The long awaited trip to Bhutan has finally happened. I have always wanted to visit this small Himalayan Buddhist nation coined the “Happiest Country on Earth”. Unlike its south asian neighbors, Bhutan was never colonized. It is not an easy place to get to compounded with limits set by the government as to the total number of visitors per year. Also from what I understand, accommodation options are somewhat limited to either the ultra luxurious lodges or very basic hostels and homestays with not much in between. Currently, you can fly to Bhutan from Bangkok, Singapore, and a few other places in India. We flew into Paro on Drukair from Bangkok with a brief stop in Kolkata. Apparently, Paro is one of the hardest airports in the world to land and take off and only a small number pilots are certified to land here. The airport is surrounded by steep hills and is only operational during daylight hours because pilots must use the manual mode and hand-fly the plane through a narrow alley between the mountains to reach the airport. One tip is if you fly Drukair, the business class is only US$50 more expensive than economy and much more comfortable.
We decided to stay at the all-inclusive Amankora for our 7-night journey. Amankora has 5 lodges spread out in the Kingdom of Bhutan but we will only have time to stay at 3 of them. Not only is Amankora probably the nicest hotel in the country, it also arranges all the transfers from lodge to lodge as well as activities and guides for you. If you are familiar with the Aman resorts, you will know they are a head and shoulders above the rest and they are known for their excellent service and ability to anticipate their guests’ every need.
We stayed at the Amankora lodges in Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro.
The 16-suite Amankora Thimphu lodge
Entrance to Amankora Thimphu
From Paro to Thimphu
The giant Shakyamuni Buddha sits at 52 meters tall on the hill overlooking Thimphu.
Construction is still going on at the Great Buddha Dordenma
National Memorial Chorten
Giant prayer wheels at the National Memorial Chorten
Trashi Chhoe Dzong
Trashi Chhoe Dzong
We were in Thimphu on a Saturday which is the local market day. Our guide took us to the main market and introduced us to many of the local produce which we have not seen elsewhere. Interesting visit indeed! We also spent some time visiting the different cottage industries such as weaving, paper making, and thangka painting.
These small zucchini like vegetables in the foreground are called crowbeak. We asked the lodge to prepare some for us and turns out they remove most of the “meat” and seeds and stir-fry the outer layer which reminded me of bell peppers.
The vegetable on the left is called fiddle fern and grows in the wild.
Sausages, dried meats, and cheese
Two types of chugo which are made of yak cheese. The lighter colored ones have been soaked in milk while the darker colored ones have been smoked. The locals chew them like chewing gum.
Dried cow skin that is usually used to make soups
All kinds of chilies which are a main ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine.
Betel nuts which the locals chew and end up with red coloring all over their teeth and lips.
All kinds of incense powder
Yeast patties to make wine
Cereal section of the market
Example of a traditional covered bridge in Bhutan
Bhutan’s textiles have unique and intricate patterns as well as special skills and methods in their production. The Queen Mother is passionate in promoting this national art of weaving or thagzo.
Traditional art of paper making
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. They shoot a ridiculously far distance of 140 meters!
Can you see the target at the far end? I honestly can’t….
How one manages to hit such a small target from 140 meters away is mind boggling.
Town square of Thimphu
Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. Traffic here is still conducted by the traffic police.
The rare takin looks like a cross between a goat and a cow and is believed to have been created by the Divine Madman.
Other than the takin, there are peacocks, deer, etc in this zoo
Unfortunately, during our visit, Cheri Goemba which is the first monastic body established in Bhutan was closed for renovations. Instead, we went on a hike with views of Thimphu and Trashi Chhoe Dzong and ended up at a monastic school where the young monks were playing soccer outside their monastery. A nice end to our brief couple days in Thimphu.
Prayer flags are essential to Buddhism in Bhutan. These rectangular pieces of cloth inscribed with mantras are hoisted for prosperity, happiness, and karmic merit. It is believed that the wind and water will move them and activate the blessings. You will notice that most of the flags are placed on bridges over water or up on hillsides.
View of Trashi Chhoe Dzong from our hike
White prayer flags are believed to guide the soul of the dead away from being reborn into the three lower realms (life in hell, ghosts, and animals).
The guide told us that many elderly locals move up to the hills near monasteries to live out the remainder of their days amongst meditation, prayers, and nature.
Young monks in a game of soccer
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