Bhutan experience – A peaceful world at the height of 5.500m
The plane passed a cliff at the height of 5,500m the skillfully landed on the 1.9km runway of Paro Airport. Finally, I had arrived in Bhutan – a country lying on the edge of the Himalayas, which is known as the happiest country in Asia.
When welcoming us, Ugyen, our local guide, was wearing gho – the traditional dress for men in Bhutan. It is a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, like the outfits of Japanese samurais. Gho is also the dress required for formal gatherings or visit temples and pagodas.
On the way to Thimphu, the capital, we stopped at an old bridge made entirely of irons chains from the 14th century. This is one of 108 bridges built by Thangtong Gyalpo in Tibet and Bhutan to help inhabitants travel across the rivers more easily without ships. Prayer flags are festooned alongside this iron bridge. They are 5 colors including blue, white, red, green, and yellow respectively which represent space, the wind, fire, water, and earth. The strings of flags are called lungta, which means wind horses. Bhutanese believe whenever the winds blow, they will spread their mantra around the world, bringing happiness and luck to humans and all species.
The colors of Thimphu
Upon arriving in Thimphu, we had a lunch break in our hotel located near Memorial Chorten, which commemorates the third king of Bhutan. From the window, I could see a line of people going around the tower clockwise. Some of them were holding small prayer wheels, rotating them when walking. The Bhutanese are religious, Ugyen said, there are some people spending their entire days walking around the tower with the hope of saving and accumulating more good things for the next generation. If you have a chance to visit the Memorial Chorten, then don’t forget to spin the large prayer wheel in the house left of the tower as rotating a large wheel brings 1000 times more benefits than rotating a small one.
Houses in Thimphu are quite modern and there are an array of busy shops serving both locals and visitors. However, the choices at “general stores” are not diverse, with only a few local brands and some products made in India. Bhutanese people eat chili peppers like vegetables. Chili, from green to red, can be found in large baskets at the markets. Moreover, the Bhutanese don’t kill animals, so there are only three stores selling meat imported from India or supplied by those who are not Buddhists.
In the afternoon, we visited a weekend fair in Thimphu. While the fairs are only on Saturday and Sunday in other cities, those of Thimphu last three days, from Friday to Sunday. Fruits and vegetables not grown in Bhutan or imported from India are sold at the market. Cross a covered bridge and you will reach another market selling clothes, paintings, statues, and prayer wheels, mostly imported from India, China, or Nepal. Souvenirs in Bhutan include brocades, shawls, handbags, which are quite similar to Vietnam’s.
At almost anywhere in Thimphu, you can see the Great Buddha (Buddha Dordenma) statue located on a diamond pedestal on a hill to the south of the city. The 51,5m high statue was made of bronze inlaid with gold, representing the Buddha sitting in the lotus position, eyes half-closed, and the tips of the thumbs slightly raised and gently touched. Inside this huge statue is a 17-floor-monastery with over 10,000 other small gold inlaid bronze Buddha statues. Buddha Dordenma was inaugurated in 2015, on the celebration of the fourth King of Bhutan’s 60th birthday. However, it is believed that Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet before spreading it to Bhutan, as predicted in this project from the 8th century. There are many tourists from India, China, and many other countries who come here to worship, some even bring cushions to meditate inside the Great Buddha.
Inside, Ugyen faced a throne opposite the main Buddha statue with a photo of a monk above, then he in turn placed his hands on the forehead, lips, and chest, and bowed three times. He turned to the Buddha and repeated his ritual. A lama holding a vase with a high hose and peacock feathers attached to the lid poured some faded yellow water into the palm of Ugyen. He took a small sip, then dropped some onto his head. The monk in the main photo is Je Khenpo, the spiritual leader of Bhutan, who handled the religion while the King handled the life of the country. He was considered as a spiritual bridge connecting the people and the Buddha. All Buddhists, except senior clergies, bowed to him before bowing at the Buddha.
Behind the Great Buddha statue is Thimphu Dzong. This is a typical architectural style of Bhutan - a combination of fortress and monastery. Inside each Dzong are government offices, monasteries, and clergy houses. Traditionally, each Dzong was not built in any accordance with any particular architectural project but under the guidance of a senior lama. Thus, each Dzong has a different style. The construction process did not use any nails to fix components. Whenever going into a Dzong, the Bhutanese have to wear traditional costumes, but long pants and sleeve shirts for foreign tourists are enough. Do not ignore the frescoes and beautiful mandala in the internal hall, which are precious artistic treasures of Bhutan.
Changlimithang Archery Ground
Archery is not only a favorite sport for the Bhutanese people but also a community activity that connects people of different classes. From 1984 to 2008, Bhutan participated in the Olympics with archery only. An archery target is a 91 centimeter tall and 28-centimeter wide wooden panel, placed about 145 meters from the archer. Players can use a traditional bow and arrow or a modern compound bow for higher accuracy. Every time an archer hits the bull’s eye, like in a traditional ceremony, the team members will have a short dance and song to praise him. On the contrary, if he misses, his team will get sarcasm from their rival.
At first glance, you will find the Bhutanese archer pull the bow very easily, he even holds this posture for about 10 seconds to aim carefully at the target before releasing the bowstring. However, when we tried pulling the bow, it was much harder than we thought. This sport requires not only good eyes but also strong arms. Besides archery, the Bhutanese also love throwing darts. We tried this game on a farm in Paro the next day.
The fog of Punakha old capital
Each morning in Bhutan is a pure and beautiful experience. Outside the hotel window, white clouds rolled by and covered the green ridges. On the terraces, sunbeams of a new day paint stripe on the young rice.
We left Thimphu to the old capital of Punakha. Along the way, the car stopped by Tango Monastery, which means "horse" in the local language, near mount Cheri. According to legend, the god Hayagriva, the half human half horse embodiment of the Avalokiteshvara, has once appeared at this monastery. This is the school of the monks in Bhutan, with the 6-year-bachelors program and 9-year-masters program. Once finished, the monks will move to Cheri Monastery nearby to retreat for three years, three months and three days, like the time Padmasambhava retreated to the Tiger's Nest, according to the history books. This is also the school of the rebirth of Tenzin Rabgye, the mandarin who handled the construction of the Tiger's Nest in the 17th century. Now, the reincarnation of Tenzin Rabgye is in the process of his three-year-retreat. According to Ugyen, after the retreat, he can become the next spiritual leader of the Bhutanese, or he can choose a different path.
It takes about one hour to go from the foot of Mt. Cheri to the monastery. The path is clearly paved by the monks in their free time on weekends. Along the way to the monastery are wooden boards showing the teachings of Buddha about nature, life, and people. When tired, climbers can rest for a while and think about those meaningful teachings.
After visiting Tango monastery, we started toward the south of Thimphu Valley, stopping at Dochula Pass before reaching Punakha. Along the way, we crossed a rice field leading to Chimi Lhakhang temple, considered the place where Drukpa Kunley, the mad monk, sealed a devil woman. Chimi Lhakhang is also known as the temple to pray for a male heir. This mad monk lived in the 16th century and had a profound influence on the culture of Punakha. According to legend, Takin, the national symbol of Bhutan was also created by Drukpa Kunley by grafting bones of cows and goats to create a creature with a goat head and cow body.
If you ask me if Bhutan is heaven-on-earth, the answer may be “No”. Bhutanese people still have to make ends meet every day. Bhutan's young people are still fascinated by Bollywood stars and the unrestrained Western life. However, if you are seeking simple happiness, give Bhutan a try! This fairy-tale-like country is where the long history can be found in legends and the lamas are as powerful as mandarins. And this country is the place where people always hang the 5-color prayer flags - lungta, hoping the winds spread their blessings around and bring happiness to all.
The best time to travel to Bhutan is from March to May (summer) and from September to November (autumn). During autumn, the temperature ranges from 10 to 20 degrees C.
Bhutanese Government requires all visitors to book tours with a tourist agency that is licensed by the government. The agency will take care of everything from your visa and flight ticket to your accommodation. A list of agencies is provided on www.tourism.gov.bt/plan/tour-operators
If you have a chance to visit the former capital, Punakha, don’t forget to try rafting on the Mo Chhu River. This river is quite calm and shallow. This will make your trip which is full of temples and shrines more exciting.
Wearing traditional dress of Bhutan (gho for man and kira for women) is a must-try experience. For better pictures, you can borrow or rent outfits from your tourist agency.
Bring medicine for common illness with you as it’s difficult to find western medicine in Bhutan. Noodles will save your stomach if you can’t enjoy local cuisine.