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Bhutan: Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha, Punakha, Thimphu
Thimphu, Bhutan: Happiness quotient’s Capital
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
On the scale of Gross National Happiness, the tiny nation of Bhutan stands at the top… quite like its location. Nestled between mountains lies Thimphu the Capital City. Generally speaking, the void of brand consciousness (I could hardly see any advertising) and materialistic values, the citizens looked happy and contended. And happy people are helpful people… good to move around with.
I was on a 9-day trip of Bhutan. With me was my wife Vrunda. To be honest, I was a little surprised when she said ‘yes’ for this trip. To really enjoy Bhutan, one needs to travel on rough roads and be prepared to stay in hotels that hardly provide 5-star comforts… Vrunda’s holiday ideas are quite the opposite. Thankfully, she had no regrets at the end of the trip… in fact she was happy!
Paro is the gateway city of Bhutan. It’s a small airport with limited international connectivity. Druk Air is the national carrier which connects with a few cities in India, Bangkok, Singapore and Kathmandu. Because of limited connections, it’s a good idea to book well in advance, especially during high season which runs April thru October.
I had planned my trip in the month of December. The idea was to explore Bhutan in the winters. That it would also save money (due to low season) was a bonus. Of course December deprives the visitors of blooming fields, colourful festivals but does offer blue skies (a photographer’s delight), snow clad mountains and rendezvous with migratory birds. Above all, the lack of tourists gives one the opportunity to mingle with the locals.
Paro airport is 60 kms from Thimphu. This stretch of road is the best in Bhutan. Because of the hilly drive, give yourself at least 90 minutes to reach Thimphu. My suggestion to best explore Bhutan is by a private car (SUV) accompanied by a tour guide and of course the driver. Using public transport to travel between destinations would be a real challenge for tourists. I am sure, even the locals must be finding it difficult.
Bhutan has hundreds of inbound tour operators, but only a few are truly professional and equipped to look after their guests well. I used the services of Bhutan Blue Sheep Tours & Travels. The company’s owner Mr L B Gurung, personally came to pick-me up at the airport (well, this may not always be the case; being associated with the travel industry does have some advantages!) along with driver Birkha, and the guide Tashi. These two gentlemen would be with us for the next 9 days. Wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable folks.
We reached Paro with a direct flight from Mumbai, India. It took us 3 hours and 15 minutes. Indian tourists do not need a Visa. Any Indian residency proof is OK. Having a passport is good though. Other than Indian and a few select countries, most of the tourists from other countries need to pay a tourist tax. The amount depends on the duration of the stay. It is also important that one engages the services of a licensed local tour operator who plans your local itinerary.
We would be staying for 2 nights in Thimphu. Our hotel was Taj Tashi. And when it is a Taj property, one can rest assured. The folks from Taj are a wonderful lot. The service is impeccable. The hospitality they extend is truly warm. I have had the opportunity to stay at many of Taj properties and it was always a great experience. Taj Tashi was no exception. My compliments to Sibi Mathew their General Manager for having built a good team. Since the season was low, I was fortunate to be upgraded to one of their suites – and that was the cherry on the cake!
The evening was free to rest and relax. We explored the hotel and enjoyed a delicious meal at one of their restaurants. The next morning we would commence the city sight-seeing.
Post breakfast, our first stop was Memorial Chorten. Also known as the Thimphu Chorten, it is located on Doeboom Lam in the southern-central part of the city near the main roundabout and Indian military hospital. The chorten, built in 1974 to honour the 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972), is a prominent landmark in the city with its golden spires and bells. This chorten is unlike other chortens as it does not enshrine the mortal remains of the King. Only the King’s photo in a ceremonial dress adorns a hall in the ground floor. The King, when he was alive, wanted to build "a chorten to represent the mind of the Buddha".
Next we moved towards, what the local calls as Buddha Point. Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue under construction in the mountains of Bhutan. The statue will house over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Buddha Dordenma itself, will be made of bronze and gilded in gold. The Buddha Dordenma is sited amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang, the palace of Sherab Wangchuck, the 13th Desi Druk, overlooking the southern approach to Thimphu. The location offers spectacular views of the valley and Thimphu.
Apart from commemorating the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy, it fulfills two prophecies. In the 12th century, the renowned yogi Sonam Zangpo prophesied that a large statue of either Padmasambhava, Buddha or of a phurba would be built in the region to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the whole world. Additionally, the statue is mentioned in the ancient terma of Guru Padmasambhava himself, said to date from approximately the 8th century, and recovered some 800 years ago by terton Pema Lingpa.
Our next stop was Takin Zoo. Motithang Takin Preserve, located in the Motithang district of Thimphu, is a wildlife reserve area for takin, the national animal of Bhutan. Originally a mini-zoo, it was converted into a preserve when it was discovered that the animals refrained from inhabiting the surrounding forest even when set free. The reason for declaring takin as a National Animal of Bhutan is attributed to a legend of the animal’s creation in Bhutan in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley.
A Tibetan saint by the name Drukpa Kunley, popularly called by the epithet “The Divine Madman” is credited with creating the takin with unique features. Drukpa Kunley, who was not only a religious preacher but also a proficient tantric, was requested by the people of Bhutan during one of his religious lectures to conjure a miracle before them. The saint agreed to do so provided he was fed for lunch, a whole cow and a whole goat. Once served, he devoured the food of both animals and left out the bones. He then took out the head of the goat and fixed it to the skeleton of the cow and uttered a few words. With a snap, he created a live animal, which had the head of the goat and the body of the cow. The animal sprang up and moved on to the meadows to graze. The animal was then given the name dong gyem tsey (takin). Since then this animal has been a common sight in the hills of Bhutan. Because of this magical creation with high religious connotation, the animal has been adopted as the National Animal of Bhutan.
At the zoo, be prepared to walk uphill. Takins are usually found grazing on the upper parts of the preserve.
On our way back to the hotel, we made a brief stop to view the Thimphu Dzong and the Parliament building.
Tashichhoedzong is a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city 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. The main structure of the whitewashed building is two-storied with three-storied towers at each of the four corners topped by triple-tiered golden roofs. There is also a large central tower.
It was damaged during an earthquake in 1897 and rebuilt in 1902. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had it completely renovated and enlarged over five years after he moved the capital to Thimphu in 1952 in traditional style using neither nails nor written plans. It has been the seat of Bhutan's government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. Other government departments are housed in buildings nearby.
Our driver and guide needed a couple of hours for themselves for lunch. That gave us an opportunity to walk the main street and also explore local artefact shops just across Taj Tashi.
Our afternoon trip was a visit to a weaving centre and a hand-made paper factory. It was a rewarding experience to see local artisans using their skills to churn out great works of art. Visitors are offered to tour the facilities and the produce is available for purchase.
On our way back, we were lucky to witness an archery competition that was taking place. Archery is a passion to locals and is their national game. I was fascinated to see the players shooting towards target set at 120 yards… with a traditional bamboo bow & arrow.
That was it. The long day had certainly built our appetite to savour a delicious dinner with the General Manager of Taj Tashi. The next morning we would travel to Punakha.
Thimphu Image Gallery Photo viewer
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