PictoJournal©: Bhutan- Buddhist Kingdom of Dragons

Bhutan - the land of the thunder dragon is also a land from a different time. Steeped in tradition and culture the only way to truly appreciate it is by visiting it. Since there is so much to be seen, a photojournal is the next best.

By Suchit Nanda



Panoramic view of Thimphu, Bhutan

Sealed until the mid-1970s, Bhutan allows just a trickle of tourists with strict visa regulations (which don't apply to Indians- just a proof of residence such as a passport is enough); at times under 10,000 visit annually (although I believe the limit is 50,000 a year). This actually means that unlike the regular touristy places, here you see the country, its people & nature as-is. All bookings must be made through travel companies in Bhutan or a handful of overseas agents. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan remains a remote place not often visited. Although a short trip across the border for Indians, its still not a destination for many.

 "The land of the Thunder Dragon" - Druk Yul, as its called in Tibetian is indeed, the Last Shangrila protected by the mighty Himalayas from the rest of the world. Bhutan is only country where the Monarch rule is still in existence and the Kingdom is blissfully untouched. Hidden in the Eastern Himalayas between India and Tibet and as big as Switzerland, but sparsely populated, Bhutan is as pristine as it gets. The last Buddhist kingdom in these mountains. Legend has it that in the 12th century, a monk from Tibet went looking for a place to build a monastery. At one site, he heard thunder and believed it to be of a dragon which is considered a good omen. Thus he built his monastery there and called it Druk (meaning thunder or dragon). His followers were called Drukpas and of Mongoliod origin.

The mountains in the in this eastern Himalayas are magnificent, the forest are dense, the people are delightful & peaceful due to their Buddhist ways of life which is also the main State Religion as also Drukpa Kagyupa School of Tibetan Buddhist of Mahayana. Buddhism has provided the essence of a rich culture and fascinating history. The reason for Bhutan's uniqueness and attraction is that its culture and environment have been largely unaltered by the pressure of population or excessive number of tourist as is common in many other countries. Hence, it is very safe and secure for the foreign tourist/travelers visiting Bhutan who are welcomed as guests.

My trip to Bhutan was work-related and back-to-back from the trip to Pakistan so there were many sharp contrasts for me. To get there from Mumbai, I flew from Mumbai to Kolkatta and then to Bagdogra (Silliguri, West Bengal) on 14th March, 2005.

I was picked up at the airport by the staff from "National Institute of Education, Samtse, Bhutan" and we drove across the border to Samtse. 


Just before we came to the border, we stopped at a market place. Seems the market prices of fish, meat and vegetables is cheaper on the Indian side and its common for travelers to stop and shop.


Due to the close relationship between the countries, the border appears hardly like one. I could see many cars cross by with a wave of hand (probably locals or regulars) and border formalities for me was a small stop for signing a register after looking at my passport. It helped that I had the staff from the institute to take care of things. Once we crossed, the real change came in the form of the view. Bhutan has lush green landscape and rice fields and tea gardens. I was eager to get to Samtse and see this beautiful country. On the way we chatted. While the national language is Dzonka, English is widely spoken and most can speak and understand Hindi as well. Especially those areas which border with India.

Being an honoured guest, I was invited to stay at the royal guest house. While one structure was for the King, the neighbouring block had 4 rooms for his four wives. I was given a choice of any of the four rooms. Made of wood and simple in its form, they were pretty similar, so I just selected one of them facing the King's house. The neat room with fan & basic lights came With an attached bath.

The first thing that strikes you as you become aware of Bhutan is the dress that everyone around is wearing. The striking dress of the men is called the gho which is something similar to the Scottish kilt. With length up to the knee, and the upper part of the dress wraps around the body and loosened as per the size & fitting. There are many pockets in the inside. Its surprising how much can be stored in these pockets. The women wear the kiras which are full length unstitched garments fastened at the shoulders by two hook like clips called komas and a waistband which is also of a similar cloth. Added to this is a blouse and a jacket which completes the dress. The range of colours is varied and the dress material fine. By law, and custom, every government worker, every teacher and almost everyone holding public office has to wear the traditional dress. Even school uniforms conform to this dress code.



Its the same with the buildings. When one looks around, you find that every building has to have the basic traditional form. This is mandated by law so there are no "modern" looking buildings. There is a degree of uniformity and tradition that shows through.

While in Samtse, I visited a nearby school to better understand the local conditions and requirements.


Bhutan & the Monarchy has gradually opened up the country. While radio broadcasting began in 1973, Television was introduced only in 1999, because for years Bhutan had a deliberate policy of isolation, fearing that outside influences would adulterate the culture & the people. English newspapers used to be printed just once a week. Reason? "There is no need to know too much. We are a happy & content people", so you can well imagine what efforts would have been needed to get public access to the Internet which happened in 1999. Today most cities, and business establishments have Internet access and the NIE teacher training program that I visited in Samtse even does Distance Education over the net!

India is a close friend of Bhutan. What was rather interesting and amusing at the same time for me was that to get from Samtse to Thimphu (the capital city) the only way was to cross back into India. I could have either gone by road and got into Bhutan again at Phuntsholing (which is a major entry point between the two countries) or else to re-trace my steps and take a flight from Kolkotta which is what I did. I'm sure the road trip is great as well as its pretty historic being the first road to be built in Bhutan in 1962 by Danthak, the Indian Border Roads Organization. It would normally take about 7 hours to get there. Before the road was built it could easily take two weeks! So once again I was back into India.


Paro is a picturesque valley with quaint clusters of hamlets paddy fields. The town still maintains traditions by way of architecture & the simple way of life. From Kolkatta I flew into the city of Paro which has the only airport in the country. Up to recently only the official national airline - Druk Air was permitted to fly in. When looking up on the net, I was thoroughly amused to read "the fleet of Druk Air consists of two aircrafts". An airline of two planes has to be exclusive! It was reassuring to see that the two aircrafts were very new looking. I was told that only weeks before, they had phased out the old two aircrafts [BAe146] which were in service from 1988 with with two brand new Airbus 319s. Good thing since the journey to Paro takes us over the Himalayas with a breathtaking view. In fact, we were lucky that the day was clear and I got a awesome view of Mt. Everest (as well as Kanchanjanga & Makalu).

Breathtaking as it was the landing was literally breath-taking. Since the airport is surrounded by mountains, you pretty much can't land the plane if you fly over the tops so as you approach the airport, you lose altitude and literally snake through the valley and then with a sharp turn drop onto the runway. our plane which had many westerner let out a gasp and then when we stopped everyone stood up and clapped. :)

The first thing that hits you when you land is the lovely airport building which is in the same traditional Bhutanese architecture offering a sneak preview of all architecture that would be see during the trip.


Paro Chhu (chhu mean river) & Thimphu Chhu meet to form the Wang Chhu. Traditionally the meeting (or clashing) of the rivers is considered inauspicious since the Bhutanese believe that the rivers have spirits and they are often in conflict so as to appease the spirits three chortens have been built in three different styles - Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese and these stand at the "sangam" (meeting point) of the rivers.

Panoramic view of Wang Chhu, Bhutan

One of the pleasant surprises for me was that from Paro to Thimphu except for a very small part of the journey, I had full GSM cell phone access on my roaming mobile phone. I was talking on my phone for a major part of the trip without any hassle. Within the two cities I almost never had any loss of signal.

As we head towards Thimphu we follow a road that rises but skims the river bed. On the other side, one can see a number of Bhutanese houses dotting the slopes. Built of wood and stones they are set far and wide amongst the rice fields and orchards of delicate pink apple blossoms. There wasn't much traffic on the road but the road is very narrow. We had to slow at times to let the opposite traffic pass and all the time face sharp turns. I could see signs of major construction work to widen the road. They have to work fast as rains and winter causes landslides and additional work & cost. Buddhist prayer flags on high poles small chortens come into view now and again.

Enroute we saw a funeral procession. The lead car which presumably carried the body was brightly decorated and followed closely by a caravan of cars. All other cars, slowed and gave way to the group to pass.

At one corner we pass very close to a school and the children as all children are very excited and wave out to us. Once again everyone is dressed in their ghos and kiras carrying their school bags. The road takes about 2 hours and is pretty windy. The weather is lovely and the Sun plays hide-n-seek with the clouds.


I reached Wangchuk Hotel and checked in.

Evenings come rather earlier. While I get used to the hotel and its surroundings, I am please to see that my room opens up to a large ground and behind that is the lovely mountains. The view is almost out of a wall-paper.

Being the first night, I decide to settle down and take my meals in the Hotel itself. Being vegetarian poses a minor limitation on the choice but nothing serious. Quickly I learn that Bhutanese food is very hot. Although I can take hot food, this was way beyond hot. Even my requests for meals to be mild were on the hotter side. No wonder then that the national dish is cheese with chilies in chilly sauce called ema datsee. The other popular Bhutanese dish being beef, minced chicken curry (jasha maroo), red rice etc. The next morning while passing through the city I realize that international brand-restaurants are non-existent. So basically no KFC, no Pizza Hut and definitely no McDonalds. The only golden arches that can be seen in town are at the entrances to temples, and these are adorned with dragons. You can easily get at any grocery store Pepsi, or Coke and other tit-bits but no international fast-food chains.

My hotel (Hotel Wang Chuk) is pretty strategically places. Thimphu being a small - make it tiny city, one can literally wall end to end within a day. The "high street" is has the major offices, shops and restaurants. Down the road is the Tashi Chhoe Dzong, an imposing structure built in Bhutanese style without a single nail! It was built 17th century and after suffering three fires and an earthquake, the dzong was renovated and enlarged in 1962, the year after the capital was moved to Thimphu. The renovation was performed traditionally, without written plans or sketches and nails. A little further is the SAARC building which was constructed for the SAARC meeting that didn't take place. This houses the National Assembly, the Throne Room and the offices of the Government. Not too far is the Folk Heritage Museum and the Handicraft Emporium.

Unfortunately I kept visiting this till the last day and it was closed, so I never got to see it but the view outside from the main gate is lovely. Being a photographer, I could just spend hours here watching the play of light on the mountains with the clouds doing their dance.

Cinema is very popular. Sunday being a holiday its also the day out for people. So there are a lot more people on the streets busy shopping etc. The weekend market is from Friday to Sunday and many people from out of Thimphu also come and put up stalls. It was busy, very interesting and I got some great shots there.


The weekly market in Thimphu is a bargain-hunter’s dream come true. It consists of an assorted variety of things and eatables. While there are plenty of fruit and vegetable stalls, but there were section of the market selling handicrafts. One of the most abundant items was the Buddhist prayer wheel ranging in price from 350 to 13,000 Indian rupees. I picked up a small one for my desk (office) and a bigger one for the home. The other popular items included Bhutanese masks, brass door handles, incense, textiles and handmade knives, and I even found a vendor selling bows and arrows. Prices were decent but one has to bargain to get the best value. Helps if you speak Hindi and don't look like a westerner/tourist (so hide your cameras).

The market place is hot, crowded and busy. And a drink is always welcome.


There is little time & place to answer nature's call. I saw a rather innovative solution. A little girl used an empty box to do the job, and I guess they just carry away the box with its content when they leave!



While there is little time to rest, you can get a wink of sleep if you want despite the hustle-bustle


There is lots to shop but I have to get going.


With the Thimphu river gently flowing through just behind the market, it made the walk back even more scenic.



I found that being the day out, the people like to engage in their national sport of archery. As I walked to my hotel I could hear some nice music coming from the ground. On going closer, I found that a group of people from the club were playing archery and as is common the women and men dance in a circle while the others play.

They were so friendly that when I reached there, they invited me to join the circle. Simple and rhythmic steps were easy to learn. In was invited to drink, but the Arra being alcoholic (prepared from rice, wheat, millet or barley), I politely turned it down. Arra while being popular, the sale is forbidden to prevent grain shortage. Later I learnt that the person who invited me in, was actually the Minisiter. Although holding a senior position, he was so warm, welcoming and approachable. Typical of the country.

As it was getting dark I could not help but notice how clear the sky was. With minimum pollution, I got a clear sight of the Moon.




Next day morning I was at work and was taken out to lunch. Over lunch, I learnt that the lady at the table from the IT Ministry was also the official news reader. Sure enough at night I saw her on TV as the English news reader.



I went to the the office of the first and only ISP of Bhutan - Druknet.




A found that in Bhutan the people keep chewing something. Looks like tobacco but I can't be sure of that.

It was interesting capturing the "Faces of Bhutan"


India has helped Bhutan in a number of ways including building roads and hospitals.




At various times of the year, Bhutanese in towns and villages congregate to witness the masked dance festivals known as Tsechus. These colorful events draw thousands of locals, some of whom walk for days in order to attend. While the underlying purpose is spiritual, dances are more often like plays where good triumphs over evil or depict significant historical events

Paro Tshechu Festival is one of the biggest festivals in Bhutan that falls around March/April of each year. On 23rd March, I visited Paro. The Tshechu is a festival honoring Guru Padmasambhava, "one who was born from a lotus flower." This Indian saint contributed enormously to the diffusion of Tantric Buddhism in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan etc. The biography of Guru is highlighted by 12 episodes of the model of the Buddha Shakyamuni's life. Each episode is commemorated around the year on the 10th day of the month by "the Tshechu" which falls somewhere in March/April each year. While the exact dates vary, they always take place on or around the 10th of the month according to the Bhutanese calendar. During Tshechu, the dances are performed by monks as well as by laymen.

The Tshechu is a religious festival and by attending it, it is believed one gains merits. Apparently you need to be of a spiritual bent and destiny to be able to come. Not all who intend can make it, and those who attend gain something. I was lucky that my dates to Bhutan fell during this festival. The Paro Tshechu is also a yearly social gathering where the people, dressed in all their finery, come together to rejoice.


After attending the festival, during the break, I walked down and visited the assorted shops and then went inside Dzong to get a couple of pictures. Made largely of wood with intricate carvings, the whole structure looks majestic.


I trepidously followed a young monk and my driver in tow up some steep steps. We came to what looked like an altar. I was given some blessings and we returned back.

It was almost 70 degrees and I had to be extra careful climbing down lest I go down the quicker way of tumbling. Worse I had my big camera bag and gear which almost touched the back steps as I walked down reminding me how steep the steps were.



Outside, being a lunch break, we could see small groups of families sitting in the grass and having this home food or that bought from the stalls. It was a picnic atmosphere. Apart from the food stalls there were stall that sold trinkets but the most popular were the games-stalls. Where you could throw or shoot things and win prizes. With the major commotion of a Indian-mela (fair) the crowds jostled and pushed to end you on but with a gentle smile on the faces.

Being a hot day and having just that one day to myself, my driver and I decided to leave as we had to get back to Thimphu before Sun down. But before we left, we visited close to a place from where I could see the Tiger Cliff

The physical restoration of Taktshang Monastery has cost about Nu. 39 million. Nu 22 million was spent on the construction of the bridge and road to Ramthangka, on the base of the sheer rock face where the Taktshang Monastery sits. The total cost is estimated at about Nu. 80 million with the restoration of the nangtens, images, and chhoeshams. The legend of Taktshang (Tiger's lair) dates back to 747 AD when Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava), in the wrathful form of Guru Dorji Droloe, is believed to have arrived at this site on the back of a tiger and subdued the evil spirits in the region. The Guru then meditated in the holy cave which is the site of the Pelphug Lhakhang. According to Tantric Buddhist mythology, the vanquished local deities became the protectors of the dharma and one of them, Singye Samdrup, is recognized today as the guardian deity of Taktshang. Guru Rinpoche is also believed to have concealed among the rocks of Taktshang various forms of Dharma treasures known as Ters which were destined to be discovered later by Tertons (treasure discoverers) for the propagation of Dharma.

The restoration of the Taktshang Monastery was commanded by His Majesty the King soon after the fire disaster in 1988 AD. It was a royal command that the original aura, authenticity, and architectural splendour must be preserved at all cost. The project was immediately mobilized to restore the monastery and to preserve and strengthen Bhutan's unique spiritual heritage.

Some may think that technology is going to the dogs but at times its the dog going toward technology. :-)



National Museum of Bhutan

The National museum is located on a hill top. While the museum is nice and traces the history of Bhutan including the vessels used etc, its the view from the top that is awesome.



There are changes taking place all the time. Now, with the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's blessing, two luxury hotel chains are opening new resorts in Bhutan. Aman, a boutique chain with ultraposh resorts in Bali and Phuket, just opened Amankora Paro (www.amanresorts.com) - the first of what will ultimately become six Bhutanese properties. Aman is investing $20 million, importing everything from earth-moving equipment to glass and linens. Its no wonder that Amankora Paro which is located 20 minutes outside the capital of Paro, costs $1,000 a day for lodging. Then there is the Uma Para (comohotels.co.uk) being started by Britain's Como—a chain that operates the Metropolitan in London and Bangkok, and the Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Built on 38 acres overlooking the capital, the Uma Para will offer yoga classes, a spa, a sauna, a gym and an indoor pool. Both chains emphasize local design, using Bukhari wood-burning stoves in the rooms.

As I get back to Thimphu from Paro I know that tomorrow morning I have to leave for Kolkatta and Mumbai. Leave behind this little gem of a country surrounded by so much natural beauty and such friendly faces, but in my heart I know that I shall be back. Back soon. Now I have to focus on my next trip which is coming up shortly which takes me to Mongolia via China.

> The official language in Bhutan is Dzongkha. However, English and Hindi is widely spoken. Hindi more so in areas near the Indian border. There is a lot of effort being put towards encouraging the use of Dzongkha, but you would have no trouble getting around as most signs are bilingual.
> The capital Thimphu has less than 50,000 residents and couple of hundred floating population which makes it a really small place. I could see just one or two traffic cops/signs. I believe there are no traffic lights at all.
> Many tourists come to take in the natural beauty and for adventure sports. Treks are very popular.

Getting there...
> By Air: Since there is just one airport in Bhutan you can fly into Paro from either Delhi/Kolkatta or from Bangkok on Druk Air. Tickets are bit expensive, and you need to book early especially if you plan to attend any of the festivals. Visas are required everyone except Indians.
> By Road: One can drive to Thimphu or Paro from Phuntsholing which takes about 5 to 6 hours and about 7 hrs drive from Bagdogra, Siliguri, West Bengal. The journey is very scenic.
> By Railways: While there is some work being done, at present there is no rail network in Bhutan.

General Info...
> Official website: http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com/
> Popular Site: http://www.bootan.com/
> Most interesting website: http://www.friendlyplanet.org/bhutan/
> Area: 47,000 sq. km
> Altitude: Altitude: 2280m
> Capital/Main City: Thimphu
> Population: 800,000 (approx)
> National Population: 2.4 million (UN, 2005)
> Government: Monarchy
> Major language: Dzongkha (official)
> Time: GMT +6 hrs
> Religion: Buddhist 70%, Hindu 25%, other 5%
> Power: 250V, 50 cycles AC
> Internet domain: .bt
> International dialing code: +975

All pictures copyright Suchit Nanda. Shot with Nikon D70 DSLR camera with lens: Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED VR, Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro

~ Suchit Nanda, March, 2005