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Bhutan: Lofty Mountains, Magnificent Fortresses, & Happy People
#Bhutan is a treasure trove of #culture. Having only opened to tourists in 1974, the country remains largely undiscovered. I want to encourage more people to come here and fall in love with the Bhutan I love. The people are friendly, #unique traditions are in tact, and Gross National Happiness if off the charts.
Entrenched within mighty mountain chains and surrounded by Buddhist myths and legends, Bhutan remains shrouded in mystery. Having only opened its doors to international tourists in 1974, the country has come a long way in terms of development and modernization. In spite of it, Bhutan has chosen to proudly cherish local traditions and conserve its natural environment — only in this part of the world is Gross National Happiness (GNH) more important than the country’s Gross Domestic Product (more on this later).
In the past week that I’d spent in Bhutan, the country has floored me with its extraordinary landscapes and rich, vibrant culture. From the many impressive dzongs (fortresses) that dot the country, to the solemn monasteries and lofty, snow-peaked mountains, Bhutan blew me away with beauty of epic proportions. Everywhere I went in Bhutan, colorful prayer flags flew high in the air, sounds of monks chanting echoed through the walls of temples, and praying wheels spun freely in temples and on the streets.
Bhutan has chosen to proudly cherish local traditions.
Valleys intertwined, rivers weaved through landscapes like giant serpents, and mountains poked the skies in this Himalayan nation. Whether young or old, Bhutanese men roamed the streets in the traditional gho (a knee-length robe that resemble the kimono) while fair-skinned ladies sashayed in colorful kira (a long dress tied at the waist, accompanied by a silk jacket).
I was awed to silence by the sheer location of the cliffside Taktshang Goeba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery, the impressive architecture of the beautiful fortress Punakha Dzong, the raw and rugged terrain of the glacial bowl-shaped Phobjikha Valley, and so much more. Ultimately, it wasn’t just the architecture or landscapes that captured me — it was the intriguing Bhutanese culture, unique policies and emphasis on traditions that truly made Bhutan an extremely special place for me.
I’ll be writing more about my experiences there, but in the meantime, here’s a photographic overview of my time there. I hope they bring you there with me.
Landscapes of Bhutan
Drinking in a view of Bhutan’s second tallest peak, Mount Jomolhari, from Docho La Pass lets you see the mountain rising 2,700 metres (8,900 feet) above the barren plains of northwestern Bhutan. Almost all of Bhutan is mountainous.
In Bhutan, 72% of the country is covered by green forests. Almost everywhere we went, we saw forests, valleys, fields, and grass plains. This photo shows the Paro Valley sprawling beneath our feet at Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery).
One of my favorite spots in Bhutan are the remote and rugged marshlands of Phobjikha Valley in western Bhutan. Cattles graze the plains along with the rare and much-revered black-necked cranes. This is the best place to see the birds, especially in winter, when they migrate here from the Tibetan Plateau. The birds are featured in many Bhutanese songs and a festival is held each November to welcome the birds.
Hiking along the rice paddies of Punakha was another great experience as I got to walk through the plains, meet villagers along the way, and see Bhutan from a different angle. This short 45-minute trail led us through several villages before arriving at Chhimi Lhakhang temple.
Dozens if not hundreds of villages dot the landscapes of Wangdue Phodrang. Most Bhutanese live in the rural areas, sustaining their lives through farming.
Rice is the main staple of the Bhutanese diet. It's grown each June and harvested in November. The season was already over during my visit, but the rice terraces were still an awesome sight at this time of the year.
Before the 1960s, Thimphu was nothing more than rice paddies and a few clusters of villages. When the third king of Bhutan decided to develop the country, he moved the capital from Punakha to Thimphu and built the capital into what it is now. Today, over 100,000 people live in the capital city and it is developing and expanding faster than ever.
5 Day Lhasa and Yomdrok Lake Tour
Everest Base Camp Trek
Bhutanese Architecture and Buddhist Structures
Dzongs (fortresses) are the most important landmarks in Bhutan, with over 20 dzongs found all over the country (one in each province). Lauded as the most beautiful dzong (fortress) in Bhutan, the Punakha Dzong not only has an impressive architecture but its location along the Pho Chu (Male River) and Mo Chu (Female River) makes it all the more stunning. This dzong also served as the capital seat of Bhutan for more than three hundred years.
Bhutan’s most famous site is the Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Perched precariously on the side of a 900m-high cliff, the monastery is a stunner that deserves superlative descriptions. Few things blow my mind away these days, and Taktshang is definitely one of them. The two-hour steep hike up there at high altitude may not be a stroll in the park, but once you’re up there, the views make it well worth it.
Every night, Thimphu’s Tashichho Dzong is lit up in beautiful gold, white and red colors. This photo was shot from Sangaygang, a lookout point on one of the hilltops overlooking Thimphu. I was shivering in the cold, bristling air but this view distracted me.
Dzongs are used for two purposes these days–half of it for government administration offices and the other half for monastic bodies. Inside the Paro Dzong, windows and doors are adorned with intricately carved woodwork and beautifully paintings of lotus flowers, clouds, snow lions, tigers, and gods.
A work of art — windows in the dzongs are framed with man-made carvings of Sanskrit prayers, flowers and wheels.
The Docho La Pass is another excellent spot for both the panoramic views and architecture. Stupas (108 of them!) make up the Druk Wangyel Chorten, erected by the former queen of Bhutan to commemorate the battle that took place in southern Bhutan in 2008.
Prayer wheels are found everywhere in Bhutan, from the streets to rural areas and deep within the mountains. This one is found at the foothills of the Taktshang Goembe, Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
Multi-hued prayer flags are intertwined to form a stupa of sorts, at the Lawa La Mountain Pass in Wangdue Phodrang. Prayer flags are hung such that when the wind blows, it sends the prayers to heaven. Each of the colors used in the Bhutanese/Tibetan Buddhist flags represent a different element: blue for space, white for air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.
As mentioned, prayer wheels are everywhere in Bhutan. These ones are found on the streets of Paro town. They are always turned clockwise to send prayers to the heavens. Traditionally, the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel.
These traditional hand-woven cloths are either worn as kiras for ladies or used for ornamental purposes at home.
People and Wildlife
The takin, a goat-antelope native to the Himalayas, is the national animal of Bhutan. According to the Bhutanese beliefs, this animal was created by the popular saint, Drukpa Kuenlay, also known as the Divine Madman.
Yaks are only found in high-altitude regions of Bhutan. Wild yaks are unfortunately extinct in the area, and these yaks are owned by yak herders in the Lawa La Pass area, close to Phobjikha Valley. Yak milk and cheese are often consumed by Bhutanese, although now they are rarer than before.
While wandering around Thimphu, I found this monk near the weekend market, and politely approached him for a photo. He kindly agreed and even started a conversation with me. I told him I was really enjoying Bhutan, and he gave me a wide smile and said, “Welcome to Bhutan! We are happy to have you!”
I was honored to be accompanied by these two gentlemen throughout my whole trip in Bhutan with Bridge to Bhutan. My guide Sangay, on the left, is a young 29-year-old Bhutanese who was always eager to share his culture and traditions with me. On the right is the very polite Nidup who drove me around all week and played a game of carrom or two with me. Special thanks to Lotay and Fin, the brothers who run Bridge to Bhutan, for their warm hospitality and informative guidance!