Bhutan has consistently been rated as the country with the highest Happiness Quotient in the world. Hardly surprising, when you consider that the Bhutanese invented the concept of quantifying a peoples’ happiness as an indicator of the country’s socio-economic (rather than purely economic) growth. As in Sikkim, not once during our stay did we see an angry face, hear an impatient voice, or witness an argument. Perhaps I had my rose-tinted spectacles on, but time seemed to slow down in Bhutan, and the Bhutanese we met seemed to exude an air of contentment. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t ambitious or worldly wise; it’s just that they seem to lead a simpler existence. There’s still an innocence. People are hard-working, even-tempered, and accommodating. Perhaps Bhutan’s less-than-friendly terrain and climate make these traits a necessity. As Mr. Small put it: Bhutan is a cold country populated by warm people.
Bhutan is one of those places you should visit only if you’re over the age of 10, under the age of 60, or extremely fit if you’re neither. Why? Because Bhutan’s true beauty lies in its mountainous terrain. If you can’t trek, or at the very least climb up steep slopes and negotiate formidable stairways, a trip to Bhutan would be rather pointless. Many of the country’s heritage treasures are perched atop cliffs and buttes, and the monastery-citadels, or dzhongs, feature stone steps that make the idea of an hour on the StairMaster seem appealing.
Travelling in Bhutan
- Best time to visit is October; next best is March-April.
- Book your hotel by phone; rates quoted are lower than those shown online.
- If you are an Indian citizen, you can drive in through Phuentsholing. You must carry your passport, but you do not need a visa. Get your travel permits at the office just to the right of the border gate known as Bhutan Gate. If you are in your own car, you need a separate permit for the vehicle as well (available at the same office).
- If you intend to enter any of the dzhongs – and you should – you require a permit for each. Otherwise, be content to view the structure from the outside. Some monasteries, notably the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery in Paro, require permits also.
- If driving your own vehicle, be aware that although the roads are pretty good (for the most part), they twist and wind around the mountains. Travel time takes much longer than anticipated.
- If trekking is your thing, you’re reading the wrong blog. Check this out instead.
- The entire country is a no-smoking zone. The import and sale of cigarettes is prohibited.
Bhutan displays many idiosyncratic quirks.
One of the first things you will notice about the country is its architecture. Having remained completely isolated for several centuries by its intimidating geography, Bhutan has has not seen many changes in its architectural style since ancient times.
Tall stone foundations bear the weight of massive walls of rammed earth (the unusually thick walls, we were told, provide protection against the cold). The sloping, pine-shingled roofs are raised several feet above the top floor of the house, creating a sheltered, well-ventilated area in which to store and dry harvested grain.
Today, Bhutanese buildings are required by law to maintain a traditional facade. Intricately painted wooden eaves and cornices adorn the rooftops and windows of every building, including government offices.
People take great pride in decorating the exteriors of their homes and workplaces with images from the Bhutan’s rich mythology. The Bhutanese people, just as superstitious as any of their South Asian neighbors, believe that certain symbols are vested with protective powers. Hand-painted lions, tigers, dragons, and other mythical creatures stalk across the outer walls of every building. As do, er, well, other things:
You will find the phallus painted on the outer walls of almost every Bhutanese home, especially in rural areas. A local legend explains this rather unusual decorative motif.
Towering walls of crumbling rammed earth dot the landscape across Bhutan, standing mute guard over the surrounding countryside. These are not ancient ruins; they are the remains of abandoned houses. Bhutanese believe that it is very unlucky to move into a house that was once occupied by another family, so homes are abandoned rather than sold.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that boasts archery as its national sport. The Bhutanese take archery as seriously as we take cricket. Gho-clad men carrying crossbows are a common, if disconcerting sight, and you can watch people practice archery or compete in competitions at the beautiful Changlimithang Stadium and Archery Ground.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, has a little quirk of its own: there are no traffic lights. Instead, traffic policemen direct the flow of vehicles with aplomb. A decade or so ago, a traffic light was installed in the center of town, but had to be removed due to citizen protests.
Bhutanese cuisine, while rather limited in range, is very unusual, consisting mainly of cheese and chillies, with shreds of meat or diced vegetables thrown in. A fire extinguisher is advised.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing about Bhutan, though, is its choice of national animal. Think it’s the yak? Think again. It’s the takin. Huh? A takin? What’s that? Don’t worry, you’re not the only clueless one. I didn’t know such a creature existed either! The takin looks like a cross between a moose and a goat. Legend has it that lama Drukpa Kinley (“the divine madman” responsible for all those phallus paintings) visited Bhutan in the 15th century, and demanded to be fed a whole cow and a whole goat before he would perform any miracles for his devotees. He devoured these with relish, leaving only their bones. Burping loudly, he took the goat’s skull, stuck it onto the bones of the cow, and commanded the bizarre animal to come to life and graze on the mountainside – which it promptly did. This animal came to be known as the dong gyem tsey or takin. You can observe this rather strange creature at the Motithang Takin Sanctuary on the outskirts of Thimphu.
What to see
As you travel through the country, be sure to take in at least a couple of lakhangs (temples). Stepping into one of these colossal ancient structures (some of which date back to the 6th century) brings a sense of calm and serenity. Innumerable prayer wheels are embedded in the walls, replicas of the gigantic version found inside. The devout circumambulate the the temple, spinning each prayer wheel in turn while quietly chanting prayers. There’s none of the noise or chaotic bustle found in Indian temples – lakhangs are meant for quiet meditation. I especially liked the 15th century Changangkha Lhakhang in Thimphu.
Bhutan’s outsized dzhongs, sprawling administrative and religious centers for each district, are also worth a look-see. Dzhongs, originally built as fortress-citadels where people could seek protection during war, are today central to everyday life in Bhutan. If you fly into Bhutan, you can’t miss seeing Paro’s imposing Rinpung Dzhong, built in the 16th century. As with Bhutan’s lakhangs, you will need a permit to enter these fortress complexes, but are free to enjoy them from the outside.
The Spouse and I didn’t think that Thimphu’s National Memorial Chorten was anything to write home about. However, the same cannot be said of our visit to the National Folk Heritage Museum. This “living museum” is housed in a restored traditional Bhutanese farmhouse that is over 100 years old. The museum offers an interesting peek into the minutiae of Bhutanese culture and Bhutanese rural life.
If I had to pick just one must-do Bhutan experience to share with you, it would have to be the Taktsang Monastery in Paro valley, better known as the Tiger’s Nest. This day trip is certainly not for the faint hearted. The monastery is located at the top of a precipitous cliff that towers over 3,000 feet over the valley. Since The Spouse and I cannot climb (we both have problems with our joints), we opted to go up by horse. It took two hours, and – for me, at least – was pretty hair raising. The horses only go so far. Just as you dismount and congratulate yourself, you realize that you have to descend over 300 stone-cut steps, cross a bridge over a waterfall, and then climb back up 300 more steps to the monastery. And when you’re done – you have to do it in reverse. Only this time, the horses can’t take you back down. You have to walk – and it’s hell on the knees.
Bhutan offers much to see, and especially if you’re a trekker – much to do. To my mind, the overall experience of travelling in Bhutan is best described in pictures, so here’s a slideshow. Enjoy!