If we were asked what characterizes a vacation? We would say – free time. A time that can be spent with family and friends, spent in leisure, spent in joyful activities. Time spent in the most unhurried fashion.
Bhutan is simply all of that personified as a country and in its way of life. Succinctly put in words by bestselling Novelist & Meditation practice expert, Karan Bajaj as “The moment you enter Bhutan, you notice that there are no traffic lights. It is almost like you’ve stepped into a Shangri-La or a vortex of time 200 years ago. Those kinds of experiences are very much of the countryside of Bhutan, where people are truly happy in the sense of not creating and wanting more.”
“The moment you enter Bhutan, you notice that there are no traffic lights. It is almost like you’ve stepped into a Shangri-La or a vortex of time 200 years ago. Those kinds of experiences are very much of the countryside of Bhutan, where people are truly happy in the sense of not creating and wanting more.”
As part of Adventure Sindbad, as true to the way we design our trips, we decided to recce Bhutan, before coming up with an itinerary for our guests. I spent a good part of Feb in Bhutan, along with my co-venture partner, Karthik. It felt like the time had slowed down. Bhutan is unhurried, focused on happiness and general well being of people, on preserving tradition and natural environment with an astounding degree of biodiversity. It is a celebration of the contentment of life. Aspects that are so palpable even to us outsiders when we visit. It is what makes this land-locked Himalayan Buddhist kingdom a must-see country. We are bringing to you a 3 part series of easy-to-read and easy-to-plan aspects of Bhutan. Thoughts from a wandering traveller who is looking to capture moments that which could be relived later.
Part 1: Architecture and the Country Side – A Colorful Snapshot
Buddhism has a profound influence on the workings of the country to the everyday life of people. This is evident in their architecture style of Dzongs. Dzongs are complexes that house monasteries, museums, administrative offices and monk living quarters too. They are fortress style towering structures with flared roofs with red ochre and gold colouring. Bhutan is Dzong themed. There are no random housing structures in Bhutan. Every building of Bhutan has incorporated Dzong style in varying degrees. Flared overhanging roofs are the default. These structures starting from the entry gate at Phuntsholing spread across the various districts are like badges of Bhutanese identity. The most famous of these Bhutanese Architectures are the Paro Taktsang Monastery, Punakha Dzong and Tashichho Dzong (Thimpu Dzong).
Located at the point of confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers in the Punakha-Wangdu valley is the Punakha Dzong. With high inward, sloping white walls and red ochre flared rooftops with golden spires, the second oldest and the second largest Dzong in Bhutan is both formidable and majestic. It is also a winter house for many monks who travel down south to the warm climes from North. A typical autumn around is painted with colours. Red-robed monks walking on a bed of purple coloured jacaranda flowers against the backdrop of the whitewall is an exquisite sight to behold.
Tigers Nest Monastery
An adventure trip to Bhutan is incomplete without mention of Paro Taktsang or Tigers Nest Monastery. A Must-do not because it is the most googled place in Bhutan but because it is the most iconic structure. Its closeness to the only international airport in Bhutan, Paro, and a few hours of hike make it very accessible and a must-see in Bhutan for everyone who visits. Perched atop a cliff, built as if the monastery itself is a natural extension of the craggy mountain, make it as stunning as it is revered. The hike to the monastery meanders through the forest with interesting placards about cleanliness and environmental protections lining the trail. The myth of the land that a monk is believed to have flown in riding on a tigress to subdue a demon in the very place the monastery is built. Thus, earning it the name – Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
Bhutan is also deeply committed to sustainable development without letting go of its rich natural heritage. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, which means it produces more oxygen than it consumes. It does so by the virtue of vast green cover sustained by mountain streams covering more than 70% of the country. There is an economic benefit too from this conservation. 70% of the hydropower generated is exported to India. Corridors have been created connecting the various forest areas to facilitate free moment of wildlife. Bhutan has structured its tourism around this conservation but putting a cap of $250/day/person for any foreign national except Indians. This helps in keeping the no. of tourists to manageable levels without straining local resources and also the keeps the novelty alive.
Farm-stays by the countryside
The green cover of Bhutan is very evident when we move away from Thimphu towards the countryside. Where we can see villages in the valleys are nestled in surrounded by forests. These villages offer farmstays. Farmstays, as the name goes, are extended homestays in the countryside. Subsistent agriculture is still prevalent and people are also opening up their home to travelers as farm stays. We visited ‘Valley of Cranes’- Phobjikha, home to the vulnerable black-necked cranes. Having spent a lot of time in Ladakh, we knew of the avifauna that Tso Moriri attracts – the black-necked cranes and bar-headed geese amongst others. On our many visits, sighting the black-necked crane was always a special moment. When we had set out on hikes around Gangtey we had not expected to sight them as we did, but seeing them in hundreds just pecking away in fields was such a happy surprise to us. Between late October and mid-march, these cranes are found in Phobjikha valley.
Hot Stone Baths
The farmstay we stayed offered us hot-stone bath. Wonder what is a Hot-stone bath ? Special stone from river beds are heated to red-hot levels and then these are immersed in a wooden tub full of water to get the desired heat levels. These special hot-stones are believed to have curative and therapeutic properties and when a relaxing dip is taken in that hot water it is supposed to relieve and heal the mind, body, and soul too!
A hot bath and a hot meal by the bukhari is the perfect way to spend a day on a farm stay. Top it up with a little Ara and your day is done!