Here’s why you should be heading to Bhutan this summer
In case you want to have an experience like never before...
Bhutan markets itself as a nation that’s concerned with its Gross Domestic Happiness, a sunny index that replaces the more prosaic GDP. But what is happiness? Is it scoring a seat on the left-hand side of your Druk Air flight from Delhi to Paro so you can try to capture the majesty of Mount Everest on your dinky phone camera? Is it the crunch of frost under your sneakers on a trek through a hushed rhododendron forest? Is it the novelty of being in a land where the INR is treated like it’s the USD? Because Bhutan offers all those transcendent experiences, but it also makes you ask uncomfortable questions like, why do I need a job and a flat and a Form 16 (A) anyway?
It has to be said that the Bhutanese don’t seem happier than any other people. Their youngsters are under the thrall of smartphones and Salman Khan, the good jobs are still largely in government service and travel outside the country is a luxury for most citizens. But an air of contentment lies thickly upon this land. Two details contribute to this perception. First, all the roadside dogs look well-fed and self-actualised. One of them has even written a book about his spiritual journey. Kunzang Choden’s Dawa is the beloved story, now taught in schools, of a Thimphu dog who seeks a cure for his mange in a remote monastery and makes canny observations along the way about the pitfalls of ambition and the erosion of a simpler way of life. Somehow, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine one of the magnificently aloof mutts you meet on the Bhutanese countryside pontificating in this way. They all look like they have rich inner lives.
The other charm of this landscape is the sheer quantity of spry senior citizens. We met one togged up like a triathlete and barrelling down the trail to the Tiger’s Nest monastery as we gasped our way up. He had barely broken a sweat. You will run into several elderly hustlers on the route to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal temple; one bargained loud and long over a basketful of guavas, another blinded us with her toothless smile and tried to sell us overpriced religious objects. Thimphu’s Memorial Chorten serves as a kind of nursery for seniors, who gather here every day in their usual spots, marked by folded gunny sacks placed between gigantic prayer wheels. Not for one grandmother this life of idle chatter—an apple-cheeked infant bobbed up and down in the saddle on her back as she counted her rosary and walked a dizzying number of circles around the temple.
What to do when you’re in Bhutan
All this vitality could be thanks to the clean air they breathe, the organic food they eat, the cardiovascular workout they get just going from point A to point B (all roads are uphill here) and the parental level of control their government exercises in their lives. The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products is banned in Bhutan, the forest cover is maintained at a minimum of 60 per cent by law, and citizens enjoy universal health care. The average urban traffic jam is about three cars deep and no one honks. They have a sexy name for their country: Druk Yul or the land of the thunder dragon. And they actually seem to like their top management, the Wangchuck Dynasty that has ruled for over a century. Beleaguered Indians can’t be blamed for seeing Bhutan as our Canada, the wise neighbour to the north we want to move in with. Due to disappearing habitats back home, our guide Karma tells us, Bengal tigers too are putting on their monkey caps and migrating to Bhutan.
To keep from being overrun by backpackers, but still maintain good neighbourly relations, Bhutan charges a daily fee of up to US$250 to foreign visitors but citizens from certain Asian countries, including India, are exempt. So you’ll hear enough Tamil, Marathi and Bengali to keep you from feeling too homesick, but there are no crowds anywhere, including popular destinations like Paro Taktsang or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Guidebooks will tell you that the trek up to this ancient shrine takes about three hours to complete and that’s because guidebooks are written by elite athletes with masochistic tendencies. For us fatties, the steep journey of 8km (both ways) takes a good five-to-six hours with many scenic stops along the way to pause and reflect on your mortality.
It’s a well-worn track to the top with a coffee and souvenir shop at the halfway mark, but there are so many opportunities on this path and at the monastery to just sit perspiring on a bench till you catch your breath. There are whole stretches of time when the only sound you hear is from magpies hassling each other in the pine trees, and there is no jostling anywhere.
Our guide, Karma, deputed by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (Tourism.gov.bt) to shepherd our group of journalists, had cleverly warmed us up for this trek by taking us on smaller walks every day that led up to it. The most meditative of these was the one through the forest paths of Dochula Pass, between Thimphu and Punakha. It was a downhill walk through a slippery, icy route punctuated with views of the Himalayas and sounds of creatures that harrumphed invisibly, but comfortingly behind the cypresses. We visited Bhutan in December, but apparently these slopes are a carpet of flowers in spring (March to May).
Another pleasant way to limber up and improve lung capacity is to hike up to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal temple in Punakha. It’s a pretty trail that weaves through paddy fields, past clear streams and over a panoramic view of the mountains and the river Mo Chhu where we would go rafting later. This river is named the feminine pronoun Mo for its placidity. While her male counterpart, Po Chhu, froths and tumbles, she calmly delivers you to your destination with only a few perfunctory soakings—but this is glacial water so the temperature is thrilling enough.
As you drift lazily on sweet old Mo, you’ll have time to stare up at one of the oldest shrines in Bhutan, the Punakha dzong. A dzong is part monastery and temple and part administrative headquarters for the district, and so is usually built to an impressive scale. But the one in Punakha is so vast, squat and ancient that it radiates stillness. Punakha city is not exactly Las Vegas, but even the quotidian sounds of human life disappear inside this structure. It’s like entering a bell jar.
Less solemn is the walk up to the shrine of the ‘Divine Madman’, Drukpa Kunley. Chimi Lhakhang, also in Punakha, pays ode to a sixteenth-century monk who subdued demons by (allegedly) hitting them over the head with his erect penis. Kunley rebelled against the straitlaced prescriptions of Buddhism and brought a sense of humour and an appreciation of the absurd to spiritual teachings. In his honour, houses near his temple are festooned with phallic drawings, each more majestic than the last. Behold the hairy testicles, veiny shafts and spurting tips that proclaim the triumph of good over evil. Not surprisingly, Chimi Lakhang is a fertility temple too and devotees show their respect by bringing bottles of liquor because of course they do.
While we listened to Karma tell the story of Drukpa Kunley, I was distracted by two kittens playing in front of the temple’s altar, right inside the sanctum. This seemed to be their home and young monks-in-training would come to play with them every now and then. At the entrance, we stepped over a dog snoozing in the sun. He was sprawled out like he knew he would never be shooed out of there.
I will leave you with one final story to prove how supremely chilled out this place is. There used to be a zoo in Thimphu, but all the animals were set free a few years ago for Buddhist reasons. However, one of them refused to leave and instead wandered into the city and held up traffic. The takin, which look like abbreviated moose, were then gently herded back into their large enclosures at the rechristened Motithang Takin Preserve, where they now live peacefully alongside other tame and goofy denizens of the goat and deer families. These fellows come right up to the bars and lick your hand for salt like they’ve never heard of the human-animal conflict. Then again, they’re Bhutanese, so they probably haven’t.
Momos in Bhutan
The vegetables on your plate are so vividly coloured and crisp that your own enthusiasm for broccoli and spinach will surprise you in Bhutan. Perhaps it’s the weather or the fact that the road to anywhere involves a wheezing trek, but every time you sit down to a meal here, you’ll find you’ve worked up a nice appetite. The food is simple, largely organic and plentiful. Even a very basic restaurant will rustle up a plate of earthy red rice, fresh vegetables and some version of ema datshi, a cheesy gravy that folds in a lot of national pride. If you decide very sensibly to eat momos for every meal, make sure to order in advance, because they’re made fresh. In accordance with Buddhist laws of non-violence, Bhutan prohibits slaughter on its land, so all the meat is imported. Sometimes, the beef can be stringy or dry, but you can’t go far wrong with chicken or pork. The cuisine here also rates high on the Scoville scale. To deliver a kick to the sinuses, there are gigantic red chillies, green chillies with lots of lethal seeds and ezzay, a dry pickle. They’re not big on desserts in this country, but they grow such sweet apples, oranges, peaches and guavas that you can forgive this oversight. Speaking of sweet things, make room in your suitcase for as many litres of local liquor as you can legally carry back home. I can personally vouch for ara, the sharp, clear, potent rice wine, K5 whisky, which is both smooth and cheap (about Rs 790 for 750ml) and Zumzin, a white wine that tastes like a bowl of boozy peaches.
Here’s why you need to add Bhutan to your vacation list this summer
Dogs at Dochula Pass