Perched high in the Himalayas, the tiny remote mystical kingdom of Bhutan is probably the most culturally rich of all Himalayan kingdoms. A visit to Bhutan has been a long-standing dream and it finally came true last month when few friends and I decided on a five day trip to the “Land of Druk“ or the “Land of Thunder Dragon” where time stands still.
We flew into Bagdogra (Siliguri) and drove straight into Phuentsholing, the border town adjacent to India’s last frontier town, Jaigon. After an endless 94kms drive, we crossed over to Phuentsholing through the majestic Bhutan gate into a different world altogether. First Impression was, Wow! Clean, sloping roads – well regulated & disciplined traffic and parking, Bhutanese styled row houses lined up next to each other.
Obtaining the permit to enter Bhutan with the help of a Travel Agent took about 2 hours, later which we halted at Phuentsholing for the night. Phuentsholing is the second largest city in Bhutan and is a thriving commercial center. Situated directly at the base of the Himalayan foothills, it is a fascinating mixture of mingling people and their culture from India and Bhutan.
Next morning after breakfast we drove to Thimpu which was about 5 hours drive through the numerous hairpin bends and scenic spots. Thimpu is the nation’s capital and largest city that gives the feeling of a quaint neat little town. At the center of the town is an assembly point with an ornate clock tower and surrounding it are the prominent government buildings, hotels, and shopping centers. Before checking into our hotel, we stopped at ZaSa for lunch – a family run restaurant that was highly recommended by a travel blogger. Absolutely loved the Ema Datshi (chilies and cheese), Jasha Maru (chicken stew), Hoentay (buckwheat dough wrapper), Ezay (a spicy chili sauce) and Red rice. First Bhutanese meal here and I realized that the food is characterized by its heavy use of cheese chilies.
We then drove up on the hillside overlooking Thimpu to a place called Kuensel Phodrag (Buddha Point) – a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha Statue that overlooks the southern approach to Thimpu. Tashincho Dzong Fortress – the main secretariat building that houses the office of the King and the Throne Room, Memorial Chorten & The folk heritage Museum were some of the other notable attractions. An evening stroll around the Nordzin Lam is quite a sight. You’d find that the entire street is lined with handicraft and shops that sell fresh fruits, yak butter & cheese. A bottle of the Red Panda beer and K5 Whisky at Zombala along with some spicy Tibetan food for dinner still sits in my mind and on my tongue.
Next day we left Thimpu and drove straight to Dochula Pass. At 3150mts, the pass is not the highest, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful. It offers a 360-degree sterling view of the snowcapped Himalayas. The beauty of this place is further enhanced by the Druk Wangyal Chortens-108 stupa built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.
After another 2 hour drive, we reached Punakha valley often referred to as the “Place of Happiness” is the second largest and second oldest Dzong in Bhutan.
Punakha had been Bhutan’s Capital from the 17th Century up to 1955 when it was shifted to Thimpu. Two major rivers of Bhutan the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu converge in this valley. Punakha Dzong that houses the sacred remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Terton Padma Lingpa is arguably the most majestic structure I have seen. All of Bhutan’s Kings have been crowned here. Just walking distance from the Dzong you’ll find a 160m long Punakaha Suspension Bridge draped in prayer flags that is used mainly by locals.
Next day was Paro – a historic town with many sacred sites. Located just one hour drive from the capital city of Thimpu, this charming town of Paro comprises both the ancient as well as the modern face of Bhutan. This is also the place to some of the most revered temples in Bhutan – especially the famed Tiger Nest Monastery.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery or Paro Taktsang as it is known locally was the foremost reason for me to visit Bhutan. Blessed and Sanctified as one of Bhutan’s most sacred religious sites, the temple clings almost impossible to a sheer cliff face of 900m above the Paro Valley. Legend has it that this is where Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) landed on the back of a flying tigress, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet. The only way to access it was through a 3-hour long uphill trek along with descending and another ascending flight of 700 odd steps. At first, it looked like a daunting challenge but I was determined to conquer it and I did !! After the ascend when I looked back and up at the monastery perched high up in the mountains, it still seemed to exude a sense of serenity which I would preserve forever.
Kyichu Lhakhang, Chelela Pass, and Rinpung Dzong were some of the other attraction that we witnessed in Paro before heading out of Bhutan.
All in all, The Kingdom of Bhutan is indeed a slice from a fairy tale world and traveling to this incredible destination gave some rewarding moments. The magnificent fortresses across the country, the spirit of hospitality among locals, houses with multi-colored wooden facades and other quirky cultural nuances were a delight and they will be etched in my memory forever.