Whenever I came across newspapers rife with disturbing news, every time I heard or read about a suicide here or a murder there, each time the world was sundered by violence & war, I was provoked to ponder how things were in ‘some’ parts of the world. Those promised lands, which boasted of Elysian bliss ―did their natives really lead a ‘happily ever after’ life there? Bhutan being one of them, had always been on my bucket list, as its famed GNH had piqued my curiosity. And this time, it wasn’t with my family that I made this trip; it was with 2 of my friends.
This trip was planned by the 3 of us, months in advance & we chose to travel in November, in time for the Black Necked Crane Festival held in Gangtey Gompah. Although spring & summer offer best vistas, tour agents tout that Bhutan is indeed an ‘All Seasons’ destination. So, ‘clear skies’, a ‘nip in the air’, fewer tourists & of course the black cranes, wooed us to flock in early November. In the midst of this, the Doklam issue had raised its menacing head, but ultimately, that too was quelled.
We included Paro, Phunakha, Thimphu & Gangtey in our itinerary & chose B.K. Tours & Travels, located in Jaigaon India, which readily complied with our plan. A flight to Bagdogra & a drive from Bagdogra to Jaigaon, arranged by our agent brought us to the borders. Jaigaon in West Bengal is the last Indian town, bordering the land-locked country of Bhutan.
Although a flight to Paro would’ve offered a panned view of the Himalayas, this road trip from Bagdogra to Jaigaon was equally fascinating. A quick repast later, we drove through acres of verdant tea gardens & halted by a tranquil lake overlooked by the distant Himalayan peaks! 3 friends &, on a ‘women-alone’ expedition… you can imagine & yes, our trip was laced with spells of giggles & guffaws. J
Beyond this majestic gate, lay the wondrous land of Bhutan! We walked into the gates into Phuntsholing (the entry point at Southern Bhutan)& checked into Asian Hotel. After entering Bhutan, we walked back to India to the ATM & for some purchases.
Mind you, Jaigaon at the purlieus of the tea gardens looks lush & lovely, its bucolic beauty having immense potential to attract the quiet tourist.
Our driver informed that the Bhutanese however, honk their horn when they enter India. When I asked if they did that to unleash their pent up frustration, he laughed & quipped, “No madam, they do because of traffic snarls & to catch the attention of careless drivers.”
The next morning, we procured our visas & drove first to Karbandi Monastery, Phuntsholing. Alok Dey or ‘Aachu’, as we nicknamed him, was our driver who drove us around Bhutan. Alok being an Indian, surprised us with his unflinching loyalty towards Bhutan, during our precursory chat with him, when he had casually exclaimed, ‘Hamare Bhutan mai..’ (in our Bhutan)! His frequent usage of pleasantries when he hailed a passerby & interjected ‘Aachu’ to mean ‘excuse me’ or ‘hear me’, earned him this sobriquet ‘Aachu’! Aachu won us over & if you happen to travel with B.K.Tours, do ask for him.
Karbandi Monastery, ensconced in a pretty pleasance, is a pleasant little monastery that serves as a peaceful prelude to all things that Bhutan has to offer.
Gliding along steep curves, mountain passes & deep gorges festooned with colorful prayer flags, we reached this restaurant, where we pulled over for refreshments. A tangy tamarind drink seemed refreshingly different & some small talk with the charming owner got us on track again.
The sights that greeted us were strikingly different from the ones we had just then beheld. Flanking the roads were furniture shops, cloth shops & inns. We checked into Hotel Amodhara, whose clean & spacious rooms matched its lovely exteriors, which came to light the following morning.
Ace Club, Thimphu
However, before calling it a day, we ventured into the local pub–Ace Club. Surprisingly, the place had a karaoke bar & the ensuing pot-valour had me boldly crooning a popular number… An unknown land, absolute strangers, the algid weather & the company of friends induced a nonchalance with which we staggered back to Amodhara. Wasn’t that the way to enjoy a vacation with friends? ☺
Textile Museum, Thimphu. Save an occasional vehicle, the clean roads remained clear of traffic. The buildings that dotted the landscape were few & far between
& comprised a Korean Hotel, some shops and government buildings, with all
of them bearing a striking resemblance. But for their colours & designs, buildings in Bhutan look alike.
As we inched closer, the pint-sized statue that still conspicuously jutted out of the distant mountains, began to loom large, until it dominated the azure skies. With every turn on the hairpin bend, different facets of the Buddha slowly came to view, until we came face to face with the gargantuan colossi that looked down benevolently upon sentient beings.
Couldn’t resist clicking this Confucius
‘look alike’ J
contemplation, nothing but the alfresco images that I had just then captured, began to float before my eyes.
paused to have a bird’s eye view of the city from atop this monastery.
Due to paucity of time, we chose to avoid Memorial Chorten. However, we did manage to click some pictures of the Chorten.
Aachu suggested that we visit a monastery, where the infant prince was christened. One cannot overlook the fact that the Bhutanese revere their royalty & this can be seen in the several banners that adorn prominent niches on the streets, the shops & the souvenirs that bear His Majesty’s image. So we strode into this monastery, wanting to know more about the place.
It was then that Aachu informed that the handsome King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s motorcade had just whizzed past! Wasn’t that a very unobtrusive appearance for a royalty? You’d soon learn more about the monarch’s down-to-earth deportment.
One such banner of the King & what He stands for..
ABC Bazar (Authentic Bhutanese Craft Bazar).
That was our last day in Thimphu & we spent the evening shopping for souvenirs in the unmissable ABC Bazar (Authentic Bhutanese Craft Bazar).
The neat row of shops that lined one end of the road had many interesting titbits, ranging from fire-breathing dragons carved in wood to treen work that included bowls & ladles, handmade soaps & incense-sticks, scarves, stoles & Tangkas, singing bowls, fridge magnets bearing the 8 lucky signs & other landmarks of Bhutan but the ubiquitous among them were those of the winsome King & his graceful Queen.
This is one place where we could haggle. I cannot miss commenting on the commendable conduct of the shopkeepers. Polite & ever-smiling, they conceded wherever they could & when they couldn’t, they did that with a courteous ‘noooo’,that sounded more like a ‘please’..
The subsequent morning, we tried exploring the city on our own & walked into a few curio shops.
This shop here ‘Happiness Shop’, with downed shutters, made it appear as if only ‘Open Sesame’ summons would lead to the unlocking of some magical mysteries that lay within.
We then strolled into Ambient Cafe for some homemade muffins & espresso coffee.
Some pretty blossoms meant to gladden the guests at Amodhara
This journey was arduous, but the picturesque Pobjikha Valley more than made up for our efforts.
We reached Pobjikha around 8 p.m, the cumbersome excursion having lasted almost 6 hours. To worsen matters, not all parts of this remote valley enjoy the luxury of electricity. Nevertheless, the few resorts that dot the valley do have those privileges & luckily, ours did. We checked into Gakiling Guest House ―a humble log-house, typically found in the hills.
Lugging our luggage through the rickety wooden staircase, we reached our room on the first floor. The spacious rooms were colourfully done. The exquisitely rosemaled walls, pillars, roofs & doors imparted a distinctive Himalayan grandeur.
We huddled together on the carpet around an electric heater, whose two out of four sides emitted heat. That was frustrating but we snuggled close to it rubbing our frozen palms, until dinner arrived. And when baked potatoes, Ema Dachi, spicy bitter gourd & rice were dispatched, we gratefully partook of all that we were proffered.
row of Pine trees stood as if awaiting a grand spectacle.
Black Necked Cranes, locally called Thrung Thrung are endangered species that make an autumnal appearance every October, when they fly down to Pobjikha Valley from the Tibetan Plateau to roost till spring, after which they spring back. Interestingly, the birds upon their arrival in October as well as before their departure in February are known to circle the Gompa thrice! To the Bhutanese, these are sacred birds, reincarnated as the two deities believed to protect the valley & their three-fold circling of the Gompha denotes the protecting of the Three Jewels of Buddhism―the Buddha, the Dharma & the Sangha.
The event is held to spread awareness about the impact of the birds on ecology & is done through performances by schoolchildren as well as youth, who don costumes of Cranes. The pageantry also includes Mask Dances & folk dances.
A crowd had already gathered. The sound of music set to the tune of cymbals & semantron, rent the air & the glades resounded with the melody of soulful Himalayan music.
There were families that had brought their tots & together they cheered the performers, ate, & made merry. When they left, they took the leftovers with them. Not that the place was litter-free; no, in some places, I did notice some mess. But, noteworthy was their respect for their culture; no one jeered, hooted, distracted or ogled the performers.
We broke for lunch, after which we ambled along, capturing the splendour of the virgin valley.
This is my baby..
A lady selling chilies
That evening, we visited the ‘Black Necked Crane Information Centre’ for audio-visual information on the birds.
The glorious Dzong, right at the foothills of a curvaceous mountain, lies at the confluence of the Po Chu (father) River & Mo Chu (mother) River. This spectacular monastery is undoubtedly any photographer’s fascination, a poet’s muse, and the seeker’s paradise.
However, we heard that it is in spring that the beauty of the monastery is accentuated, when the snow-white edifice is embosked in lilac Jacaranda blooms.
A permit to the monastery can be made after reaching the site; Aachu got ours done. A young monk took us around & gave us details of the history of the monastery.
The entrance has a steep flight of steps that opens into a vast courtyard, which presents a sweeping view of the monastery in all its stateliness.
The wooden windows embellished with motifs of Bhutanese mythological characters, & set against the white facade, make this monastery aesthetically outstanding.
The monks were a friendly lot & agreed to pose with us. The abbey has a separate lamasery for women monks too.
Chimi Lhakhang (The Fertility Temple)
The monastery is further afield & vehicles must be parked at a safe distance. Thus, bimbling across stretches of farms & fields, Bhutanese homes & inns, we reached its gates. Colurful depictions of mythological creatures & images of the monastery’s ‘piece de resistance’ on the facades of homes did not fail to catch our attention! More on that soon..
Not only in India, but even in Bhutan the Linga is worshipped, in fact quite boldly & Chimi Lhakhang’s object of worship is the Phallus! When we bowed, we were taken aback to find a pair of phalluses being placed on our head by the monks! That’s the custom! Little wonder then, that these form the leitmotif on all homes along the way. ☺
That chilly afternoon when the sun shone overhead, each of us assumed position under a tree & tried soaking in the ambience of this Last Paradise on Earth. I guess, each had realized the importance of solitude & each gave the other that space.
The fragrance of the green turf, the flutter of prayer flags, the distant drone of incantations by an old woman while she turned the prayer wheels & the furtive exit & entry of the monks on their mission, invoked a sense of tranquility & heartsease.
Perhaps, the monks had perceived this & hence the ban on vehicles in the vicinity of the monastery.
In an hour, we collected ourselves & resumed our journey.
En route, you’d see several shops selling curios & keepsakes, among which the phalluses are the cynosure!
Note: Some stuff, like cream based perfumes that are sold in Punakha, according to me, aren’t available elsewhere in Bhutan.
We spent the evening chatting with the locals, who enlightened us on Bhutanese culture & ethos & about the royal family, which they literally idolize.
The last on our itinerary was Paro. Early next morning, we proceeded to Paro & on the way halted at the iconic Dochula Pass. The place comprising 108 Chortens built on a hillock, presents a 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan ranges.
Like crown jewels, the chortens rise & shine forth to espy the dale below and the snow-rimmed Himalayas yonder. And the woody tor that forms a coulisse ―like a guardian angel, embosoms the stunning scene below.
monastic body. So, we did not venture in. However, the dzong along with its quaint bridge is a photographer’s delight!
The impressive Dzong stood unperturbed & the sparkling river flowed its course unmindful of human intrusion, if any. The few, who trod, tiptoed without much ado, but not without wearing their Apollonian smiles. The monks, who strode, flashed theirs prophetically to mean that all was well with the world. The only sounds that suffused this riverine hamlet were the susurrant sounds of the sparkling stream.
We wandered for a while trying to behold & descry as much as we could. Imbibing all that, we moved on to our next port of call.
National Museum, Bhutan
Time spent at Bhutan’s National Museum will be worth your while. Apart from tangka paintings, the museum houses a curated collection of masks, bronze statutes, costumes & jewelery.
I usually never leave a place without trying its traditional costumes & as luck would have it, Aacho informed that by the Paro Chu (Paro River), there indeed was a place where tourists could get photographed in traditional habits. I, escorted by Aacho, rushed to this place. There, by the gushing river, a few people had already gathered. A senior Bengali woman was ready in her raiment. Inside a log-hut were a dozen traditional liveries hung in neat rows. I selected one & got myself clicked.
By 10 a.m., we doffed the first layer of winter clothes & paused several times, to lock in the loveliness of the rolling hills ―spiked by majestic Pines. Around 12, we reached the cafeteria. We still had a long way to go. One of our friends had already raced ahead, while the two of us dawdled, not because we intended to, but because it was getting warmer & the camera & other equipment were weighing us down.
View from the foothills
It was then that we met a group of young boys, which stayed with us till the end. The crowd that was herding ahead was already thinning out & in fact, the number of people descending too had begun to trickle.
The sentries at the gate offered us a cup of coffee & confiscated our cameras & cells.L The dank sanctums were divinely soothing. Monks in burgundy robes, sat still ―their noetic face reflecting a mysterious revelation. A little boy, who was also a monk, was busy fetching water. To think that this little boy, barely seven, was away from his family, in the midst of strangers, was unfathomable! A few familiar faces, upon sighting us, looked surprised. They were ready to descend. The 2 of us, Sarith & Jerry (the 2 young men), along with a handful of pilgrims were the only ones left. One of our own friends was at the cafeteria awaiting our arrival.
suggested that we take a shortcut but I was firm about following the familiar trail. The dog was still close on heels but his presence by then was apparently comforting; at least there was another soul & that too, a harmless one. I knew I’d live to tell this tale but the thought of languishing atop the hills till day-break, was indeed frightening. Tourists would start trooping in only at dawn, which was a good 12 hours from then.
With time, the landmarks that we had crossed in the morning came into view. Our joy knew no bounds. In no time, we could hear the sound of vehicles & we cheered up. Soon, we saw someone flashing a torchlight & heard a familiar voice call out to me. That was Achu’s! We were overcome by relief. And my friends? They were safe in the car, he said. One had been waiting since 2 hours & the other accompanied by Jerry had just arrived! Thank heavens! I raced ahead, of course bidding Sarith farewell. And my dog, nay wolf? The moment he saw that we had reached our ‘port in the storm’, he stopped midway. He looked at me with tender eyes, as if to say that this was our last time. He remained in the background, concealed by the trees & shrubs & before I could reach for my camera, he wagged his tail & began to beat a retreat. A mute creature had kept us company. I bade him Godspeed & proceeded to meet my waiting friends. Even to this day, I think of this kind creature & pray for his safety. He was surely a godsend.
promised, he took us to the riverfront where an old woman sold mementoes at a cheaper rate.
The load on our lens loosened our purse strings, as we bought chilies & cheese along the
The road leading to Doklam Pass
Dawn dawned & the crispness in the air was distinctly invigorating. We bade goodbye to Aachu & to Bhutan, crossed the gates, entered India & all of us turned back one last time ―wistfully. Our journey in this fairy-tale land, which had been our home for 11 days, suddenly seemed like a mere blip, a dream! Yet, the atmospheric feel was infectiously delectable & on that note, we moved on.
As we passed by the tea-gardens, I knew Jaigaon deserves a visit sometime in future. Back home, my family was curious about the ‘happiness quotient’ & GNH part. Are our neighbours truly a happy lot?
No, I didn’t really see what I expected to see ―the carefree faces of happy-go-lucky folks. Unlike what I thought, even adults never laughed or even simpered. But, definitely their seraphic smiles & equanimous poise were unmistakable.
Walking on the roads was a breeze. A traffic cop can rarely be seen & I’m sure his is a cushy job! Yet, when we tried crossing the road, where we thought we could, his pointing out at the zebra crossing made us recall our school ‘community living’ lessons.
The average man too is duty-bound. I was a sight when my friends made me hold their shawls & sweaters and decked my head with 3 hats! While I thought that the guy staring at me was going to laugh, I was surprised when he nervously pointed at the zebra crossing.L
90% of the Bhutanese are seen in their traditional attire, which again bespeaks their respect & fondness for their culture.
Their tolerance is yet something that’s laudable. A little after Doklam Pass, a traffic turmoil had confused 2 drivers ahead of us. Each signalled to the other politely & each seemed to have understood the other’s predicament & both waited patiently for the confusion to ease out. No drama, no cuss words. Perhaps such civility may be improbable in larger nations. Yet, traversing even busy roads without fear, can be so liberating.
Many times as I crossed borders, I instinctively reached out for my stole. It was then that I was reminded of Poet Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem:
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Father, let my country awake.”
‘What is the role of the royal family then, in this law-abiding, crime-free nation, whose political system is also incorruptible’, I asked some locals. ‘Of course we have our share of problems’, one said. ‘Drug abuse among the youth being one of them, is rampant at the borders due to drug trafficking. The appearance of television in 1999 & the introduction of mobile phones had opened a can of worms. However, the Queen Mother & her 3 sisters (her husband-Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s other wives) have dedicated their life in addressing health concerns; youth challenges & numerous other issues that threaten to abrade the fine fabric that makes up this blissful Himalayan Kingdom .
The senior king had long ago abdicated his throne & his son ―the young king visits one village every week to familiarize himself with his subjects & their concerns & thus, quotidian needs are taken care of. No wonder the royal family is so fondly deified.
It’s easy to run a small nation such as this, but the existence of a land with fewer tribulations, uncomplicated & non-materialistic people, seems so mythical in a war-torn world.
& her bounties.
This blithesome Himalayan Kingdom is so out of the world, that I pray that it continues to remain a brilliant beacon for the ‘benighted’ beings of the world…