Bhutan’s Kingdom of Bliss

Straddling past and future, the mountain nation is a melange of surprising urban spaces, steadfast beliefs and mystic lore.  
Bhutan
During Paro’s biggest annual festival, the Paro Tsechu, masked dancers and monks perform ceremonial dances in the central courtyard of Paro Dzong. Photo by: Paula Bronstein/ Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It is a waltz with the clouds and the accompanying music, a traditional Bhutanese instrumental track. The airplane, as if it were a giant metallic bird, glides past mountains—always at an angle—minutes before landing at Paro international airport. I am excited.

Navigating the maze of mountains, my aircraft swerves at sharp angles. Only a handful of trained pilots can land safely on this airstrip nestled deep in a valley. When the aircraft’s wheels hit the tarmac, there is applause from all the passengers.

Walking to the two-door entry of the airport, designed like a typical Bhutanese mansion, the word that comes to mind is “quaint.” Cliché, maybe, but for now, it perfectly describes my first glimpse of Bhutan. It is hardly surprising considering how the mountain kingdom chose to be isolated from the world for a long time.

Foreign tourists were allowed in Bhutan only in the 1970s and cable television and the Internet made an appearance almost three decades later, in 1999. The country also has rather unconventional economic metrics: Gross National Happiness (GNH), brought into effect by the fourth king. By all accounts, despite not being a rich country, Bhutan is touted as one of the happiest and the greenest in the world. The urban-bred cynic in me though cannot wrap my head around the GNH or a monarchy, in the old-fashioned sense of the term.

One of the first things Sajan, my guide from the local tour company Heavenly Bhutan, tells me, sets the tone for this trip. “Our Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is the fifth king and on his coronation Bhutan became a democratic constitutional monarchy. We love our king. Look at everything we have—free healthcare and education, so much greenery. Of course, there are some problems but at the same time, there is so much more happening now.”

 

Thimphu

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Dzongs are ancient forts built as spiritual and administrative headquarters. Thimphu’s Tashichho Dzong houses the throne room, and offices of the king and other ministers. Photo by: Andrew Stranovsky Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Bhutan’s capital city is a microcosm of the country. Thimphu’s traffic light-less streets (traffic inspectors direct cars with hand gestures); its museums and factories; and its people and legends acquaint me with the traditions, culture, politics and life of a country in the midst of change.

Thanks to isolation and a strong emphasis, by law, on preserving its culture, Bhutan—and Thimphu—has an antiquated charm. Skyscrapers do not impose on views of a blue sky or faraway snowy peaks. Cosy shops and curio stores have not made way for shopping malls. Few restaurants advertise international cuisine. People still spend evenings at the central Clock Tower Square simply to be outdoors, albeit with smartphones in tow.

Yet, globalisation has subtly crept in, which explains the rising popularity of snooker. At the end of long work days, men gather at Thimphu’s many snooker bars, guzzling the local Red Panda beer and betting on games. Locals are dressed in trendy western casuals at these watering holes, which is a marked difference from the traditional garb I see everyone—including Sajan and our driver, Ram—wearing.

Sajan wears the knee-length gho, a woven robe tied at the waist with a belt, while women wear the ankle-length kira, a silk or cotton jacket or blouse with an ankle length woven skirt. “I sometimes see it as a funny way to differentiate between those with jobs and those without,” he quips on our way to the National Textile Museum in Thimphu.

The three-storey building is an introduction to weaving, an industry and art form widely patronised by the women of the royal family. One floor is dedicated to festive clothing and garments worn by the royals: weaves of fine silks and the softest wool. The designs—nature motifs, mandalas and mythical creatures—are detailed and intricate. Every region has its own style of clothing, all created from appliques, embroidery and woven fabric in vivid colours and fine threads of gold. I recognise the embroidered patterns and appliques as designs I have seen on the king’s boots in photographs from his 2011 wedding ceremony. “That’s right, applique and embroidery is largely ceremonial and in the past was done only by men. A man’s education was considered incomplete if he did not learn these arts.” I would have been happy to hear this when I was struggling with sewing in extracurricular classes. The weaving industry employs a large number of women but to a large extent, even today, as in the past, men make the more elaborate thangkas.

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Thimphu can also be called Bhutan’s art capital. Its markets and design schools showcase the country’s best art and handicrafts. Photo by: EyesWideOpen/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Thimphu can also be called Bhutan’s art capital. Modern galleries like Voluntary Artists Studio Thimphu (VAST) work with local artists and provide a platform for contemporary works in Bhutan. On the other hand, the city’s design schools are the ideal place to see Bhutan’s handicrafts, from brass Buddha figurines, colourful demonic masks in papier-mâché and wood to Thimphu’s famous handmade paper.

“The technique is similar to the Japanese [paper-making] one. The paper is made from the bark of the daphne plant, but the plant takes a long time to grow and the process is tedious. The paper is beautiful but expensive.” The Junshi Paper Factory, part of an industry that only began in the 1990s, is in a small warehouse. The process of creating the paper is long drawn and non-mechanical. The strong smell of daphne barks being boiled irritates my nostrils as I watch workers use wooden frames and bamboo mats to press the mush into sheets. They are dried to produce the delicate final product—coarse paper with delicate designs of pressed petals and ferns. Leaving the store, I have two envelopes full of diaries, writing paper and few scrolls with paintings of dragons and characters from the Jataka stories. Even amidst winds of change, legends and folktales drive people’s lives in Bhutan, often intermingling with historical facts. The belief is unwavering and the stories endless; a fact I realise in the most unlikely place: the Motithang Takin Preserve. Opened in 2005, it is the primary home for the now endangered national animal, a curious-looking goat-antelope. According to legends, the takin’s story goes back to a 15th-century Tibetan lama, known as the Divine Mad Man, who is said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan. When he first arrived, animal sacrifice was prevalent. On being offered goat and cow meat for a meal, he refused and instead searched for bones of the two animals. The takin, it is said, was created from the bones.

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Though it looks like a mix of goat and cow, the national animal takin, is genetically closer to sheep. Photo by: Nigel Pavitt/AWL Images/Getty Images

A sense of mysticism has surrounded almost everything I’ve seen so far, from Thimphu’s chortens and stupas to the symbolism in art and design. Not unexpected, I suppose, for a country named after a powerful mythical creature—Bhutan, in the local tongue is known as Druk Yul after the druk or dragon—and one where the Buddha is sentinel. There is a gleaming Buddha Dordenma statue at the edge of a hill in Kuenselphodrang that looms over all of Thimphu valley, the gateway to the country.

Later, standing in front of the 169-foot bronze statue, constructed at the site of a 13th-century palace, I am in awe not only of its size but also the detailing of the midnight-blue curls and robes of the Shakyamuni Buddha statue. The throne it sits on is a meditation hall, and inside the statue are over 1,00,000 smaller bronze Buddha figurines. “The statue fulfils a prophecy from the eighth century that said there will be a Buddha statue here to bless the land,” says Sajan.

I am not religious, but lore and legends are intriguing. And, there is one every step of the way here. In Bhutan, stories foster more than just belief.

 

Phobjikha

By the time we’ve reached Phobjikha valley, I have learnt that when on the road, it is a good omen to spot a deer on the right or a snake on the left but a bad one if the sides are reversed. A capped langur spotted anywhere is a lucky sign; too bad I only catch a glimpse of its lesser but equally beautiful cousin, the golden langur.

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Autumn is the time of festivals in Bhutan and their biggest draws are masked dances. Masks, like this 150-year-old one, are part of an important tradition, and every god, demon and animal has their own brightly painted mask. Photo by: David Greedy/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Legends like these, I have learnt, go a long way in forming an intimate relationship with nature: the Bonbibi in Sunderbans, the faes of the forest in Scotland, the faith of the Bishnois of Rajasthan. In Bhutan, by law, there has to be 60 per cent forest cover at all times; currently there’s 72 per cent. While conservation efforts and many partnerships signed with European nations have brought sustainable methods of development, in some way the stories of every other bird and beast—luck of a capped langur, blessings of good harvest in a nightingale’s song—might have helped Bhutan become the carbon-negative country it is today.

Phobjikha, which takes its name after the bowl or phob shape of the valley, is a case in point. The little town is the winter home of Tibetan black-necked cranes. “They come every year and circle the Gangtey Gompa here three times before settling down; paying their respects, we believe. In fact, a festival with a ceremonial dance at the gompa celebrates their arrival.” Sajan then adds that to protect the birds from injury all electric lines in Phobjikha are laid underground, one of the reasons electricity was introduced in the valley only few years ago. I am promised a sighting in the fields tomorrow. For tonight, I enjoy the hospitality of a rural Bhutanese home.

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Many locals have opened their simple homes to travellers in this valley. Photo by: Rumela Basu

The two-storey wooden structure is the home of the family of a local farmer. The massive bukhara, a traditional oven, in the main living area and kitchen has a motley crew gathered around it: an elderly couple, their sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren along with me, Sajan and Ram. I am welcomed with smiles and a cup of ara, a potent rice or millet liquor I’ve had a lot of throughout my stay. Here, the clear drink is flavoured with sandalwood. Soon, I abandon my ara to help grind garlic for the eazay, a spicy and tart condiment made with fresh tree tomatoes, chillies, garlic and coriander leaves. For dinner there’s a version of Bhutan’s national dish, ema datshi, chillies cooked with the cow-milk cheese, datshi. My favourite is datshi cooked in copious amounts of butter. Pure decadence.

As promised, I wake up to see a flock of black-necked cranes in the field. Trying to be my stealthiest best, I walk along the fence to get a closer look before they take off, blurs of black and white against rolling green hills. Later in the day, at the town’s Black-Necked Crane Conservation Centre, I get a closer look at them. A permanently injured male is being cared for at the centre, which does an annual headcount of the birds and helps educate locals about the need to protect them.

Phobjikha has shown me simple lives, long-held beliefs and a remarkable conservation success story.

 

Paro

In Bhutan, cities are full of surprises—the snooker bars showed me that. And surprised I am when an exploration of nightlife takes me to a drayang. Drayangs can be called dance bars except there’s no DJ, no dance floor and no professional dancers. If you’re looking for something swanky and loud, you’d be disappointed. I am in a large one-room establishment at a hotel basement. Sofas and armchairs flank low glass tables. There’s a bar, there’s music, and there is a small stage. The entire place is lit in neon lights. The servers, all dressed in ghos and kiras are, in fact, both servers and dancers. As is the norm in drayangs, our group is approached by one of the women to request and pay for a song; a Bollywood number is lined up for me.

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Built into a sheer 3,000-foot cliff face in Paro Valley, the Taktsang Lhakhang or Tiger’s Nest Temple, where Guru Rinpoche (or Padmasambhava) is said to have meditated, is Bhutan’s most important religious site. Photo by: EyesWideOpen/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images

“Those cost a little more, about Nu 250 (Rs250), as opposed to 200 for a local song, or a folk number.” Folk dance in a pub? Apparently, it is true. Sadly, the Bhutanese song that plays now is not a folk number but a film song. Not knowing what to expect I am pleasantly surprised by the young girl’s casual, fun demeanour—no complicated choreography, affected gyrations or cheering from the crowd. As the night progresses, requests pour in for Bollywood, Nepali and Bhutanese songs and the drayang’s staff—both men and women—get on stage, sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs and even in groups. As I leave, I thank the girl who danced to the Bollywood number. She’s smoking a cigarette with a group right outside the door: it is the only time I have seen anyone smoke in public in Bhutan. Chuckling, I recall a fellow passenger paying 100 per cent tax to bring his two packs of Marlboro into Bhutan—tobacco is not sold here.

The next day, I stroll past exhibits at Paro’s National Museum, a far cry from my surreal drayang experience. The original museum and many artefacts were destroyed in the 2009 earthquake, but enough has been saved and the museum moved to a different building. It is small but engaging. There is a room of ceremonial masks—demons, gods, animals and jesters, all bestowed with human charac-teristics of benevolence, wrath, cunning, even stupidity. There are centuries-old thangkas, ancient relics and statues of different forms of Buddha, Vishnu and their consorts, and an entire floor is dedicated to flora and fauna. It seems a fitting end to my stay. Except, according to Sajan, one of Paro’s best experiences await me in the evening.

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Drayangs, or local dance bars, are the country’s best-kept urban secret. Photo by: Rumela Basu

Soaking in a wooden bathtub filled with mineral spring water, otherwise known as a hot stone bath, I have to agree. Only areas with mineral spring water have these baths and Paro is one of them. A perforated panel creates a small section in the tub into which red-hot stones are dropped, gradually heating all the water in the tub. I emerge about an hour later with jelly legs and soothed muscles.

The next day, looking out of the flight window at snow-clad Himalayan peaks—you can see Everest and Nanda Devi—I think back to the word “quaint.” During my trip, I’ve been humbled by people’s faith, intrigued by legends, impressed by eco-conservation laws, and surprised by hidden urban spaces. Yet, in all its wonder and with globalisation trickling in, the country still has an endearing simplicity. Yes, I am inclined to add the word “surprising” to list of Bhutan’s best descriptors but “quaint” feels just right. Bhutan has shown me the best possible description of the word.

 

Essentials

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The 169-foot Buddha Dordenma statue sits almost sentinel-like, atop a hill overlooking all of Thimphu valley. Photo by: MANAN VATSYAYANA/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images


Getting There 

Only two airlines, Druk Air or Royal Bhutan Airlines and Tashi Air or Bhutan Airlines, operate in Bhutan. There are direct flights to Paro from Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. Tip: For gorgeous views of the Himalayas, get a seat on the left side when flying from Delhi to Paro and on the right side when flying back from Paro.

Visa 

Indian travellers don’t need a visa to enter Bhutan, however, make sure to carry at least two ID and address proofs, preferably including your passport if you have one.

Getting Around 

When travelling to Bhutan, visitors have to contact a local travel agency to arrange the trip. You can plan a customised itinerary and will be accompanied by a driver and a guide. The writer travelled with Heavenly Bhutan (www.heavenlybhutan.com).

Bhutan’s currency Ngultrum (Nu/BTN) is the same in value as Indian rupees.

Stay

Thimphu: The four-star Hotel Druk right beside the Clock Tower Square has warm, wood-panelled rooms done up in traditional Bhutanese design (drukhotels.com; doubles from Rs10,440).

Away from the main city, Hotel Amodhara offers spacious rooms with views of the cityscape (www.hotelamodhara.com; doubles from Rs4,200).

Phobjikha: Accommodation at the homestay is basic but comfortable and the cottage affords wonderful views of the Phobjikha valley (can be arranged via the tour operators; Rs2,900 per night)

Paro: At Bhutan Mandala Resort, expansive views of paddy fields, faraway hills and a glittering Paro Dzong offer the perfect backdrop for a cuppa (www.bhutanmandalaresort.bt; doubles from Rs4,650).

About 20 minutes from the airport, the heritage Gangtey Palace, was once a stately home built int he 1800s. The property still preserves parts of the older structure. They also offer a hot stone bath (www.gangteypalace.com; doubles from Rs6,400).

Eat

Bhutan's Kingdom of Bliss

The black-necked cranes are more than just protected in Phobjikha. They are revered as heavenly messengers, and an annual festival celebrates their arrival every year. Photo by: Tessa Bunney/Contributor/Corbis News/Getty Images

At Thimphu, take some time out for a meal at Simply Bhutan. While the chef prepares your Bhutanese meal, take a tour of their museum with one of their guides. The experience shows you Bhutan in a nutshell, from the folk dance masks and famous landmarks, to replicas of traditional kitchens. You can also dress up in a gho or kira. The meals are served in wooden, clay and bamboo vessels, and include the best of local fare.

If you love spicy food, Bhutan will delight you. Chillies and cheese feature in abundance in the cuisine. A must try is the national dish, ema datshi, a decadent but spicy concoction of the crumbly cow-milk cheese datshi and chillies. This dish is also made with other local vegetables such as wild mushrooms (shamu datshi), potatoes (kewa datshi), and spinach, and sometimes even beef or chicken. Meals are served with slightly sticky red rice, and always feature a dish of vegetables—usually cabbage, carrot and squash—sautéed with soy sauce.

Most local delicacies are vegetarian and feature local produce such as lom or turnip leaves and radish. Vegetables are also cooked with dried meat, another staple here. Try the dried pork sautéed with soy sauce, chillies and radish.

The influence of Tibetan food is hard to ignore in Bhutan and most eateries serve delicious beef and chicken thukpa, and beef, pork, chicken and veg momos with soup and a very spicy, and sometimes tart, homemade chilli sauce known as eazay.

Wash it all down with some local brews. Ara, made from rice or millet is available in every home and shop. In certain parts of the country, it is flavoured with a hint of saffron or sandalwood, or had as a warm cocktail mixed with egg whites. The fruity Red Panda beer—sold in 1-litre bottles—and the sweet peach wine Zumzin go well with the spicy flavour of the food.

  • Rumela Basu is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.

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