Bhutan is not called the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” for nothing. Corny as this may sound, simply being in Bhutan can invoke that fire for change in you – not for the pursuit of wealth or ego, but for personal transformation and mindful serenity, so that you may feel your own thunder from deep within.
By the time I first went to Bhutan in 2016, I had already covered more than 5 continents, 50 countries and twice that number of cities. But these are just numbers and tally I soon realised. All you need is that ONE place to inspire and transform you. And I fell in love with Bhutan immediately – the ultimate epitome of the symbiosis between spirituality, nature and man.
A landlocked country in Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is sandwiched between China to its north and India closer to its couth. It may be the smallest nation in Asia but it is big at heart. It is big into Buddhism with more than 90% of its 700,000 odd population Buddhists. This tiny country is renowned for its temples, monasteries and fortresses or as they call it here “dzongs”, all of which are devoted to the promotion of Buddhist tenets. Bhutan is big into culture, biodiversity and environment with deliberate policies to protect and preserve them over development.
And of course it is big into happiness for it measures the nation’s progress with Gross National Happiness as opposed to the usual GNP. If smiles ever grow fewer here, you know something is wrong. But that might be a rare thing for all the locals I encountered along my journey were truly content. If you don’t believe me, try as I did spending an afternoon tea out at a farmer’s hut (who served what I thought was the weirdest tasting fresh butter tea ) or an evening singing songs with the locals over dim lights, beer and noodle snacks.
The first time I went to Bhutan was in the winter month of January, and it being a spontaneous trip, I left most of the excursions and hiking plans to my local guide. I was on a 7-day tour with another from Paro to Punakha via its capital city, Thimpu. My only condition was to leave the best for last. Whilst most tourists to Bhutan may choose to hike and awe at Taktsang Gompa (or “Tiger’s Nest” as this national symbol is commonly known) early on, we opted to see everything else first.
Once I survived my short (but sweet) must-do acclimatization hike at 2,280m through pine forests from Zurig Dzong to Rinpung Dzong in Paro, the rest of the days whizzed by with rich experiences steeped in ancient traditions and wonderment as I visited some of Bhutan’s most popular attractions.
The first morning we set out early and headed to Buddha Point where a 169-foot tall bronze statue of Buddha seats. Here we got an overview of the awe-inspiring landscapes that makes this country a great destination. We were then introduced to local cultures of prayer, meditation and circumambulation at the National Memorial Chorten, which doubles as a congregation point for local Bhutanese. There is also an archery ground close by where you can watch local men in their striped ghos show off their skills.
As it was the weekend, the farmer’s market was open. We made a quick stop to check out the fresh produce and grains for sale, and came away with rice cakes, dried chilies and some funky-smelling fermented yak cheese just for fun.
It was a sunny day as we drove towards Punakha, stopping at the 108 Chortens (or stupas) of Dochula Pass. Here I spent some time giving thanks and tied prayer flags across very tall trees, as I wowed at the sweeping views of the Himalayas. By the time we got to Punakha, it was close to evening, a gentle stroll across rice fields was all we could afford as we waited for the sun to set.
We set out early the next day, having been warned that we would spend the whole day walking. We crossed Mo Chhu river on a suspension bridge and trekked pass some muddy trails amidst idyllic countryside as we headed to the King’s Temple Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This temple which was built by the Queen Mother is considered an architectural feat having been built on a ridge overlooking typical Bhutanese villages without consultation to any engineering manuals. How blessed we were that day per chance to witness an extremely elaborate annual consecration ritual taking place there. Imagine dozens of monks in rich red brocade blowing long horns, a colourful display of ritual cakes and offerings, and soft melodic Buddhist chanting reverberating across all four-storeys of the temple. This sacred ceremony is held each year with the intent of dispelling negative energy and to inspire strength in all. No photos were allowed, and I can certainly respect that.
Of course the gem of Punakha is the white-washed jacaranda-lined Punakha Dzong – the second oldest and second largest temple in Bhutan built in 1637 situated at the fork of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. It serves as the core for all who live in Punakha – as a temple, district administrative centre and community place. When we got there, we really could not believe our luck.
Punakha Dzong was holding its annual fire blessing ritual to evoke the wisdom of the gods. I took very few photos of monks throughout my trip although they mostly had no objections. At Punakha Dzong, the rituals were rather particular and extensive, and I spent most of my time observing and forgot picture-taking altogether.
Well, one can get a little dzong-ed out in Bhutan, and after visiting Chimi Lhakhang – the famed phallic-themed fertility temple of the Divine Madman, a relaxed amble taking in the rarefied air across barren rice fields and dried hay was most welcomed.
Over that night and the next day, we spent most of our times getting to know the Bhutanese, cutting back on the dzongs and spending more time learning about local life and culture. We walked everywhere as the Bhutanese did, and with each step, found more peace within ourselves and with those around us.
Day 5 came, and what a difference a couple of days make! I woke up the next day to find a very changed landscape. The temperatures had dropped from 15C to 7C down at Punakha, and Bhutan had just received its first snowfall for the year. In honour of this day, the most popular and revered King Jingme had declared it a national holiday! Despite all the hurrahs going on, we started out our day with trepidation, as we were heading back to Paro via Dochula Pass. As we suspected, the narrow mountain pass had snowed in, and we waited it out for more than 3 hours at Lobhesa. The ride back to Paro was a very different one from when we came, with a long tailback of cargo lorries from India and other vehicles alike carefully navigating the snowy alpine terrain. The fog did not help our journey but all was not lost. We hurled snowballs at each other at Dochula Pass and laughed the day away.
It was Day 6. Due to the snowfall, we took the opportunity to go on a more challenging trek the next day to Chumpu Nye (or the Statue of the Floating Goddess Dorji Phamo) at 3,100m. Though less popular with tourists, Bhutanese make Chumpu Nye a part of their Buddhist pilgrimage towards spiritual enlightenment. This increased its appeal to me as I had grown closer to the religion I was brought up with over the last few days. How did we do on the icy trek? Let me tell you in separate post, but here is a picture of Chumpu Nye Temple when we finally made it 2 hours later than scheduled.
And then our trip had come to a close, and it was time to visit Taktsang Gompa. Suffice to say, it is no wonder that this ancient monastery fragilely set on a cliffside founded by Guru Rinpoche is Bhutan’s national pride. It was majestic, grand and imposing, yet humbling in its approach. Happy as a child I was to see it for the first time and in winter and with snow-capped mountains surrounding it. Everything else about this first visit to Bhutan had been absolutely perfect, Tiger’s Nest just made it more so. I was definitely coming back.
Grateful for the reset. It is not easy dealing with negativity day after day. Walking on the spiritually-charged grounds of Bhutan amongst Buddhist devotees who lived the daily balance between inner consciousness and worldliness (and taking a leaf from their page) is like pressing your own reset button to purify your mind and start again.