Bhutan – the land of the thunder dragon, has the potential to both, surprise you (with its beauty and culture) and shock you (with some never-seen-before things). It is the land of rich culture, majestic architecture, handicrafts, beautiful valleys, Buddhism and lovely people. The moment you enter Bhutan, you find yourself in a different world. The most noticeable attractions are – the old world yet very captivating and majestic architecture, a unique dressing style, religious people rolling prayer wheels and chanting, and almost everyone chewing Paan (betel leaves). You feel like you have time-travelled centuries back, to reach this amazing Himalayan Kingdom – Bhutan.
Surprises are good – they keep the excitement levels up but shocks can make any trip even more interesting and memorable. Let me share with you a few such moments which shook me completely. I couldn’t close my jaws when I saw a monk with a gun in his hand (children playing), a monk buying pork at a butcher’s shop and a married monk. Even more appalling was to see monks betting their money in some of the games at a local fair and to find out that following any religion other than Buddhism is an offence to the state. The other one is more like a matter of pride than surprise, that most of the major roads in Bhutan are constructed and maintained by Indian Military (Border Road Organization called BRO) only, through a project called Dantak. There was a lot to see and do in Bhutan. So here are N things which we liked a lot, in the order they are listed, which you too might appreciate if you visit Bhutan:
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1. Bhutanese Architecture
The unique architecture of Bhutan unifies the whole of the nation. Whether it is a palace or a hut, the architectural soul of all remains same. There are differences in the overall appearance, but the basic elements do not change. The most majestic and beautiful structures in Bhutan are Dzongs which are massive fortress-like enchanting structures comprising of administrative buildings, a religious place alike a temple, accommodation for monks and may be several other such things. All major cities like Thimphu, Paro, Phunakha, Wandue, Bhumtang, etc., have their own Dzongs. They are more or less alike, but because of their location, the area in which they are spread, the scale of construction, and the minor differences in architecture, they are all worth visiting. We found the Punakha Dzong to be the best one because of its location – right next to a river, a wooden bridge right next to the building to let us cross the river and its overall appearance in that setting which gave us a feeling that we were in the centuries old Kingdom.
Besides Dzongs, Lakhangs and Chortens are also good examples of Bhutanese architecture.
These are just a few to name, however, you can see many good examples of Bhutanese architecture throughout the country. Just keep your eyes open while traveling through the country.
2. Landscape – Valleys of Bhutan
Bhutan is a land of valleys and every valley in Bhutan has a different feel.
Thimphu is a bit modernized one with mostly all amenities that you will find in any other capital city. You should spend more time here if you love the city life. When we were here in the month of April, it was raining almost every day. An enjoyable weather!
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Paro is just heavenly with very low-level clouds, beautiful blue sky, green landscape and a river flowing through the city. An ideal landscape that we used to paint as children. The valley of Paro is one of the most beautiful among all the valleys. Though it is not much developed, it is the only city in Bhutan to have an Airport. It is also house to the most popular iconic structure of Bhutan – called The Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang. Make sure that you trek to the top to see the Taktsang, as many unguided people will go only up to the viewpoint, see the Taktsang from a far distance and return. This trek is really worth doing and is an opportunity of a lifetime. Briefly, Paro is an ideal place for people who have come to Bhutan to run away from the city life and to indulge in the sheer natural beauty.
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Phunakha is the only valley which is a bit hotter as compared to the other valleys, however, it is unique in its own way. It has one of the most beautiful Dzongs in Bhutan, one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan and is the land of the Divine Madman. A man who is worshiped like a god in Bhutan, who had a very peculiar way of teaching which was also called by many as bizarre and shocking. He is credited for many shocking penis (called Phallus in Bhutan) paintings on the several houses of Bhutan. He is credited for making people believe that erect Phallus symbol brings good luck and drives away evil spirits. A Lakhang called Chimie Lakhang is built in the memory of this mad man and it is believed that people who do not have babies get blessed with one if they visit Chimie Lakhang.
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Phobjika Valley is one that’s almost untouched by any sort of modernization and is a heavenly beauty. It has very dense and diverse fauna and is famous for migratory black necked cranes, Gangtey monastery and a beautiful landscape. Some of these cranes are also GPS tagged as a part of a research programme that allows the research department to predict the exact date on which cranes might reach Phobjika. We were unlucky because the birds had left the valley only a few days back, however we decided to go to Phobjika to see the beauty of the valley and to walk the Gangtey Nature Trail. Everyone going to Phobjika Valley must do this 2-3 kilometers nature trail to see the amazing beauty of the Phobjika valley. Though people say it can be organized only through a guide, we did it independently and it was a lot of fun. Just ask the locals and they shall guide you.
3. Religious Places
Lakhangs which are also known to many as monasteries and temples are places which have statues of Shakyamuni Buddha or Guru Rinponche who is believed to have brought buddhism in Bhutan, or of any other figure which is of religious signifiance to Bhutanese people. Lakhangs are the places where people come, pray and even sit for meditation. These places have very big statues of one of the above figures, mostly a golden color statue made up of bronze and the places provide a very good ambience for meditation, are very calm and pleasant. The entry inside many such places is, however, restricted and you may not be allowed to sit for a longer duration at some places. For e.g., the Lakhang situated in Thimhu’s Dzong opens only between 5-6 pm for visitors.
Most of these Lakhangs have prayer wheels outside the main building, some have small prayer wheels and others very huge, with some Chantings written on them. People come and give each wheel a clockwise whirl while moving in the clockwide direction and keep chanting. It is believed that rolling the wheel will have same meritorious effect as that of chanting the Mantra. Well, we didn’t understand much of these at that time, but for sure enjoyed rolling the wheels along with Bhutanese people.
There are some never-seen-before offerings made in the Lakhangs – some of these are butter cakes, savouries, biscuits, noodles, etc., and you get same as Prasad which is quite nice. Once you taste it, you want more. Feel free to ask if your ‘dil maange more’, they are generous enough to give you more.
4. People’s Faith
Bhutanese people believe that their is a lot of power in the prayers and their strong belief is reflected in the way they keep praying through out the day and also in the way they have put prayer flags almost everywhere in the country. Even at remote places like Chele-la pass you will find way too many flags. They believe that putting this flags with prayers written on them purifies the air, brings good luck and repells the evil spirits. Therefore, they have put these flags at all such places where they believe a mishap can occur. You can also see them at many places along the highway. Besides flags, they also put Miniatures of Lakhangs at several places along the highway believing that these will also bring good luck.
Even at remote places like Chele-la pass you will find way too many flags. They believe that putting these flags with prayers written on them purifies the air, brings good luck and repels the evil spirits.
Therefore, they have put these flags at all such places where they believe a mishap can occur. You can also see them at many places along the highway. Besides flags, they also put Miniatures of Lakhangs at several places along the highway believing that these will also bring good luck.
Besides religious faith, we also observed that people of Bhutan love their king and Queen a lot and have enormous faith in decisions taken by them, which is quite commendable. Almost everyone has a picture of king and queen in his/her buisness place. It shows what a good connect the royal family must be having with the Bhutanese people and that they must be doing something really good for people which begets them so much of love and respect.
6. Bhutanese Cuisines
I believe there are three main things for which you travel to a place. To see, to meet people and to eat the local food. We tried many local dishes while staying in Bhutan and found them very interesting.
We tried one of the best Momos we ever had – at Zombala 2 restaurant – on Norzin Lam in Thimphu. We tried classic vegetarian and fried Momos and both of them just melted into our mouth. The restaurant though looks ordinary is an excellent place to eat, if you aren’t concerned too much about the ambience.
All their curries are cooked in a local Yak cheese called Datse. Few of the curries that we had tried were
- Emma Datse – Green Chillies cooked in Cheese. Some good restaurants make it really nice, but be cautious it’s very hot.
- Shyama Datse – Mushrooms cooked in Cheese
- Kewa Datse – Potatoes cooked in Cheese
The best way to experience these curries is to go for an authentic Bhutanese Buffet. We tried it at Bhutan Kitchen in Thimphu and it was an awesome experience.
They serve both red and white rice along with it. They also offer home brewed alcoholic rice drink called Saaki as welcome drink which was being served from an awesome local wooden container. However, we didn’t try that. Not only the food is good, but the way they serve it in wooden containers also gives you a very royal feeling.
Few other things that you must try are:
- Vegetable Thupka – A Thupka is noodles prepared in a special way that contains lot of vegetables. Most of the restaurants in Phunakha offered a good Thupka. You must try it there.
- Sooja or Butter Tea – A tea made using local tea leaves, butter and salt. Not everyone can make it taste good. I had good experience at some restaurants and cafes, but bad at others. So be careful in choosing places where you try this.
Ambient Cafe in Thimphu (on Norzin Lam) – As the name suggests, it had an awesome ambience and some nice varieties of teas, sandwitches and pastries. You can spend a lot of time in the evenings here if you are staying for a longer duration. It also offers 2 hours free internet at good speed if you are looking for it.
Art Cafe in Thimphu (close to Norzin Lam) – Good ambience, not that big, a bit costly, but worth a visit; adjacent to Hotel Peddling in Thimphu
The Swiss Bakery – A very old cafe adjacent to Hotel Peddling in Thimphu; famous for its good quality pastries, puffs and tea/cofffee
Meri Phunsung in Phunakha – A nice open cafe/bar – best to go here only when you are staying here or close to it
Zangto Pelri in Phunakha – A nice open cafe/bar – best to go here only when you are staying here or close to it
7. People’s Style
8. Bhutanese play Archery and Khuru on Weekends
9. Tshechu – An Annual Bhutanese Mask Dance Festival
10. Skills Preservation