Bhutan is considered as the happiest and one of least corrupt place on earth, often being called as “The Last Shangri-La”. This word Shangri-la is actually a fantasy about a mythical immortal paradise on earth originally described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon in 1933. The Kingdom of Bhutan is often called in local language as Dzongkha because of so many fortresses and also as the “Land of Thunder” because of ferocious summer storms that descend from the Himalayas.
This country is not only carbon neutral but actually a carbon-negative country; as the small amount of pollution it creates is neutralized by the extensive forest cover it has. Bhutanese do eat meat but have no abattoirs and import it from India. People are not only very happy but very much disciplined too. Imagine a place with no “red lights” to manage the traffic with no one breaking the rules. People cross the roads on Zebra Crossings and there is absolutely no honking. Roads are clean, nobody throws garbage at random and rules are strictly followed. People are beautiful, relaxed, smiling and very tourist-friendly. The crime rate in Bhutan is very low; people are religious and respect their traditions. Most of the buildings and houses have similar traditional window style architecture. Rivers (Chu) are clean, respected, picturesque and beautiful. During our journey our jockey Phuntsho suddenly stopped the car on one side and whipped off his cap, I realised that some Royal car was passing by and was amazed to see the respect for the monarchy. Wangchuck surname is reserved for royals while common man can have Wangchuk in his name but without “C” before K.
Thimpu, Paro and Punakha are the common places most tourist visit although few parts have been only recently opened for tourists. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) also called as 2nd Buddha is the most worshipped deity along with Buddha. Ngawang Namgyal, the great unifier; the divine mad saint Drukpa Kunley and the royals are the other most respected figures in Bhutan. Buddhist temples (Lhakhang), stupas (Chorten) and fortresses (Dzongs) are on the itinerary of every tourist. Important fortresses are floodlit and give a spectacular view at night. The most famous structure in Thimpu is Great Buddha Dordenma, the gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha sitting on a lotus was installed to celebrate the 60th birthday of fourth king H.H. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is believed to be the tallest statue of sitting Buddha in the world. The Memorial Stupa or the Thimphu Chorten built-in 1974 to commemorate the memory of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck also functions as a daycare centre for the retired aged people. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the Unifier saint built the first Dzong in Bhutan Simtokha Dzong in 1629 to subdue an evil spirit that was harassing local people. Thimpu to Punakha drive is beautiful and passes through the spectacular Dochula pass with 108 memorial stupas or the Chortens called as Druk Wangyal Chortens built by Queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to commemorate the memory of soldiers who died in the war against Assam insurgents who had settled down in Bhutan while fighting Indian Army in 2003. Tiger’s Nest is the most photographed monastery in Bhutan and it is quite tough to reach this holy place. The Pungtang Dochen Photrang Dzong in Punakha is actually a fairy tale castle. It is the second oldest and probably the most beautiful, picturesque Dzong with mountains in the background and surrounded by rivers and paddy fields. It literally means “the palace of great happiness, bliss and ecstasy”. Above the Paro River on a rocky outcrop of a sleepy hill stood the most famous structure of Paro; Rinpung Dzong, overlooking the valley along with an ancient watchtower called Ta Dzong and since 1967 it has been home of the National Museum of Bhutan.
Two different and very interesting temples were Fertility Temple (Chimi Lhakhang) in Punakha and Changangkha Lhakhang in Thimpu. Fertility temple must be one its kind in the whole world where “Phallus” is worshipped, celebrated and is considered as a sign of power, luck and prosperity. There were phalluses everywhere; painted on the walls, houses, murals and on terraces. It was a matter of fact for locals as even small kids were selling these souvenirs. These mementoes were of different size and actually quite artistic; some had a rat sitting on the top, some had python encircling the shaft and few were dragon-shaped. There was absolutely no vulgarity about anything. Initially, it was a bit embarrassing to see these unique trophies although in India too “Shiva lingam” is worshipped but never as graphic as it was there. Changangkha Lhakhang is the temple where children are named and are blessed for good health.
Nights are very silent as only two sounds can be heard: the roar of the nearby river or stray dogs barking. There are plenty of these roving dogs who were generally healthy with many having clipped ears indicative of being neutered. People call them “Solar Dogs” as they sleep in day time recharging their batteries in the sun and continuously barking in the night. Locals believe that these dogs keep evil spirits away.
Soccer and archery are the most popular sports in Bhutan. Red chilly is very popular and is an important ingredient in most Bhutanese dishes along with red rice and butter tea. Indians don’t need any visa as yet and Indian Rupee can be used at almost all places although the local currency is “Nu”. Local handicraft is dominated by Buddhist figures and thangkas (Buddhist paintings on wood, silk or cotton). All Bhutanese from King to common man wears a very similar dress. Children generally looked healthy, cheerful and beautiful. Most loved being photographed. Best parts of our trip were guide Kezang and Jockey Phuntsho.
Rice terraces, wheat fields, scattered faraway colourful houses, clean trout-filled streams, green hills and clear blue sky give a perfect backdrop to the fairytale castles. Paro Airport is special as it is one of the most difficult airports in the world because of a short runway at high-density altitude surrounded by towering mountain peaks. Only a few pilots are licensed to fly here. Delhi Paro flight is the other major attraction of Bhutan trip because aeroplane flies over the snow-capped Himalayan peaks and getting a glimpse of Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga and other eight-thousanders is a visual treat. All these beauties rising above the clouds poking the skies like white sharp daggers gives a surreal heavenly feeling.
Bhutan is beautiful, it is inspirational and for the umpteenth time I repeat “Bhutan overwhelmed me”.