Irad Mustafa visits the most peaceful country in the world
The idea of Bhutan is almost fairytale like. It can be considered a mystical realm, hidden from the interventions of the modern world, which is apparent even from the temple-like appearance of the Paro airport and the people there in their traditional toga-like attire.
The destination is on the top of many travelers’ wish lists but is notoriously tricky to visit. Travellers from outside SAARC nations have to pay an all-in fee (transportation, accommodation, guide, food) of $200 per day plus a visa fee of $20. In peak seasons (March to May and September to November) the all-in fee rises to $250 per day. On top of that, travelers can only get visas through packages booked through Bhutanese tour operators. SAARC citizens, however, don’t have to pay an arm and leg as they are exempted from these fees and can obtain an on-arrival-Visa with no extra charges.
The whole country can be viewed as a spectacular photography location. Given that the route heading east from the Paro airport to Thimpu and then to Gangtey and Trongsa is more or less at the same altitude, however the serenity of the mountains and the greens against the ever flowing streams and rivers stays with you throughout.
This is especially apparent if you drive from one location to the other through the snakelike roads on the mountain sides, getting a full glimpse of the grandeur of the country. The capital, Thimpu, is the most developed location in the country. It provides more of a city vibe than other locations with its hotels, restaurants, and stores but the best part is that no matter where you are in the city, the blue skies and green mountains are always in sight. Locations worth visiting include the Memorial Chorten and the gargantuan Buddha Dordema.
The Memorial Chorten of Thimphu was erected in 1974 in memory of the third king of Bhutan, who died in 1972. The whitewashed Chorten is decorated with richly painted gold designs. Throughout the day people drift around the temple, and leave their prayers at small shrines inside the gate. It’s particularly fascinating and calming to observe a dedicated group of Bhutanese senior citizens working away at giant prayer wheels in a smaller room beside the main entrance while others walk past towards the main Chorten.
The awe-inspiring Buddha Dordenma statue completed construction on September 25th, 2015 and stands in the middle of the gorgeous mountain range overlooking Thimpu. At a staggering 169 ft (51m), it endures as the largest Buddha statue in the world. Once you have a full view of it, it makes you stop in your steps and contemplate how peaceful and powerful it is to have a giant Buddha overlooking an entire city. After fully digesting the size of the mammoth structure, you can enter the inner hall. Once inside, you can meditate or pray in a room that houses over a hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the main Dordenma itself, is made of bronze and gilded in gold.
Paro is a little more rural and remote; however, it’s on the way to what is without a doubt the most memorable sight in Bhutan, the Paro Taktsang or Tigers Nest. As legend goes, Padmasambava or Guru Rinpoche flew to the Paro Taktsang on a Tiger’s back to meditate when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan. After meditating in a cave for around four months he dispelled the local ‘demons’ and began preaching Buddhism to the Bhutanese.
For those with faint hearts (and legs) the trek might be a bit grueling unless you have a flying tiger. Tiger’s Nest sits 10,000 feet above sea level and requires a 3km trek that can take from two to three hours. While getting yourself the heavy leg workout as you climb the well-maintained but very steep trail, the monastery pops in and out of sight in between the trees and the mist. If you have any reservations during your climb, you might find encouragement in observing Bhutanese mothers with small babies floating up the trail like they’re on an escalator.
After reaching your final destination, visitors have to remove their shoes to enter the three temples within, all the while gasping at the surreal view from the top. Further inside Tiger’s Nest is the cold cave where Padmasambabva is said to have meditated before going on his demon hunt.
Other recommended places to visit include Punakha with The Dochula Pass on its way, the Haa Valley, and Phobjikha Valley. Bhutan is also well known for its festivals so it’s better to check the dates in advance so the trip can cover at least one of their vibrant celebratory occasions.
Bhutan is wonderful for spiritual and mental healing. Tourism is an important source of income for the Bhutanese locals. Thus, while on your visit, preserving the local traditions and protecting the environment is essential. For those willing to make the trip it also serves as a great opportunity to experience both without feeling like a disruptive element. Enjoy the breathtaking views and take in the rich and enthralling culture as you spend a week or so replenishing your mental fortitude in the land of the Thunder Dragon (and flying tigers).