Bhutan: Tales from the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is a small jewel of nature and culture. The Himalayan kingdom of happiness is a must see destination for those who want to discover the genuine soul of this corner of the world. For centuries Bhutan was a country closed to the world, impenetrable and mysterious. Only in the early 1960s in the last century, it has become possible for foreigners to get to Bhutan.

In general, the Bhutanese society is egalitarian compared to India, for example, in Bhutan there is no caste system and the differences between social classes are very limited. Same goes for the condition of the woman, who enjoy the same human rights.

Bhutanese traditions are very attentive to form. The Bhutanha developed over the centuries articulated tradition of social conventions called driglam namzha. The driglam namzha regulates all aspects of good conduct. For example to wear a scarf on the head when you visit a monastery and to observe the utmost respect for the monks.

Friendship is a very important aspect in Bhutan and is the basis of social life of the country. Contrary to what happens to us, in Bhutan it is natural to go to visit friends and relatives at home without warning prior to the visit. The main form of greeting is kuzuzangpo, which simply means hello. The expression of greeting towards older people is instead the kuzuzangpo, followed by a nod.

As for the customs in the table, normally the tradition requires that the food you take with your hands, customary however replaced by the use of cutlery in large urban centers. Meals are eaten sitting down on the floor and are preceded by a prayer; older people and the monks are always served first.

In Bhutan there is a strong link between religion and society. The monks are a major social authorities and as such must always be respected. Same goes for nature and animals, to protect and defend.

In Bhutan culture and religion are an integral part of a way of life unique and peculiar, which is one of the elements of greatest charm of the small Himalayan kingdom. The happiest country in the world is also home to some important religious festivals, the most famous of which is undoubtedly the Tshechu Festival in Paro.

In local language tshechu means tenth day. The feast is celebrated on the tenth day of the lunar calendar month corresponding to the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, also known as the second Buddha . It has to Guru Padmasambhava, the original north-western India, the spread of Buddhist teachings in Tibet and Bhutan in the eighth century AD.

Tshechu Festival generally takes place during April. A celebration which is worth a trip for several reasons. It is in fact the belief that every person should attend at least once in their life to the party, to atone for sins and receive the blessing of the Buddha.

But the Tshechu Festival is above all an ideal opportunity to discover closely the tradition and folklore of Bhutan. The festival is characterized by religious dances of the monks, who follow precise choreography wearing traditional masks each of which has a precise meaning and a story in itself. Next to the monks the population of the villages you find yourself with colorful clothes creating a wonderful festival that involves the whole community.

The monastery in Paro is without doubt the place par excellence to attend this festival. Also known by the name of Taktsang Palphug, the monastery was founded in 1692 on a steep mountain wall at 3,120 meters high in the region the center-west of the country.

The Paro complex has seven temples and was built near the cave where, according to legend, Guru Padmasambhava retired to meditate for three years, three months and three days. Today the monastery in Paro is a cultural icon of Bhutan and contains an important religious school. The Tshechu Paro Festival is the perfect opportunity to discover up close the extraordinary magic of Bhutan.

During your trip to Bhutan you will discover one of the greatest monasteries of the planet, the monastery of Taktsang Palphug, also known as the Tiger's Den. Perched on a steep mountain wall at 3,120 meters high, Taktsang Palphug is a cultural icon of Bhutan and the very essence of its deep spirituality.Palphug Taktsang, is located in the Paro valley, in the central-western region of the country, suspended between heaven and earth but accessible without difficulty from multiple directions.

The origin of the monastery Taktsang Palphug is shrouded in myth and was born in a cave, the cave where Guru Padmasambhava, the second Buddha, retired to meditate for three years, three months and three days. The construction of the original nucleus of the monastery was made ​​by Tenzin Rabgye, disciple and reincarnation of Padmasambhava, who began to lay the foundation of the structure in the vicinity the master of the cave.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the monastery was expanded with the construction of new temples. Today Taktsang Palphug consists of seven temples and several complementary buildings. In April 1998 a major fire has seriously damaged the complex but, thanks to the intervention of the Government of Bhutan and many personalities of the region, in 2005 Taktsang Palphug has returned to its former glory.

Over the centuries, the monastery has established how important religious school and a place of meditation and has hosted some of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism .
Taktsang Palphug consists of four main temples and three smaller temples. All buildings are connected by stairs, paths and passages and have a large balcony from which you can enjoy a stunning view on the Paro valley.

Near the temples there is also the pit of the faithful , guarded by an elderly monaco that every morning at four ring the bells to wake the monks. The faithful can access the monastery by a beautiful path that passes through a forest of pine trees, where on the branches waving the flags brought a gift from the pilgrims. On the hill are also four faces painted white, respectively, yellow, red and green, representing the four ways to conduct their lives. Inside the monastery several paintings by Padmasambhava embellish the interior of the buildings giving a timeless beauty suspended between heaven and earth.

The religious festivals are the best way to discover the local culture and society of Bhutan. The Bumthang Festival is alone worth a trip to this amazing country.Located at an average altitude of 2,600 meters, the Bumthang district is undoubtedly the most beautiful region around the Bhutan. Her name means beautiful place , and a reason no doubt there will be.

Composed by the valleys of Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor, the Bumthang district is home to the oldest monasteries and fascinating of the whole country, set in fairytale landscapes protected reserves and natural parks. Among the major monasteries of the region include the Tamshing Lhakhang, with its characteristic frescoes dating back to the sixteenth century, the Kurje Lhakhang, meditation, sacred place of Guru Rimpoche, and Jambay Lhakhang, Bumthang seat of the festival.

Built in the seventh century by Guru Rimpoche, the monastery of Jambay Lhakhang is one of the oldest in Bhutan. Here, November 6 to 9 takes place on Bumthang Festival, in honor of the founder and principal teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The festival includes many celebrations, characterized by traditional dances performed by the monks with ritual masks.

The dances involve complex movements, whose origin is lost in the mists of time, characterized by a strong symbolic value. One of the high points of the Bumthang festival is the sacred dance at midnight, conducted by barefoot monks in the courtyard. Unfortunately tourists can not take part. Another fascinating event is instead the fire dance , which is performed at sunset to invoke fertility to barren women.

The Bumthang Festival is also an opportunity to get to know the traditions and daily life of the inhabitants of Bhutan. The festival is an important social event and meeting between the inhabitants of the villages, with their colorful and cheerful clothes.

Punakha is a small corner of paradise where you can feel the history and the most authentic spirituality of Bhutan. If you are planning a trip to Bhutan, travelling to Punakha with Paro and Jakar is the intended requirement to know the essence of this extraordinary country where reigns the Gross National Happiness.

Main town of the district, Punakha is located about 70 km from the capital Thimphu . From 1637 to 1907 Punakha was the capital of the country and right here, in 1953, held the first national assembly of contemporary Bhutan. The regal atmosphere you can still feel today for the quiet streets of the city, nestled in a fabulous green landscape and lush valleys. Compared to the rest of the country, in fact, the climate in Punakha is milder in winter and hotter in summer, a factor that has favored the development of intensive cultivation of rice.

The main attraction is the Punakha is Pungtang Dechen Phodrang, whose name means the palace of great happiness. It is the dzong (fortress), the best of all Bhutan and winter is the official residence of the central monastic body of the country. It is an extraordinary and impressive architectural testimony, further enhanced by precious sacred relics kept inside.

Punakha is also the ideal starting point for exploring the region, where nature reigns and the most authentic spirituality. With a simple path trekking around two hours is possible to reach beautiful places like the caves of Guru Rinpoche (where according to legend, stopped in meditation as the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), the hot springs pool and the monastery of Chimi Lhakhang . Punakha you can reach by bus and the taxis from Thimphu with a two-hour trip. If you want to discover the true nature of Bhutan, Punakha is the right place for you!

Trekking in Bhutan

Trekking and Bhutan are two words that go hand in hand! The small Himalayan kingdom is a paradise for mountain lovers, with numerous routes to suit all levels of experience.The Bhutan offers several possibilities for hiking, both for professionals navigated both for those who simply want to immerse themselves in silence and nature.

If you're planning a trip to Bhutan here comes some routes.

You can start with the route from the city of Paro leads to Taktshang Lhakhang, the complex of seven temples, built on a steep mountain at 3,120 meters, which is an important place of worship for the Himalayan Buddhism. the trek lasts about four hours and is not very difficult.

A second route leads by existing capital Thimphu to ancient capital of Punakha. Quite a long trail that winds along some of the steps the country's finest, as the Dochula, at 3,080 meters, from which you can admire the main peaks of the Himalayan range as the Jejegangphugang (7,158 meters) the Kang Fugang (7,170 meters) and especially the Gangkar Puensum, which with its 7,497 meters is the highest mountain in Bhutan.

To the east of Punakha is Gangey, famous for the monastery of the Buddhist Nyingma. from Gangey part of the route towards the village of Gogona, with a trek of about seven hours through emerald green fields, forests of juniper and magnolia to step Tsele-La at 3400 meters. With about six hours walk from Gogona you reach Kotoka, located at the center of a fertile valley it opens to the view from the pitch Shobju-La at 3,400 meters, in a process dominated by cypress forests.

Finally, we can leave the Khotoka valley for a trek of about five hours leading to Chazam and Wangdiphodrang , a small town that is home to the 'monastery of the same name built in 1638 on a steep hill. These are just some of the routes that can be taken in Bhutan : a comprehensive list is available on the official website of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. With its endless landscapes and its majestic mountains , the Bhutan is really the kingdom of happiness!

How to reach Bhutan

Reaching Bhutan for a journey to discover this extraordinary country is an experience fascinating and unique in the world: here is how to do. If you plan to visit Bhutan, below you will find some useful tips. The only airport in the country is located in Paro, about 50 kilometers from the capital Thimphu. It is a busy airport, located over 2,200 meters high: only eight drivers in the world are in fact trained to take off and land at Paro! The only land access were from the north, through the dizzying highlands of Tibet, or from the south, through the dangerous jungles of Assam and West Bengal. Today you can reach Bhutan by land and by air.

By land you can reach Bhutan from West Bengal from the town of Phuentsholing in the south, and through the towns of Gelephu, in the central region, and Samdrup Jongkhar in the east, linked to the state of Assam in India.

The accesses to Bhutan by land are three. The first is located in Phuentsholing, a border town in the southwest of the country located about 200 km from Bagdogra airport in Bengal Western. From here with a six-hour trip you reach the capital Thimphu.

The second access is at Gelephu, on the southern border. The journey to Thimphu is about ten hours and is highly spectacular, with a gradual transition from the subtropical zone with typical Himalayan views.

If you are adventurous there is a third access to Samdrup Jongkhar in the south-east, on the border with Darrang district in Assam, located 150 kilometers from the city of Guwahati. From here the journey to Thimphu is through Trashigang, Mongar, Bumthang, Trongsa and Wangdue Phodrang before coming to the capital after three days of road.

Without a doubt the most convenient way to reach Bhutan is in the air. Arriving in Bhutan by air is an incredible experience that offers fabulous views! The Paro International Airport is located about 50 km from Thimphu. Located at 2,200 meters above sea level, it is considered one of the most challenging airports in the world: only eight drivers are in fact allowed to land and take off in Paro. The airport is served by two companies, the Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines, which offer connections from Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Mumbai, Bangkok, Dhaka and Singapore. Smaller airports with domestic flights also go to Yonphula, Bumthang and Gelephu, where it is currently building a second international airport near the border with India.

For travelers in Eastern Bhutan

We were present on the occasion of the celebration of Cham Gomkora, a festival of archaic origins that preserves the characteristics of a celebration of fertility, albeit interwoven in recent centuries by elaborate religious rituals, a celebration that recalls the different ethnic groups that inhabit the surrounding areas.

After reaching the Guwahati airport we continue driving towards the border of Bhutan, which is about 110 km, a journey that lasts about three hours. We crossed the border to take our place in a small Bhutanese hotel at Samdrup Jongkhar. The road to Trashigang meanders for 180 km between lush valleys, where as they climb towards the inner regions of eastern Bhutan have seen a slow metamorphosis of forests. We ride 180 km in about 6 hours.

Trashigang is a pretty village with a small square surrounded by traditional houses, one system at an inn (the best available, with most of the rooms with private facilities and a restaurant is usually well appreciated) and we went to visit him dzong, a beautiful structure located in a dominant position on the steep valley. The Gom Kora temple is located just over a half hour's drive from Trashigang, along the western shore of the mighty river flowing from Tashi Yangtse and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

It is built in a place where according to tradition Guru Rinpoche meditated and resides there a small community of monks. Its a very quiet site throughout the year but for the festival is full of people who come from different districts of eastern Bhutan. Here gather, in addition to the Bhutanese, the people of Sakten, large groups of Monpa from Lumla and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and other smaller ethnic groups. People do rush to visit the source of the water that is said to gush from the great guru.

Cham is also a meeting point for young people who come here with the hope of finding a soulmate, if not for life, at least for the festival. They circumambulate the site countless times until late at night, according to the rules of an ancient tradition. Around the sacred area there are many banquets that offer food, beer, chang and goods, as well as a large number of different games of chance, which provide small stakes to which the Bhutanese never give up. Quite often we also see the monks engaged in betting!

The set is so much folklore and lively, very different from what we find in the celebration of the great Dzong, which are much more formal. After this first immersion in the festival we proceed further along the river to Trashiyangtse that is around 52 km from Trashigang following a road that offers beautiful and wild landscapes. The travel time is about two hours.

We visit the old Dzong which dates back to 1656, situated on a hill that rises in the center of the valley before the village, which now houses a monastic school, the famous stupa of Chorten Kora built in Nepalese style, a white gem that stands on the edge of the river flowing impetuous, the new administrative Dzong and the temple of Rinchen Gang. We stay in a family-run inn with simple rooms equipped with amenities.

Around 8 o'clock next morning takes place in fact the great ceremony of Thongdrol, the exposition of sacred tanka which is very auspicious. The large roll of fabric is taken from the temple in procession with great solemnity to the sacred soil of the water source, and up to the space of ritual dances, with an elegant result of monks and Bhutanese dignitaries. The great thangka is then hoisted and the people form a long queue to begin to touch while the ceremonies and then the dancing are held.

In the afternoon we leave for Mongar, following the river whirling flow to the entrance of the Kori step. Along the climb we pass by Shedra of Ngatshang, a small monastic school to visit, and shortly after the pass we get to Mongar, a village with houses built in the traditional style with a variety of shops, where there is a rather recent Dzong. We stay in a simple hotel. From Mongar we continue along the valley to the river, the waters of which date back through steep valleys until Lhuentse Dzong, which is 76 km from Mongar, which is one of the most isolated Dzong in Bhutan, located in spectacular fashion over the valley, and even the village is interesting.

We get back to Mongar, where we visit the dzong and we stay at the same inn. Next day along Kori we go down to the river that flows from Gomkora, and take a dirt road that goes back a scenic corner of the valley reaching Drametse, 85 km away. Its a village of archetypal beauty where there is also an important monastery and school of the Nyingma tradition where lies a vibrant community of young monks. The place gave its name to a typical dance called Cham, one of the 16 drummers actually called the Drametse, which evokes the vision of Kuenga Gyeltshen, historic monastery Lama.

They turned into peaceful and terrifying deities who danced holding a drum in left hand. We depart for Trashigang, which is 96 km from here, and stay in the same inn. We then retrace the steep valleys leading up to Samdrup Jongkhar, enjoying a second time the wonderful views. En route we stop at the village of Narphung, perched between the steep mountains of saddles. At the border we stay in the same hotel used in the first leg.

Bhutan Language

The main language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, one of 19 dialects that are spoken in the country. But do not worry, English is widely used and you will have no problems to make you understand. With regard to the information on the climate, Bhutan is characterized by a remarkable variety.

Bhutan Weather

In southern regions, the climate is humid, subtropical, while in the central regions is drier and tends to get colder going towards the northern regions and the mountains. The monsoons affect only the south of the country, from late June to late September. the electricity is present in all major cities: the current is 230V with outlets in three round pin, two round poles and three rectangular poles.

Bhutan Currency

The official currency of Bhutan is the Ngultrum. Bhutan is characterized by the abundance of spices as in the best tradition of the Indian subcontinent! The food is very tasty, with many typical dishes must try. The national dish is the Ema Datshi, made ​​with hot peppers, spices and a delicious local cheese called datshi. It is found in all restaurants in several variations including the addition of green beans, potatoes, mushrooms and cheese from yaks.

Bhutan Wildlife

In parallel with the local fauna includes the most common animals like the great variety of primates, rodents, birds, buffalo, animals semi-wild and farmed to which youcan nevertheless rare and endangered, such as the rhinoceros and the last herds of wild elephants that survive in the foothill areas. But going up the mountains, then higher up, you can spot the last vestiges of the famous snow leopard, perhaps the best known among the Asian felines after the tiger. And we could also mention the red panda, black bear, the wolf, the now rare golden langur, blue sheep and a motley assortment of alpine ungulates, like takin.

The tradition plays an important role in Bhutan. For a long time isolated from the rest of the world, the country happiest in the world has maintained a complex system of rituals that govern the daily life of the population. Now that you have all the information to reach Bhutan you just have to go there.