Why should one travel to Bhutan- I thought of that multiple times during my one week stay in this incredibly happy land. Lonely planet writes ‘Bhutan is no ordinary place’ and rightly so.
When one travels from Phuntsholing (border town between India and Bhutan where up to 5 kms is a free area and can be travelled without a permit) to Thimphu (the capital city), the indescribable feeling of having arrived in a happy mountain town nestled amidst lush greenery cannot be avoided. Thimphu allows one to experience the beauty and quietude of being in the mountains, while the luxuries of a modern day metropolis are at an arm’s length. For us lucky souls, we were unknowingly travelling during the King’s birthday, so we got to see the grandeur by which the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s birthday is celebrated- For the Bhutanese, it is no less than Diwali celebrations back home.
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The natural beauty of Bhutan plus Buddhist tradition of respect and reverence and its amazing festivals are enough reasons to visit this land of Lhakhangs (monasteries) and Dzongs (fortresses), but thats not all. My top picks for inspiring all of you to travel to Bhutan :
- Food : While one can easily get Indian food at almost all the restaurants, local Bhutanese cuisine is a must try. Staple diet is red rice (which is not red in colour) and cheese and chillies as the main dish (Ema Datshi as they call it in Bhutanese). For cheese lovers out there, most of the curries in Bhutan comprise of cheese gravy. Their fondness for cheese is evident from the diverse variety of cheese available in the local shops.
2. Vibrance of the Monasteries : especially the ones located in/close to the main cities. We visited the one in Thimphu during morning prayers and were left mesmerised by the spiritual vibrations. With the monks reciting traditional texts, locals performing prostrations to offer their prayers and gratitude, bells ringing – one could feel the holiness in the air.
3. A well connected Public Transport System : Buses ply from Thimphu to all parts of the country (from Paro as well, but the frequency is comparatively less). Nobody is allowed to stand in the buses and the occupancy is as per the number of seats. We felt a stark difference as the bus we had taken from Siliguri to Jaigaon- the Indian side of the border had people sitting on the roof of the bus as well. Well, these are some of the advantages of having less population. Also, the music which the bus drivers played would vary from Bhutani to English as well as Hindi songs. All our bus drivers were kind to us and played as many Hindi songs as they had in their collection. They are very fond of the dhinchak item numbers as well as the soft classics.
4. Everybody loves the King and prays for his good health. Right from small school children to elderly people. Well, such a country is ought to be happy. Visit Bhutan to see their love for the king; which most of us have read about our kings only in storybooks.
5. People abide by strict rules and regulations on the road. Everybody uses the zebra crossing to cross the road. Half of the road has parking spaces and all cabs stop in the parking space for dropping as well as picking up the passengers. I remember this very well as we got scolded quite a few times for not taking the zebra crossing on our first day in the city – well, we can’t help but break the rules. :p
6. Quirky custom : Giant protective penises are painted and kept outside the entrance of many houses. One can buy the same from the various handicraft shops in the main market. We were shell shocked to see painted penis in various shapes and sizes while roaming around the city. Some of these were even clothed in traditional Bhutanese attire. We were whispering among ourselves when we saw these and got the shock of our lives when we got to know of these as good luck signs.
7. Natural Beauty : The mountain paths are resplendent with colourful rhododendrons, and birds. We came across the national animal Takin on our trek to the ‘Bhutan Broadcast Service Tower’ (2685m), which, along-with the Buddha Point, offers the best views of the Thimphu and Paro Valley. The views are particularly spectacular in the evening when one can see the twinkling lights of Thimphu city from up there.
8. People are quite focused on fitness which is very well promoted by the ruling King. A number of open gyms with well functioning equipments have been set up at various picturesque locations across the country. We managed to use a few during our morning walks.
9. Colourful Dzongs (fortresses) and Lhakhangs (monasteries) : While I am one of those travellers who prefers clicking limited pictures, the architecture and vibrance of the fortresses and monasteries made me a wannabe photographer! Every door and window stands out and is just pretty beyond description.
10. Numerous bars, pubs and karaoke joints where one can enjoy couple of glasses of local wine, beer or whiskey (I loved all three) after a tiring day of walking and hiking across the lovely trails. I was really surprised to see a lot of couples kissing openly. PDA in Bhutan is in vogue! Alcohol is very cheap and readily available at numerous wine shops, departmental stores as well as regular restaurants in and around the cities. Most of these outlets are managed by women.
11. Archery : Bhutan’s national sport of archery is practised across the country and is surely entertaining to watch. We saw a practise session near the bus stand. There are multiple tournaments which are organised – a great way to blend in with the locals and cheer vociferously.
Falling in love with Bhutan is just so easy. My simple tips on the best ways to see Bhutan :
- Go on a mountain walk : With more than 70 percent of the land in Bhutan under forest cover, you are never too far from a splendid stroll. Thimphu valley provides many opportunities for the same. There are good walks not too far from the capital, to beautiful monasteries with excellent views down the valley. And just west of Thimphu, Motithang Takin Preserve is your best bet for spotting Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin – which is a mix of a goat and a cow.
2. Walk / hitch a ride (a cake walk) rather than talking a cab. Bhutan is a paradise for those who love to walk. I clocked an average distance of walking 10 kms/day during my stay.
Also check : Hitchhiking in a truck : Stories from Nakee La
3. Travel in a group of 3-4 as Bhutan is yet to develop as a backpacking destination (majorly due to the hotel prices). We managed to complete our 7 day trip in 7000 Rs (1000 Rs per day); as we were a group of 4 which allowed us to split costs. Student discount at various hotels was also availed. 🙂
4. Travel in off-season, (December to February) to avoid the tourist rush. Bhutan has seasonal tariffs, so along-with fewer tourists, there are good savings to be made by travelling outside the high season. Tourists start pouring from March onwards as it is assumed that Bhutan is quite cold till Feb. The days are warm and sunny and given that the hotel rooms are quite cozy, one can manage the cold nights.
5. Go to the local farmer’s weekend market which is set up every weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) at the Centenary Farmer’s Market in Thimpu. On offer is a glimpse of the local produce, fruits, vegetables, handicrafts and for chatting with the farmers who come from all over Bhutan with their local produce. The food section is an olfactory overload with dried fish competing with soft cheese, betel nut and dried chilli.
6. Trek to the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) and don’t forget to visit the real cave nestled inside the Lhakhang. The steep walk to the monastery is well worthwhile, providing tantalising glimpses of the monastery, views of the Paro valley and splashes of red coloured rhododendrons. Go with the locals to understand the relevance of each of the temples housed inside the Lhakhang. We went with a group of school students from Thimphu and were lucky to pray as per the Buddhist customs and traditions.
7. While driving from Paro to Thimphu, stop at the Tamchhog Lhakhang en route and pass the traditional iron bridge.
A visit to Bhutan is a must if one wants to experience the life and times of a beautiful Himalayan kingdom with a unique outlook on progress where gross national happiness outshines the gross national product. The fact that Bhutanese are the happiest souls is evident from the fact that Bhutan has only 2 psychiatrists (As said by locals).
Combine a visit to Bhutan with Sikkim.
I am doing this post here because I tried to follow travelshoebum’s style of travelling this time, which included hitchhiking and use of local transport rather than taking cabs. I also consulted the locals in planning the trip, instead of sticking to a pre-planned itinerary. Me and my travel partners were thrilled by the experiences we had because of the same. So this is a ‘ thank you’ post to Shubham. Maybe I can do another one sharing a detailed itinerary for the places I visited if he allows me to spam his blog further. 🙂
Note : This is a guest post written by Pooja and it has well and truly made me plan a trip to Bhutan as soon as I can!