Saturday, June 25, 2016

Must read on the things to do in The Nation of Thunder Dragon. Leave a trail in Bhutan and learn how to respect nature from the people who measure their development in happiness.

 A short trip of 5 days into a small kingdom not so well known to the outside until the late 1990's. The kingdom of thunder dragon does have their own identity tightly held in the folds of mighty Himalayan ranges. It is spread on the south eastern part of the Himalayas. Bhutan as it is commonly known in the outside world has a wide range of topography, with tropical lowlands in the South with the border with India to the snow-capped peaks in the north, along the China border. The climate and the temperature hence fluctuate drastically as you climb and unclimb the landlocked country. A flat continuous land is a rarity.

Bhutan maintained its isolationism which was favored to it by its geography, monarchy and its serene culture. Bhutan has a ubiquitous lush green carpet (grass is always fresh this side of Indian fence), with misty clouds kissing and embracing the rugged mountains and how can you miss the happy people? Smiling is like a tradition, something ingrained in people from where we get the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). 

The serene sitting Buddha overlooking the capital city of Thimphu

Till the late 1990's, TV and internet were controlled, the current avatar is kind of Bhutan 2.0, with economy looking up, higher purchasing power and tourism on the rise. At the same time it is controlled to make sure it does not influence much on its cultural and religious fabric. 

On the other hand the standard of living is quite high (prosperous) with a population of just 750,000 people, that comes as a surprise to many Indians traveling there. Majority of it follows Buddhism, with symbols and colorful prayer flags throughout the country on all houses and commercial buildings. Strangely something you cannot ignore are symbols and graffiti of phallus (penis), on quite a few homes, shops and apartments. When I asked  my guide, he explained with a very straight face, that it is a symbol which acts like a shield from evil forces, bad luck and malice. 

The phallus can be found almost everywhere

The Chorten Temple in Thimphu
The culture and administration of Bhutan is heavily influenced by Vajrayana Buddhism and its historical relations with the Tibet. It has a dual system of government, whereby the head of the state coexist with a spiritual leader, who enjoys equal powers. Bhutan recently has adopted democratic administration with elections held every 5 years.

Bhutan is like a silent tough nut friend who knows what he wants, where he stands, knows his limitations and aware of his strengths. But at the same time very dependent on its big brother – India. He refuses to participate in the economic rat race at the cost of its ecology. Nature has bestowed it with immense fauna and resources. Being in the lap of Himalayas has its advantages. Nevertheless, it is been conserved by the prudent people of Bhutan. With most countries struggling to control its carbon footprint, here we have a nation which is carbon negative! 

Our journey started by landing safely on the Paro International airport, a narrow air-strip, which is supposedly considered as the most dangerous for landing in the world. Only 8 pilots are qualified to land on this 2 km air strip maneuvering through the Himalayan peaks of 18000 feet and on the rare flat land sitting on 7300 feet height from mean sea level. No wonder the weather always poses a challenge and pilots have to make sure they are flying in the direction of the wind, only during the daylight and use all their skills.

The airplane landing at the Paro International Airport

The airport was as expected, very small flat plain land dwarfed by the mighty mountains surrounding it and with spectacular views, similar to Queenstown in New Zealand, but the similarities end there once you meet the warm Bhutanese people. Our guide – Nishal, received us with a white Bhutani scarf to welcome us. Such was the hospitality that he left us when we went for the immigration check at the airport while returning back to India. 

The chill you get as soon as you disembark the plane and the scenery around the airport is mesmerizing 

  The cool wind blowing in our face as we climbed the curly zig-zag roads in rugged mountains and reached Thimphu, its capital, in no time. It is only 50 kms away from Paro, without many cars on the winding road. Since I was quite jet-lagged and famished so I preferred to relax in the evening, went for a stroll in the nearby mall to find that most of the things are imported from India. We misjudged the temperatures there and had to buy some extra woolens for us to keep warm, as we were traveling from Mumbai's sweltering heat in May.

The city of Thimphu spread in the valley
 The Indo-Bhutan connection runs very deep and has a historic significance. You can feel that in every corner of this small kingdom. Bhutan is heavily dependent on its big brother India for food, consumer durable, higher education, and health and so on its tourists to some extent. The influence is not limited here, it has reached its homes through TV cable and Bollywood. In return India gets cheap hydro-electric power which is in abundance here. No wonder Indian Rupees are accepted widely and Indians don’t even need passport to enter Bhutan.

One of the evidence of Indo-Bhutan friendship

The Buddhist "Bhavachakra" or the cycle of life (Samsara) is common painting across temples
 When you come across such simple lifestyle and people, I go in an introspection mode, as to how much artificial lives are we living? Where are we leading to with so much stress? Running behind money or success or something else, making our so-called ends meet by destructing nature, entrapped in the vicious circle of wants, desires, dreams, what are we trying to achieve? It is an irony that out of all the living beings on earth, only humans earn money, but still millions of humans go hungry to sleep around the world, not animals. Alas, I did get some insight into my questions, in one of the many monasteries here. If you observe the Buddhism wheel of life (Bhavachakra) and reflect honestly, you will get, if not all, most answers to your miseries.

The secret of happiness is to get closer to Buddha leaving all materialistic life behind. 

No wonder the wisdom is passed on, even from the Royal family to the people. Bhutan was the first country to de-prioritize GDP in favor of GNH (Gross National Happiness). It was a dream of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck and received a lot of accolades and acceptance all over the world. The important factor here is that the government is not promising individual happiness, it is upto the citizens to pursue it, government is responsible for creating a conditions of the end result – happiness.  

Respect for nature is inherent 

On the first day in Thimphu we realized that there is not much wildlife here inside the zoo, just a national animal Takin, which is a cross breed between goat and a cow. The tallest statue of sitting Buddha (Dordenma), as its claimed by locals there. It is awe inspiring and a must see for everyone. At 169 feets and made in bronze-gold glazing, it looks so calm and spiritual guarded by the golden deities, overlooking the valley, as if the Buddha is blessing the entire city and beyond, with right hand touching the earth.

Takin, is the national animal of Bhutan, which has a face of goat and body of cow

Thimphu Dzongs is one of many magnificent buildings, this one is for religious and administrative purpose, which can be seen only in the evening, after 5 pm. No cameras or shooting is allowed inside and it is from here that the country is been administered. 

108 Stupas of the Dochula Pass

 The next day we were about to visit ancient capital of Bhutan – Punakha. Punakha was a last minute change requested by us, as it was not earlier included in our itinerary. Colorful Bhutan our travel agency was very accommodative and happily made the change for us. On the way we stopped over at the Dochula pass with 108 chotens or stupas. A three hours of treacherous drive through roads, which resembled some roads back home during monsoons. The journey was as remarkable as it may get, amazing views with greenery all around, pleasant weather with local food vendors dotting the way. We feasted on fresh lychee and large puffy crispy meikhu (puris). Bhutani people have a taste for everything spicy; their staple diet includes rice, butter tea and chilly cheese. The cheese which is locally made in the cottage industry, has a tangy taste. The spicy food keeps them warm and happy too, I guess. Primarily meat eating country, all of it is imported from India.

The Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang or Punakha Dzong 

When we reached Punakha Dzong, I realized why it is Bhutan’s most exquisite Dzong, also called as the Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness). Located amidst 2 gushing perennial rivers of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which confluences just next to the amazing structure is sight to relish. The Dzong itself has a fairytale-like entrance to the structure, which you need to cross on a cantilever bridge across the Pho Chuu. Punakha is quite warm since it is only around 1200 meters from mean sea-level.

The Punakha Dzong and the confluence of rivers 

All the Dzongs have a peculiar fragrance of incense sticks, immaculate detailing of murals and tranquility which has some kind of divine energy. This Dzong had much of Bhutan’s recorded history stored, which was unfortunately ravaged by fire. Punakha is also historically significant due to its British connection, which has seen couple of treaties at this very place. Punakha Dzongkhag as it is called locally, was an administrative and religious seat of Bhutan until 1955. 

One of interesting experiences in almost all my trips, the hotel view of the last destination is such a spectacle for which I can give my eyetooth for it. Mandala resort, where we were for last leg of the tour, was located on a forested hill. It provided a spectacular panoramic view of the entire Paro valley, the ancient fortresses of Rinpung and Ta dzong. You can view the entire mountain ranges by just lying on the bed, kissed by the misty clouds changing shapes and forms every second with almost entire view of the amiable town of Tshongdue and the lush rice fields surrounding it. You can spend hours sitting near the window with your SLR and sipping hot local tea. You can just tick mark the national museum in Paro. The museum is small but well maintained, has all the heritage, culture and history of Bhutan. 

The panoramic view from of the Paro valley

Alas, all beautiful things are short-lived and the next morning we had to be prepared for a daunting 2 and half hour trek up to the Tiger’s Nest. Not so difficult to climb, even for non-trekkers, but nevertheless daunting and you have an option of hiring horse till half way mark. 

The changing colors of Paro Valley 

Tiger's Nest is the most famous landmark and holiest place of Bhutan which is known by the name of Paro Taksang by the locals. Astounding as it can get, located on the cliff side of the Paro valley, higher you climb the chill factor increases and the cold rain drop hits you like a bullet. It has a huge vertical temple complex dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche, flew there on the back of a tigress, hence the name. He was Buddhist master and considered as second Buddha by the Himalayan states of Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, is revered by many in this region and has a significant place in the history. He was the founder of many traditions in Buddhism including the Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Yoga practice and Nyingma School.

The Tiger's Nest or Paro Taksang

When you reach the top, intimate calmness is what sets you along with sense of achievement of climbing the Paro Taksang. Making a wish and resting there for a while inside, with throbbing legs we returned back having a leisurely lunch. Astonishingly, my little one - just 4 years old, did a climbing down on his own inspiring the fellow trekkers on our way down. Mind you climbing down is much difficult, as a trekker. A visit to the spa becomes a necessity after that kind of effort.We had to pack for our return journey back with a heavy heart, feeling of vacation coming to an end. 

Its time for Bhutan

How to get there and what to see?
  • You can choose any connecting flights to Paro from Indian cities of Kolkata, Bagdogra or Delhi. 
  • Please keep in mind that if you go through the recognized travel agencies of Bhutan, you will get a guide throughout your journey, which is highly recommended. 
  • People looking for road trip can go through Jaigaon-Phuntsholing border in West Bengal or Samdrup-Jongkhar in Assam. Pre-requisite being a pre-registration of your vehicle, which can be done at the Indian border(s). 
  • Mostly all tour packages will cover the North western Bhutan (Paro-Thimphu-Punakha) regions. You can also include Haa and Bhumtang if you have more days. 

Locally made liquid container, mostly used for tea or liquors

I tried my hands on Archery which is a national game and was quite near to target 

The top 10 Himalayan peaks in Bhutan

The exquisite Punakha Dzong 

That picture sums up my experience with Bhutan :) 

I hope the above travelogue is helpful in planning your trip to Bhutan.  Do comment with your feedback. 

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