A single mesmerising moment. That was all it took to realise a long-held dream. For years I had yearned to explore the far reaches of the secluded kingdom of Bhutan, locked high in the Himalaya between Tibet and India.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Bhutan.
Untrammeled Terrain at a Sacred Mountain
The last independent Buddhist mountain kingdom in the Himalayas, Bhutan (Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon) is one of the most remote and tantalizing corners of Asia. Seventy percent of its 18,000 square miles is forested, and the nation treats nature with admirable respect – its king is young and environmentally sensitive, and many of the country’s higher regions remain nearly free of the footprints of man, untouched examples of the fast-disappearing Himalayan environment.
The nine-day trek to Chomolhari, Bhutan’s sacred and highest mountain, at the border with Tibet, offers outsiders a rare opportunity to experience its unspoiled mountain wilderness and varied terrain, not to mention its almost complete lack of other trekkers (Bhutan heavily restricts tourism). Climbing beside terraced farms and verdant rice paddies, through meadows and low forests, travelers venture beyond the tree line into a world of glaciers and rock, where the legendary snow leopard prowls. Campsites are set up in high alpine pastures where yak herders bring their shaggy animals to graze by pristine mountain lakes.
Clinging to a sheer mountain ledge about 3,000 feet above the terraced Paro Valley, Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, is a destination of treks long and short, and of reverent Buddhist pilgrims. The greatest of all Bhutanese monuments, it was founded in A.D. 747 by a Tibetan missionary venerated as the second Buddha and called Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher). Legend says he landed on this spot from neighboring Tibet astride a flying tiger, bringing the tenets of Buddhism with him. It’s startlingly scenic, with nothing breaking the silence except a waterfall, the call of a raven, the fluttering of the prayer flags, and the chanting of a few monks.
The stone monastery suffered from a major fire in 1998, but it is slowly being restored.
A Whirling Spectacle of Tradition and People-Watching
Now that Bhutan has ended its historic isolation from the outside world, its colorful traditional festivals, called tshechus, are the perfect window from which to view its heritage. These festivals traditionally take place in the courtyards of the great dzongs – the fortified monasteries that remain the centers of religion, education, and local government in each district of the kingdom.
They are not staged for the benefit of visitors, who can consider themselves privileged witnesses to these events, which have remained unchanged for centuries.
The springtime celebration in Paro is the country’s best-known annual dance festival. Throngs of joyful Bhutanese townspeople in traditional woven robes gather from all over the valley, while dancers (monks or trained laymen) in magnificent masks and costumes take on the aspects of peaceful or wrathful deities, demons, and animals, reenacting the legends of Himalayan Buddhism in the Dragon Kingdom.
The dances, known as cham, are performed to bring blessings upon all onlookers, be they from across the valley or across the globe, to protect them against misfortune.