When travelling to Bhutan by air, we have one piece of advice – check in early to ensure you get a window seat. According to Druk Air, the country’s national carrier, Bhutan’s international airport is nestled in a valley that stands 7,300ft above sea level and is surrounded by hills as high as 16,000ft. As the plane swoops down, it leaves the plump white clouds behind to reveal lush mountains, dotted with traditional Bhutanese houses. The landing approach, the airline’s website reveals, is carried out entirely by visual flight rules. A wing dips and the aircraft weaves deftly around the mountains, like a graceful dancer, before finally touching down in the valley of Paro.
Bhutan is often referred to as the Last Shangri La, a nod to it being akin to a mystical Himalayan utopian land. Locals call it the Land of the Thunder Dragon, while most visitors know it for its alternative development metric, the Gross National Happiness. Sandwiched between India and Tibet, it is a land-locked country. Thimphu, the capital, is an hour away from Paro and the journey is scenic – our van vended its way through winding roads, which were fenced by gently rolling mountains, with the river Paro Chhu gurgling at the foothills and stout apple trees and giant rose bushes nodding at every corner.
Our destination was Taj Tashi, a five star hotel situated in the heart of Thimphu market. Offering panoramic mountain views, the hotel amalgamates the dzong architecture of Bhutan with modern amenities. The Thimphu market is a bustling one with furry mountain dogs lounging on the pavement, baskets full of bright green asparagus and chillies and Bhutanese people dressed in traditional threads – men wear the gho, a knee-length kimono-style robe, while women wear an ankle-length blouse and skirt called the kira. Its many shops offer everything from local SIM cards and pizzas to ATM machines and handloom souvenirs.
Adjoining the hotel is the newly opened Crafts Bazaar – a row of bamboo huts that display and sell traditional arts and crafts at mostly reasonable prices. We took a leisurely stroll in the evening, stopping to watch artistes weave colourful belts on handlooms, and ended up buying reams of soft handmade Bhutanese paper, wooden wares and a scroll that had a painting of the tiger, the lion, the thunder dragon and Garuda the eagle, who are believed to watch over the land.
The next morning, our gracious guide Sonam Pelden took us to the Buddha Dordenma statue which is located on a hill in the Kuensel Phodrang National Park. Pelden works with the Tourism Council of Bhutan and told us that at 169ft, this is probably the tallest bronze, gold-gilded statue of Buddha in the world. It is omnipresent in Thimphu and you can see it from most places in the city. Construction started in 2004, and continues so far – when completed the meditation hall will have 100,000 Buddha statues.
A visit to the capital, we discovered, is incomplete without a trip to the Folk Heritage Museum, which was started in 2001 by Kesang Choeden, a former police officer. The highlight for us was the traditional Bhutanese lunch served at the restaurant there. The meal started with hot Bhutanese butter tea and then a wooden bowl was filled with ara, a traditional fermented rice drink. “I don’t keep a menu,” said Choeden, “The menu is decided on what local and seasonal produce is available.” The table groaned as bowl after bowl of steaming hot food came from the kitchen – we tucked into buckwheat pancakes; eggplant sautéed with Schezwan peppers; sautéed asparagus; cucumber and carrot salad with nigella seeds; potato and cheese stew; ema datshi (a chilli and cheese stew) and curries of beef and chicken with cauliflower. Dessert was ripe purple plums plucked from their orchard and they were teamed with bowls of home-brewed smoky mistletoe tea. “I have always been interested in food,” said Choeden. “I would get upset about the feedback that I got on Bhutanese cuisine – a lot of people said that it lacked variety and originality. I wanted to prove them wrong and show that Bhutanese food has a lot of range and variety.”
The next day, we headed west to Punakha. The drive was one of the most spectacular so far, cutting through lush valleys and gushing rivers on cloud-wrapped paths cut into the mountains. Punakha is home to the Punakha Dzongkhag, Bhutan’s oldest and second largest dzong (a kind of fortress unique to Bhutan and Tibet). Pelden told us that Punakha is known as the place where the Pho Chhu, a male river meets the Mo Chhu, a female. The magnificent structure with its white-washed walls and ornate architecture stands against a backdrop of yellow laburnum trees and a busy river. The dzong is historically significant as well – it used to be the state capital from 1637 to 1907, it’s where the first national assembly took place in 1953 and in 2011 the king of Bhutan got married here. The Punakha Dzongkhag also contains archives and the Ranjung Karsapani, the spine of the monk Tsangpa Gyarey, which is considered to be a sacred relic.
Near Punakha lies the Chimi Lhakhang monastery which was built as a tribute to the tantric Buddhist master Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived sometime between the 15th and16th centuries. The monastery is replete with traditional symbols of a phallus – the priests even bless you with one, along with a bow and arrow – which is meant to keep away the evil eye. It’s also considered a fertility temple where couples come from all corners of the country to seek blessings for a child.
It was time to head back to Paro, but only after a quick pit stop at the Druk Wangyal chortens, where 108 chortens (a kind of stupa) are built on a mountain pass. On clear days, this pass offers a panoramic view of the Himalayas, but since we were visiting in the summer, which is characterised by heavy rains and clouds, what we instead saw were tall Himalayan cypress (Bhutan’s national tree) swathed in clouds giving us an illusion of having stepped into another Narnia-like world.
Indeed, most of Bhutan is ethereal – its forest cover extends to 72 percent of the country. Its people are focussed on an alternative model of development which doesn’t look at merely economic growth, and beauty lurks in every nook and corner.
|When to go
Plan your visit during the summer months, between March and September.
By Bijal Vachharajani on September 01 2014
Photos by Avikgenxt | Dreamstime.com, Steve Allen | Dreamstime.com