Beautiful narration of her experiences in Bhutan. Madhura Gokhale is a good friend, an avid traveler, trekker and a skilled writer. An expert in the legal domain, she takes to the roads to do away with the monotony life has to offer’ Heres Madhura sharing her experience.
I’m in the middle of this dynamic city of Pune as I begin writing this article but my mind is still holding onto the wonderful experiences of the most magical country – Bhutan!! In fact, it was so different, that I felt I had come to another planet, even though my flight from Delhi to Paro was merely two hours. A joyful planet where simplicity rules the way to happiness…!!
We took off from Delhi to Paro by Bhutan Airlines, and rose above the clouds to find ourselves flying high to reach almost 32000 feet above the sea level. Snow-capped mountain peaks appeared before us, one after the other. Soon, the entire range of Himalayas was in clear view through our window! We were flying at eye level with some of the highest mountains in the world and I could hardly believe my eyes.
Mid-way through the flight, our pilot announced, “On your left side, you will see the stunning range of Himalayas like Mount Makalu, Kangchenjunga and the tallest diamond-shaped peak is Mount Everest, the highest peak at 8,848 metres above the sea level!!” It wasn’t exactly distinctive, entrenched within a bed of Mountains, but we found it and it was such a privilege to see the world famous Himalayan peak- the Mount Everest, which can only be seen by trekking to Everest Base Camp or travelling to the remote Tibetan Plateau!! It was indeed a sight to remember!!
The cool mountain air embraced us as we stepped off the plane in the tiny, dusty valley town of Paro. Beyond the airport buildings, the lush foliage of the Paro Valley shimmered in the bright morning sunlight welcoming us with its mesmerizing beauty and peace.
Bhutan – known to its people as Druk-Yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ – is positioned between two Asian giants, India and China. To the north lies Tibet, along with the imposing barrier of the Himalayas, while extending to the east, south and west are the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim. A piece of paradise on the Himalayan range, it is the only country which contributes more oxygen than it consumes.
The small and predominantly Buddhist nation of Bhutan has enshrined the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH)” rather than Gross National Product, a concept deeply rooted in Bhutan’s society focused on compassion, contentment and calmness. Even road signs in Bhutan project GNH informing people to “Go green to keep our Globe clean”. The projected population of Bhutan is approx. 7,90,000 people. Seventy percent of the entire terrain is coated with forests and seven percent is beneath glaciers. Archery- the National sport, Takin- the National animal, Raven-the national bird and green chilli peppers together with ‘chessy sauce’ is the national dish. All the employees must wear traditional clothing – a ‘gho’ robe for men and ‘kira’ dress for women during work hours. An interesting observation is that a graduate degree is mandatory for membership of lower house of Parliament of Bhutan. The present Prime Minister of Bhutan is a doctor and even today he takes out some time to practice medicine. Bhutan is a carbon neutral country (some sources even call it net carbon negative country). To deter low cost tourists so as to protect its flora and fauna Bhutan imposes 250 dollar per person per day on foreign tourists (Indians exempted). India-Bhutan treaty of peace and friendship is reflected at various places in Bhutan. The two states have close relationship in diplomatic, economic, social and military spheres.
An hour’s drive from Paro airport, the capital Thimphu was our first stop. The drive to Thimpu was extremely picturesque with beautiful mountains and pristine rivers. The stores in Thimpu were showcasing and selling the best of Bhutanese arts and crafts. The experience of Thimpu as a city was brimming with peace. It did not carry the hustle and bustle of typical capital cities. Sitting high and adroit in the mountains of Thimphu is the Kuensel Phodrang i.e. the Buddha point. Recently constructed, it is one of the highest statues of Buddha in the world. The statue houses over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues. Located at a short drive from Thimphu City Centre, we can get a good overview of the Thimphu valley from the Buddha point. We also visited the Memorial Chorten, Tashichho Dzong and the Takin Preservation Centre.
From Thimphu, we travelled to Wangdue via Punakha taking in the Dochula mountain pass on the way which is at an altitude of 3200 feet. Dochula Pass, a breath-taking mountain pass, in the commemoration of Bhutanese soldiers who passed away in military operations for the country.
Along the Dochula Pass, there are 108 memorial chortens (also known as stupas) called the ‘Druk Wangyal Chortens’ for each soldier’s life lost in war.
The hills are also decorated with colourful religious flags in five colours to represent the natural elements of life. To the local Buddhist people, these flags are symbols of worship and the inscriptions of prayers on each flag signals peace and prosperity for Bhutan. Dochula pass was indeed one of the most beautiful mountain pass, which I have ever seen. It is thickly covered in snow during winters. However, in summers one can witness the most splendid views of the snow covered Himalayas from there.
Punakha is also home to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and apparently the second longest in the world. Punakha Dzong is often considered as the most beautiful Dzong in the country. A Dzong is a place where both religious activities and administration are carried out together. The Punakha Dzong is by far the most famous sight in Bhutan. Walking across it felt like being on a balcony swing just that this time below were the raging waters of a glacial river. Clouds were hanging so low that they could have almost been snatched to play with. The reach of the mountains seen from the bridge were as far as the eyes travelled.
That night we stayed along the river at a resort called Kichu. My room balcony had rushing waters running just below it so I slept and awoke to river sounds and the music of the nature – chirping birds and the leaves on the trees dancing to the music of the wind.. It was a comfortable and beautiful resort where the staff and characteristics of Bhutanese hospitality went the extra mile.
Our last stop was Paro. The mountains of Paro are wonderful and seem at complete ease overlooking the paddy fields. We took long walks on the winding roads under the watch of these mountains and clear summer skies.
Paro Taktsang Monastery, also known as ‘The Tiger’s Nest’, is Bhutan’s most iconic temple standing on a sheer cliff edge 3,120 metres above the Paro Valley. The temple is only accessible by trekking two/three hours through pine forests and mountains. The six-hour trek to the monastery was truly an unforgettable experience, thanks largely to its isolated location and the breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains and emerald green valleys. Looking at the monastery from the bottom of the cliff, it seemed almost impossible to reach the top, but the trek is definitely worth it, as once we reach the summit, we are rewarded with the panoramic views of the surrounding majestic mountains and valleys. It is said that Guru Rinpoche arrived here on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery and hence it is called “Tiger’s Nest”. This site has been recognized as a most sacred place and is now visited by all Bhutanese people at least once in their lifetime.
Cameras or cell phones are not allowed inside the monastery because the monks believe ~ ‘The best moments in life cannot be captured in photos. They are just to be felt’.
Located at approximately 13,000 feet between the valley of Paro and Haa, Chele La Pass is the highest motorable road pass in Bhutan. The pass is famous for the stunning Himalayan views it offers, especially Mount Jomolhari which is Bhutan’s most sacred peak at 22,000 feet, Tsherimgang mountains, Jichu Drake as well as views of both the valleys, Paro and Haa. Chele La Pass, covered in untouched forests, is home to thriving flora and fauna. The drive to Chele La Pass is through dense spruce forests where one can see many sightings such as yaks grazing, frozen river, waterfalls and roadside springs.
The Haa Valley of Bhutan is one of the unexplored places of Bhutan. The beautiful, secluded Haa is locally known as the hidden land of rice valley. Located in the southwestern zone of Paro, it is the smallest district of Bhutan. The picturesque town, which is one of the remotest spots in offbeat Bhutan, is blessed with pristine alpine forests bordered by mesmerizing peaks. Haa’s seclusion comes with magnificent beauty. Its fresh air, winding roads and views of the snowy peaks, make the valley an ideal destination for hiking or mountain biking.
Well, we returned home from Bhutan feeling rejuvenated!! It was one of the best travel experiences till date. While the Tiger’s Nest Monastery & Visit to Punakha Dzong & Haa Valley were the showstoppers of my time in Bhutan, there were many highlights and incredible moments. They ranged from feeling calm when spinning the wooden prayer wheels to feeling exhilarated breathing in the fresh mountain air whilst walking through the rice fields.
So when people say ‘what is it like visiting Bhutan?’ I can say wholeheartedly that it’s extraordinary!!
I took a leaf out of the Bhutanese book and returned home with a newfound happiness for the simple things in life!!!
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
All picture and content credits to the author of this featured blog post – Madhura Gokhale.