By: Ayush Jain (LT MHPS)
Credited with the title of “The Happiest Country in Asia”, Bhutan certainly lives up to the expectations. Dotted with scenic landscapes, breathtaking valleys and inhabited by peace loving content people, Bhutan offers a trip to relax and rejuvenate yourself.
There are multiple options to reach Bhutan. One can fly directly to Paro in Bhutan or reach the border town of Phuntsholing through road. I would recommend taking the scenic route from Bagdogra to Phuntsholing as it offers some astounding views. The next step would involve getting permits to travel throughout the country.
As such, the border town of Phuntsholing doesn’t offer much in terms of tourist attractions. One does get a glimpse of the numerous prayer drums, the happy people and the order & decorum prevalent throughout the country. However, we did stop by the Crocodile Park to see the majestic reptilian forms of crocodiles and alligators and quite a few at that.
We also witnessed the local tradition of Drayang, where dance performances are given by ladies dressed in traditional Bhutanese attire.
Our next stop was the capital city of Thimphu, which is 5 hour drive from the city of Phuntsholing. Since it was past sundown by the time we reached, we decided to explore the nightlife in the city. Tiresome and famished, we wandered to the popular Clocktower Square.
We dined at Musk Cafe which has a welcoming ambiance with classic Rock music playing in the background and offers delicious local cuisine. Our instant favorite was the super spicy dish of Ema Datshi, which is a concoction of cheese and chillies. I highly recommend visiting this cafe if you happen to visit Thimphu.
We finished the night by visiting one of the numerous establishments in which Karaoke performances are commonplace.
The next day was reserved for the local sightseeing in Thimphu. First we visited National Memorial Stupa wherein the inherent features of Buddhist architecture were clearly visible. Giant prayer drums engraved with sacred messages greet you at the entrance followed by the main stupa. The stupa is characterized by a brilliant white foundation & a dome adorned with a shimmering golden crown at the top. It certainly is a spectacle.
Our next stop was the Buddha Point where one of the world’s largest sitting statues of Buddha is installed. The massive statue, made up of bronze and gilded in gold is a stupendous sight. Several mini statues are also installed at the base of the statue. The location of the Buddha point is picturesque to say the least. With the Himalayan mountain range surrounding the statue on all 360 degrees, the panoramic view will hold you spellbound (30 minutes were only spent on photography trying to capture this location).
There is an interesting tale behind the national animal of Bhutan. The Takin, a rare mammal, is said to have the head of a goat with the body of a cow, this combination apparently made possible by a powerful mad man. We next visited the zoo dedicated to the Takin. We ended our Thimphu excursion with a visit to the Folk Heritage Museum, housing all sort of artifacts and a small souvenir shop.
The former capital of Bhutan, Punakha was our next destination. On the way, one can stop at the Dochula mountain pass where 108 stupas/chortens have been built in the memory of Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the battle against the Assamese insurgents. Apart from the chortens, we also saw the Druk Wangyal monastery built in the memory of the 4th King of Bhutan. All these are amidst a beautiful setting of Himalayan peaks and with a nice cafeteria to satisfy your appetite, one can leisurely relax at the pass.
With an overnight stay at our hotel, the district of Punakha was next on our list. We proceeded to visit the famous Punaka Dzong/Fortress which is located at the confluence of the 2 rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers in the Punakha valley. It is this fortress where the crowning of the King of Bhutan takes place. Restored over the years, the fortress is a war memorial which will leave you in awe of its grandeur. Ornated with colorful paintings with significance to Buddhism, the temple at the far end of the Dzong is a must-see with 3 giant statues of Lord Buddha, the Guru and the disciple housed inside. The paintings inside the temple depict various stages of Lord Buddha’s life in great detail. Surrounded by rivers and the Punakha valley, the fortress has abundance of natural beauty around it.
After this experience, we were at the peak of our excitement as our next destination was Gangtey valley, which had been highly recommended to us as the one of the most beautiful places in Bhutan. Situated a few km from the Gangtey monastery, the valley is truly remarkable. It is such a vast valley and it is surprising to see such a wide expanse of flat land enclosed among mountain ranges. Home to a special variety of short bamboo, the valley hosts the Black necked Crane during the winter months. Hard pressed for time, we went for a walk in the valley in the wee hours of the morning. With a temperature of -2 degree Celsius, we were shivering with punishing cold. However, this not deter us from venturing out and witnessing the beauty of the valley. The dew had turned to icicles everywhere and it seemed as if the entire valley had been covered with a blanket of ice. We were also treated to a rare sight of an entire flock of Black necked Cranes right in the middle of the valley.
After this breathtaking experience, it was time for us to move on to our next destination of Paro. Paro is famous for the Tiger’s Nest also known as the Taktsang Monastery. It is the trek to the monastery which makes it one of a kind experience. It is a steep trek which takes a toll on the body. The slope does not relent and it takes almost 2 hours to complete the 6 km trek on one side. Towards, the end of the trek, one needs to climb down 750 steps to gain access to the monastery. I recommend you to be in a fit condition before attempting this trek. The path is decorated with colorful prayer flags and offers some stunning views of the Tiger’s Nest. The main monastery can be accessed only through a cave like structure and the whole trek is no short of an adventure and is worth the effort.
Chele La Pass
As we neared the end of our trip, we reserved something truly unique for the last, the Chele La pass. It is the highest motorable point in Bhutan at an elevation of 3988 m from the sea level. Cold to chill you to the bone and super windy, the pass offers extraordinary views of the mountains covered with poles with long white flags lashed on to them. The white flags are erected to honor the deceased and guide them to next life. One can trek peak after peak at the Chela La pass, experiencing the wind, sit in the quiet and peace and experience the thrill of scaling steep slopes.
And with this, it was time to return back to the border town Phuntsholing and head back to our homeland. Bhutan will remain etched in memory as a trip of a lifetime and I would urge each and every one to visit this beautiful country. Just meet the happy people, see the stunning views and return feeling as happy as you can be.