So, of all the places in the world, what were we doing in Bhutan? Here is a list, in no specific order (apart from No.1 😀 ), with reasons as to why we ventured into discovering the Land of the Thunder Dragons this summer and how we explored the country that pioneered the concept of measuring the development of a place by its ‘Gross National Happiness’ as against its Gross Domestic Product.
The People – My number one reason
Our guide, Karma, did mention about the country facing a lot of challenges in the form of transformation in culture on one side and a few wanting to break free from the so far unchanged and timeless style of architecture unique to the Bhutanese on the other.
With the metaphoric shrinking of the world into what they fondly call the ‘global village’, you may say that it is only natural for these cultural shifts and morphing buildings to happen.
But the conscious effort the royal government of Bhutan and its people are investing in preserving their unique culture is the biggest reason we wanted to visit the “happiest place on Earth”.
Bhutan was once upon a time home to many great sages and legendary saints but the human race here know the difference between spirituality, politics and happiness and they know too well not to mix them. They make sure that even their everyday clothing speak volumes about what they strongly believe in. Gho, a traditional knee-length robe the men wear, folded backwards and then tied around the waist with a belt they call kera, signifies the importance of family ties. The white cuffs stand for purity and the border that runs all through this kimono-looking dress represents the wisdom that they trust should run all through their being, like the border does the Gho; to stay true to what they feel, to know not to commingle religion and politics ever, to not make political decisions that maybe be influenced by religion.
They are not stressed when they can’t get their hands on the latest iPhone. Neither are they unhappy if another one has it. They are just happy to be alive.
The hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple
There had to be a short hike to prepare us for the long trek to the Tiger’s Nest. The walk towards the Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten was, at first, just that warm up trip for us until we experienced the magnificence of the temple. The view from the top of the four-storeyed temple (which is an engineering marvel that is composed of Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese architectural style) is to die for.
The temple sits in the Punakha valley and the view from the head of the temple is as incredible as the walk towards it through the rustic but ideal countryside.
Driving across the great Dochula Pass
This mountain pass which was at an elevation of about 3,000 metres above sea level was the highest point we were getting to in the entire trip. We were on our way from Thimpu to Punakha and we had to stop to breathe in the pure, chilly air before we gasped at the stunning 360 degree panoramic view of a cluster of 108 stupas called as ‘Druk Wangyal Chortens’ overlooking the giant Himalayas and the snow covered mountain ranges in the background.
These chortens were built in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives during a battle in December 2003, against the Assamese rioters from India.
After sipping on some hot chocolate and watching in awe what my super talented cousin was sketching, we hopped into the traveller and took a left towards the foggy Punakha valley that led us to the old capital city of Bhutan – the unparalleled Punakha.
A stroll through Punakha Dzong
Walking into this beautiful fortress (dzong) adorned by the lush lilac-coloured jacaranda trees which was blooming with mauve flowers made us feel that they were beaming at us. The first step in and we knew we were stepping into the 17th century Bhutan.
Though not the first dzong in the country, the winter capital of Bhutan arguably has the most stunning fortresses of them all. The strategic positioning of the Punakha Dzong at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers adds drama to the entire picture. No one can take a bad photograph here!
The elaborate painting on the walls and frescoes on the ceiling depicts the life of Buddha and speaks of the 3 vices depicted through the wheel of fortune. According to the Bhutanese belief, “roaster represents desire, anger is personified by the snake and the boar portrays ignorance,” said my favourite storyteller, Karma.
While trying to get a glimpse of the group picture we took in front of the fortress, we knew that it was for a reason that this majestic structure is called the ‘palace of great happiness and bliss’.
White water rafting in Punakha
Since we couldn’t get enough of the magnificent town and its fortress, we decided to go for a white water rafting through the Mo Chhu. Though the river had only a few rapids and currents, we enjoyed the breathtakingly beautiful scenery around us. While teaching us the technics (as many of us were rafting for the first time. Yes, don’t judge me. Rishikesh is on my mind!), the oarsman told us that we were rowing through the female river because she was always the gentler, deeper and more graceful one, unlike the male river that mostly flows rapidly, just a few meters away.
“Typical of men, they are rough, shallow and graceless anyway” – the feminist in me whispered! 😉
When we were rafting, we crossing a rundown house on the banks of the river; and it felt like every corner of that building had a story to say. We didn’t have to ask though. The oarsman recited a touching tale of two ordinary people (a poor young man named Singye and a charming lady born into a rich family named Galem) and their extraordinary love story.
As he went on with the story, we saw the Bhutanese version of the Romeo and Juliet unfold in front of an alluring backdrop.
While it was about time for the two rivers to meet and merge, a few of us took the risk of jumping confidently into the freezing cold waters of Mo Chhu.
We felt the caress of her on us while she gently embraced us and took us with the flow, along with the raft.
The luck of watching an archery match
While we were waiting for the Punakha Dzong to open, we decided to move towards a ground next to the fortress. Looks like Goddess Fortuna decided to bless us that day, Karma saw that there was an archery match going on there. One of the participants ended up being our driver’s, Ngawang’s, friend. Now we had to watch it.
Archery was apparently declared the national sport of the Kingdom in the early 1970s. Since began their bow and arrow journey. It is said that the Bhutanese archers managed to drive away a lot of the Tibetan invasions in the past, with their skill in the sport.
There are a lot of images of Gods holding the bow and arrow and the Bhutanese secretly adore them a tad bit more than the others.
For the clear love for the game, the country hosts a lot of archery tournaments and competitions around the year and we managed to witness one. Are we lucky or not!
The sight of the largest sitting Buddha in the world
While entering the largest city of the country, we noticed a huge Buddha statue sitting gracefully on top of a hill. The Great Buddha Dordenma, atop the capital city of Thimpu, was build to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck and is an epitome of tranquility. Here, Gautama Buddha is seated in his usual serene half-closed eyes posture with a gentle smile on his lips, and is surrounded by statues of the Goddess of Peace and Protection whom the believers of Buddhism affectionately call Tara.
The throne that Buddha sits on is a large meditation hall with thousands of smaller Buddha figurines, each of which, like the larger than life representation of Buddha are made of bronze and covered elegantly in thin gold.
The prayer chamber resonated peace and it felt like the happiness of the whole world was contained within the four walls of the hall. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to click pictures inside.
Exploring Simply Bhutan and meeting Pema Tshering
The trip to Simply Bhutan was a last minute addition to our last day in Thimpu. The gang was quite excited when we heard from Karma that this place was a living museum that gave an outsider a glimpse into a typical Bhutanese household. We got a chance to take some sips of Arag (the famous Bhutanese alcoholic beverage made mostly from rice), play a round of their national game (archery), try their traditional dress and a lot more.
We knew that this would be a good introduction to their simple life, deep-rooted cultural beliefs and exclusive architecture. But not in the wildest of my dreams did I expect to meet a 29-year old skillful craftsman there. In one of the stalls sat Pema Tshering, engrossed in his work until we reached his work space.
We didn’t know that Pema was a celebrity in Bhutan, until he asked our guide to show us one of the school textbooks in which he has an entire chapter dedicated to him. He was born with cerebral palsy but with his limited mobility, he creates remarkable foot crafts, drawings and wooden sculptures.
To buy one of his paintings for my parents, with his autograph on it, was truly an honour.
The magic called Tiger’s Nest
We started slightly earlier than the usual days for the trek to Taktsang Palphug Monastery, fondly called Tiger’s Nest, tucked in the cliffside of the Paro valley.
Though the route was uneven the first half of the trek, the ascend got manageable with stone steps that followed. We saw determined 70 and 80 year olds climb the hill and that was motivation enough to keep moving forward and take us to the mystifying site nestled amidst the sacred environment.
A few metres away from the monastery, we stopped to take a breath and catch a glimpse of the Taktsang that looked nothing less than a flawless tiara decorated with jewels placed perfectly well on the crown of this beautiful country.
The entire trip through Bhutan was an epic journey and without the mythical and magical vibes that the Tiger’s Nest gave, this vacation wouldn’t have be fulfilling.