(“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…
Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.
Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:
Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊
Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.
Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.
Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.
Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.
F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!
If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.
Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.
Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:
Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
Lhakhang – A temple
Chhu – A river
Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple
Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.
Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.
The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.
You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.
With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?
Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.
We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.
Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.
The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.
The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.
Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.
Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.
For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!
1. Phobjikha Valley
Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.
The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.
Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.
If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.
Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.
The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.
The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!
Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.
Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.
To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.
The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?
Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.
The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.
You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.
Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.
Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.
Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.
We love Bhutanese legends!
Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.
You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.
The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!
Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.
The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!
Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!
The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.
You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.
Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.
We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.
A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!
Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!
Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!
We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.
Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.
A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?
A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.