I was in the Druk Yul, the Land of Thunder Dragon. Where people have deep faith in ‘Tak Seng Chung Druk’ (Tiger, Snow Lion, Garuda, Dragon). Where Buddhism is the mode of life. Where the King and Queen protect their citizen as their children. The people respect them as their parents. Where nature has bestowed innumerable gifts on mankind. Where the nation leaves behind a negative Carbon footprint. Where the national development is measured in the terms happiness, not in terms of GNP. Yes, you got it right. I was in the kingdom of happiness. I was in Bhutan.
I was so intrigued by the fact that the development of the nation is measured in terms of gross national happiness. Since learning this fact I was even more curious to venture into this mystical land. Since a long long time, I had an urge to visit Bhutan. But after knowing more about the kingdom of happiness I was just counting my days to be there.
This time I had a plan to travel to North Bengal. My special attention were the forests and National Parks of North Bengal. Somehow the plan did not work and I changed my focus to Bhutan. Or rather Bhutan called me. Thus my age long wait to visit Bhutan was over. I finally landed at Paro International Airport. Before I write about my experience here I would like to share how easy it is to visit Bhutan.
How do the Indians visit Bhutan? The answer is very simple. No passport or visa is required. There are two main entry points to Bhutan. One through road via Phuentsholing and the other through the air via Paro International Airport. The other less frequented entry points are Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar. Indian tourist intending to visit Bhutan need to carry their valid ID proof (preferably voter’s ID card or Passport) and head off to any of the entry points. The entry points have the immigration department that checks your details and stamps your passport or issues the permit (who does not carry a passport) with the exit date.
The immigration office in Phuentsholing is open from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday. The office remains closed on Bhutanese holidays. Mondays and the days after holidays are usually little busy and would take little longer than the normal days. While the entry point at the Paro airport is open after every arrival of international flights. This permit is valid for movement within Paro and Thimphu. Those who intend to visit any other places need to attain a special permit from the Thimphu immigration office.
Again the process is very simple. The office timings are the same. Head to the office, get the forms either for extension of stay in Bhutan or for visiting other places within Bhutan. Fill up the form with all the details of the intended places. Attach the copy of the entry permit or the passport with the first page and the entry stamp. And submit it to the immigration officials. After an hour your permit is ready and you travel along with it. At every immigration point, the permit is checked and stamped. So it is necessary to keep the Permit safe along with the IDs till you are out of Bhutan.
Now, when you are clear with the entry formalities let me talk about the currency. The official currency of Bhutan is Ngultrum the rate of which is at par INR. INR is the second currency that is used in Bhutan. I was asked to carry denomination not beyond hundred as they said those were not accepted in Bhutan. But after I visited I came to know that any denomination up to 500 is widely accepted all over. Few places do not accept 500 and 2000 INR. There are ATMs in the airport and in the major towns. International cards are also accepted with an additional charge of 3-3.5% extra as a Bhutanese Bank charge.
With all the major issues sorted let’s travel through this beautiful kingdom of happiness. In this post, I will share my general experience in Bhutan. Separate posts on every place will follow after. I always believe a place is known by its people. And we met the first Bhutanese people in Kolkata airport. After the security check as we were waiting to board the flight. Our co-passenger, an adorable, chubby, jolly little boy befriended us. He was travelling back to his country with his parents.
My first experience in Druk Air flight was again interesting. The flight was more than half empty on our date of travel and we had the privilege to shift to any of the window seats on whichever side. As the flight was airborne and it crossed the Indian borders (which I presume) we could not hold back our childlike excitement and kept on changing the window seats. Just like Dusty Crophopper from the animated movie Planes, our flight made sharp aerobatic manoeuvers through the hills and the lofty mountains.
It was a breathtaking moment and an experience of the lifetime. We were flown over the valleys beside the hills with the dzongs and monasteries looking below at us. And after all the aerobatic show we landed at the beautiful little airport in Paro. I have to admit that this was the best flying experience of my life. The beautiful Pa-Chhu (the Paro river or Paro Chhu) flowing by the airport. A big portrait of His Majesty, the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck along with the Queen Jetsun Pema and the little prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck welcomes all the visitors to their land of happiness.
After bidding farewell to our little friend on the flight we were on board a taxi to go to Thimphu. The taxi driver, the warm welcoming gentleman became our guide and friend in a very short time and thus accompanied us for the rest of our days in Bhutan. He is Lakey Drakpa, a local guy from Paro. He was knowledgeable and intelligent. He gave us all possible information about his Nation, Culture, Tradition, Rituals, Religion, Economic Conditions, Sports, Wildlife and last but not the least Food.
From my very first day in Bhutan, the thing that I noticed is women empowerment. Women play a vital role in the economy. Women were seen working in every sphere. I saw the maximum employment of women in all sector. Lakey also emphasised the on the concept of equality of all genders here. I was so pleased to hear about this. In fact, I was travelling in Bhutan during the International Women’s Day and I wanted to share this post and dedicate it to all women on this day to celebrate womanhood. I could not make out time during my travel to write. I am still happy as I could do it in the same month.
In the meantime, I had the opportunity to read a beautifully written piece by a Bhutanese lady. Read it here. Here she writes how she finds herself privileged to be a woman born in Bhutan, as compared to many other Asian countries. She also talks about the challenges that women have to face and how the women of the nation can make proper utilisation of the rights that they enjoy.
Lakey spoke about the matriarchal society which is most prevalent here. According to this tradition, the daughter stays in the house while the sons move out to the house of their wives. The daughter enjoys the major share of the property and land. This tradition is mostly carried out because daughters are seen as better caretakers of aged parents and the land and property. Thus our friend Mr Lakey after his marriage has found a new home with his spouse.
His home, a few kilometres from the main Paro town is on the Paro-Thimphu highway. He stays there with his wife, three children (two daughters and a son) and his aged mother in law. He has a big adjoining farmland. It is used for paddy and potato cultivation. There is also a small peach and apple orchard. This gentleman works hard along with the help of his family and neighbours to maintain all these.
I strongly feel that a place is known by its people just in the same way it is known for its beautiful surroundings. I came to know a Bhutanese very closely through Lakey. So Lakey was the representative of Bhutanese people for us. He was well versed in every aspect. He spoke to us a lot sharing information about the Bhutanese tradition, their religion, common beliefs and everything. He speaks English well and is a true family-oriented gentleman. On the way from Thimphu to Paro, he took the opportunity to take us to his beautiful traditional farmhouse.
He wanted to show us how the traditional homes in his country are. His big three-storied house was made of mud in the traditional way. Bricks and cement have now replaced the age-old practice of using mud as the building material. While some still like to preserve the old tradition and thus this house stands bright and beautiful. Here we met with his beautiful wife Tenzin Pem and his three months old adorable son Jigme Norbu Drakpa. His daughters were off to school.
We were served traditional snacks with local tea. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality. He showed us his now empty farms which he will sow during the season. He says that rice is cultivated only once a year, sowed during the summer and harvested during the onset of winters. Now he has sown potatoes in a small part of his land which he will harvest before the summers. He showed us his granary, his rice mill, his cattle farm – all on the ground floor of his house.
The upper storeys are connected by traditional ergonomically precarious wooden stairs. It has the bedrooms, living rooms, terrace and the temple. The temple again is traditionally built with the deities and other religious items on one side of the room while the throne for the guru just at the opposite end of the room with the bell and ‘brajeya’ on his table. The family guru visits once every year during some auspicious day.
Buddhism is the major religion in the nation with a very little percentage of Hindu population. Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion. While other religions are negligible to nil. He spoke about the various gurus and monks and their legends. Guru Rinpoche also is known as Guru Padmasambhava who was born in India then travelled to Tibet and finally brought Buddhism in Bhutan during the 8th century. He is highly revered and is regarded as the second Buddha. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is another revered name here. He was a Tibetan Buddhist Lama during the period of 1594-1651. He is regarded as the unifier of Bhutan as a nation. He is also known as Shabdrung the bearded man and can be seen beside the idol of Buddha and Rinpoche in the dzongs and Lhakhang.
The taxation system, the free education and medical facilities and the industries all were spoken about. The King takes care of his people even after having a democracy. The new king has taken care of the long-standing issue of land. His project helped landless people have their own farmland. All basic amenities and support for livelihood in remote areas were provided. As per the Kidu tradition, the Dharma King has to perform certain sacred duties to take care of his people. The king goes on numerous road trips and listens to his people and solves their problem. The king has also stressed the importance of education and initiated a project to spread basic education to the remotest corner of the nation. While scholarship facilities are also there for higher studies where students are sent to other nations.
Lakey showed us the national animal the Takin, the national bird the Raven, the national tree the Himalayan Cypress. He was proactive to share knowledge about every aspect of Bhutan that was known to him. Archery is the national game and our friend is also a good archer. He took the opportunity to participate in the tournament in the Archery ground as we climbed the Tiger’s Nest. His team won the match. He later showed us another game being played on the archery ground.
He stopped at every point where there was the underground spring water flowing through the mountains. He drank and asked us to drink the sacred water and then put the watery hand on the face and head as a mark of respect. We gradually got used to this and we used to carry empty bottles to fill it up with the cold, sweet, holy, mineral water from the springs. The people of this nation are highly religious and they abide by every possible religious rite. These places with the holy water are marked with stupas. Tiny stupas were also kept as offerings around this holy waters. People are asked not to wash their vehicles in this holy water with written notice. As this act is treated as a form of disrespect to the sacred water.
After a few days in Bhutan with Lakey, we had a good amount of information about the nation and its people. We had a final day at hand before returning back to our country. And we had nothing to do for the day. So our good old friend Lakey made a plan for a religious trip followed by a picnic. He took us to a much revered less travelled Lhakhang called Ugyen Guru Lhakhang. Not to stretch this post any further I shall share the details of this temple visit on my consecutive posts.
After the religious visit, it was the picnic time and Lakey found a wonderful place for it. We were climbing down the hill and there was a locked house by the road. It has log benches and a beautiful log table in its courtyard. What can be a better place to picnic? He opened his boxes full of Bhutanese delicacies accompanied by tea. We had a sumptuous lunch prepared by his lady.
With such memorable moments to cherish forever, our long trip came to a quick end. We were supposed to return back to our country the next day. Home is always a sweet home but still, there was a tingling ache in the heart to leave behind this beautiful nation with even more beautiful peoples preserving their rich culture and tradition. Leaving behind the Kingdom of Happiness with a promise to get back again sometime soon.
P.S. I would like to thank Mr Lakey Drakpa for being our guide. We were highly pleased to have him along with us. He wishes to open a homestay at his farmhouse in a couple of years. I wish him luck in all his ventures. And I would also love to share his details so that any of my readers who wish to contact him can do it directly:
Name: Lakey Drakpa
Mobile: +975 17 66 73 83