This is a heartwarming travelogue on the gorgeous Bhutan, a developing country which has the distinction of having the happiest people in the world breathing the best quality of air to be found!
Before we start, we highly recommend our detailed post on this magnificient country
Preps for the Dragon Country.......
It all started with packing woolens and scarves, thick fabric clothing like jeans along with full hand tees and leggings. I had to travel to Delhi with my kids and husband. After a delayed departure due to the flight reschedule, next stop was in Delhi, where we stayed with my brother in law and his wife. After a day’s rest and recuperation, we were to take a flight to Baghdogra. The excitement we felt was extraordinary and we could not wait to get there. The flight to Baghdogra is about 2 hours from New Delhi but the wait is worth it, because when you arrive at the airport, you are in the midst of enchanting scenic beauty. Baghdogra is a key airport in India as you can connect to North Eastern region of India and important cities like Darjeeling, Gangtok, and of course Bhutan, the neighboring country.
We reached Baghdogra at around 2:00 pm and booked a cab to proceed on a three-hour ride to Jaigaon, a border town of West Bengal, Bhutanese name for which is Phoentsholing. The state highway was narrow but had lush tea gardens and paddy fields on either side. The ride was very scenic and refreshing.
Jaigaon is considered to be a transit camp between India and Bhutan. We were fortunate to spend the night in the Border Roads mess there. Next day we visited the Immigration office at the Bhutanese side of Jaigaon, where the formalities to enter Bhutan were completed. We had to show our passports, a computer entry was made, photos taken and then we were given an entry permit. Normally, entry permit for any national is given for one week at Phoentsholing, but it can be extended only at Thimpu, Capital city of Bhutan. The process took about an hour and a half. We booked a cab to Thimphu which is about 100 kilometers from Jaigaon. Ordinary highways would take not more than 2 hours, but we had a mountainous journey waiting.
The Winding road to Thimphu....
It was a breathtaking journey which lasted 5-6 hours mainly because the vehicles cannot exceed the speed of 40km/hr in most of the stretches. In some parts, the road can allow only one vehicle at a time and one has to wait patiently for another to pass. So the drivers should be extra careful as you cannot spot the approaching traffic on the blind curves. It is a fact that this road is the only single direct road to Thimpu and back to Jaigaon. Other circuitous roads do exist, but they are very long and in bad shape.
Hairpin Bends amidst clouds
The road is a gateway to the Himalayan country and its beauty. On either side of the road, you see hills covered with trees, some of which are typical to Bhutan, like the giant Cyprus. You cannot see anything beyond 10 meters if the clouds descend, so, watch out! The adventure lies in enduring the drive through these clouds on that narrow, curvy road with countless hairpin bends.
Picturesque mountains in clouds
We visited Bhutan in the month of August in the monsoon but were lucky that we did not witness much rain. However, if you are driving yourself, be cautious as the drive on these kinds of roads can be fatal. Our driver was a Bhutanese national who knew the road like the back of his hand, (I still cannot forget the way he drove through the clouds with sunglasses on) maybe that’s why you remember God a lot on these roads. Thimpu is the capital of Bhutan and also the name of the valley that surrounds the city. The rivers in Bhutanese are known as" chu", they also have the same name as the cities or towns.Thimphu valley is at an average elevation of 2300m. (The Bhutanese term for a water body is Chu. Any river flowing through a city is generally named after that city.)
The Entry point to Thimphu
Thimphu was a farming valley until 1951, when the massive 17th-century Fortress, Tashicho Dzong, was revamped by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk to form Bhutan's official capital and replace the ancient capital of Punakha. Today, the city sprawls across the western slopes of the Wang Chu river valley, with several Government offices located around Tashicho Dzong. By regulation, all buildings are required to be designed in traditional style with Buddhist paintings and motifs.
Temple View of the Thimphu City
Next day, after breakfast we left for a newly constructed Dzong (Buddhist monastery). It was a beautifully designed shrine with walls adorned with paintings of Buddha and Padmasambhava (a renowned Buddhist guru). The base was a temple and on top of it, where conventionally you may find domes, there was a large statue of Buddha in a meditative pose.
The Buddha overseeing the valley
This statue was so enormous that you could see it from anywhere in the Thimphu valley. The rising sun rays would first touch this golden statue and then the hills would brighten up. Though new, it followed all the rules of ‘ old school ‘Dzong construction.
We also saw the Memorial Chorten on our way to Dzong. This landmark of Thimpu was built in 1974 in the memory of third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, popularly regarded as the “Father of Modern Bhutan”. It is a four-storied white building, containing statues and iconography of deities from complex tantric teachings and serves as an important place of worship for Thimpu residents, as well as from other parts of the country.
Meeting with the "Takin"
Next stop was at the national zoo (you can call it an enclosure) where the national animal of Bhutan, “the Takin” is kept and taken care of. This animal looks like a bull with a goat”s head and belongs to the goat family.
The Royal Touch
After lunch and siesta, we visited the Royal Palace (Trashi Chhoe) where another Dzong greeted us. Dzong as commonly known is a Buddhist temple or monastery constructed with walls of mud and rocks in the olden days. On the top of the structure, you would find wooden panels in a typical design or pattern, which is most common in the architecture of the buildings that you find in Thimphu. The walls are adorned with paintings of Buddha and his disciples and the local folklore. You find the cloth lanterns hanging from the ceilings or the arches close to the deity. The deity, usually a Buddha statue, is huge in most of the temples. The paintings or carvings of druk (dragon) are very common too. The original Dzong was destroyed by fire in 1771 and later abandoned. It was finally rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. It has two main entrances- one leads to administrative section and the other to monastic quarter where dances of Tsechu festival
One leads to the administrative section to the South, and another at the North leads to the monastic quarter where the dances of the annual Tsechu festival are performed.
Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism
Buddhism has eight auspicious symbols called the “Ashtamangala” and you will see it in many public places in Bhutan and also most homes. The patterns of 8 symbols; the treasure vase, the lotus flower, the conch shell, the parasol, the endless knot, the golden fish, the victory banner, the dharma wheel is not only seen as the carvings on the pillars but also found embroidered on the cloth hangings.
You find monks sitting peacefully and meditating. You also find a lot of old men and women who are either cleaning the temple premises or doing any other chore related to the shrine. It is apt in the old age to serve the guru (the popular belief). Mostly Dzongs are really quiet and serene with minimally heard chantings.
The market area of Thimpu is filled with Buddhist artifacts to be found for sale. But the prices in Bhutan are higher than in India, so you may not find them reasonable (you find them cheaper in Gangtok or Gaya) if you have gone to Bhutan from India. Indians are comfortably placed in Bhutan as Indian rupees are accepted throughout the country. We bought few souvenirs for our family members back home and were back at the guesthouse for dinner. The next day we set out to Paro, another tourist town of Bhutan, which is a two hour ride from the capital.
To the Tiger's Nest
The best tourist attraction in Paro and world renowned Bhutanese landmark is the "Tiger's Nest", a Buddhist monastery that is perched in between the two hills. When you see it from the road, it’s like a tiny white speck on the mountain top. A true adrenaline-pumping adventure - it’s a must visit spot in Bhutan, a true experience of the Himalayan aura that surrounds this monastery. It is also known as Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Situated at the edge of a cliff at the height of 3120 meters above sea level, this monastery almost seems like hanging from one end. Trekking is the only way to reach this isolated monastery and there are about three trails that take you there. The architecture is the same symbolic one with white buildings and golden dome and all of the four main temples are interconnected through the staircase. The interiors are quite impressive with gold plated dome and flickering lights that illuminate the golden idols inside. There are eight caves inside monastery where the famous Buddhist guru Padmasambhava is believed to have meditated.
We started at around 9:00 am and reached the base of the tiger”s nest at about 10:00 am. Enroute, we saw Paro airport, one of the world’s most dangerous airports. The runway is half as long (or shall I say “short”) as the other runways that we see in our country. It is a great feat to land and take off from such a short runway. Paro is connected to Delhi and Kolkata in India.
We arrived at the base of the mountain. I was really scared to start the ascent so I hitched a ride on the horse along with my younger daughter. My elder daughter and my husband were following us. It was an excruciatingly difficult trek. Midway, the horses stop and they do not ascend any further. There was this big prayer wheel hanging, and from that spot we could not see the shrine. My husband really motivated me to try and finish which was the driving force for me to attempt the rest of the climb. From here on, it was better on foot than it would have been on horseback.
It was tough and though it was cool enough we were panting and were thirsty after every ten steps. We decided to halt and watch the trekkers behind us go ahead of us. It also allowed us to view the valley below and the hills around. The hills are dotted with dense foliage and we could see some of those rare bushes and trees which are not found in the plains and also the waterfalls like a silver lining amidst the mountains. Along the trail, you arrive a point where you can see a board mentioning a cafeteria up ahead. You have to take a detour to reach the cafe, you really have to make up your mind whether to continue on the trail or take the detour. We were in a hurry to reach the monastery and get back, so we continued on. Then we came across the most difficult stretch; a series of steps, first to climb down the hill and reach a narrow wooden bridge where we came across a huge waterfall rumbling down the hill and then another flight of stairs that take you up the hill to the destination, the monastery.
About 300-400 steps in total connect the first hill to the second hill and make the path easier to trek. It will sap your energy and is advisable to take short breaks and carry water. Finally, we reached the entrance of the monastery where we had to climb a few more stairs to reach the inner sanctum. We completed the” darshan” and came out. We had started the trek around 11 am and reached the temple around 2pm. We relaxed for half an hour and ate some fruits. Though kids were tired they were excited to finish the trek. My younger one was only four and half years old and we had not come across a smaller kid than ours. We were proud that our child completed the adventure without complaining.
At around 2: 30 pm, we started descending back to the base. Coming down is easier than ascending but I felt that the route was longer this time though we went back the same way we came. We used some sturdy tree sticks to take support while descending. It had rained when we were at the monastery, escalating my fear that we would be stuck on the mountain top. Luckily the showers lasted only for 15 minutes but made the downward trek difficult as the path was wet (though not marshy)and slippery. We stopped many a time to take photographs. While we were returning, we saw some people ascending, giving us a sense of relief that we were not the last ones.
We enjoyed the descent thoroughly. Finally we reached the base around 5:30pm and were totally exhausted by then. The locals were packing up their street sale tucks. We just wanted to get back and skipped the street sale.
We were back by around 6:30pm, freshened up, had early dinner and slept off early but not before massaging some mustard oil on our feet.
The next day we woke up to body aches. And so, the day was pronounced as a rest day and didn’t venture out. We left Paro the next day and returned to Jaigaon. On our way back to India, we had a wonderful ride, carrying sweet memories and satisfied minds with us.
With friendly, soft spoken people, enchanting hills, mesmerizing greenery and rejuvenating air, Bhutan has found its place in my heart and memories. It is a small country with spirituality at its crux, the simplicity in its traditions and the serene environment precedes any other progressive country. This is why it is no wonder that Bhutan is amongst the happiest countries in the world. The place known for its zero carbon emission was an eye opener to the fact that mankind can do without too much of technology. Believe me, the divine mountains, magnificent Buddha statues, quiet roads, the simplicity of natives and amazing air with no pollutants will want you to stay back there for the rest of your life.
About the Author
Hello! I am Madhuri, a teacher by profession and holiday maker by passion! I am a hard core travel buff who loves to visit new places and explore every nook and corner of those places. I also love to taste new cuisines and shop for some ethnic artifacts. Being a hands on mom, I travel with my kiddos and all my holidays happen with them. I think traveling is a very healthy thing for kids and exposes them to situations, conditions and worlds they would otherwise never know. It gives them a sense of fulfillment and increases their own belief in themselves. The happiness i saw on the faces of my kids after scaling Taktsang monastery was priceless and this is why they are the best part of holidaying for me!