A landlocked kingdom in the Southern Himalayas, Bhutan is a land of beauty, joy and adventure. A country that is fast emerging as a preferred travel destination the world over. Its people are the happiest. They beckon you with their smile and gracious gestures, as if to say, welcome…. “Joen Pa Leks!”
Bhutan is a country with many claims to fame. It came to world spotlight when it declared that Gross National Happiness (GNH) would be the official development policy. It is also the one and only carbon neutral country in the world. Recently it announced its plans to become the first 100% organic nation. For a small kingdom that was once known as the “Shangri La of the East”, there could not be a more modest way to make its mark.
Although closed to the world till 1962, Bhutan is today a popular choice for most travellers. It ranks highly in travel listicles for women-friendly places, first-time foreign travel choices, family holidays, trekking destinations, Buddhist pilgrimage, culture hotspots and more. Is it any wonder that the young British Royals, Prince William and Catherine Middleton, made a pitstop to Bhutan early this year? What’s more, like every other tourist who visits Bhutan they too could not resist trekking up to the Tiger Monastery or donning the traditional costume! Such is the magic of Bhutan.
The land of the Druk and the Druk Gyalpo
The first thing you notice is the people’s love for their King, or the Druk Gyalpo as he is known. Pictures of the King and Queen greet you at the Paro international airport and all across the country. They grace entrances of your hotel, buildings, shops and residences; truly ‘the people’s King’. Another is the ubiquitous Thunder Dragon (Druk). From your official visa papers to the Bhutanese Ngultrum currency notes, paintings on walls or official logos, you can expect to see many variations of the Druk.
A curious blend of tradition and style
In Bhutan, tradition is respected and preserved. This is visible in the way men and women dress, their sense of style and of course, social etiquettes. At the same time, fashion and modernisms are interlaced very gracefully. The display of cotton weaves at the shops may not inspire you till you actually see how Bhutanese women have worked wonders with the weaves. From the pictures of their much idolised Queen, you do not need to wonder where the style and grace comes from.
In Bhutan, everything is a kaleidoscope of colours. Whether it is the traditional costumes and jewellery, or the houses adorned with intricate woodwork. What is remarkably fresh is the practice of wall paintings in vivid hues. Like most other aspects of Bhutan, this too has its roots in spirituality. The purpose is to ward off the evil.
Monasteries and temples are important seats of Buddhist art. Their beautiful frescoes and murals add to the spiritual overtones of the framed Thangka paintings
Chillies are both the vegetable and the seasoning!
Bhutanese cuisine is uniquely hot and cheesy, much different from other Asian cuisine. It is simple and rustic. Organic red rice, dried yak cheese, dried yak meat, vegetables and beef imported from neighbouring India is what you can expect. Some recommendations are the national dish ema datse, kawa datse, the pork dishes phaksha paa and phak sha laphu, and the beefy sha kam. Much of the cuisine has a Tibetan influence – momos (steamed dumplings with cheese or meat stuffing), Thupka (gravy noodles) and the po cha (butter tea). This may also be your introduction to Tibetan food; known to chase your winter blues away. If you are a food connoisseur, you must carry some of the famous local dried cheese and Bhutanese chillies. They add good tangy flavour to your pastas, pizzas and soups back home.
Where Buddhism is a way of life
Bhutan is the only country where Vajrayana Buddhism is State religion. It is a kingdom steeped in Buddhist culture and tales of Buddhist Gurus visiting the land. As you travel in Bhutan, you will come across prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, carrying prayers to touch upon people and objects.
Scores of monasteries and temples dot the mountainside, sometimes located on remote hiking trails or perched dangerously on cliff sides. The most famous is the Takhtsang Monastery, a must-do for every tourist, both for the sheer experience and the spiritual significance.
Some curious words you will master, while in Bhutan. While Dzong is the Buddhist styled architecture, Dzongkhag are districts. Lhakhang is the Buddhist temples, and Goemba are monasteries. You cross the Chhu, rivers, and the La or mountain pass.
A destination for wellness, culture and nature
Bhutan has plenty to offer. Whether you are looking for spirituality and wellness, rich cultural experience, amazing treks or photography raptures, Bhutan can cater to all. Its hotels are equipped with the best of modern Spas and even the traditional Bhutanese stone Baths, if you want the rustic.
Guided tours give you a glimpse into the vibrant culture of Bhutan, introducing you to the magnificence of dzong architecture and colourful festivals held almost through the year.
Travelling in Bhutan is a pleasure to the senses. Roads wind through pine or rhododendron forests, or pass alongside Chhus (rivers), in the constant backdrop of towering mountain peaks. Greenery greets you everywhere, and no wonder, for 72% of the country is still under forest cover. Bhutan has a State Policy of keeping at least 60 % of the country forested, and amazingly this has been adhered to till date.
Stunning vistas of the mountains and valleys, crystal-clear mountain streams gushing next to you and young Buddhist monks at play, these are some images you carry with you.
A trekking paradise
As part of the ancient Silk Route, Bhutan has access to ancient paths trodden on foot or pony even today, The rugged beauty of the mountain region and various trekking options has made Bhutan a trekking paradise. Treks and sightseeing trails are designed to attract both, the novice trekker and the experienced global trekker. Eastern Bhutan is for the seasoned trekker, with opportunities to get up-close with mountain tribes and monks at remote monasteries. Elsewhere across Bhutan, there are treks of various difficulty levels; up sheer cliffs, across rice field plains and through forested slopes.
The Golden Triangle – Paro, Thimpu, Punakha
Bhutan can be seen within a short span, if you focus on Western Bhutan where the tourist infrastructure is well developed. This has three of Bhutan’s major towns, Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing, with most of the monasteries, sights and shopping. Central Bhutan is known for its alpine valleys and festivals. East Bhutan is wild, rugged and best for hardy trekking.
Most of the attractions lie in the Paro valley – the Tiger’s Nest or Takhtsang monastery, the Pena Lhakhang, National Museum, the Five Chortens and Pelri Goemba, Thimphu town is where you see an amazing blend of the traditional and modern Bhutan. Great Buddha Dordenma statue, Changangkha Lhakhang, The National Memorial Chorten, Cheri Monastery, Dechen Phodrang Monastery, Dechencholing Palace and the National Textile Museum, are the main attractions.
Thimpu is definitely for shopping. Popular items are traditional weaves, handicrafts, handcrafted silver jewellery and dzi beads, eco-friendly luxury toiletries, organic home-grown spices and beer. Another favoured destination is the Punakha valley, the site of some majestic structures like the Punakha Dzong and Punakha Suspension Bridge. You will come across one-of-a-kind temples here known for their quaint legends. Like the Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery and Chimi Lhakhang temple.
Why Bhutan is popular with first-time travellers
Most tourists prefer short stays of up to 7 days, with customised itineraries to choose from. All arrangements are taken care of and prepaid before you enter Bhutan, from your stays, local travel and tour guide to food. Paperwork and visa is handled beforehand at your own country, thus making your holiday enjoyable and hassle-free.
Capstone – A last stopover at Bhutan post
The amazing tech savvy stamp issues of Bhutan are known to every collector the world over. I could not miss out on a trip to the Bhutan Post counter. Carry your photographs on phone or flash drive for a personalized Bhutanese souvenir sheet as a personal memento.
Why Bhutan leaves a lasting impression on the mind
There is something magical about Bhutan. From its unique fertility temples to phallic paintings that leave you gaping, there is a surprise awaiting you at every corner. Faces wreathed in smiles, hard working men and women breaking off into Indian Bollywood songs, riot of colours, cultural infusion and a curious blend of the old and the new, this is what remains on your mind. A trip to Bhutan can change you forever. It leaves a lasting impression, of a nation that has made its mark on world map in a totally avant-garde fashion, using sustainability and tradition as its key drivers.