THE KINGDOM OF BHUTAN

The name “Bhutan” is actually a derivative of the Indian Hindu word “Bhot-anta” which means “where Tibet (Bhot) ends”.  The Bhutanese call their country “Druk-yul”, which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, themselves “Drukpas” and their language “Dzongkha” or “the language of the forts”.  “Dzong” means “fort” and “kha” means “language”.  This tiny independent monarchy, with an area of 38,394 square kilometers, opened up to the outside world and modern tourism only in the last few decades.

With Thimphu (2,230 m) as it’s capital, and 18 administrative districts, this beautiful land has a small population of less than a million, mostly Buddhists of the Drukpa Kagyu sect but with adherents to the Nyingmapa school in the central and eastern districts.  In a world where there are now hardly any absolute monarchs, the Bhutanese are fiercely devoted to their young King, fifth in the Wangchuk Dynasty, educated in the west but who insists on preserving his country’s unique culture, customs, religious traditions, modes of dress and food habits and most importantly, Bhutan’s natural environment.

Bhutan’s modern potato crops owe their origin to an English diplomat Ashley Eden who was ordered to take along potatoes to be planted wherever he camped overnight while on a mission to Bhutan from the British Viceroy in Calcutta.

The country’s north lies within the Great Himalayas, with peaks surpassing 7,300 m with high valleys lying at 3,700 m to 5,500 m.  Spurs radiate south-wards, forming the lesser Himalayan ranges.  Several fertile valleys at elevations of 1,500 m to 2,700 m are well-populated and cultivated.

Bhutan’s first hereditary monarch and the present king’s great-great-grandfather, Ugyen Wangchuk, attended in 1912, as a royal invitee, the historic Delhi Durbar at which Britain’s King George V was proclaimed Emperor of India.  King Ugyen was received and treated most cordially by both Emperor and the British Viceroy.

The Royal government rules through a democratically elected National Assembly, a National Advisory Council and a Council of Ministers.  The King is regarded in the same esteem that the British have for Elizabeth II but this king has sweeping political powers.

Economy

Bhutan’s economy is based mainly on agriculture and handicrafts with most exports going to India.  Although perhaps still on the Least Developed Countries’ list, Bhutan is self-sufficient in food, self-produced clothing and self-built traditional houses.  Practically every household, even in the urban areas, has one or two wooden handlooms which produce some of the world’s most unique, colourful and very durable cloth materials. Bhutan also produces various kinds of cottage-based handicrafts.  Hydro-electric power is a prime export to neighbouring India.  Although the government is still wary of “over-enthusiastic tourism”, this new industry does contribute to some degree to the national treasury.  The present king’s father, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who voluntarily abdicated in his son’s favour, famously coined the phrase “Gross National Happiness” to be used as a guide to manage national affairs. 

Realizing that modernity does have it’s benefits, several decades ago Bhutan embarked on an ambitious programme of building more roads, hospitals and schools to create a system of secular education. 

Climate

Bhutan’s climate varies with-sub-continental precipitation and wind-conditions which are often influenced by weather conditions in the north where the great Tibetan Plateau lies.  The rainy season, being in the same precipitary mode as along the entire trans-Himalayan belt, begins around the middle of June and remains till end-September.

Mountainsides everywhere in Bhutan become ablaze in red and orange as the Spring rhododendron season sets in.  The best time for clear and warm days in Bhutan is in the Autumn.

The low river valleys and settlements of Punakha, Mongar, Tashigang and Lhuntse districts experience cool winters and hot summers while the higher valleys of Ha, Paro, Thimphu, Tongsa and Bumthang (ranging from 2500 m to 4500 m) have a more temperate climate but winters can be cold and snowy while summers are cooler.

Wherever one goes in Bhutan, the immense importance that the government and people place on religion, indigenous culture, decent social behaviour, the natural environment all bound in the historical and traditional aspects of the country, is strongly evident.  Immense forts which serve as district administrative centres dominate all the valleys and high hills, monasteries and shrines are everywhere.  The somewhat laid-back lifestyle of the people reflects their desire to live in peace and an acceptable degree of prosperity and, being a people of simple habits, without plunging into brash modernity and ostentatiousness.

Notable places of interest

The Valley of Paro, Thimphu, the capital (which is in fact a large town set in a long, wide valley),  Ha Valley and Punakha in the west, Wangdi Phodrang, Trongsa and Bumthang in the central region, and Lhuntsi, Mongar, Tashi Yangtse and Tashigang in the east are places well-worth visiting, arrangements for all of which can be arranged with our Bhutanese partners.

In the absence of domestic airlines or trains, all in-country travel is on roads  which are well maintained and form a wide network of surface communications.  A lateral road connects the capital with the central and eastern districts.  The high-altitude winding (but well-maintained roads) and mountainous terrain make it wise to travel at speeds of less than 40 kms per hour.  Your drivers will know this.

Paro (pah-ro)

The first introduction to Bhutan for those flying in from Kathmandu by Druk Air, the Bhutanese national carrier, will be the beautifully green and fertile valley of Paro through which glacial waters of the Paro-chhu flow.  This historic valley houses some of the most famous lama-enclaves and monasteries in the country, including Taksang (“the Tiger’s Nest”) where Guru Rimpoche (also known as Guru Padma Sambhawa), who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from India, is said to have landed on the back of a tiger.  Taksang is on the face of a steep and forward-leaning craggy-cliff and one wonders at the devotion and ingenuity of the lamas who built it centuries ago.  Prince William and Kate the Duchess of Cambridge, hiked to the “Nest” during their April 2016 visit to Bhutan.  They described it as being “amazing”.  Mt. Chhomolhari (7320 m) stands at the northern end of the valley.

 

 

Thimphu, the Capital

At 2300 m and with a mild though somewhat windy climate, Thimphu’s impressive Central Secretariat building is called Tashichhodzong, an immense wonder of traditional Bhutanese architecture.  It houses the Royal Throne Room, several inner monasteries, offices of ministers and high bureaucrats.  It is also the summer residence of the country’s highest cleric, the Je Khempo who leads the official Central Monk Body.  While here, 3-4 hours’ hikes to the monasteries of Phajoding, Tango or Cheri are worth taking. 

Other places to visit include the National Memorial Chhorten, dedicated to the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, grandfather of the present monarch.  “Chhorten” literally means “the Seat of Faith” and Buddhists often call such monuments the “Mind of Buddha”.  The 51.5 meters-tall Buddha Dordenna statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, made of bronze and gilded, built to fulfill an 8th century prophecy and meant to emanate peace and happiness to the entire world, is a must visit.   It is on a small hill just at the entrance to the Thimphu Valley.   Simtokha Dzong, a Buddhist retreat and school for monks and nuns and the oldest fort in Bhutan, houses countless statues and paintings of various Buddhas, deities and religious figures including the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rimpochhe, Jampelyang the Boddhisattava of Wisdom, Shakya Gyalpo the Buddha of Compassion, and much more, carved and painted in exquisite detail.

The Folk Heritage Museum, housed in a three-storeyed 19th century traditional building, gives the visitor an insight into the typical Bhutanese material culture and traditional lifestyle.  It displays what a Bhutanese rural household is like, including traditional household implements, tools and equipment.

Using the bark of the daphne and “dhekap” trees, the artisans at the Jungshi factory make Dhe-so paper originally used by monks for woodblocks, religious manuscripts and prayer books.   

Try to find time to visit also the Indigenous Hospital which specializes in herbal medicine, the National Library and the School of Traditional Painting.  One might like to buy some world-famous editions of unique Bhutanese postage stamps (certified by the Universal Postal Union) and lovely T-shirts with Bhutanese motifs, at the local post office.

Thimphu “Tsechhu”

For Bhutanese living within or around the Thimphu Valley, the “Tsechhu” (religious festival), held in the great courtyard of Tashichhodzong, is an annual cultural highlight, with masked dances and colourful ceremonies to drive out evil spirits, Sunday best clothing, feasting and drinking and social reunions.  Awesome  and intricate religious paintings (“thangkhas”) which, rolled up, each take about twenty burly monks to carry, are put up for display and worship.  It is only during “tshechhus” that foreigners are permitted to enter monastic courtyards.     

The Centenary Farmers’ Market just below the town and near the Wangchhu River is a good place to buy Bhutanese clothing, textiles and handicrafts.

Punakha Dzong

The five-hour drive over the Dochu-la Pass (3140 m) from Thimphu to Punakha affords the traveller views of the eastern Himalaya including that of Bhutan’s highest mountain Gangsar Punsum (7550 m).

Built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first theocratic ruler of Bhutan, in the 17th Century, huge and spectacular Punakha Dzong is the winter residence of Bhutan’s highest-ranking monk, His Holiness the Je Khempo, and the Central Monk Body.  Built between two rivers, it has survived four huge fires and an earthquake which destroyed priceless historic documents but still houses ancient sacred artefacts.  A small room in the dzong’s highest tower holds the embalmed body of the Shabdrung which can only be seen by the king and the supreme lama on auspicious occasions.  Nearby is the Chhimi Lhakhang (temple), associated with the legendary 14th Century Lama Drukpa Kuenley, the “Mad Monk of Bhutan”, and visited by couples who have no children but want some.  Not surprisingly, visitors to Chhimi Lhakhang will find themselves surrounded by colourfully painted large erect penises beautifully carved in wood.  

Wangdi Phodrang

The 17th Century Wangdi Phodrang Dzong, gateway to Central Bhutan, played a crucial role in the unification of the country.  Further up is the only Nyingmapa sect monastery in Bhutan at Gangtey, in the Phobjikha Valley which is a home for the rare Black-necked crane which migrate here from Tibet in winter.  Wangdi Phodrang, a very windy place, is also the training center of the Royal Bhutan Army, quartered on a long high ridge at the end of which is the ubiquitous dzong which administers the district.  Soccer matches are played here at around six in the morning because the daily high wind starts blowing at around eight a.m. and continues all day!

Trongsa

At altitude 2200 m, Trongsa, with it’s enormous “hanging” fort built into the side of a steep hill in 1648 with 23 temples, once effectively and strategically controlled the whole region for centuries.  Trongsa Dzong is where the Bhutanese Crown Prince is officially declared the “Trongsa Penlop” (Governor), the future king, in a ritualistic ceremony similar in significance with the investiture of the British Prince of Wales.

The country around Tongsa can by turns be deeply forested and stark terrain, with roaring rivers and plunging gorges interpolating.  The forests provide habitats for a variety of Himalayan specie, as also (reputedly) the Royal Bengal Tiger(?)

Bumthang (or Jakar)

At 2600 m and east of Trongsa lie the four small valleys which make up the larger whole of Bumthang, an area of individual feel and deeply shrouded in religious myths.  Here we find the sacred Kurjey Lhakhang monastery where Guru Rimpoche meditated without moving for 12 years (the imprints of his bottom and his right hand are to be seen on the granite floor of the sanctum sanctorum) and where traditionally, deceased kings of Bhutan are cremated.  The valley produces honey, cheese, apple juice, apricots and the traditional woolen material “yathra”, one of the toughest and most intricately designed clothing materials in the world.  Interesting places to visit include the other monasteries of Jambey and Tamshing, as well as the Jakar Dzong itself.

Mongar and Lhuentse

Mongar Dzong is an example of how an ageing and crumbling fort can be reconstructed still in the traditional mode but without the help of board drawings or nails!  Located 77 kms from Mongar, Lhuentse is one of Bhutan’s most isolated districts with stark cliffs, deep gorges and lush coniferous forests.  Weavers from here produce special textiles and fabrics considered the finest in the country.  Kurtoe, within Lhuentse, is the ancestral home of the Royal family. 

Trashigang/Tashi Yangtse

Home of the eastern-most people of Bhutan – the Sharchops –Trashigang, with it’s accessibility to the Indo-Bhutan border town of Samdrup Jongkhar, is a commercial center for the people of upper Merak and Sakteng.  These people wear a unique form of traditional dress of mixed sheepskin and yak wool, not found anywhere else in the country.  The Trashigang Dzong was built in the 17th century.

The Chorten Kora near Tashi Yangtse Dzong is one of only two chhortens built in the Nepalese style.  The people around here are renowned for their exquisite woodcraft.  

Festivals

Cultural events and religious festivals are important parts of Bhutanese national life as affirmations of faith and national unity and occasions for social reunions, as also giving thanks for and hoping for the last and next year’s harvests.  Feasting, singing and dancing are the order of the day.  Of special thrill are the ceremonial masked dances performed by lamas in the courtyards of the great dzongs and monasteries.

Most notable of these festivals (called “tshechus”) is the one held in the courtyard of the immense Tashichhodzong, (briefly mentioned above), in Thimphu. The masked dances and elaborate ceremonies are meant to exorcise evil spirits who may have sneaked in in the last year.  Archery, Bhutan’s national sport, features highly during this festival (as in other similar “tshechus” held throughout the nation like in Paro and Bumthang), with competing teams aiming at slanted meter-high wooden targets at the ends of an almost 145-m long strip. 

Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, figured very recently in world tabloids and TV taking part in Bhutanese archery in Thimphu during their visit in April 2016 to the Kingdom as guests of Their Majesties King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and Queen Jetsun Pema.

Treks and Trips in Bhutan

Trekking in Bhutan is relatively new but the country has caught up with the rest of the international trekking community in providing some interesting and fascinating hikes to appeal to all, be they short or long, easy or arduous.

There is the short visit including Paro and Thimphu and sightseeing in those places while the trip to Punakha is a little longer and more interesting.  Bird enthusiasts will enjoy the trip to the Probjikha Valley in Wangdi Phodrang district to see the rare black-necked crane.  A more elaborate trip is as far as Trashigang in the east along the west-to-east highway via Trongsa and Bumthang.  This trip takes in Punakha, Gangtey, Tongsa, Bumthang, Mongar and Trashigang, visiting all the interesting places along the way. 

For the hardened trekker, there is the long trek beginning in Paro and ending nearly a month later again in Paro but having gone through Punakha in the north-west and Trongsa and Bumthang in the center of the country.  It also combines the Chhomolhari, Laya and Lunana treks crossing the Renchhen Zoe (5400 m), Bhutan’s highest pass. This is quite a challenging trip.

There are various other treks which we operate and if you are interested, please contact us and we will send you fully detailed itineraries of the one you choose.  

Other interests to pursue in Bhutan are bicycling, bird watching, botanical trips, fishing, and observing traditional arts and crafts in the making.

The 600-km long west to east highway becomes an exciting bike route which goes winding over a mountain pass of about 3000 m height every day up and down thousands of feet.  Observe at first hand picturesque rural life and culture.  Dense forest cover and steep vertical descents often provide sightings of many of the 675 species of birds to be found in Bhutan.  Forests of fir, conifers, temperate and broadleaf species, medicinal herbs and over 5000 species of plants including lichens, mosses, tiny rhododendrons, nivale, edelweiss and varieties of primula cover 60 % of Bhutan.  Angle for rainbow trout, salmon and freshwater dolphins in Bhutan’s fresh-water lakes and rivers.  Observe and learn about the high quality traditional arts and crafts such as carpentry, blacksmithing, weaving, painting, sculpture, metal casting, bamboo-work, embroidery, masonry, leatherwork,  indigenous paper-making and cottage textiles – all traditional skills.  For those interested in Tibetan Buddhism, Bhutan is a storehouse of theological history and knowledge.

If you have any questions or would like more details about any of our cruises, itineraries or destinations, please contact us, either by phone, email, or fill out the form below and someone will get back to you as soon as possible. We look forward to hearing from you.

Why Mountain Legend?

Online Brochure

We encourage you to download e-brochure for enviromental benefits.

Download