The place of unparalleled wonders, the land that harbours the majesty of the fire dragon, Bhutan is the very pristine last Shangri- la on earth. A mysteriously enchanting abode that allows you to relax and splurge your spirits in the super amazing ambiance of this super happy land, Bhutan is one of those few countries that beckons you not just to trek and tour, but also to explore and unravel the mysteries of its strikingly mythical confines. Needless to say, our experience in this magical country over a shared passion and love for travel was the best ever travelling start we could have to 2020!
The landing amidst the abode of happiness
The peaceful, calm expanse that Bhutan nestles in, it is quite a paradox that the route to this place isn’t the most pleasant of experiences ever. With the Paro airport the only international link to this landlocked country, the world’s most difficult landoff and taking stage is the only way you can access this otherwise charming land if you want to take the aerial route. And it’s no mean task either- navigating over the rugged terrain amidst turbulent winds and high mountain altitude is rough work enough to have a mere eight pilots in the entire world qualified for such demands of tremendous expertise.
It indeed was an experience that we had to get through for further surveyance of the blissful happiness that awaited us on landing. But even as a perilous on- air hanging could not be a deterrent to the breathtaking beauty that smiled at us for below, we knew what the land had in stake for us- expanse and expanse of unadulterated beauty and calming pristinity.
Bhutan indeed has more than a couple of domestic airports as well- the Yongphulla airport, the Bathpalathang Airport and the Gelephu airport that makes travel easier within the country. But for connectivity with foreign lands, the Paro airport is the only destination. Also, with only the Druk Airlines truly operating internationally, travel routes to and from Bhutan remain within a seriously limited ambit.
The nature and landscape
Be it the picturesque Paro valley or the vibrant yet peaceful Thimpu, the many prayer flags fluttering about or the multitude of mountainous treks, Bhutan will forever have you falling in love with its verdant experiences. In fact, monasteries and the colorful flags have always been the ideal visual of Bhutan. The gentle wind flapping the little flags that you encounter at virtually every peak of the country transports you to a world of idealism, where mystical occurrences take form.
Our own experience in Bhutan has been one that transcends the realm of the spellbinding charm of its many besotted beauties. With so much to explore- be it a host of tentative World Heritage Sites, the famed Tiger’s Monastery, the third highest capital city of Thimphu, the world’s highest yet unconquered peak Gangkhar Puensum, a range of trekking trails and rafting ravines, abundant exotic flora and fauna, Bhutan is a conglomeration of wonders that appeal to each traveler and every tourist on the face of the earth.
The Buddha Dordenma statue
The capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu, houses also one of the tallest Buddha statues in the world. The Buddha Dordenma statue is a 52 meters high sculpture of the Buddha made of bronze and gilded in gold. Interestingly this gigantic statue also houses over a hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park that overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley.
Apart from the giganticness of the statue that is indeed a vision in itself, the view of the surrounding valley from thereon and is also no less spectacular. Expectedly therefore, we were mesmerised at the panoramic spectacle that unfolded before our eyes- of the mist and the serenity, of the charm that resides in the distant and the allure of the environs.
Sitting atop a large meditation hall, the Buddha Dordenma statue is significant also in bringing to fulfillment a couple of prophecies. Constructed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the giant structure is supposed to bestow peace, happiness and blessing on the world. Not surprisingly then, with such significant magnificence in tow, the USP of tourism in Bhutan happens to dwell in something as simplistic as happiness!
The Dochula Pass is a prime tourist hotspot in Bhutan but much less explored are the many chortens that are nestled in it. A popular spiritual site, the Dochula Pass is further elevated in reverence with the presence of the 108 chortens that present a really spectacular sight.
Built as a memorial in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India, the side lying chortens are as appeasing a view as they form sacred a site. Built in three layers with forty five chortens making up the lowest layer, thirty six of them on the second and an even lesser twenty seven of chortens on the third layer around the main chorten on the lush green hillside, the construction involved ritualistic reiterations furthering the spiritual sanctity attached to the site.
The Druk Wangyal Chortens or the Chortens of Victory however had been in the news last year for certain happenings that threatened to override the very sacredness of the place. A biker from the Indian state of Maharashtra, Abhijit Ratan Hazare was seen to have climbed upon one of the chortens. In what was widely condemned as an act of disrespect towards local traditions, the incident sparked outrage but Hazare was let free after having been taken into custody as the act was apparently one caused by ignorance.
1/3 Breaking: The tourist in the biker outfit is Abhijit Ratan Hajare from the Indian state of Maharashtra.— The Bhutanese (@thebhutanese) October 18, 2019
In the second picture the man sitting on the ladder is a Bhutanese citizen and carpenter, Jambay, who was doing repair works on the Chortens pic.twitter.com/Mq3vn2VKSI
Both because of its links to Buddhist spiritualism as well as to the greater notion of being a tribute for those who turned patriots for the country, the chortens are held in high esteem and any mishappening therefrom would obviously be cause for offense. As tourists therefore, respecting the emotion and taking in the aesthetics is all it takes to return with fond memories of Bhutan- just like we did!
Call it being a closer neighbour of the subcontinent or its locational proximity with India, the gastronomic experience of Bhutanese tends to be summed up as one that bears connection with the cuisine of the north eastern regions of our land. And indeed it does. Be it in unique manifestations like red rice or in popular tastes like momos, a wide variety of local beers or ample use of local spices, the Bhutanese food culture is pretty similar to our own culinary perceptions.
Of course, the national dish of Bhutan has to be ema datshi but beyond this spicy preparation also, the country boasts of foods that are as steeped in flavours and uniqueness like any other. In fact, there’s a lot of datshis to start with- kewa datshi, shamu datshi, gondo datshi, shakam ema datshi, shakam shukam datshi that are diversified preparations in their own even when they all tend to be cheese based. There’s also the chicken curry Jasha Maru, the milk and veggie soup Jaju, side dishes like Khatem and Lom and non veg options like shakam paa, phaksha paa, sikam paa et al.
And just like ema datshi, while momos and thukpas might just be the most ubiquitious Bhutanese snacks ever, there’s also a lot more than the typical fare to tickle the tastebuds. Even with the dumplings we tasted variations like the buckwheat doughed Hoentay while noodles and fried rice encompass the other all- wordly stuff out there. Dessert options however seem to be seriously limited within the ambit of Bhutanese cuisine- a food palate in which the spice quotient runs more or less prominent all throughout would expectedly cherish not so much of a fondness for the sweet! The simplistic yet sinful Khabzeys were the only sweet diversion we could manage to eke out from the spicy haven that the Bhutani platter is!
The cultural manifestation
With a unique cultural legacy and a distinctive heritage identity in tow, Bhutan is a land that boasts of its own exclusive celebrations. The mountainous country celebrates numerous festivals that are culturally, historically and even religiously significant. Folk dances and songs characterise the observance of the myriad festivals that forever up the happiness and vibrant ante of the land. Be it the traditional New Year Festival celebrated as Losar or the distinctive Takin festival, the Matsutake festival or the Tsechu festival, each celebration of Bhutan is a carnival of amalgamation of different elements that characterise the many aspects of society and life.
Dances occupy centerstage in every Bhutanese festival. A certain masked dance called the Cham bears also religious significance, being associated with some sects of Buddhism and Buddhist festivals. Perhaps the most famous of Bhutanese dances that celebrate the tradition and culture of the land, the Cham dance also has variations like the Pa Cham and the Drametse Naga Cham dance, the latter even being registered in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Witnessing the revelry of the spirited Bhutanese folks as they go about their many dances and songs in the wide number of festivals and observances as a way of life is indeed an experience in itself- one that explains also how as a nation, Bhutan derives from celebrations and zest to live the happy, fulfilling life it is so noted for.
Tourism in Bhutan
Needless to say, with a wide range of enticing elements in stead, Bhutan is a country that ranks high on touristry appeal. Be it its stunning landscape, the tranquil appeal that dwell even in its challenging terrains, the wide manifestation of a distinctive culture and heritage, bundles and bundles of happiness and expanses and expanses of spirituality, Bhutan has something in its fold for everyone willing to make inroads into its placid yet adventurous soul. But the most encompassing of all aspects that make Bhutan such a favourable zone on making its way high up the global tourism radar (even when it remains a nation that imposes selective restrictions on the same) is undoubtedly its immersion in the depths and elevation to the heights of something as universally appealing as happiness.
Notable in pioneering the concept of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan and the Tourism Council of the country seeks to work their way up this very mechanism to unleash its tourism potential. Because it is indeed the vibes of a land and the warmth of its people that lure foreigners into exploring dramatic confines and cultural diversity and into raking up historical significances and embarking on adventurous journeys, Bhutan has strived to take the happy road forward.
In the simplistic way of life of the ever smiling Bhutanese people, we discovered a certain warmth- emanating from their happy souls is a verve which is unmissable, a certain metanoia of sorts attributable perhaps to their predominantly Buddhist vision of living, a conglomeration of the simplest pleasures of life- of mist, of mountains, of joy, of celebration and indeed of the blessing of existence itself. For a land as enthused in and about a happy existence as no other, Bhutan might be the happiest abode that transcends into its every existence and experience. In being the perfect ode to personifying the last shangrila on earth, it indeed would only be apt to say that Bhutan is the land that encompasses happiness not just in its place but also in its people!