The last Buddhist Kingdom

The last Buddhist Kingdom of world that came up with philosophy of Gross National Happiness instead measuring it’s growth only with economy, is very peaceful, picturesque, kind, culturally rich and greenest environment territory. With less than even 1 million population, this very small country situated in the lap of the great Himalayas will amaze you with its cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes, Himalayan views, ancient monasteries and unpretentious people living a simple nature loving life. In my 10 days solo backpacking and sleeping in monasteries or roadside hotels/dhabas I never felt unsafe even for a second and the Welcome I got everywhere was heavenly.

My entry to this country was quite dramatic from starting and ended the same way with a truck ride. Being an Indian I had the privilege to enter the country without a visa (just a permit needed at border) and by road…. literally saying I just walked from India to Bhutan like walking in my courtyard and crossing the gate. I took a flight from Delhi-Bagdogra then got a shared taxi to Bhutan’s border village Phuensholing around 170 kms and there I was… walking in Bhutan. When I say my entry was dramatic it’s because after reaching there for my unplanned trip they told me I can’t get permit on weekends to continue my journey and would have to stay in Phuensholing for 2 nights, which would ultimately impact my budget and plan to explore more in less time. When I enquired more only to comprehend that they don’t give permits on weekends because Indians (from the border states) take unwelcomed road trips in weekends and create a havoc and trash so they are putting such measures to keep their environment safe. I might have felt bad as an Indian but as a traveler I had a huge smirk knowing this fact.

With no other option I took a small hotel, went for dinner and while having some dialogues with owner about my trip & Bhutan, he asked me to wait and called someone. By the time I finished my dinner, I was sitting in front of a permit officer who ultimately arranged me permit for capital city of Thimphu and gave me more information that how will I get rest of the permits on Monday from Thimphu… BINGO a Lottery it was.

Next morning, I took a shared cab and reached Thimphu in 4 Hrs. I think this is the only modern city which can give you a city like feeling. For a country which introduced television in 1999 (the last country on earth doing so), this city gives you everything hotels, malls, bars, nightclubs combined with historical official buildings, The king residence and many prominent monasteries with ancient buddha architecture. Some of these monasteries are also used official & administrative buildings of government of Nepal, like Tashichhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) as Ministry of Home affairs & Finanace. You can also visit National Post Office which is also famous among stamp collectors and where I got district permits to visit rest of the Bhutan. There are national libraries, museums and handcrafts as well in Thimphu with a small & cute cinema hall, in case you stay long and have ample time to explore it all.

You can travel within Bhutan only by road, there is no railway or metros. That gives you actually better chance to explore the culture closely and see more natural beauty as you are always on the road in open….. my favorite way to travel really. 80 to 85 kms from Thimphu was my next stop Punakha- A small hamlet in valley near the confluence of famous rivers Mo (female river) & Pho (male river). In between the rivers, there is countries second largest & oldest Punakha Dzong after Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu valley. The construction & architecture of traditional Dzongs are said to be never planned and built on the base of higher callings or spiritual inspirations. You can read more about Dzongs in many Tibetan literatures.

On the halfway to Punakha, I took a morning breakfast stop at mountain pass of  Dochu La. At 3100 mtr. height, this pass gives you view of highest mountain of Bhutan Gangkar Puensum and exquisite view of whole valley. Dochu la pass also welcomes you with 108 stupas structure built in a circle in the middle of mountain pass. All these chortens or stupas are painted with sacred hymns, gods images & prayer bells. There is more to it which taxi driver told me but I couldn’t catch or remember all of it. So after a lip-smacking breakfast with taxi guy in the only restaurant of mountain pass headed towards Punakha.

After reaching Punakha, first thing I did is taking a dip in that placid river and feeling the chilled water on my face, then got a hotel room in this old capital of Bhutan where everyone was as calm as the river water I just dipped into. Punakha Dzong was like 5-6 kms walk from my hotel and road to Dzong was parallel to river. I loved this second oldest Dzong more because of the perfect location and habitats around it and wooden bridge crossing over the Mo river makes it more mesmerizing with each step you take on that wooden carved bridge. After spending some time here I went back to village and rested after lunch. Then there is this place like 12 kms uphill trek to Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, it’s a nice, long & lonesome walk to this Buddhist nunnery & on top, you get full view of Punakaha valley from its huge courtyard. It was built by Queen of Bhutan and taken care by Royal Family only. The main sanctum of this place has 14 ft bronze statue of Avalokitesvara with many other deities statues surrounding with wonderful Buddhist architecture. Another wonderful spot of Punakha is Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten crossing though throbbing & famous suspension bridge of Punakha.

Now from Punakha I decided to visit Haa valley first before I go to Paro, which are on the same way by crossing Thimphu. Via Thimphu- Paro highway, there is a diversion after crossing Paru chcu (river) for Haa valley  which is just next to Bondey bridge and that’s where shared taxi dropped me at 4 PM. Now it’s almost 3 hrs drive and no conveyance available at this time and couple of small food shops. I had some food and started asking for lifts so I can reach before it gets dark in mountains. Now from all the possibilities I got a lift at 7PM in a small tempo filled with walnuts and driver didn’t stop talking until he dropped me safe in only hotel which I might have guessed another Buddhist temple from outside. This smallest & least visited district of Bhutan is situated on the banks of Haa Chhu. You can imagine how deserted this place would be when you reach at 10 PM in winters. When I entered the hotel a huge & overweight (like 65 kg) Labrador was slouching on reception sofa and didn’t move even an inch when I entered or finished all formalities. I saw my next 8 hours in him and gave him many pats… still no movement just some eye blinking…. lol. The Haa valley is also military base of Indian Army and bordered with Tibet, China. Next morning I boarded a small car with a family to visit main place I came Haa for – The Chele La (pass), Highest motorable road of Bhutan at 13083 ft and made by none other but Indian Army BRO. Haa to Chele La is around 30 kms and then from there it’s again 35 something for Paro. This narrow, steep and spiral road journey to Chele la was delightful. On the pass you get 360 view of great Himalayas & Bhutan and area is covered with Buddhist prayer flags. Wind was too strong and freezing at the top where you can hike and get a better view. Basically, this is a picnic spot for Haa & Paro visitors. With couple of more hours I reached Paro by 3 PM.

Paro is like another modern city and which welcomes you with most luxurious hotels of country and only international airport of Bhutan. It’s also one of the most difficult airport of world because of location and runway length of only 1980 mtrs. You can imagine the difficulty that only 8-12 pilots are licensed to fly here. Paro is most famous for its proximity to Taktsang Monastery. A 16 kms trek to Taktsang Monastery also called as Tiger’s nest temple is what I came Bhutan for. Because of huge rush of tourists every year for the same, Paro is like center of eye for Bhutan and economical hub. Paro city market gives you many options to take it’s culture, heritage and life style with you when you leave.

After spending leisure evening in city, I started very early next morning for main purpose of Bhutan visit – The Taktsang. It’s a very lively 2-3 hrs trek, depending on stamina, passing through lovely scenery of city, jungles, valley, gorgeous kinds of birds & a sense of nothingness if you walk alone and early. There is one snacks place in between where you can have unlimited coffee or tea with limited money and one of the best coffees by far in mountains. On the way you will see the monastery just to be astonished that how can they build this huge structure on the cliff of a mountain in 1692. Well if you don’t get amazed with the beauty of the place on the way then wait to reach there because that made me realize the wisdom of that era and unrealistic architecture built in 8 caves over a mountain cliff. Not just that but this place is extreme peaceful & unworldly. All four sides of monastery had four different colors and walls are smeared with religious symbols, hymens and gods. Meditating in these caves kills the demons as they say so I tried to do it for some time, not sure what I killed but certainly it moved something inside. Well, I spent like 5-6 hrs here to explore every corner of the monastery and talking to every Lama I could. Their simplicity always shook my pride, if I ever had any & twisted the reality I always envisioned. I took a leave after & cherished the experience on the way back & ever.

I spent couple of days more in Paro and enjoyed the leisure time chatting, drinking and reading. God bless the “Druk Yul” , “The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

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