Closed Countries: 10 Days in Bhutan
Ilya Kuznetsov is a photographer who loves to travel around Asia and Latin America and bring back stories and photographs from there, which he shares on his blog. In the future, he plans to write a book based on real-life events that he became a part of during his travels.
In October 2018, Ilya and his friends traveled to the Kingdom of Bhutan. Here is the story of a trip to one of the most closed and little-visited countries in the world, as well as the legends heard from the locals. A word to Ilia. The exchange rate of the local currency: € 1 = 80.85 Ngultrums.
One day a friend who was in Cambodia at the time called me and suggested we go to Tibet or Bhutan. At first it was just the two of us, but when my friends heard about the trip, they wanted to come. In the end there were 12 of us.
Everyone is attracted to mysteries and riddles. Going to see the conditional Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is one thing, but touching something most people will never see in their lives is quite another. I think that’s why so many people showed up for the trip, even though it wasn’t at all budget-friendly.
You can only get to Bhutan as part of a tour group. At least, that is what I thought when I started organizing the trip. Since I didn’t want to be part of anyone else’s group, I created my own. We started to prepare for the trip two months in advance, so we wouldn’t end up without tickets. A trip to Bhutan can be arranged either through a local or a Russian travel agency. Naturally, the latter will also take an additional fee, so I contacted directly with Bhutanese companies, and chose the one that offered me the most favorable terms. All I had to do was to send the information of my group members and 100% of money by SWIFT-transfer and all I had to do was to get my entry permit to Bhutan (or to be more exact to send it to the post office). The visa was issued at the airport upon arrival.
It is worth mentioning that the trip to Bhutan will not be cheap. In the high season (spring, fall) is from $ 250 per day, in the low season from $ 200. We flew in high season, so the tour for 10 days for one person cost $ 2500. It included all meals three times daily, hotel (minimum – 3* hotel, but it was possible to pay extra for accommodation in hotels 4 or 5 stars), transportation, guide services. We also had to pay about $1000 for a flight from Moscow to Kathmandu to Paro and back with Air Arabia and Druk Air. You could have a connecting flight in Nepal or in India (Delhi) and then you would have to leave the transit area to get your luggage, so you would have to pay for the visa in both countries.
Bhutan is a country where it is imperative, in my opinion, to go with a guide, because it is a journey not only in space, but also in time. It is the guide who can be a guide and tell incredible legends and fairy tales (from our point of view), which are still part of everyday life of the local population. That is why all our visits to temples, monasteries and all kinds of Buddhist shrines were always accompanied by exciting stories about the distant past of this fabulous kingdom.
In fact, a trip to Bhutan can be planned in other ways, such as renting a car and driving around the country alone or going on a solo hike. All this can be arranged through a Bhutanese travel agency. But whichever travel option you choose, in any case you have to pay $200-250 per day. But as far as I’m concerned, a guided story is the best option for those coming to the country for the first time.
Many people claim that traveling in Bhutan is quite a boring experience because it doesn’t include many sights and activities. I wouldn’t say that’s true. We managed to get so much new information in one day that by 6pm, when all the activities from the travel agent were over, we were very happy to relax or discuss the day’s accumulated impressions.
Thimphu (2 days).
We initially flew to Paro, 65 km from the capital, Thimphu. And here’s my first piece of advice to you: take your seats by the porthole on the port side. About half an hour before landing you can see the spectacular views of Everest, Chogori and other eight thousand meter peaks lost in the clouds.
Paro Airport is located about 2,300 meters above sea level and has only one runway. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains, some over 5,000 meters high, so this airport is considered one of the most difficult in the world to land. When we landed, our plane was the only one at the airport. We quickly went through passport control, got our luggage, and a guide and driver were already waiting for us at the exit.
On the way from Paro to the capital we stopped at Tamchog Lhakang Monastery, which is remarkable for its suspension bridge of wrought iron chains. In Thimphu we went out on our own to walk around the evening city: we stopped in one of the bars, sat, drank a beer and discussed the place we were in with the group. It was one of those amazing moments when the journey hasn’t even started and you realize that all the fun stuff is still waiting for you.
In the morning, while everyone was asleep, I went to the little temple near our hotel for the morning service (which Buddhists start at about 5 am). By the way, keep in mind that photography is strictly prohibited in Bhutanese monasteries and if you violate this prohibition, you may even be deported from the country.
“In the spacious halls of the monastery, monks in burgundy robes recited mantras to the accompaniment of a drum, a brass trumpet, and seashells.”
After breakfast, we went to Tango Gompa (gompa means “monastery” in Sanskrit), a half-hour drive from Thimphu on top of a forested hill. It takes about an hour to reach it. In the spacious halls of the monastery, monks in burgundy robes read mantras to the accompaniment of a drum, a brass trumpet and seashells. But most interesting of all was the history preserved by the place.
The monastery was built in the 17th century by Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgai, who…still lives where he did four centuries ago. It’s all about reincarnation, which Bhutan takes seriously. In the late 1990s, the fourth King of Bhutan was visiting the eastern part of his kingdom. Suddenly a boy ran out of the crowd of onlookers to greet him. The child came up to the king, grabbed his hand and told him that he was the one the country’s leader was looking for, the one who built the Tango Monastery. The king decided to put the boy to the test, which he passed with flying colors. So the king was convinced that he was indeed the reincarnation of Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgai, who lived 400 years ago.
After the monastery we went to the river, where a small table was set for us. Perhaps the food was simpler than in restaurants, but still tastier. And in the afternoon we went back to Thimphu and devoted the rest of the day to seeing the main sights of the city.
We visited the memorial stupa – Thimphu chorten (“chorten” means stupa). I had the impression that the whole town had gathered around it. Everyone wore national dress and traditional jewelry: beads of turquoise, amber, and red coral. People were holding rosaries and prayer mills. My eyes were dazzled by the profusion of colorful characters! I could have taken the camera and photographed with my eyes closed – I am sure I would have gotten dozens of great shots! It is interesting that the Bhutanese people don’t ask for money for a photo, as they do in Nepal, but on the contrary, they react very happily to requests and then look at their images on the camera display with interest.
After the monastery, we went to the open-air museum “Just Bhutan”, where we could get a closer look at the life and culture of Bhutanese. Frankly speaking, I was not very impressed.
And finally we visited the fortress Tashincho-dzong (“dzong” means “fortress”), located in the northern part of the city. In this fortress the Government of Bhutan works, so it is open to tourists only after 6 pm.
Punakha (1 day).
On the morning of the third day we left the capital for the town of Punakha. On the way we stopped at the Dochu-La Pass, where the memorial complex of 108 small and one large stupa is located. The number 108 is often seen in the culture of Bhutan, Nepal, India and Tibet, and it is not accidental. This is the number of negative emotions a person must take control of before they can achieve enlightenment.
“It was as if we were in some unknown country lost among the Himalayan mountains.”
As we ascended the pass, a dense fog enveloped it, in which majestic pine trees, gilded-roofed stupas, and meditation caves were lost. It was as if we were in some unknown country lost in the Himalayan mountains.
There is also a legend about the Docha-La Pass: there used to be a trade route through it, but in the XV century, a diti (as they call demons in Bhutan) settled there and sent various diseases to people, destroyed livestock and in general made the already difficult road more and more difficult. To tame the dity, the locals called the kingdom famous monk Drukpa Kunle, who knew how to exorcise the demons with the help of … his phallus. And so when the monk came to the pass fully armed, the diti was frightened of him, turned into a dog, and fled to one of the villages nearby. Drukpa Kunle found him anyway, defeated him, and turned him into a defender of Buddhism. At the spot where the monk defeated the demon, the Chimi Lhakang Temple is now built. Inside it is a 25-centimeter-long wooden penis, which, if the legends are to be believed, brings children to all childless women. To make the magic happen, it is enough, holding the magic phallus, to walk around the temple three times.
Of course, we visited this Chimi-Lhakang temple . And all who wished were able to walk around it three times in the arms of the sacred relic.
After the monastery we went to Punakha-dzong fortress, which is also connected with a very curious legend. One of the towers of the fortress is a tiny statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, made of a grain of rice, which in the XVII century between Tibet and Bhutan was the reason for the war. It was because Zabrung Ngawang Namgyel (the reincarnation of the great Buddhist master Kuenken Pema Karpo) fled from Tibet to Bhutan and took the statue, which was sacred to all Tibetans, with him. In that short war, Bhutan won, and the sacred relic remained in the kingdom. Now access to the statue is closed not only to foreign tourists, but also to Bhutanese. The hall where it is kept, open to visitors only once a year.
Bumthang (2 days)
The drive to Bumthang took us a full day. Despite the fact that Bumthang is only about 200 km away, it took us almost 8 hours to drive over the rugged mountain road. This eastern region of Bhutan has a large concentration of significant Buddhist temples and monasteries. Locals believe that these areas are still inhabited by demons.
Tamshing Lhakang is the main monastery, where we went the next day immediately after breakfast. It was founded in 1501 by Pema Lingpa, one of the great Buddhist teachers of the past. Bhutanese add the epithet “torten” to his name, which means “treasure seeker,” but of course, we are not talking about gold or money.
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, who is revered in Tibet perhaps more than the Buddha himself, during his stay in Bhutan hid in various caves, forests and lakes of that country all kinds of sacred relics and manuscripts containing secret knowledge. Only worthy men can find them. Pema Lingpa was one of them. He built the Tamshing Lhakang Monastery on the spot where Guru Rinpoche’s body imprint was found on a large stone. According to ancient tradition, the footprint appeared on the boulder after Guru Rinpoche leaned against it and meditated there before he fought another demon.
The next morning we drove to the Tang River valley at an altitude of 3 km, and on the way we stopped at the “flaming” lake Mebarzo . It is not just a lake, but one of the main Buddhist shrines of Bhutan, which is visited by pilgrims from all over the country. In the fifteenth century, a revelation came to Pema Lingpa, already known to us. While walking in the woods, he met a stranger who gave him an ancient scroll, which said that at the bottom of the lake are hidden sacred relics. Taking a burning kerosene lamp in his hands, Pema Lingpa plunged into the water. When he came to the surface again, he still had the burning oil lamp, the box and the Buddha statue in his hands. This is why the lake is called “Blazing Lake.
Gangtei (1 day).
We spent the whole next day on the road. We had to drive about 190 km to Gangtei. It took us about 6 hours. On the way we stopped at Phobjikha Valley, which we hiked all the way to the village. By the way, it was in Gangtei that we had one of the coolest hotels with a wood stove in every room. We kindled it not so much for warmth as for our mood. Though it was already quite a common occurrence of frost in the mountains at that time of the year.
The next day we went to Paro, on the way looking at the monastery Gangtey-gompa, which is the only monastery of the Buddhist school of Nyingma in the western part of Bhutan. Bhutanese themselves emphasize this fact. The fact that the country has two schools of Buddhism: Drukpa Kagyu, characteristic of the western part of Bhutan, and Nyingma, most of whose adherents live in the east of the country.
Paro (1 day)
On our last day in the magical kingdom we went to the foot of a cliff, on top of which stands the hallmark of Bhutan – Taksang-lhkakang monastery or “Tigress’s Nest” . This is the very place for which people from all over the world come to this country. The monastery is located at an altitude of about 3000 meters. The ascent to it takes about two hours. This route is of medium complexity: you need at least some physical preparation. However, you can rent a horse to help you pass the part of the way – at the end you still have to walk. In the morning the owners will ask $100 per mare, but in the afternoon they can go as low as $20. So haggle.
By the way, this is where we encountered the most tourists. As we traveled through other parts of the country it seemed to me that we were almost the only foreigners in all of Bhutan. But the hustle and bustle of the approach to Tigress’s Nest brought us back to reality. However, for us, the introduction to the monastery was so welcome that we simply did not notice the other tourists.
The monastery was built in 1692 on the site of a cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated in the seventh century. According to legend, he flew here on the back of a tigress in order to defeat the demon living in the cave. After his victory he meditated in the cave for exactly three years, three months, three days and three hours. This cave is considered sacred. Most of the time the door leading to it remains sealed. Only once a year it is opened, and then many thousands of pilgrims line up on the approaches to the monastery. The monks, after graduating from a Buddhist university, spend the same time as Guru Rinpoche in the monastery. By the way, another legend is also devoted to him according to which when longshoremen tried to lift a statue of Guru Rinpoche into one of the temples of the monastery, they could only carry it halfway. It was too heavy and they decided to saw it to lift it up in pieces. Suddenly the statue started talking and asked the men to leave it where it was. The next morning the statue was found at the door of the monastery.
The Great Himalayan Journey
After trekking to Everest, walking the streets of Kathmandu, and views of Annapurna, Max and I came to another part of my Big Himalayan Journey: getting to know Bhutan.
After noisy and hectic Nepal, we found ourselves in a fairy-tale land surrounded by pine forests. Pictured: Morning over Bhutan’s capital.
From the diary : “Another flight. Bhutan is pine forests, Tibetan houses, clean streets, people in national dress and Tibetan, not Hindu, appearance. The first impression is entirely positive!”
Clean rivers, very different architecture, national flavor. We loved it here immediately!
The difference from Nepal was so great that we couldn’t believe it, as if we had flown just five hundred kilometers.
In the morning, the locals put the cattle out to pasture.
In the evening, they harvest their crops.
The more I travel, the more I am interested not in mountain landscapes, but in the people who live in the mountains. They are open, honest, sincere and very nice to talk to.
The surprising thing is that people here take pictures with pleasure. For me, as a photographer, it is a great joy!
Bhutan is a kingdom. The country is now ruled by a young king who ascended the throne this year. The photo shows the royal palace in the capital, Thimphu.
Bhutan – a small country, only 300 by 150 kilometers, and a population of only four hundred thousand people!
People here have preserved a remarkable identity of their culture. Almost everyone wears national clothes, local music in the streets, no McDonald’s.
Abundance of archery is not an accident, but the most popular national sport!
But the most interesting thing in Bhutan – it’s amazing festivals, one of which we got (oh, lucky!) On the second day of our trip.
On the way we got in a traffic jam caused by a minor accident. Machine with potatoes overturned
But no panic. An atmosphere of general serenity reigns over the kingdom.
But nothing human is alien to the Bhutanese. For example, the men are gambling. On the box it says “Try Your Lucky” :)) Our guide tried his luck, earned a tenner and without listening to the baits, with a smirk, went further. Luck is a fickle thing
Festivals are held not for tourists, but for themselves! People come to the festival from all the surrounding villages. For them, it is a huge event and one of the main holidays. Everyone is dressed up in their best clothes!
From the diary: “We were unrealistically lucky. We attended a festival dedicated to the arrival of cranes to winter from Tibet. The specific date of the festival is not known in advance. It occurs on the seventh day after the arrival of birds. The place Phobjikha is far away, passed three passes. It is very beautiful. Absolute color and no touristy show. This festival is a big event and celebration for the locals. People come from all the surrounding villages and towns. In general, Bhutan is of course absolutely unique!”
You can see the whole history of the country on people’s faces. They are from Tibet, not India.
Every year, in late fall, cranes fly in from Tibet to winter here. And so, on the seventh day after their arrival, the festival is held. Children, schoolchildren and their parents gather in groups to compete in singing and dancing. It’s beautiful!
A huge cloud of people turn out!
Bhutan is a very religious country. A huge number of people live in monasteries, some of which are ancient fortresses – dzongs.
Dzongs stand in fantastically beautiful places – on the bends of rivers, on top of hills. The ancient wisdom is truly right: “If you want to find a beautiful place, look for an ancient place!
From the diary: “Before lunch we looked at the sights of Thimphu. It is interesting that there are monasteries, to which the whole under the supervision of monks you can put small children, and in the evening to take away. As we have in kindergarten After lunch, moved to a place Punatha, where on the banks of a beautiful river is the “religious heart” of Bhutan – a huge dzong (castle-monastery) built by the first king of Bhutan, who came from Tibet and united the country. Impressive impregnable walls on the outside and inside the beautiful wood carvings, paintings on the walls and a lot of gold. The Tibetans knew how to build!!!”
There are a lot of children in the monasteries. The monasteries here serve as schools, teaching children literacy, the basics of life order, and Buddhism.
Life here is not a fairy tale. What child likes peeling potatoes? :-
When they reach adolescence, the children decide whether to go to the city or become a monk and stay in the monastery forever.
It must not be easy to live surrounded by walls like this.
Especially when you’re constantly reminded of your prospects.
And they make it clear who you have to fear!
You have to spend half your life sitting on the wooden floor inside the stone walls reading prayers to the beat of drums and the roar of trumpets.
But still, the local architecture amazes with the brightness of the decor!
The main motif is the dragon which is the symbol of the country. Bhutanese and call their country – “Land Thunder Dragon”.
In addition to the dragon, there are many unusual things in Bhutan. For example, a famous object depicted on the walls of houses. Here it keeps away evil forces of nature.
On the last day of our trip we visited the most famous place of the country – the monastery “Tiger’s Nest”, which is located on a cliff of a huge rock!
When after two hours of climbing you finally see WHAT people have built right on the cliff, it is certainly very impressive!
Most of all I liked the little temple above the waterfall, where they retreat to meditate.
From the diary : “And here in Bhutan, it was not without trekking. Two hours of climbing in the mountains to the monastery Taksang (“Tiger’s Nest”), which is built directly in the rock, 500 meters above the valley. But it was worth it. Super! In the evening went to the museum. Of the souvenirs will bring only two T-shirts with dragons. The rest are three times more expensive than in Kathmandu!
I was sad to leave. It was very warm and good here!
Quiet and peaceful.
And of course, very different!
Goodbye Bhutan! Goodbye Himalayas!
From the diary: “In the morning we visited another dzong. Today at noon we are leaving. The impression of Bhutan is ambivalent. On the one hand – it’s so great that I want to stay longer. But on the other hand, even these four days my head is puffed up from the impressions and the intensive program. I need to rest. Time to go home!