Suspended 30,000 feet above the ground, my fellow travellers and I are gasping. What’s taken our breath away is not the rarefied atmosphere — we’re snuggled inside an Airbus A319 — but the dragon’s-eye view of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world. We skim past some of the highest mountains on earth. First, we airkiss Makalu (8,462m). Then Everest (8,848m) — because it is there. Not leastly, dazzling Kanchendzonga (8,585m). And so begins our dramatic descent through the clouds, past Bhutan’s holiest mountain, Jhomolhari (7,326m), into one of its loveliest valleys, the hills close enough to touch.


Even today, flights into the Himalayan kingdom are landed visually, the pilot charting an impossible flight path on a wing and a prayer. In one last move, our Thunder Dragon swoops into Paro and comes to a juddering halt.


An hour later, I’m deep inside the chaotic sprawl of Thimphu. The mood on the streets is buoyant. There’s a new king on the throne, a century of benevolent monarchy has just been celebrated, and Bhutan has made a smooth transition to democracy, into which, claim the subjects, they have been unwillingly coerced by the royals. The world may have crashed and burned in 2008, but for Bhutan, where progress is measured in units of happiness, it was a rocking year.


My introduction to the world’s youngest democracy is mediated. I’m holed up at Thimphu’s finest new address, the Taj Tashi. The dzong-inspired building, a warm shade of ochre, with its traditional wooden roof, towers over the town. It’s startlingly beautiful on the outside. Inside, it’s a mahal of a hotel. Later, at the Jiva Spa, a timid masseuse scrubs my back with aromatic kempa blossoms as I soak in a Bhutanese hot stone bath. I cannot say this enough, but the Taj is a calm oasis to retreat to in a disorderly capital that is creaking under the congestion. It’s frenetic only by Bhutanese standards, of course — Thimphu’s most popular tourist attraction remains its solitary traffic policeman. At the auspiciously named Chig Ja Gye (the number 108), the Bhutanese restaurant at the Taj, I had a meal of uncountable courses and my first ema-datse, Bhutan’s national dish of chillies and cheese. It was but the first of several memorable meals — which would leave me hungry for more.


But the call of the journey was strong and I moved on. The drive first transported me to the snow-swept Dochu La pass (3,140m) — where 108 chortens were built in 2005 as penance for the deaths caused during the flushing out of Assamese militants from the forests of southern Bhutan — before descending into the warm, lush bowl of the Punakha valley.


At the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (the ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ rivers) sits the most beautiful dzong in all Bhutan. But Punakha, an ancient seat of power (it was the capital of Bhutan for over 300 years), is as unselfconscious as the next dzong. The distinctive architecture of the dzongs is dictated by function. To this day these towering fort-monasteries, whose walls slope inwards for protection, house government offices as well as monk bodies. Much as they have for hundreds of years, each dzong administers a dzongkhag or district. To enter Punakha dzong, one must ascend a steep flight of wooden stairs, which can be pulled up if safety demands. The mortal remains of the great terton (treasure-seeker), Pema Lingpa, are preserved here, as is Bhutan’s greatest religious treasure — the Ranjung (‘Self-Created’) Kharsapani, an image of the Avalokiteswara (called Chenresig here) which was brought from Tibet. A flash flood caused by a glacial lake-burst in 1994 destroyed Punakha and damaged the dzong. Most of the residents and facilities have now shifted to the neat (and charmless) concrete grid of Khuruthang, four kilometres to the south.


Coy visitors may shy away from the robust penises that one finds painted all over Bhutan. But now the penises were appearing with alarming regularity and were difficult to ignore. These disembodied phalluses grace nearly every home but they all belong to one man — Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529). The Divine Madman, as he is also called, is Bhutan’s most beloved saint. His unconventional methods of instruction included the use of ribald humour, urinating on thangkas and bedding the wives of his hosts.


In the centre of the Punakha valley lies his temple, on a hillock whose shape he compared, characteristically, to a woman’s breast. The temple was built by a cousin after Drukpa Kunley subdued the demoness of Dochu La with his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’. Under the pale winter sun, I trudge to Chimi Lhakhang, dodging cowpats, past fields of onion, mustard and broccoli, past blooms of poinsettia and clutches of cacti, past strips of meat drying in the winter sun. At the temple there is a wang, or blessing, waiting for me, administered from a choice of wooden or bone phalluses.


The blessing brings fair weather next morning and I embark on the scenic drive to Trongsa. On distant mist-laden hills, thick clutches of prayer poles send good wishes flying in the wind. Bhutan’s biggest source of revenue may be the hydroelectric power it sells to India but, in Bhutan itself, waterpower is put to nobler use. All along the way are prayer wheels, powered by gushing torrents, and they keep humming pace with our progress.


The road passes through the ramshackle settlement of Wangdue Phodrang, perched precariously along a ridge above the Punak Tsang Chhu. But not for long. This eccentric old town will soon shift to a safer (and boring) location below. Beyond Wangdi, as the town is colloquially called, the road ascends to the bracing Pele La (3,420m), where the temperature drops below freezing. Through a thicket of prayer flags, we enter central Bhutan. The descent is rapid, into what appears to be a drier valley, the hillsides lined with dwarf bamboo. The vegetation changes rapidly, however. Lush evergreen forests take over and, in the lower reaches, broadleaf species. Beyond the village of Chendebji, the roads enters the broad valley of the Magde Chhu. Finally, the dzong of Trongsa slips into view, seemingly suspended in mid-air on the other side of the valley. But it’s still 15km away. The road then switchbacks into the valley, crosses the raging river at the very end, before turning back to approach Trongsa.


Trongsa enjoys a strategic location, with the sole road between eastern and western Bhutan running through it (in the past, it ran through the dzong itself) and tradition dictates that the crown prince must serve as penlop (governor) of Trongsa before ascending the throne.


The dzong is a confounding warren. But up a flight of stairs is an elevated courtyard and a miracle — the fag end of the annual tsechu (festival). The town’s primarily Tibetan residents, now well integrated into Bhutanese society, are out in their Sunday best, there are gambling sessions (quite illegal) outside the dzong, special tsechu sales and, of course, some grand chams (dances). Later, from my room at the Yangkhil Resort across town, I drink in delicious views of a moonlit dzong and of the Trongsa watchtower above, now a splendid museum.


The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Trongsa to Bumthang tackles the Yotong La (3,425m). Then we’re in Jakar, a windy little town at the bottom of the valley, its main artery clogged with charming wooden shacks selling everything from strips of dried yak cheese to enormous wooden phalluses. But not for long. Bhutan’s appetite for town planning is insatiable and Jakar will soon shift to a new location. For a few years now, it has been possible to tour Bhutan in some considerable degree of comfort. The first luxury chain to set up shop was Amanresorts. Called Amankora, after kora or pilgrimage, their circuit of five lodges takes in all the key tourist sites, Bumthang being the latest. A sixth lodge, planned at Trongsa, will bring the kora full circle. From my bathtub at the Amankora Bumthang, I can gaze at the historic Wangdicholing Palace, which now houses monks. When I look over my shoulder, Jakar dzong peeks back at me.


The lodge is a stunner, of course. But, importantly, it’s unpretentious, the flavour all local. I was welcomed with warm apple cider, locally brewed, lunch consisted of a simple pork dumpling broth, braised yak and buckwheat noodles (a Bumthang special, buckwheat being the area’s chief crop). The conceit is that this is a residence and the staff your family. So no overfussy service here, even though your every whim is catered to.


Next morning, I’m lured out of bed by a piping hot cup of suja (butter tea). While luxury is something I’m quite at home with, this last is definitely an acquired indulgence. The weather is as crisp as a papad, and charms me out of doors.


Bumthang consists of four valleys, and Chokhor, where Jakar lies, is the main one. I carve out a gorgeous little circuit of temples, beginning on the western side of the valley. Here lies the 659AD-built Jampey Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s most venerable temples. Despite a few additions over the centuries, the primary shrine retains a modest grandeur of its own. Each October sees one of the most popular festivals of Bhutan held here, the Jampey Lhakhang Drup. The highlight of the festival is a late night tercham (treasure dance), where dancers appear only in their masks, and nothing else. The path onwards loops past potato fields to the Kurjey Lhakhang, the temple of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava to us), who popularised Buddhism in Bhutan. The Guru first visited Bumthang in 746AD at the invitation of its king Sendha Gyab or Sindhu Raja, who had been possessed by a demon. Guru Rinpoche exorcised the demon and converted both king and demon to Buddhism. The cave where he prayed, and around which this temple is built, still has a ‘body print’ of his. Guru Rinpoche’s staff, which he threw behind the temple, is said to have grown into the handsome cypress tree you see today. In the temple, manifestations of the Guru stare back at you sternly.


From here, it’s a pleasant walk across a footbridge on the river and past prosperous farmhouses to the Tamshing Monastery. It was established in 1501 by Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), who was apparently assisted by khandromas, magical beings, in its construction. Pema Lingpa was a short man and the upper floor, which runs around the central assembly hall, was built to his exact size — so prepare to duck. The frescoes on the walls here, industriously restored or repainted elsewhere, have been left untouched. The most important terton of Bhutan, Pema Lingpa discovered 34 statues, religious scrolls and holy relics in his lifetime. The artefacts he found, the dances he choreographed and the art he created have all left an enduring mark on Bhutanese culture.


Amankora has arranged for me to have lunch at a local farmhouse. The family has cooked for the royal family for generations. No one speaks a word of English, but this suits me fine — I’m too busy stuffing my face. More buckwheat noodles but also buckwheat pancakes, ketlang (chapati), ema-datse, kewa-datse (potatoes with cheese) and a limitless supply of suja. Lastly, a startling swig of ara, the local spirit.


Bumthang is noted variously as the valley of the beautiful girls (bum) or the spiritual heart of the kingdom (after bumpa, a vessel of holy water), depending on your priorities. They also call it the Switzerland of Bhutan — with good reason. Fritz Maurer, of Swiss stock but a pukka Bhutanese since 1976, is the force behind the Swiss Guest House, Bumthang’s first hotel. He has used his time here to develop a full-fledged Swiss cottage industry. Wheels of Emmental, Raclette and Gouda roll out of his farm and he’s also dabbled in fruit wines and the aforementioned cider. Recently, the enterprising gentleman diversified into brewing weissbier, and his Red Panda can be had on tap at the Swiss Guest House.


My kora now winds its way back to the Pele La, beyond which a turn-off plunges me into the calm of Phobjikha, the valley of the black-necked cranes. Past vast meadows of dwarf bamboo where some yaks are grazing, I descend into one of Bhutan’s quietest valleys — by royal decree. Each winter, hundreds of the endangered avians fly into Bhutan from Tibet, the largest population wintering in this valley. There are no overground electric cables here and all lights must be turned off at night, lest the cranes be disturbed. At last count, 355 of these ballerinas were touring Phobjikha. All day long, they fly about the valley, creatures which know no fear, their high-pitched calls filling up the vast pools of silence. At night, they settle in large flocks around the marshes at the bottom of the valley. A troupe of about two dozen is roosting just below the Amankora lodge in Gangtey (the valley’s main settlement), and, from my room, I have the dress circle view.


Even as arcadian idylls like Phobjikha remain frozen in time, Bhutan races on to its inevitable tryst with modernity. Big Brother India watches over like a gentle giant, and a perhaps unintended imperialism ranges well beyond the economic sphere (and I don’t mean Bouddha Dharma, I mean Balika Badhu). Television has spread its tentacles to the furthest reaches of the kingdom. Although it is a myth their marketing guys like to keep alive, Bhutan is no Shangri-la. Crimson-robed monks chatter on their cellphones when not zipping around in electric-blue Marutis. Pirated DVDs of the latest Bollywood blockbuster do the rounds. Men and women alike are happy to trade their dashing ghos and kiras for branded denim at every available opportunity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paro, Bhutan’s hippest, flashiest town. After 10 days in the sparsely populated interiors of the kingdom, it’s a culture shock.


Beyond Paro’s urban glitter is tourist gold. Perched on a sheer cliff 900m above the valley floor is Taktshang, the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan’s holiest goemba. Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown here on the back of a tigress — certainly the sanest vahan. Building goembas and lhakhangs in imaginatively inaccessible locations is in favour in Bhutan. The remoter the setting, the more backbreaking the approach, the better. But none can equal the blood-curdling ascent to Tiger’s Nest. It’s a beautiful enough walk through forests of pine loud with birdcall, the Nest slipping in and out of view, and I would have noticed more had I not been distracted by my loud heartbeat. After what seems like an eternity, I attain the cafeteria which marks the halfway point. This is the cue for the chicken-hearted to turn back. Naturally, I plod on. Geriatric Japanese tourists, little novices, entire families, nimble dogs in tow — all scamper past. Me, I could be climbing the north face of Everest without supplemental oxygen. After the last gut-wrenching descent down a shifty stone staircase (a sheer drop but a few steps away), and a final dash up, I’m there. The view is rewarding. The trip has been punctuated by an obscene number of good meals but, let me tell you, food never tasted so good as the simple vegetarian fare at the mid-way point cafeteria on my way back.


Later, in a spacious courtyard in the valley, there are dances, an impromptu tsechu. My hotel, the smart and cosy Uma Paro, sits primly above the twinkling lights of Paro town. After Fred, the hotel Labrador, gives me his stamp of approval, I check into the Como Shambhala spa for a signature treatment. No better antidote for the hike to Tiger’s Nest has yet been invented. To the soothing strains of the Gayatri mantra, the masseuse expertly teases out the knots in my back, and sends me ricocheting into a restful trance.


My kora is complete. The last evening is a night on the town. And so, over a stimulating cocktail of Druk 11000 beer and Special Courier whisky at Sonam Trophel’s fine establishment, I share notes with dear companions — my guide Rinzi and driver Dilip. I’m sad to be leaving but imagine that my newfound friends, who’ve suffered me so gracefully — particularly my last minute dash, before the return flight, to Thimphu, to pick up a T-shirt I simply had to have (it says ‘Tintin in Bhutan’, OK!) — are probably glad to see me go. And that, as a result, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness has just gone up a notch or two.


The information


Getting there

By air Druk Air, Bhutan’s national carrier, is the only airline that connects Bhutan with the world. There are flights to Paro from Delhi, Kolkata, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Bangkok. The Delhi-Paro return airfare, for Indian nationals, is approximately Rs 17,600, including taxes. Kolkata-Paro return is Rs 10,800. See By road You can also drive into western Bhutan, via the entry point at Phuentsholing (170km from Bagdogra). Thimphu is 175km/6hrs from Phuentsholing.


Where to stay




Taj Tashi Luxurious accommodation and warm service define the Taj Tashi, Thimphu. Set in the heart of town, the hotel is apparently the first in Bhutan to be centrally heated. Chig Ja Gye, their Bhutanese restaurant, is excellent. Their in-house travel agency, Tashi Tours, can organise excursions. Tariff: $385-750/high-season, $300-650/low-season, taxes extra. Contact: +975-2-336699,


Amankora Amanresorts’ circuit of five lodges — at Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang   offers the most pampered experience in the kingdom. If price is no object, look no further. The lodges are understated but extremely luxurious, all of them in charmed settings. Tariff: $1,200, including meals and airport transfers (taxes extra). Any Amankora journey above 7 nights also includes complimentary transport with a driver and guide throughout your stay. Contact: 02-331333,


Uma Paro Luxury sits pretty above the valley at the Uma Paro. Barring the suites and villas, the rooms are slightly smallish, but they more than make up for this with the quality of their offerings. The highlight is the Como Shambhala, a wellness concept that is much more than just a spa. They offer several tour packages as well. Another Uma was due to open in Punakha when we visited. Tariff: $310-1,500/high-season, $275-1,200/low-season, taxes extra. Contact: 08-271513,


Zhiwaling This opulent property in the Paro valley proudly claims to be the first luxury hotel in the kingdom which is fully under Bhutanese ownership. Tariff: $315-950/high-season, $165-670/low-season. Their 4N/3D Touring Package for Indian nationals costs $790 per person in the high-season ($490 in the off-season), including taxes. Contact: 08-271277,





The Druk Hotel (Rs 3,500-8,000; +975-2-322966, is the grande dame of Thimphu’s hotels. Other good options: Jumolhari Hotel (Rs 3,200-5,500; 322747, and Hotel Riverview (Rs 3,000-5,000; 323497).



Most of Paro’s hotels are not in town but spread out across the valley. The Gangtey Palace Hotel (Rs 2,700-3,500; 08-271301, is in a traditional 19th-century building. The Sonam Trophel Hotel (Rs 2,200-3,500; 275555,, belonging to the same family who run the eponymous and extremely popular restaurant, is an excellent option in Paro town. The grand Hotel Olathang (Rs 2,500-6,250; 02-324045) is a bit creaky but has great views.



The Meri Puensum Resort (Rs 1,900-2,500; 02-584195, is perched on a hillside overlooking the Punak Tsang Chhu, 4km from Punakha dzong.



The Yangkhil Resort (Rs 2,530/high-season, Rs 2,300/off-season, all-inclusive; 03-521417,, just out of town, boasts superb views of the dzong.



Built in 1983, the Swiss Guest House (Rs 1,800; 03-631145, is still going strong. Here you can get Red Panda beer on draft and all the fondue you can eat. Newer options include the Mountain Lodge (Rs 1,900; 631255, and the Wangdicholing Resort (Rs 1,750/high-season, Rs 1,400/off-season; 631452, wangdicholingresort@ The Jakar Village Lodge (Rs 1,500-3,000; 631242, reputedly has some of the best food in the valley.



The Dewachen Hotel (Rs 2,600/high-season, Rs 1,950/low-season; 02-490007, boasts large, stylish rooms.


All tariffs are for double occupancy and attract a 10% sales tax and a service charge ranging from 5% to 10% (usually the latter). A premium will be charged if you visit around a tsechu.


What to see & do



The Trashi Choe Dzong, which houses the offices of the king, is an excellent introduction to Bhutan’s fort-monasteries. Museums include the National Textile Museum and the Folk Heritage Museum. The latter is a restored century-old house which provides glimpses of traditional farm life. Just across the road, the National Library boasts, apart from rare manuscripts, a copy of the world’s largest book, a photographic tribute to Bhutan. Bhutan’s national animal can be seen at the Motithang Takin Preserve. Up from here is the Telecom Tower viewpoint, for unbeatable views of Thimphu’s burgeoning sprawl.



The Paro dzong is one of Bhutan’s most impressive and scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha were filmed here. The old watchtower above the dzong is now the National Museum. Paro valley’s star attraction, of course, is Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest).



Apart from the dzong, do make time for the rewarding hike up to the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, perched on a hilltop. On a hillock in the valley’s centre is Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of the Divine Madman. Gentle rafting and kayaking trips can be organised on the Mo Chhu.



The dramatic dzong of Trongsa is usually done as a daytrip, but you should consider staying on. The winter palaces of the first and second kings are nearby. The Trongsa watchtower is now a museum, The Tower of Trongsa.



Jakar town has a dzong and the Wangdicholing Palace. In the valley is a hoary circuit of temples, the Sey, Jampey, Kurjey and Chakhar lhakhangs and the Tamshing Monastery. The Swiss Farm and Red Panda brewery are also worth a visit.


Gangtey/Phobjikha Valley

The exquisite Gangtey Goemba is home to the mind reincarnation of Pema Lingpa. But the highlight of Phobjikha are its black-necked cranes, which begin arriving in October and stay on till March. The Black-Necked Crane Information Centre has an excellent library and powerful telescopes. Numerous nature trails wind through the valley, the Gangtey Nature Trail being the best-known. In winter, you can also see yaks.


When to go

Bhutan’s tourist seasons are neatly divided. The two high seasons run from March to May and September to November. The rest of the year is low season. Winter, when I travelled, can certainly be recommended — there are deep discounts, nary a tourist in sight and crisp weather. Most tourists prefer to coincide their trips with a tsechu, but you must book well in advance.


Tsechu dates are determined by the lunar calendar, so they vary each year. Some of the biggest tsechus in Bhutan, with this year’s dates, are: Punakha Dromchoe & Tsechu (March 1-8), Paro Tsechu (April 5-9), Ura Yakchoe (in Bumthang, May 5-9), Thimphu Drupchen (Sept 23-27) and the Thimphu Tsechu (Sept 28-30).


Tour operators

Unlike tourists from other countries, who travel on pre-booked tours for $200 per day, Indians can make all their travel arrangements independently. However, a tour operator makes things much easier. We used Bhutan Scenic Tours (+975-8-271634,, run by the knowledgeable, resourceful and ever-accommodating Tshering Dorji. Although BST specialises in customised tours, it offers several fixed itineraries as well. They can also take care of luxury hotel bookings and air tickets. Bhutan Tourism Corporation Ltd (, Etho Metho Tours and Treks (www.etho and Tashi Tours and Travels ( are some other major tour operators.


The wild west

Western Bhutan affords numerous opportunities to commune with the great outdoors. Two options:


Trekking The 4-6 day ‘Druk Path’ is the classic Bhutan trek, beginning at the Paro watchtower, and going past remote mountain lakes before ending in the charming Motithang suburb of Thimphu. The 9-day ‘Jhomolhari Trek’ begins at the Drukgyel dzong (just beyond Paro town) and ends at Dodina, offering spectacular views of Bhutan’s favourite mountain. You can also do an easier version of the trek by walking up to the Jhomolhari base camp at Jangothang and returning along the same route. The short, 3-day ‘Bumthang Cultural Trek’ in rich in local flavour, taking in several villages and temples along the way. The ‘Snowman Trek’ from Drukgyel dzong to Sephu takes you through the remote Lunana district. This 24-day trek crosses 12 passes (their altitudes ranging from 4,500m to 5,300m) and is reputedly one of the most difficult in the world. There’s only a small window (September to October) when it is possible to do this trek.


Birding With over 600 bird species recorded in Bhutan, this is birding heaven. With no effort at all, I was able to spot over 30 species on my trip. Apart from the wintering population of black-necked cranes, migratory visitors include the endangered, and less well-known, white-bellied heron. Also in winter, numerous species come down to lower altitudes, making it a great time to go birding. These include accentors, finches, redstarts, dippers, thrushes, grosbeaks and several species of pheasant. Bhutan’s forest cover can be prohibitively dense, and birding is often most conveniently done from the road. I found the stretch from Dochu La to Wangdue Phodrang and onwards to Trongsa particularly rewarding.


Some like it hot

You’ve heard that in Bhutan, chillies are not a garnish — they’re the main dish. But don’t be scared — it is unlikely for most tourists to the kingdom to experience anything but a toned-down version of ema-datse, the Bhutanese staple of chillies and cheese. Most visitors on a package tour are served sumptuous, if occasionally boring, buffets at their hotels or in restaurants that cater primarily to tourists, and there’s something to please everyone. There’s always excellent beef fry at hand and some rather imaginative attempts at dessert (the Bhutanese don’t eat any sweets themselves).


You should also try kewa-datse (potatoes and cheese). Bhutanese meals are centred around the local red rice but it’s rarely accompanied by dal (you’ll find it in Nepali establishments). There’s often a side of eze, a delicious chilli chutney. Bhutan Kitchen in Thimphu is an excellent, if touristy, introduction to Bhutanese cuisine. My meal at the popular Plum’s Café in Thimphu was also good. Slip away from the watchful eyes of your guide, and you can gorge on delicacies like juma (blood sausage), yak meat and fried snow trout.


Bumthang, where buckwheat is the main crop owing to the high altitude, is noted for its buckwheat noodles and pancakes. In Jakar, be sure to pick up strings of chugo, the hard dried cheese that is chewed as a snack. Apple cider is brewed in Bumthang, as are a variety of fruit wines and brandies. This is also where you can sample Red Panda, Bhutan’s only weissbier.


Bhutan has several fine whiskies to its credit. K5, released to mark the coronation of the fifth king, is excellent. Special Courier is also recommended. Ara is the local hard spirit.


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