Visiting Bhutan: Breathing Through Bhutan

Last updated on August 11th, 2016 at 09:50 pm

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Is visiting Bhutan in your travel hit list? A wonderful, serene and peaceful kingdom in all its true senses, the roads leading you through valleys, make you wonder if such a paradise does really exist, in a world where natural beauty is rarely seen or shown.

Kuzoozangpo la!

Reasons for visiting Bhutan

In case you were wondering why should one should be visiting Bhutan, a place hardly heard, then stay here and read. This hidden jewel nestled in the Eastern Himalaya is an abode to nature lovers, adventure seekers and artists of all sorts who invite themselves to tread its soil to experience the mountains, feel the pleasant valley air and get acquainted with their less-known culture. Wishing you could hike to a monastery hanging on a cliff side in a valley or appreciate intricately beautiful paintings on all architectures in a country? Explore this nation to come across a culture that’s so rich in traditions, humility, and a variety of art forms that are found in all handicraft shops sporting conventional Bhutanese wooden roofings.

With gigantic prayer wheels lined along the monasteries perched on hills to being mesmerized by the Punakha Dzong, an administrative fortress built in 1638,that’s located on the confluence of Pho Chhu & Mo Chhu rivers in the Punakha-Wangdi valley, this kingdom has a lot left to get fascinated by and discover this unique land.

Getting Bhutan

A country full of extensive valleys that shelter its population, the best way to begin your journey of being continuously thrilled throughout your stay is to come by air as the Paro International Airport (the only international airport) situated in the picturesque Paro valley with the Paro Dzong in the background, greets you as you descend into The Land of the Thunder Dragon. It is an airport you’re never going to see anywhere else. A testament to this is my little observation that travellers don’t get off the runway even after landing, as they get busy documenting how beautiful the airport really is! One of those travellers was me, being surrounded by the mighty nature that’s facing constant human interventions along with a very large photograph of the kingdom’s Royal Couple welcoming outsiders.

Two airlines operate presently, the Drukair & the Bhutan Airlines who provide frequent flights from Delhi, Kolkata,Mumbai, Bagdogra, Guwahati & Bodh Gaya in India,Kathmandu, Bangkok & Dhaka. However since the land is majorly dominated by steep and high alpine mountains, delays due to weather conditions should be kept in mind as per the climate. Visit  DrukAir  & Bhutan Airlines for details.

If flying isn’t for you,choose the road journey from Bagdogra where the nearest national airport is also located in West Bengal, India that leads to Phuentsholing, a small border town of twenty thousand residents in south-west Bhutan. It faces an adjacent Indian town of Jaigaon, a comparatively larger and teeming place. The influence of Bhutanese culture & cuisine can be seen here as the ghos and kiras, the Bhutanese national dress is produced in Jaigaon for Bhutanese consumers. From Phuentsholing begin the scenic landscapes of green hills and infinite bends as you head to Thimphu, the capital city around 170kms away from the India-Bhutan border. Another possible authorised entry route for those who wish to explore the remote eastern parts is through the district of Samdrup-Jongkhar in far southeast Bhutan,that lies next to the Indian state of Assam where the nearest airport in Guwahati is found. Visitors from everywhere except India, Bangladesh & Maldives require visa for visiting Bhutan.

Geographically, the kingdom exhibits an array of weather conditions as there’s a big difference in the altitudes present all throughout. From the hot and humid subtropical climate in the south to the extremely chilly & windy winters in northern regions like Bumthang and Lhuntse, it is a paradise that doesn’t need a specific period for visiting Bhutan. To witness the numerous festivals and celebrations in the country, months of March, April, May, September, October & November are ideal as the rich cultural heritage is on display through the traditional dances where energetic young dancers sport colourful vibrant masks — each one with a story behind it, as they jump and frolic away to glory in courtyards adorned with series of wooden windows and white massive walls.

visiitng Bhutan

Visa for visiting Bhutan

Tourist visa for foreigners is issued by authorised travel agencies only. It’s necessary that one has a visa clearance letter issued by the Tourism Council of Bhutan that has to be furnished at the check-in counter,after landing in the Himalayan jewel. A passport with a minimum validity of six months from the date of departure from the country is needed & one has to pay a fee of 40USD for the visa. To know more for visiting Bhutan check this link or visit here .

Health

No specific vaccination is required for visiting Bhutan, although individuals coming from yellow fever & cholera affected regions should get the necessary vaccinations in advance & it is better if you have taken tetanus, typhoid & hepatitis A vaccinations.

It’s advisable that you wear layered clothing so that you can adjust to the varying climate easily. Make sure you have a fully functioning medical First Aid kit, since road journeys in Bhutan often take hours to go through the gorgeous valleys, considering the mountainous terrain and rugged curving roads!

Keep a good stock of bottled treated drinking water that can be bought for approximately 20 Ngultrum (=20 INR) since tap water is often untreated.

Weather

Although the country is small considering the total area. It´s heavenly location right amidst the Himalaya creates a substantial variation in the climate across its width and length. Best time for visiting Bhutan is during the months of March, April, May, September, October and November as many festivals (Tsechu in Dzongkha language) keep happening in all the districts of Bhutan. Winters are dry, from late November up to March where snowfall is common in regions of 3,000m and above. Summers last from mid-April to late June. But occasional rainfall is there in Thimphu during May end. Day time temperature is around 21-25°C while it goes down to roughly 9-13°C as the sun sets on a summer evening!

Whereas, South Bhutan has consistently unchanging hot and humid climate throughout the year and temperature varies from 15-30°C.

Currency

The Buthanese Ngultrum is the official currency in Bhutan. The exchange is 1 USD= 66BTN, as you know exchanges are always going up and down, check here to make sure which one is the exactly rate.

Accommodation & Food

visiting Bhutan
Ayzay.

Being a kingdom fiercely proud of its extremely rich history and closely knit culture — in an environment as serene & mind-blowing as the Himalaya, the Bhutanese are naturally welcoming and warm people who are always ready to help you out. Budget hotels can be found in the heart of cities like Thimphu (on Norzin Lam street) and Paro (main street along the Paro river) who charge around 600-900 Ngultrum a night. Staff in all hotels often give you a hand, in picking places to visit and things to do. They also suggest what delicacies you can try! Tasting the local cuisine is a must here, as lots of chillies, potatoes, vegetables and meat are used tremendously — almost in every meal. Home run restaurants with simple wooden architecture with intricate paintings detailed on them, serve dishes like Ema Datshi — the national Bhutanese recipe,that’s a curry of chillies and customarily potatoes, in addition to melted yak cheese. It can either be eaten with rice or roti (flat Indian style wheat bread). Momos, a Tibetan speciality are stuffed dumplings made of cabbage, cheese or meat and are also a favourite amongst the natives. A meal for one person usually costs 300-400 Ngultrums. Jasha Maru, chicken with tomatoes usually eaten with red rice & Phaksha Paa, a pork dish made with chillies and cheese are also famous and essentially Bhutanese.

Apart from the local food,Indian, Chinese and continental cuisines can be found in most of the restaurants while visiting Bhutan! Being closer to India, most of the people know a variety of Indian curries & what foreigners prefer to have as well. Not to forget the Suja,that is Bhutanese butter tea and the Ara — a fermented drink made from rice,maize or wheat.

Ema Dathasi Roti
Ema Dathsi Roti

To get the feeling of actually living like a Bhutanese. There are options of farm-stay where one can spend nights in old-fashioned houses located away from the city hub and observe and participate in family traditions along with interacting with the host members; they cost between 500-2000 Ngultrum (7-30 USD) with an availability of upto three bedrooms, since all of these facilities for travellers are registered and authorised by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

Home-stays are also popular where you can enjoy visits to the scenic surrounding landscapes, dine with the host family and also indulge in a game of archery. You can even learn to prepare the cuisine — also integrating you briefly into the lifestyle and values of Bhutan!

Places to visit

Thimphu

The only capital in the world which has no traffic signals, this beauty of a city fits perfectly in the valley of the Thimphu River (Thimpu Chhu in Dzongkha) as one gets to be at many vantage points from where the whole city is seen,where the many eye-catching settlements look only as drops of cements showing their presence.

Vibrant buildings with painted dragons looking at each other & cheerful locals going about their routines in their national dress — these are sights that make you pass by slowly as you breathe in the fresh mountain air and observe the countless turns and bends that run throughout Thimphu making it a natural roller coaster under the pure blue sky. A ceaseless ride indeed.

Cars flow smoothly without horns,as policemen clad in white stand at small posts at all intersections gesturing with their hands to direct the traffic. After a few seconds though,it appears that none of the cars stop despite the hand signs,yet peace prevails on the streets.

After enjoying a meal of red rice & Ema Datshi, head to the National Memorial Chorten — a golden and white stupa built in 1974 with a stone entrance lined with wooden handmade paintings depicting different symbols,to take rounds around the Tibetan style monument in clockwise direction and offer your prayers. A series of massive golden prayer wheels keep rotating as locals keep coming. Back outside,prayer flags across unbelievable distances flutter graciously as they paint a gorgeous backdrop along with the hills to nicely outline a usual day in the capital — joy in the eyes of the natives and an air of liveliness amongst the valley.

Ema Datshi is the national dish of Bhutan, a land where spiciness is the most important element in their cuisine as chillies and fresh local cheese are used to prepare this curry in addition to potatoes, green beans or mushrooms. It turned out to be my favourite fare as the methods of preparation and the taste changed straight away from town to town & person to person.

Tashichho Dzong, the splendid Buddhist monastery with huge rose shrubs of a variety of colours planted along its perimeter,has been the seat of Bhutan’s government since 1968. Seen from a distance, it is a fortress with the Bhutanese flag soaring high and white walls & red and golden roof tops dominating the view. From inside the Dzong,the lush green hills surround you as though you’ve become one with nature in this gem of a place. A four-day festival of Thimphu Tsechu takes place in its vast courtyards where monks,nuns & villagers perform the mask dances that bring alive centuries old folklores of this Himalayan kingdom. As I strolled through these very courtyards on a May evening,the sheer monumentality & glory of this Dzong made me wonder as to how it was built ages and ages ago.

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Note: While visiting all Dzongs & monasteries, no half pants (shorts), sleeveless shirts & floaters are allowed;carry a jacket in case your clothing is a problem.

With a brief stopover at the Motithang Takin Preservation Centre to see the Takin, considered as the National Animal with a head of a goat on the body of a  cow according to local mythology, set your sights on the Buddha Dordenma Statue that sits amidst the Kuensel Phodrang region looking over Thimphu — a 51 metre statue of the Buddha,amongst one of the largest in the world.

Budget staying facilities like the Yeedzin Guest House,provide basic amenities at affordable prices in the heart of the city,from where Norzin Lam — the most animated section of Thimphu is a stones throw away where handicraft stores and restaurants serving Bhutanese, Indian & Chinese cousine line the street. Other options in the same area include Hotel Ghasel,Hotel Norling, City Hotel & R. Penjor Lodge. The currency is Ngultrum (Nu) that equals the Indian Rupee that is also accepted everywhere, along with the US Dollar. Local SIM cards can also be issued; but it is recommended that you issue it,only if you’re staying for more than a week.

Vacationers laze around to buy artefacts from the Himalayan region and feel the nightlife of the city. Meanwhile,young locals indulge in an evening game of football at the Clock Tower Square, just below Norzin Lam,as I enjoy looking them play while sipping Suja (butter tea) & Naja (normal tea) from a tiny family run restaurant situated on the opposite end. All this with the mountains looking over all of us.

Changangkha Lhakhang, a centuries old monastery perched on a ridge provides the perfect post card view of Thimphu with a chain of hills in the background accompanied by white clouds. This country is such, that beautiful artwork can be seen even in the most mundane of occurences. After visiting the monastery and spinning the numerous prayer wheels that have prayers written over them positioned in all religious places,take some time to walk down some yards to get to the vantage point. All you need to do then is breathe in the valley atmosphere and look over the serene cityscape.

To delve into the realm of Buddhism, its history and the Royal Families of Bhutan and their ancestry, the National Library of Bhutan (NLB) is the perfect venue as it holds stories from this mountainous land less known and guarantees the survival & celebration of its unique heritage. Old historical photographs adorn the library walls & shelves stacked with hundreds of books make your presence there assured. The NLB also houses one of the biggest books in the world — “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom”,that illustrates the sheer beauty of the nation through extraordinary photographs that fill your eyes with tons of colours. Portraits become almost full life size.

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Being in Thimphu,there’s no way you can miss going to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum (Traditional Art & Craft School) that strives to protect the art forms of Bhutan. Students are trained in domains like painting,wood carving,weaving,sculpting,boot making and embroidery and it is a wonderful experience to interact with them as they tell you how they collectively sculpt idols of Lord Buddha & carve artefacts out of wood.

End your stay in the capital with a warm Bhutanese dinner and a walk down Norzin Lam.

 

Punakha

Less cold as compared to other cities, Punakha was the country’s capital initially. From Thimphu, come via the Dochu La Pass that sits at 3,100 metres where the memorial stupas can be found. From this mountain pass, the Himalaya can be seen as Mt. Gangwar Puensum (7,158m),the highest peak in Bhutan stands tall & glorious on a sunny clear day as you sip tea at the Druk Wangyal Café.

Buy some dried cheese from the roadside vendors as you make your way here, who also sell apples,oranges,pears & apricots. They usually sit on cut tree trunks with fruits & vegetables arranged neatly on shelves of handmade wooden open air counters.

Since the Punakha valley is suitable for rice cultivations owing to the warm air,hike through the paddy fields as long prayer flags flutter in the blue sky and greenery in the valley takes your breath away. Your destination? Chimi Lhakhang Monastery sidelined on a hillock on the opposite valley side with its multiple golden roofs shining & young monks in red robes going about their routine rituals. Paths made by nature curve through the numerous family run restaurants & artefact shops that provide history about the place and the importance it holds in the expansion of Buddhism.

As the Punakha Dzong,“The Palace of Great Happiness” approaches, one can see beautiful Jacaranda trees blossoming,giving its surrounding an appearance very uniquely magical. The second largest dzong in the kingdom built in 1638,it was the venue for the royal wedding of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) with grand courtyards looking upto the nature surrounding this architectural marvel & long galleries all throughout. Travellers from all parts of the world come here to appreciate and be awed by this ancient structure that finds its mentions everywhere & anywhere. Massive statues of the Buddha & the Padmasambhava with a variety of offerings kept in front of them is a common sight inside all Dzongs & monasteries. Spread across a huge piece of land on the confluence of the Mo Chhu & Po Chhu rivers,this Dzong is fortified with tall white brick walls adjacent to which is a track used by monks and citizens for walking.

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Constant greenery & an artificial pond at the back of the dzong add vividness to the landscape that thankfully remains in its wild state with hardly any human interventions. A bygone arch bridge connects the Dzong with the sea of humans that visit here.

 

Wangdi

This town sits in the company of lush green plantations and houses built on hill slopes as one rides through rhododendron and pine trees. Don’t forget to have a conversation with the women & men who walk along selling delicious home cooked suja,naja (butter & normal tea) and porridge with yak cheese on the Lateral Road.

Quaint multi-storeyed houses emanate happiness all over Wangdi as decorative Indian-styled trucks playing Bhutanese music pass by frequently. One place you ought to visit is the Gangtey Goempa that is a three hour ride just as calming and beautiful as any other one in Bhutan! Butter lamps are kept inside the monastery like in all other Buddhist religious places and Bhutanese men clad in their national dress gho keep visiting this monastery.

Allow yourself to get astonished by the Phobjikha Valley that is spread across like an unbelievably green natural carpet with forests all around. The rare black-necked cranes migrate here from the Tibetan plateau during winters & the Black Necked Crane Information Centre is perfect to observe these species through observation rooms equipped with telescopes.

While meandering through Wangdi,a nice unexpected establishment down in the valley can be seen with bushes surrounding the place that act as a natural fence; a river flows by its side. I couldn’t stop staring at it as this tiny premises gently passed by me. Wondering what it is? Oh,the answer I heard from a local completely blew me away — who thought such people would get to be in a scenic location like this.

Wake up to the sound of Wangdi Chhu (river) gushing through the woods as vehicles in the hills above make their way through naturally formed tracks,but thankfully their noise is inaudible. Walk on the numerous moving bridges found throughout Bhutan that go over chilly rivers with too many prayer flags tied to them. Sit on a rock with your feet in the Himalayan waters and while away an evening with your loved ones as the sun shines brightly overlooking the valley.

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Paro

My favourite city in Bhutan,Paro — home to the Taktsang Monastery that hangs graciously to a cliff, can only be described with words like magical & paradise. With the kind of unbelievable landscapes found here, you tend to go mad with all your senses as you get the feeling of finally coming home — to the mountains and valleys and the sweet ever smiling natives. An assortment of handcrafted products make their presence felt through the shining showcases of stores lined on the main street that appear like a big garland of lights decorating the main street in Paro. Spending pleasant evenings strolling here are a complete bliss & entertainment if you want to discover the culture,traditions and old stories of Bhutan by interacting with amusing and knowledgeable shop owners who often get into animated discussions with travellers! Bargain in the shops to get scarfs of varying textures & shades or the colourful dragon masks with big eyes. Outside,play with cute street dogs as the sun goes down with the Paro (Rinpun) Dzong lit up in the background. A postcard view indeed. A cantilever bridge goes over the Paro river welcoming guests to the fortress that was built in 1646. The Paro Tsechu takes place here in March or April where the courtyard is filled with artistic individuals taking to the stage to depict & celebrate the history & heritage of this hidden kingdom. Ta Dzong, the National Museum of Bhutan is also situated near Rinpun Dzong that puts on showcase numerous costumes, masks and art works related to the kingdom. From outside the museum,get thrilled by a beautiful perspective of the Paro valley with the airport in sight as well.

Budget hotels like Sonam Trophel & Samden Norzin located in the heart of the city, are familiar destinations that provide basic amenities along with strong WiFi.

Perhaps the only dzong to remain in ruins is the Drukgyel Dzong, with white ancient broken walls assembled together,that commemorated Bhutan’s victory over the Tibetan invasion centuries ago. You can do a small hike surrounding this monument passing by the households of locals and then having a valley view from inside the dzong. It evokes your imagination vividly as to how it would’ve been to live in this hidden mountainous jewel thousands of years ago.

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Paro being a touristy place like Thimphu,one can hitchhike to Kyichu Lhakhang and other places,as cars & buses often make regular journeys in this city. It’s one of the most beautiful and oldest Buddhist temples — butter lamps kept inside a room made of wood & glass, glimmer in the evenings.

Finally, the ultimate goal of travelling across this exotic Himalayan kingdom is a trail upto the Taktsang Lhakhang Monastery that sits atop a cliffside in the Paro valley. You begin your ascent from the base, through narrow and natural pathways throughout the mountain! Taktsang being a religious site for Buddhists, many Chinese and other Asian travellers trek to eventually reach up & offer their prayers and meditate inside as well. Do keep in mind that you should be accompanied by a licensed tour guide while visiting religious sights and dress appropriately as well: full length clothing with no collarless t-shirts & closed footwear. The government is extremely responsible and fast action oriented, regarding pollution of any kind & safe guarding dzongs, monasteries and other sightseeing locations in Bhutan.

While climbing,this structure can be viewed from multiple locations of varying heights with small temples in random locations where a gigantic prayer wheel turns by virtue of a stream flowing strongly, that moves the blades of the wheel attached at the bottom. Tall pine & rhododendron trees make up the woodlands which also play hosts to an abundance of colourful fresh and old prayer flags with “Om Mani Pedme Hum” written over them — a personal story for each of those flags that bring goodwill and luck to you hoisted on the way to this historical monument. Till a resting point,you can ride horseback and after that your legs ought to work. This three hour climb relaxes your mind as you get closer to one of the most iconic and beautifully built Buddhist monastery there ever has been.

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It’s also called the Tiger’s Nest,since legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan,flew here on the back of a tigress & meditated in a cave — a narrow cavity between two huge stone walls with a lamp kept at the end, that can be seen by climbing down two weirdly arranged wooden ladders. In the end,it’s all worth your time and efforts!

Back in the valley, wander around in Paro with the pleasant valley air breezing past you. The Bhutanese are ever-smiling,warm and fun-loving people who love to go out in the evenings amidst all the nature and mountains and spend time playing football,archery and are also passionate about their traditional dance & music — quite obvious since the kingdom doesn’t believe in materialistic happiness and hence introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness that has been studied and applied all over the world!

As the sun sets yet again for a new day in the Land of The Thunder Dragon, go to the many vantage points all over Paro like the one near the National Museum to pen down your experiences and inspire fellow travellers to discover this hidden treasure in a responsible,simplistic & fun loving way that initiates storytelling through photographs, writings & videos apart from keeping the passion for travel and exploration alive. No matter where you are or where you want to be, Bhutan is a nation you ought to travel across,to understand what makes and keeps its people happy,content and really humorous,right in the middle of the mighty and glorious Himalaya.

Folks having a penchant for going places like these,that are less frequented by tourists,nothing should stop you from sharing this post!

If you want to read more travel guides, check Thailand in a low budget, visiting the Philippines, the amazing Myanmar or backpacking Malaysia.

Until next time,

Merry wandering!

Shaantanu Kulkarni

A student of psychology & photography, Shaantanu Kulkarn has been a close friend of the camera and the visual art of photography, since his childhood. He's a blogger and photographer based in Pune, India. He's also into travel and aims to share his stories of budget traveling and more travel escapades on his blog. Loved this post? Make sure you don't miss his blog and more of his write ups on Campus Diaries. Feel free to follow Shaantanu on Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

 

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