A Travellerspoint blog

Happiness is a place called BHUTAN

semi-overcast 10 °C

Shrouded amidst the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, Bhutan feels like country preserved in a time warp. The culture, traditions and way of life are still a true reflection of past centuries even in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernisation riding on the wings of the 21st century. Bhutan fames itself for being a country where development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness versus the capitalist measure of GDP. It is a country where Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life. Where hearts are big and the days are colourful. Where modernity meets history in simple yet unexpected ways. And I found all of this to be true during the week I spent in this gorgeous part of the globe.

large_4I.jpg

The Government of Bhutan is focused on preserving the country's cultural and religious heritage and moderates the number of tourists at any given time in the country. We witnessed testaments to the will of a country to preserve the environment when there is an adopted state policy according to which 60% of the country’s landmass will remain forested for all of eternity. What’s even more brilliant is that they currently have 72% of the landmass under forest cover which makes it the only carbon-negative country on earth.

Having experienced its beautiful people, colourful festivals, awe-inspiring location and deep-rooted beliefs, I came away from Bhutan with one very important take-away: Happiness really is the best parameter to measure the life we lead.

Everyone I have spoken with since returning seem to have so many questions regarding this elusive part on the world map. I have tried answering the most frequently addressed questions in this post.

large_AC10C8E9A002AA4A7A8A4B8303322C81.jpg
GETTING THERE : The only airport in Bhutan is in the Paro valley. The state-owned Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines have flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Singapore and Bangkok to Paro. To say the least, this is a flying experience that one will remember considering the sheer size of the aircraft navigating between the mighty mountains to reach this isolated kingdom.
Imagine, the small valley of Paro is at an elevation of 7382 feet and the surrounding Himalayan range roughly ranging between 18,000 to 22,000 feet in altitude is the setting for one of the tightest airplane landings on earth. Apparently there are only 8 pilots qualified to land here. TIP: Try and get a seat to the left side of the aircraft. On a clear day you might get to see the majestic Himalayas towering over the clouds and if luck favours you, you might fly over Mount Everest!!

large_AC18599898656368334DB98E293057B1.jpg
ATTIRE : The chic traditional dresses KIRA and GHO are the national dress and is even today the most common attire worn by the locals. Visitors are expected to wear full sleeved and full length clothes while visiting the Kingdom.

LANGUAGE : Dzonkha is the native language but almost everyone speaks basic English and a lot of them can speak Hindi.

D9700543E3A5BD45C2CC2EB63691A3D2.jpg
CUISINE : Three foundational elements act as the cornerstones of Bhutanese cuisine - chilies, rice, and cheese! In Bhutan, chilies are considered a vegetable and not just a spice. They form the main ingredient in most, if not all dishes, so much so that Bhutan’s National Dish, Ema datsi, is a preparation of just chilli peppers and fresh yak cheese, and is available in almost all restaurants. If you are afraid that the dish may be too hot to handle, you can ask the local chefs to cut down on the spice. Pair the dish with native red rice for a complete meal. The rice is mostly red rice (a variety of rice that grows in high altitudes); and other cereal include buckwheat and maize. Meat is common in most dishes and includes chicken, dry beef and pork.
large_AC259BCAD8F28BC6C799EB8E2A7E4A93.jpg
Red chillies hanging to dry on a traditional, ornate wooden window frames or rooftops of houses is a common sight in Bhutan.

large_27A.jpg
RELIGION: Bhutan is the only country in the world where Buddhism is the official religion and is endorsed by the government. It is considered one of the last bastions where Tantric Vajrayana form of Mahayana Buddhism is maintained as the state religion. However, the Bhutanese constitution guarantees freedom of religion and citizens and visitors are free to practice any form of worship so long as it does not impinge on the rights of others.

AC2205DCD5CBB63DC8D7734FDE0831FC.jpg 270_IMG_0900.jpg
ARCHITECTURE : As you travel through the country you notice early on that the most striking feature of a Bhutanese house (and most buildings for that matter) are the highly decorated rustic windows. Wood is largely used to build houses especially for windows and balconies. The dzongs too seem to be built with wood with stone beams for support. There seem to be three main types of building:
• The Dzongs (fortresses) which are the municipal and religious headquarters in each district.
• Houses that are predominantly 2-3 floored large rural farmhouses.
• Religious structures of various kinds (from large temples to small chortens or stupas).

IMG_0896.jpg IMG_0922.jpg
WEATHER: Bhutan is a country of mountains and valleys, and the climate varies with elevation. The mountains are extremely cold and snowy, but it is humid and subtropical in the hills, and temperate in the valleys.

ECONOMY: Bhutan’s economy is largely agrarian. There seems to be a healthy tourism industry too. I heard from our guide that there is a good mountaineering industry too. Bhutan is home to the only unclaimed mountain in the world- Gangkhar Puensum and since the Bhutanese believe that the high mountains are the abode of the Gods, scaling any mountain higher than 6,000 meters is banned by law. So unlike Nepal where mountaineering is a big-scale industry, Bhutan does not have a large-scale mountaineering industry. And though it sounds conservative, that in a nutshell explains the Bhutanese ethics.

It is a rustic, removed, remote, pure country which retains its cultural heritage and has avoided becoming globalized like so many others and refuses to use money as a benchmark to compare itself with the world at large.

CURRENCY : Bhutanese Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan but Indian rupees is also accepted everywhere.

May the winds making the prayer flags across this beautiful country flutter, carry our prayers to the God’s spreading goodwill to all in the world.
IMG_0851.jpg

Tashidelek and safe travels!!!
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 06:51 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

PUNAKHA

The region that secures Bhutan the title of "Kingdom in the Clouds"

overcast 9 °C

The first sight of Punakha leaves you with a picture of terraced rice fields shrouded in low lying cloud cover alongside traditional architecture. It is an expansive valley with clusters of villages with a mighty river cutting through the valley floor.

large_AC2092EC9B0CFC702AE3CF016BA316E9.jpg

Escaped the confines of the hotel one early morning and ventured to the countryside to catch a glimpse of the village waking up and setting in motion a day in an agrarian village. As the mist lifted I noticed that every house in the village has gardens with flowers bursting in colour and fragrance in the yard along with fruit bearing plants like papaya and oranges and is surrounded by rice fields.

large_IMG_0896.jpg

THE PUNAKHA DZONG also known as "The Palace of Happiness"

Built at the confluence of Mo chhu and Pho chhu rivers - the Punakha Dzong is easily blessed in location. Add to it stunning architecture and you have the most beautiful example of Bhutanese architecture.

large_IMG_0884.jpg

The inside courtyard is decorated with beautiful Bhutanese iconographies. Through these murals, you get to understand and learn about Buddhist ways and lessons. There are three courtyards and each is connected by a series of passageways that lead you all over the Dzong. Half of the building hosts the religious order and the remaining half is occupied by the local administration. You see young monks all over the place. The boys are apparently taught a variety of subjects including math and are introduced to the monastery lifestyle in order to see if they want to join the religious order and become monks.

FUN FACT : The King of Bhutan throws a party at the palace every year and all of the people in Bhutan are invited! That would definitely be a party no one would want to miss.

IMPORTANT :

Any tourist going beyond Thimphu and Paro need to acquire a 'special area permit' from the RGoB Immigration. Especially if you intend on visiting Punakha, Bumthang or the Haa valley. The tour operators can arrange for this.

Tashi Delek

Posted by Ceej 13:39 Archived in Bhutan Tagged palace of rice mist terrace happiness rafting cloud dzong punakha Comments (0)

THIMPHU

A national capital without traffic lights!!

semi-overcast 10 °C

The drive from Paro to Thimphu is filled with fantastic mountain scenery broken by scenes of rice terraces, soaring mountains covered by pine forests and the mighty Thimphu Chhu flowing along the route.

The sight of the city centre which is believed to be the most crowded area with all the business and establishments amazes a tourist at first sight. It actually looks like the town centre of any quaint town in Switzerland, minus the STOP sign or traffic lights. You then realise that this is the capital of a whole country. It is a common sight seeing traffic officers moderating traffic across the city due to the local belief that that this personal gesture and promotes the feeling of community.
large_ACDB4CB3C4076684EC74B1F1EBCF03E0.jpg

THE THIMPHU TSECHU : that takes place in October of every year, turned out to be a very unique and colourful celebration. Being Indian, I have witnessed my share of loud and colourful festivals but this was a different experience altogether. Tshechu’s are annual religious Bhutanese festivals held in each district of Bhutan on the tenth day of the month of the lunar Tibetan calendar. They offer the opportunity for social bonding amongst people of remote and spread out villages as they gather in the shadow of culture and celebration. Large markets also congregate at the location of the Tshechu. The Paro and Thimpu tshechu’s are said to the largest in terms of participation and audience.

large_4I.jpg

large_AC1EDB6CD354F987B22717B7364505A6.jpg

A day of formal sightseeing had us visit Painting schools, Textile museums and a few view points.

ARTS AND CRAFT SCHOOL: Housed in a two storied traditional Bhutanese house, students undergo a 6-year training course in Bhutan 13 traditional arts and crafts. They impart skills to young boys and girls after basic school, as per their individual likes and aptitude. A rigorous training of four to six years is being given to these students in traditional painting, wood carving, sculpture, leather craft, traditional dress making etc, the dedication and motivation of these youngsters is worth admiring. There are souvenir stores on the campus that sell the craft items made by the students.
10B.jpg

TEXTILE MUSEUM : I would highly recommend a visit to the Textile museum even though one might be tempted to brush off the experience before visiting. Housed in a modern building with spacious interiors and a glass facade, the experience starts off with a brief video introducing the various fabrics from various regions and then you can pay a visit to the 2 levels of the museum that showcase the different fabrics.
On the second floor there was a very informative video about how to wear a Kira and Gho.
IMG_2787.jpg

VISIT THE TAKIN MINI ZOO:
The national animal of Bhutan - Takin is an endangered animal with the head of a goat and a body of a yak. A steep trail on the side leads up to a large fenced enclosure that was originally established as a zoo, but the fourth king decided that the animals should not be kept in cages and should be allowed to be as close to their natural habitat in accordance with the kingdoms Buddhist beliefs. Apart from Takin there are mountain goats and barking deer too in this preserve.
large_IMG_0837.jpg

108 STUPAS AT DOCHULA PASS : On the way from Thimphu to Punakha are the 108 Stupas at the Dochula Pass that has been built on the highest land pass (3150m) in Bhutan. It is said to be constantly covered in cloud and mist and we heard that on a rare clear day, you can see the Himalayan range from this point. Almost everyone who breaks their journey here seemed to pay a visit to the café on the opposite side which serves hot tea, coffee, chocolate and cream crackers.
large_B14F4A54933654CF02E78676E8472F2B.jpg

To an observer Thimphu with its restaurants, internet cafes, iPhone toting youngsters who like "Wechat", nightclubs, snooker parlours and shopping centers might look modern in its outlook. But one only has to look around and observe the traditional architecture, the absence of traffic, the kiras and ghos to see the traditional side to the city. This juxtaposition of ancient tradition and modernity make Thimphu a truly unique destination.

Cannot wait to see more of this beautiful country.

Our permits are here and we are off to explore PUNAKHA.

Tashi Delek

Posted by Ceej 13:37 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

LANDOUR

a place over-run with simple and pure joys.

sunny 6 °C

Landor is a perfect getaway for anyone seeking solitude from the heat and hustle of the cities. This gorgeous part of the world offers breathtaking views of the mighty Himalayas and allows endless opportunities to experience all the virtues of a hill town – gorgeous views, rambling walks, happy people, hot chai, delicious food teemed together with a constant urge to literally stop and smell the flowers.

Situated about 5 kilometres away from the chaos of Mussoorie is its twin - the quaint hilltop town of Landour which was a British cantonment during the days of colonial rule in India and as such came under the Cantonment Act of 1924 which has had a far-reaching ecological impact on the region. This law in particular has prevented deforestation and as a result, Landour remains green in comparison to Mussoorie. Another clause in the act, which terms all non-governmental and non-military buildings post-1924 as “illegal” has saved the town from rampant construction. Only repairs of the existing old houses are allowed.

Just passing through both these towns could very well be considered a study of contrasts - in terms of tourists, carbon footprint, real-estate development and noise levels. Landour, named after Llanddowror a small village in the southwest of Wales calms and relaxes you and nourishes creativity. Just being here amidst the tall deodars and the hills, surrounded with the air thick with the sounds of the naughty whistling schoolboy makes you feel like you have somehow slipped into the world between the pages of a Ruskin Bond novel.

large_IMG_7189.jpg

A beautiful trail called the Chakkar winds through these hills and if find yourself here in early April as I was, it offers the opportunity to walk along a path dotted with rhododendron trees bursting in crimson bloom welcoming spring and cutting through the dense pinewood cover. The walk allows for some brilliant birding opportunities with beautiful sights along the way. Some of the highlights of this walk are:

2705DACD9D81B2E2BE6DBB2495C5224D.jpg IMG_0303.jpg

Catching the sight of the Himalayan range from Lal Tibba: On a clear day the walk through the chakkar trail is broken by glimpses of silver peaks glistening at a distance, which is a preview of the uninterrupted sight that can be viewed from Lal Tibba. The view point itself is an unadorned two-storeyed commercial structure with no character and fitted with a telescope for viewing the peaks. There is a helpful mural on the wall identifying the various peaks in the part of the Himalayan range visible from this viewpoint.

large_IMG_0318.jpg

large_1_The_beau..layan_range.jpg

large_IMG_7145.jpg

St. Paul's Church is a beautiful pause on one end of the Chakkar trail. It was commissioned as the house of worship for the serving officers who came up for recuperation to the hills and for the missionaries who were posted here. Built in 1839 high up in the mountains, this church has seen its share of history. I heard a local say that the Jim Corbett’s parents Christopher and Mary Corbett were married at this very church in 1859. The largely wooden frame of the church also houses tall arched windows framed with beautiful stained Belgian glass windows.
With the backdrop of the setting sun, the beauty of church revealed itself with breathtaking contrast bringing into sharp focus all the details of the dark wood and the altar bathed in gorgeous light only made the contrast of the deep shadows along the pews seem conspicuous.

11B.jpg IMG_7186.jpg

Landour Language School is yet another lovely stop on the Chakkar trail. It is an almost-100 year old institution housed in the Kellogg Memorial Church complex established with the idea of teaching the Hindi language to the missionaries who cared for the sick soldiers who would come to the hills for recuperation. Even today the language school admits large number of foreigners who visit the school in order to learn Hindi and it is not an uncommon sight to see a person of foreign origin having a conversation in halting Hindi with the locals.

30.jpg

One evening I went down the hill to the heart of Mussorie and dove straight into the chaos of Mall road, I found the entire experience over-rated and exhausting. The whole space is filled with shops hawking everything from woolen wear to Tibetian artifacts and is packed with tourists and honeymooners. I admit it offers a great opportunity for people watching while sampling the many food offerings, but honestly the only reason I undertook this exercise was to meet my childhood hero and one of the best authors of all times. The Cambridge Book Depot on Mussoorie's Mall Road hosts a meet and greet session with Ruskin Bond most Saturday evenings. My ultimate fan moment came when Mr.Bond signed my battered 20 year old copy of Rusty and proceeded to engage me in a conversation about Coorg and anthuriums.

11A.jpg

Stepped out of the bookstore to find the Mall road bathed in twilight and the brisk weather prompting me to wrap my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The evening atmosphere of the entire area was such a clash to the tranquility I had experienced for 3 days that I found myself rushing back to the serene twin town. The more distance I put between myself and the hustle and bustle of Mussorie, I came back to the presence of fantastic views of the cloud covered Doon Valley broken by picturesque little houses and the sight of locals going about their business — kids climbing uphill with school backpacks on their wiry frames, teenage sweethearts stealing glaces of each other from balconies, housewives returning with vegetables from the local farmers market and men gathered around small shops that sell tea discussing the days events - all while birds filled their air with their last songs for the day.

I stayed at the beautiful 175 year old heritage property - Rokeby Manor with its stone and wood architecture, balconies, tea gardens, rooms with views overlooking the Doon valley and its very English aura. Spent the stormy evening exploring a charming private library named "Wilson's Chamber" sipping a cup of brilliant masala chai to the sound of rolling thunder.
The walls of this property are decorated with ample sayings oozing with classic British tongue in cheek humor. The walls of Emily's houses some of the best, I particularly loved one that read "Harassing the cook will definitely result in smaller portions" and another that asks you to sleep in the kitchen if you want breakfast in bed.

Char Dukaan a group of 4 shops is a landmark at Landour. You'll find the shops selling different varieties of pancakes, omelettes, Tibetan food and cheese maggi. On that note, the more I've travelled I've come to realise that a hot bowl of maggi and a cup of chai at one of the mountain highway stops is all the refreshment you need to make a hill station experience in India complete. I still remember wolfing down a bowl full of steaming maggi at Rohtang pass and feeling blissfully satiated.

Landour has got to be one of the best birding destinations in the world as it offers a perfect setting for the migratory birds travelling across continents to break their flight. The air is rife with the sound of grosbeaks, finches, tits, sunbirds and flycatchers. In my opinion, birding on the Chakkar trail in the morning is a must do not just for enthusiastic birders.

large_Birds_of_Landour.jpg

Life up in the cloud bank is shrouded in mist and rain, broken by beautiful spells of sunshine peeking from in between the tall ancient deodars. If you are the kind of traveller who is travelling with an agenda of visiting a ton of places on a 3-4 day getaway, Landour is definitely not for you.
Landour is where you go to when you just simply want to “be” — be amidst the sparkling air and the towering deodars all in the constant presence of the Himalayas that spring into view on a clear, bright day.

I would go back in a heartbeat, to views of pure majesty and trails lined with fallen pine cones.

IMG_0417.jpg
Till next time,
Sowmya

Posted by Ceej 04:36 Archived in India Tagged bond landour mussorie paul's_church kellogs_church ruskin chakkar Comments (2)

Lucerne

– a picturesque medieval Swiss town

sunny 12 °C

Stepping out of the train station, the first very sight Lucerne awards is almost picture perfect - with the Swiss Alps in the background, the Reuss flowing beneath your feet, the swan filled impossibly blue Lake Luzern and the ancient wooden bridge adorned with flowers.

large_IMG_20150909-WA006.jpg

The Chapel Bridge (called Kappelbruke by the Swiss) is a beautiful covered wooden footbridge built during the Middle Ages right in the centre of the town diagonally across the Reuss River. It is decorated with pretty flowers at its side and is the oldest surviving wooden bridge. The whole area seems to be very popular with tourists who seem to spend most of their time enjoying the view, sipping wine and tucking into delicious fare at any of the numerous lake-side restaurants. Enjoyed taking a walk across the Chapel bridge and found out a great deal about the history of this town.

large_IMG_20150909_194440.jpg

Another unique feature of the Chapel Bridge are the paintings under its roof that depict scenes from Lucerne's history and date back to the 17th century. Apparently many of the paintings were destroyed along with most of the bridge in a fire in 1993 post which the bridge was re-built. Apparently people from around the world sent pictures they had taken of the Chapel Bridge during their visit so that it could be re-built to the most minute detail.

large_IMG_20150909_203515.jpg

A little way away, up the river is a second covered wooden bridge called the Spreuer Bridge which is smaller and less adorned than the Chapel Bridge, but what sets this seemingly normal bridge apart are the paintings that adorn the roof of this bridge. There are a series of 17th century plague paintings titled "The Dance of Death" which depict skeletons and soul reapers in great detail and is intended to highlight that there's no place on land or at sea where death isn't present and that that every second brings us one step closer to death.

The old town (as is with the Old Town part of most European cities) has a rich historic feel to it. There is enough to engage your interest and pique your curiosity including the architecture, great cafes, clock stores that house thousands of those beautiful cuckoo clocks that are synonymous with Switzerland and some quaint shopping outlets. The town square is a very pretty compete with the town hall tower, a pretty fountain, tiny lane-ways, old buildings, cobblestone streets and houses with beautiful painted façades.

large_IMG_20150909_201244.jpg large_IMG_20150911.jpg

One of the most interesting sights during my walking tour was the Needle Dam that was constructed in the 1850's to govern the level of Lake Luzern. This dam consists of a series of long narrow paddle boards (known as “needles”) that are inserted vertically side-by-side to form a wall. These needles are increased and decreased in number to control the level of the lake and I was lucky enough to have been around to see them add a few needles to this ancient machine.

large_IMG_20150910.jpg

Lucerne according to me was perfect for wandering about even though I didn’t step inside a single landmark.

Until next time.
Safe Travels

Posted by Ceej 05:12 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 20) Page [1] 2 3 4 »