It is a tiny kingdom perched in the Himalayas. So close to India and China, it is nature’s favourite child. And, the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan or simply Bhutan to the world has topped the list of world’s most favourite tourist destinations last year.
The thrill of visiting Bhutan begins once you get on to their plane. Why `their’ plane? Because it is probably the only country in the world which does not allow any foreign airline to land in its beautiful airport at Paro. Paro is Bhutan’s second-biggest city after Thimpu, the capital which is about 3 hours’ drive from the airport. So, the only option is to get on to Druk Airlines, which is also called Royal Bhutan Airlines. These aircraft are well designed and offer as much comfort as any other leading airliners in the world.
The Paro airport in Bhutan allows only 17 qualified pilots who are authorized to land on a runway that is surrounded by several 18,000-ft mountain peaks. The 6,500-ft runway only allows for arrivals and departures during the daytime. The dramatic approach to the runway is completely out of sight for the pilots until the last minute as they skilfully manoeuvre between mountains at a 45-degree angle before dropping quickly onto the runway. June to December is the ideal time to visit Bhutan as the air is clean and fresh with sunny skies. January and February are colder, but from then until April the climate remains dry and pleasant.
Punakha Dzong (the lovely mansion once used by the royals) is the most beautiful dzong in the country, and its white walls are covered by lilac-coloured jacaranda flowers. This dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan and it served as the capital and seat of government until the mid-1950s. All of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned here. The dzong is still the winter residence of the King and Queen.
Bhutan is known for its natural beauty, forest conservation, gross national happiness (GNH is more precious to the government than GDP), great culture & heritage and biodiversity. Bhutan has 72% forest area and every Bhutanese is very passionate about preserving nature.
Our guide Tilak, a half Hindu, half Bhutanese, keeps warning us as we take a ride in the bus. There is a river which winds through the kingdom and he says no one is allowed to catch fish or wash their vehicles in the water. “Don’t try to get down and go near the water” he cautions.
Thimpu, Paro and Phuntsheoling are the major centres of shopping in Bhutan. Phuntsheoling is the border town between India and Bhutan and one can drive up to Thimpu from this town and it takes about 4 hours to Paro and another three hours to Thimpu. If one wants to enjoy the scenic beauty of this tiny country, it is advisable to fly to Paro either from Kolkata or Delhi and while returning drive down to Phuntsheoling.
The Bhutanese, from small children to elderly people, opt for a formal dress, typically wearing the traditional dress (“Kho” for men and “Kira” for women on a daily basis). The traditional dress consists of long skirts down to the ankle, long sleeves and high necklines.
Though Bhutan, a land that has made promoting happiness its paramount goal, had ended its more than a century of royal rule, the young king and queen are a much respected and loved couple. The present king Jigme Namgyal Wangchuck and his consort Jetsun Pema, along with their son, live like a commoner in a three-floor apartment complex in Thimpu. Tilak proudly says “My king has good contact with the common people and often walks through the tough terrain and reaches out to the Bhutanese living in the higher ranges of the mountains. He never uses helicopters or any other vehicles but prefers to walk. And we Bhutanese like to walk miles every day”.
Bhutan has long been away from modernity. It allowed the internet and television only in 1999. Though there are plenty of private cars now, it has kept out any major industries from coming and spoiling the natural eco systems. It largely depends on India and everything, from crude oil to fish and meat, are brought from India in trucks.
Of course, the nation has breweries and wine, whisky and beer are locally made. They are cheaper and are of good quality. Peach wine is a speciality as plenty of peaches is grown in Bhutan. About 90 per cent of the people are Buddhists and the rest are Christians and Hindus.
Indian nationals intending to visit Bhutan are required to carry any of the two valid Travel Documents’ a Valid Indian Passport having validity of minimum 6 months; and/or Voter Identity Card, issued by the Election Commission of India. No Visa is required to visit Bhutan.
Until 1974, Bhutan didn’t let foreigners in. Now also one does not see many Europeans or Americans who flock to Nepal until December 2019, any foreigner who wanted to enter Bhutan had to pay US $ 250 per day and Indians and visitors from other south East Asian countries were exempted from this entry fee. This made Bhutan one of the favourite destinations Indians but the new year has brought in the shocking news that even Indians will have to pay this amount which means at least Rs 17,500 per head. This will almost shut the doors to middle-class Indians and it is to be seen how the Indian government will tackle this issue with its friendly neighbour.
“The fee is just to control the number of visitors entering Bhutan per day,” explained Tshering Chojur, a Bhutanese guide. “If the government says that visitors only need to spend $100 per day, then everyone will come, and it will be a problem, impacting both nature and our culture.”
One of the must see’ places in Thimpu is the giant Buddha overlooking the valley, the Great Buddha Dordenma. At 169 ft. tall, it is massive, and as shiny as real gold. It is gold plated. Inside its base, there are some 1,25,000 additional, much smaller gilded Buddha statues. Of course, the Tiger’ s Nest monastery is another major attraction but those with heart problems should keep off and not venture the tough trek. Tiger’s Nest is built into a cliff 3,000 ft. above Paro and is more than 10,000 feet above sea level. There are endless number of steps one has to climb up and down before entering this marvellous Buddhist temple. It easily takes about 4 to 5 hours to go up and down.
Archery is the national sport and green chili peppers together with ‘cheesy sauce’ is the national dish. Whether Bhutan really is the world’s happiest nation is for the tourists to decipher.