Discovering why Bhutan is The Land of Happiness
Have you heard of Bhutan? And if so, do you know where it is?
For the many of you scratching your head, the Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most remote countries on Earth, located in the middle of the Himalayan range.
If you have a true sense of adventure and are interested in experiencing a totally different way of life, Bhutan is a land not to be missed! Its rugged Himalayan terrain offers the outdoors enthusiast in you one challenge after another, from river rafting and trekking at altitudes 10,000 feet and higher to its internationally renowned marathon.
The adventure begins as the plane makes its descent into Paro International Airport. With an approach which requires some maneuvering between the Himalayan hills surrounding this quaint mountain city, only eight pilots are certified to land here, and the only two airlines which can are DrukAir Royal Bhutan Airlines and Bhutan Airlines. No foreign carriers at all, despite the fact that most of the eight pilots are themselves foreign nationals.
Paro Airport has to be the most relaxed port of entry I have ever arrived at. Planes land on the tarmac and people walk off the plane snapping photos of their new surroundings, whether it be the beautiful Himalayan hills, the dzong (old fortress) or the mural painting of the royal family outside the building you enter.
Photos are fine even inside the customs area. The immigration officer even remembered stamping me into the country as I was departing and asked me to take his photo there! If you know another spot with such a relaxed immigration staff, I want to go there next.
But until then, I have my journal below to remind me of my adventure in the Land of Happiness, the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Quite the amazing day today, to say the least.
Woke up at 1 a.m. Thai time and left my friend’s place for the airport at 2 a.m. I checked in for the 5:30 a.m. departure on DrukAir Royal Bhutan Airlines and had a window exit row seat. As promised, I got a crystal-clear view of Mount Everest in the distance on the final leg of our flight between Guwahati, India, and Paro, Bhutan.
Upon clearing immigration and customs, I was greeted by my guide, Tshering Wangdi, and driver, Sangay Thinley. We visited the local food market in Tshongdue, where Sangay’s wife was selling hot tea and treats. She offered us a free cup of hot tea and we strolled through the market meeting monks, seeing the local vegetables and raw meat options, as well as some woodcraft.
After having Bhutanese butter tea and cinnamon cookies, we drove up a hill to the Bhutan National Museum. In the first room, there was a display of the many masks worn in Bhutanese Buddhist festivals. Other rooms had Buddhist paintings dating back to the 13th century and there was another room dedicated to natural history.
From the museum, we climbed downhill to Rinpung Dzong, or “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels”, built in 1646, which used to protect the town of Paro. The old circular guard tower stands between the museum and the dzong. Many of Bhutan’s dzongs have become temples or monasteries, including this one. We saw monks of all ages running about in their burgundy robes.
We enjoyed a Bhutanese buffet lunch and then headed to the capital city of Thimphu. During the drive, we stopped to see one of the oldest suspension bridges in Bhutan, the iron bridge at Tamchu Lakhang, and took a stroll on its replacement. We also stopped at Chuzom, the intersection of the two main rivers where roads to all corners of this beautiful Himalayan kingdom converge.
Perhaps the only capital city on Earth without a single traffic light, Thimphu is a lovely spot indeed where police officers direct traffic by hand daily until 5 p.m. They did have traffic lights for a short time, but public outcry arose saying that traffic lights are too impersonal. Thus, police officers stand tall on their platforms at all major intersections in Thimphu.
Today was a fabulous day indeed!!
After having breakfast with a Tibetan Philosophy professor from Canterbury, UK, we headed out to see the first Buddha Dhodhema statue, the largest Buddha statue in Bhutan and very possibly world-wide. 51.5 meters high, it is built in the image of Shakyamuni. Set way up in the hills overlooking the southern entrance to Thimphu, it is a site to behold.
The Kanjur, original Tibetan Buddhist scriptures which are kept in Bhutan, were recently translated into many languages for the first time. In celebration of this amazing achievement, they held a three-month long celebration at this auspicious site. With over 10,000 monks and nuns present, seeing the preparation of offerings, hearing the traditional instruments played and the ongoing chanting, made for a sense of joy throughout. This was truly an amazing experience to witness. I was quite lucky, too, to receive a copy of the prayer book the crowd used for their chanting.
From there we strolled on a nearby trail in Kuenselphodrang Park, which winds up and down the hills surrounding Thimphu. As Tshering and I were at a picnic table taking a break, the monks also decided to take a break. All of a sudden we were surrounded by monks of all ages in their burgundy robes coming to take a rest from the chanting. The forest below was also packed with monks on break and was quite amazing to see. A great photo op to say the least.
We met back up with Sangay and also had the honor of meeting Namgay Tenzin, the head monk of the Phajoding Monastery Project. The Project is a special center that is located a three-hour hike up in the mountains over Thimphu and houses 80 orphaned boys who learn not only the usual school subjects, but the Buddhist ways of life as well.
Buddhist stupa in central Thimphu that pays respect to Bhutan’s Third King. Our timing was quite fortunate once again as they were preparing for a festival, which meant the building was open. We walked around the first floor of this magnificent structure with the several story-high sculpture in the middle guarded by the four protective deities to the north, south, east and west, respectively.
As I had asked to see a modern Bhutanese musical act, in the evening we went to Club Thimphu, a bar and dance floor spot where dancers perform to music, ranging from traditional Bhutanese folk music to Tibetan rock, with western tunes played in between. I was delighted to learn that smoking is officially banned in all public venues throughout Bhutan.
One could say that I saw the two extremes of Thimphu life today, from 10,000 monks chanting in unison, to young Bhutanese dancers performing to Western, Tibetan and Bhutanese rock tunes. Quite the contrast!
After breakfast, we took off to visit the preservation center of Bhutan’s national animal, the taikin, which has the appearance of a cow’s body with a goat’s head.
Local legend says that the Divine Mad Man, Drukpa Keunley, showed his magical powers by combining these creatures with the snap of his fingers. In addition to these creatures, the reserve has a variety of reindeer called Himalayan semon and another local variety of deer named shambha.
We then visited the National Institute of Zorig Chusum (art school). Here the students may major in any of the traditional arts of Bhutan, whether it be the Buddhist image painting, wood carving, pottery sculptures or embroidery. We watched the students at work and purchased some items to support their school.
From there we began our east-bound drive to Punakha, the former capital city of Bhutan. We stopped for lunch
at an altitude of 3,100 meters, it has a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. One of these beautiful peaks was recently a border dispute where Indian and Chinese troops were facing off. One Bhutanese scholar wrote that this is a border not between China and India, but between Tibet and Bhutan, where people have strolled across from both sides for centuries and will continue to do so. At that point, both China and India packed up their troops and went home.
Once in Punakha, we headed up above the Mo Chhu (female river) and Pho Chhu (male river) on a winding dirt road in pitch-black darkness to the farm house we would be staying for the next two nights. A French family was also staying there with their guide and driver. I have kept in touch with this lovely French family after we parted ways.
We awakened to a lovely patio breakfast overlooking the Mo Chu and Pho Chu with a view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The meal was made entirely out of food grown on the family’s three-acre farm. The grandfather used to serve as a body guard for the Third King of Bhutan and was given the house and land by the king as a thank you for his loyal service.
After breakfast, I was told that we will be going on “a hike.” As the only direction one can go in this Himalayan kingdom is up, a better word to describe it was “a climb.” We walked past beautiful terraced fields with donkeys, horses, cows and dogs strolling freely along the dirt trail. We stopped about half way up our 1,000-foot climb to rest where a 90- and a 79-year-old farmer were selling their guavas as they spun a huge Buddhist prayer wheel.
Upon reaching the top, we arrived at the Khamsum Yuling Namgyei stupa. A beautifully designed three-story golden temple, it has a gorgeous statue in the middle of the first floor and two additional floors contain various Buddhist statues. The rooftop allowed for breathtaking views of this Himalayan valley.
After taking a leisurely rooftop breather, we headed back down to the river we had crossed hours before to begin our ascent. A friendly dog carefully followed just behind me the entire way down, most likely having sensed my exhaustion. We sat along the river bank watching other tourists go rafting on the Po Chu before driving down river for have lunch.
Once we had regained some energy from our meal, we headed back to visit the absolute must-see, the Punakha Dzong or Pungthang Dewa Chenpoi Phodrang, the Palace of Great Bliss. Built in 1637, this dzong was the center of Bhutanese governance until the capital moved to Thimphu in 1955.
After touring this beautiful dzong and stopping for a local snack, we headed back to the farm house. After taking a relaxing hot stone bath, we sat down to dinner on the floor in the living room along with the host family. A nice evening was had by all.
Today, we headed further east toward Trongsa.
As the road elevation increased, we didn’t only see the usual cow, horse or donkey roaming across the highway, but for the first time in my life, I saw yaks in the wild, both grazing near and strolling across the highway.
We were lucky enough to happen upon a very local festival near the entry to Trongsa, named the Chendipiji Moenlam Chenmo or Great Prayer Festival. This festival originated in Tibet in 1409 and is repeated throughout Bhutan and Tibet in different locations to assure the devout have the opportunity to attend. People were staying in tents surrounding the stupa. Festival rituals occurred under larger tents in a center area surrounded by a flea market which wound its way down the hill to a beautiful rambling river. Looking at this scene through American eyes, I thought of this as a Mahayana Buddhist Woodstock!!! Hearing the ongoing ritual chanting and rushing water as we browsed through the vendor stalls was quite the experience!
Though admittedly not realizing its significance at the time, I was enjoying this experience so much that we got back in the car later than planned. Sangay is a star on wheels, to say the least. Despite having to drive through the darkness on this winding Himalayan road under construction, he got us to our destination safely. Upon reaching Trongsa, they brought me to the hotel where my room had a breathtaking view of the Trongsa Dzong all lit up. A beautiful ending to another great day!
After breakfast, we drove along the winding road below the hotel to reach the Trongsa Dzong. Built in 1647 on the site of a renown 14th century temple, this is the largest dzong in all Bhutan. The first king of Bhutan took reign in 1907. All the kings following him are required to serve as the governor of the Central Region prior to taking reign and they work from offices inside the Trongsa Dzong. After crossing the Mangdey Chhu, we were greeted by a group of langur monkeys, including two mother and child combinations. Very cute!
We were quite fortunate to visit on this day, as it was an auspicious one due to the date on the Mahayana Buddhist lunar calendar. They opened several internal temples which are usually not even open to the Bhutanese Buddhists, much less a Jewish tourist. We saw one of these temples on the second floor and as we were about to head back downstairs, I noticed a monk opening yet another temple on the third floor up a narrow steep wooden staircase. I looked at Tshering and said, “Let’s go check that out!” He looked at me surprised at my curiosity, so up we went.
As it turned out, that temple had the jackpot of Bhutanese Buddhist items on display. As we entered, we saw some Bhutanese kids standing on a stool with a magnifying glass looking at something inside the glass enclosure beside the main Buddha statue in this elegantly painted hall. It was a single rice grain-sized golden image of Buddha, one of only two in existence. It is called the rangjung khartsapanii, or secret relic. This was a feast for the eyes.
After seeing the rest of the Trongsa Dzong, we were on the road again, this time to the farming village of Phobjikha in one of Bhutan’s most beautiful valleys. This is the winter home of the Tibetan Black Necked Crane, and all the local villagers are required to keep only dim lights on at night so as not to disturb these magnificent birds while they are in residence in the protected field that encompasses most of this town.
We arrived after nightfall to discover that our reservation had been moved to a different farmhouse than originally planned. We drove up yet another dirt path to find our abode for the night. As decided by local mandate, it was quite dark inside. That said, the smiling faces of the three-generation family residing there lit the place up, especially the kids.
The building was apparently only 29 years old, though I was sure it was much older. An all-wooden structure with heavy sliding wooden panels for windows, it was almost as chilly inside as it was outside. Thus, we spent all of our time with the family in the large common room where the wood burning stove stayed lit to keep us warm and cook us food.
The family did have a television, which the kids watched in earnest, some shows in their native Zongsa or Bhutanese and others in English. (All school classes are taught in English, with the only exception being Zongsa class.)
We all sat on thin mattresses on the cold wooden floor to enjoy an entirely organic meal of chicken and various vegetables, including turnip leaves which were drying across the beams overhead. (To put it in Jewish perspective, it made me feel like it was an indoor sukkah.)
I gave the children a traditional Japanese Aomori painted horse and all three of them (4-year-old girl, 1st-grade boy and 4th-grade boy) enjoyed it enormously. The 4th-grader was quite curious, so I drew him a map to show where Japan is in location to Bhutan, naming the countries in between. As Bhutan is a landlocked country, this was the first time these farm village kids ever heard of an island. Thanks to Tshering’s teaching skills, the 4th-grader was able to grasp and understand this new concept.
To my surprise, the only countries which have names in the local Zongsa language are those which share a common border with Bhutan. All other countries are only named in English. I asked for their family name and was equally surprised to discover that they do not have one. As most of Bhutan’s population are local village farmers who do not ever leave their local abodes, only first names are used.
Awakening to the musical predawn shrill of the black necked cranes, I rolled over in the layers of blankets to try to keep warm in my unheated room. I got up once I heard the chopping of wood. The grandmother was out front chopping away, and I emerged to the common area to see the little girl still bundled up and sound asleep as the wood was being placed in the heater/stove to burn.
After a warm breakfast, we drove over to the Crane Center to discover it was closed until noon. The entire town, not to mention a ton of foreigners, were gathering at the temple above the valley for the combination celebration of the annual Black Necked Crane Festival and the Fourth King’s Birthday.
It was an all-day celebration, including crane and traditional mask dances and even a tug-of-war between the neighboring villages and games for the children. It was great when a visiting Canadian boy won a game. From there we went back to the Crane Center and saw a video about the valley and center. We also had a beautiful view of the cranes through binoculars. After checking into a warm hotel, we went to meet other guests whose trips were booked with MyBhutan.com. The meal and unexpected Bhutanese lute concert made for a lovely ending to this festive day.
After a cold breakfast at the hotel, we departed Phobjikha to Punakha. Once we were on the winding, dirt Himalayan roads with no place to stop, I started to feel ill. Thanks to Sangay’s amazing driving skills, I reached the much-needed restroom within 45 minutes. After thinking about it, I realized the cause was the yogurt drink I had in the farm house two nights earlier which was served from a bucket on the floor. As the place was very cold, I was silly enough to think it would be alright. OOPS!!!!!! Lesson learned while traveling in the rural areas-only drink quadruple B: Bhutanese Boiled or Bottled Beverages!!!!!!!!
With that emergency behind us, we continued driving on. Upon our return to Punakha, we went directly to Mad Man’s Temple. This is the temple dedicated to fertility with various phallus symbols painted and carved both on display and for sale. Many infertile Bhutanese couples go there to be blessed many times with the woman walking around the temple clockwise carrying one of the wooden sculptures. Many come back with babies in arms, I am told.
From there, our next stop was another view from the Dochila Pass as we headed back to Thimphu. Upon reaching Thimphu, I ran into the main supermarket, My Mart, to gather a few tasty treats to bring back home, including Maggie’s Tomato Sauce, which I enjoyed in India when I first visited there in 1994. I also picked up some cashew spread, which just seems to be good and new, and a Bhutan-only pickled mangoes, which I discovered makes Korean kimchee taste mild, having just served it at a party in Japan.
We then went to check into the hotel and I was delighted to finally meet the guy who so generously set this entire Bhutan tour up for me, Matthew R. DeSantis, owner and CEO of mybhutan.com, which is rated as the best Bhutan website by Lonely Planet. Matt and I had a great chat and I look forward to our growing friendship going forward.
As I was finishing my bowl of rice porridge with honey and black tea breakfast, I heard a lady placing an order. As she clearly had an American accent, I asked where she was from. She was from California and has been going back and forth to Bhutan for nine years. Why you ask? She is a music historian and is working along with Kheng Sonam Dorji at the Music of Bhutan Research Center to preserve this critical piece of Bhutanese culture.
She invited me and two other tourists, one of whom had helped them set up their first web site, to come to the center in the afternoon. We were honored to hear Sonam play the Bhutanese lute as he sang a traditional song. He explained that all Bhutanese lutes have a dragon’s head for the neck as it is believed by locals to keep any evil spirits away as they perform. We also got to see an array of other old instruments, some of which are no longer used today.
Prior to the musical afternoon, we went to the national library to see some items on display, including the largest book in the world. They turn one page per day on this book, which is stored under glass. We also stopped at various shops so I could get all the gifts I had yet to buy as my Himalayan journey was rapidly coming to a close.
After the musical interlude, we went to see the Simply Bhutan Museum. As Tshering had taught me so much already, I actually knew most of what the museum staffer was explaining. We both got to try to do some archery and failed miserably.
That evening, we went to the Taj Hotel for their cultural show in the courtyard with a bonfire ablaze. It was lovely, and included shortened versions of the mask dances we had seen at the Black Necked Crane Festival. From there we drove to Paro where we had my final Bhutanese meal and went to the hotel as I needed to be up at 4:30 a.m. for my 7 a.m. flight back to Bangkok.
I cannot thank Matthew R. DeSantis, Bill Fisher, Chechay Nidup, Tshering Wangdi, Sangay Thinley and the lovely lady who introduced Matthew and me via Facebook, Katie Conlon, enough for this amazing Himalayan Adventure in The Land of Happiness, BHUTAN!!!!!!!!!!!
WWW.MYBHUTAN.COM founder and CEO Matthew DeSantis is also the U.S. State Department Warden to Bhutan. The United States does not have an embassy in Bhutan, so booking your travel through this tour operator is a good way to assure you are already registered with the In-Country American Government Representative Office. They can work things through the government as needed. Mybhutan.com is also committed to providing discounted Bhutan trips to American servicemen, servicewomen and their families.
The story of 4 harmonious animals
This is a story created many years ago by spiritual masters to show people the strength of unity and how it’s possible for everyone to co-exist:
Long ago in Bhutan when the country was enjoying peace and prosperity, the country’s people were wondering why their country was very peaceful, so they went to a saint and asked. The saint said the country was enjoying peace and prosperity because of four animals living together: a bird, rabbit, monkey and elephant.
The saint explained that the bird brought a seed and dropped it on the ground. The rabbit dug into the soil and covered the seed. The monkey helped water it. The elephant stood guard until the tree grew big and strong and began to produce delicious fruit.
The four friends ate the fruit and used the tree for shelter. They lived together, worked in harmony and respected one another despite their many differences in size and appearance.
The sign to the right can be found throughout Bhutan, and the story is told to younger generations to teach respect and show the power of cooperation.
– Tshering Wangdi, Rob’s tour guide