The last Shangri La

The trick to enjoy Bhutan is to take it at its pace. Slow. And just be happy. The country may have lost its title of being the happiest country in the world. But a trip there will yet leave you in a state of joy.

For the longest, a very close Bhutan-returned friend of ours would tout the absence of traffic lights as the biggest highlight of this beautiful mountain kingdom. That is, other than the title it enjoyed – of being the happiest country in the world. A decade later, when I made my maiden trip to this hill kingdom, I found that a lot of things existed just as he had explained. The forests are untouched, the mountains majestic,  the monasteries a spiritual haven and the transportation so orderly that traffic lights are still redundant!

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Paro. Photo Courtesy: Shutterstock

Bhutan remains one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world with beautiful locales and pride in local culture. It is as if the country is struck in a time warp – where people wear their traditional dress, rituals are commonly practised, and indigenous tribes like the Layaps and Brokpas live their lives just as they had in centuries bygone. The country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, and emphasis is still placed on cultural and architectural heritage and ages-old traditions.

The trick to enjoy Bhutan is to take it at its pace. Slow. Bhutan experience begins with the landing at Paro airport. Deemed ‘most dangerous landing’ in the world, it is also one of the most picturesque. You may have flown to Bhutan several times, but each time the experience beats the previous one.

One of the most important valleys in Bhutan, Paro is dotted with traditional farmhouses and about 155 temples and Buddhist monasteries. Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest monastery is said to be the most prominent among others. Legend has it that Guru Padma Sambhava flew here on the back of a tigress and meditated in the cave for three months.  The other must visits are the National Museum – Ta Dzong (watch tower); Paro Dzong – a 17th century fortress where the popular Paro Tshechu, a dance festival, is performed and the 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang, where you would find identical temples that were constructed 13 centuries apart.

Traditional Dance at the Thimpu Tsechu. Photo Courtesy: Shutterstock

Next on my itinerary was Thimphu, where I was to spend three days. Thimpu is a modern city with interesting cafés in Thimphu. I spent my next two days exploring the city highlights such as the Memorial Chorten, built in memory of the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck by his mother; National Library; traditional painting school and Tashi Chhoe Dzong, which houses the King’s throne room and offices of the King, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. The Dzong was constructed without a drawn blueprint and without nails. And trying my hand at Archery!

Archery is the traditional sport of Bhutan and there are various schools that teach you modern and traditional forms at the ranges. Nevermind, if I was a bit rusty, the experience was fun. For those looking at something offbeat, I recommend they must undertake a hike to Tango and Cheri monasteries or mountain bike at Wangditse loop.

In the following days, I covered Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan and the winter residence of the clergy; Sopsokha village; Phobjikha and Bumthang. Each of these places offered rich insights into Bhutan’s cultural and religious history. Well preserved palaces and temples indicate the locals’ love for their history and reverence for monarchy.

Punakha Dzong. Photo Courtesy: Shutterstock

My offbeat stops included a tea break at Dochu La, which has a unique cluster of 108 Chortens dedicated by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck as a tribute to the selfless service and visionary leadership of the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The pass also offers a beautiful 180-degree view of the Eastern Himalayas.

Then there was the famed phallus temple, Chimmi Lhakhang, located in Sopsokha village. It is believed that childless women who visit the temple conceive after receiving the wang (blessing) from Lama Drukpa Kuenley’s iron archery set and wooden phallus.

For the adventurous sorts is the white river rafting at either of the two rivers, the Pho Chhu (male river) and the Mo Chhu (female river), of Punakha. The nature lovers would also love the picturesque vale of Phobjikha that is home to the black necked-cranes who make it their winter home. We visited the Black-Necked Crane Observation and Education Centre. Operated by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature, the centre has a lot of interesting information on these endangered birds.

Later as I took a flight from Bumthang to Paro, I made a mental count of places that I would love to update to my friend’s recount. To my surprise, there really weren’t many. Save for the cheese story. Strangely enough, for that moment, I found a lot of comfort in the familiar and I had to thank him for that.

Photo Courtesy: Shutterstock

Highlights

  • White-water rafting at Punakha.
  • Stop for tea at Dochu La, which has a unique cluster of 108 Chortens dedicated to the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The pass also offers a beautiful 180-degree view of the Eastern Himalayas.
  • Try your hand at archery, the national sport of Bhutan.
  • Visit the famous Phallus temple at Sopsokha Village.

Good to Know

  • When to visit: March to May / September to November
  • How to get there: Fly in to Paro and thereafter travel by road
  • Highest Point: Yutong La Pass (3,425 meters / 11,237 feet)