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Bhutan—Land of the Thunder Dragons
Bhutan—it's my second time here—and I fall in love with this small land-locked country all over again. This mystical, pristine country with its rolling mountains, environmentally-conscious government and way of life is a sort of utopia. As you step off the plane you breathe in some of the freshest air on the planet. Bordered China and India, Bhutan has always gone its own way. Its constitution mandates that 60% of the land must be forest (the actual figure is 72%), which accounts for the beautiful countryside, fresh air and ensures no over development.
On the flight from Nepal to Bhutan, you get a wonderful view of the Himalayas and Mount Everest if you sit on the left side of the plane. It is such a beautiful sight to see on a clear day. Approaching the city of Paro, the flight takes a steep curve, and you’ve arrived. It is said that only a handful of skilled pilots can make this landing. The airport is very small and immaculate. It is shaped somewhat like the Dzongs one will see in each major city in Bhutan. A giant photo of the King & Queen adorns the outside of the airport. The monarchy is much revered throughout this small nation.
The next town I visit is Punakha. The distance from Thimphu is approximately 3 hours. It’s quite a pleasant drive as the landscape is lush with trees. The mountains are dotted with homes and prayer flags abound. On the way, I stop at the Dochula Pass and see 108 stupas standing as a memorial to the Bhutanese soldiers. The morning is foggy, and the stupas are shrouded in a cape of mist. In the background: the Himalayas. The pass is located at an elevation of 10,200 feet.
Onward to the Punakha Dzong. A Dzong is a distinct type of fortress architecture found mainly in Bhutan and Tibet. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards. It is divided into two parts: half dedicated to religious functions, primarily the temple and the Monk’s accommodations, and the other half to government administrative offices. The Punakha Dzong is exquisite and is referred to as the “palace of great happiness or bliss”.
Next is my visit to the Trongsa Dzong. The drive is approximately 5 hours from Punahka. Along the drive, I can see yaks, monkeys and beautiful birds. I arrive at night and my hotel—The Yangkil—offers wonderful views of the Trongsa Dzong lit a night. As I sit on my terrace, I am amazed by the still and quiet. It is so peaceful. The following day after breakfast I walk through the small town of Trongsa—past a lively marketplace with women bargaining and selling their wares. Again I am amazed at the amount of construction underway, including streets being paved and widened, since my last visit.
I am fascinated at the stories and legends I am told visiting each Dzong District. The Bhutanese people are deeply religious—Buddhist—and each temple has its own unique story of their creation.
Bumthang is the next district on my journey and literally translates to “Beautiful Field.” This area is considered the most historic, consisting of four mountain valleys and a number of imposing ancient temples. Each temple entrance is surrounded by prayer wheels, which remind me of the deeply held beliefs of the people here.
The next few days are spent hiking and taking in the exquisite allure of Gangtey, located in the Phobjikha Valley, surrounded by mountains. This place took my breath away and must surely be one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan. I stayed at the Dewachen Lodge which overlooks the valley with spectacular views. The rooms, all with wood-burning stoves, made for a warm and cozy feeling after hiking. Black neck cranes migrate to this valley from Tibet in the winter. In flight they are so elegant and graceful.
Onward to Thimphu, where I stop in the small village of Haa for lunch at a farmhouse. During my trip throughout Bhutan I can say that “farm to table” meals were the norm.
Tigers Nest—a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site—is certainly the highlight—and best taken at the end of one’s trip Bhutan. A very clever thing to do as you get accustomed to the altitude during your stay so the hike is not as strenuous. The iconic monastery is located 6.2 miles north of Paro Valley and hangs on a precarious cliff at 10,240 feet (about 3,000 feet above Paro Valley.) The rock slopes are very steep and the monastery is built right into the rock face. The path leads through a pine forest and colorful prayer flags abound. The views are spectacular as you ascend the mountain. Once you reach the top the Monastery stuns! It is absolutely striking and definitely unforgettable.
Overall my trip to Bhutan was one of my best travel experiences. The trip—I stayed a little over 2 weeks—was outstanding and quite memorable. The people, beauty of the landscape and their customs will stay with me forever.