“Wherever you go, go with all your heart” – Confucius
Having spent an excellent time in Thimphu, it was time to venture out into Central Bhutan. Bhutanese roads aren’t the best, and that coupled with the incredible loops as you try to ascend/descend through the mountains means that it takes much longer than normal to travel. However Thinley, my guide & friend who was driving, had the best local pop music for us to listen to while we drove. Ironically, it was on this drive that I learnt about Ed Sheeran’s hit single (Shape of You) from Thinley – this is shamefully how up to date I am.
On the drive from Thimphu to Phobjika Valley, we went through the Dochu La Pass. It was shrouded in mist as we arrived, at 3140 metres above sea level. There’s a very symmetric collection of 108 chortens (stupas) built in 2005 by the queen in memory of the lives lost in flushing out the Assamese militants from southern Bhutan. There are also simple, small meditation caves at the top of the mountain – each dedicated to a different deity. What better way to reflect than to sit high on a mountain pass at 3000+m shrouded in mist? I sat there for over an hour in the cave with a blanket, just staring outside at the white foggy envelope that limited visibility to just a few metres. So pure is the air here, that you can see lichen growing on trees.
The chortens and meditation caves at the Dochu La Pass
I was very excited to set off hiking through the Gangtey Valley after we reached. Thinley warned me there was no phone signal. To top it off, I didn’t have a map, so drew directions on a piece of paper, and hoped for the best. Given it was mid January, there was hardly another person hiking the trail. With no phone signal, human presence or map, it was a real risk going out there into the wilderness alone, but somehow the excitement and adrenaline kicked in. The Gangtey Nature Trail leads you through a forest of pines, past a village, into another forest, and then opens out into the vast valley, that’s pretty brown and dry in winter (but apparently quite the opposite in summer). It’s also home to the elusive black-necked cranes that take up their winter residence here (coming in from Tibet). So revered are these creatures, that there is a Crane Festival hosted in the courtyards of the monastery upon their arrival from the Tibetan Plateau in November each year.
The pine forest and vast valley in Phobjika
The Phobjika Valley is a glacial valley on the western side of the Black Mountains. When the government introduced electricity here a few years ago, they invested heavily in making sure all cabling was underground to protect the winter habitat of the revered cranes that visit annually. I was getting used to the fact that I was often the only person staying in each hotel I visited – and Phobjika was no exception. With no phone reception or internet, it was just me, the view of the valley, the fireplace in the common area, lots of tea, and good books to read.
Following my newly found routine of doing at least an hour’s worth of meditation in each town I visited, I went to the Gangtey Goemba (Monastery). It follows the prophesy from the 15th century treasure finder Pema Lingpa that a monastery named gang-teng meaning hill-top would be built on this site and his teachings would be spread from here (the Nyingma sect of Mahayana Buddhism). Apart from two monks and a cat, there was not a soul around. Just a calm blowing of the breeze, and the warm rays of the sun as I sat and closed my eyes.
Our next stop was Punakha, which used to be the capital of Bhutan until it shifted to Thimphu in 1955. Given its much warmer temperature in winter compared to Thimphu, the monastic body takes up their winter residence here. With its lower elevation and hotter, wetter summers, rice farming is quite widespread in the valley. Its most famous building has to be the Punakha Dzong – the second Bhutanese fortress to be built, which sits at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers. Christened Pungthang Dechen Phodrang or Palace of Great Happiness, the building contains Rangjung Kharsapani – Bhutan’s most treasured possession (a relic from Tibet), and is surrounded by jacaranda trees. It’s particularly special, not just because of the lilac magic in spring when the jacaranda trees are in bloom, but because all of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned here.
Having seen a temple on top of a mountain while driving through Punakha valley, I was determined to venture all the way to the top the following day, to see it. So we set off on a hike through paddy fields and stinging nettles and slowly wound up the mountain to reach the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, 7km north of Punakha. This relatively new chorten built in 1999 is dedicated to the fifth (present) King and for peace. To me, this was the most special temple I saw on this trip – it was not designed for community worship, monastic bodies or education. Its primary purpose is to ward off negative energy and to transport peace and harmony for all living beings. And you immediately feel a sense of calm, and positive energy as you enter the surroundings of the temple, with fabulous views of the Mo Chu valley.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten and the paddy fields you have to hike through to get there
Having heard lots about Bhutan’s obsession with phallic symbols, paintings and sculptures, we headed to one of the spots where all of this started – the Chimi Lhakhang temple – the Divine Madman’s temple (Fertility Temple). Here, the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley subdued a demon with his ‘magic thunderbolt’ and trapped it in a rock. He was known as the Divine Madman for his unconventional ways of teaching, through song, comedy and shocking sensual connotations. He also advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls and in carved wooden form on house tops, which is still in practice today (more so in some areas than others). While it might be slightly shocking to the unaware foreigner, it’s considered a completely normal and natural part of Bhutanese life to adorn your house with such paintings and symbols.
It’s not uncommon to see paintings of phalluses on houses in Bhutan
After reaching my final stop, Paro, the next adventure was to hike up to see the Tiger’s Nest – Paro Taktsang, featured on every classic post card of Bhutan. It’s one of the most mystical and magical of places, clinging impossibly to a cliff-top more than 3000 metres above sea level. According to tradition, the building is held to the cliff-face by the hairs of the khandroma or dakini – female celestial beings in Tibetan Buddhism, who carried building materials up to to the cliff on their backs. Quite a challenging hike that’s approximately 10 kilometres and reaches ~3000 metres above sea level, but for the views, it’s worth it a thousand times.
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery
With the temple complex here originating in the early 1690s, its spiritual importance stems from the fact that Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) who was an early Tibetan Buddhist master, credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated here. He was supposed to have meditated in this spot for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours in the 8th century. There are several legends that explain the name Tiger’s nest – one of which holds that an emperor’s wife transformed into a tigress and carried Guru Rinpoche on her back to these caves. After the Guru’s meditation, he emerged in 8 different incarnations and the place became holy. While this was probably the most touristy site that I visited in all of Bhutan, the views were spectacular, and if you’re up for the challenge, the hike beyond the Tiger’s Nest to go to the peak of the mountain provides even more solitude and fabulous vistas to look at.
While in Paro, I also visited the Paro Fortress – Rinchen Pung Dzong, which translates to ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels.’ Its primary mission was to defend the Paro Valley from the Tibetans, and it currently houses the monastic body, local courts and district government offices. My favourite part? The view from the balcony over Paro Valley – you have a first row seat to see planes descending into the valley to land at Paro Airport.
Inside the Paro Fortress and the views of Paro Valley from one of the balconies
One of my highlights of Paro has to be visiting a farmhouse, which Thinley managed to arrange. Many of the farmhouses here welcome visitors for a hot stone bath and home-cooked meal as an additional revenue stream. A traditional Bhutanese way of relaxing the muscles and body, it involves mixing fresh river water with Artemisia leaves and heated by inserting red-hot fire-roasted river stones into one chamber of the oak-wood bath. The high release of minerals from the river stones, coupled with the heated water and Artemisia create for sublime experience. I could have laid there for hours. After having a cup of warm butter tea, we then headed into the farm house, where the farmer’s wife had prepared a feast, featuring all the local favourites – ema datshi (chillies with cheese), kewa datshi (potatoes with cheese), shamu datshi (mushrooms with cheese). Little did I know that she had cooked the real ema datshi, using the small and spicy red chillies, which I hadn’t eaten so far on this trip. Confident in my ability to handle the spice, I chewed my hearty spoonful with full gusto only to start tearing immediately, much to the amusement of the whole family. She also brought out some homemade Ara – a traditional, clear, fermented alcohol that is made from rice. Apparently this can only be legally produced and consumed privately (the government cracked down on people trying to sell this through shopkeepers), so I was quite lucky to swig a few shots in the farmhouse.
A classic farmhouse meal, and me with the farmer’s wife, and my friend & guide – Thinley
The Dalai Lama once said, “You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others.” This especially rung true for me in Bhutan. People here really care about each other, their surroundings, other living beings, and their country. From the villager I met who was conscious of what tree he would cut for wood to build his house, to the person I saw pick up a stray plastic bottle a tourist had carelessly thrown on a hiking path until he found a bin, to the way the people of the country celebrated the birth of the prince by planting trees, to the fact that no one fishes in Bhutan since every living being has equal right to live, Bhutan really inspired me. It was a stark example of how the most content people can live very simple lives with not a great deal of money. And of how much more you appreciate life when you’re not constantly staring into a device.