If you are visiting Bhutan for the first time, it is best not to know that the flights landing at the single-runway Paro international airport is one of the scariest in the world with the runway not even appearing when you are 1,000 feet from the ground. The plane has to negotiate steep mountaintops and it is no wonder that only a handful of pilots are licensed to land at the airport. If you haven’t heard this before and you don’t have an over excited Bhutanese friend sitting with you on the plane, you may not even realize it sometimes. And in case you are sitting on the plane on your first visit to Bhutan and you are reading this- I am extremely sorry!
Once on the ground, you will immediately feel the breath of Himalayan fresh air. If you are flying from Bangkok or Delhi, you will feel the air minus its arid humidity. The one hour drive to capital Thimphu along two rivers gives tourists a glimpse of the Bhutanese architectural splendor and small traditional houses with red dried chilies on the roof silently absorbing sunlight is a delight. An immediate observation that will dawn on a visitor is that it is suddenly green all around.
Thimphu is popularly known as one of the only capital cities without traffic lights. A drive around Thimphu city will tell you why many Bhutanese are pleasantly embarrassed to call it a city. A detour of the capital in a car will take less than an hour. Welcome to Bhutan!
Some of the must watch icons in Thimphu include the giant 169 feet statue of the seated Lord Buddha located on a scenic hilltop overlooking the entire Thimphu valley. A visit is recommended before lunch-time as it is usually pleasant while after lunch the wind god is normally restless and active. The Buddha appears to be almost blessing Thimphu, the city (hmm…) that gave birth to its unique development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that is trending among leaders, economists and academics all over the world.
Thimphu has changed a lot in the last decade from a community that got television and the internet only in 1999 to a modern settlement. It saw the fourth king His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck willfully abdicating in favor of his son in 2006 at a young age of 51 because of which we currently have two kings. It saw the country going to the first democratic elections in 2008 when it became a parliamentary democracy.
Bhutan prides in being a unique country. It is one of only places where myth and legend is written history and children in school formally learn about manifestations of great Buddhist teachers and their reincarnations. A science buff from a developed country could spend his time laughing what is written in Bhutanese history books.
One of Bhutan’s most popular icons is the Tiger’s Nest known locally as the Taktshang Monastery in Paro. Recorded history on the monastery says the Indian saint Guru Padmasambhava, revered in Bhutan as the reincarnation of the Buddha, flew to the monastery’s site in 746 AD on a flying tigress and meditated there. The tigress is ‘formally’ believed to be his wife who transformed herself to take him there. The one and half hour hike is a must in the travel itinerary of all tour operators and tourists are usually left in awe and wonder after visiting the monastery perched on a vertical cliff. Experienced tourist guides also show the face of a tiger on the vertical cliff, which can be seen from strategic areas from the opposing hill.
The biggest tourist attractions in the country are annual festivals called the Tsechus. The word literally means the tenth day in the lunar calendar and it corresponds to the birthday of Guru Rinpoche. Different places observe their own Tshechu at different times of the year and the Thimphu, Paro and Punakha Tsechus are the most popular. The annual festival is held inside a fortress called a dzong or at the courtyard of monasteries. The dzongs are the pride of Bhutan. Most dzongs were built in the 17th century as fortresses to ward off invading Tibetan armies and they have evolved today as a cultural symbol of the country’s history and its consolidation. The Punakha Dzong is usually described as the most beautiful dzong in the country.
Beautiful and colorful mask dances are performed during the Tshechus. Most mask dances are ecclesiastical explanations of the after-death. The festival celebrates the immortality and impermanence of life and teaches people to lead a good life.
A unique dance is performed at the annual Jampa Lhakhang Drub in Bumthang. Naked dancers brave the freezing chill of the November midnight when they start their epic dance featuring only male dancers with covered faces and naked below. The dancers entertain eager and freezing crowds with almost outlandish precision. This is an example of Bhutan’s inexplicable obsession with the human phallus. The male organ is celebrated in Bhutan and it is seen as a precious symbol that wards off evil. It is a common sight to see big phallus paintings (some almost to the size of an adult man) at the entrance of almost all Bhutanese houses. Some prefer more tangible representation and erect big wooden phalluses near the door.
The fascination with the male organ is credited to the Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Drukpa Kuenley (1455-1529) who visited Bhutan and almost revolutionised Buddhism with his eccentric ways to use sex to propagate religion and bless women. His living legacy is a temple at Lobesa on the way to Punakha from thimphu. Called the Chhimi Lhakhang, it is the only fertility temple in the country and visitors to the temple are blessed with a wooden phallus by the temple monk. There are amazing stories of many childless couples who saw their prayers answered after visiting the temple. Lama Drukpa Kuenley is also believed to have created the country’s national animal, Takin, after devouring a cow and a goat in entirety and placing the skeleton of the goat’s head on the skeleton on the cow. The Takin indeed fits the description and a visit to the Takin Preserve in Motithang in Thimphu will tell you why.
The mountainous terrain made travel very difficult in the past and it resulted in the country have diverse culture and languages. The national language, Dzongkha, is a very new language as it got its scripts only in the 1980s. People of Bhutan can broadly be divided into Ngalops of western Bhutan, the Sharchops of the east, and the Lhotshampas of the south but there are some tribal communities whose practices and beliefs even continue to dazzle fellow Bhutanese.
The Bhutanese people have always revered Mother Nature. As a country where every river, tree, stone, lake, pond is believed to be the abode of godly spirits, locals have always conserved nature because of which more than 70 percent of its land is still under forest cover. Bhutan is also the only country to have declared to be carbon neutral for all times. The rich forests have an awe-taking biodiversity life. For example, Bhutan has about 800-900 bird species which is almost equal to the 925 species found in all of USA and Canada combined because of which Bhutan is increasingly being described as the Birding Capital of the World. Because of its diverse and rich forests and altitudes, exquisite rivers, and virgin Himalayan peaks, Bhutan qualifies to become an ideal adventure sports destination. Bhutan also has the highest unclimbed mountain in the world in Mount Gangkar Puensum.
The most popular past time in the country would undoubtedly be playing the national sport of archery. Two wooden targets are placed 130 meters apart and two to three teams can choose to compete. One player shoots two arrows in one round. Every hit is celebrated with his teammates dancing around the target. Each competing team has a team of girls who cheer their team archers and jeer the opponent team’s archers. In the villages, it is a matter of pride to win archery games which are played between different villages and communities. All national events are incomplete without a game of archery.
If you visit Bhutan, come with an open heart. It is a country where mysticism and technology marry to form a distinct culture of homogeneity. It is how its Tourism Department brands it saying “happiness is a place.” By the way, you can relax now because if you are flying out of Bhutan, the takeoff is very smooth.
Tashi Dorji is also the founder of Green Mandala Tours
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