The first thing my girlfriend said when I told her I was headed to Bhutan with my mom for 2 weeks was, “Two weeks? Are you out of your mind? What are you going to do for two whole weeks in that tiny country?” Since my mother had arranged the tour, I really didn’t have an answer at all, and started to worry that she was right. What had I got myself into? However, as soon as we landed at the airport in Paro, these worries slipped right out of my mind and were replaced with one over-riding thought.
“How can I stay longer?”
The details of how to arrange a trip to this tiny mountain country can be found here, so suffice it to say I went to Bhutan on a group tour with 4 seniors, 1 guide, and 2 drivers. We hit the most common tourist trail, which is a round trip tour from Paro through Thimphu the capital, to Bumthang in central Bhutan, and back again.
Here are the highlights of the journey:
Hiking, or At Least Walking
Bhutan offers trekking through its section of the Himalayas and foothills, though this kind of holiday is very different from what the average tourist will encounter. Still, the terrain makes hikes practically unavoidable. In fact, one of our guides told us the Butanese saying, “The only place you don’t have to climb up or walk down is inside your house”.
We went on hikes above Thimphu, at the Chelela Pass between Paro and Haa, up to the Tiger’s Nest temple in Paro, and in the Valley of the Black-Necked Cranes (only allowed because the cranes hadn’t yet arrived on migration from Tibet). Even the most basic hike takes you on quite steep terrain, which you need a stick for if you’re old or young with a ruined left knee. At Chelela Pass, we walked from about 3800 meters above sea level up to 4400m, and half of it inside a cloud. The wind whipped prayer flags to attention, but could barely fill my lungs and the walk took ages. By the way, if it’s cold and you’ve forgotten your hat, apparently it’s OK to fashion one out of prayer flags, as long as you put them back when you’re done.
Even strolling through villages is an incredible experience. We visited in harvest season, so people are out drying chillies (everywhere), threshing rice and buckwheat by hand, pulling up radishes, and cutting down mustard plants. People are friendly, and interesting new sights are around found every corner.
Tiger’s Nest Temple
Dzongs and Temples
Dzongs are fortresses. Before unification at the start of the 20th century, Bhutan was a loose collection of sporadically warring kingdoms, each with a dzong as its seat of power. These buildings are massive. They’re invariably constructed of local stone mortared together with mud and whitewashed with lime for waterproofing. The walls and roof beams are decorated with red, green, blue, and yellow designs in mineral pigment. The great buildings house temples, royal halls, and administrative offices as they are now used as provincial buildings.
Temples across the country look similar, though they are always capped with square, gold-plated mini-roofs on their peaks. Some temples are constructed entirely of rammed earth in areas where stone isn’t available. Still, both dzongs and temples are sturdy, blinding white monuments to human efforts to survive in a difficult land. Many are perched up on the sides of impossible cliffs where monks can contemplate existence in relative isolation.
Two locations really stand out.
The first was Punakha Dzong, the old capital of Bhutan which is built at the confluence of 2 rivers (which, by the way, are of 2 different sexes). This dzong is massive and contains some of the most impressive wall murals I’ve ever seen, and the main temple hall can only be seen to be believed. That it was being freshly painted and decorated for the upcoming royal wedding sure didn’t reduce its appeal in the slightest.
Chimi Lakhang was a temple dedicated to the ‘Divine Madman’, a rather, ahem, unorthodox monk who came to the Wangdue Phodrang Valley 500 years ago to free it from the influence of demons. Legend has it that he first held a nude mask dance to confuse one demon, then finally conquered it by whipping out his man-stick and shooting the demon in the mouth. The demon then had to do his bidding and also became his wife. The tiny temple is set at the top of a hill and contains murals of the madman’s life, phalluses of various descriptions, and a ‘white-painted’ statue of the defeated demon.
Dzongs and temples are constantly renovated, but still using the same basic materials that they have always been built from, so even though the parts might be relatively new, the whole structure has a heavy and ancient atmosphere. Swirling with incense, painted with images of demons and even more terrifying gods, and brimming with the sounds of monks chanting, blowing horns and clanging cymbals, the spaces can transport you to another plane of existence, at least for a little while.
I won’t write too much about festival since they’re covered here (INSERT LINK TO ‘FESTIVALS’ ARTICLE). Still, they’re a highlight of any trip to Bhutan and receive at least a passing mention. Nearly all temples, including the ones in dzongs, hold annual festivals for the benefit of the community and to chase away bad luck and evil. Songs, dances, and mask dance ceremonies compete with a carnival atmosphere with food, toys, clothes, and other products on sale in front of the main structures. Everyone attends, dressed in their best and in the mood to party.
Thimphu, Bustling Capital Without Traffic Lights
Thimphu is a city of approximately 100,000 people and counting. That being said, it’s hard to even tell if it exists yet, since every building looks brand new and there are more buildings being constructed than are standing finished. It looks like the population could easily double here in the next 5 years.
And though there are some major thoroughfares and even a bit of a rush hour, there really are no traffic lights, just policemen directing traffic when it gets really busy. Heading downtown to the main strip (Nordzin Lam) in the evening and watching people walk home from work, shop, and relax is the main source of entertainment here. Outside of shopping and sight-seeing, that is.
The whole city is relaxed, slow-paced, friendly, and easy to navigate, producing a truly enjoyable urban experience.
The Tiger’s Nest Temple
Known as Taktsang in Bhutanese, the tiger’s Nest is Bhutan’s most revered monastery and holy religious site, perched on a cliffside a mere 3000 m above sea level. It has only been open to foreign visitors for 10 years and some inner sanctums and ceremonies are still closely-held secrets. The legend of Guru Rinpoche tells that this great lama brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, then later re-appeared in a different form. He assumed a terrifying form and flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue the local demons, thus giving the temple its name.
The elevation gain for this hike is only 540 meters, though after you peak at a viewpoint, you’re forced to descend into a chasm and then climb back up to the temple on the other side. Our sturdy guide told us he once carried a large woman out of the chasm after she was hit with altitude sickness, so unless you’re a sturdy mountain climber, take it easy. Goings are slow but the views and the pilgrimage are both worth it.
Flight delays don’t always have to be horribly inconvenient, especially if you head back to the city, sit in the park with a cool beer, and watch archery. This is exactly what we did for a bonus afternoon in Paro, which turned out to be one of our best in the country.
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and though it sounds like it might be a bit dull, tradition and fun spice it up quite a bit. Teams shoot at wooden targets about the size of a 4-year-old child from 140m away. It’s hard to see one side from the other, so you just have to choose to sit near one end and watch what happens. Just hitting the target gets you a point, with 2 points for the bullseye. Teams that score points walk out and sing songs of praise to the tradition of shooting and shout slogans and jeers at the other teams, building a hilarious yet competitive atmosphere.
When you visit as a tourist, your guides and restaurant managers will automatically assume that you can’t handle the fire of their local cuisine, so it gets dumbed down for you. Meals are generally served buffet-style, so you can pig out on pan-Asian cuisine and non-spicy variations of local food. But if you really want the local experience, it’s going to get hot!
Chillies are basically used as a staple vegetable, so dishes like ema datse (chillies and cheese) are easy to find and request specially. Pork, beef, and chicken curries are standards, and are again packed with chillies. Dairy is an important source of calories, so most dishes are made with butter or cheese. And chillies. Then of course there are some interesting local treats: dried cubes of yak cheese, salted butter tea (su ja), crisped rice puffed in butter (zou), and my favourite, the chilli chop, a snack of breaded and deep-fried chillies.
These big meals are important since the altitude drains you, or that’s what the guides always say. The truth is, they feel good when they see you eat a lot, especially their local cuisine.
Red Panda beer
Bhutanese people are hospitable and proud like that, and are of course the best part of any visit. They’re hardy, direct, respectful, and always ready for a good joke. Bhutan is known for its national philosophy of Gross National Happiness, and this is evident in their environmental choices, educational policies, and industries. More than anywhere else, though, it’s reflected in the faces of the people of this incredibly hospitable country.