First, that you’ve chosen to travel to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is a truly unique experience. And each individual attraction is, of course, a bonus. Its geographic setting, its culture and its restrained tourism agenda have all led to making Bhutan one of the world’s unique countries to spend a holiday. So let’s look at some of its individual attractions.
Happiness a way of life
Ramble through national capital Thimphu to pick up the cultural nuances of the country before you go exploring other destinations. What you will love about its citizens is their happy-go-lucky attitude, which adds that special vibe to the visitors in the people-to-people connection. Join the lively crowd of spectators at the at an archery match at the Changlimithang Archery Ground to discover these rich nuances of Bhutanese culture. Whether it’s the street vendor you chat with, or the priests at a temple or a local hostess, the friendliness quotient goes a long way in encouraging you to delve deeper into Bhutanese culture. Don’t forget a lot of this emanates from a government which ranks national happiness over all else as its GDP quotient.
Introduced by Guru Padmsambhava in the 8th century, Mahayana Buddhism is at the heart of Bhutan’s daily life and cultural ethos. Epic reminders of this are the dzongs and chortens scattered across the country, as of course are its vibrant festivals. You will love the exclusive experience of a Buddhist monastery in Bhumthang where you have special permission to spend the day with the monks and discover the secret ways of their sanctified world of prayer and worship, education and learning. What is even more precious is being allowed exclusive access to a prayer room with junior monks. At Gangtey, you can experience the simple but richly symbolic prayer flag hoisting ceremony near a local shedra or monastic school.
Bhutan is one of the 10 top bio-diverse hot spots in the world, and is a rich repository of Himalayan wilderness exotica of flora, fauna and avifauna. Get ready to enjoy up-close-and-personal interfaces with this gorgeous natural setting on a hop-on-hop-off mountain biking tour, or a leisurely drive, which takes you along some of the most picturesque trails up-country. You get to share stories with the mountain folk, catch animal sightings, and just fill your lungs with the rich unpolluted air. The scenic drive to Trongsa features torrential streams, forest-clad slopes, and misty hilltops in the distance, local peasants about their daily chores.
Riding the river
Bhutan’s gorgeous topographical beauty is a magnet for the adventure sports enthusiast. Nerve-tingling activities await both amateurs and professionals on its less wild rivers, such as Punakha’s Mo and Pho Chhu Rivers, which are attracting a lot of attention from rafters. Rapids here can vary between grades 1–4+. Unmissable on this trip is the historic Punakha Dzong, an excellent example of traditional architecture and craftsmanship, and serves as a winter home for the monks.
Lama Drukpa Kuenley, “The Divine Madman”, is a legend as an enlightened Buddhist master and one of Bhutan’s most revered saints. A walk to the Chorten Nyingpo Monastery with a guide reveals the legends about the lama. As you travel across Bhutan, you will discover a predominance of the phallus icon painted on walls, as signage and artefacts in metal and wood sold in souvenir shops. The phallus, in Bhutan, is considered a venerated esoteric symbol, said to avert the evil eye, and brings good luck. It’s also a fertility symbol, as you will discover at the Chimi Lhakhang temple. They associate phallus worship with “The Divine Madman”, who used his penis like a weapon to drive evil away from a woman.
Trek the Trails
Bhutan’s rich biotic resources can be best explored on one of its many trekking trails through its forests and mountain scapes. Almost 60 percent of Bhutan lies under forest cover. As you pass along some of those designated trekking trails, you will savour each moment in these pristine environs rich in bird life, wild flora and scenic splendour. Interfaces with the local village communities are one of the best ways to enjoy this eco-friendly adventure. Amongst the popular low altitude treks is the Gasa Hot Springs trail, where you can enjoy a soak in a hot spring. Trekking to the legendary Tigers Nest or Taktsang Dzong in Paro is an unmissable otherworldly experience. Legend has it Guru Padmasambhava made the perilous journey here in the 8th century on the back of a tigress to meditate.
An unforgettable culinary experience, which is intertwined with centuries old Bhutanese food culture, is the love for chillies–Oh! And cheese as well. And how well have the twain met in the Bhutanese family kitchen. Chillies, you will discover, are a big part of Bhutanese culture, tradition, and life. Not only are they used to spice up dish… they burn chillies to ward off evil and even give a nice twist to a glass of ara. On your travels, you will not only find chillies being sun- dried like curtains on roofs and carpeting sidewalks. Sample ‘Ema Datshi’ the national dish at least once! This spicy stew favours green chili peppers, onions, tomatoes and lots of cheese made from cow’s milk–and it’s teamed with red rice.
Gourmet experiences of a different kind are in the offing, in the Bhutanese kitchen when you join your host in foraging for mushrooms in a forest. These are seasonal forest produce and locals even camp out for days on end in the forests to procure these delicacies. Not only does the experience enhance your knowledge about mushrooms, you can also hone your skills in cooking these delicate offerings in the most delicious ways from the Bhutanese. A top favourite, of course, is a mushroom, chillies and cheese dish!
Hot-Stone Bhutanese Bath
You will love this refreshing, reviving, body-tingling home grown spa treatment. The hot stone bath is a very ancient tradition in Bhutanese culture. It involves the use of uses Menchu (medicinal water) or fresh river water mixed with Artemisia leaves. They heat the water using river stones that are heated to a fiery red. They can increase the temperature of the water by adding more heated stones into a wooden chamber via a chute. There are holes in the chamber through which they infuse the heat into the bath; the stones release key minerals into the water with medicinal properties.
You can learn all about Bhutan’s arts and craft traditions with a visit to the Choki Traditional Art School (CTAS) near Thimphu. Established in 1999 by Dasho Choki Dorji, a veteran artist, the idea of empowering underprivileged children through care and education inspired it. His zeal also drove it to keep alive the zorig chusum (13 Arts and Crafts) of Bhutan. The set-up represents hundreds of years of cultural practice. “We must preserve our values and customs, our culture and tradition. This is one of our identities; if it disappears, it’s gone forever.” Dasho once said.
From its urban spaces to the deep countryside, Bhutan offers visitors a melange of fantastic cultural experiences. One trip is simply not enough to delve into this beautifully preserved Himalayan Shangri-La. Repeat trips are definitely the way to go.