‘Not all those who wander are lost’. – J. R. R. Tolkien
‘Escape’ is a beautiful word – romanticized for good reason. For what is it to travel if not to seek a form of solitude? A solitude that comes from the calm you surround yourself with.
Your ‘calm’ differs from the next person’s state of calm. But it is this. Once you are in a cozy dwelling not unlike a home away from home, your heart beats contentedly – in rhythm to the sounds your soul yearned for. And in that moment, you feel complete.
Welcome to Bhutan.
In this piece, we talk about all that makes this charming country worth your air miles and time –
Bordered by China and India, the kingdom of Bhutan is located within the Himalaya range. Followers of peace, the country-dwellers are amiable; Bhutan is noted for its
‘gross national happiness’ quotient. A concept, strengthened by its people having placed a core focus on – economic self-reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance;
Bhutan also remains to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world. (Bhutan tourism, FTW!)
CITIES AND CULTURE
Buddhist by customs and faith, the Bhutanese people take pride in their overall ‘being’ as opposed to personal successes. This belief extends into their way of living; evocative of their sites of historical relevance and serene reverence. Thimphu is the capital; a large city that is fairly modern yet on the quieter side. Tshechu is an annual four-day festival that takes place here; there are Cham or mask dances, and other activities that allow for people of different communities and villages to gather and mix about.
Followed by Thimphu, next on your travel itinerary ought to be the sleepy town of Mongar – home to Yagang Lhakhang, a 16thcentury-old temple playing host to religious treasures
(including a Gautama Buddha statue), masks, musical instruments, armour, ancient weapons and xylograph blocks used for printing prayer flags and texts. Of the other cities, Phuntsholing
(hello, tongue-twister) is one of the more urban towns in the area, noted for its architecture and culture. Punakha (oh, you simply must visit the Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang or ‘Palace of Great Happiness’) and Trongsa are the other cities worth a visit.
MONUMENTS AND MYTHOLOGY
Bookworms and history lovers are no more an odd few (and thank
Lord for that); you will soon observe that visitors here are very charmed and drawn to Bhutan’s many delights. There is: the Ancient Ruins of Drukgyel Dzon (an archaeological wonder);
Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (Where else will you see blacknecked cranes?); Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP); and Royal Manas National Park (RMNP). There is also the Chimi Lhakhang (Temple of Fertility) – it’s both famous and infamous for the strong, phallic motifs and symbols everywhere; the site’s founder, Lama Kunley was known for his unorthodox teaching methods. We like to think that he was perhaps just misunderstood for his time as he focused much of his attentions on teaching through humour, singing and such. It was he who advocated artistic expression through phallic symbols; women often visited his temple hoping to be blessed with children, thereafter.
Worth a mention are Paro Taktstang (or the Tiger’s Nest); and Tamzhing Monastery (built by a famous tertön and saint – Pema
Lingpa). Ah, now some of you might have heard of the ‘yeti’ – an old mountain legend of the abominable snowman (talked about at campsites during story-telling sessions). Well, the Bhutanese have a name for a similar creature. Migoi! What’s interesting is that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was built to actually protect them.
*In Tibetan Buddhism, a tertön is a person who is a discoverer of ancient hidden texts or ‘terma’.
FOOD AND DRINK
The people of the mountains have warm hearts and iron stomachs!
Even while their meals comprise certain ingredients and supplements for them to remain active-bodied throughout the day – Bhutanese meals are hearty. Apart from the most-requested-for momos or ‘steamed dumplings of vegetable or meat’, sample a taste of Ema Datshi (made of chillies and cheese; if you can handle the heat) and their spicy chicken (Jasha Maru) or pork (Phaksha Paa).
With regards to drinks, expect local flavours in the form of black or green tea, beer and wine. There is also ara (arag), a slightly crude (locally brewed) fermented drink made of grains (maize or rice). The locals also drink butter tea, made from tea leaves, yak butter, water and salt. (Drinking this concoction helps one remain energized – considering the entwining, sloping roads of Bhutan.)
EXPERIENCES AND SOUVENIRS
Experience-wise, Bhutan has much to offer: their national sport is archery, and they also play some horse-polo. They also conduct sessions of mountain-trekking and hiking; some of their most popular ones are the Jhomolhari Base Camp Trek, Masagang Trek and Snowman Trek. Should you visit Bhutan at a time when there are ongoing Buddhist festivals, it will also give you a glimpse into the people’s simple but happy lives there.
Keeping in line with their non-materialistic lifestyle, we don’t recommend carrying much back except for good memories. Perhaps some prayer-flags if you must, the teas are good to pick up too!
(Their postal stamps are worth getting your hands on; we also recommend getting some ‘Dorje’ or metal prayer bells for your home. Woven textiles in the form of clothes or paintings may strike your fancy, choose wisely and well.)
LANGUAGE AND LOGISTICS
Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan; however, English and Hindi are spoken and understood by the locals too.
The process of ‘visa application’ and obtaining travel permits for certain cities in Bhutan isn’t difficult but you should be prepared to have certain documents on hand. Indian citizens don’t require visas – however, they are given entry-slash-stay permits for a certain period at their respective immigration offices (you definitely need your passport, some photographs and government-issued IDs). Foreign citizens (E.g. Americans, Europeans etc.) need visas and entry-/stay-permits as well as resident hosts to be able to enter Bhutan.
Please remember that some permits are required in order to enter temples (especially when there are no festivals taking place).
In some cases, you might need to have a licensed Bhutanese guide; do inquire with your guide with regards to visiting certain monasteries and temples in advance. They will help you obtain the necessary permits, if so.
NOTE: Carrying letters of reference from a recognized Buddhist organization in your home country could work in your favour (should you be keen to explore).