One day at work, a friend and I were planning our vacation days. We wanted to do something exciting for our birthdays (in October) and as all conversations with me, this one headed to travel too! Someplace in the mountains we said, maybe the Himalayas. With its recent news of the Gross National Happiness index, Bhutan made the cut! Our company of 2 turned into a crowd of 6 as the travel dates drew nearer!
This beautiful Himalayan Narnia is a a heady concoction of ancient Buddhist traditions, spicy food, intricate architecture, tall mountains and fertile valleys. For the adventure enthusiast, Bhutan has several trekking trails, mountain biking and rafting options.
Thimphu, the capital city, is a 5 hour drive from the border town of Phuentsholing (with one stop and two check posts). The landscape changes to hilly terrain with winding roads, steep valleys and tall peaks. Mostly pine and cypress trees cover the hillsides. There are a few step-farms closer to the cities, with the farmhouses perched atop the hills. We cross the Tista river closer to the Indian border near Sikkim and the Wangchhu river that runs through Thimphu.
Since we were in a land where momos were easily available, we stopped for some en route. Locals and travelers thronged the tiny restaurant.They were serving momos, red rice and Ema datse. There were narrow aisles, walled with wood, along the main room, overlooking the valley. The cashier’s counter was beautiful with intricately painted wooden panels.
We reached Thimphu around 3pm. We were staying at Hotel Migmar, by the river. I had a room on the topmost floor which has slanting wooden rafters and great views of the hill sides and the river. It’s a ten minute drive to the city centre. We spent the rest of the day exploring the shops and cafes, finally ending up at the local pub!
Exploring the city centre
Thimphu is a good place to go pub hopping..the crowd is great and there are some nice pubs with live music and outdoor seating . I would recommend Mojo Park opposite the Changlimithang stadium which has picnic benches outside and bands performing inside. There is a small party going on outside with travelers and locals mingling over beers and smokes (yes, almost everyone is smoking here although its illegal!) Don’t miss the Druk Lager beer, its light, similar to pilsner and not too hoppy. It’s available at most diners, pubs and supermarkets. The Red Panda beer is also worth a try.
My friend and I love biking…one look at the lush river banks and rolling hillsides,and we went searching for rentals, there is a bike rental store right opposite the hotel (at Nu 1800 per day, its rather expensive), one could ride along the river to the town centre. Cross over the Lungten Zam bridge to get to Nordzim Lam, which is lined with shops selling hand woven scarves, masks (similar to the ones used in the tsechus or festivals), purses, prayer wheels and other Buddhist prayer artefacts.Walk past the clock tower towards the main junction and towards the left on Hogdzin Lam, you will find a quaint book store tucked into a street corner, aptly named ‘ Junction bookstore’. They have a small reading room up stairs where the book club meets every Thursday. Toto and Suzi are the store pets, and they can be found snoozing by the fiction section! Mui is the owner, and her friends who visit the bookstore often, play the ukulele and guitar for impromptu jam sessions!
Walk further down and there are shops selling postcards, beautiful water color paintings, wooden phalluses (they’re all over the place!) and masks.
This is a good place to pick up small gifts for family and friends back home. If you feel like a coffee break, to energize after the shopping, there’s a great coffee shop tucked away on the top floor of a building on Phendey Lam called Karma Coffee. They have brews from all over the world and delicious croissants and sandwiches.
Run by river Wang chhu
I started my day with a run by the river Wang chhu, its banks are lined with pine trees. I run over the bridge and downhill into the field of Pelkhil School, It’s a quaint local school at the foothills and by the river Wangchhu. The banks are covered with lavender and pink flowers. There is a small embankment on the left of the school field which is perfect for my morning yoga practice and meditation by the river.
Now I’m set for the day’s exploring, The National Memorial Chorten is the first stop. It has a serene courtyard with a stupa at the centre and the larger chorten behind it. Each monastery and chorten has a separate section on the left which has 5 very large prayer wheels. I wouldn’t miss a chance to bag some good luck so I religiously (pun intended!) turned the prayer wheels at all the monasteries. Remember, its always an odd number of turns, same applies to the number of times you walk around the chorten or the sanctum.
Thimphu has winding roads lined with apple and pomegranate trees. The road going uphill from the chorten leads to the Buddha Dordenma statue. This is 170 feet tall, golden statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, overlooks Thimphu. This statue is said to have smaller 125 statues of Buddha inside it. The Kuenselphodrang nature park lies behind this hill.
Next we head to the National Textile Museum , it’s building is distinct, almost modern European with its high walls of glass and wide sweeping staircases flooded with sunlight from the windows alongside. The entrance has a ceiling to floor tapestry filled with myriad bright colors and a central weaving of Buddha.
Such tapestries are used in the tsechus or festivals which take place in the dzongs. These festivals take place in different cities, we happened to be there at the time of one of their main festivals. The dzongs are filled with travelers and locals, both equally enthusiastic about the festivities. There are masked dances and prayer processions by the monks. They are meant to educate the people about the cycle of life and death in Buddhism.They also depict after life and how sins, good deeds are judged. Those who watch are supposedly blessed. There’s even a jester to break the monotony and entertain the crowds! Usually, he impersonates the famous maverick saint Drukpa Kunley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’! This monk was known for his unorthodox and humourous ways of teaching Buddhism. These often had sexual undertones, which explains the phallic signs and paintings that are everywhere… on the walls of houses, sign boards, at dzongs, you can even get wooden phalluses at gift shops!
So..where were we…right, the textile museum..! I loved their short documentary on the history of traditional Bhutanese attire and their style of warp and weft weaving. Boots are made by men and most of the weaving is done by women. Men wear ceremonial shawls called Kabney and the women wear silk shawls with intricate patterns, known as Rachu.. The color of these shawls denote the rank of the person wearing them. Other ornaments include brooches called Koma, pins called Thingkhap. Their clothing is influenced by Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet.
The farmers’ market is usually my favorite place in any city..its buzzing with activity, its where the locals shop and it sells all things authentic, not mass produced and non processed! This one happens every Saturday. On the left bank of the river (yes, it right by the deliciously cold, gushing, jade green Wangchhu!), there is an old building, with open stalls. It sells everything from ferns called Tenke,dried turnip leaves in bunches, dried mushrooms,brinjals, chillies (at least 10 varieties), farm eggs to cereal made from local grains such as buckwheat.
I find exactly what I was looking to buy… sud-ja leaves (butter tea, made with butter and flavoured with salt),dried mushrooms and some local dried chilli. As I wander on, I find a lovely greenhouse, with a small nursery and a shop selling gardening tools. Right by the greenhouse, there is a small restaurant which serves a quick bite (sud-ja and red rice with Ema Datse) to the tired shopper!
The stalls are filled with colourful masks, intricate jewellry,arrows, locks, prayer artefacts and a myriad interesting knick knacks.
By then I’m rather tired so I sit down and watch as a local artisan makes arrows and sharpens the tips. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and in the olden days all the bows and arrows were handmade. The arrows were made from bamboo or reed and fletched with feather vanes, tipped with metal arrowheads.
Quivers were made of animal hide and woven straps. Now of course, everything is plastic, metal and imported!