If you thought that ‘Shangri Las’ only existed in Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’ you might be mistaken. There are very few places in the world that come close to his fabled paradise. And one of them is Bhutan. Tucked away in the mighty Himalayas, this ancient kingdom is one of the most exclusive tourist destinations. From the bustling weekly markets to the fluttering prayer flags on the mountain slopes, from the unique architectural structures to the bounties of nature, Bhutan offers an unforgettable experience in a unique cultural setting.
Honeymooners will love the stunning beauty and irresistible allure of this tiny country. It is further matched by the deep spirituality, old world charm and placid ways of living. Hike up to a beautiful dzong (monastic fortress) on a lovely morning or let your hair down at a town pub (Yes! The Bhutanese love partying once a while). Snow capped mountains, picturesque valleys, gurgling rivers and luxuriant forests as you explore the country. Dzongs, Lhakangs and Chortens highlight the religiosity of the Bhutanese while festivals bring out the colours of pomp and gaiety. Fiercely traditional yet secular, the Bhutanese will welcome you warmly to cherish their distinct culture and heritBest Season to Visit
The weather can change drastically in the Himalayas and Bhutan is no exception. October and November are cool and dry, while March, April, May and the beginning of June are the summer months. Bhutan is quite gorgeous in spring (March-April). You can enjoy clear blue skies, walk amidst cherry blossoms or wild flowers or participate in local festivities. It is pouring from the end of June through September and traveling is best avoided. The roads are in bad condition and the long drives can be painful. Tourists generally visit during autumn and summers to see the Tsechus (festivals) held at various monasteries.History
Many records of ancient Bhutanese history have been lost in fires and earthquakes. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava or second Buddha) came to Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress. He is known as the father of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. Sgabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama is said to have started the present form of religious and secular government. The country adopted the form of Democratic Theocracy since 1907 and the system still continues. Bhutan is also the only country to practice the Tantric form of Mahayana. Where to Stay
Tourism is one of the mainstays of the Bhutanese economy and one can find decent infrastructure in most of the tourist hubs. Most hotels are small, clean, well-located and provide efficient services. Those seeking luxury can stay at Amankora. This is a set of four lodges run by the Aman Resorts chain in Paro, Thimphu, Gangtey and Punakha. The mountain lodges built in sync with Bhutanese architectural patterns have natural rammed earth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-panelled interiors with a king size bed, a traditional bukhari (wood-burning stove) and large terrazzo-clad bath. However, the $1000 per night rate is a major deterrent. Honeymooners can also stay at the Kichu Resort. You can hear the gurgling Wangdi River as you enjoy a romantic candle-lit dinner on the stone patio outside your room. Activities in the resort include barbeques, short hikes and bird watching trips to the nearby valleys.
Zhiwa Ling, or ‘Place of Peace,’ is Bhutan’s first luxury hotel. Rated on the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List of 2006, it lives up to its name. Spacious interiors, hand carved wooden cornices and masterful stonework are some of its highlights. A temple is built on the second floor using the 450 year old timber from the Gangtey Monastery. The hotel also organizes Bhutanese style weddings for its guests. BTCL, or the Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited, runs its own chain of hotels. Their hotels are clean, well-maintained and provide an excellent value for the money. There is a genuine effort to provide an authentic Bhutanese ambience at affordable rates.Places to SeeParo Valley:
One can easily get an exclusive vehicle for sightseeing and transfers in Bhutan. The drives are a great way to view the panoramic scenery. Paro Valley (7500 ft) is a must-see. You can enjoy a five hour trek to the Taktsang (Tigers Nest) Monastery, where Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have landed years ago. Perched on the side of a cliff, 900 meters above the floor of the valley, it offers spectacular views. The fluttering prayer flags in the horizon help people to maintain constant communication with the heavens. The main town of Paro looks straight out of a Western movie with a one street presence and rows of restaurants, bars and shops lining it. The Paro Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most important fortresses, was originally constructed by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. One must visit the National Museum (Ta Dzong) as it has a remarkable collection of thangkas, murals and stamps. The Drugyel Dzong built in 1649 is now only seen from the outside as the interiors are in ruins. The Tshogshing Lhakhang is a museum of ancient bronze and stone objects and artifacts captured during various Tibetan invasions. Thimphu:
The capital of Bhutan is a lovely, quaint town. The Memorial Chorten built in honor of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk is one of the most visible religious structures in Thimphu. Throughout the day people circumambulate round the chorten and worship at the small shrine at the entrance. The Tashichoedzong is the most stately and impressive building in Bhutan. It is built in traditional Bhutanese style, i.e. without use of nails or written plans. However, it is open only in winter. The Painting School teaches arts like butter painting, wood carving, slate carving, sculpture, weaving and embroidery to young boys and girls. It is open to the tourists for two hours every day (except holidays). The National Library is a repository of ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts. These books are in Tibetan style, printed or written on long strips of handmade paper stacked between pieces of wood and wrapped in silken cloth. Other sightseeing places in Thimphu include Central Tower, Mini Zoo, Changlimithang Stadium, Simtokha Dzong and Zangthopelri Lhakhang. Punakha & Wangduephodrang:
One has to drive through the Dochula Pass to reach Punakha. At 10,000 ft, the pass offers the most spectacular view of the Himalayan panoply in Bhutan. As you proceed ahead to Punakha, you see its majestic Dzong, located on the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers. En route to Wangduephodrang, you’ll see the Chime Lhakhang. It has a statue of Lama Drukpa Kunley and his dog as well as that of Shabdrung, Sakyamuni and Chenrezig. Wangduephodrang:
A wind swept town offers commanding views of the valley below. The 17th century Dzong is now in ruins. The place has a spot in ancient history as Bhutan’s secondary capital. One must make a trip to the Trongsa Dzong (129 km east of Wangdue). The most impressive Dzong in Bhutan, it overlooks a deep gorge. You get fantastic views of the Mangde River Valley from Trongsa. Bumthang Valley:
The locals refer to Bumthang as ‘Mini- Switzerland’. This valley boasts mesmerizing scenery of high hills, forested slopes, and scattered monasteries with the emerald waters of the Bumthang Chu ambling through it. The valley around Jakar (8,400 ft) is one of the most spectacular and ideal for romantic walks. Sightseeing places include Kurjey Lhakhang, Jambey Lhakhang, Karsumpey Plateau & the Swiss farm as well as Jakar Dzong. The drive from Ura in Bumthang takes you up Bhutan’s highest pass (12,400 ft) at Thrumsingla, and is one of the most beautiful of Himalayan journeys.What to Eat
Spicy! The Bhutanese believe that it is a badge of honour to eat as spicy food as possible. Red and green chilies are used generously in all dishes. Don’t forget to try out Ema Datse (cheese & chilies), a stew eaten with red rice. The yak cheese has a distinctive taste different from other types of cheeses. Phak Shaa Paa (Pork stew with radish) is also served with variants. Momos, or meat dumplings, are popular in Bhutan and in the entire Himalayan belt. Most dishes are tempered to suit individual tastes. The Swiss Bakery in Thimphu is a great place for coffee and cake. It also offers a range of mouth watering Tibetan, Indian and Continental dishes. Try out chhang (local beer) and arra (local spirit distilled from rice, maize or barley). Salted butter tea, or suja. is another specialty. Bhutan has a number of local joints but it is best to stick to the buffets served at the hotels. Mineral water is advisable throughout the trip.What to Buy
The Bhutanese are well-known for their artistic interests. You must buy some hand woven shawls, skirts and other fabrics that have intricate designs on them. Souveniers like trinkets, hand made paper, prayer wheels, masks, and Thangkas make great gifts. Thangkas are Buddhist hand paintings on hand made paper. The lovely paintings can be hung from the walls or framed. For the fashion conscious, there are a lot of accessories to choose from. Shop for some junk silver (that’s all over the place), turquoise, or use the colorful scarves to create an outfit.Rules and Regulations
Bhutan is undoubtedly one of the most exclusive of tourist destinations anywhere and efforts are taken to maintain it. Only 5,000 tourists are allowed to visit Bhutan every year. This number is strictly regulated in order to protect the fragile environment and distinct culture. All foreign passport holders have to pay $240 per person per day during their stay in Bhutan. Tourists are banned from carrying tobacco into Bhutan and a limited amount of alcohol is permissible. They also need a visa to enter Bhutan. Visas on arrival are not entertained and processing takes seven working days. The visa will be stamped at port of entry upon payment of a fee. Two passport sized photos are required for the visa. It can be extended in Thimphu for up to 6 months.
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