Bhutan: Into the Land of the Thunder Dragon

A country that gauges its success in the form of Gross National Happiness. A land where the ancient mountains seem to transport you back in time and ethereal experiences hold you enthralled. Here’s an account of a life-affirming road trip through western Bhutan.
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Taktsang in Paro is one of the many stunning dzongs across Bhutan. Image: Shutterstock/Khanthachai C.

The exhilaration began on the Druk Air flight from Kolkata to Paro. The way the skilled pilot navigated between Himalayan peaks towering at 5,500 metres, made me feel like I was starring in an A-list action film.

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A flight to remember! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The touchdown at the quaint little airport with its single runway and richly painted low-slung buildings was smooth, nevertheless.

As was the entry into Bhutan, a friendly neighbour that welcomes Indians, without the need of a passport! It’s true, we could enter using any national ID such as a driver’s license or Aadhar card through the special channel reserved for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries.

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The Druk Air plane that flew from Kolkata to Paro. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

We had to secure permits to visit various places in advance, but we were spared the exorbitant per-day charges that visitors from Western nations have to pay, since Bhutan believes strongly in disallowing over-tourism and keeping off the drug trail unlike other countries in the vicinity. There’s a reason why it is known as the ‘happiest country in the world’, but narcotics are certainly not part of it.

Paro: Beyond compare!

Even though Paro boasts the country’s first international airport, it has a small town with one main street, ensconced within picturesque surroundings made up largely of rustic bridges awash with colourful prayer flags and lush paddy fields. My first impression of Paro was that it resembled all those pictures we draw as children, the ones with a river coming down from amid triangular mountains, idyllic houses in the foreground, and fluffy clouds floating above happily.

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The picture-perfect Paro valley. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Only, this was the real deal. A valley filled with sunshine and yellow flowers, unspoilt by any ugly structures. The fact that the Bhutanese government mandates the use of only the traditional architectural style for private as well as public buildings, gives the landscape a pleasing and picture-perfect feel. It’s how our own Sikkim must have been a century ago, before the horrors of modern concrete and glass spread across its pristine prettiness.

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The river Paro runs through it. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

While there are a number of five-star (like the five Aman lodges across the country, a Taj Tashi in Thimphu, Le Meridien in Paro), boutique luxury and homestay options, we chose to check in to simpler, family-owned hotels during our visit. The charms of Bhutan are best found in the disarming innocence of its people, the richness of its ancient traditions, and the vastness of its well-preserved natural beauty. The arduous but rewarding 10 kms trek up to the cloud-shrouded Taktsang dzong, or in tourist lingo, the Tiger’s Nest monastery from Paro, brings you in touch with all of these aspects. An important site for Vajrayana Buddhism, it is also a trekker’s delight and a meditator’s joy. The mist and the clouds around it along with the mythology around the seasons I encountered made me wonder whether this is why Bhutan is often called the Land of the Thunder Dragon! I discovered later that this was indeed true, as the Bhutanese ascribe the many thunderstorms from the Himalayas to the red fire of a dragon that lives in the upper reaches of the mountains.

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Rainbows everywhere. Sometimes double and triple ones! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

En route to Tiger’s Nest, beautiful rhododendrons bloom (between April and July), and sparkling mountain springs gurgle happily. I met a darling old Bhutanese woman sitting by such a burbling brook, her wares spread out on a colourful quilt. The hand-carved and hand-painted dragons and demon faces she offered, were exquisitely made, and would have easily gone for thousands of Ngultrum (Bhutanese currency that matches the Indian Rupee in value) in a fancy store. She was almost selling them for a song. We were happy to give her a fair price for them and she was happy to accept Indian currency (this is something I found across Bhutan, as long as you pay in notes of small denomination) in the middle of the forest.

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The National Museum in Paro. Image: Courtesy National Museum.

The National Museum in Paro is a gorgeous circular brick building perched atop a hill. It overlooks the majestic Rinchen Pung Dzong (a monastery, fortress, and administrative building, where they say Bernardo Bertolucci shot several scenes for his film Little Buddha in the early 90s!) and the entire valley stretches out before you. Inside, there’s a fascinating collection of artefacts, including ancient weaponry, stamps, coins and currency, pottery, jewellery, and entire floors full of memorabilia connected to royalty and religion.

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Dzongs are part monasteries, part educational institutions, part administrative offices. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

There’s the opportunity to visit a number of monasteries (dzongs) in Paro, each more serene, more beautiful than the last. My favourite sights inside these ancient and very holy structures were the mesmerising mandalas, intricate thangkas, and the most awe-inspiring murals whose colours haven’t faded even centuries later and symbolism continues to provoke introspection even today.

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Elaborate paintings inside dzongs are rich in Tibetan mythology and history. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

While here, I was also introduced to the complex dress code that governs the Bhutanese. Traditional attire is compulsory at educational institutions, government offices, cultural celebrations, and anything that is considered important. The men wear a knee-length wraparound robe called gho over a long-sleeved white jacket (toego), tied with a fabric belt known as a kera, which doubles up as waist pouch. The women drape a kira, a long fabric around their body, which ends at the ankles. They also wear a kera and a long-sleeved toego, but add another layer called a wonju, which is usually in more showy fabric or contrast colours. When they visit a dzong or attend a formal occasion, the men drape a silk scarf called a kabney over their left shoulder, while women wear a similar one called a rachu. The colour and style of these signifies the person’s status in Bhutanese society.

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Ngalops are one of the three ethnic groups in Bhutan. They form the majority in the western and central parts of the country. Their style of dress has been adopted as the traditional attire of Bhutan since the 17th century. Image: Shuttesrtock/Anton_Ivanov.

Inwardly rebelling against such officialdom, I asked what youngsters like to do for fun. I was directed to the one and only pizza parlour in the centre of town, where courting couples shared shy glances over cheesy slices and salty suja (butter tea). A friend tells me that the hot new hangout now is the Mountain Café and Roastery, which opened in Paro last year.

A capital called Thimphu

Just an hour’s drive away, Thimphu already had its share of eateries and entertainment when we visited. I found that the capital is rife with bakeries and bars. While alcohol of all sorts is easily available, I was most fascinated by the locally distilled liquor known as ara, which is had neat.

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Fiery ema datshi (left) is a vegetarian dish that can be found across Bhutan. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The one dish that rivals ara in potency is ema datshi, made with Bhutanese red chillies and stringy cheese. The same cheese is paired with various varieties of greens too, and I really missed its taste and texture on my return. I did pick up strings of chhurpi (hard and chewy yak milk cheese) from a street stall, but that one was quite the acquired taste. The top quality asparagus I purchased fared much better among friends.

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Karma Kencho introducing the local produce stocked at a street grocer, including strings of yak milk cheese. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
Bhutan, travel, road trip
Fresh asparagus at rock-bottom rates! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

As expected from a capital city, Thimphu is rather bustling. It didn’t have traffic snarls as we know them but there were certainly a lot more vehicles. But even in that there was a little small-town charm, with the city’s only traffic light pointed out as a landmark!

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A traffic policeman in downtown Thimphu. Image: Shutterstock/JordiStock.

On the other hand, impressive statues (that bronze and gold Buddha Dordenma, which is the largest seated Buddha in the WORLD!) and memorial chortens abound in Bhutanese culture, which, much like ours, sets great store on religious symbols. These have become a must-visit on the tourist trail, and predictably, beautiful garden complexes and shops have sprung up around them.

Like Dochu La, a mountain pass at 3,100 metres above sea levelon the road between Thimphu and Punakha, where the air is rare and the sights event rarer. Here, you can see 108 memorial chortens or stupas arrayed beautifully down the mountain slopes, as well as the country’s first Royal Botanical Garden which is close at hand.

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A glimpse of the 108 memorial chortens at Dochu La Pass will surely take your breath away if the altitude doesn’t! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

But, as a traveller, I much prefer to try and get a deeper understanding of the local culture and traditions rather than selfies at scenic spots (though I do those too, of course!). That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed the ancient weaves at the National Textile Museum, and spent much more time than I should have at the unique Folk Heritage Museum, as it offered a peek into the lives of the rural Bhutanese, with displays that incorporated everyday objects like kitchen utensils and musical instruments. A drive to the Motithang Takin Preserve nearby gave me a chance to see many Takin, Bhutan’s national animal, as they grazed, blissfully unaware of their special status.

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A Bhutan Takin in the reserve. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The many drives through the mountains and countryside we undertook to get from one place to another, were thus quite interesting. An unusual stratification of rockface reminiscent of Ladakh here, an artistic inscription there. As we moved away from the city, I started to notice some cheeky paintings on houses. Is it graffiti, I wondered? These weren’t just phallic symbols as we worship them in India but rather realistic renditions of the male organ, blatantly poised on either side of doorways! Soon, I noticed that there were even 3D models on the same theme, hanging above doors. Pretty racy, especially for a conservative culture! After delicate closer examination and some awkward questions posed to Karma Kencho, our guide and friend in Bhutan, I found that these are said to be auspicious symbols that are work to ward off the evil eye.

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Phallic paintings on a house near Chimi Lhakhang monastery to ward off the evil eye. Image: Shutterstock/Siriwatthana Chankawee.

Not surprisingly, in the vicinity lay Chimi Lhakhang or the Fertility Temple. Two hours’ drive from Thimphu and 10 kms from the old capital of Punakha, was this modest structure in the middle of fields of mustard and rice that is thronged by couples who are keen to conceive as well as would-be parents who want inspiration for the name of their coming child.

The principality of Punakha

We finally reached Punakha, the place that was the capital of Bhutan for almost three centuries, before it was shifted to Thimphu in 1907. The dzong built at the confluence of two powerful rivers — the Mo Chhu and the Pho Chhu — has an aura of power around it. No wonder then, that when Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the handsome King of Bhutan was marrying the beautiful Jetsun Pema in 2011, they chose this spot for their nuptials. The dzong also holds many important relics dear to the Bhutanese. As we walked across a bridge spanning the water, the sight of profuse purple jacaranda blooms against the white-washed walls was especially dazzling.

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Punakha dzong is as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside! Image: Shutterstock/linegold.

Back to Bhutan some day

We spent several days driving around western Bhutan and it still didn’t seem nearly enough. Karma told us tales about his hometown Bumthang and how its beauty far surpasses anything we had already seen. Besides, there are rhododendron reserves, scenic treks, and so much more to see.

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The Blue Poppy, national flower of Bhutan, seen along a trekking route near Thimphu. Image: Shutterstock/Niyom Napalai.

There are so many fascinating facets to this country, our mysterious neighbour that has only recently (relatively) opened up to tourism that I realised it would take months or even years to explore it all. In fact, I loved it so much that I actually came back and looked up citizenship laws in the hope of moving there! After all, who wouldn’t want to live where happiness is considered the main reason to be?

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Mist and clouds give this country an aura of mystery. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

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