‘World’s happiest country’, that’s how Bhutan has been projected for some time now – measured on the scale of Gross National Happiness and positing a philosophy that says ‘material and spiritual development happen together’. Travelling through Bhutan can be one of the most serendipitous experiences for people caught up in the mad rush of modern living, says Ranjita Biswas who recently visited and found many memorable moments
Bhutan is known to be the last standing Buddhist Kingdom today. It also has consciously tried to preserve much of its culture since the 17th Century. To avoid the traps of globalisation and over-tourism, it also put a limit on the entry of number of tourists. Bhutan was also one of the first countries to completely shut off its borders as COVID-19 surged worldwide. It opened its doors to tourists only in September 2022. As for us three women travelling on our own, it was a happy experience, indeed. The country is very safe for women travellers.
The royal family of the Wanchuks is highly revered by the people and the young king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Druk Gyalpo, is looked upon as the head of welfare state.
Our introduction to Bhutan was through the Phuentsholing check-point where we reached from Bagdogra Airport. The railhead at New Jalpaiguri is also preferred by many.
Houses with colourful facades in Bhutanese architectural style greeted us on the way to capital Thimphu, giving us a taste of the ambience. On the way we stopped for lunch and tasted Ema Datshi, the national dish, a concoction made with chilli, local cheese and excellent local potato. After checking into the hotel, we went out to explore the downtown dominated by the clock tower. For us city people used to the hurrying mode, it was refreshing to see men in traditional Gho and women in ankle-length Kira walking around the streets in a relaxed manner.
While ogling at shop windows selling beautiful local beads and local handicrafts, we also discovered that Bhutan does not have traffic jams and, not even traffic lights! Vehicles stop at the zero crossing for pedestrians to cross. Thankfully, you cannot hear honking either.
The next morning, we set out for Kuensel Phodrang, also known as Buddha Point, perched at an altitude of 2655 metres. The massive 169-ft golden Buddha Dordenma statue is visible even from the valley below. Photography inside the hall underneath is not allowed and so I could only etch in memory the beautiful frescoes describing the Sakyamuni’s life and the rows and rows of miniature Buddhas, some 125,000, lining the walls
The Memorial Chorten, built in Tibetan stupa architectural style immediately creates a serene ambience. We observed the visitors whirling the prayer bells while reciting prayers. The Bhutanese are a very religious people. Mahayana Buddhism is the official religion. The country celebrates throughout the year many Tshechus – traditional Buddhism festivals and religious events.
A dash to the Royal Takin Reserve introduced us to Bhutan’s national animal Takin, now in the ‘vulnerable’ category. The bovine animal is associated with religious history and mythology of the country. The Textile Museum showcasing many weaving styles of the country is worth visiting too.
A three-hour drive from Thimphu takes you to Punakha, old capital of Bhutan. The drive itself is breathtaking, winding through a mountain pass and guarded by a majestic mountain range with glimpses of valleys below. The most important place to visit here is the iconic Punakha Dzong, symbolic of Bhutan’s essence. Dzong means fort in Bhutanese. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. Some call it Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness).
Two rivers, Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (females) girdle Punakha Dzong. Standing on the arched wooden bridge that leads to the Dzong and feeding fish in the almost transparent stream as did the locals, you are bound to forget that there is world beyond where traffic jams, foul air, and streets chock a bloc with people exist.
The Dzong premises with a wide courtyard and a temple require a stiff climb up the stairs but it’s worth it. It contains many precious relics from the days when successive kings reigned the kingdom over the valley. The guide pointed to a huge tree that was planted by Jawaharlal Nehru on his visit as prime minister.
From the Dzong, people make a beeline to the nearby Suspension Bridge, one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world. It connects the Dzong to the rest of the valley. The iron chain bridge shook a little as we walked along; with the recent memory of the Morbi bridge collapse in Gujarat still fresh in mind we were hesitant to walk the whole way. But people seemed to do it well indeed.
The following day, we set off on a long drive of 140 km to Paro ensconced in the beautiful Paro Valley, our last stop of the trip. Historically, it lies on two ancient trade routes to Tibet. To know more about Bhutan’s culture and history, a visit to the National Museum is a must. The circular building was built in 1649 as a watchtower to keep an eye on invaders from Tibet. Spread over five floors, the museum contains a rich treasure of tankhas, art pieces, animal masks, dresses, armour, old cooking tools and vessels, and many more. Alas, no photography is allowed to savour the images back home.
Quaint it might seem, but making a stopover to watch a plane landing at the Paro International Airport, the only airport in Bhutan, is not unusual. And for a good reason. Landing at the airport is supposed to be one of the most challenging in the world. A plane went round a hill, and suddenly we saw it appearing from the sky to land straightway. Apparently, pilots have to be specially trained to fly on this route. In the afternoon, our guide took us to watch an archery competition, the national sport of Bhutan. Its archery team takes part in the Olympics, too.
Driving up to Chele La Pass at approximately 13,083 feet connecting the valley of Paro and Haa (beyond lies China) seemed to be de rigueur. So we set off to explore the highest motorable road in Bhutan next day. A good idea it was. A stunning view of the snow-capped Himalayas, especially Mt Jhomolari, Bhutan’s most sacred peak at 22,000 feet, dense forests of spruce and larch, waterfalls and mountain springs, rhododendron forests and yaks grazing here and there, suddenly make you think, we talk about Switzerland, just look what we have next door!
A confession: Taktsang Palphug (Tiger’s Nest) up in the crevices, the monastery made more famous by celebrities, we observed only from the valley. We didn’t have the stomach to climb up those steep steps, neither did the guide encourage us thinking of our ‘senior’ legs, I suppose. Well, you can’t do everything, even if you want to, in one life. In any case, even generally the climbs to the monasteries and other destinations is not that easy, they are more suitable for hilly people.
Facts to note
- After the opening up in 2022, new norms have been set:
- A Sustainable Development Fee of Rs 1,200 per head per day is levied
- Entry fee to monasteries and other places is Rs1,000 per head.
- Accommodations have to be certified by the tourism department and must at least be 3-star.
- Foreigners have to be accompanied by certified guides
- Indian tourists now have to carry passports for entry and also health insurance certificate.