There is nowhere on planet quite like the unique buddhist kingdom tucked in Himalayas, Bhutan. A land of monasteries, fortresses and dramatic topography, a Himalayan kingdom with a reputation for mystery and magic. The only nation where ultimate stress is on Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
To me Bhutan happened rather pecularily. It was an impromptu decision which was made in less than three minutes of texting with my friend, who’s also an avid traveller just like myself. In next fifteen minutes the one way train ticket to Hasimara which is pretty close to India-Bhutan border was booked and the remaining itinerary was left to play it be ear.
Our magical journey started from the border city, Phuentsholing which is an even blend of India and Bhutan to the capital city, Thimpu . The drive was a scenic delight with arrays of exquisite landscapes, mountains so green and dainty waterfalls. The views were so beautiful and serene that we had to make multiple photography stops.
En route we also stopped for lunch and started getting a little acquainted with Bhutanese cuisine. But we got even better orientation when we spoke with some Bhutanese cooks, running their own restaurant in Thimpu. I always knew that Bhutan holds many surprises. This a country where the rice is red and where chillies are not just a seasoning but the main ingredient. Most Bhutanese meals are formed with rice accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. I tried many local delicacies such as Ema Datshi, Shamu Datshi, Shakam Pa, Paksha Pa and Momos but the winner for me is Paksha Pa (Pork cooked with spicy red chillies).
One thing I realized after spending merely an evening in Thimpu that I have never come across such engaging and friendly people than Bhutanese. We walked into some amusing handicraft shops, lively restaurants and cafe’s, had many pleasant and engrossing conversations with strangers who didn’t strike to me as strangers at all. I got a glimpse of the music scene of Bhutan when I met a group of young people jamming in a restaurant. I could not resist to join them and they were more than happy to play requests be it their local folk in Dzongkha, English songs or even Bollywood music.
Next day, after getting a little flavor of Bhuthanese food, music, and culture we moved on for some more site-seeing. We went to see Buddha Dordenma which is the tallest sitting Buddha in the world, placed on a hill overlooking Thimphu with great views. Walking the streets is one of the simplest ways to see and understand Thimphu but to get an interesting glimpse into rural Bhutan life a visit to Folk Heritage Museum is must. A restored three-storey, taipa and timber building replicating a traditional farmhouse and is furnished as it would have been about a century ago. Next was Choki traditional art school which is a stone throw from the museum that gave me a great opportunity for an introduction into traditional Bhutanese art and handicrafts. I had a very nice interaction with the students who were very enthusiastic about learning and refining their skills. This school provides talented children from underprivileged backgrounds with training in the traditional arts, to allow them to better their lives with employment. Certainly worth a trip out here, and your purchases support a good cause. Next, we performed koras (rounds) with locals around beautiful Memorial Chorten followed by a visit to Taschichho Dzong. This building with a peculiar style of Bhutanese architecture, extensive use of Wood with intricate details and carvings, painted with bright colors to perfection.
I am in love with nature and nature in Bhutan doesn’t ask for attention so our third day was planned to visit Jigme Dorji National Park outside of Punakha. On the way to the national park we made an enticing stop at Dochula Pass, which is on top of the charts of my must visit attractions in or around Thimpu. This pass has a war memorial comprising 108 stupas constructed on a hillock and if you are lucky with the weather you can have a splendid panorama view of picturesque Himalayas. Unfortunately it was misty when we got there but the misty atmosphere, however, had its own charm. It was a memorable visit.
We continued our beautiful drive to Jigme Dorji National Park, a birding paradise. This park is a residence of a colorful and diverse array of birds. I managed to spot Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Shrike, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrush to name a few. The trails are very nice and there is a good amount of mammal life in the park but your really need to go in the inner jungle area for that. We had a splendid day amidst breathtaking views, calm environment chasing Himalaya’s most enigmatic and elusive bird species.
Our next destination was Paro for a hike to Taktsang Monastery also known as Tiger’s nest which is a Buddhist temple which clings to a cliff, over 10,000 feet above the sea level. It was about 6 AM we started hiking up from trail head which is around ten kms from Paro city. Pleasant weather, beautiful bird songs, alluring mossy trees and arrays of charming wild flowers valleys through out the hike leading to an awe-inspiring monastery perched on the almost vertical face of a mountain. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon. Thereafter, he meditated here for three months. Tiger’s nest was definitely an unforgettable experience, its unique location and the views of surrounding majestic mountains are breathtaking.
We hiked back to the trail head and browsed through some interesting souvenirs stalls in the end. For me souvenirs are always an important component of tourism. Next day we were already on our way back to India through Phuentsholing.
When I was a few minutes away from crossing India-Bhutan border, I felt happy about some really good mementos and souvenirs that I bought but more importantly, the complacent feeling about taking back the experience to explore this relatively untouched corner of the Himalaya, rich culture and such wonderful and engaging people that will keep me coming back.