Many ancient saints and spiritual gurus head towards the Himalayan ranges to seek eternal peace and oneness with the soul. If you are curious what takes them to these mountains, then you need to visit this place to seek what is exactly hidden in the Himalayan ranges.
The easiest entry to Bhutan is via roads connecting Siliguri (a hill station in West Bengal) to Phuntsholing border district of Bhutan. The other route obviously is by Airways connecting Delhi or Bagdogra in India to Paro International Airport, Bhutan. Not all commercial airlines are allowed to fly to Bhutan. So the only available options are the Bhutan Airlines or Druk Airlines.
Diving into the mountain Kingdom –
We boarded an early morning Druk Airlines flight from Bagdogra Airport. The flight had a soft Bhutanese music being played in the background and the onboard crew were dressed in the traditional dresses of Bhutan i.e. Kira (for Women) and Gho (for Men). The take-off and landing were pretty fast as it takes hardly an hour to reach Paro. What is fascinating is the landing into Paro International Airport. When the flight was about to land we could see the Himalayan mountain ranges covered with dense green forests (some distant ones were covered in snow) and few tiny houses in between with crystal clear water streams flowing. The first thought on seeing through the window was, are we surely landing here, right into the mountains! Landing in the Paro Airport is one of the most beautiful experience and also the trickiest owing to its position between the mountain ranges. We anyways enjoyed this view with the background Bhutanese soothing music until we landed in Paro.
The moment we stepped out of the flight in Paro, there was a change in the air, it was chilling, windy with light drizzles. We were standing here on an open land next to the runway, just the airplane next to us and the co-passengers and two single storey decorated buildings which were that of the airport authority. After enjoying the atmosphere we slowly moved into the beautifully decorated airport buildings, completed the Visa on Arrival formality and picked our luggage still wondering on the delicate detailing of the beautiful art form on the ceiling of this complex.
Look beyond the horizon -
At the airport exit, the tour guide/driver was waiting with our names held in hand. Having introduced ourselves, Mr.Purba started towards our hotel to Thimphu. Just a glance behind the vehicle while leaving the Airport premises we realized the gates being closed and locked. Mr. Purba informed there are no more flights expected beyond this time and hence it was the end of day for the Airport Officials as well. Ahh! Can that be possible, end of the day even before noon? On a lighter note here goes the Secret to this Happiness Land.
The road ran parallel to a pristine river with crystal clear water transparent enough to see the pebbles on the river bed. We were told it’s the Pa Chhu (meaning Pa – Paro, Chhu – River). We took a moment of halt at the river bank to soak into its beauty and proceeded towards Thimphu. Every junction had huge pictures of the royal family. Soon we were on the spiral roads between the huge mountain ranges where the vehicles played hide and seek with the ones coming from the opposite direction. Every next mountain you see gives a sense its deserted beyond this but as we proceeded the roads found its way from them just as Pa Chhu emerged parallel to these roads.
Soaking into the artistic vibes –
By afternoon we were in Thimphu and the city had its decorative welcoming entrance. And this is a unique feature of this country, every building /house has their exteriors colorfully and artistically painted making us wonder the amount of hard work put into this display of art as though the entire city had emerged out of an canvas of an artist. Soon we were crossing the Thimphu square, the heart of Thimphu, to the center of which is a decorative traffic booth where silently the Thimphu traffic police regulates traffic without any signal lights, neither whistling nor honking of cars. We now understand how strictly the traffic rules are followed unlike its Indian neighbour.
We reached the hotel by mid-noon. The interiors of the hotel starting from the visitors’ lobby to the dining area to the reception were decorated with fine wooden work, beautiful soothing lights and the peaceful vibe which had been lingering in the atmosphere all around. Two lovely housekeeping ladies dressed in Kira arrived to escort us and help with our luggage to our rooms. My dear husband fumbled to the idea of ladies carrying our luggage and insisting not to do so but we slowly notice that most of the business is taken care by ladies here in Bhutan. More power to the women here and everywhere.
We got refreshed and had our lunch though it was over lunch time. Realizing that most of their menu had Indian or Chinese dishes trying to impress the Indian tourist crowd we requested for what the locals would usually have at home. So we were served thukpa, a one pot meal of soup, rice noodles and veggies accompanied with momos. After relishing our Bhutanese lunch, we went out for a stroll around the city. It was chilling due to frequent drizzles through the day. We were still wondering why the buildings are so artistic and the poster of his highness king and queen were on every street or shop. Soon the sun started hiding behind the mountains surrounding the city, and it was hardly 5 PM. The hilly streets had young mothers/fathers with kids hopping on the pavements or hanging on their backs and they were off their Kira/Gho as the official working hours were over. We were back in our hotel, had black tea sourced from Darjeeling and rested a bit. Then it was dinner time soon by 8 PM with a spread of Indian buffet and we called the first day off.
Journey into the happiness valley –
Next morning, Mr. Purba drove us into the misty valleys, densely covered with forests which accounts to 70% of the total available land in Bhutan. The smooth drive was accompanied by soul stirring Bhutanese music and frequent spotting of the colorful prayer flags on the way. Our first stop was Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha. It is a pass connecting Thimphu to Punakha. The pass has a temple at the hilltop and is covered by similar shaped smaller 108 stupas surrounding it at alternating steps in a circular pattern. When we reached here the place was misty but soon the clouds cleared and we were able to get the view of many distant snowclad Himalayan ranges. We enjoyed the serenity here for some time and proceeded to Punakha.
Punakha used to be the capital of Bhutan earlier and hence many important and official buildings still exist here. Our main destination here was the Punakha Dzong and its distant view felt like a beautiful palace out of our dreams. It is also termed as the ‘Palace of Happiness or bliss’. There is the Pho Chhu (Punakha River) on one side of this Dzong. We had to cross a beautiful wooden bridge over the Pho Chu to reach the entrance. This is a large area surrounded by trees with purple blossoms and includes many administrative buildings and temples. We visited the temple premises which has statues of many Buddhist saints and the Buddha himself. All temples in Bhutan had a very positive vibe and a serene atmosphere, ideal for meditation. One will spot many monks in their maroon robes around this temple, some even busy in their meditation practices.
Then after trying another Bhutanese cuisine i.e. Ema Datsi (Chilli Cheese) with brown rice for lunch we proceed for our next visit i.e. Chimi Lhakhang temple (or the fertility temple). This temple is situated on a hill top and takes you through a rather smooth trek between the paddy fields enjoying the local view and the lovely climate. One will cross a small village with cattle and chickens going around the place, children playing and also some shops selling artifacts to the tourists. We did interact with a few locals here, especially a little girl in a shop where we stopped for a few minutes as it started raining. She had learnt English in school and was telling us about the national dress which even she was wearing, the king and the queen and even what she knew about Buddha, the enlightened one. At the top of the hill, we spun the giant prayer wheel and watched many prayer flags swaying in the wind and simply sat under the trees, enjoying the serenity of the place. On the return however we lost the way in the paddy fields but thankfully had a local number to call up Mr. Purba for help.
Thimphu - The Capital
Next day we toured the Thimphu city. The day was bright and sunny and hence very comfortable throughout. We saw the Buddha Dodernma which is an enormously huge bronze Shakyamuni Buddha statue sitting in a meditative posture and over-looking the whole city. The statue is built up of 125000 small Buddha statues which is not visible to us. Below the statue is a meditation hall where one can pray in peace. Surrounding this area are statues of beautiful angels all made in bronze. Then was another temple visit where we were astonished to see many monks sitting together to recite the holy scriptures unaware of the surroundings and the rush of the people visiting this place. We ensured we rotated almost all the tiny and huge prayer wheels there. The prayer wheels have prayers written on them and rotating it means you say the prayer that many times. One observation was though the people know about the teachings of the Buddha, they seemed a little superstitious and for any problems like the kids health, they would pray and give offerings to a local deity. I guess that’s how we humans are, we always wish some supernatural things to happen.
Then we visited a wildlife reserve specially to view the national animal of Bhutan i.e. Takin. It’s a huge animal and looked like a wild sheep or rather a cross between a goat and a cow. It is rear now and is being preserved in this forest area. We also toured the city to get a view of the beautiful Thimphu Palace which currently hosts all government activities.
The next morning we started for Paro. We reached there midday and checked into a beautiful resort for our overnight stay in a wooden cottage with a view facing the giant mountains. We enjoyed our meals and headed to the local city market area. It’s a beautifully planned city with wide roads and pavements, all types of shops selling artifacts, souvenirs, variety of prayer wheels and many locally made handicrafts. However many things here seem to be sourced from other countries as well. There are cafes and restaurants all around this place. One thing that struck us was every house or shop had atleast a prayer wheel on its wall or entrance. It only showed, to pray you do not need a special place or time, it can be anywhere and anytime. We did ensure to rotate many of them and loved doing it. We ended our day at our cottage seeing the sun set from the balcony and the distant light house turn up bright blinking all night.
One good thing about travelling is it resets your biological clock. Amazingly we woke up at 4:30 am daily in Bhutan as the sun rose by 4 am daily and set by 4:30 pm. In cities, we struggle to wake up even by 7:00 am and here I was shocking myself daily without even using the alarm clock.
Aimed to tame the mountains -
Our Paro tour was more about the Tiger’s Nest trek as we chose it over the site seeing in Paro. It is also known as the Paro Taktsang. I believe all of us have come across this place as wallpaper on some computer screens and that temple seems to hang out of a giant mountain cliff. Probably that same view struck us, with a quest to discover what hides there above. We had never before done such a high trek but the journey and the site of many other people doing it inspired us to tame the 3000 ft trek. We were very slow at it owing to our sitting profession with very less mobility. People returning from the top kept inspiring. As we moved higher the Taktsang seemed to appear closer but not as much as we thought. The way was shady and cool.
Although the whole route was not smooth, it was walkable or at times climbable. It became tougher as the oxygen level was dropping making us breathless with the rise in altitude. At the mid distance there was only one restaurant with lunch buffets and snacks at tremendously hyped prices. Honestly, we settled for some snacks for that whole day as it was sure we could not trek further with a heavy meal. When we reached the top of one mountain and only realized now there were many steps here after to climb down and then again up to reach the destination. When we finally reached the Taktsang, we were amazed that we had done it. And what we realized was, the journey is always more fulfilling and accomplishing than the ultimate destination. The journey had taught us patience, self-belief, the law of attraction that whatever we can dream of, we can achieve.
On the way we met many people who had done the trek much better than us even at an older age. The Taktsang itself has a history and significance. And even though it has been partially destroyed by calamities the government has made an effort to restore it. It is believed that the Buddhist Guru Padmasambhava came to this location on the back of the tigress to tame a Tiger Demon. There are many beautiful paintings here which depict stories of local deities and are well explained by the local guides. We returned down almost by the evening with stories from many more travelers – The young and old road tripping friends who were on road from last one month, the sisters travelling without their misters, the father and daughter duo and so on.
The Return to a place called home-
This being our last day touring in Bhutan, we the tired trekkers, started for Phuntsholing the next day. This whole day we drove through the beautiful mountain and valleys of Bhutan crossing beautiful rivers, clouds and fogs and mists and drizzles with the company of Bhutanese music from Mr. Purba’s collection. We stayed a night at Phuntsholing, explored the local markets and places around on foot but it looked more like its Indian neighbour with no more designed houses at sight. We left Bhutan the next morning and crossed into the Indian border which was differentiated only by a decorated gate separating the two countries.
What you take back from Bhutan is only a wish to come back again.
This beautiful country still remains undiscovered for the most of it to us. We definitely want to go back some day to explore more of it.
As rightly quoted, "Travelling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller".
To know more about the uniqueness I experienced in this country, check the below post -