A unique blend of the old and new, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan isn’t for everyone. It is for those who are ready to disengage from the fast-paced city life and embark on a slow, soul-searching adventure. Spending a week in Bhutan – also known as the last Shangri- La- inspired me to be present in every moment and absorb my surroundings. I sketched some of the highlights from a meaningful cultural voyage that will forever remain etched in my memory.
Hiking up to the magnificent Paro Taktsang
A remarkable cliff-hanging monastery in the upper Paro Valley, Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest is reachable by a steep but well-kept trail that goes through a pristine forest of blue pine, ancient oak and rhododendron trees. My Bhutanese guide Yeshi and I started the climb around 8 am and arrived at the top in about three hours. The trail is dotted with fluttering prayer flags, water-powered prayer wheels and enough sources of spring water.
On the way, we greet fellow hikers – groups of monks, tourists from different parts of the world and locals effortlessly climbing in their ghos and kiras (national dress for men and women respectively). Offering coffee and pastry with a delightful view of the monastery and other little structures clinging to rocky outcrops, Taktsang Cafeteria is an ideal place for a quick break mid- way. However, our jaw-dropping moment arrives when we come face-to-face with the sacred, spellbinding Taktsang Paro. Getting to its entrance requires navigating a fleet of stone steps leading into a gorge with a cascading waterfall. We sit silently in one of the cave temples inside, listening to the monks chanting and taking in the fragrance of incense. After offering a butter lamp as a gesture of gratitude, we bid goodbye to the Tiger’s Nest and begin the descent which is faster yet equally challenging.
Legend has it that eighth-century Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, flew up to Taktsang Paro on the back of a tigress. He meditated here for over three years, to subdue obstructive forces before introducing Buddhism in Bhutan.
Getting to its entrance requires navigating a fleet of A 600-year-old ancestral home converted into a restaurant, Babesa Village in Thimpu is a great pick for an atmospheric dinner. Furnished with antiques and low-level seating, it serves delectable fare. For a Bhutanese luncheon paired with a cultural dance session with the locals, head to the restaurant at Thimpu’s Simply Bhutan museum.
An absolute must-try is home-brewed ara –a local tipple made from rice, millet or wheat, fermented or distilled and carried and stored in handcrafted wood and silver containers. Ingredients like sandalwood are often used to impart it a unique flavour and colour. Ara plays an important role in the social and religious events in the country and is usually made by women of the household.While some prefer it neat and cold, many enjoy it hot, cooked with egg and butter.
Taking in the sights, sounds and smells at KajaThrom
Stroll the KajaThrom, Thimpu’s sheltered market sitting by the Wangchhu River, to witness locals selling everything from fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables and ingredients for making incense to flowers, grains, honey and dairy products like cheese, cottage cheese, butter and more. Spot some rare local greens like river algae, damro, wild asparagus and rattan sticks creatively used by the Bhutanese to make soups. Grab a cup of coffee at the quaint market cafe surrounded by colourful flowers and art installations set up by the neighbouring VAST or Voluntary Artists’ Studio. Visit in the evening on a weekend to see the market bustling with live entertainment.
We tried chugo, also known as chhurpi, a type of dry, hard, yak milk cheese popular in Bhutan. You often see it hanging like necklaces in stores and marketplaces. Locals love chewing on chugo-arguably the hardest cheese in the world – as it keeps them warm in the cold, mountainous weather. However, it is an acquired taste.
Indulging in the country’s ancient bathing ritual
A blend of culture and rejuvenation, hot stone baths are a form of traditional Bhutanese medicine using Menchu which is fresh river water mixed with local artemisia leaves and heated with fire-roasted river stones. Hot stones are deposited into a stone or wooden tub through a chute. As they sizzle and steam, they not only increase the water temperature but also release high concentrations of minerals. This naturally- heated water is said to have therapeutic effects on your mind and body. The Bhutanese often carry warm soup and snacks to enjoy while unwinding and chitchatting in the tub with their friends and family.
Today, hot stone baths are available at various places – from luxurious resorts and rustic farmhouses. I tried a posh soak (BTN 5,000 or INR 5,000) at the TermaLinca Resort and Spa in Thimpu as well as a more authentic bath (BTN 1,000) at the no-frills Tshering Farmhouse in Paro. Most places provide you with a pair of slippers, a towel and soap. The duration of the bath is around 45 minutes to an hour.
Watching the young immersed in art and craft at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum
Bhutan’s vibrant visual arts have never been merely ornamental pieces. Their fundamental purpose is to express Buddhism, convey life experiences and instil mindfulness. No wonder the Bhutanese way of life is closely tied to Zorig Chusum(zo=the ability to make; rig = science or craft; chusum = thirteen). The country boasts of 13 traditional art and crafts that are promoted and preserved by the National Institute for Zorig Chusum by imparting the skills to the youth through short and long-term courses.
Walking around several classrooms at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum, we saw students calmly weaving using a traditional loom, carving masks out of pine wood, painting thangkas flawlessly, moulding clay, practising embroidery and more. They seemed disciplined and deeply engrossed in their craft, undisturbed by the visitors watching and photographing them.
Displaying spectacular woodwork, art and architecture, white-washed dzongs or fortresses hold a special significance in Bhutan. While they represent victory and power, they serve both administrative and religious purposes today. We visited the Simtokha Dzong built by the founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1629 to protect the Thimphu valley. It is the oldest dzong to have survived as a complete structure. Colourful dhvajas (flags) hanging from the ceiling, embroidered thangkas on the walls, ancient murals that narrate a story, slate carvings depicting saints and philosophers, a large figure of Sakyamuni, flanked by the eight bodhisattvas; there is a lot to observe and understand here.
Perched above undefended Paro Dzong, Ta Dzong was built as a watchtower and renovated later to house the National Museum. Flaunting the unusual conch shell shape, the museum is a crash course in Bhutanese art, history, culture and beliefs. Browse through sections dedicated to jewellery, coins, weapons, stamps and more.
A 4-km loop around the Dop Shari valley brings you to Ta Dzong grounds which offer splendid bird’s eye views of the picturesque Paro valley.
Astrology reading with a monk at the School of Astrology
For an intriguing experience, consider a private astrology reading and fortune-telling session with a monk at Pangri Zampa Lhakhang, a 16th-century monastic school. It not only releases the official Bhutanese calendar every year but also decides the dates for royal weddings and important national events. Share your date and time of birth with the monk to gain somwe interesting insights into your future and learn some simple ways to make life more fulfilling. Feel free to ask the monk questions about luck, money, health, career, relationships and more.
While I believe one writes their own fate, the private fortune-telling session at Pangri Zampa was certainly refreshing. It is also a wonderful opportunity to get up close with a monk. The school building is built in the Bhutanese architectural style which makes it worth a visit.