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Bhutan, Land Of
The Thunder Dragon









Journey into the mystical Buddhist kingdom,
an unspoilt land lost in time resplendent
with religious and cultural traditions,
set in the stunning mountain
ranges of the great
Himalayas...


Nestled between China’s Tibet and India, Bhutan is an exotic kingdom steeped in Tantric Buddhism yet at the same time embracing, albeit ever so carefully, the trappings of modern technology. The place is a living ancient civilization, as if one has stepped back into the rich medieval age – with beautifully decorated chalet houses dotting the rolling green hills, colourful monasteries and prayer flags

adorning the mountain sky line, friendly people in bright traditional costumes mixed with the crimson-robed monks – a culture that is reminiscent of Tibet yet so uniquely its own. At the same time, English is widely spoken and one can have ‘bizarre’ sightings of computers in the administrative quarters of the dzongs, the massive white fortress-like monasteries-cum-administration dominating each precinct.



Druk Yul, as the country is known to its inhabitants, has a sense of peace and orderliness under the protective tutelage of the current monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck,

an enlightened leader by all accounts. He has continued the modernization programme started by his father while steadfastly maintaining the policy of environmental conservation and the preservation of Bhutanese culture and tradition. In fact, the coronation of the King on 2nd June 1974 marked the first time that Bhutan opened to the world, with the international press being allowed into the country.



Today Bhutan is open to tourists with a budget strictly not of the shoestring variety, and provided the trips are kept within defined restrictions. This system of imposing high prices for the privilege of a glimpse into the protected land acts as a ‘natural’ cap on the number of visitors, the result of a deliberate policy to avoid the destructive effects of opening to all and sundry which was the experience of its



illustrious neighbour, Nepal. The seemingly overzealous isolationist measure certainly hurt our pockets, but having visited both countries, I could understand the rationale and even support it, unless a better way can be found to allow genuine and responsible visitors without importing the undesirable influences of unfettered tourism. In any case, the journey was for us, worth every cent we expended. And more…



Especially when we went at a most tumultuous of times for any sort of travel. The Iraq war had started. Then the first cases of the dreaded ailment, otherwise known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), emerged, that was to continue to have a devastating effect on our social lives long after we returned to Singapore. Finally, we read about an earthquake in Bhutan measuring 5.5 on the


Richter scale just a couple of days before we set off. Suffice to say, it felt almost like a miracle when we took off from Bangkok on the small Druk Air flight, the national carrier of Bhutan. This was only one of two ways for foreigners to enter the country, the other being by a road route via India.



It was one quaint flight. The last three rows of seats also acted as cargo hold with overflowing luggage, no doubt due to the country’s nationals trying to make the most of their rare ‘shopping trips’ to Bangkok. As we were to learn later, foreign amenities were hard to come by in Bhutan and most

were from India or Thailand. In fact, we found ourselves also part of the postman network, carrying a baby pram and an assortment of other items that were meant for delivery to various people in Bhutan, including the Queen herself! But that is another story. Long before we sat foot on Paro airport, we had already been treated to the hospitality of the country by our wonderful tour operator, Mr Sangay Tshering,
and his Singaporean wife, Sara, of Yeti Tours & Treks. Such was the intimacy of arranging a trip to Bhutan where everything was done by hand on a personal basis, right up to the checking-in of luggage at Bangkok airport by Druk Air’s staff instead of a ground handling agent.






So with a huge dose of anticipation, we cruised down Paro valley with an airport elevation of 2235m. Stepping off the plane, we had our first encounter with the elaborate Bhutan architecture. The airport terminal looked like a temple! Thus began our magical tour of the land stilled in time…



~  paro  ~


First things first, we had to unload the ‘mail’ and luggage, although my friend, Jen, was already in a snapping frenzy as we drove slowly on what appeared to be a single road going round and round the Paro valley.






The advantage of the flat daily rate that we had to pay under the tourist tariff system, which covered all accommodation, food, transport and services regardless of type or location, was that we could ask for the best hotels of the land. So off we went to the Olathang Hotel originally

built for the King’s coronation guests in 1974. We were to stay here for two separate nights during our hectic traveling schedule, the first in the dzong-like grand main building with rich Bhutanese décor and Victorian furniture, and the second in a lovely well-furnished wooden cottage overlooking the valley. I hadn’t gone on a tour in ages but this felt like royalty!




Paro Dzongkhag (Paro District) is a scenic valley with bright green paddy terraces, stretches of ‘temple-like’ farmhouses and sacred monasteries dotting its high ridges. With its small airstrip, Paro is often the first and last place for a visitor. Atop a hill lies the famous Paro



Dzong, a great white monolith visible from vantage points throughout the valley. Further up is the distinctive rounded Ta Dzong where we started our tour.


Ta Dzong



Ta Dzong was originally the watch tower (a very big one I must say!) of Paro Dzong and was renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum of Bhutan. Today, it has over 3,000 works of art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. The 7-storied structure, with 2 ½ metre thick walls, is carefully divided into several galleries and the visitor is required to walk in a specific clockwise route that goes up and then down the building.



The exhibits were a fascinating introduction to Bhutanese culture. There is an important collection of thangkas (elaborate paintings, sometimes embroidery, of Buddhas and other deities done on canvass) spanning from the 17th to 20th centuries AD. Other galleries include a wide array of bronze, ivory, wood and iron objects, intriguing weapons and shields, stone inscriptions, early coins and manuscripts, ancient tea pots, multi-coloured and elaborately

weaved textiles and costumes, eye-catching jewellery, and a surprisingly extensive and modern philatelic collection – with depictions of rockets, Disney characters, 3D images and even music vinyl stamps! At the very top floor is the Tshogshing Lhakhang (Temple of the Tree of Wisdom) which contains a complex 4-sided centerpiece featuring very elaborate statues and carvings portraying the history of Buddhism.



   

Too bad no photographs were allowed inside the museum, as was the case with the interiors of almost all the other places of interest that we visited. There are very good reasons for this, including religious grounds and a fear that the items become known to the world and a catalogue for art thieves. In any case, Bhutan is a photographer’s paradise already with its picturesque landscape, awesome buildings and photogenic people. I was already beginning to worry about the swiftness with which my rolls of film were disappearing!



Paro Dzong

From Ta Dzong, we walked down a path to Paro Dzong, or Rinchen Pung Dzong, meaning “fortress on a heap of jewels”. The massive 1646 fortress was one of the finest Bhutanese architecture that we saw on this trip. With its strategic location, it was used on many occasions to defend the Paro valley from invasions by Tibet. More recently, it was the location for filming many scenes in the 1995 movie, “Little Buddha”.





Soon after we entered the courtyard and were literally dumbstruck by the grand towering structures and beautifully decorated windows and passageways, a few young impish members of the around 200-strong monastic order peeked out of a small doorway excitedly. As we were to discover, Bhutanese were not only very good-natured hospitable folks with an insatiable curiosity about foreigners, they simply loved to be photographed, monks included.




After that, we found ourselves the centre of attention as red-robed figures, young and old, approached us shyly for their pictures to be taken. The one in our company with a digital camera, Yun, was especially popular because he could show them the images immediately, prompting a burst of delight and happy chatter every time.




Buddhism is predominantly practised in Bhutan and it is customary for one son from each family to become a monk at the age of ten. The official religion is Drukpa Kagyu, a school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism similar to Tibetan Buddhism and rich in symbolism which found vivid expression in the Bhutanese arts and crafts and architectural style. In fact, the religion has shaped Bhutan’s history and way of life since the mid 8th century, from the arts and

literature, the folk dances and festivals, to the system of government.

Despite an earthquake in 1897 and a fire in 1907, the Paro Dzong is simply breathtaking and the Bhutanese spare no effort in maintaining its awe-inspiring splendour. I especially loved the layout of high towers and intricate large wall paintings. We were also lucky enough to catch the practice of the Tsechu dance by some monks.






Tsechus are grand annual festivals held by most dzongs and monasteries in honour of Guru Rimpoche, the 8th century tantric master who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and is regarded as the second Buddha. Outdoor religious dances or chham are performed by lamas and lay persons, symbolizing the destruction of evil spirits. The dancers are colourfully garbed and masked and the onlookers, dressed



in their finest ghos and kiras, the traditional Bhutanese dress for men and women respectively, are blessed by watching the dances. They can also have their sins washed away by viewing the unfurling of a large thangka or thondrol from the building overlooking the dance area before sunrise.



Unfortunately for us, we did not manage to coincide our trip with the Paro Tsechu to be held in mid- April, so a glimpse of the Tsechu dance was a real treat as we watched with fascination the twirling monks. To the beat of this mesmerizing dance, we eventually had to leave the unforgettable dzong, just as the daily routine of cleaning up began, with the unusual spectacle of so many monks bending to sweep the courtyard.



Camera or not, the mind-boggling images continued to fill my mind as we took a leisurely walk down the hill for a lovely sunset view of the valley and crossed the river into the town centre, where we had a taste of the Paro shopping and an enjoyable evening of revelry in the company of our Bhutanese hosts.





Drukgyel Dzong

Before the Paro Dzong, there was the Drukgyel Dzong whose ruins lie 14 km from Paro, a strategic point controlling the route to Tibet. The name “Drukgyel” means “Bhutan Victory” and was meant to commemorate the


victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders in 1644. In 1648, the dzong’s false entrance successfully lured invaders into an enclosed courtyard. After the invasions ceased, the location became a major trade route between Bhutan and the Tibetan town of Phari. The dzong was featured on the National Geographic magazine in 1914 and used as an administrative centre until a fire destroyed it in 1951.



Despite the ruins, one can still feel the power of the oldest dzong built here, especially when we listened to the narration by our tour and trekking guide, Kencho, and imagined the battles taking place in the once great towers of this defensive fortress.





The dzong ruins, at 2580m, is also the start of the Jhomolhari Trek which takes over a week and is supposed to give spectacular views of the 7314m Jhomolhari. As we had cloudy weather, we did not manage to get a glimpse of this sacred Bhutanese mountain. However, we did see the beautiful cone shaped snow peak on another day of clear blue skies, while on the way to our day trek up the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, the Taktshang Monastery.


Taktshang Monastery





The single most iconic image of Bhutan is that of the Taktshang Monastery perched dramatically on the side of a 900m cliff above the floor of the Paro valley. The name means Tiger’s Nest Monastery as Guru Rimpoche, who had divine powers, is said to have flown to the site on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave here for three months. Many other renowned saints had meditated in the holy cave since. Taktshang is thus a holy place visited by pilgrims from all over Bhutan and indeed one of the most


revered Buddhist nyes (sacred sites) in the world.

On 19 April 1998, a fire destroyed the monastery’s main structure but the Dubkhang, its most sacred sanctum, was found to be intact and a number of its most precious relics and treasures were retrieved. Today the monastery is in the process of being rebuilt to restore it to its original splendour.



The trek begins 8km north of Paro town, through a pleasant blue pine forest at first, crossing a stream, then the steep part begins on a reasonably wide sandy trail that zig-zags all the way up the ridge.


Having already gone on a five-day trek prior to our visit to Taktshang, I personally found the climb to be relatively easy, even with the attendant breathlessness due to the over 2500m elevation. What bothered me more was the intense sun. Despite wearing a hat, the heat was unbearable and I found myself rushing across each open segment and resting at the switchbacks where there was usually a little bit of forest shade.

Not a good way to hike but the constant halts were also great for admiring the lushness of the green valley below. Plus Kencho had this uncanny knack of finding the best resting spots, be it a jutting rock or boulder, which I often found him perched coolly on, cross-legged in his knee-length traditional costume, cool sunglasses and all!






After a couple of hours and a gain of some 500m, we reached a small chorten (memorial for offerings) with the distinctive prayer flags. From here, it was a short level walk to what I considered a nice lookout and refreshments spot (or the end of the trek for some) but the Bhutanese named it, quite unspectacularly, The Cafeteria.



So we had our toilet and lunch breaks here in a beautiful (as usual) Bhutanese building where our packed fried chicken attracted an unusually hungry kitten. Kencho and our driver, Sherab, also had fun with the musical instruments here together with a bunch of lively local teenagers who had already been to the top.



It was a further 45-minute walk to Taktshang which started out steeply and then became, thankfully, a nice cool uphill through the trees, some of them looking very ancient. At last, I was really enjoying the hike! Then we passed a gateway and reached the furthest vantage ledge



that we were allowed to go, with the monastery directly across a chasm and appearing to grow out of the rocks. Simply stunning, even in its incomplete state. The forbidden path to Taktshang was just a short 150m, but perilously hugging the vertical cliff wall.






We celebrated in our usual way, gaping at the spectacular sight and then cheering and furiously taking photographs of the monastery and of each other. But we had to be mindful of the ledge too as we heard some zealous tourist fell over before!





Whether one is a Buddhist or not, Taktshang is a must-go and this definitely counts as a major highlight for any trip to Bhutan.



~  thimphu  ~


Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and with a population of about 46,000, the valley definitely looks more crowded than sparsely occupied Paro. Especially when we arrived in Thimphu from the isolation of the



mountains, literally. We had gone on the five-day Druk Path Trek from Paro to Thimphu and were still in a state of ‘uncivilisation’ when we were picked up and driven into the sprawling valley and busy streets of Thimphu, albeit with no traffic lights. Instead there was a smartly dressed policeman stationed at the circle on the main street, waving his arms like a conductor orchestrating the chaotic traffic.


Again, we were put in the finest hotel, Druk Hotel, situated right in the centre of town. The big room was well furnished and even had a cable television where we caught the latest news on the Iraq war. But we were most pleased with the shower, which was pure luxury after a ‘bathe-less’ trek where the planned lake washings had turned unexpectedly into an encounter of the frozen kind more suitable for skating…




Trashi Chhoe Dzong



Back to the attractions of Thimphu, the main of which is the Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) originally built in 1216. This is the most well maintained and luxuriously decorated dzong for a very good reason – the King’s office is here. Hence, the security and austere atmosphere as we walked along the boulevard under the imposing long white outer granite wall of the dzong, with the distinctive overlooking rows of crimson decorated windows.


After a long session between Kencho and the police, we were finally allowed in. No cameras allowed. Which was just as well because, despite some on-going renovation works, the architecture was simply dazzling and more exquisite than any that we had seen on this trip! We would have clicked

endlessly and Kencho would have to drag us out. As seemed to be typical with the dzongs here, this one suffered a few fires and an earthquake too. The amazing thing was the rebuilding was done in traditional fashion, that is, without any nails or written plans!


Besides the King’s office and throne room, the administrative section houses the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. On the north side is the summer residence of the dratshang or central



monk body. We were told that the State monks had gone to their winter residence, the Punakha Dzong, and would only be back in May. Our tour was limited to around the courtyard where the annual Thimphu Tsechu festivals are held but it was enough to give us a glimpse of the grandeur here.


Other Attractions


Another important building is the National Memorial Chorten, a large Tibetan-style chorten built in 1974 to honour the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Full of vibrant religious pictures and complex tantric statues, the pretty building is a part of the religious focus here and we saw many locals praying inside the gate.



We also visited a monastery and then another one, or so we thought. It turned out to be the National Library! The library holds Tibetan-style traditional books of ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts



on the upper floor, and surprisingly, a small English collection on the ground floor, including a set of the US Supreme Court Reporter law books!


Then we went up to what is known as the Telecoms Tower (elevation 2685m), below which is an excellent viewpoint of the Thimphu valley. Apparently, this area is a lover’s lane at night!

A short distance from here was a fenced up “mini-zoo” where we saw Bhutan’s unusual national animal – the Takin. An ugly animal I must say. The story goes that the creature was made by the great saint Lama Drukpa Kunley who visited Bhutan in the 15th century. When urged to perform a miracle, the unorthodox saint, also known as the Divine Madman, asked to be served a cow and goat for lunch.




After the feast, he was said to have stuck the goat’s head onto the cow’s bones and the strange beast was thus created. Actually, I thought the takin looked more like a bear stuck with a cow’s head!



Next on our itinerary was a petite nunnery. Having visited so many monasteries, this was a refreshing change. The decoration was soft and serene and I simply loved the quaint buildings which gave me a sense of peace. The giggly young nuns also made our day with their shyness. On our way out, it was hard not to smile at the rows of lady shoes and socks perched to dry on the windows.



Another interesting place is the National Textile Museum which gives a good introduction to the national art of weaving and a complicated demo on how to wear Bhutan’s

traditional dress. Given the extraordinary skill and painstaking work required to do the art, it is no wonder that the hand-spun, hand-woven cloth to make the more expensive kira (women’s traditional floor-length dress) costs an arm and leg! So humble us could only afford to buy souvenir items like a small bag and mat for me.



In fact, Bhutanese craft was expensive as we were to find out later when we browsed the shops. The weekend market offered more affordable stuff and we could bargain. This is where the locals shop for their fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs, all laid out flamboyantly and enticingly by the



vendors plying their ware. We had a wonderful time here shopping, with our Nu (Bhutanese currency) disappearing rapidly. I at least exercised some degree of restraint; Jen was so enthusiastic about the lady’s rachu (cloth sash worn over the shoulder) she ended up in debt!


We also had a taste of the national sport of the Bhutanese – datse or archery. There was a competition going on at the target field. The small wooden target is placed really far away across a field of about 140m. Amusingly, there were members from both teams clustering ‘dangerously’ near the target and doing a little dance routine after each shoot. Not sure whether this was to celebrate a bull’s-eye shot or to taunt the opponent for missing!






The easy-going nature of the Bhutanese was simply contagious. Not to mention the overwhelming hospitality and warmth of our hosts and the new friends we made. So much so that when it came to the end of our highly packed intoxicating ten-day tour, which also included the

Druk Path Trek and a detour to stunning Punakha & Wangdue, Jen and I were filled with a deep sense of sadness and reluctance when we finally departed from the Paro airport. As the last glimpse of the majestic Himalayan range disappeared, we almost suffered ‘withdrawal symptoms’ at the thought that there would be no more poetic sights of the high mountain ridges, the elegant Bhutanese houses, the beautiful dzongs and remote monasteries, the colourful prayer flags and prayer wheels… For we
have come to love the culture that is so uniquely and painstakingly preserved – by a very special and wonderful people who have forever won a place in our hearts.








© Ong Hwee Yen 2004

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Comments



Leo


Going to Bhutan this Oct. Your pictures and descriptions are beautiful. Any words of wisdom you wish to share before I leave would be appreciated.




Paula Howard


I am traveling to Bhutan next month, from Scotland, and so enjoyed your photos. Our travel photos are available on www.georgeandpaula.com and include our last trip to Singapura. You may want to take a look now and we will be adding Bhutan when we return ...




John Mayer


Great Website and indepth Information...




Ann Stevens


Lovely photos of Bhutan I am hoping to visit there soon.




Deepa Mischler


I came upon your site by chance ... your photography is just lovely! And I am thrilled to journey vicariously to the lands that I would love to visit but have not yet.. especially Bhutan!!




Daza Jigme


I found your guest book is very nice and I would love to add massage with travel info. So that people can know about Bhutan ... http://www.tourbhutantravel.com




karma Gyektshen


Bhutan is one of the most remote and unusual countries on earth. T.V. and the Internet were just admitted in 1999 and only a limited number of visas are issued per year. Come visit this Hinalayan Kingdome with us. www.go2bhutan.com




Winnie


I chanced upon your site as I was surfing the web on Bhutan. I am planning a trip in November and your photos and write up make me look forward to the trip even more :P




Other asia stories:
Bhutan ~ The Druk Path Saga, Bhutan ~ Sojourn to Punakha & Wangdue, A Dose of Nepalese Warmth & fotoart ~ balinese dreams.