After 3 years of eyeing Bhutan in maps and travel magazines, finally this long standing dream came true in October 2016 when we decided to pedal through over 2 weeks…well not pedal throughout all the 14 days.
It always intrigued me, what Bhutanese people do differently which allows them to assertively claim that they are the happiest people on earth. And whether they could teach me what happiness actually means. Two weeks later, I realized that they were onto something.
How to go to Bhutan from Mumbai? Taking a flight is the fastest way ofcourse. Druk Air flies from Mumbai twice a week at a steep price. So our next best option was to fly to Bagdogra and drive from there.
Drive From Bagdogra to Phuentsholing. A 4-hour almost straight drive with the Teesta river and endless stretch of tea estate accompanying through most of 150kms, kept us all excited, eagerly waiting to touch the Bhutan border. Crossing the border was momentous. We got down to click the huge ornate gate that welcomes you to Bhutan. The step into the gate and we had put behind us all the noise, the trash, the cacophony, the chaos, the stress, the inanimate concrete world.
The difference is so drastic as if you have suddenly entered into a different realm just by crossing a hairline transparent sheet. What strikes you most when you enter the gigantic Bhutan gate is the sudden silence, tidiness, paved clean roads, lesser vehicles and people.
And from here begins the odyssey –Thimpu, Punakha, Gantey and Paro. Over 14 mesmerizing days wandering through central and bit of eastern part of Bhutan to see its imposing Dzongs and picturesque country-sides and landscape against sharp blue skies, eat its food, dress the way its people did, listen to its uncountable tales from history and folk-lore.
Every drive seemed to be better than the previous one; every town looked more charming than the previous one; here was a country that took its history, art, culture, architecture so seriously that you are forced to feel ‘nothing must have changed’. Deeply religious, even the commoner in Bhutan almost starts and ends his day at the monasteries. Every little town has the basics and is so clean that you can eat off the streets. Almost every town is located in a valley with a river running past it, giving it life. Schools adopt a brook, stream or a river and keep it sparkling clean. Every house, shop, hotel, monastery, Dzong follow the same architecture – giving the entire Bhutan a character you will find difficult to ignore.
A Capital City with no traffic lights!
The drive through Phuentsholing to Thimpu, we were blessed with a sight of a rainbow. Coming straight from the lifeless arid concrete jungle to so much of hues and colors and foliage was already too elating that to get to see a complete rainbow turned us into a bunch of school kids barely able to hold our horses and wait for the bus to halt before we jumped out going crazy with our shutter. This was not enough that we discovered another rainbow slowly flickering to life but soon faded off with an overbearing gush of fog. What better way to be welcomed by this enigmatic country.
Thimphu is one of the only two capital cities in the world to not have a single traffic light.
Anyhow, having seen the way people drive in Bhutan I guess they’ll do just fine without traffic lights. They easily give way to other vehicles and do not mind waiting to let other’s pass before them and when someone gives way, the driver always thanks them in return. Turns out Bhutan got the roads, motor vehicles, electricity etc only after the 60s, I wonder how long before they give in to the ways of the rest of the “developed” world like incessant honking and such. But for now, it is still the last Shangri-La.
Next morning, the bikers donning their brightly colored spandex, tuning their gears, all lined up to explore Thimpu on pedals. The droopy willows lined up on the sides of the carpet roads gave a distinct serenity and quaintness to the city making the ride more beautiful. Our first stop was Buddha Point to see a 162 feet gold-gilded gigantic bronze statue of Shakyamuni Buddha on a hill top at the southern side of Thimphu. They claim that this magnanimous sculpture adorns the second biggest diamond.
One thing which stands out strikingly about Bhutanese culture is its aesthetic character. Every structure, be it their houses, their offices, their government buildings has a historic and artistic architecture. So it was obvious that our next pit stop, The National Library had to be monumental and impressive. This four-storeyed Library is home to all past, present, future documents of Bhutan; from old letters, pictures, traditional texts and ancient and valued books and Manuscripts. On the ground floor, is a copy of the world’s largest published book ‘Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey across the Last Himalayan Kingdom.’ The book weighs 133 pounds (over 60 kilos), and is about five by seven feet in size. Every month, a new page of this illustrated book is turned and opened for viewing.
We visited Junghi Paper Factory where we witnessed the process of producing handmade papers using Daphne plants. The handmade papers are used for religious manuscripts, envelopes, lampshades, packaging and shopping bags and are also exported to Japan.
With such a profound immersion to the richness of the country’s cultural and religious tradition and preservation, only made us more curious and eager to witness and experience more of the Bhutanese way of life as we headed to the countryside.
After a long yet deeply satisfying day, on our way back to the hotel, we thought of a stopover at the edge of a curving road high up in the hills to watch the city slowly flicker to life as darkness descended into the valley at dusk. It was hard to believe this was a capital—a sprawling settlement by a winding river, surrounded by lush greenery, devoid of overbearing concrete monstrosities. The evenings in Thimphu would see joggers, runners, cyclists, and people walking their dogs. A capital of any nation would be bustling with restless traffic, honking to speed their way back home, but here was this capital so distinctly different from the rest with this aura of serenity where people enjoy close proximity to pristine wilderness and nature’s healing powers.
Thimphu to Punakha
On the way to Punakha, we passed by Dochu La Pass about 30kms uphill outside of Thimpu. Gracing this high mountain pass are 108 stupas (chortens) built by Queen Mother to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed when fighting the Indian rebels in 2003. This pass is known for unpredictable invasions of clouds. If you are lucky you get to witness a spectacular 360-degree view of the Himalayan mountain range. What we enjoyed was the fog adding beauty and drama to the Chortens against the crystal blue sky.
The trail from Dochu La Pass to Punakha was a forbidding 10-percent grade climbs and rugged mud-and-rock-mottled roadways that challenge the sturdiest tires and suspension systems. Pedalling through this craggy caramel trail was quite a challenge.
One thing which kept recurring through the entire Bhutan journey were the colourful prayer wheels, appearing in all imaginable sizes from small hand-held versions to enormous, constantly turning water-propelled drums. Inside the cylinder sits a scroll embossed with a mantra. Spinning the wheel is equivalent to reading the mantra, which makes this practice particularly suitable for illiterate members of the community. The prayer wheel’s external shell is adorned with auspicious symbols and often features the words ‘Om mani padmi hum’ in Sanskrit or Tibetan script.
When looking at a scene such as this I understand why Bhutanese people are inherently happy. The landscape is spectacular, a perfect balance of spiritual, inaccessible mountain and fertile, life-giving valley. Rice terraces cascade down the hills, helping the country to return to self-sufficiency in this staple food. Mighty rivers, providing vital hydration, weave their way along ancient rock-strewn beds. A person cannot help but be elated when confronted with such natural beauty.
Magical things happen when nature, history and humankind, with a dash of the spiritual come together. More so when it is Bhutan, and even more so in a 1637 Palace of Great Happiness built on the confluence of two rivers, charmingly named Pho Chhu [father] and Mo Chhu [mother]. If there is only one dzong you get to see in the Thunder Dragon Kingdom, let it be the Punakha Dzong, or the Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong built by Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche [Great Lama] and founder of the Bhutanese State.
The second oldest and second largest in the country, Punakha Dzong was destroyed countless times through history by fire, an earthquake and a flood. Each time, the Bhutanese people rebuilt it to the original lines Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal built it as.
Punakha, thy name is serenity spelt as beauty.
Two days later, we made our way to one of the most popular rice bowls of Bhutan, Paro Valley. A rustic town on the banks of Paro River with mountains in the background and a rather unhurried feel to it.
We had saved this special place for the end of our trip to Bhutan.
We kept waking each day in Paro to rains and fog which basically refuse clear all day, hardly ideal conditions for being in the mountains. Finally on the last day when we had to bid farewell to Paro and leave to Phuentsholing, our prayers were answered and it was as if the Divine finally gave us the consent to behold and pay homage to the spectacular Taktsang Monastery.
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to this cliff, over a Tigress and meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours and that’s how this 17th century monastery derives its name Tiger’s Nest.
Taktsang literally means “Tiger’s lair,” which comes from an alternative legend that the former wife of the emperor and Padmasambhava, transformed herself into a Tigress and carried Padmasambhava from Tibet to this cliff where Padmasambhava mediated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours and emerged in 8 different forms. That is why this 17th century monastery is such an important shrine among Buddhists. Through the trek we found believers of every age, solemnly undertaking the arduous trek to the Taktsang Monastery, rosary in hand and prayers in lips. The older hikers surely evoked more respect and admiration.
At a medium pace, the top can be reached in 2 hours. It is a steady and long walk up hill on a dirt path.
In the far distance, as we started hearing the chants resonating down the valley which made the arduous trek bearable. The final approach to the monastery after a climb of around two hours is over a bridge across a waterfall that drops 200 feet into a sacred pool. The entire area is wrapped in prayer flags, while crevices in the rock are crammed with tsa-tsas, small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead. One last brutal flight of steep steps hewn out of rock delivers pilgrims to the monastery, which for our visit was blanketed in low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to the place.
And, despite seeing hundreds of photos of Tiger’s Nest over the years, when it finally came into full view in front of me, I was left speechless. There’s something about finally seeing something you’ve dreamed of for years, that quick thud of your heart. It was more like just the mere sight of Tiger Nest sanctified my whole existence. As we stopped to take photos, the blue sky above, high up in the clouds and the dusty earth at my feet, I experienced one of those priceless travel moments, when everything seems to align, when you are completely in the present; in the NOW and nothing else.
All the hype to this iconic destination is totally worth it and more. The splendour of the monastery was not diminished even by an iota despite the thousands of images I had already seen in the virtual world. Located over 900 metres above the Paro valley and over 3,000 metres above sea level, the temple is built directly into the cliffside. It’s said to be held in place by the hair of angels.
My first step into the threshold of the sanctuary and I had this sudden surge of sanctity that couldn’t stay contained within and burst into tears at my first bow to the enormous idol of Guru Rinpoche. The vibrations of the chants, the warmth of the flickering butter lamps, the taste of the saffron-laced holy water, the visuals of the intricate iconography on the altar and the most serene rest to the tired body just felt I had finally come home, my ethereal abode. I reposed in this totally sufficient, thoughtless and timeless state. The tears of contentment humbly kept flowing. I listened to the complete silence engulfing me in the clouds thousands of feet up on the side of a mountain deep in the Himalayas. I am sure I will keep relieving this transcendental experience every time there is a mere mention of Tiger’s Nest.
Green is so much better than grey. I find it hard to believe that a small tiny nation has been so powerful to stand firm on its belief; hold her head so proud of her ancient history; guard her wisdom so strong and not be swept off with the so called progressive leanings like the rest of globe.