“Bhutan? Why Bhutan? Thought Barcelona or Rio would be more your league dude?”
Not one, but quite a few such exclamation from friends and colleagues alike did make me rethink my travel plans in the middle of May – it’s a different story that we Indians love to stereotype people and then we get stuck onto a reputation for life ! But it wasn’t the need to overcome this typecasting issue that made me finalize my trip to Bhutan. It was, simply put, the lure of the unexpected and the tantalizing thrill of a unique adventure!
Having done enough of the pretty and somewhat clichéd European circuit, and the sun kissed shores of South East Asia, a week in the relatively unspoken of, little written of and minutely heard of Bhutan, seemed the perfect getaway from maddening Mumbai. And as luck would have it, we chanced upon a very knowledgeable and accomplished tour operator completely off the internet whose extremely prompt and efficient revert on a perfect travel itinerary strengthened our resolve and more importantly, wetted our appetite for the intriguing Land of the Thunder Dragon.
So we were on our way soon, armed with hiking boots (the countryside is abundant in hiking and trekking trails), umbrellas (Monsoon hits the country end of May), wads of Indian rupees (the country happily accepts our currency, but mainly in 100 rupee denominations, hence the bundles), our passports (visa is on arrival but passports are a must), our trusted Lonely Planet and oodles and oodles of raw excitement – a feeling which had been missing for quite some time, after a plethora of the usual touristy vacations and trips.
Landing into Paro
The rush of adventure in Bhutan starts much before you land, as your plane starts its remarkable descent. The only airport in the country in the western region of Paro, is cozily ensconced between the lush green mountains that can be seen uninterrupted from your plane seat. The last 20 min of the unforgettable descent is going up and down the towering Himalayas, an experience only reserved in movies thus far. The flight to Paro from Calcutta is itself just over one hour, in a small ATR operated Druk Air flight. Its short and sweet, and a fitting precursor to what you are landing into (literally)!
Paro International airport is a small, but pretty and quaint complex of green buildings, which is tucked away in the Paro valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. And the one thing you feel, as you get out of the place and breathe in the fresh mountain air is – happy. I guess for no reason is Bhutan the happiest place on earth JAnd that’s where the interesting theory comes to mind.
Bhutan is unique as its the only country in the world to measure GNH (Gross National Happiness) – an index that was introduced by King JigmeSingyeWangchuckand this measures more than just the smiles on the faces of Bhutan’s people. The index measures economic development and prosperity from the perspective of doing good for society. But even beyond the definition, its unmistakable to realize that happiness is in abundance in this little Himalayan kingdom – the small population, rich natural resources, excellent weather conditions, the contentment in people’s lives, the relative disconnect from the maddening development of the modern world, the strong belief and shadow of Buddhism and the King’s benevolent rule.All these add up to sense of contentment, seldom seen elsewhere, especially in the most progressive countries of our time. So much so that there is little crime in this country, and safety is paramount – the only ‘annoyance’ that the Lonely Planet lists is barking dogs, especially at night…and that is something we also quickly realized at our first stop – Thimphu.
Waiting for us at the airport was Namgey, our happy Bhutanese driver cum guide cum Man Friday. He was to be at our behest for the next seven days, driving us around Western Bhutan, arranging for our permits, finding us food in the middle of nowhere, giving us moral (and in some cases physical) support during long and arduous treks, communicating with the locals and pretty much showing us Bhutan, inside out. We hopped into the Korean SUV (given the mountainous roads and steep paths, you cant have anything lesser – though the Indian tour operator we had been considering in parallel had the audacity to suggest we use a Maruti Alto to traverse the length and breadth of this rugged country). The car was well stocked with Bollywood music of the 70s, 80s and 90s, and English music of similar genres. Not surprisingly, Namgey largely conversed with us in Hindi – a large part of the population in Bhutan spoke the language, most of them having picked it up from Indian movies and songs!
From Paro we drove for two hours across picturesque valleys, hills, gorges and streams to reach the capital Thimphu, our stop for the first two days. Thimphuhas the best restaurants, nightlife, shopping (largely souvenirs and tourist stuff that is) as also the Taj – grandly called the TashiTaj, an imposing Dzong like structure in the heart of the city. Our hotel – the Kisa, a relatively new property was comfortable, cosy and well located, overlooking the main archery ground of the city. Some of the attractions in the peaceful city included the TrashiChhoeDzong (a lovely little uphill trek from our hotel) and the weekend market – where you will find fresh fruits and vegetables at one end, followed by an assortment of handicrafts, souvenirs, and artifacts. Bargaining at the well-lined colorful stalls was of course rampant and necessary to the spirit of the market. But as far as souvenirs go, we found a much better range and quality of local artifacts at the many inviting shops that lined the main street of Thimphu, largely around the Clock Tower area.
All in all, the streets of the Capital were lined up with quaint shops (reminiscent of a pretty European village) and you could spend a couple of days just walking up and down the streets, letting time go past slowly, and the fast pace of modern cities long forgotten. We wrapped up our first day at Thimphu fittingly with a drink at one of the small bars in the city called ‘The Zone’ – the food interestingly was local red rice and yellow dal, a lot like what we are used to in India.
Our second day in Thimphu also included an impromptu trek that our local guide rustled up at our insistence starting a little to the North of Thimphu. This slightly challenging climb (certainly challenging for unfit city bred folks like us) went up almost vertically to end at a small temple. While we had huffed and puffed our way up, the descent down was much easier, and the rain gods of Thimphu just about spared us with the downpour timed perfectly just as we reached the base. Hungry, cold and wet, we then got what we considered the highlight of Thimphu – a warm invitation into a cozy hut (which actually housed a small grocery shop) where we sat on the floor with half a dozen Buddhist monks, and had steaming Maggi (you will find this everywhere in Bhutan) and local tea, while the monsoon showers made their first appearance with a vehemence, that was intriguing as well as breathtakingly beautiful.
We ended the day with a drink at the TajTashi, designed and constructed as an imposing architectural spectacle towering over the city but with elegant and warm interiors – vintage Taj, you could call it. Having unsuccessfully searched for chicken momos for the last two days (pork and beef are easily available, chicken seemed a rarity) we finally had our fill here along with some local and may I add, extremely strong, Bhutanese wine.
On way to Phobjikha Valley via Dochu La
We left Thimphu on the third day’s morning for the famed Phobjikha valley. Enroute we passed some of Bhutan’s best scenery and sights. We drove through the Dochu La pass – one of the highest points in Western Bhutan.On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Bhutan Himalayas – and this day was one of those! Breathtaking (almost 180 degree) sweeping views of the snow capped mountains in the distance, lush green hills in the middle and random clouds floating intermittently and moodily in between. This was contrasted by the stunning sight of numerous chortens (108 in number actually) and myriad colorful prayer flags that fluttered merrily behind them, with pristine rhododendron forests hugging the hill side. A place to just stop, silently admire, and preserve somewhere in your innermost realms, and reluctantly move on.
The next destination was sub-tropical Wangdue where, in addition to a traditional lunch of potato, red rice and dal, we visited the WangduePhodrangDzongkhag, a dramatically located Dzong built along a sharp ridge, with imposing views of the valley below. Two interesting things that set this Dzong aside from the many others around are firstly the panoramic views of the valley below and secondly, the cacti on the slopes just outside the entrance. Flourishing cacti in Bhutan’s climate seemed “offbeat” to us until we read that this was planted on the King’s orders a long time ago to thwart invaders attempts of climbing up the slopes.
The three hour drive to the Phobjikha valley was superb as the vegetation graduallymetamorphosed from sub-tropical valleys to lush pine foliage, and the furtive rain made the winding journey a somewhat more dangerous but vastly more exciting. And what lay in store at the destination was out of a fairy tale in itself. The Phobjikha valley, on the western slopes of the Black Mountains and on the edge of the JigmeSingyeWangchuck National Park is mainly known for two things – the winter population of the famous black necked crane (which given our time of travel we missed out on) and the best hiking country in Bhutan (read relatively flat and easy) – which we did make the most of!
Our early evening arrival at our Hotel Dewachen, was welcomed by some steaming cups of tea, which were all the more memorable given the accompanying downpour and the ever rising cold. The room was wooden – large, stylish, complete with a proper fire place and in an antique sort of a way, right out of a folk tale. Electricity in the hotel (and in the area) is only from 6pm -9pm each day – hence we needed to adapt accordingly. Dinner (which consisted of some great local cuisine potato, pork, cabbage soup and dal) and drinks (the local vintage Bhutanese scotch) and the usual pre-sleeping activities had to be completed by 8.45pm. At 8.55 pm there was a mock electricity switch off, to warn the guests and at 9 pm sharp, it was lights off. The day had been tiring but not so much as to hit the sack this early and the best one could do was use the many candles provided in the room and spend a blissful couple of hours reading…A life so far removed from the realities of our modern day rat race, that it did seem like living a fairy tale.
The next morning was cold, grey and windy and the accompanying rain looked like literally dampening our plans to go trekking in this gorgeous valley. But seeking advice from the locals that it would soon stop, and braving the mild drizzle that the rain soon become, we set out for the three hour Gangte Nature trail, a fairly long yet relatively easy trek that began from the local school and passed over beautiful plains and dense green valleys before ascending into pine territory and finally taking us past a gurgling stream just behind the famed GangteGoemba. Cold, tired but contented with our long walk, we were more than happy to finally find our loyal guide Namgey waiting for us patiently at the summit. Exhaustion aside, the one feeling that still lingered on consistently was happiness – there was no question about it.
After a swift tour of the Gangte Goemba, we pushed on to the Punakha valley – again passing some exotic scenery and stunning landscapes along the way. And by early evening we had reached Punakha – our hotel Meri Puensum Resort was one of the better ones tucked away in the hills above the main valley, overlooking the city, which did not have much to offer in terms of places to stay. The room perhaps wasn’t as quaint or interesting as in Phobjikha, but the hotel was nice, had a cute bar and a lovely garden gazebo which was ideal for snoozing, reading or just sipping tea, as the rain drummed incessantly on the bright green slanting roof. The food here was the best we ended up having in Bhutan. The chicken momos were a definitive highlight (just the right Tibetan flavor that we associate in Delhi with) and the Indian fare served was pretty good too. However the most memorable part of that hotel stay was the view from the gazebo with the entire Punakha valley stretched beyond, as long as one’s gaze would take you – the winding river, a couple of wooden cross bridges, stepped slopes with potatoes and maize, the brown wooden houses of Punakha down in the distance and finally the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas. A canvas of reality and imagination best left to vision and vision alone.
We began day 5 with a visit to the most famous Dzong in Bhutan (the first king was crowned here in 1907) – the PunakhaDzong, and easily the most impressive and beautiful we had seen till date. Located strategically at the confluence of the Mho Chhu (Mother river) and the Pho Chhu (Father river), the entrance is as startling as the building itself and you need to cross the river through a cable suspension bridge. Interestingly, just below the Dzong, you can actually make out the different colors of the two rivers as they conjoin at this strategic point – a spectacle that Namgey showed us with glee. The Dzong itself feels like a fortress with huge wooden doors and imposing facades at the entrance. There are hundreds of steep stairs that you can climb to get an awesome view of the river and valleys; in addition there are enough statues and murals of the Buddha and the great Guru Rinpoche to see and explore in the nearby halls, including a giant statue of the Buddha where a quiet prayer makes your wishes come true. A guided tour is a must in this spacious Dzong, because here resides a lot of the history, character and color that you come to associate with Bhutan.
Before we retraced our steps to the delightful little city of Paro, where two action packed days of trekking awaited us, we stopped by for another hike at ChimiLhakhang, built after the unorthodox saint of Bhutan – Lama DrukpaKunley, also known as the ‘the divine madman’, thanks to his outrageous and often obscene and crazy antics. Interestingly, he was as famous for his sexual conquests as his teachings, and the houses in the area commonly have flying phalluses pained outside – to protect the homes and ward off evil. The main temple is on a hillock for which you need to trek through myriad rice fields and water catchment areas. This is not a difficult walk but a memorable one nevertheless, as you balance yourself on narrow strips of soil with water laden paddy fields on either side. The unique aspect about the small temple is the wooden bones and phalluses that are part of the main section, and which are used for giving blessings to visitors when you make an offering. A slightly bizarre though interesting place to visit, if not for the idiosyncrasies of Kunley (which are aptly reflected in the make up of the place) then for the charming and peaceful trek that turned out be the apt precursor to the two hectic days of strenuous hikes that lay ahead.
Paro – Cheli la and Kila Nunnery
The drive back to Paro was beautiful but teasingly familiar, because we went around Thimphu and part of the journey was what we had already done on day 1, after our arrival into the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Our hotel and base (camp) for the final two days was the TashiNamgyei Resort, a brand new property overlooking the river and also the quaint little Paro Airport.
Day 6 dawned nice and bright, thankfully, because this was all about hiking, walking and gazing at the Bhutanese Himalayas in all their pristine and pure glory. We packed a nice picnic lunch from the hotel and drove off towards the legendary HaaValley which lies South of Paro. We decided to approach it from the Cheli La, which is supposed to be the highest motorable road in Bhutan. But the claims aside, the stop at Cheli La (where we devoured alooparanthas in the midst of sweeping cold winds and chilly rain), treated us to some dazzling and stunning scenery of the Himalayas, including some astonishing 180 degree views of Mount Jhomolhari (7314 m), the most sacred peak of Bhutan. While the intermittent hail and occasional bone chilling winds (and all this in May!) added to the aura, you really had to stop short in your tracks and for half an hour, do nothing but gaze and breathe slowly into the magical imagery all around – snow capped peaks glistening in the struggling sun at one end; the quiet, pristine and mysterious Haa Valley down below at the other, while prayer flags of different colors, sizes and even intent, fluttered wildly around us. It simply was a once in a lifetime experience.
We decided against the entire drive to the Haa Valley based on Namgey’s advice, and instead retraced our drive a little back to come to a point where began the supposed 45 minute hike to the oldest nunnery in Bhutan – the Kila nunnery, established as a meditation site in the 9th century, and having 32 nuns in residence. And what encountered us was a view that was breath taking no doubt from down below, but also one which caused us to gulp in sheer apprehension – the nunnery was perched very high up on a vertical cliff, looking at least three hours away, and involving a mountain climb which looked like as high and steep as the ones I had seen in the movie Cliffhanger! Nevertheless, reassured by our guide, and not deterred by the pellets of rain that had again started to fall, we zipped up our jackets, armed ourselves with our umbrellas, took a deep breath and began what seemed like an intense ascent more inspired by war movies and James Bond type missions involving World War II alcazars nestled on top of enemy cliffs….
In the end, 45 minutes was someone’s idea of a motivational joke or perhaps we had started the trek from a different path. It took us 1.5 hours to trudge through rhododendron laden pine forests, balance our way across numerous creeks and streams, drag ourselves over sheer rocks and 60 degree slopes, cower under boulders when the hail storm lashed at us just a few minutes away from the nunnery and almost blew away our umbrellas, and while it seemed almost undoable at times, we made it to the nunnery – frozen, wet, exhausted but content at having experienced the best trek of our lives. It was raw adventure at its best, the adrenaline never slowed up and the entire experience was surreal. The nunnery was like it was still in the 9th century – frozen in time, and the sheer drop on the side of the cliff on which it was perched dramatically, did give it the feel and look of a fortress, which seemed impenetrable. And while the resident nuns, dressed in bright red robes, chanted their prayers in unison and stole curious glances at us, we were treated to some local biscuits and hot steaming cups of tea, which were, at that place and time and situation, nothing but priceless. The trek down, though seemingly daunting given the impending evening and threat of more rain, was quite easy, and we were down in the car, victorious and emphatic, in less than an hour. We spent the larger part of the evening strolling the streets of Paro and browsing through souvenir stores, though the quality and quantity of which seemed quite a lot of better in Thimphu.
Paro – Tiger’s Nest
And thus dawned day 7 – sadly our last day in this incredible country which was saved for the trek up to the legendary Tiger’s Nest. Also known as TaktshangGoemba, it is the most well known of Bhutan’s monasteries, precariously perched in the side of a sheer cliff 900 m above the Paro valley, and it is claimed that it is held together only by the hairs of the angels! This name actually means ‘Tiger’s Nest’; legend has it that Guru Ripoche flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress to subdue the local demon, and then proceeded to meditate here in a cave for three months. The only way is to walk up to the mountain and while horses are available to ferry you, the spectacular views around and the thrilling sense of adventure makes it too tempting to not trek up. But given our strenuous and exhilarating trek of the previous day, our legs were really not too tempted to take up the challenge. Nevertheless, we began with the climb, knowing that exactly at the halfway mark, there was a lovely cafeteria where one could enjoy a stunning view of the monastery, sip a cup of tea and either rejuvenate and proceed, or even contentedly turn back.
The trek was easier in the way that it was predictable, had firm steps and 40 degree slopes and wide paths, unlike the adrenaline pumping and even nervous moments that the Kila nunnery trek had provided. While the surrounding views of the valley and more so of the looming Tiger’s Nest in the distance were awe inspiring, the problem was that the trek turned out to be too ‘touristy’ – and there were just too many visitors walking up and down – the sheer thrill of a virgin voyage, with some element of delicious danger, was sadly missing. Not to mention the pain and aches that our urban bodies now exhibited, after three medium and one intense trek already under our belt in the last five days! So when we did reach the pretty cafeteria at the halfway mark, we were in two minds. The dramatically close view of the spectacular monastery was very inviting – and though the rocky cliffs up ahead looked treacherous and steep, the overall aura sort of egged us on to continue. But then the weatherman took the decision – it was soon pouring (hail accompanying) and we folded our umbrellas, sat in the sheltered garden outside the cosy cafeteria, and sampled some great local food while we enjoyed the dazzling views on offer. We didn’t really have to do the ‘touristy’ checklist thing – our trek the day before was far better, the views from here as good as from the top and the joints in our body begging for some pampering (after all, we were on a vacation). So we turned back from the halfway mark and conserved our energies for our last evening in Bhutan – after all, that had to be memorable too!
Dinner that evening was at the fanciest resort hotel in town – the Uma Paro Hotel, which among other things, boasts of some top class spa facilities, awesome rooms, state of the art technology and also the World’s biggest book on display in their library! Not surprising then that Leonardo De Caprio had chosen to stay at this hotel – he was in Bhutan on a promotion tour for the WWF, and incidentally had passed us by with his entourage on our way down from Tiger’s Nest, though declining (very disappointingly) for any photos! The service was superb, the food well made and the ambience quite magical – a fitting end to the fairy tale that we lived through, in Bhutan.
So what was it, in those seven days in the Land of the Thunder Dragon that was so memorable? Yes – the sights and scenes, the local color and flavors, the ways and weather, the discovery of views and vagaries of the flora, the hikes and the walks, the Dzongs and the quaint hotels were an integral part of the delightful experience; but then, there was something else that set this little country apart from other perhaps prettier and more exotic destinations around the globe. And that one thing is what it thrives on and is now best known for – happiness. Be it the ever smiling people or the easy to be in place, Bhutan does simply what many other places don’t – it makes you happy. You come back with a smile on your face, a song on your lips and a jump in your stride – even if it was for a week, at least we found some bagfuls of happiness.