Bhutan travel story
Why visit Bhutan, this could be the first question that could be asked and that I myself asked myself; the answer in my case was: I'm interested in understanding and perceiving why this country is considered and acclaimed as the "kingdom of happiness".
Before telling my experience of travel in this country, I consider it appropriate to make a brief introduction because this particular goal requires it.
Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom which measures the wellbeing of the population not so much based on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) but on a measure known as GNH which translated means Gross National Happiness. Gross national happiness recognizes that material wealth is important, but also enhances the importance of community welfare, including culture, governance, knowledge, wisdom, health, spirituality, psychological well-being, balanced use of time and harmony with the environment. This basic principle regulates the lives of Bhutanese and is applied in many different forms, some of which are unknown to us as teaching "happiness" in schools (see the Curiosity paragraph for more details). Some might smile, but the thing is damn serious for them and the result is felt all right. It is not that the Bhutanese do not have challenges or problems, but they face them with an open heart and loving attitude.
Visiting this country, both in the main cities and in the countryside, we perceive this relaxed and full of joy of life, their attitude is not materialistic but full of availability, care, concern with a constant smile.
Returning to the most practical aspects, it should be noted that it is not possible to visit this country thinking of moving independently as for many other nations. All tourists must organize the trip through a Bhutan travel company at an approximate price of 200-250 $ per day. The daily all-inclusive price includes a vehicle with driver and a local guide, the agency is concerned with defining the tour with related hotels according to the needs of tourists, the time of year, preferences, etc. The guide will always follow the tourists both single and in group as held responsible in all respects. To enter Bhutan it is necessary to have a visa issued by the Bhutanese consulate of the country of origin. In the country, cigarettes are not sold because smoking is forbidden everywhere (pay attention, they are quite rigorous).
In the country there is only one international airport (Paro). Bhutan is about as big as Switzerland is has a population of about 700,000 people, so a very low population density, what are called cities we could call them, at most, towns.
Considering the many organizational difficulties, the suggested choice is to rely on a practical tour operator of this destination. I followed this path and the group (very content of people) has been joined by an Italian guide, a nice former Buddhist monk who is a great connoisseur of these cultures (Pino for friends: firstname.lastname@example.org) who has been following us for all the tour. This has been an unquestionable advantage, having next to a person who explains the reason and nature of what you are visiting, the times, the customs, the prayers, the history of Buddhism, etc. has allowed us to live a wonderful experience full of meaning. The choice of the visiting period is another factor to consider carefully. The climate of Bhutan in the area of major tourist interest sees two main seasons, one summer, dominated by monsoons that bring a lot of rain (see climate chart) and a pretty cold winter (consider that the lowest cities are around 2000mt altitude) . The best time to visit Bhutan is autumn or spring, also because in these two periods the Bhutanese organize their characteristic festivals in many cities, towns or country towns.
The cultural tours in this country consist mainly in the visit of Dzong, monasteries and temples, places that allow you to get in touch with this culture and way of life decidedly different from ours. My visit to Bhutan took place in autumn and lasted 15 days, this allowed me to visit as many as 4 festivals, one of which also at night. These events are very much felt by the Bhutanese, they are not a moment of religious celebration, aggregation and leisure. Festivals often last a few days.
My tour starts from Paro (the only international airport). Thanks to the particularity of being the only access point to the country, the city has had a certain economic development very oriented to tourism, many shops that sell local products and souvenirs, often the same and repetitive. The first visit is dedicated to the Dzong, an impressive structure made famous also for the many scenes that have been shot inside of the film "The little Buddha" by Bertolucci. The Dzong is located on the side of a river and the entrance is from the opposite bank through a striking wooden bridge. The interior is large, sumptuous with several well-preserved style buildings. The presence of a monastic school is noted by the notable presence of monks with their characteristic red tunic. We continue with a short trek to reach the hermitage of Drakapo a small temple placed in an isolated but very suggestive position. Also in Paro we also visit another monastery, the Yoeto Gompa, a small structure with a notable presence of young and very young aspiring monks. Here is the first festival we see in Genekha. The event takes place in the large area in front of a monastery in a small country town, the local public and tourists are positioned in a semicircle. The performances alternate between dancers with wide and colorful costumes who wear religious masks often of "irate" with ungainly shapes like big eyes or big mouths maybe surrounded by small skulls. The dances consist of movements that follow the music generated by particular trombones, plates or triangles. The rhythms are often repetitive and alternate between slow and lively moments. The dancers follow the rhythm and in the lively moments they perform in fast turns that fan out the costumes that they wear with a very nice effect (see video Bhutan festival). The women also perform in the festivals wearing the characteristic Bhutanese women's costume. The female performances following local music, the women sing and move with soft and delicate movements creating small choreography.
Transfer to Bhutan's capital Thimphu. A city with about 70,000 inhabitants located at about 2,300mt of altitude. The city center is very simple and of little tourist interest, a curiosity is represented by the main intersection of the city where, in its time, was installed the first traffic light of Bhutan which, however, was short-lived. After complaints about the impersonal nature of the structure, he was replaced by a traffic officer. From this episode we can understand what mentality pervades the Bhutanese and what the vehicular traffic of the capital may be. The market area is quite small (practically two lanes) and apart from the usual tourist shops, in the center is perhaps the only thing of some interest, a sequence of wooden boxes where they come local handicrafts such as scarves, caps , small perfumery, small gadgets, curtains, decorative elements, etc. It seems that the authenticity of the products is guaranteed by the absolute prohibition of the authorities to sell products that are not from Bhutan.Of course the capital is not only this, it is home to one of the largest Dzong in the country, a reference point for both locals and tourists full of charm, religious frescoes and decorative elements, structure visited only in the evening as the seat of government and the seat of the king's throne. Not far from the capital in the monastery of Dechen Phu, former seat of government and now monastic school, we attend another festival. It takes place in the area in front of the main building where a covered area has been set up for the authorities who want to attend the festival, a sign of the importance of this event. Also here, as previously described for Genekha, dances in costume accompanied by music generated by the characteristic trombones played by the monks. While the event takes place, here comes the king in person with his wife and son. The police is concerned with handling the situation and orders tourists to NOT photograph the king !!!!! We can say that at least we have personally seen the Bhutanese royal family. Last visit around the capital is at the college of astrology that is located in a simple and little-attended monastery.
The visits continue in the direction of the city of Punakha, with a quick visit to the female monastery of Dechen Phodrang with a subsequent visit to the monastic school of Changangkha Lhakhang and then reach the pass of Dochu at 3140mt with a nice view of the Himalayas. Just on the pass we find a small hill full of reliquaries, small buildings in style arranged in concentric circles. Next we visit the fertility temple of Chimi Lhankhang founded by a great enlightened nicknamed "The Enlightened Mad" whose phallic emblem adorns the entrance of many rural houses.
Once in Punakha we visit the majestic Dzong very famous and perhaps the most important in the country. He is also placed along the bank of a river and is accessed by a wooden bridge. Large and well preserved with its frescoes of rare mandalas that are not easily found elsewhere, the ancient iconographic art is well represented here. Next visit to the monastic school of Nalanda, a small reality perched on the side of a mountain.
We move in the direction of Gangte and here begins a difficult road that we will live for several days. It must be said that apart from some asphalted main roads, the internal roads that run along the sides of the mountains are being "widened", ie from single-lane dirt roads, work is underway to widen and asphalt them, a cyclopean work for a reality like the Bhutanese one. The works have been going on for years and it will take several years to finish them. In this situation the roads are a continuous construction site, many of these initiates and then suspended, one lane, tremendous holes and run-off phenomena due to heavy monsoon rains, also no protection on the downstream side !!!!!!
We pass through the valley of Phobjikha from the rich vegetation where among the dwarf bamboo plants it is frequent to see some yaks (species of long-haired bison) that graze peacefully. Once in Gangte, a small town at 2800mt above sea level, visit the very simple but famous Nyingmapa monastery founded by an abbot recognized as the ninth reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, a famous bhutanese saint. We are in the heart of Bhutan, walking through Gangte you can feel the simplicity of the place, of people and of life that follows simple and slow rhythms.
Next stage Trongsa with its Dzong place of origin of the current royal dynasty. Nearby we visit a small female monastery where we witness what is called a "debate" among the aspired nuns. The debate is a curious way of formation that takes place in the courtyard of the monastery and involves about 10 nuns involved in a circle around two of their peers who remain seated on the ground. The debate consists of questions that the group makes to the two nuns sitting, based on the answer, correct or wrong, the group responds in turn in a thunderous way and with a specific gesture (see short video).
The tour continues on the impervious and disastrous streets to reach the Bumthang area with destination Jakar where we visit a noble house in which there is a peasant museum in which tools, clothes and tools related to the rural life of the region are collected. The visit to the temple of Ta Rimoce, located in a wild area and leaning on a colossal boulder, is evocative.
In Jakar we participate in the festival held at the venerable Jambay Lhakhang temple, considered the oldest Buddhist site in Bhutan. There, in the evening, we witness the dance of fire that takes place in an almost total darkness revived by the only fire around which dance naked and masked men who with specific rituals make the sacred fire. The fire is brought with torches in a nearby place (in a field) where there is a portal made of wooden pine logs. After some rituals in the presence of the Lama, the portal is set on fire by torches and tradition has it that the faithful pass through this fiery portal as a gesture of interior purification. The presence of the local population is considerable and there is a crowd to pass through the portal. The day after we witness the day festival very felt throughout the Bumthang which attracts many faithful who along with tourists are arranged in a circular way in the outer square of the temple where they perform the dancers with large and colorful costumes and large masks. Although the music and dances are very similar to those already seen on other occasions, here we note greater variety of both the costumes and rituals associated with dances, a show of several hours very interesting and engaging.
Jakar also has a beautiful and well-known Dzong that we visit and in which we participate in a moment of prayer with the monks inside the temple, very suggestive ....
Afterwards we visit the Kurjey complex, one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan, a place steeped in legends where Guru Rimpoce would have left the imprint of his body imprinted on a rock, a rock that can be visited inside the temple. From Jakar we start again to go back towards Trongsa and Paro, going over the same disastrous route of the going ....During the journey we stop in the village Parker where a festival takes place in the temple. Although the performance of the dances is very similar to other festivals, here we note a special attention paid to the costumes in the richness of details, in the combination of colors, in the wide folds and finishes as well as in sumptuous garments, made with care and craftsmanship. . Once back in Paro our tour ends with a visit to the most famous and photographed temple of Bhutan, the Taktshang also called "the nest of the tiger" placed in an impervious area built on several levels with small buildings clinging to a large rock face , a show worthy of its fame. The temple must be reached on foot with an ascent of about 2 hours. Fatigue repays the beauty of the place very frequented by tourists, the access controls are rigorous, as in all the times of Bhutan, you can not take pictures or shoot and the equipment must be deposited. The beautiful monastery includes seven temples that develop at different heights, often along steep and narrow stairs. The name "tana della tigre" is justified by the presence of the animal in different times depicted as a point of support for different deities.
In conclusion, the trip was very interesting and instructive, the direct contact with a religion so far for us Westerners has enriched all the participants in the tour. The initial question "why Bhutan is considered the country of happiness" has had a clear answer, they know that the purpose of human existence is to learn to love, so they have placed their efforts in the right direction creating an environment of peace, care, joy, balance with nature and mutual respect.