Safari Plus reader Shibani Jain and the Founder & CEO of Baaya Design recently had a trip to Bhutan. Let’s discover Bhutan through her eyes.
If you fly to Bhutan, ask for 'Himalayan view' side seats from the airline. The first glimpse of the mountain range from the aircraft is absolutely breath-taking. And, as soon as you step into Bhutan, you get a sense that you are arriving into a completely different world- something like a Shang-ri-La. A sense of excitement ripples down your spine as you feel the cool, clean air and see the charming airport at Paro. My courteous guide Ngedup greets us at the entrance and I just know that I am going to have a good time!
We zip off to Thimpu, the capital city which is about an hour away from Paro. Along the way, the river stays by our side and we see beautiful homes with richly carved and painted wooden rafters on their facia – they are mostly a couple of storeys in height. The sparkling river and these heritage homes are already lulling us into the adventure called ‘Bhutan’.
At Thimpu, we stay at the Taj Paro, a striking building painted in rich mustard color, designed with traditional rafters and carved fascias. We get to see the Memorial Chorten temple and visit Simply Bhutan, an arts and crafts center, set up to promote artisans. Here, we meet the artisan Pema Tshering, who has severe disabilities and yet keeps carving and painting wood with a shining smile on his face. Dinnertime is a typical Bhutanese meal- with lots of little vegetable and lentil bowls and the hot chilly cheese as a side dish. It burns your tongue but warms your insides.
The day after, we leave for Punakha. On the way, we visit the misty and intriguing Dhochu la pass with 108 little temples that dot the mountain top. The temples were built by the queen mother, in honour of the victory won by Bhutan when Assamese militants from India were flushed out from this place in a combat. There is a serene temple at the top. The air is sweet and pure. On a clear day, one can get a stunning view of the Himalayan range.
At Punakha, a long two and half hour hike down the golden harvest fields and a moderately tough climb, we arrive at the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten or temple. This monument was built to promote peace and harmony in an otherwise turbulent world. It’s richly painted interiors, consists of 4 storeys that are dedicated to the different Tibetan Gods and Rimpoches. The top one is in honour of Vajrakilaya. Here, we also take the opportunity to do some white water rafting down the spirited male river called Phochu. It’s a medium grade river in terms of white water rafting. Parts of it are really rocky and swift. We were told that rafters can sometimes fall into the cold rapids, but were reassured that no major harm would come to us and the team was capable of an immediate rescue. It was a thrilling ride, with some anxious moments thrown in and ice cold water splashes. For the less adventurous, the gentle female river called Mochu is an option for rafting.
The next day, after a great Indian lunch we make our way through cloudy skies and more paddy fields to the ‘divine mad gods temple’ also known as Chimi L’Akhang temple. On the way there are art and curio shops. The Thangka paintings here are rather expensive, though their quality is good. At the temple, there is something completely pure and sacred about this place. Lama Kunley, who is credited for building the site is said to have subdued a demon of Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” and trapped it in a rock at the location close to where the chorten now stands. A beautiful Bodhi tree flanks the mountain top where the temple resides. It is the perfect place to meditate. It is said that this manifestation (of Divine Mad God) of the Rimpoches or great teachers is a completely different- he believed in living life to the full and is often represented by a phallic symbol showing his zest for life.
We left for Central Bhutan and the Phobhjhikha valley soon after. This remote and fairly wide valley is flanked by emerald green mountains. By the time we arrive, its night time and a crystalline, star filled sky greets us. We soak in the pure mountain air and revel in the stillness here. The next day we set out on a hike to visit to Gangtey Goemba a 17th century temple that sits atop a small hill. The charming little llamas and priests give this place a quaint, old world charm. We hiked down to the valley which was enchanting- virgin forests, springs, harvest fields and small villages dotted the landscape. With so much natural beauty around, the mind never really gets tired.
It was time to head back to Paro and onwards to Ha valley. This equally remote and tiny valley is on the Bhutan-China border on the western side. We get to stay in one of the most charming heritage hotels here. In the night, all you can hear is the sound of water springs and prayer bells ringing.
Early morning, the next day, we saw the world’s highest motorable road- Chelela pass. Thousands of prayer flags flutter at the top, from where you get a stunning view of the mountain ranges. The spot is considered to be a sacred place of spiritual power. The locals carry out many ancient rituals here. On our way back to the hotel we visit one of the local villages and speak to a charming lady who takes a lift back to the market in our car. Her elegant purple costume and brooches are intriguing indeed.
On our return to Paro, we saw the famed Zhong or fortress here. They look more like temples and less like places of war! A beautiful central courtyard carries a stupa and a Bodhi tree. The balconies and temples are richly carved and consist of multiple levels. We head back to Thimpu to catch the local crafts market. Scarves, jewellery, traditional costumes are some things to buy on my list. The scarves come in vibrant two-shaded colors and they are soft to wear. We also pick up some singing bowls which create a resonating hum when played. They are said to bring in positive vibrations.
Finally, we are ready for our most strenuous hike. The cliff hanging Tiger’s nest or Taktsan Monastery is perched at above 900 feet above the ground level. Looking at it from below makes it seem impossible to reach the top! The climb is arduous and we take almost 4 hours to reach the top! But it’s worthwhile – at the top is crystal pure air and a sparkling waterfall. The beautiful temples, dedicated to Amitabha and Guru Rimpoche take our breath away. This mystical, magical labyrinth of cave temples, hewed into the mountain side is considered one of the most sacred places on the earth. There are many myths and stories that are linked to this sacred spot. The most important one is that an Indian monk named Padmasambhava flew to this place, on the back of a tigress. He is credited as the Llama or Guru Rimpoche who founded this spot.
After the gruelling walk, the last night arrives. I soothe my aching limbs in an aromatic bath under a star lit sky at the beautiful Zhiva Lingka hotel. As I reminisce about my trip, and why it was so special, I realise that this is one country that has offered me more than many places that I have travelled to. Bhutan is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also showcases their ancient ways and traditions. The venerated fourth king is said to have introduced many measures and policies to propagate their arts and crafts. Every building in Bhutan is required to use crafted and painted rafters or traditional elements. The people are strongly encouraged to wear traditional costumes to work. There are special schools set up to train artisans in wood carving, painting and sculpture. Art and crafts stores are everywhere. What makes Bhutan so unique is that they combine their cultural roots very harmoniously with their places of interest. You come back refreshed with the natural beauty and pure air, while you learn many things about the traditions and beliefs of a tiny mountain kingdom. It’s a heady mix of scenic beauty, cultural offerings and charming people.
And so, it’s time to say good bye. I don’t really want to, but home and hearth beckons. I bid goodbye to Bhutan the next day and to my good friend Ngedup with the promise that I would return some day. I will cherish my memories of this country. For me, Bhutan has been the closest place to finding Heaven on Earth. This is how the earth was meant to be.