Bhutan doesn’t pop up on most people’s travel radar, and I think that is why my wife, Susan, and I wanted to go.
We had considered Nepal, but with its recent political problems, over-Westernization and depletion of forests for firewood to supply trekkers, we wanted something more akin to what the Himalayas were years ago. Bhutan seemed like a logical choice.
We first see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas as we approach Bhutan on a flight that departed from Bangkok. Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, is the most impressive. Wave after wave of mountains drift into the distance as we begin our descent into the only valley in Bhutan able to take aircraft.
One of the first things we notice is how quiet and peaceful the place is. There is little traffic from planes or cars. Buildings sit low surrounded by beautiful thick forests.
For us, the main attraction is the Buddhist culture. Seventy-five percent of the Bhutanese population is Buddhist, while the remaining 25 percent is Hindu (primarily workers from India).
During the 1600s the monk Shabdrung came from Tibet with a Buddhist relic he was trying to hide from the Jains. When he heard a roar of thunder to the south he thought it was the roar of a dragon and saw this as an omen for where to go. He found a country where kings fought each other. His leadership united the people and established Bhutan. It is known as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Shabdrung built a fortress-like structure for monks to use for prayer and protection of the relic. This was the first Dzong, and over time others were constructed across the country. Most Dzongs command a view of the hilly countryside, though some of the newer Dzongs are in more convenient places because they are used for both prayer and government. These whitewashed temples feature ornate carvings on the eaves and colorful murals in alcoves.
The Dzong at Punakha is our favorite. We followed a winding road along a river and turned a bend around a cliff. There before us on an island splitting the river was the massive Dzong. Whitewashed walls rise 100 feet. The crenulated towers of gold shine in the afternoon sun. Red, white, blue, green and yellow prayer flags dance in the breeze as they hang from a rope bridge.
At the top of the entrance stairs, two giant prayer wheels stand sentinel to all who pass. A bell is struck by a rod projecting from the top of the prayer wheel to chime each revolution as the mantra of Buddha is spun out into the world. Balconies in the courtyard are draped in the maroon colors of monks’ robes as they dry. We hear the low hum of monks chanting in back buildings.
At another temple, a prayer house built for non-monks, we glimpse the inner sanctum. A few butter lamps cast a twitching glow. A beautiful mural of the Buddha’s life is expertly and painstakingly rendered on 25-foot-long walls. Our guide, Karma, explained the Buddha’s life of royalty and privilege, to his understanding of the suffering around him, casting off of his riches, to fasting and meditation and, finally, enlightenment and teaching. The altar has three huge statues — all gold and laden with colorful fabrics.
As an avid birdwatcher, Bhutan offers me a chance to see some fantastic birds. Habitats for many different species are plentiful in this country covered in forests of pine, mixed deciduous, rhododendron, cool broadleaf and warm broadleaf.
The passes between the valleys are especially good locations for bird watching. Eagles soar over a small temple at Dochu La, a setting that becomes even more spiritual as prayer flags wave in breezes scented by burning cedar and incense. A cool wind whips through the pines as sunbeams warm the landscape only slightly.
Jigme Dorji National Park is a vast park covering the northwest section of the country. We visited the park twice, first at the higher altitudes north of Thimphu, and again at lower altitudes north of Punakha. The scenery held rushing waterfalls, evergreens, deciduous trees, birds and several primate species. There were also many colorful and sometimes massive butterflies in a myriad of hues from blacks and blues to greens and reds.
One of the birding highlights of the trip was a short stop in the Phobjikha Valley. The river sprawls out into a marshy plain that serves as the wintering ground for several hundred black-necked cranes. Every year in late October the first birds wing in from Siberia. It is always an auspicious day when they arrive because they usually fly three circuits around the monastery at Gangtey before settling in the valley. Three circuits of a monastery is a religious ritual handed down by the Buddha. When asked how his followers could honor him, he asked them to do three circuits at any religious monument in the clockwise direction.
We are very lucky because three cranes had come three hours earlier. They are protected and revered by the locals to the point that no one in the valley has electricity because the government fears that power lines might scare off the birds. We spend about an hour looking through my scope and are joined by several schoolchildren. Soon more come, jostling for position and then lining up. We lift up the smallest children so they can view the handsome birds also. The look of pleasure when they see the cranes is priceless.
The country is amazingly beautiful and reminds me of the Smokies but much higher, more serene and majestic. There is no sense of urgency and almost any time you are traveling through the country you can stop and be presented with picture-postcard vistas where you can only hear your breathing, the birds and the whistle of the wind through the trees. Small hamlets dot the terraced hillsides. Swift-flowing rivers carve gorges. Distant snowcaps ring the whole scene. In this tapestry of Buddhism in the high Himalayas, monasteries and Dzongs are a highlight and the religious culture is very humbling and stunning in its breadth and national dedication.
TRAVEL ADVICE FOR BHUTAN
- You will need to apply for visas well in advance because they are limited. Around 15,000 people are permitted annually. Trips are arranged through a Bhutanese travel agent; a local guide accompanies travelers. Tourist facilities are good and well maintained. Visitors must fly Druk Air, the nation’s official airline and the only one allowed to fly into the country.
About the writer
- Mike and Susan Nelson arranged their trip with Ugen Tshering at Wind Horse Holidays, a company with offices in the United States and Bhutan. (www.windhorsetours.com)