India is a sought-after educational destination, but vocational courses earn you great respect in Bhutan. I realised this at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum or the School of Arts and Crafts: an open-air school whose uniform was Bhutan’s national costume (kira and gho – a robe raised to the knees for men).
Courses such as needlework, sculpture-making, embroidery, carpentry and stitching were not only detailed and extensive (many students were doing six-year courses), but also provided employment. Most shops set in front of the hotel were run by former students of the academy.
But Bhutan didn’t grow on me till the hotel snuck in this surprise. Hidden carefully in the itinerary as a ‘picnic by river side’, we were treated to the breathtaking sight of a bright yellow tent perched on the crystal-clear riverside of Thimphu Chuu.
With Country Roads streaming from an iPod dock, recliners dipping in the river, a grand bar set up under the tree and a luxurious spread on the table, there was nothing more one could ask for. Dipping my feet in the cold, just-turned warm water of the river, it dawned on me. This was what I had come looking for. When To Visit
The ideal months to visit Bhutan are between September and mid-November, when the weather is generally clear and the days are sunny and pleasant. However, it’s advisable to always keep raingear handy since a downpour is never too far away.Also Visit
The pristine architecture of the religious fortress located in Thimphu houses the throne and the king’s offices alongside a Buddhist monastery. Warning: don’t even think of ringing the bell. It’s not a temple!
Built over several stories from wood, it has the Guinness record for the largest book in the world. Don’t miss a black-and-white portrait of Jawahar Lal Nehru with a young Indira
National Memorial Chorten
A stupa built in the memory of the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in Thimphu. The stunning contrast of the inky blue sky against the pure white walls will blow you away
Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)
Moving the heavens and earth to reach God, this two-and-a-half hour long, almost vertical trek will take the most out of you. Built into the rockface in Paro, the trek is extremely scenic and makes the destination even more rewarding
Dechen phodrang monastery
The young boys training to become monks are very friendly and don’t shy away from a photograph or two.
Rotate the 108 prayer wheels three times and sit for a chanting session
To heaven and beyond The trek to Tiger’s Nest is vertical as the monastery built on the edge of a cliff
Way to go
By Air: Board a flight from Kolkata, Delhi, Gaya, Siliguri or Guwahati on the national carrier Druk Air. It’s the only operational airline in the region to reach Paro, the sole international airport.
By Road: You can catch a bus from Kolkata for an 18-hour journey to Phuentsholing located on the Indo-Bhutan border. Or take a bus from Siliguri, which takes around four hours.
Visa: Visas for Indians and Bangladeshis are given on arrival and one doesn’t need a passport to travel. For others, visas will not be issued without pre-paid bookings for a tour, which costs upwards of US$200 per person per night, plus the $20 cost of the visa.
How To Spend Your Money
One unit of the national currency, Ngultrum, is equal to one Indian rupee. There are no ATMs and it’s advisable to carry hard cash in denominations less than R500. That and R1,000 notes are not accepted.
INR is widely accepted in the country but you can change it into Ngultrum at Immigration.
Curios, jewellery and the national costume (kira and gho) are popular buys for tourists, but you could buy local cheeses and chillies too.
The sale and import of tobacco products is banned. You can carry your packets after paying a 100 per cent surcharge.
Gross National Happiness – It’s Real
The idea was first proposed in 1972 by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s former king and father of the incumbent, instead of ‘Gross National Product.’ Signs proclaiming Bhutan to be among the happiest places on earth abound in Thimphu. The idea stems from promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. It broadly measures health, psychological well-being, time use, education, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standards. GNH also mandates that at least 60 per cent of the country remains under forest cover at all times and all agricultural produce should be 100 per cent organic. And it seems the results are already visible, with life expectancy having doubled since the previous generation and almost 99 per cent of children studying in primary schools.
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by the Taj Bengal, Kolkata, Taj Tashi, Thimphu and Druk Air)
From HT Brunch, September 2
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