The abode of the mighty Wangchuck Dynasty and a majestic kingdom, Bhutan is beautiful in every sense of the word. Land of culturally diverse people, flora & fauna, home to unique species such as red panda, the black neck cranes, blue sheep, snow leopard and the Himalayan bear along with the snowy peaks, mountains, roaring white water rivers, gentle streams & mighty falls, monasteries giving solace to mind & souls, all these make Bhutan a wonderful heaven on the earth.
Bhutan is one of the world's greatest natural attractions, with crystal-clear waters, breathtaking landscapes, gorgeous rivers, spectacular mountains and sparkling lakes - and no crowds to get in the way.
And even though roaming its wild and unspoiled landscapes is like stepping back in time to a mystical, primordial era, Bhutan's society is with a disarmingly honest and friendly people who have a global reputation for making visitors feel welcome.
Drukyul or the country of the Drukpas lies Hidden in the folds of the eastern Himalayas. Bhutan is sandwiched between the two giant countries: India in the south and China in the north. With a total area of 38,398 sq kilometers, approximately the size of Switzerland, Bhutan lies between 88° 45’ and 92°10’ longitude east and 26°40’ and 28°15 ’ north. It is a mountainous country except for a small flat strip in its southern foothills.
Map of Bhutan
The Bhutanese currency is Ngultrum which is made up of one hundred chhetrums. Its value is equal to an Indian rupee. The most used is in paper form although people also use coins.
Of a variety of games, archery (dha) is the most popular and the most played game. Thus, it is the national game of Bhutan. It is played between two teams wearing traditional dresses and shooting at a small wooden target. Each time a member of the team hits the target the other team members sing and dance to celebrate.
Other traditional sports also include dart (khuru), javelin thrown towards a target (suksom), etc. Today, most of the international sports which include football, basket ball, tennis, volley ball, golf, crickets etc. are also played.
Gross National Happiness: Development Philosophy of Bhutan
Economists argue that happiness can be obtained with material development. However, Bhutan argues the case differently trying to advocate by saying that material growth does not necessarily lead to happiness. In Bhutan, progress is not measured by Gross Domestic Product but by Gross National Happiness.
EmblemThe National Emblem of Bhutan is a circle that projects a double diamond thunderbolt placed above the lotus. There is a jewel on all the sides and two dragons on the two vertical sides. The two thunderbolts represent the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity. The jewel signifies sovereign power. The two dragons (male and female) on each side stand for the name of the country (Druk means dragon and for the Bhutanese, Bhutan is known as Druk yul or the Land of the Dragon).
FlagThe National flag is rectangle in shape. It is divided into two parts diagonally. The upper yellow half signifies the secular power and authority of the king. The lower saffron-orange symbolizes the practice of religion and power of the Buddhism, which is manifested in the tradition of Drukpa Kagyu. The white dragon signifies the purity of the country and the name of the country. The jewels in its claws stand for the wealth and perfection of the country. It was late Mayum Choying Wangmo Dorji, who created the national flag in 1947 and was modified in 1956 to take the present form.
Bhutan is a multi-lingual society. Today, about 19 languages and dialects are spoken all over the country. However, the state language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. In the ancient times this language was used by the people who worked in the Dzongs, the fortresses that was the temporal and spiritual seat. Later, feeling the need to have a common tool of communication, Dzongkha was introduced as the national language of Bhutan.
It’s celebrated on December 17. It marks the crowning of Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king of Bhutan, in Punakha Dzong on 17 December 1907 by the people of Bhutan unanimously for restoring peace and order when he was the Trongsa Penlop, Governor of Trongsa. For this reason, all the Kings of Bhutan are installed as Trongsa Penlop before their enthronement as King. This is a national holiday in Bhutan.
FlowerThe national flower is Blue Poppy (Meconopsis horridula). It is delicate blue or purple tinged blooms with a white filament. It grows to a height of 1 meter, on the rocky mountain terrain found above the tree line (3500-4500). This flower is however linked with a myth of a yeti. It was discovered in 1933 by a British Botanist, George Sherriff in remote part of Sakteng in eastern Bhutan.
CypressThe national tree is cypress (Cupressus torolusa). In Bhutan one can notice big cypresses near the religious structures. Cypress is found in the temperate climate zone, between 1800 and 3500 metres altitude. It is associated with religiou. Its capacity to survive on rugged harsh terrain is compared to bravery and simplicity.
RavenThe national bird is the raven. It ornaments the royal crown. Raven represents the deity Gonpo Jarodongchen (raven headed Mahakala), one of the chief guardian deities of Bhutan.
TakinThe national animal is takin (burdorcas taxicolor). The reason for selecting this mammal as a national animal is because it is associated with religious history and mythology. It is a very rare mammal. It has a thick neck and short muscular legs. It lives in groups and is found in places 4000 meters high on the north-western and far north eastern parts of the country. They feed on bamboos. It can weigh about 250 kgs.
Flora & Fauna
Physically, Bhutan can be divided into three zones: Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover; the Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests; and the Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation. Ensuing from its wide range of altitude and climate, compounded by its 72 percent forest cover, the flora and fauna of Bhutan is diverse and rich.
Forest types in Bhutan are Fir Forests, Mixed Conifer Forest, Blue Pine Forest, Chirpine Forest, Broadleaf mixed with Conifer, Upland Hardwood Forest, Lowland Hardwood Forest, and Tropical Lowland Forests. More than 60 percent of the common plant species of the Eastern Himalayas can be found within Bhutan.
There are also 46 species of Rhododendrons and over 300 types of medicinal plants. Junipers, magnolias, carnivorous plants, rare orchids, blue poppy (the national flower), edelweiss, gentian, medicinal plants, daphne, giant rhubarb, high-altitude plants, tropical trees, pine and oak are also common sights.
Bhutan is heaven to a wide range of animals. Snow leopard, blue sheep, red panda, tiger, takin, marmot and musk deer are some of the species found in the high altitude. Temperate zone is a habitat to Tiger, leopard, goral, gray langur, Himalayan black bear, red panda, sambar, wild pig, and barking deer. The tropical forests in the south have tiger, clouded leopard, elephants, one horned Rhinoceros, water buffalo, golden langur, gaur, swamp deer, hog deer horn bills, among many others.
Bhutan is also considered a place favorable for birds. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’ situated as it is at the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. Over 670 species of birds have been recorded and many more are likely to be found.
In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s restricted rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These inhabitant birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Around 50 species are known to be winter migrants. These include ducks, waders, birds of prey, thrushes, finches and buntings. About 40 species of summer visitors or partial migrants to Bhutan include cuckoos, swifts, bee-eaters, warblers, flycatchers and drongos. The country harbours more than 16 species of internationally vulnerable birds. They are Pallas’s Fish Eagle, White bellied Heron, Satyr Tragopan, Grey bellied Tragopan, Ward’s Trogaon, Blyth’s King Fisher, rumped Honey Guide, Purple Cochoa, Rufous throated Wren Babbler, Red headed Parrot Bill, Chestnut breasted Partridge, Blyth’s Trogon, Wood Snipe, Dark Rumped Swift,Rufous necked Hornbill, Grey crowned Prinia and the Beautiful Nuthatch all of which breed in Bhutan.
Black Necked CraneThe country is also an important wintering ground for the rare Black necked crane. Greater spotted Eagle, Baer’s Pochard, Imperial Eagle and Hodgson’s Bush chat are also found.
As one of the ten global hotspots Bhutan is all set to preserve and protect the rich environment through environmental organizations.
Some of the proactive organizations are the:
National Environmental Commission
- Royal society for protection of nature clubs throughout the country
- Department of Forestry Services
- Nature Conservation Department
- Bhutan Trust Fund
- Donor Organization
- Association of Bhutan Tour Operators
Places of interest : A Glimpse
Bhutan is the last unspoiled Himalayan kingdom, often known as Shangri-La. Roughly the size of Switzerland, Bhutan, or ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ is shrouded in timeless mystery, and offers one of the most breathtaking travel experiences in the world.
Places of Interest
The friendly people of Bhutan are eager to welcome you and share their pristine environment, profound religion, timeless culture and stunning architecture.
Travelling to Bhutan is an opportunity to experience a Himalayan Buddhist culture that has had little disturbance by outside influence, all set to a background of magnificent landscapes.
From exhilarating treks through majestic mountainous terrain to inspiring cultural tours, Bhutan offers a variety of programs to suit all interests ranging from bird watching, mountain biking, walking, photography, and Buddhist pilgrimages.
When to visit?
The busiest times of the year to visit Bhutan are during spring (March/ April/ May) and autumn (September/ October/ November). Many of the large festivals occur during these periods attracting many foreign visitors. The weather is also more mild, and in spring, even though there are more clouds and rain than in autumn, the wildlife and flowers are at their most vivid. If your tour dates overlap with a major festival, 8 weeks advance booking is recommended as it can be difficult to confirm flights and hotels during these times without early reservations.
If you are wanting to endeavour into some adventurous Himalayan trekking, the best time to visit is during the winter months (December/ January/ February) when the skies are at their clearest, and mountainous views at their most stunning. Be aware though that winter can be very cold, and it can be difficult to access the eastern areas of Bhutan such as Bumthang due to snowfall. Some treks may also be closed.
Summer (June/ July/ August) is the monsoon season. During this period 500mm of rain falls in Thimphu and up to a metre falls in the eastern hills.
The mountains and valleys are often shrouded in cloud, and the roads can be submerged in heavy downfalls and floods. Even though the summer and winter are not highly recommended travel seasons to Bhutan, some travellers are taking advantage of travel during these seasons to experience Bhutan with fewer tourists around.
For tours that take place outside of spring and autumn festival seasons you should book 5-6 weeks in advance.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan and a regal town, is home to the admired Bhutanese Royal family and to ministries, several foreign missions and development projects.
Trashichho Dzong: Trashichho Dzong dates back to 17th Century but it attained its present size after a renovation in the 1960s.
On the bank of the river lies Trashichho Dzong, the main secretariat building which houses the throne room of His Majesty the king of Bhutan. The National Assembly Hall and some offices are housed in a modern building on the other side of the river from the Dzong.
Bhutan’s National Library is located close to Trashichho Dzong and is worth a look in. Housed in the library are some of the oldest records of Bhutanese history and religion.
A visit to the Painting School will reveal not only the finished products of paintings, sculpture, clay work, metal work etc. but also students and artists at work. In the showroom you can also buy souvenirs.
The memorial chorten, stupa built in memory of Third King by the Grand Queen Mother Ashi Phuntsho Choden in 1974 lies in the heart of Thimphu. It houses many tantric statues. It is also possible to walk around the stupa and relish the view of Thimphu city.
Handicrafts Emporium that showcases textiles and handicrafts, the Textile Museum the exposes the art of weaving as well as the finished products, and the Folk Heritage Museum that presents the traditional life style are some places that will thrill any visitors.
Another choice is to drive up to Sangaygang and savor the view of Thimphu valley. On the way up or back you can see Takin, the National animal of Bhutan.
Otherwise, another place worth visiting is the weekend market where Bhutanese come to buy the vegetables, fruits, dairy products etc.
A wonderful day’s outing from Thimphu is a visit to Cheri and Tango monasteries to the north of the town. On the drive up you can have a view of Decehncholing Palace, Pangri Zampa monastery and villages.
Semtokha Dzong: Semtokha Dzong is the oldest Zhabdrung era Dzong built in 1629.
Another site of interest is the 17th century Simtokha Dzong that stands approximately five kilometers south of Thimphu. It houses the school for Buddhist studies.
Paro Dzong was built in 1646. It was the seat of the Governor of Paro.
Paro valley extols the only airstrip in Bhutan. Therefore, it is one of the regions of Bhutan that is well-equipped with hotels and tourist facilities. The valley of Paro also contains a wealth of cultural and religious attractions and requires a few days to explore. Casting a shadow across the town of Paro and controlling all secular and religious activities in its valley is the Rinpung Dzong, (the fortress of heap of jewels) built in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Behind Rinpung Dzong, on the high hillside, is the castle-shaped Ta Dzong, one time watch tower built to defend Rinpung Dzong during civil wars of the 17th Century. Since 1967, the National Museum houses the cultural and religious heritage of Bhutan.
Drugyal Dzong: Drugyal Dzong was built sometimes in 1647 to celebrate the Bhutanese victory over the Tibetans. Later its served as a seat to the Lord of Drugyal region.
Half an hour drive north of Paro town stands the mid-17th century Drugyal Dzong (the fortress of the victorious Drukpas). In ruins since the fire incident of 1951, it is one of the sites that carry the marks of Bhutanese history as a defense fortress. You can also relish the panoramic view of the 7320 meters snow clad Jomolhari.
Kichu Lhakhang, Paro: Kichu Lhakhang was built sometimes in mid 7th century by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. It is believed to be one of the 108 temples built to subdue a demoness residing in the Himalayas. It is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan.
Kichu lhakhang, the mid 7th century temple constructed by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo is another area that captures the attention. It houses the statues of the crowned Buddha (Jampa) and Guru Rinpoche. It is a few minutes drive from Paro town.
Taktshang Monastery: Taktshang is a place of pilgrimage visited by Padmasambhava in the mid 8th century. It was visited by many Buddhist saints including Milarepa, the cotton clad saint.
Perched on an 800 meter cliff, Taktshang monastery is one of the most now sacred sites of Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche is said to have arrived at this place riding on a tigress. He meditated here and subdued a demon. It will demand half a day to hike up to the monastery and return.
Jele Dzong offers you a full day’s hike up and back to Paro through coniferous forest. If lucky, you can spot Himalayan musk deers, monal pheasants, and languars. From Jele Dzong you can have magnificent view of Paro town and the neighbouring villages.
Dungtse lhakhang, the stupa shaped temple just near Paro town, half an hour drive to Sangchhoekhor Dzong, half an hour drive and an hour’s hike to Kila Gonpa, the nunnery are some of the visits that Paro valley offers.
Tachog Lhakhang: Tachog Lhakhang was built in the 14th century by Dewa Zangpo, son of Thangthong Gyalpo who is known for having built many suspension bridges in the Himalayas of which eight in Bhutan. One that was rebuilt recently can be seen in front of the Dzong.
On the way to Thimphu you can also see the Tachog Lhakhang and iron chain bridge. At Chuzom, the confluence of Pa chu and Thim chu, you can also witness three different stupas which are of Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese style.
Talo: Talo Lhakhang was founded by Chogtrul Jigme Singye in the 18th century. It served as a seat to the incarnations of Zhabdrung Nagawang Namgyal, the personality who unified Bhutan.
The road to the warmer regions of Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang passes through several interesting places. For instance, 19 kilometers from Thimphu, it is thrilling to take a cultural walk of about 20 minutes to Hongtso Gonpa, a monastery built in 1525. From there you can also have a view of Trashigang Gonpa on the mountain opposite Hongtsho Gonpa, a monastery built in 1768. Next, there is the pass of Dochula (3050m), after about 5 kilometers uphill drive. This is the point that offers marvelous view of some of the tall peaks of Bhutan on a clear day. From Dochula, it requires about two hours drive to reach Punakha.
Strategically built in the 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal at the junction of the two rivers (Pho chu and Mo chu), Punakha Dzong served as the religious and administrative seat. In spite of several catastrophic fires, floods and a devastating earthquake that destroyed many historic documents, the Dzong houses sacred temples including the Machen where the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal lies in state. The Dzong extols as the place where the First King of Bhutan was enthroned on December 17, 1905. It also served as the capital of Bhutan till 1954.
Punakha Dzong: Punakha Dzong was built in 1637. It served as the old capital till the 1950s. The first King of Bhutan was enthroned in this Dzong.
Another place of interest is the Khamsum Yulley Namgay Chorten located on a hillock. It takes a drive of about 20 minutes and then 30 minutes walk to reach the temple. The temple which is modeled like a stupa houses impressive wrathful statues. The place also offers magnificent views of the villages below in the lowlands.
Text and Photography : courtesy : bhutan2008.bt, copyright : DIT