Best known to the world for propagating "Gross National Happiness," the world has much to learn from them.
Grandiose mountains, colourful dzongs, serene monasteries and pristine surroundings; Bhutan brings a smile to my face. In my three-city tour, I met disarmingly friendly people on streets, tried their fiery ema datsi (a dish of hot chillies and cheese) and cheered the archers in Bhutan’s national sport of archery. Where else can you find people strutting about in their national dress (gho and kira) most of the time? Best known to the world for propagating “Gross National Happiness,” the world has much to learn from them.
The only capital in the world without traffic lights also has a pedestrian day every Sunday of the month. No vehicular traffic meant a golden opportunity for me to explore its main thoroughfare, Norzin Lam, on foot. Bustling with people in national dress walking alongside hip youngsters in trendy clothes, it is a hub in the city’s heart. The National memorial chorten is the place where locals congregate to pray, meditate and meet each other. The National Folk Heritage Museum will give a glimpse of rural life. There is a village house with household stuff and the restaurant there serves authentic Bhutanese food. Those interested in Buddhist philosophy, Bhutan and the Himalayan region should visit the National Library.
The Zorig Chusum School of traditional arts is a must-visit to understand the 13 traditional arts of Bhutan; the National Library houses some rare religious texts on Buddhism. For shopping, one can explore the authentic crafts bazaar near Taj Tashi hotel. It has traditional textiles, wool, bamboo, metal and wooden products. For the sports lover, the Changlimithang Stadium is the place to watch football in or to cheer the archery teams. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and lots of competitions keep happening during weekends.
2. Bhutanese cuisine
The popular saying is that if you have been to Bhutan and not tasted its national dish of Ema Datsi (literally chillies and cheese), then you have not been to Bhutan. The Bhutanese love chillies and it’s not used as seasoning but as main ingredient in food, sometimes the only ingredient! Wander around the streets of Norzin Lam, Phendey Lam and Chang Lam in Thimphu bustling with people, shops and eateries. The Bhutanese cuisine typically has choice of meat (chicken/pork/beef), red rice, kewa datshi (potatoes with cheese), and vegetables with cheese and of course ema datshi. The Bhutanese, Bhutan Kitchen, National Folk Heritage Museum restaurant, Tandin, Ama and Yangkhil serve sumptuous Bhutanese cuisine in Thimphu.
Across the country the food, though simple, tastes delicious as all ingredients are organically produced. Most hotels serve buffet style meals that are included in tour package for foreigners. Indians (tour package includes bed and breakfast) should order a` la carte with prior notice. The sour local cheese (datshi), mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, spinach and yak meat are loved by them. Suja is the butter tea which tastes more like butter than tea and the locally brewed alcoholic drink, arra, has smoky flavour.
I missed the much-awaited sight of the Himalayan range from the flight due to a veil of mist. This was compensated by the adrenaline rush I experienced as the Airbus landed on a narrow runway through a narrow channel between towering hills. Bhutan’s only International airport lies in the deep Paro valley (2200m) on the bank of Paro Chhu surrounded by hills with an elevation of up to 5500m.The cool crisp mountain air and the beauty of the traditional Bhutanese architecture of the terminal building makes it one of the most beautiful airports in the world. However, the challenging topography has earned it the distinction of the world’s most dangerous airport.
From the airport we followed parallel to meandering Paro Chhu and came to the weekend market. The betelnut and paan, vegetables, grains, dry meat and dry fish and various items were up for sale. The cow intestine, datshi, dried yak cheese, fiddlehead ferns, ear mushrooms looked exotic. What caught my attention were red chillies and more red chillies.
The famous landmarks here are Paro Dzong, Drukgyel Dzong and the National museum. The latter, housed atop a hill in a former watch tower, displays rare historic photographs and artefacts. The Drukgyel Dzong, a fortress that lies in ruins today, was built to commemorate victory over Tibetan forces in 16th century. We got to see a league match of archery, the national sport in Bhutan, in a local club. Men were dressed in gho used expensive high-tech bows. They had to shoot in strong wind to prove their test of skill.
4. Taktsang Monastery
The highlight is trekking to the iconic Taktsang monastery in Paro popularly called the Tiger’s nest. It was rebuilt in 1998 after it was destroyed in a fire. It was originally built in 1692 at the site where Guru Rimpoche meditated in a cave in the 8th century. He is the most revered Guru and founder of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan. Legend says that Guru Rimpoche or Guru Padmasambhava had flown on the back of a tiger from Khenpajong (Tibet) to this rock face.
Rising 3000m (9480 ft) above ground, clinging to a precipice 1000m above Paro valley it challenges the trekkers through its boulder-strewn winding path. The mighty Himalayan ranges in the background loom high. Walking for two to four hours uphill and then again downhill, it tests one’s physical prowess and stamina. The cafeteria mid-way is some respite that offers delicious vegetarian Bhutanese food. On the way, fluttering prayer flags, the rattling of prayer wheels and the chanting by monks kept us company. The sheer fall of the cliffs is scary but the view of Paro valley is beautiful.
The warm Punakha valley is the rice bowl of the country with terraced rice fields grown in an organic way employing traditional methods. Both red and white rice are grown along the rivers of Pho Chu and Mo Chu in the Punakha valley. There is an interesting temple called Chimi Lhakhang (the temple of fertility) amid rice fields at Sopsakha village. It was built in 1499 at a site blessed by saint Drukpa Kunley, also known as the divine madman. He had an unorthodox way of teaching Buddhism. Today, women seek blessings for children there and are blessed by the lama with an ivory and wooden phallus.
Twelve km from Punakha town one comes across the suspension bridge in Mitesgang and could trek through green fields and climb uphill to Guru Rinpoche caves (Geon Tsephu) that has a small temple. On his retreat from Nepal it is here he saw the Buddha of long life. The trekking takes two to three hours and the panoramic view around are spectacular.
The Punakha Dzong is a grand structure.
The grand and visually appealing dzongs of Bhutan are scattered all over the country. Most have same architecture with large central courtyards, temple of Buddha and central tower, each with its own significance. Each dzong happens to be a monastery, administrative centre and fortress rolled into one. One has to be decently dressed to visit these dzongs.
Visiting the Punakha Dzong in spring, it looked stunning skirted by lilac jacaranda trees on the banks of the river Mo Chhu. Built in the 1600s as a fortress, it was the centre of Government till 1955. Today its importance lies in being the winter residence of Bhutan’s central monastic body led by His Highness the Je Khenpo.
Trashi Chhoe Dzong in Thimphu looks spectacular by the side of a manicured lawn and has a large courtyard. Built in the 18th century, it was enlarged in 1962 to accommodate both the national Government and the central monastic body, when Thimphu became the capital. Just below its premise is the Bhutan king’s modest home in the forest.
Rinpung Dzong overlooking the Paro valley is steeped in history and originally a monastery (built in 10th century by Guru Padmasambhava) was strengthened as a fortress in 1646 to combat Tibetan invasions. It houses sacred masks and costumes.
It appeared that the whitewashed dzongs were splashed with colours. The Paro Tsechu bedazzled me with the sheer energy of dancing monks sporting elaborate costumes and exotic masks. The Paro Tsechu is held in honour of Guru Rinpoche who spread Buddhism in Bhutan. This is one of the most awaited events in Bhutanese religious calendar and tourists plan their itinerary around this mesmerising exotic festival. Tsechu (means “tenth day”) are the biggest festivals of Bhutan held on the tenth day of the lunar month. in each dzongkhag (district) in respective dzongs in different months. For tourists, it is the best way to experience the ancient living culture of Bhutan. Since the crowd has grown too big nowadays masked dances are held outside the dzong.
8. Dochula Pass
The weather was cool in Thimphu but it became colder on our ascent to Dochula Pass (Between Thimphu and Punakha) At an elevation of 3,100m after a 12-km drive, you are in the lap of nature with snowy Himalayan ranges looming in the background. Even at noon it was foggy, and chilly weather deprived us of a clear view. However, it was refreshing just to stand there gazing at the hills, cypress trees and thousands of fluttering flags across the pass. The Buddhist belief that inscribed mantras in prayer flags will be transmitted across the land by the wind and spread goodness so we see colourful flags at every pass, valley, bridges and houses. Predominantly in five colours, they represent the five colours of the elements — blue (sky), white (clouds), red (fire), green (water) and yellow (earth).
One striking feature here is 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens (stupas) located in a central hillock. They look beautiful and were built by Queen mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk as a tribute to Bhutanese soldiers who fought with bravery with Indian insurgents in December 2003.
9. Centenary Farmers’ Market (Thimphu)
The largest domestic market for vegetables and foodstuff on the banks of the Wang Chhu attracts farmers from across the tiny kingdom. Built in 2008, the two-storied building has 400 stalls neatly stacked with farm and meat produce. Some things look exotic to tourists like the Persimmon (a fruit) and curly green fern fronds (Fiddlehead ferns). Phub Dorji, a farmer from Punakha, explained that the latter is a traditional delicacy called nakay that is cooked with cheese. Among the heaps of greens like spinach, lettuce, asparagus, cabbage and beans, one could see datshi, red chillies, and varieties of mushrooms, red and white rice. From one corner of the market emanates very unpleasant odour and is not for the faint-hearted. I quickly turned away from stalls selling dried fish, freshly slaughtered beef and pork. In winter they even sell yak legs (Wednesday closed). Across the cantilever foot bridge from the farmers’ market are a number of stalls selling fabrics, handicrafts and Buddhist religious items. Remember that whatever you purchase may not be Bhutan-made, for a bulk of things come from Nepal.
10. Drive from Paro to Phuentsholing
The entire kingdom of Bhutan is mountain, valleys and forests. When one travels across the country there is beauty all around, created by nature and preserved by the Bhutanese. Two-thirds of country is forested and cutting of trees are highly regulated. Though it is a pleasure to trek or drive anywhere in Bhutan, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive through dense forested hills from Paro to Phuentsholing. It takes six hours to cover the distance of 175 km. Most of the route after village Gedu was covered in fog even at 11 o’clock in the morning. So you know why writers call it the kingdom in the clouds. Though the dense fog trailed us, life went on a leisurely pace in villages on the way. Local ladies had set up stalls to sell datshi that tasted sour to me. Amid the fog and green I could spot the Chukha Hydroelectric project built by Indians. I also took pride in engineers who built roads there in 1962. What better way to pay homage to our Indian engineers and the army by drinking tea at a canteen run by the Indian army along the way.
Keywords: Bhutan tourism, Bhutan sightseeing, 'Gross National Happiness', National Folk Heritage Museum, Ema Datsi, Paro valley, Taktsang Monastery, Punakha valley, Dzongs, Paro Tsechu, Dochula Pass, Centenary Farmers’ Market, Phuentsholing