|Country Information & Lifestyle|
Land of Happiness
Far away in the Himalayas lies a tiny, remote Kingdom called Bhutan. Nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China, Bhutan is a country with a mosaic of cultures, lifestyles, languages and belief system.
Bhutan’s rich and unique cultural heritage has largely remained intact with traditional arts, age-old ceremonies, colourful religious festivals, social conduct and structures practised as they were done hundreds of years ago.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is known as the Land of the Dragon or Land of Happiness. It is a sanctuary of magnificent scenery perched high in the heart of the Himalayas.
A small country between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India, Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. Bhutan remained isolated from the rest of the world and no tourism existed until 1974 preserving the rich natural environment and lively Buddhist culture.
The spiritually rich people are enterprising, pragmatic and delightfully humorous. They live in harmony with nature and have evolved a unique identity derived largely from a religious and cultural heritage.
The Himalaya mountains dominate the north of the country. The highest point is Gangkor Puensum which has the distinction of being the highest un-climbed mountain in the world. The cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills support the majority of the population. In the south the Durs plain drops sharply away from the Himalayas into large tracts of semi-tropical forest, Savannah grassland and bamboo jungle.
Centuries of isolation, a small population and topographical extremes have led to Bhutan maintaining one of the most intact ecosystems the world. Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image of the country for most visitors is the strong sense of culture and tradition that binds the kingdom and clearly distinguishes it from its larger neighbours. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called The Last Shangrila.
Although geographically quite small, Bhutan's weather varies from north to south and valley to valley, mainly depending upon the elevation. In the North of Bhutan on the borders with Tibet it is perennially covered with snow. In the western, central and eastern Bhutan you will mostly experience European-like weather. Punakha is an exception as it is in a lower valley and summer is hot and winter is pleasant. Southern Bhutan bordering with India is hot and humid with a sub-tropical climate.
The national sport is archery and trekking is also extremely popular. The Snowman Trek is reported to be one of the toughest treks in the world, taking approximately 30 days.
35% of Bhutan is made up of protected national parks. The Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1995 in order to protect large areas of virtually untouched Eastern Himalayan ecosystems ranging from warm broad leafed forest to alpine scree slopes. It partly overlaps with the earlier Kulong Chhu National Park which mainly covered alpine and subalpine habitats. Jigme Dorji National Park in northern Bhutan is the largest and provides sanctuary for many wild animals, including snow leopard, musk deer, Himalayan black bear, red panda, sambar, barking deer and markot.
The Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park in Central Bhutan is home to virgin forests and an array of wild animals incuding leopards, red panda, Himalayan black bears and many bird species. The Royal Manas National Park also in Central Bhutan adjoins the Manas National Park in Assam and provides sanctuary for tigers, rhinos, bears and elephants.
The dzongs are ancient fortresses that now serve as the civil and monastic administration headquarters of each district. Apart from the architecture, which in itself makes a dzong worth visiting, they also hold many art treasures. Dzongs dot the countryside and were built without the use of cement, nails or plans.
Come with us to the Land of Happiness & experience Shangrila in Bhutan, a country like no other.
Let us start in the capital, Thimphu which is an hour drive from Paro airport. A visit to Trashichho Dzong is a must as is the Textile Museum and the vegetable market to see the local produce and handicrafts.
There are numerous monasteries and nunnery around the Thimphu Valley. Although the Thimphu Valley has supported small settlements for many centuries and a dzong has existed there since 1216, the city didn't really develop until the king declared Thimphu the new capital in 1961. Vehicles first appeared on the streets a year later, and slowly the city began to adapt to its role as the nation's capital.
One of the oldest temples in the Thimphu Valley Changangkha Lhakhang, constructed in the 15th century, affords wonderful views over the entire valley. Sitting on top of Kuuensel Phodrang hill is the bronze statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The view over the valley at sunset is particularly spectacular.
The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan and looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. Legend has it that the animal was created by the great Buddhist yoogi, Drupa Kunley and can only be found in Bhutan and nearby areas. See this rare creature at the Takin Preserve, Motithang.
Take a stroll through Coronation Park located on the banks of the river or visit the Centenary Farmers Market at the weekend by far the largest domestic market for the farmers of Bhutan.
The National Institute of Traditional Medicine is an excellent place to have any chronic ailments diagnosed and treated using herbal compounds.
When in Thimphu, make sure you go to the local post office. The special feature of the post office is that you can get a postage stamp made with your own photo inscribed on it and these stamps can be used for postage purposes as well.
The Choekor Valley is considered to be one of the most beautiful in all Bhutan. Spacious and surrounded by tree covered mountains, it is commonly referred to as Little Switzerland.
As an area famed for its monasteries and sacred sites, Jakar plays host to several tshechu (religious) festivals throughout the year. The highlight of a tshechu is the masked dances conducted by monks, which were developed according to precise instructions given by past Buddhist masters. Jakar is accorded the title of the birth place of Buddhism in Bhutan. Strong winds make Jakar a very cold place in winter, with temperatures often dropping as low as -6 C.
The Jakar Dzong is one of the most impressive in Bhutan and houses the administrative and monastic offices of the Bumthang district. Jambey Lhakhang is one of 108 monasteries that were miraculously constructed by King Songten Gampo in one night. Located between Kurjey Lhakang and Jakar Dzong, one of Bhutan's most sacred monasteries is Kurje Lhakhang. The abbot of Lhodrak Kharchhu Lhakhang monastery, Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche, is a very highly respected teacher in Bhutan and speaks some English.
For a journey into Bhutan's past it is well worth taking the 40 km rough road from Lhuentse leading to the Dungkar Nagtshang, standing tall amid the scenic backdrop of towering mountains overlooking the Dungkar village below. The women folk of the Gangzur village are skilled artisans and adept the art of pottery.
A walk to the village of Khoma will truly be a pleasant trip. Situated about two hours walk from the Dzong through gentle slopes among-st pine trees, this village is known throughout the country for its woven textile, the Kishuthara. A culture that has evolved over the years is a row of women in a makeshift textile cottage, weaving intricate designs and patterns. A journey to the famed Singye Dzong will be a rewarding experience. One of the most important sites of pilgrimage in Bhutan, it is a three days uphill walk from Lhuentse Dzong.
Mongar, in eastern Bhutan is perched on a hill. The old bazaar area has been expanded extensively over the years making this one of the region's largest settlements.
Paro is a historic town with many sacred sites and historical buildings scattered through the area. In addition, the Paro Valley is wide and verdant and is recognised as one of the most beautiful in all Bhutan. Along with Jakar and Punakha, Paro forms the 'golden triangle' of popular tourist destinations in Bhutan.
Precariously perched on the edge of a 1,200 meter cliff the Taktsang Monastery is an impressive sight and one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world and the unofficial symbol of Bhutan. It is about 2-3 hour totally up-hill hike from the parking lot to the monastery. On the way you can visit Kyichu Lhakhang Monastery. Hundreds of monasteries dot the landscape in some of the most pristine and remote areas.
Drakhapo, above Shaba, is a monastic complex perched on a cliff. Kichu Lhakang is one of the 108 monasteries that were miraculously constructed by King Songten Gampo in one night.
Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until the 1960's, and still retains the serene atmosphere of a place with a regal past. Punakha Dzong majestically standing on an island between the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, the city's dzong is one of the most photogenic of all Bhutan's ancient fortresses. The dzong is joined to the mainland by an arched wooden bridge, and contains many precious relics from the days when successive kings reigned the kingdom from this valley. The dzong serves as the winter home of the monastic body.
Located near Lobesa standing on a round hillock is Chimi Lhakhang is a Buddhist monastery 10 kms from Punakha near the village of Sopsokha. From the village is a twenty minute walk along a muddy and dusty path through agricultural fields of mustard and rice, leads to a hillock where the monastery and the chorten are situated.
Prayer flags are lined all along the road from the tiny village hamlet known as Yowakha, along a drain or stream to the monastery. All houses in the village have paintings of phallus's on their exterior walls. The lama Kunley had called the hillock where the monastery exists as the breast of a woman because of its round shape.
Tashichho Dzong is a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city of Thimpu in Bhutan, on the western bank of the Wang Chu. It has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan's civil government, an office which has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907, and summer capital of the country.
Phuentsholing is the point of entry for travellers arriving by bus from Kolkata and Siliguir and the town functions primarily as a place where Bhutanese and Indians do business. The architecture is modern, and there is no dzong, famous monastery or in fact anything of particular interest to tourists. However, like all of Bhutan, it does offer a clean, pleasant and safe environment in which to go about your business.
Trashigang is the largest town in the eastern region and has traditional architecture and narrow streets giving the town a quaint and snug feel, not unlike an Italian or Cornish fishing village. It is a base for tourists venturing into the surrounding villages and mountains. It was once an important trade route with Tibet.
In the small town of Trongsa, the Threupang Palace is where the reigning monarchs stay when on an official visit. The Dzong built is 1644 is located on the top of an imposing hill with an impressive sight for miles around.
Bumthang, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan, is home to some of the oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons(religious treasure-seekers) still linger in this sacred region. Divided into four blocks, the valleys are broad and gentle, carved by ancient glaciers. The wide and scenic valleys draw a large number of tourists each year.
Dominating the Chamkhar valley is the Jakar Dzong or the Castle of the White Bird. Constructed in 1549 the Dzong played an important role as the fortress of defence of the whole eastern Dzongkhags. It also became the seat of the first king of Bhutan.
Jambey Lhakhang monastery was built in the 7th century to subdue evil spirits in the Himalayan region. Located further along the valley, Kurje Lhakhang comprises three temples. The one on the right was built in 1652 against the rock face where Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the 8th century. The middle temple is built on the site of a cave containing a rock with the imprint of the Guru's body, and is therefore considered to be the most holy. The temple on the left was built in the 1990s by H.M. Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck, Grand-Queen Mother.
Located across the river from Kurje Lhakhang, the temple of Tamshing Lhakhang was founded in 1501 by Terton Pema Lingpa, a re-incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. There are very old religious paintings around the inner walls of the temple, which was restored at the end of the 19th century.
From Jakar to Ura is about one and half hour's drive. The road climbs through amazingly open countryside, only occasionally running into forest. The road crosses the Ura-la pass, on the approach there is a magnificent view of Mt.Gangkar Puensum. Villages in Ura have clustered houses, which is quite unusual in Bhutan.
In the north-eastern corner of Bhutan lies the ancient region of Kurtoe or Lhuentse as it is known today. It is the ancestral home of Bhutan's Kings and boasts some sacred sites of pilgrimage in the country. It is located 77 km from Mongar and is one of the most isolated districts in Bhutan. The landscape is spectacular, with stark cliffs towering above river gorges and dense coniferous forests. The region is famous for its weavers, and their distinctive textiles are generally considered to be the best in the country. Kishuthara is one textile that the Kurtoep women are deft in weaving.
As with everywhere you travel sampling the local cuisine is a part of the experience. Bhutanese love the spicy chilli and their food is hearty and wholesome. Chilli is not only added to every dish, but it is often eaten raw. Bhutanese dishes are normally rather simple, rice is a staple with every meal.
Datshe are vegetable dishes cooked with farmer's cheese. Ema Datshe is where the vegetable is replaced by Giant Bhutanese Chillies either dried red or fresh green. Kewa-datsi is a potato, cheese and chilli dish and Shamu-datsi is mushroom, cheese and chilli dish, both tend to be less hot than Ema-datsi. Emas means chilli and datsi is a kind of cottage cheese, so Ema-datsi is a kind of spiced-up Welsh rarebit.
These dishes are generally served with rice. Buckwheat pancakes are a speciality of Bumthang and are often served with ema-datsi as an alternative to rice. Another specialty of Bumthang is Puta a dish of buckwheat noodles usually serve with curd. Cheese momo is a small steamed bun that traditionally contained cheese, cabbage and sometimes onion.
Mutter paneer though not a Bhutanese dish, this Indian staple of curried peas and cheese is readily available throughout Bhutan. Imrat run canteens that sell excellent Indian dishes along with tea. The canteens are located throughout the country, especially along main highways.
Bhutan is a country where the past is still present, a unique blend of the old and new. Those who are fortunate enough to visit Bhutan describe it as a unique, deeply spiritual and mystical land. Visiting this kingdom is an adventure like no other.