Despite our attempts, we were unable to structure our trip to Bhutan in a way that allowed us to see one of the country’s famous festivals or archery completions. But we were able to set up a 5 day/4 night trek–Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek–that allowed us to experience a nice cross section of the country’s varied natural environment and scenery as well as set up some time in the country’s two primary Western cities, Paro and Thimphu.
Among the first things you notice when you arrive at the Paro airport is the airport itself; a lovely building designed and decorated in the traditional Bhutanese style of white plaster walls, ornate wooden-beam construction, decorative windows and paintings.
The mood continues on a ride from the airport into Paro, with green meadows and rice fields studded by white plaster farmhouses with timbered beams. Then there are the people, most of whom dress in traditional Bhutanese garb–gho smocks and patterned socks for men and colorful kiro dresses for women and of course, saffron and burgundy robes for monks. Traditional dress is mandated for many occasions. School children, tour guides, work place etc. We did occasionally see people in western garb, but it was while trekking or after work or school hours.
The "city" of Paro (almost 20,000 people) consists of a main street, almost all in the traditional Bhutanese style, lined with small shops. Interestingly, the vast majority of these shops fall into two categories: general stores that offer small selections of all types of goods (primarily Indian) and tourist-focused shops selling local handicrafts.
Paro, however, is about much more than its downtown. It is also about the country’s history. The primary historical site and the one to which we devoted the majority of our first day is Taktsang Palphug (aka,Tiger’s Nest) Temple.This iconic symbol of Bhutan, which is perched at 500 meters up the face of a steep cliff, requires a two-hour steady uphill climb which, at over 7,000 feet of elevation, is a tough climb for someone unaccustomed to this altitude. One of the worse parts is that once you reach the elevation of the temple, you have to descend 589 steps (according to our guide’s count) to cross a stream and then climb part of the way back up to reach the Temple,and of course you know that you will have to ascend those same steps on the way back. For those who aren’t up to the hike, you can hire a small horse to take you most of the way for about $10—an option we didn’t take
Tiger’s Nest was well worth the sweat and exercise. Fortunately our guide suggested that we start out real early before it got too hot. That made it much easier.
Since this is Bhutan, the temple has a legend. The valley natives, plagued by a demon, sought the help of a Buddha. The Buddha transformed his consort into a flying tigress and flew on her back to a cave on the side of the cliff overlooking the valley. After meditating in the cave, the Buddha subdued the demon and, with the help of angels, built the temple.
Whether or not you believe the legend, it is a good acclimatization hike with pretty views and a lovely temple. The downhill hike was broken up at a crowded but pleasant tea room halfway down, where we enjoyed tea, biscuits and a final view of the temple.
After Tiger’s Nest and a spot of lunch, we took a brief tour of Paro’s other sites. These included:
- Kichu Lhakhang, one of 108 monasteries that were reportedly constructed in a single night by Tibetan King Songten Gampo in the 7th century to immobilize an even larger demon that covered all of Bhutan and much of Nepal. This temple reportedly pinned down the demon’s left toe, securing the demon from moving.
- Paro Rinpung Dzong that was built in 1646 by a saint who came from Tibet, bringing with him a religious relic and ending up unifying Bhutan and building this fort and temple (and later the below mentioned watchtower) to protect the country from Tibet.
- Ta Dzong, an ancient (built in 1656) watchtower that traditionally housed the National Museum of Bhutan. Although the tower was closed due to damage from a 2011 earthquake, an abbreviated version of the museum is located nearby. Exhibits include a collection of Thangka paintings, a range of historical objects including distinctive regional clothes, weapons and a metal, water-based timekeeping device that was used from the 15th through 17th centuries. There is also a large exhibit on Bhutan’s geology, flora and fauna and a map that shows the country’s changing borders. (Our guide showed us the section of the country that China had claimed as its own and Bhutan eventually ceded about eight years ago to settle the situation–and also the larger section of the country that China now claims as ifs own.)
Thimphu was the other “city” we visited in Bhutan. This 100,000-person city–the largest in the country–was generally created since the 1960s, when it was designated the capital of Bhutan. Although virtually all the buildings are relatively new, they have been designed in traditional style with Buddhist motifs. It prides itself in being one of only two Asian capital cities without a traffic light, although it does station a traffic guide in a cupola in the middle of an intersection, similar to Hamilton Bermuda), albeit with long pants. (Our guide did not know the other Asian capital without a traffic light.)
The downtown, while not exactly a metropolis, does have some five- and six-story buildings, including some with modern features in addition to traditional detail. It also has a large central square for concerts and dance performances and a number of specialty stores.
The city also has a number of historic and cultural sites. We visited the:
- Bhutan Painting School, a vocational school for non-academically inclined students that teaches traditional religious painting, sculpture, embroidery, woodcarving and other crafts (over four-to-six-year courses). The government will then help graduates get jobs, such as working for larger artisan shops or setting up their own businesses with interest-free loans. There is, however, a catch. All artistic training is for traditional religious art and loans are only applicable for production of this art (fulfilling a goal of preserving the country’s artistic heritage). All art , therefore, looks the same and provides little opportunity for artistic self-expression or differentiation.
- Folk Heritage Museum is a 150 year-old former farm house of a state governor. It provides a very interesting portrayal of how homes were laid out with a courtyard for animals, a special area for cows, food storage and kitchen areas and the rather crowded third-floor living quarters in which family members slept in the same room to ensure enough place for family temples and prayer spots. The museum also had a wide selection of household articles.
- National Memorial Chorten built in memory of the third King of Bhutan, the Father of Modern Bhutan. This is the most popular prayer site in the country. It is a site of religious festivals (as when we visited) and is especially popular with elderly people who often spend the entire day, walking around the stupa while chanting and spinning prayer wheels.
- Buddha Dordunmo, a giant 169-foot golden Buddha atop a hill overlooking the city. The statue, which was financed by private donations from Buddhists from around the world as a religious symbol, like Rio’s Christo. Once completed in 2014, it will hold 100,000 eight-inch and 25,000 twelve-inch Buddhas and more than 7,000 people meditating at a time.
- Tashichho Dzong (or Fortress of the Glorious Religion). This huge Dzong was built in 1641 and reconstructed in 1961. It is presently the seat of the national government and the Central Monastic Body, including the summer residence of the spiritual leader of Bhutan. The national legislature and King’s palace are located nearby.
- Mini Zoo, which exhibits of a few local animals, such as reindeer, red deer and especially the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. The takin large (about four foot tall, six foot long, 750 pound) mountainous antelope that Bhutanese believe has a body of a cow and the head of goat. And since this is Bhutan, its creation is subject of a legend.
- Government Handicrafts Emporium which displays and offers crafts and textiles for sale. Although we really tried to find something we would like to buy, we discovered that we just don’t have a taste for Bhutanese crafts and religious symbols.
- National Library, which holds a vast collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, including prayer books, the Tibetan Buddhist Canon and some of the oldest records of Bhutanese history and religion. It also has the Guinness-Certified largest book in the world, a 5×7-foot, 130-pound book of photographs of the Kingdom.
We also has chances to see a couple of the country’s national sports (archery) and past-times (draughts or darts). Although draughts certainly requires skill, we marveled at both the vision and the skill required to hit a one-inch diameter bullseye from 150 meters. And don’t forget another well-established sport (soccer) and a rapidly growing Bhutanese pastime–golf.