(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)
We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.
In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.
After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.
Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.
Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.
We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.
In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.
The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.
If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.
Chinese Buddhist Temple
Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.
The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.
The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.
Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.
Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.
Mulagandha Kuti Vihara
The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.
You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.
As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.
Back again! We are sure you have read Part I & Part II, but if you’ve not, trust us you’re missing out on a virtual tour of Bhutan! Now, finally, Part III, which is the final part of our Bhutan travelogue. Let’s begin.
The drive from Paro to Thimphu is a treat for the senses – Winding roads between the lush green mountains; The peaks above & the Paro River thundering below. We are struck by the similarity between Bhutan and Scotland. On curves, we feel we are on our way to Hogwarts. We will turn around the corner & there will be the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Sigh! Every bend brings that image to mind.
We cannot stop clicking but the pictures do not justify the beauty we encounter. We want to stop next to the river & take in its roar. There does not seem anything mightier than a river in its fury thundering down the mountain.
Centenary Farmer’s Market – The Market is frequented by farmers from all over Bhutan, Friday to Sunday. They set up stalls to sell their fresh produce. You can find dairy products, grains, fish, fruits, vegetables, & spices. A few interesting items are betel nut, cordyceps, & incense.
The colors & smells tantalize. The noteworthy bit is, despite being a wet market, there is not an ounce of filth anywhere. Be sure to pick stuff – organic done right!
Changgangkha Temple – This 13th century temple is significant as the Bhutanese come here for their children’s naming. You have to climb a steep flight of stairs that will knock the wind out of you. But, once at the top, it is serene.
Bhutanese temples are unassuming structures with the focus completely on spirituality.
Folk Heritage Museum – This is a four-storied traditional Bhutanese house, showing the typical way a Bhutanese family lives. You enter the cow shed as soon as you enter the house – Surprise! The 1st floor is a storeroom, the 2nd is a kitchen and the 3rd is the living quarters.
The stairs are so steep that the only thought in our minds while climbing is ‘I shouldn’t fall.’! Each step is hardly a few centimeters wide. Where do we place our feet?
We are allowed to pluck an apple from the in-house apple orchard – Good! This is something you will find all over Bhutan – rows after rows of fruit trees and absolutely no restraint on reaching out & getting one for yourself.
Institute for Zorig Chusum – Do you know the Bhutanese train their youngsters for three-five years on handicraft? That is what we discover. Rooms of wood-carving, sculpting, embroidery etc., full of bright young ones, girls & boys alike. The sculptures are intricate & beautifully carved. But expensive!
This is a trend in Bhutan. We later go to the Handicrafts Emporium where no handicrafts are cheap. A small key chain costs Nu 300 (~Rs. 300). Exorbitant! Is it because it is hand-crafted or because of foreign tourists? The only articles that are value-for-money are pashmina shawls (which are imported from India!). Even deep into the country, the prices do not drop.
Kuensel Phodrang (Buddha Point) – The most exciting part of the day – On our first visit, the Buddha statue is still-under-construction. From this high mountain top, the view is panoramic & breathtaking. There is hardly any crowd.
We are surrounded by mountains on which clouds have descended. Below us, the capital sprawls quiet and sparse.
On our second visit, while the main structure has been completed, the surrounding structures are still being built. The 51.5-meter bronze statue is three-storied with several chapels. We visit the interior which contains another 1,25,000 Buddha statues. It has a large courtyard, used for festivals/ prayer gatherings.
The main entrance is through a flight of stairs. But, a different approach, from behind, leads you right to the statue.
Mini Zoo (Motithang Takin Preserve) – It houses the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It is a unique animal with the head of a goat & the body of a cow. The takins are protected in the middle of the preserve with a walking trail that goes along the periphery. We are not inclined to walk; so, we stay put.
To our delight, they start descending towards where we are as it is their feeding area & time. Without moving a muscle, we see about 30 takins. They are gentle. Though not great in the looks department, takins are unique & a matter of pride for Bhutan.
You can see a few other animals like the sambar deer & the Himalayan serow. Please don’t tease the animals or make any loud noises.
National Library – Rolls and rolls of manuscripts await us. The manuscripts are in Dzongkha, but books in English and Hindi are available too. It is a treasure trove for people who seek to read up on Buddhism. We browse through books and look at photographs placed within the library.
National Memorial Chorten – Believers continuously move around the central stupa, turning their hand-held prayer wheels. Construction of this landmark was the idea of the Third King of Bhutan. He wished to dedicate it to world peace and prosperity. However, the monument got completed in 1974, after the King’s death.
Good place to take portraits but click only after seeking permission!
Semtokha Dzong – The first Dzong of Bhutan, it is small with a beautiful monastery. It houses the Institute for Language & Culture Studies. The Semtokha Dzong does not house government offices.
Trashichhoedzong – It is the governmental & religious center, the site of monarch’s throne room and the seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). This monument is built without nails or architectural plans – Fascinating! The monastery houses a giant Buddha statue.
Our Accommodation Pick – On the Thimphu River bank is a resort called Terma Linca. It is as warm as it is beautiful. We receive personal attention & peace. If you seek tranquility, you must come here. The only sound you hear is the roar of the river or the whooshing of the wind.
The evenings are spent in front of the river, sipping our poisons. Our ecstasy knows no bounds. Amazing location, awesome amenities, brilliant service!
In the olden times, Trongsa was the center of Bhutan. Just by closing the gates of the Trongsa Dzong, the country could be effectively bifurcated. It is little wonder then that, historically, & even today, Trongsa is considered important politically.
Before being crowned as the King, it is mandatory for the Prince to serve as the Trongsa Penlop (Governor).
Ta Dzong – It is another watchtower converted to a museum. It is accessible by a vehicle but within the museum, there is a fair of bit of climbing to be done. We love the structure of the watchtower itself – a massive circular building.
The museum houses a collection of historical artifacts of the royal family & Buddhist art. The visit starts with a short AV about the royal family of Bhutan. The displays include treasures like the 500-year-old jacket & football boots used by the teen-aged fourth king. There are two temples inside the Dzong too.
Photography not allowed!
Trongsa Dzong – The Dzong looks spectacular irrespective of where you see it from. We say this because you get a view of it from everywhere in Trongsa town. Imagine a massive white fort on top of a ridge with a sheer drop on one side – Impressive!
Do not forget to look for arrows in the cypress tree outside – remnants of the Duar War. Once inside, think stones – big, beautiful stones – stone stairs, stone walls, courtyards paved with stones…
Our Accommodation Pick – In this small town, you may not find too many accommodation options. Yangkhil Resort seems the best & biggest. While coming from Punakha, you will reach it before the town.
As the Yangkhil Resort is located on a mountain face opposite Trongsa, you get great views, including a view of the Dzong. It has multiple gardens inside, which provide photo ops. The rooms & bathrooms are spacious & adequately equipped.
It will be good to have a heater in the bathroom, as the temperature difference between the room & the bathroom is quite stark. The balcony is small but with a good view. The food is decent; the Resort has a bar too. There is Wi-Fi but it is patchy.
Wangdue Dzong – It is built perilously on a cliff, looking ready to drop any moment. In collaboration with India, the Dzong is being conserved.
Our Accommodation Pick – The Punatsangchhu Cottages is next to the Punakha River. The river is silent unlike the Thimphu River. Our minds utter ‘Serenity’. Rooms are not too big but are well-equipped & have great views. River-side log seats are available for enjoying an evening by the river.
Brilliant service by the courteous & warm staff. Food is delicious. WiFi works but is erratic.
With this, we end our Bhutan travelogue. Hope it is useful to you! Bhutan is one of the easiest international vacations Indians can take. So, do not delay further! An itinerary we suggest is:
Day 1: Land in Paro. Drive to Thimphu. Overnight in Thimphu.
Day 2: Go sightseeing in Thimphu. Drive to Punakha. Overnight in Punakha.
Day 3: Go sightseeing in Punakha.
Day 4: Drive to Phobjikha Valley. Overnight in Phobjikha Valley.
Day 5: Go sightseeing in Phobjikha Valley.
Day 6: Drive to Trongsa. Overnight in Trongsa.
Day 7: Go sightseeing in Trongsa. Drive to Bumthang. Overnight in Bumthang.
Day 8: Go sightseeing in Bumthang.
Day 9: Fly to Paro from the Bathpalathang Airport. Overnight in Paro.
Day 10: Go sightseeing in Paro/ go hiking to the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Overnight in Paro.
And we are back! If you are yet to read Part I, do so right away. We received feedback that it was too long. Unfortunately, we do detailed, tell-all posts. So please bear with us. On our part, we have cut this part down! By a few words 😀 So let’s get on with it.
Punakha was the old capital of Bhutan & the government seat till 1955. It is on the way to Punakha that the King crosses us on a bicycle, His envoy following him. While cars stop & hawkers stand up in respect, the King’s simplicity touches us. A monarch riding a bicycle – Down-to-earth & Fit!
Chimi Lhakhang – Imagine a walk through a village with houses that have erect penises drawn on them. You cross terraced farms. You walk uphill with nothing but the wind to give you company (& a few pilgrims/ other tourists).
The Chimi Lhakhang is not in Punakha, but in Lobesa next door. It is on a hillock. The Lhakhang has the legend of the ‘Divine Madman’ behind it. The Divine Madman or Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist preacher who spread enlightenment through his sex life!
A phallus (called ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom’) is the symbol of the Divine Madman. Couples flock to the temple when they wish to conceive. They have to undergo a ritual that may grant them the boon of a child. We are fortunate to witness such a ritual.
A couple offers prayers inside the temple under the supervision of a lama. Then, the wife circum- ambulates the temple carrying a large wooden phallus, with her husband in tow. There is an album kept inside the temple which contains photos of all the success stories! It seems not just the Bhutanese, but global citizens have benefited from the blessings of the Divine Madman.
Punakha Dzong (Pungthang Dechen Phodrang Dzong) – Dzongs are mysterious places. The beauty is in the seamless integration of religion & state. The Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of the Po Chhu & the Mo Chhu.
After being damaged by fire & earthquake, the Punakha Dzong has been restored by the present King. The bridge on the confluence is a scenic treasure. Standing on it, you can see the Dzong on one side, & lush green mountains on the other three.
As the Punakha Dzong serves as the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body, visiting hours may be curtailed; check before going.
Suspension Bridge – It is one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. You have to walk a bit to get here which builds your excitement. It is impossible to not feel an adrenaline rush. The Bridge is the ‘fear-factor’ of Bhutan.
Perched above the Po Chhu, the Suspension Bridge sways due to the wind. You will feel yourself wobbling! It was once the only way to reach a village across the river; as roads are built now, it is more for tourism.
What will amaze you is the ease with which locals cross the Suspension Bridge, as if they are walking on solid ground. Suit up, walk the Bridge, enjoy the views, and click the water & valley below!
Our Accommodation Pick – The RKPO Green Resort is a luxury resort situated in Lobesa, on Punakha outskirts. The Chimi Lhakhang is at a walking distance. Hills & terraced farms can be seen sitting inside the Resort. It looks beautiful but there is walking & climbing to be done.
Rooms & bathrooms are spacious & well-equipped. Wi-Fi works well. A special mention of the bathroom which has a shower cubicle & a bathtub and is nothing short of luxury. Good F&B and service!
4. Dochu La
When you travel east from Thimphu, you stop at Dochu La. At 3088 m, it has 108 stupas. Our four stops (since Dochu La lies on the East West Road, you have to cross it) here help us see four seasons – rainy, cloudy, sunny & snowy!
On our first halt, clouds descend on the road leading to Dochu La. Not fog, not mist, but clouds! One of our bucket list items gets checked! At the La, it is raining & cold? Brr!
On the second stop, we are above the clouds, rather than among them. Unbelievable or magical! Why do people associate cold/ fog/ mist/ clouds with ghosts? They are beautiful natural phenomena – you know what is ahead & still do not know, and vice versa. It makes you apprehensive but pushes you to move ahead.
On our third stop, the sky is clear. We see the snow-clad mountain peaks of the Himalayas, prominent against the sunny sky, including the highest peak, Mt. Gangkar Puensum. If you see this panoramic view and do not utter the word ‘splendid’, have you even visited the Dochu La?
Our fourth stop is the one which fills our hearts with delight. The Dochu La is sprinkled with snow! While a heavy layer will be nicer, we are grateful for what we get. Our teeth chatter and we hug ourselves to ward off the cold, but we also sigh with contentment.
Dochu La Lhakhang – It is locked but our perseverance pays off. Or maybe we annoy the monk enough! He unlocks the Lhakhang & shows us inside. It is beautiful. The temple houses the idols of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche & Guru Shabdrung (the three main figures worshiped in Bhutan).
Apart from the beauty of the idols, the Dochu La Lhakhang is covered with paintings from Buddhism. You are bound to find yourself having a conversation with the Almighty…
Lampaneri Park – A walking trail invigorates us. It is unmarked. We feel we are lost. Maybe we should retrace our steps. We may face a wild animal but no, we are the wildest animals here!
5. Flying from New Delhi
Rush to the airport to grab the port side window seats. Why? Because you fly parallel to the Himalayas & get to see the majestic Mt. Everest. So, get seats on the left side of the craft. As destiny has it, both the times we fly, the day is cloudy. We see a few snow-capped peaks, but the glorious Everest eludes us. The peaks provide some solace & remind us of chocolate brownies with vanilla ice-cream!
Paro is a historic town with sacred buildings scattered throughout. You cannot escape it if coming by air as Paro has the sole international airport. Speaking of flying, the landing is exciting! The small craft swerves between the mountains and just about manages to navigate the hilly terrain. Edge of the seat moment for many!
Our drivers and guides greet us with the customary white scarf called ‘khada’. They are extremely warm, knowledgeable & speak fluent English & Hindi.
Kinchu Monastery – Prayer wheels! We turn them all. Bhutan is a spiritual retreat for us. If you are looking for inner peace, Bhutan is just the place. An old monk guides us to completion along with circum- ambulation of stupas. The monk does not know English/ Hindi. We do not know Dzongkha. But then, spiritualism does not need a language.
Paro Airport Bird’s View – You have seen the approach from the aircraft. Now see it from outside. You will appreciate the dexterity pilots need to maneuver this terrain.
Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) – Its beauty & importance can be emphasized just by mentioning that it is on the Tentative List for UNESCO inclusion. You can spot the massive walls from afar. Inside, the steps leading to the prayer room are STEEP!
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) – The Paro Taktsang is perched on the edge of a cliff. It is the abode of Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that He arrived at this cliff on a flaming flying tigress & meditated.
The Tiger’s Nest hike is the most awaited part of our trips! It is, approximately, a five-hour return climb. There are no paved roads; only an almost vertical, muddy trail through beautiful pine forests, trees decorated with Spanish Moss and fluttering prayer flags. Watch out for the mule poop though!
You walk the muddy path uphill for 90% of the distance, then approximately 1000 steps down, pass next to a waterfall, & lastly 1000 steps up to the Paro Taktsang. Within minutes of starting, you want to give up. It is the most difficult hike we have ever come across. Vaishnodevi is child’s play in front of this.
There are moments when you want to return to the comfort of the hotel. But, if in a group, keep egging each other on. Try telling yourself – ‘The Tiger’s Nest is just around the corner’. Deep within us, we know we do not want to surrender; we want to push ourselves.
Most people return from the cafeteria which is two-thirds of the total distance. If you are not an active person, the Paro Taktsang hike is torturous. Once there, we gaze at Guru Rinpoche’s idol. He is fierce; inner peace is not really what we can ask Him for. Instead, we ask for strength to navigate our way down.
On our way back, when we are climbing the 1000 steps up, there are moments when we feel we will collapse. Our legs tremble. There is no choice but to keep going. Downhill has its own challenges. It is slippery; our knees have to bear our weight, acting as brakes, clutch, gear etc. But downhill is still easier (like always).
All along the way, fellow hikers wish us luck or encourage us. We meet people of varied nationalities-Singaporeans, Japanese, French, Americans. All other nationalities greet us except Indians. Not to say we greet them but does this imply that Indians are less courteous or just that we keep to ourselves?
We are thrilled to see our cab in the parking lot, & ecstatic to reach our hotel. We collapse into a hot bath, soaking our dead muscles & feeling the fatigue leave our bodies. A difficult climb but the sense of achievement at the end is worth it.
Food for thought – why are the holiest places in inaccessible regions? Or do inaccessible places become holy? The chicken & egg story!
Ta Dzong – Every Dzong had a watchtower that would be at a vantage point to notice any threat to the Dzong. Two of these watchtowers have been converted to museums which are fantastic for history & mythology lovers. Floors after floors of artifacts, idols, pictures, etc.
A floor is dedicated to Thangka paintings depicting Buddhist deities. Descriptions are provided for each. If you have neither interest nor patience, do not come here. An Indian family crossed us while we were reading the descriptions (we read all!). A woman in the group said “isko padhega kaun?” (“Who will read this?”)
We wanted to retort but let it be. Not our problem if she wishes herself/ her family to remain ignorant!
Our Accommodation Pick – A little ahead of the city center, nestled next to the Paro river is a beautiful heritage hotel – Zhiwa Ling. It has a pleasing traditional architecture. Quite beautiful from the inside. There are beautiful carpets exhibited that can be purchased.
Choose from archery, meditation, spa & fitness, prayers, & souvenir shopping. The premises have fruit-laden trees; we can pluck & eat. The hotel has a kitchen garden which provides fruits & vegetables for the dishes. It has cottages a distance away from the main building. Spacious, well-lit, well equipped rooms with fantastic views.
The restaurant has a limited & expensive menu but breakfast spread is good. Room service menu is more VFM. Good service, courteous & warm staff. We spend hours exploring & clicking. You need not do much – roam around, dine & retire…