A PART OF THE GREAT HIMALAYA RANGE
Kanchenjunga is the world’s third highest mountain, with an elevation of 28,169 feet (8,586 metres). It is situated in the eastern Himalayas on the border between Sikkim state, northeastern India, and eastern Nepal, The mountain is part of the Great Himalaya Range.
BHUTAN… THE LAST FRONTIER OF HIMALAYA
Tucked away in the Himalayas, Bhutan is a land of smile, happiness, and sufficiency agriculture. It is a Buddhist kingdom where faith is strong and peace permeates the air. The small country has more than 1,300 years of history, and today, it is transitioning beautifully into the modern era. The land of the Thunder Dragon is a place of dreams.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY
Four hours went by on the country’s national airline, and the plane touched down at Paro International Airport, the only international airport of the country. From the airport, you can see majestic snow-capped mountains all around, with Mount Jomolhari with a 7,000-metre peak. Cold mist grazes the mountain tops. There’s only one main road in Paro, and I don’t see any buildings more than 6-storey high, as the law stipulates. With a population of only 700,000, Bhutan is far from crowded. Most of its people practice subsistence-oriented agricultural production, which is why Paro is filled with serene green areas.
The two-lane road led me to the downtown area, and the local guide said he’s taking us to Paro Dzong, a 250-year-old fortress. Dzong, in Bhutanese language, means “fortress”. So, why does Bhutan need a fortress? Back in the 17th century, Bhutan was divided into small entities. The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel codified the law and established himself as ruler. He ordered fortresses to be built all over Bhutan. Tibet, irritated by this consolidation, sent invaders to try to break it up, but failed. The fortresses today are monasteries where monks reside.
Paro Dzong consists of many rooms, each with its own balcony. It is used for religious ceremonies. Its architecture is simply breathtaking. At the entrance hall, there are paintings of three icons of Bhutan — Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche, founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel, and Shakyamuni Buddha.
THE ICONIC PLACES
1. Paro Dzong, a 250-year-old fortress
2. Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest monastery, the most iconic religious site of Bhutan, 900 metres above the ground
Back on the same road, I descended down to Punakha Dzong, the biggest and most beautiful fortress in Bhutan
I continued to the National Museum of Bhutan. Initially built in 1651 as a watch tower, it was formerly known as Ta Dzong, before changing its name to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1968. Inside, you can find ancient masks, a collection of 17th century armour, swords, spears, thangka, and black-and-white images illustrating the history of Bhutan. There’s also an image of the first King, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, who became the country’s king in 1907. Another impressive image was that of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck who was crowned in 2008 and is well-known among Thai people.
The next day was the highlight of my trip. I visited the most iconic religious site of Bhutan, 900 metres above the ground. Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest monastery is among the wonders of the world.
Legend has it that back in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon. Here, the Guru then performed meditation and tamed the demons. In 1692-1694, Tenzin Rabgye built a monastery near a cave here, and later the monastery was further built, becoming what is now known as Taktshang Goemba.
There are two ways to reach Taktshang Goemba. You can walk all the 5 kilometres, or you can ride a horse half-way and continue on foot. I chose the second option to save energy, since I had a lot of photography tools with me. I rode my horse slowly, making my way through a pine forest. Soon, the way became steep, and along the way I could see a stretch of mountains. Then, as I reached a thick forest, I saw large trees with mosses, ferns, lichens, psilotaceae, Spanish mosses, and orchids. The weather was nice and cool. Red roses were blossoming, and it was so captivating, as if I was walking in a mythical forest. I could hear birds and insects singing, a sign of plenty lives in the forest.
3. Buddha Dordenma Statue, also known as the Big Buddha. Facing Thimphu, the glorious gold-coloured statue blesses the city.
4. The scenic view of Thimphu
I got off the horse and walked to the lunch spot, before continuing to the cliff-side monastry. The most important chamber of this monastery is the cave where Guru Rinpoche used to meditate, now shut with a gold painted door. It is believed that he has reincarnated many times to help save other lives from misery.
Paro is also home to Bhutan’s first temple, Kyichu Lhakhang, which was built in the 7th century by the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo. It is considered to be one of the 108 border taming temples he built to subdue a giant demonness. It is also part of a network of 12 temples arranged around Jo-khang temple at Lhasa. Although Kyichu Lhakhang is a small temple, it has beautiful architecture and is a quiet place where you can immerse yourself in a true Bhutanese ambience.
5. Punakha Dzong was built in 1637-1638 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel
6. Dochula Pass is located at an elevation of 3,140 metres. From there, you could see a panoramic view of the Himalayas.
7. Taktshang Goemba
8. At Paro Dzong
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FORTRESS
9. Punakha Dzong, the biggest and most beautiful fortress in Bhutan
10. At Punakha Dzong
I woke up early the next morning to go to Thimphu, which is 65km away. I made my way along the Paro River, and soon I reached Tamchoe Monastery. It was built in the 13th century by Yogi Thangtong Gyalpo, who’s dubbed “The Iron Man”, but not the Marvel kind that you see in Hollywood movies. He earned this name because he was the man who built 58 iron chain bridges in Bhutan to help people commute conveniently.
The journey continued along a narrow road, passing through terraced rice fields and little villages. Once I arrived in Thimphu, I was greeted by an expanding city. Thimphu is home to 160,000 inhabitants, which is considered “densely populated” by the country’s standard. Thimphu has been the country’s capital city since 1961 after Punakha. Being 2,320 metres above the sea level, it is nice and cool all year round.
My guide took me to the Motithang Takin Preserve, home to a Bhutanese animal takin, which has the head of the goat and the body structure of the cow. Next, we went to the Memorial Chorten, which is a Tibetan-style chorten built in 1974 to honour the third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Near the chorten, there’s a praying hall for people to come and pray. On that day, I saw many travellers and pilgrims. They prayed and walked around the chorten, holding a prayer wheel with the mantra om mani padme hum. The meaning is purification of the soul to achieve Nirvana.
If you like spirituality, I recommend going up the mountains to pay respect to the Buddha Dordenma Statue, also known as the Big Buddha. Facing Thimphu, the glorious gold-coloured statue blesses the city. It was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the father of the current King.
Before wrapping up the day, my guide took me to Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre, Thimphu. It’s not a major shopping venue, but here you can see how authentic Bhutanese textiles are made, from simple designs to exquisite ones. Each piece requires expertise and dedication. The technique is quite similar to in Sukhothai. Don’t try to ask for discounts — after you’ve seen how much effort is put into it, you know it’s worth the price. You can also buy bead necklaces as souvenirs, or go to the Post Office to take photos and make stamps to send letters back to Thailand.
Nightlife in Thimphu today is more vibrant than before. There are bars, restaurants, and karaoke bars, but they are tucked away in little alleys, not on the main roads. I decided to go see a mask dance that the hotel prepared because it has a real Bhutanese feel.
From Thimphu, I continued to the former capital city Punakha, and made my way up the Dochula Pass, which is located at an elevation of 3,140 metres. From there, you could see a panoramic view of the Himalayas. Dochula Pass is also famous for the 108 memorial stupas, built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother, in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against insurgents from India.
There’s another highlight on this mountain pass — Simtokha Dzong, the first fortress of Bhutan, built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel. On the outside, Simtokha Dzong looks small, only 60 square metres in size, but its importance is not small at all. It served as a monastic and administrative centre, and many other fortresses were later built based on this model.
Back on the same road, I descended down to Punakha Dzong, the biggest and most beautiful fortress in Bhutan. It sits at the union of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, one in emerald green and one in a deeper colour.
Punakha Dzong was built in 1637-1638 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel. The fortress is so tall that I had to tilt my head to see the top of it. Inside, the casket containing the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgel is kept. You can also pay respect to Buddha statues, an image of Avalokiteśvara, Drolkhar, Manjushri, and a Vajra Throne Buddha. I paid respect to the statues, eight parts of my body touching the ground, and drank the holy water. I felt completely fullfilled.
My wonderful time in Bhutan has ended, but I can still remember every moment. I’ve witnessed the grandeur of the Himalayas and the faith of the people. I will certainly come back to Bhutan.
The sky is clear and the weather is cool during March-April (spring), and there are many beautiful flowers. Another good season is September-November (fall), which is perfect for trekking.
We recommend the country’s national airline Drukair (www.drukair.com.bt). It takes about four hours from Thailand. You can also travel by car from Sikkim, India. In Bhutan, tourists must have an accompanying guide when travelling.
In Paro, try Janka Resort, tel: +975-08-272352 www.jankaresort.com / In Thimphu, try Jumolhari Boutique Hotel, tel: +975-2-322747
Rice, noodles, potatoes, and corn. Most food is quite strongly flavoured, with chili and cheese added to stir-fried vegetables and pig lard. Popular drink is milk tea like in Tibet and India.
Fabrics, scarves, knitted bags, beads, silverware, wooden masks, thangka, Buddha images, wooden tea cups, prayer wheels, prayer flags, and fruit preserves.