Bhutan claims to be the happiest country in the world and the reason behind this is the Gross National Happiness, a phrase coined by the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk.
Legend has it that a famous Tibetan saint heard a loud thunder when he was building a monastery in Bhutan and named the country Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The name Bhutan is derived from the ancient word “Bhotania”, which meant -‘end of the land of the Bhots’ (Tibet).
How to get there:
If you are an Indian travelling to Bhutan all you need is a passport and a love for the mountains. Indian nationals don’t need a visa to enter the country. We don’t need to pay the Royalty fee either, which is 250$ per person per night.
The easiest way to get to Bhutan is by air. Druk Air, the national airlines of Bhutan, flies regularly from the international airports at Kolkata and Delhi to Paro. The aircraft is an ATR 42-500, smaller than the usual airbus and the journey takes 1 hour 15 minutes from Kolkata. You can book a taxi till Thimphu for 700INR or 700 Ngultrums, the currency of Bhutan.
What to do:
On your way to the city, stop at the Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge, a suspension bridge that is made entirely out of iron chains, over the Paro Chhu river, built by Thangtong Gyalpo in the 13th century. As spooky as it may seem in the beginning, conquer your fears and walk across. This is one stop you will never forget.
The market has hundreds of shops that sell local handicrafts. The Thimphu Handicrafts Emporium is a great shop that has some lovely masks at decent prices, and you can bargain too! Traditional masks, the local dress (Gho and Kira) and a prayer wheel are must buys. All shops in the market accept the Indian Rupee (1 INR = 0.99 BTN) so don’t worry too much about exchanging currency after you reach.
If you are in the capital on the weekend don’t forget to check out the Weekend Market at Norzim Lam. People from all over Bhutan come here with their wares. It is a treat to the eyes and the ears too, because the shops line up right along the river.
National Institute of Zorig Chusum (Thirteen Arts) is an arts school that provides instruction in the traditional 13 arts of Bhutan. The main subjects are painting, sculpting, embroidery and wood carving. It is a treat to the eyes and the soul as you watch hundreds of students carry on generations of artistic tradition forward and doing it happily. The Zorig Chusum gift shop sells all that the students make and a part of the earnings go to the individual student.
The National Library of Bhutan isn’t too far away from the art school and has an old world charm, with its huge windows, teak wood shelves and a lovely painting of the Buddha when you enter. Don’t miss checking out the world’s largest book called Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan, on display.
The Trashi Chhoe Dzong is the main attraction of Thimphu. The King and his cabinet of Ministers work here and so do the head Monks. This Dzong is open to the public only after office hours (5pm – 6pm) on weekdays and (8am-6pm) on Sundays. The central courtyard (Dochey) is of magnificent proportions and accommodates the locals of Thimphu during the Tsechu Festival. Tsechu meaning ‘day ten’ is celebrated on the tenth day of the Tibetan Lunar Calendar.
If you haven’t seen a Takin in the Motithang Takin Preserve, you probably will never see one again. This animal is an odd mix of a goat and a bison. Try getting to the preserve early morning and you might just be able to feed one.
For a spectacular view of the Himalayas, a visit to the Dochula pass is a must. It goes all the way to the Punakha Valley. Before you start your drive to Dochula Pass, pray to the weather Gods for clear skies so that you can see the range. The drive to Dochula is an attraction in itself. You get to see huge Chortens (burial mounds), water prayer wheels and all kinds of flowers along the way.
There are buses from Thimphu to Paro every half hour and the ticket would cost 50-100Ngultrums depending on the bus. You have share taxis that are more common and they charge 300Ngultrums per trip.
Most visitors go to Paro to see two things, the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) and the Paro Dzong. Most hotels will offer a bird’s eye view of the Tiger’s Nest and a few offer a taxi to the Dzong and back.
Unlike the Thimphu Dzong, the Paro Dzong is run entirely by the monks and if you get there during lunch time, you can hear more than 200 monks chanting. Even though most Dzongs are similar in their construction the Paro Dzong is more spectacular because of the view from the lower courtyard. There is a historic museum very close to the Dzong that holds a vast collection of masks, definitely worth a visit.
The Taktsang Monastery stands on the edge of a cliff at 10,240ft. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava flew to this spot on the back of a Tigress. The trek up takes two and a half hours, with a little stop at the cafeteria halfway, for tea.
Where to stay:
The main market is a long road at Thimphu’s center and most hotels are located around the area.
The Peaceful Resort, is a fairly priced 4 star hotel (2500INR – 3500INR per night) with a fantastic view of the valley. The rooms are minimally decorated with big beds and connected balconies.
The Ugyen Phendeyling resort at Paro, a 3 star hotel (2000 – 3000INR per night) is another good option offering a good view of the Tiger’s Nest.
What to eat:
The Bhutanese cuisine has a lot of options for both vegetarians and non vegetarians. At Thimphu, you must dine at a restaurant called Tandin. The entire place is wood paneled and overlooks the Wang Chhu.
Try the Kewa Datshi, a simple looking dish with potatoes, cheese and chilli that is eaten with hot rice. There are different variants of it made with mushroom and chicken as well.
Bhutan is a land like no other: modern, yet so culturally and traditionally rooted with the happiest bunch of people and some spicy chillies. The picture perfect surroundings are the cherry on top.
Till next time, Kadrin Chhe Druk!