Bhutan: Tales from the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon

A long time ago I promised that I would post a post about Bhutan. It's one of those things that you do not feel you can do because it's going to be too long, too complex and too frustrating to try to describe a wonderful place. I feel a huge responsibility to try to explain the experience in the most vivid way possible. For now, I will try to describe only one aspect of the visit to Bhutan: the passage of time, the use of time and the advantages of time. Ah, and travel on the road.

Who was going to tell me just a few months ago that I could visit this strange country of the Himalayas, so picturesque and unknown. The truth is that after a short search I got the corresponding flight to Bhutan. The only airline that operated that time to Bhutan is the country's own: DrukAir. I leave for Bhutan via Calcutta, where I have to spend the night to take the flight the next day to Paro, the only city of Bhutan with international airport.

Day 1: From Calcutta to Paro

We wake up at 5.00 to go to the airport. The hotel gives me a picnic bag with a sandwich (I do not taste it), a pear, biscuits and a very spicy meatball that I leave almost whole. The taxi leaves us at the Calcutta airport. Finally, at 7:45 am our flight to Paro departs. I read the Druk Air magazine for a while to learn some things about Bhutan. I learn that the national symbols are, in addition to the flag and the emblem, the cypress, the blue poppy, the crow and the takin, a sacred animal of Bhutan.

From the plane the views are exceptional. We fly over immense mountain ranges that almost touches the wings (it is a saying, of course, but it is not very exaggerated). In just one hour of flight we landed in Paro, in the middle of a spectacular valley between mountains crossed by the river Paro (from now on, the word Chhu will mean river water. So the Paro river is called Paro Chhu. The airport is beautiful, adorned with typical Bhutanese colors and forms, very similar to those of other countries in the Himalayas.

When we pass the control, we already have our bags outside and our guide is waiting for us, dressed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. It is mandatory for those who work in official bodies of the country, to wear traditional clothing. We advance the clock half an hour with respect to India.

It's about 9 in the morning when we start our journey through this fantastic country. The guide tell us that many people come to see the planes land (very few a day) because of the spectacular effect of hearing them approach the valley (without seeing them) until they appear between the mountains a few moments before they land.

However, in part of our trip we were staying right in front of the airport, and we had the opportunity to see those four flights land and take off during the day. Staying in a hotel in front of the airport was something that would be totally sordid anywhere in the world (except for those with bulletproof windows), but in this case it was more of a luxury to be able to see four planes of different sizes go out and get to the airport.

We marched in the van to Paro, a beautiful city at 2360 m altitude and about 7 km from the airport. The road is very narrow that barely fit two cars. The guide give us a bottle of bottled water and we go to the city. We see buildings and shops with typical Himalayan structure. We pass near a park where we see several men (dressed in typical clothing) pulling with bow. They tell us that this is the national sport. They are authentic experts. It is curious to see them practice this sport. When they hit the target, the group of the successful one starts dancing and singing. They tell us that at this moment a nephew of the king of Bhutan is in the group.

The day is splendid. Even hot. For us, undoubtedly, the most spectacular is the tiger's nest, Taktsang, hanging on a cliff over 700 meters high in the vicinity of Paro. Today it's time to climb the most spectacular monastery in the country, and probably one of the most beautiful in the world. To get there we walk for about an hour. There is the option of riding a horse, which is very annoying for those who walk. There are many people, perhaps the only place we have visited that could be said that there were enough visitors.

There are places that, either because of the circumstances of the moment, because of their beauty or both at the same time, make you feel stupefied, forget to blink and end up shedding a tear. Taksang Lhakhang is one of them. I do not know which are the most beautiful places I've had the luck to see, nor does it make sense to make a 'ranking' of the most beautiful. But there are places that can touch you, and this has succeeded.

We descend from the beautiful Goemba. We stopped at Kichu Lhakhang, an ancient monastery, and at Dungtse Lhakhang, a Chorten where you have to carry a flashlight.

At 12.45, after a long walk, we eat at a restaurant where we have the opportunity to taste Bhutanese food. They offer cooked salad, fish (with many thorns, but delicious), roasted potatoes, roasted broccoli with chili, red rice and veal in sauce and for dessert, apple. Everything is very rich. We have to get used to the strong and spicy flavors because that is what awaits us the next few days.

We are very tired and when we decide that it is best to go to the hotel to rest, they take us to see the National Museum of Bhutan.

National Museum of Bhutan

Located in an ancient Ta Dzong fortress, from the 17th century, on top of a hill from where there is an exceptional view of the city, the river and its valley. The Museum contains a large collection of objects that cover the entire history and culture of the country with special dedication to the Buddhist religion.

The chapel dedicated to the Deity of Health stands out. As the photos inside are not allowed (as in almost all the official buildings of the country) I cannot offer you the corresponding images. But it's worth the visit. When leaving the Museum we see under the hill a school with uniformed students dressed in beautiful colors.

We continue down the hill towards Paro and make a stop to see the famous Rinpung Monastery (Dzong Rinpung). Today it is the seat of the Court of Justice and in it Buddhism is taught to future monks. We visit the interior and observe the coming and going of young people in all the rooms. This Dzong should be named a World Heritage Site. We went down to the river and crossed a beautiful wooden bridge.

And now, almost exhausted, we go to the hotel, quite far from the city, but beautiful, in the middle of the forest, with very large wooden houses that serve as a room. After a comforting shower and a well-deserved rest I leave the room for dinner. It's 7 pm and it's completely dark. There is a rich roast chicken with salad, broccoli, and fish (the same kind I took at noon).

Day 2: From Paro to Thimphu

Another excellent day of sunshine! And a great breakfast with tea, butter, a spiced ham, jam and two fried eggs (here they do it on both sides)! And this again in form to endure what is needed.

As soon as we had breakfast, at 8.30, and after taking a last look at the valley from my cabin, we went to the main road in the direction of Thimphu, the capital of the country. There are approximately 50 km but it takes an hour because the roads are not the best of the country, of course, and that which we take now is the best. We go through the valley of Paro Chhu observing incredible landscapes, villages, landslides due to the recent monsoons, forests.

We arrived at a bridge where there is a crossroad (Dantak confluence) and a police checkpoint because this is the obligatory step for those who bring goods from India. It's called Chhuzom La. Two rivers, the Paro Chhu and the Thimphu Chhu, come together under the bridge, and together (and some more water courses) give rise to the Wang Chhu that takes direction towards India to join the Ganges. This area is called Chuzom (union between rivers). And I see on the other side of the river a village with brass houses.

I have not said so far that Bhutan measures its progress by the Happiness Index and not by the Gross Domestic Product. That index is unique to this country and is the official way of saying that people here are happy regardless of wealth. I do not doubt that people are happy here.

Continuing with our route, I will add that in this zone of union of the rivers there is a religious monument with three stupas of Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese styles. There are several huts where souvenirs are sold. The chimney of the police post is not to be missed.

We continue towards Thimphu. As soon as we arrive we can tell that it is the capital of the country. Bustling, a lot of traffic. It seems that there are never accidents and that they only have one traffic light in the whole city. However, I still think about how it is possible that we have not had any clashes with other vehicles.

We started touring the city and my first stop is at the Post Office. I buy postcards and stamps. And here we get a big surprise. They make us stamps with our image with the same legal value as any other stamp in the country! Each stamp of 20 DU. So we have to make the corresponding photo and in a few minutes we have our stamp template of Bhutan with our photo. Incredible, but true! Then they explain that it is a privilege that the King of Bhutan has granted to foreigners on the occasion of the anniversary (I do not remember how many years) of the Monarchy.

Then we went up to the Folk Heritage Museum. Here we could appreciate how was the life of the Bhutanese in ancient times. There are dozens of objects of all kinds. We have not been able to photograph them either.

Nearby is the National Institute for Zorig Chusum. Here young people learn painting (almost all religious Buddhist type), ceramics, embroidery, chiseling, masonry, weaving. I buy some objects made by the students (the School keeps 10%). We have been able to enter the classes (they are now at recess) and we see the young people with their typical clothes but typing with their mobile phones or listening to the headphones, like any other young person from any country in the world.

When the students have returned to the classes after recess, they allow us to continue talking with them and take pictures while they study. The next visit was to the National Library. It contains the largest book in the world (Guinness record) and a large number of religious books and prayers. Here they have allowed us to take pictures.

It is time to eat because it was already 1 pm. We go to a typical restaurant in the city. I eat noodles (very rich), roasted chicken, some meatballs that I did not like at all, vegetables, fried potatoes (also very rich) and creamy ice cream. I have left aside the hot sauces.

Now a short walk to feel better and then climb to the top of the city, to the mountain. We are at 2700 m altitude and we notice it a little. From here there is a beautiful view of the Dzong (which is the political and religious center) and of the entire city. We also see the Parliament building and a little behind, almost hidden, the Royal Palace.

Our guide explains that the King is very admired by the population. We went to a forest area full of flags for prayers and strolled for a while. From here we can see the houses where the people live. Thimphu extends throughout this beautiful valley and grows rapidly.

The next visit has been very interesting as we have moved to the Takin National Reserve. In this area we find lots of takin, the sacred animal of Bhutan. It is a bovine half yak, half goat, sheep or something similar, which has an interesting legend with religious and mythological connotations. It is the national symbol of the country. In addition to takin, in the Reserve there are also deer called sambar.

Next we visit the stupa of the National Memorial Chorten. There are full of people offering prayers. They do it three times around the monument walking in a clockwise direction (never the other way around). Here I could observe people from all social classes.

It's already getting dark and we're about to see a fabric factory. This manual work is very laborious and therefore the clothes are a little expensive but have great quality and beautiful colors. I decide to buy a fabric.

We leave the loom and go to a nearby coffee shop for tea and typical local cakes. After resting for a while we headed to the Dzong of the city. They open to the public at 5:00 pm because it is at this time when the officials who occupy it finish working. I find it more grandiose than Paro's. We can take pictures but without turning to the side from where the Royal Palace can be seen.

There are huge cars parked at the entrance of the best-known brands. The visit is very interesting. In the main area there is a huge statue of the "current" Buddha (the "future" Buddha is in Bumthang and they know who he is, according to our guide). We cannot take pictures inside this Buddha enclosure as the cameras were taken.

Under the enormous figure of the Buddha there are three thrones, one for the father of the King, one for the King and one for the chief monk of the Buddhists. Here the enthronement of the current king of Bhutan took place. In the enclosure there is also a huge collection of Buddha figures.

It is already night and we left the Dzong. We are going to the hotel on the other side of the river, from where there is a magnificent view of the illuminated city. After resting a few moments we return to the city to make a night visit. We see stores of all kinds open until very late. In one of them I see clothes of all the "western" brands. In the souvenir shops there are many masks, necklaces, Buddha images, various sculptures. I take advantage of the opportunity to buy a beautiful book written in dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, in a bookstore.

At 8:00 am there is a good bustle in the streets as people leave work and begin to take buses and minitaxis. We go back to the hotel. Today we have roast chicken dinner, spicy rice, tofu, broccoli, roasted potatoes and apple with honey. We have internet at the price of 50 rupees, 25 minutes. From my room there is a beautiful night view of Thimphu. I leave the curtain open so that the morning light wakes me up tomorrow.

bhutan wallpaper travel tigers nest Paro Taktsang

Day 3: From Thimphu to Punakha

A day of splendid sun rises. Today we have a frugal breakfast, nothing great. Before leaving, I leave some postcards in reception to be sent. While preparing the van I take the opportunity to photograph the Olympic stadium (in front of the hotel, on the other side of the river) and a walk next to the river.

We left in the direction of Punakha (71 km from Thimphu). We see on the way the new University of Bhutan, which has been operating since 2003, and the expansion area of ​​the new city with multi-storey buildings. We continue in a northerly direction while the river, which we have followed until now, is heading south.

The road is all curves and with firm in very bad condition. No wonder our guide told us this morning that it would take us 3 hours to get there, including the stops, of course. We stopped at a small lookout to see a Dzong that is now used as an Institute of the Dzonkh√° language.

We continue on the terrible road. The landscapes are now beautiful. The mountains are full of blue pines and rhododendrons. The road climbs steadily until we reach an immigration checkpoint. They explain that when China invaded Tibet many Tibetans went into exile in Bhutan and now they have been granted Bhutanese nationality. At the control they sell goat cheese hanging on elongated strips such as dominoes, apples, dried meat, drinks. We stop to stretch our legs.

We continue ascending until we reach the Dochula pass (3250 m). At the top there are 108 stupas in commemoration of the rejection that the Bhutanese troops made of an Indian raid in 2003. The view from here is incredible and is the only place from where we can observe the Bhutanese Himalayas. The sun gives it a spectacular appearance.

There is also an area of ​​prayers. A dance group tries at this point some steps and songs for a commercial. Nearby is a small monastery adorned with paintings of scenes of the kings of Bhutan and their families and the 2003 battle with the King in arms accompanied by his army.

After a walk around this beautiful area we continue the trip again. Now the road begins to descend strongly which increases the possibility of crashes because it is very fast and there is a lot of traffic. We are witnesses of some overtaking that cut the breath. Also, in some sections there are landslides. The road is arranged by the locals. I see that they take their young children to work. We see trucks loaded with potatoes. Our guide tells us that the potatoes are raised in Bhutan and exported to India, fried there and exported, already fried, back to Bhutan, live world trade!

As we descend, blue pines disappear and rhododendrons abound. We stopped near Thinlegang to stretch our legs a little. A little further on we stopped near a crossroads, in Yuwak, an agricultural village. Here is a nice restaurant with a spectacular view of the valley. It's time to eat. Today roast chicken (as always). After lunch we make a small tour through rice fields, to the so-called Temple of Fertility or Chimilhakang. Couples who cannot have children or parents with children who have health problems come to this temple. Inside there are several phallic objects and a Buddhist school.

We walked a bit through the village. The houses are very humble. We continue towards Punakha where the only thing that stands out is the fantastic Dzong. It is on the other side of town, next to the confluence of the Mo Chhu River and one of its tributaries. This Dzong was the seat for a time of the Government of the Nation.

To see it you have to cross a beautiful wooden bridge over the river. The enclosure is immense. Its main courtyard serves as the setting for the Punakha festivals that the King attends as "Sir" because it is the title granted to him by the English when he mediated between India and Tibet many years ago.

Punakha as such has little to do except the Dzong. We have wandered a little. It has a dirty and neglected appearance. On the outskirts of the town is our hotel at Zangdopelri. From there, there are beautiful views of terraces of rice crops and the pine forest.

At 6.15 it is almost night. I go up to the room, wide, with TV, cabin type. The bathroom leaves a lot to be desired. Dinner is planned at 7.30 pm. There are asparagus with goat cheese sauce, roasted chicken (for a change), fish with garlic sauce and guavas. It is necessary to rest that tomorrow it waits a hard day because we will have to cross numerous valleys and mountains (we calculate 6-7 hours of way).

Day 4: From Punakha to Trongsa

I get up, clean myself and leave the suitcase ready. I have a small terrace in the room that overlooks the countryside. Nice view. The hotel girls do not seem to have a very good face today. It is likely that the bustle of this morning has something to do. We have breakfast with tea, jam, butter, local sausages and omelet with coriander, very rich.

We left without further delay and make a first stop in the village of Wangdue Phodrang where there is a very busy Sunday market. There are all kinds of vegetables and fruits. A lot of atmosphere. I would like to reflect it as accurately as possible in photographs, but some women in the posts do not want to be photographed, others do not have any impediment.

After walking through the market we climbed to the top of the village where the majestic Dzong is located. There is a group of uniformed school children visiting the campus, and today it is Sunday. The uniform is the typical costume of Bhutan, the Gho (male suit) and the Kira (female suit).

We left Wangde and the road becomes hellish, horrible. The good thing is that the landscapes compensate for the bad of the trip. We cross amazing valleys, rhododendron forests and mountains. Frequently we are interrupted by herds of cows that cross the road anywhere. There are beautiful waterfalls, tiny villages, houses on top of the cliffs defying gravity. The show makes the tired journey more bearable. We have passed through Nyatoka, Polula, Gumina , Rachau following the valley of the Dang Chhu river, magnificent. We go up to the Lawala pass (3340 m) and we see the first yak, lonely, elusive.

Now we go down a bit until we take a detour that takes us southwards to the town of Gangtey where its monastery stands out, very old and not as sumptuous as those we have seen before. That gives a "special touch". In the square of the monastery we got a surprise. Suddenly Buddhist monks begin to arrive and sit in two parallel rows. Behind these rows sits people from the village who bring them food. According to what they explain, it is because They thank the monks for asking favors for a deceased who has just died.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the deceased is 45 days among his people and how many more favors, prayers, etc. Do for him, the better your future life will be in the other world. Young monks are responsible for distributing food (huge pots filled with rice and vegetables). Meanwhile, the relatives of the deceased are sitting by a wall watching all this. I see many monks already very old. We go through the interior of the monastery, very austere.

From here we continue through the valley to an Information Center on cranes. Too bad it's closed. The cranes arrive in Bhutan from Tibet, where they breed, and spend in these valleys between 3 and 5 months. It is a protected area. In this area electric cables are prohibited so that birds do not trip over them. The energy is obtained through solar panels.

We continue a little further and we arrive at a good hotel that is on a hillside with magnificent views of the valley. They feed us cabbage soup and a dish based on veal, pasta, shredded cheese and parsley. There is no dessert. In the dining room we meet a Cypriot girl who is alone in the hotel because she was going with her group to do a 28-day mountain route and a week after she started she got altitude sickness and had to return. We share the time of the meal with her. Two kestrels watch from the roof.

Then we retraced all the way again to the Lawa La pass and now we take the main "road" in the direction of Trongsa.

We enter an area of ​​wonderful landscapes. We pass the Pele La pass (3392 m) and see a few yaks grazing. After taking a few photos, we continue along the catastrophic road going (bordering incredible precipices, rather) in the National Park of the Black Mountain , with magnificent waterfalls, immense forests and a fantastic landscape. The cliff that we have on the other side of the road (driving on the left) is terrible. The bad thing is that on the way back he will touch us on our side.

We stopped at the stupas of Chendebji, one of the typical sites of Bhutan. We rest for a while and take pictures. The Tibetan stupa is very beautiful.

We continue through the upper area of the Chandiji Chhu river valley and stop at a typical Nangar shop. Without stopping for a long time we continue in the direction of Trongsa and stop at a viewpoint from where there are magnificent views of the Tongga Dzong and the waterfall that forms the Trongsa Chhu river, which join the Chandiji Chhu River a little lower and form the Mangde Chhu.

There is a path that starts from the viewpoint where we are, goes down to the river, climbs the waterfall and reaches Trongsa. Our guide tells us that it is better not to do it because there are many snakes. Also, after the car crash today, we no longer know where we have the kidneys. We arrived at Trongsa at 5:00 p.m. and stayed at the Yangkhil Resort Hotel, magnificent, with wonderful gardens, bungalow- type rooms with views of the mountains, very clean and maintained, very large bathrooms and in prefect condition. We are at 2150 m of altitude.

We had a good time enjoying the hotel, drinking tea and pasta, connecting to the internet to send and see emails. At 7.30 pm we had fish with spicy and spicy fish, mashed potatoes, delicious, roasted vegetables, very delicious also, spinach, beer. For dessert we have noodles with milk and cinnamon. The beers are 650 ml and are worth 85 ngultrum here although in the other places they are worth 100.

We went up to the rooms because there is not much else to do here and we also come very tired from so many hours of travel and so many changes in altitude. The weather has accompanied us well throughout the day because it has been sunny and it has only been cloudy in the mountainous area of ​​the National Park of the Black Mountain and when arriving at Trongsa, which is also between mountains. The view of Trongsa between the mountains is magnificent.

Few places in the world have such a pristine and untouched nature as Bhutan. The snow-covered peaks, its green valleys and the incredible beauty of its rural landscapes impress those who visit it for the first time, an unforgettable memory.

I can affirm that Bhutan is the most incredible place I have visited in my life. Bhutan is wonderful, despite the world around it. Bhutan was the confirmation that there is always something to see and that our motto "I have nowhere to go, so I will go anywhere" cannot be more true.

The next day we left the country to continue our journey to Sikkim. But that's another story, and it should be told at other times.

In summary

From the window of the plane, we observe for the last time the Jomolhari and the other mountains of Bhutan. Last, because there are countries to which, honestly, we will not return. The world is big, beautiful and very varied. There are many places to visit and I doubt I will repeat Bhutan. However, I am convinced that this trip will never be diluted in memory, and I will visit it very often, in my memory, I hope. There will be more and more full of landscapes, intense moments and experiences.
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  • Jeevan
    Jeevan May 19, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    wow! awesome... the facts are interesting!

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