With atmospheric monasteries, towering pine trees and a barrage of smiling faces everywhere you go, Bhutan should definitely be on your bucket list. And this eight-day trip is a great way to tick it off
WORDS: AURELIA FERNANDES
PHOTOGRAPHS: T. KRISHNA PRABAKAR
Ask a child to draw a landscape and the picture you’ll get is practically a default one – overlapping mountains, a bright blue stream running down through them, and a blazing yellow sun peeking through clouds. Not a product of their imagination; turns out they’ve been drawing Bhutan all along!
Bhutan is known as Asia’s happiest country – which almost instantly begs the question why. While some Bhutanese say they owe it to their king, Jigme Khesar Magyel Wangchuck and his predecessors, others claim it’s the opportunities and facilities they’re provided, leaving them with no reason to be unhappy. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to ignore the fact that when you live in a country as beautiful as Bhutan with jade mountains and sunlight streaming from azure skies, it’s probably hard to wake up without a child-like smile on your face.
Into happiness, crocs and costumes
Days 1 & 2: Phuentsholing
It shares a border with India, so how foreign can it be? Very. From the second you step into Bhutan, it will feel like you’re entering a new world. The roads are distinctly cleaner, the rancid air that engulfs Jaigaon, Phuentsholing’s Indian neighbour, immediately dissipates, and the sound of cars honking fades away entirely. The drive from the border allows you to appreciate these small details, as Bhutan’s pleasantly cool air embraces you in a warm welcome. Still, the moment you get into Phuentsholing, get right down to business and make your way to the immigration office to obtain your permit. While families usually face no problem, don’t be surprised if you find the immigration officer staring you and your friends down, since Indians have a bit of a reputation when it comes to Bhutan. “There will be no problem, no? I’m taking a risk on my name…” is probably a line you’ll hear from your guide, thanks to young Indian couples who come here to elope. Take the time to convince the immigration officer that you’re here to fall in love with Bhutan alone and nothing more. With a stamp on your passport, get ready to hit the streets of Phuentsholing.
Not too far from the immigration office is the quaint little Zangto Pelri Park, with a brightly-painted lhakhang (shrine) taking centre stage, a favourite among the locals. You’ll see older people sitting and chatting away, while the younger generations scurry past them, only after offering a quick prayer, of course. While Bhutan seems dotted with lhakhangs and chortens (stupas), you’re sure to find a few unusual sights in the country, too. In Phuentsholing, make a pit stop at the Amochu Crocodile Breeding Centre (Gharial Conservation Centre) to get up close and personal with the predator. This could make a thrilling start to your Bhutan adventure: even though the crocs in the four enclosures seem alarmingly lazy – you’ll be left wondering if they’re dead or alive – the fencing is dangerously weak, and, if you’ve ever watched animal documentaries, you’d know that these animals are deceptively fast. Hmm…Once you’ve lived out all your Crocodile Dundee fantasies, make your way back to the city centre to get some shopping done. Way too early to start buying souvenirs? Take our word for it: do it in Phuentsholing. The higher you travel in Bhutan, the steeper the prices get. While magnets and mini prayer wheels are great to take back home, consider buying a gho or a kira – the traditional Bhutanese outfit for men and women respectively. Pro tip: Buy one even if you probably won’t find yourself rocking one back in India; it definitely comes in handy in Bhutan, as some monasteries only allow you into their inner sanctum if you have one of these on. Consider it as a super-comfy culture pass of sorts. Before you leave this little bustling town behind, don’t forget a quick selfie at the Bhutan gate for the bragging rights that come with chilling in two countries at the same time.
A serving of divinity and serenity, with a side of beer
Days 3, 4 & 5: Thimphu
The drive from Phuentsholing to Thimphu helps make a pretty compelling case for your guide’s constant reiteration that Bhutan is a mini Switzerland. If you find yourself taking pictures every five minutes, no one will judge you: between the rows of prayer flags, the cascading waterfalls, the viridian valleys and the towering rockbound mountains, it’s hard to fight the urge not to capture every single moment. It’s almost unreal how picturesque Bhutan is. And, with the endless photo sessions and the long drive, you’re sure to build up quite an appetite. Keep your eyes peeled for little highway eateries, and remember you’re in Bhutan; try the Wai Wai or Koka instant noodles. One bowl of piping-hot noodles with a side of momos will convince you to add these brands to your grocery list. Follow the slurping with a cup of hot suja – Bhutan’s pink, silky butter tea, perfect when the cold mountain air’s nipping at your nose. Besides, who doesn’t love some buttery goodness? We guarantee you’ll find yourself ready to hit the ground running the second you reach.
Thimphu is the beating heart of this country. With all the makings of a proper city complete with a distinctive Bhutanese flair, Thimphu is best explored by just walking around. If, however, you’d rather have a fixed itinerary, let the Great Buddha Dordenma top your list of must-visits. Located roughly seven kilometres away from the city centre, this majestic 177ft bronze Buddha statue sits atop a hill, watching over Thimphu. The landing area offers a phenomenal view of the city, but the real magic is within the Dordenma statue, in a beautiful chapel. Quieten yourself as you step into the inner sanctum; let it all sink in. Let your eyes trace over the mandalas that adorn the ceiling and the murals that cover the walls, even as 1,25,000 Buddha statues follow your every move with hooded eyes. With a long day ahead, don’t forget to seek blessings before you head out. Rest assured that the beautiful Dordenma statue will remain with you; you’re sure to catch a glimpse of it wherever you are in Thimpu.
Still seeking divine intervention? Embark on a short, 6km trip to the Changangkha Lhakhang. Built in the 12th century by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo who came to Bhutan from Tibet, this shrine holds great significance in Bhutanese culture; parents come here to name their children and seek blessings for them. While its structure and art are exceptionally beautiful, as with most lhakhangs, there is something even more precious about watching little kids tail their parents with a skip in their step, eagerly turning the prayer wheels.
Ask any Bhutanese what should be next on your list of places to see and they will direct you towards the Tashichho Dzong. Thimphu locals are rightly proud of this fortress, located on the western bank of the Wangchu River. The dzong serves as the seat of the Dharma Raja as well as the government office of the King of Bhutan. While the civil government office area is closed off to the public, you can explore the main temple area. If you’re lucky, you might see monks engaged in prayer, their rhythmic chants echoing through the chambers, their deep baritones bouncing off the vividly-painted walls. Being forced to set your phone and camera aside is a blessing in disguise; it allows you to truly immerse yourself in an experience that’s starkly different from what you’d expect from Buddhism. When you step back out into the courtyard, the chants of the monks fade away and the sound of the gushing river and the rustling of maple leaves replaces it. Try spotting the king’s palace as you drive away; it’s like finding a needle in a haystack – lost among cypress trees, the king’s abode is rather humble; part of the reason perhaps why the people of Bhutan talk about him with such reverence.
Their pride in their nation goes well beyond their lhakhangs and dzongs and extends to their natural heritage as well – with a national animal that’s almost unique to their geographical location. The takin looks like the lovechild of a goat and a yak. Usually seen grazing in the Bhutan Takin Preserve close to the king’s palace, these large animals tend to wander about, and the reserve is huge, so be prepared for a bit of walking if you want to see one.
If there’s something else Bhutan takes extremely seriously, it’s equality. From the art on the homes to the style they’re built in, there is a uniformity, right down to the materials used. The best way to see a traditional Bhutanese house is by visiting the Folk Heritage Museum. It’s interesting to see the layout of these old homes, their storage areas and upper living chambers, complete with weaving and cooking techniques on display. Don’t forget to try the local wine, arak, which is brewed on the premises itself; it’s surprisingly smooth and brings Japanese sake to mind. The Bhutanese clearly know how to make a great brew; buy a bottle or two while you’re at it. And, of course, don’t forget to feed the high spirits – the Folk Heritage Museum does a wonderful traditional Bhutanese meal. If you find yourself falling madly in love with ema datshi, the national dish made using local green chilli peppers and cheese, go with the flow: it’s spicy, delicious and rather addictive.
Then, brace yourself to trudge upwards towards Simtokha Dzong, whose historical importance is undeniable. Built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who was responsible for the unification of Bhutan, the architecture of this dzong is what has inspired Bhutan’s unique style of fortress. The concept of a castle monastery aided Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s dual style of government, which included a spiritual leader and an administrative leader – a modified form of which still exists today, explaining why Bhutanese culture is so deeply rooted in religion. Once you’ve stomached a history lesson here, drive down to Thimphu’s Centenary Farmers’ Market, which is open right from Thursday to Sunday. With fresh produce out on display in the neatest manner possible, this market is almost too calm for comfort. Don’t let your lack of need for groceries stop you; if nothing else, go for the smiles. If your wallet does feel a bit heavy, check out the handicrafts market on the other side of the river, but stay away from the lovely antiques; their sources can never be confirmed, and you don’t want to find out what happens when you get into trouble in Asia’s happiest country.
If shopping isn’t your thing, catch a game of archery at the Bhutan Indigenous Games and Sports Association. It’s impossible to actually see the arrows zoom past and cross the 140-metre field, but watching the archers perform a ceremonial dance each time they hit the target is incredibly interesting anyway. You might think you could give it a go, but the Bhutanese take tradition very seriously and players must don a traditional gho in order to play. And, with archery as the national sport, even amateur archers are way above average, so you’re better off cheering from the stands instead. Your last day in Thimphu is best ended with a plate of steaming momos and a chilled beer to go with it at Zombala, a tiny little restaurant you’d probably miss if you weren’t paying attention. While smoking here is strictly prohibited, the Bhutanese love their alcohol, so don’t shy away from trying their rather large range of locally-brewed beers, even if they do come in re-purposed Kingfisher bottles!