PictoJournal©: Bhutan - the land of the thunder dragon

Travel article on Bhutan.

Text and Photos by Suchit Nanda [http://photos.suchit.in/Travel]

Our tiny neighbouring country Bhutan - “The land of the Thunder Dragon” - Druk Yul, as it is called in Tibetian is indeed, the Last Shangrila protected by the mighty Himalayas from the rest of the world. Bhutan is the last country where the Monarch ruled and the Kingdom remained blissfully untouched by the outside world. This has very recently given way smoothly to a democratic government when the ruling King himself asked for this change. This and many such anecdotes show the very different thinking of the people of this exquisite country. Where GNH (Gross National Happiness) is considered important and not the GDP of the country and where conservation & respect for nature was always a part of life. 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 are of Mongoliod origin. Like much of the country's early history, the origins of the name "Bhutan" are not too clear and it is believed that it may have derived from Sanskrit words that mean “end of Tibet.” What is clear however, is that tantric, or Vajrayana, Buddhism which employs esoteric techniques as a shortcut to enlightenment took root in Bhutan in the eighth century through the efforts of the Indian sage Padmasambhava, who traveled widely in Tibet, & Bhutan and is reverentially referred to as Guru Rinpoche, or "precious teacher."

Sealed until the mid-1970s, Bhutan with a small population of about 700,000, allows just a trickle of tourists with strict visa regulations. At times under 10,000 people visit annually although I believe the upper limit set is a maximum of 50,000 tourists a year. In 2008, only 21,000 visited Bhutan which actually means that unlike the regular touristy places, in Bhutan you see the country, its people & nature in their pristine condition and the culture and traditions are not just shown but lived. What also keeps only the discerning tourists interested in visiting this country is the daily-charge of USD 200 which is a minimum spend. Both of these restrictions don’t apply to Indians visiting Bhutan which means it’s a great deal as well as convenient due to the close location.

The mountains in the eastern Himalayas are magnificent, the forests are dense, the people are delightful & peaceful due to their Buddhist ways of life which is also the main State Religion. The Drukpa Kagyupa School of Tibetan Buddhist of Mahayana 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 which is often the case in many other countries. Hence, it is very safe and secure for the foreign tourist/travelers visiting Bhutan who are welcomed as guests.

I flew from Mumbai to Kolkata and then by Druk Air to Paro which is 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 quite amused to read "the fleet of Druk Air consists of two aircrafts". Indeed like the country, the state airlines is pretty small too. An airline with just two planes has to be exclusive! It was reassuring to see that the two aircrafts were very new as they had phased out the old two aircrafts [BAe146] which were in service from 1988 with two brand new Airbus 319s. Good thing since the journey to Paro takes us over the Himalayas with a breathtaking view but uncomfortably close to the mountain sides with trees as we approach the runway at Paro. In fact, in a recent survey, Paro airport is ranked as one of the top 10 most dangerous airports and only a few pilots are qualified to fly the planes to Bhutan. Flying into Paro Airport, really takes your breath away – both by the view as well as how close the wings are to the mountain-sides. Since the airport is surrounded by mountains, you pretty much can't land the plane if you fly over the mountain 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 westerners let out a gasp and then when we stopped everyone stood up and clapped. It was good to be back on terra firma even if its at an altitude of 2235 mtr (7333 ft).

The first thing that strikes you when you land, is the exquisite wooden airport building which is built in the same traditional Bhutanese architecture style offering a sneak preview of all the beautiful architecture that would be see during the trip. Paro is a picturesque valley with quaint clusters of hamlets paddy fields. The town still maintains the traditional simple way of life. While the national language is Dzonka, English is widely spoken at least in Paro & Thimphu and most can speak and understand Hindi as well - especially those living in areas which borders India. The currency is also pegged to the Indian rupee and is widely used locally.

As soon as you get there, one of the first things that one observes is the dress that everyone around is wearing. The striking traditional 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. While the youth do wear jeans and pants, by far it’s the traditional dress that you get to see all around you. Another great bonus for taking street pictures and portraits is that the people are shy but very friendly. I saw no beggars in my trip and most people were happy to be photographed. No one asked for money when their pictures were taken – a refreshing change from neighbouring Nepal or our experience from Cambodia. People take pride in their traditions and national culture.

The same extends to their home and buildings. When one looks around, you find that every building has 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.

As one goes from Paro to Thimphu, you see the 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.

The road to Thimphu 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 down at many sharp turns, and at times to let the traffic from the opposite side pass as the road was narrow. There were signs of major construction work to widen this important road. Every now and then, Buddhist prayer flags on high poles small chortens came into view.

Being vegetarian poses a minor limitation on the choice but nothing serious and certainly not as hard as in some South East Asian countries. Quickly I learn that Bhutanese food is very hot. Although I can handle hot food, this was way beyond hot. Even my requests for meals to be mild were on the spicy 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 which is also prepared quite hot. Passing through the city I realize that international brand-restaurants and fast foods 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 items from the store including Pepsi, or Coke or potato chip packets and other tit-bits but no international eating places as such.

Thimphu although the capital, is quite small. One can literally walk end-to-end within hours. The "high street" 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 in the 17th century and after suffering three fires and an earthquake, the dzong was renovated and enlarged in 1962. This was one year after the capital was moved to Thimphu. What’s interesting is that even the renovation was performed use traditional methods - without written plans or sketches and without nails. A little further down the road 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 located the Folk Heritage Museum and the Handicraft Emporium.

The weekend market is held from Friday to Sunday and definitely worth a visit. Many people from out of Thimphu also come and put up stalls. Busy, very interesting and a visual delight for candid images. The weekly market in Thimphu is also a bargain-hunter’s dream come true as apart from eatables and daily use items, vendors sell an assorted variety of things including handicrafts. One of the most abundant items was the Buddhist prayer wheel ranging in price from Indian rupees 350 to 13,000. I picked up a small one for my office and another for my home. The other popular items on sale were Bhutanese masks, brass door handles, incense, textiles and handmade knives, and I even found a vendor selling bows and arrows. Prices were reasonable but as with any market place, 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).

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

At various times of the year, Bhutanese 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. This 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. The biography of Guru is highlighted by 12 episodes of the model of the Buddha Shakyamuni's life. Each episode is commemorated on the 10th day of the month by "the Tshechu" each year. The Tshechu being a religious festival, it is believed that only those of a spiritual bent and destiny as able to make it and those who do, gains merits.

From the Tshechu, we left to see the Tiger Cliff. 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.

Over the years, 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 mobile phones are extremely popular! Bhutan like the rest of the world is changing although at a self governed pace. With 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, opened Amankora Paro, importing everything from earth-moving equipment to glass and linens. It is no wonder that Amankora Paro which is located 20 minutes outside the capital of Paro, costs $1,000 a night for lodging. Then there is the Uma Para 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 offers yoga classes, a spa, a sauna, a gym and an indoor pool. Both chains emphasize local design, and blend the traditional with the modern with ethnic décor and caring for even small things such as using Bukhari wood-burning stoves in the rooms.

As I get back to Paro to take my flight back to Mumbai, I know that I leave behind this little gem nestled in the Himalyas surrounded by so much natural beauty and such friendly faces, but in my heart I know that I shall be back. Back really soon.  

~ Suchit Nanda, Apr, 2005
Many more pictures can be seen at: Bhutan Travel Images

Fact File:

General Info:
• Official website: http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com/ Area: 47,000 Sq. Km Altitude: Altitude: 2280m Capital/Main City: Thimphu Population: 700,000 (approx) Major language: Dzongkha (official) Time: GMT +6 hrs Religion: Buddhist 70%, Hindu 25%, other 5%

Travel Advice:
Steeped in tradition and culture, the only way to truly appreciate Bhutan is by visiting it as there is so much to be seen and much more to be experienced. It is almost like the land of the thunder dragon is from a different time.

• There are two way to get to Bhutan – land or air. By land, the entry point is Phuentsholing (bordering West Bengal) and by air to Paro. Only Druk Air is allowed to fly to Paro (which is the single airport in the country) and connects to either Kolkata, Bangkok or Kathmandu. The flight to and from Paro is breathtaking but at the same time it needs a very talented pilot to steer the aircraft. • All travel bookings must be made through authorized travel companies in Bhutan or a handful of overseas agents. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan remains a remote place not often visited. For Indians, due to our very friendly relationships, these rules are much relaxed. For example, just a proof of residence such as a passport or voter ID card is enough and yet although a short trip across the border, it is still not a destination for many. Air tickets are expensive due to limited capacity, and you need to book early especially if you plan to attend any of the festivals. Visas are required for 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.

• 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 anywhere in Bhutan! Many tourists come to take in the natural beauty and for adventure sports. Treks are very popular.

Text and all pictures copyright Suchit Nanda. All images shot with Nikon D70 DSLR camera with lens: Nikkor lens such as Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED IF AF-S DX, Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 and Nikon 80-400 f/5.6 Etc.

This article has been printed in Asian Photography Magazine January 2010 issue and can be seen here.