Happiness is a Place and it is Bhutan

1 01 2019

Guzusangpola!! This is a common Bhutanese greetings for hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Bhutan, the land of the Dragon, is lauded by many as the “happiest country in the world”. Well, the slogan of its national carrier Druk Air (also known as Royal Bhutan Airlines) is “happiness is a place” and of course, the place is Bhutan. It is not difficult to understand why. Bhutan is one of the rare country where the focus is on Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of GDP. I have watched many travel shows featuring Bhutan with many hosts swearing that they can sense positive energy in this Himalayan country, exclaiming how they found peace and how much they love this country. As a city girl who feel more energized in the bustling cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Vegas, it puzzled me on why anyone would fall in love with a “county-side country”. But given the big hype in recent years on Bhutan and with family and friends who have travelled there ranting on how much they love this country, I decided to make a visit. Well, this would surely add to my list of countries travelled isn’t it?

 

For those that have read my previous blogs, you will realized that there are a couple of places that I mentioned I have fell in love with. But I must admit that none of those places are able to compare with Bhutan. Bhutan is indeed magical. From day 1 that I landed in this magical country, I have a special feeling – a warming feeling of peace and happiness, not the usual type but something from within which I find hard to describe. The country feels like a power house of magic, I swear it is more magical than Hogwarts.

 

The only airlines that can fly into Bhutan is Druk Air. The Paro International Airport, the sole international airport in Bhutan, lies in a deep valley on the bank of Paro River with surrounding peaks as high as 5,500m. It is one of the world’s most challenging airports to land and only 12 pilots have the honor to do so. If so many places that I have flew to, I would say that this is one of the most spectacular landing offering magnificent view of the Himalayas range.

 

 

Thimphu

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu which is around an hour plus drive from Paro. Being the capital, you can sense that it is much busier compared to the other cities in Bhutan. One of the key sights is The Tashiccho Dzong houses the throne of the King of Bhutan and one can see the Royal Palace and the Parliament Building nearby the Dzong. Each city in Bhutan will have its own Dzong. The word dzong evolved from phodrang, which refers to the abode of deities in the Buddhist Canon and is a castle-fortress where part of it is a Buddhist temple and the other part is a Government Office.

 

 

Another must-see in Thimphu is the Kurnselphodrang Nature Park with the 169-foot tall bronze Buddha Dordenma Statue offers a panoramic view of the Thimphu Valley.

 

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The National Memorial Chorten is a stupa built by the empress dowager to honour the late 3rd king of Bhutan. It was a great coincidence that I visited when they were having some prayers ceremonies and it was a sight to see tons of Bhutanese and lamas (the monks) were there circling the stupa while chanting and many locals sitting on the around the stupa to get their free meal.

 

 

 

Punakha

Punakha, about 2.5 hours drive from Thimphu, was the old capital of Bhutan till 1955. Located at a lower elevation of 1,200m, it is much warmer compared to Thimphu and Paro. Here, 2 rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu meet, which makes the Punakha Dzong the most beautiful Dzong amongst those that I have seen.

 

 

Another interesting temple to visit is Chimi Lhakang. This is a temple dedicated to what the Bhutanese called as “The Mad Monk” (which is equivalent to the Chinese “Ji Gong” monk). Legend has it that this monk roamed around Bhutan and performed many miracles including his urine turning into gold! The magical weapon of this monk is called the “Flying Dragon” which looks like the male reproductive organ with a sword. So it is not surprising that this is a pilgrimage site for childless couple and there has been many success stories of couples (including foreigners) getting pregnant after visiting to the temple.

 

 

Mid-way through the drive between Thimphu and Paro, you will reach one of the most beautiful pass – the Dochula Pass with the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens. The chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother as a memorial in memorial of the soldiers who were killed in December 2003 in the battle between Bhutan and Assamese insurgents from India. From here, one can see the snow-capped Himalayas mountains on a clear day, which my guide said I was extremely lucky to be able to see the whole range so clearly!

 

 

 

Paro

Unlike Thimphu, Paro emits a more tranquil and resort-like vibe. As you drive from the city to the airport, you will see the Rinpung Dzong with its beautiful cantilever bridge along Paro River with a seven-stories watchtower fortress (Ta Dzong) which is now the National Museum of Bhutan sitting above the Rinpung Dzong.

 

Another temple not to miss is the Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest monastery in Bhutan built in the 7th century. This temple is believed to have been built in 659 by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet to pin down the left foot of a devil.

 

The key highlight of the Bhutan trip is the hike up the Tiger’s Nest takes around 2.5 to 3.5 hours (for those with average fitness), with the first 1 to 1.5 hours from the foot to the tea house and the remaining 1.5 to 2 hours from the tea house to the monastery. When asked why the Bhutan Government do not install cable car up the monastery, my guide explained that it is to preserve the environment and also this is a holy site for pilgrimage and the tough journey up signifies that the road to enlightenment is not an easy one and one has to overcome many hardships and obstacles to reach it. It is heartening to see all the visitors trying to encourage one another on the hike up and the guides helping out anyone in need. I find the first part of the hike up to the tea house not too tough, with the biggest challenge being to avoid the horse shit lol. The second part of the hike from the tea house to the start of the stairs where you can see the monastery just on the opposite side of the mountain has a steeper incline though still pretty manageable. The last part is the steps down and then up to the monastery which is the most challenging especially if in rainy or snowy condition. My guide was saying that I was really lucky as it snowed 2 days before my visit and the temple was closed off as it was dangerous to even attempt the flight of stairs. Thankfully the sunny weather has melted away the snow and the monastery re-open to visitors though the last few steps of stairs just before reaching the monastery has a little ice. Regardless of whether you are a Buddhist or a non-believer, the feeling when you finally reach the monastery is magical and if you ask anyone who visited Bhutan, they will surely say that the visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery is the highlight of their Bhutan trip. The monastery is quite big but make sure you see at least the 3 key sites – (a) the cave in which Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) meditate, (b) the temple with the statute of Guru Rinpoche which survived the fire, and (c) the temple with the relics of Guru Rinpoche’s disciple.

 

This breathtaking land-locked Himalayan country offers plentiful means to be happy and content. As I catch the last glimpse of this Happy-land, I prayed that I will have a chance to visit this mystical land again in the future.

 

Tips:

  1. For non-Indian passport holders, you will need a Visa to enter into Bhutan and will have to book a tour (though it can be a private one) with a tour agency. If you are used to free-and-easy travel, I will recommend that you book a private tour through a local Bhutanese tour agency where you can customize the itinerary. You will get a driver and tour guide throughout the trip. There is a minimum spending of US$250 a day (lesser for off-season) and this amount includes hotel, transport, guide, driver and meals so it isn’t as expensive as it seems. For 1-2 travelers, there will be additional surcharge so it is best to travel with at least 3 pax.
  2. Before landing at Paro Airport, you will be able to see the magnificent clear and unobstructed panoramic view of the entire Himalayan range. Do ask for window seats on the left of the plane when flying into Bhutan for the best view.
  3. April and May is the prettiest time of the year to visit Bhutan where the mountains will be blooming with flowers. November and December are also good too as the days are usually dry and sunny offering clear views.
  4. To visit the Chimi Lhaksang, it is possible to get the car to drive down to the valley at the foot of the temple (there’s a small car park) and from there it is a less than 5 minutes walk up to the temple. Alternatively, many guides will recommend to stop at the top of the valley and you will then walk down the valley through the padi fields and Sopsokha Village, pass the car park and then up to the temple. This walk will take you around 20 minutes but involve some downhill and uphill walk. The walk is not difficult at all and is a good way to see the village.
  5. For the hike up Tiger’s Nest, it is possible to take a horse ride up to the tea house but you will still have to walk the rest of the journey up and all the way down. I will strongly recommend that you walk the whole way as it can be quite dangerous riding the horse. There have been accidents and I have witness an accident where the horse fell and threw off the rider, thankfully the rider was not injured. Also, the locals believe that if you take the horse up, you will give half the merit that you will obtain from hiking to the monastery to the horse and you will find your guide trying to advice you against the horse ride.
  6. No photos are allowed inside any of the monastery. Particularly for the Tiger’s Nest, you will have to leave your bag including your mobile phones outside the monastery (but you can bring your wallet with you). For most of us, leaving our possessions unguarded will make us uneasy but rest assured that your belongings are safe. Theft is very rare as the Bhutanese being Buddhist are strong believer of karma (that you reap what you sow) and will not take what is not theirs.
  7. The Haa Valley and Chele La Pass which is the highest pass in Bhutan and offers view of both there Paro and Haa Valley is also a spectacular place to visit. It’s a pity that I don’t have the time to do so. A good reason to return to Bhutan 🙂
  8. Bhutanese believe that displaying “the 4 friends” at home will create a harmonious home. So you may like to get a painting, or keychain or magnet of “the 4 friends”. Do note that you are allowed to bargain and it may be wise to look around in a few stores before you buy.

 

 

Accommodation:

Paro: I stayed at Le Meredien Paro and love this hotel. Situated by the river, this beautiful 5 star hotel is outside the city area and thus offer a quiet night (without dogs barking).

 

Thimphu: Though it does not have the resort feel of Le Meredien Paro, Le Meredien Thimphu is still a nice 5 star hotel in Thimphu for a good night rest.

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Punakha: I choose to do a day trip to Punakha from Thimphu which is around 2 hours drive away. Punakha has a more country-side vibe compared to Thimphu and Paro. If you decide to stay in Punakha so that you have time to see more of this old capital, do note that the accommodation is more basic compared to those in Paro and Thimphu.

 

 

Food:
Bhutanese food is known for its chili and cheese. For a Bhutanese, a typical meal is rice with chili cheese. Given that Bhutan is not as developed as the major cities in many countries, do bring your expectation for food down (though I must say that the meals in Bhutan are quite ok but don’t expect Michelin-star standard). Don’t worry if you don’t fancy spicy food as you will be able to find Chinese and Indian cuisine as well as cafes which offer sandwiches and cakes. Do note that most restaurants serve food in buffet style so you may want to have your meals early otherwise you may only get the leftovers.

The DrukAir flight meals are ok and you have 2 options – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The breakfast menu from Singapore to Paro (scrambled eggs) is yummy but the dinner on the return flight from Paro (Indian cuisine) can’t compare to even an average Indian restaurant.

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India – Journey to the West

19 10 2008

Since young, I am fascinated by the story “Journey to the West” in which Tang San Zang together with his 3 disciples including Sun Wu Kong embarked on a journey to India to obtain Dharma. But it has never crossed my mind that I would one day be able to make a trip to India, being a really exotic location.

I also did not know what caused me to suddenly sign up for the tour to North India and Nepal, journeying from Delhi to Agra and along the Ganges river and up to Nepal. I took a morning flight on Indian Airlines and arrive at India at noon (local Indian time, which is 2.5 hours behind Singapore time).

Agra – The city of Love

The renowned Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is located in this city 5 hours dive from Delhi. This magnificent monument, made of pure white marble, was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal who died at just 39, giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj took over 22 years to be built. Viewing the Taj Mahal at sunrise, the Taj looks magnificent. Accordingly to the tour guide, legend has it that couples who took picture together in front of Taj Mahal would be able to have ever-lasting love. From the tope of the Taj Mahal, one could see the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was jailed by his son when his son overthrown him to seize the thrown. The Taj Mahal can be clearly seen from the room in which Shah Jahan was jailed and it was said that he would stand by the window and looked at Taj Mahal where his beloved wife was buried. After Shah Jahan died, he was buried at Taj Mahal beside his wife and the couple was united again in the “other world”.

Varanasi & Sarnath

The journey from Agra to Varanasi took approximately 10 hours by train. One of the oldest living cities in India (it was referred to in ancient Indian mythology as Kashi), Varanasi, situated on the banks of the Holy Ganges river, is Hinduism’s most sacred city. Most Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives for a dip in the Holy Ganges, which is said to wash away their sins and would wish to die here (so you can see many bodies being cremated along the river). 10 km from Varanasi is Sarnath, the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightment.

Bodhgaya

After staying a night at Varansai, I went on to Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2500 years ago. Travelling to Bodhgaya is an eventful journey. The journey, which normally takes around 7 to 8 hours, stretched to almost 10 hours due to the long jam along the bridge that crosses the Ganges river. When we reached the road towards Bodhgaya, it was closed. The tour guide informed that this road is not safe as there had been many instances whereby the villagers would come out after dark and rob the vehicles that passed through. As such, the state government closed the road from 10 pm and those who need to pass through the road would have to wait for 13 vehicles to gather together and the police cars would escort the vehicles along the road. Thank goodness the tour guide actually has some connections and we are able to get a police escort and passed through the road without having to wait for 13 vehicles.

Bodhgaya is one of Buddhism’s most sacred places, attracting millions of pilgrims from all over the world. The Mahabodhi Temple is a UNESCO World heritage site, with the holy Bodhi Tree under which Buddha meditated and attained Nirvana, and a stone representation of the Vajrasana , the Seat of Enlightenment.

Patna

Around 10 hours drive from Bodhgaya, I arrived at the famous Vulture Hill in Rajgir, a site where the Budhha preached numerous sermons. The first Buddhist Council was held in the Saptaparni cave here.

Afterwhich, I stopped at the nearby 5th Century ruins of the Nalanda University, the first residential university in the world and also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Nalanda was once home to 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world. It played a major role in the development of Buddhism. Lord Buddha and Emperor Ashoka frequently visited Nalanda, and the famous Chinese monk from the “Journey of the West” – Tang Hieun-Tsang, stayed and studied here.

Kushinagar

The journey to Kushnigar was the most memorable part of my whole journey because I almost could not make it to Kushnigar. I was downed with a bad gastric and fell very sick when I reached Patna and my dad decided to abandon the remaining of the trip and come back to Singapore. However, another family that travelled with us are extremely helpful. Thanks to auntie who woke up daily at 3 am to cook porridge for me, I recovered from my gastric and was able to make it to this place.

2500 years ago, the Buddha also travelled an eventful trip to Kushnigar. After a long spiritual enlightened journey through life, the Buddha chose Kushinagar for his Mahaparinirvana making it one of Buddhism’s 4 most sacred sites. The Mahaparinirvana Temple is believed to be the site in which the Buddha passed away under the twin Sal trees. A 6 metre long statue of the Reclining Buddha was discovered here. Nearby is the Ramabhar Stupa, which is the cremation site of the Buddha and the place where his relics were divided into eight equal parts.

Lumbini

Situated at the foothills of the Himalayas in modern Nepal near to the India border, Lumbini Garden which means lovely in Sanskrit is where the Buddha was born. One of the major attractions in Lumbini is the commemorative stone pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka, the Mayadevi Temple and the Sacred Tank.

For foreigners residing in Nepal for less than a week, the VISA to Nepal is free and would be given on the spot. However, most of the time, a “nominal fee” of around US$5 each would have to be paid to the customs officer, otherwise it would take forever to get the Nepal VISA. The weather in Nepal is much cooler than the past few days in India (and the air is fresher also).

Around 15 minutes ride from Lumbini is the ancient kingdom of Kapilvastu, capital of Sakyan where King Shuddodan, the father of theBuddha used to reign. This is also where Buddha had spent his childhood. Sravasti is an ancient kingdom intimately associated with the life of the Buddha.

Sravasti

The capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, Sravasti was the biggest town in the Gangetic plains during the Buddha’s lifetime. It was in the Jetvana Garden of this prosperous city that the Buddha spent 24 rainy seasons. It was also in this city that Buddha confounded his critics with the Twin Miracle, a million-fold manifestation of himself, seated on a thousand-petal lotus, as fire and water emanated from his body. The Garden also contains the sacred Anandabodhi tree, brought as a cutting from the Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, which itself grew from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya.

Delhi

5 hours ride from Sravast to Lucknow followed by around 6 hours of express train ride, we reached Delhi on the Deepavali Day. I understand from my tour guide that Hindus would have to buy utensils before Deepavali and used it to on that day. That night in Delhi, the song of firecrackers can be heard throughout the whole night as Hindus celebrated their auspicious festival.

The next morning, the tour guide brought us to Qutab Minar, which at 72.5 metres high, is one of the tallest Islamic feature towers in the world and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the first mosque in India and was built out of bricks from Hindu Temples. This can still be seen from the walls of the mosque containing Hindu gods crafting (with their face disfigured)!

Delhi also has quite a few attractions, ranging from India Gate (a war memorial dedicated to the unknown soliders), the Red Fort (the most opulent fort and palace of the Mughal Empire), the Raj Ghat (place where Ghandi was cremated), Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India) and so on, but I still like Delhi the best.

Overall, I would say the trip to India is an eye opener to me as I get to see a different culture and also learn to appreciate the things that we have here in Singapore.