Mystical, fiercely independent and refreshing, I had heard and read about Bhutan a lot. A nation which is India and China’s neighbor but it’s so different from them. Nestled in the eastern ridges of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a tiny remote kingdom with high mountains, lush green forests, and tiny switchback roads. It’s the only country in the world to measure productivity by Gross national happiness. Never colonized, Bhutan policy of low impact tourism has been able to save nature in its pristine state. I was hooked and dreaming to visit the dragon country to witness its natural beauty and to experience its unique cultural heritage.
An eighteen-hours train journey from Kolkata to Hasimara and half an hour journey in an auto took me to the Indo-Bhutanese border town of Jaigaon (in India). Jaigaon in West Bengal is the last Indian settlement before you enter the Border town of Bhutan – Phuentsholing. Jaigaon is crowded, dusty and noisy. I walk across the border and rush to the permit office in Phuentsholing. But to my utter disappointment, I was late and it was closed for the day and I ended up staying in Phuentsholing for the next three days.
Slow down and let it sink
Jaigaon (India) and Phuentsholing (Bhutan) are two different worlds. The moment you cross the border and take the first step in Phuentsholing (Bhutan), everything changes. The noise of Jaigoan is subsided by tranquil calm. Everything is less crowded and the traffic slows down. People and vehicles are not in the rush. In fact, pedestrians have the first right on the road and vehicles stop and wait for you to cross. I went for long runs, read and relaxed. Evenings were spent watching local football matches on the Phuentsholing ground. I also had the opportunity to have a beer party with the local soccer team. The local cuisine at the Asain kitchen restaurant was yum. Expectedly, it helped me heal and sink in with the culture of Bhutan.
Enter the dragon
A six-hour long bus journey took me to the capital town of Bhutan, Thimphu. Mostly, there are two buses a day to different cities in Bhutan. If you miss the bus, you will have to take a cab which is expensive. It was already dark when i reached.
It was a bright sunny morning, the next day and I was excited to explore.
Tiger’s nest, popularly known as Paro Taktsang, is located 10 km away in the outskirts of Paro. Takshang literally means “Tigress lier”. As per the legend, Guru Padmasambhava flew to Tibet to the caves and performed meditation in a cave. At this place, the tiger’s nest was constituted in 1692.
The hike begins at the base camp where a small souvenir market is located. You can buy local artisans sold by people coming from local villages. You can also hire a pony/horse if you are not prepared for it. The uphill muddy track to the monastery passes through a pine forest and the path is decorated with colorful prayer flags. On the trail, you find wildflowers lining and rhododendrons on the higher areas. The scenic hike also has a waterfall breaking the silence of the forest. It took me almost two hours to reach the monastery.
The main monastery consists of four temples and eight caves. A narrow passage leads to the main campus of the temple leading to the eight caves. Not all the caves are open all year round. In one of these caves named ‘Pel phuk’, lord Padmasambhava meditated and resided. The main cave has multiple images of monks on the path of their Buddhahood. A series of butter lamps are lit in their honor. I walk around through the wooden staircases to enter balconies and enjoy the lovely views. On my way back, I had the opportunity to gorge on the delicious Bhutanese cuisine. The small market at the basecamp is worth a stop.
Later in the evening, I walked through the Paro market. It’s a small traditional market selling souvenirs and local products. The Influence of tourism can be seen as there are really good cafes and restaurants as well. Most cafes have wifi service as well.
Punakha – Home of happiness:
I missed the intercity bus that morning and I had to take a cab to reach Punakha. The first half of the journey is an uphill ride to the Dochu-La pass and a downhill journey below to the main town of Punakha. The earlier capital of Bhutan and an administrative center is a different world in itself. A place where time moved more slowly, I was amazed by the view of unending rice fields and small villages with traditionally decorated houses.
The next day was full of surprises and misfortune. I woke up to a beautiful morning and the sound of the Mo Chhu river. After a hot breakfast and a long walk, I stood in front of a huge palatial building called Punakha dzong. In Bhutanese, it also means a place of happiness or bliss. I cross a huge wooden bridge over the confluence of Po Chu and Mo chu river. They reach the building.
The brick red and white-washed building is an administrative center and also the seat of the government of Bhutan. The stone and wooden structure is inhabited by monks. The main entrance leads to a big courtyard with a banyan tree and a stupa. The courtyard has a way to two hallways for prayers. I walk across the wooden balconies observing the monks. I found a monk sitting in one of the entrances with a mesmerizing calm on his face. I was intrigued by it and could stop having a conversation with him. It enlightened me about the secret disciplined life of monks.
In the afternoon I head towards Sopsokha, a small village where the famous rather scandalous Chime Lhakhang is located. The monastery is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Thinley. It is twenty minutes’ walk through the muddy and dusty road from the nearest road. As I walk into the village, I am greeted by Phalluses, the wooden form of Penis in all sizes and colors being sold as souvenirs. All the houses have the painting of Phalluses. It is believed that these memetic images of the penis are a symbol of good luck and drive evil spirits out. It is also said to drive malicious gossip. I walk across the rice field through the dusty paths. Soon, I reached the monastery which is not as big as other monasteries in the country.
The Monastery is dedicated to a “Divine Madman” called Drukpa Kuenley who was a deliberate vagabond who criticized the hypocrisy of the established order. His teaching methods were considered outrageous. In recent times, the temple is visited by the couples for blessings to have children.
I was mesmerized by the story and ramed around the temple area when misfortune struck. Two wild dogs attacked me out of the blue. First, I tried to keep my patience and later I started running away from them. They started running towards me. I started shouting at them to keep them away. In the middle of all, I lost my balance and they were all over me. I tried to save my body with my camera. Dogs now attacked my camera and they left me, after some time. They left my camera and ran away. I later checked my camera and I had lost my lens as it was completely broken.
Thimpu – The city of grand buddha
Thimpu is very much a modern city. It greets you with its wide tarmac roads, over bridges, cafes, and markets. It is astonishing to observe how in embracing modernism. Definitely tourism has a lot of roles to play. It was raining the day I reached Thimpu. The next day was my last day in Bhutan. So, I had my plan laid out.
I woke up to the sound of a flute playing the next morning. It was serene outside. I could see the mountains as far as I could see. Buddha Point and the market of Thimpu was on my list.
For me walking is the best way to discover a city. You will see things, you might not see otherwise. You will meet people who you might be able to otherwise.
I decided to walk to Buddha Dordenma Point. It was a bright sunny day, unlike the last day. It took more than two hours to reach Buddha Point. It is an uphill thought walk to the Budha point. You will walk among the company of green trees mainly rubber. Few drivers taking their tourists were amused to see me walking to the place.
You see a giant staircase awaits you on the gate of Buddha Point. As you walk and start climbing those stairs, the gigantic statue of Golden Buddha begins to unveil itself. The grand statue is standing on a huge uplifted pedestal. It was built recently to mark the anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Wangchuck. As you walk towards the statue, you will see multiple statues of Bodhisattvas in golden color. These statues signify the people who are on their path to Buddhism.
There is a chamber below the Statue of the grand buddha. A chamber is a worship place. Around the Statue, I came across other 3-D carvings on the wall. These statues are considered as a symbol of good luck.
The main Buddha Statue is a 52 meters structure making it one of the largest standing statues of Buddha in the world. As you look up to that statue, the statue gives you a calm, tranquil look.