This is a guest post by Anupam Purty, a Dubai-based graphic designer and photographer (Instagram: @grafikapache). Born and brought up in Ranchi, a small town in Jharkhand, India, Anupam has been living in Dubai for over four years. He says, “Ever since childhood, traveling always attracted me; but it escalated tremendously after I moved to UAE, and my never-ending journey with my camera to quench my thirst for traveling began.”
Bhutan had always been on my bucket list, to be specific since my grade school. The idea of their Gross National Happiness Index made it even more desirable. I read about it being the first and only country to officially be carbon negative, my yearning escalated to its new high for this small country nestled in the lap of the mighty Himalayas (lower Himalayas). If you, like me, have been thinking of visiting Bhutan for a long time, take my advice and just go for it! I bet you wouldn’t regret your decision.
I’m listing down my top six reasons (which are by no means exhaustive), to visit Bhutan. I loved everything about that place, but let me try to sum it up for you. From the moment I took my seat on the plane to Bhutan, I could already feel a sense of calm enveloping. The moment I had the first glimpse of the snow-laden peaks of the Himalayas, a smile exploded from ear to ear. When I set my foot on the royal land of Bhutan, the serene fresh air tinged with morning mist greeted me, I had a warm-fuzzy feeling inside me.
After clearing immigration, I stepped out of the airport where a cheerful young man dressed in Gho (traditional Bhutanese attire for men) greeted me and helped me with my bags. Dharmendra was going to be my companion for the rest of my trip.
1. Because Happiness is a Place
Bhutan measures its economic growth by happiness. The Gross National Happiness Index was introduced in 1972 to measure the country’s success by good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation, offering a more holistic approach to continuous growth. It is this model that many countries are now trying to learn from and implement.
It’s the people who define a place and the Bhutanese are really warm and welcoming. I saw my guide Dharmendra greet and strike up a conversation with everyone on numerous occasions and even offered help! Even when they are all by themselves, you can see the aura of happiness and contentment around them. All your negativity and stress just vanishes when you see this positivity around you.
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Happiness. This little girl was busy spinning the prayer wheels when she saw me. The Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery is said to be the biggest in Bhutan. Though it is nowhere close to the huge compounds of others monasteries and ‘dzongs’; it has its own charm. This is home to about 60 nuns of all ages, who spend their time in teaching and learning.
2. Immerse Yourself in The Culture And Tradition
While in Bhutan, I recommend that you engage in some of the local traditional activities and sports such as archery toward which the people of Bhutan have a special affection as it is the national sport of the country. The wooden targets are placed 145 meters apart and requires the archers to be fit enough to walk between them after each round. Interestingly, this is perhaps the only sport where participants are allowed to drink during the games. The family of the players are also present who dance and cheer their beloved.
Archery, ‘Dzonghka’ has been an indispensable tool in the Bhutanese arsenal for hunting and fighting wars, and most noticeably against Tibetan and British invaders. If you didn’t know it already, Bhutan has never been colonized and remains to be so. A visit during the time of festivals will provide you with the opportunity to enjoy and experience the vibrant local traditions of the country. Other adventure activities you can participate in are hiking, mountain biking, trekking, kayaking and rafting.
3. Architecture That Will Leave You in Awe
As if the architecture wasn’t unique and vibrant enough, the Bhutanese have made the most beautiful of temples and monasteries on the most picturesque locations. The rules for architecture and other civil code of Bhutan is laid out in the Driglam Namzha. It lays out the traditional rules for building ‘dzongs’, the sacred fortresses. One very interesting fact about these dzongs are that there are no plans drawn up prior to building nor are any nails allowed during the construction. All the houses are painted with depictions from Buddhist texts, like lotus flowers, dragons and offering vessels. There are specially-trained painters who decorate the house with these ornate designs.
Walking around in Paro, I noticed how boundless it was. The uninterrupted skies and the views of the valleys was liberating in a therapeutic way. The monasteries and temples are built at high altitudes for the same reason, I was told. In this openness; I could explore and discover myself.
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The palace of great bliss. This is the Puntang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang, situated on the confluence of “Pho Chhu” (father) and “Mo Chhu” (mother) rivers in the Punakha-Wangdue valley in Bhutan. This is the most beautiful dzong in the country and serves as the administrative centre of the district. Built in the 1600s, this was home to the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu.
4. Tranquil Views
There’s a lot of travelling involved when you are sightseeing and your mandatory tour guide will make sure you have seen the best of Bhutan before you leave. As you go from one valley to the other, the views are so breath taking that you would want to stop every five minutes to take in the views and click pictures. Many a times you get to see the snow-covered Himalayas peeking through the clouds as you meander along on the forest covered hills.
The best place to walk among the clouds and get unobstructed views of the giant Himalayan ranges (on a warm clear day) is the Dochula Pass. Located at an elevation of 3100 meters above sea level, it is very popular attraction for the tourists travelling from Thimpu to Punakha. I stood in awe admiring the magnificence, with frozen fingers I managed to walk around snapping and taking in the grandeur of nature.
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What freezing cold looks like. The clouds momentarily cleared up to give us majestic views of the Eastern Himalayan Mountain Ranges. My fingers were numb with only minutes of exposure to the biting cold, up at Dochula Pass. Look up my profile for another image of the Dochula Pass and its history. Have a great day everyone!
5. The Local Delicacies
All produce grown in Bhutan is organic and ingredients dominating the cuisine are largely limited to produce that can be grown at the high altitudes of the Himalayas; such as onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. Though you would find your McDonald’s in Bhutan, make it a point to eat authentic Bhutanese dishes. You’ll be in for a memorable food trip.
And have you ever had red rice? It is very healthy variety with all the goodness of manganese, antioxidants and high fiber content. Don’t forget to ask for it when eating out at restaurants. ‘Ara’, a form of wine that is surprisingly easy to make, is often made from rice.
Along with rice, the Bhutanese relish chilies a lot. It isn’t used as spice, it is treated like vegetables. Bhutan’s national dish, ‘ema-datshi’, is made with hot green chilies mixed with Bhutanese farmers’ cheese, which resembles feta in texture and flavor; which is a must try. Sundried yak cheese can be found easily along the roadside through your entire trip and is eaten as the local chewing gum! Just the healthy kind. It’s surprising to see how much assortment the Bhutanese can come up with the little produce that they manage to grow.
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Yellow fields and beautiful skies. On a hillock below the Metshina–Punakha road is the yellow-roofed Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 by the cousin of Lama Drukpa Kunley in his honour. It’s a beautiful and short 20-minute trail across the fields to this temple where childless women pray to a fertility goddess while mothers-to-be select their future baby's name from a collection of bamboo slips.
6. Tiger’s Nest Monastery
You have probably seen this place countless times in computer wallpapers and it is real — one could and should visit Bhutan to see just this monastery alone. Without any hesitation I can say that the beauty of this monastery is beyond compare, and has become synonymous with Bhutan’s image to the rest of the world. There is so much to just this one place that I could write a journal about it. Perched precariously on the edge of a 3,000-feet-high cliff in Paro Valley, is considered one of the holiest places in Bhutan.
The story behind the building of this monastery is so engrossing that you’d embark on a mystical and magical journey dating back to centuries when the Gurus walked the earth. In short, it was built into the rock because this is where Padmasambhava (the Second Buddha) came on a flying tigress to subdue the demon of Paro valley named Belgye Singye.
To reach this place I had to trek two and a half hours up through the steep slopes covered with forests which is an accomplishment in itself. But when you get there I promise you it is worth the sweat and cramps. One of the best sights I’ve seen till now.
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Magnificence personified. I have never seen such a splendid view in my life. ‘Paro Taktsang’ or popularly known The Tiger’s Nest, is a Buddhist monastery located precariously on the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. The sight is magnificent. First built in 1692, this view of the monastery has become iconic and represents Bhutan’s heritage and tradition. For all the travellers and globe-trotters out there; if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out majorly.
How to Get to Bhutan From Dubai
There are only a few ways into Bhutan and the best is the national airline Druk Air, which flies into Paro International Airport.
Book a flight from Dubai to Bangkok, Kathmandu, Kolkata or Delhi, and your official visa tour operator will arrange your ongoing flight for you to Paro. The round-trip ticket would cost around $900 and the total journey time one-way is 10-12 hours including the layover.
Keep in mind that the only way to visit Bhutan is on a package organized through a Bhutanese tour company, or through an international tour operator who has an agreement with a Bhutanese tour company. Independent travel is not allowed. In order to preserve the unique scenery and spiritual calm of the country, visitors to the kingdom have to wire transfer around $200/day that they plan to visit before their visa is even granted.
But once in Bhutan, this fee covers all meals, internal transport and trekking arrangements, an obligatory guide (no exceptions!) and basic accommodation.
Bhutan is a country which is very serious about co-existence and preservation of nature. It has laid out a few rules for visitors through which it ensures and promotes responsible tourism. After visiting Bhutan my respect for the country and its people has increased ten-fold.
Stay happy and keep traveling, responsibly!