top in 2004.The next day at Wangdue was dedicated to witnessing the architectural creations ordzongs. To reach Punakha Dzong or ‘Palace of Great Happiness,’ standing at 4,430 ft, we had to cross Lobesa, a small village located amidst magnolia trees. This impressive fortress, dating back to 1637 CE, looked picturesque with its imposing walls rising from the clear waters of the confluence of two rivers – Ma Chu and Pa Chu – that become Punachang Chu.
After days abounding in culturally- and visually-rich experiences at Thimphu and Wangdue, it was time for some adventure. Paro, a must-trek destination on our list,houses the vertiginous Taktsang Monastery or Tiger’s Nest, perched atop a sheer cliff at 9,700 ft; its location is enough to make even the strong-willed quiver. Dorji dropped us off at the base and we made the start despite feeling daunted. After the deceptively-easy first 100 m past pines and dedicated Mani stones, we reached the first viewpoint.
Prayer flags flapped in the wind as we bit into an energy bar sitting at the lone tea house on this cliff.The real climb began with the second stretch – steeper and harder. Puffs and pants, stops and gaps later, we were at the second viewpoint where we could see the monastery eye-to-eye. But from here, we had to descend 400 steep steps, cross a narrow gorge and climb another 300 steps to reach the base of the monastery, a collation of six temples. Many drop off at this point, but making it to the other side is worth the effort. The elevation,the mammoth waterfalls, the expanse of the valley and the feeling of accomplishment is something to be savoured. They say the revered Guru Rimpoche arrived here from Tibet in the first century, riding a tiger. We stayed here for an hour, meditated in peace, chanted Om Mane Padme Hum and gazed into the valley. Every visitor must undertake this trek; you could take a horse if it gets difficult.We then drove one hour to the west of Paro valley to arrive at the Chele La Pass. At over 13,000 ft, it’s the highest of Dantakroads. Chele La’s chill factor may be high but the landscape is riveting.
From my balcony at the Tashi Namgay Resort, just opposite the Paro airport, I watched an aircraft take off from what is listed as one of the world’s most difficult airports and only a handful of pilots are trained to fly here. It was the cherry topping on my Bhutan trip and a sight worth cherishing.
By Vaishali Singh
Vaishali Singh is a traveller and shopaholic, but really a cook at heart.