Bhutan Travel Guide: To The Land Of The Thunder Dragon

Embark on a journey through the valleys of Paro and Thimphu, where timeless cultural wonders meet breathtaking natural beauty, with our complete Bhutan travel guide
Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest, was constructed in the year 1692
Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest, was constructed in the year 1692Photo: Deposit Photos

"Keep a look out to your left; you will spot Mt Everest," the pilot's voice reverberates in the Druk Air aircraft's dim-lit cabin. In between dozing on and off, as is my tradition when I'm in the air, I glimpse snowy peaks that appear to float above the clouds.

"Welcome to Bhutan!" Nawang, our guide, greets us when we reach Paro, extending a jar of warm caramel popcorn. Driving up the winding hill road, I notice the seamless uniformity of the buildings. Whether residential or commercial, all of them are in the same pagoda style of architecture—sloping roofs jutting out in upward curves with multicoloured wood frontages and small arched windows.

After nearly 25 minutes, the car stops in front of nothing, or so I think. There is no signage, imposing building or even a person in sight. But our driver, Sonam, informs us that we have arrived at our destination. We walk on pine needles into a forest that opens into the stone courtyard of the luxury Amankora Paro resort. People remark on the grandeur of the place and the immaculate beauty of the stone building while I marvel at its quiet charm.

An artist painting Thangka
An artist painting Thangka

Paro: The Dragon And The Peace Circuit

We sit on the patio outside the main dining area for dinner, where roaring bonfires take the bite out of the wind. Ancient mountains silhouetted against the dark sky watch over us.

"Our mountains are sacred to us; they are a place of divinity. We believe that if one climbs a peak beyond a certain point, there are repercussions—crops are affected, and there is death and disease," says Nawang. Bhutan has strict laws that prohibit climbing mountains higher than 6,000 metres. Many echo his beliefs in this spiritual nation locally called Drukyul, the "Land of the Thunder Dragon."

Mask dance of the Drametse community
Mask dance of the Drametse communityCourtesy: Amankora Lodges, Bhutan

More stories follow until our eyes are heavy with the weight of the day's travel. After the meal, locating our rooms in the expansive property designed to extend utmost privacy to guests, is like a post-dinner workout. Collonaded stone corridors lead to the sprawling gardens, and a flight of steps take one down to levels where the suites are. My room is cosy in all its warm-lit glory and contemporary in decor.

A welcome card with a sweet message from Amankora and a bowl of madeleines are among the trinkets waiting for me. There was always something new on my tidied-up bed whenever I returned to my room—prayer flags one night, a pair of small bells the next, and on my last night in Thimphu, a book about a dog by a local author.

Amankora, a mix of Sanskrit and Dzongkha, translates to "peace circuit." And the resort lives up to its name. With 24 suites packed to capacity during our stay, it was surprising that I never encountered another guest, except occasionally, during mealtimes.

Every level has two stories, with one room above and one below. My suite is an isolated one without another floor above it. Whenever I entered it, I found it spruced up by the efficient but almost invisible staff, much like the house elves in Harry Potter.

As we have to start early the next day, I resist the temptation of soaking in the beautiful bathtub beckoning me from the centre of my open bath at the back of the suite. Settling for a quick shower, I fall asleep admiring the dark forest and finding comfort in its embrace.

Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains of Bhutan
Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains of BhutanPhoto: Shutterstock

Faith And A Full Stomach

"This is ema datshi, which is just chilli and local cheese baked together," says our host at a farm we visit to experience the local cuisine explains. The house floor is Tetris-like, with deep dishes, heaps of plates and bowls all lined up in the centre, with us on the fringes. He brings us a bubbling cauldron of pumpkin and ginger soup. Even before we finish our bowl, our plates are heaped with numerous other dishes—a cabbage and cheese appetiser, cordyceps mushrooms, beef broth with glass noodles, a chicken curry, turnip leaf dumplings, red rice, and, of course, my favourite ema datshi. The farm rears its cows and chickens and has a small herb garden.

Outside the farm is the Kyichu Lhakhang temple, one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, tracing back to the 7th century. The courtyard is all cobblestone pathways with swooping trees lining the walk. Several older ladies and men sit on benches around the area, knitting, talking, and smiling. It's impossible to be in Bhutan and not smile because every stranger you pass by will offer you one that you can't help but return.

I swing the huge prayer wheels said to contain tightly rolled scrolls of parchment with mantras written on them. Rotating a wheel is equivalent to chanting the mantras multiplied by the number of times they are written on the paper inside.

"One rotation equals a thousand prayers," says our guide. After stepping out from the blanket of peace in the temple, we head back to another hearty dinner and the warmth of our beds.

Children wearing Bhutan's traditional attire, Kira
Children wearing Bhutan's traditional attire, Kira

Tiger's Nest

"Do you have water, ladies?" Sonam asks us as we alight from the car and prepare for the hike. I am all revved for the 3000-metre climb to the Taktsang monastery, more popularly known as the Tiger's Nest. It had rained the previous night, but the morning is clear. After a 20-minute drive from the resort, we reach the base camp of the trek. I walk ahead, passing by vendors shoving walking sticks in my hands, stalls selling hot tea and noodles, and families gathering young children near the mules. The Tiger's Nest begins to feel like a mirage. The impossible architecture of the monastery cupped in between sharp cliff faces seems like something out of a fantasy.

The monastery is built in the style of traditional Bhutanese architecture with solid white walls and square slanted roofs. More than anything else, it is a cultural and aesthetic symbol for the country and a place that unites travellers from across the globe.

The climb uphill starts a bit rough, with a lot of huffing and mini breaks for at least the first few minutes, and then it gets smoother. The terrain is pebbly, but the broad, uneven steps make climbing easier.

Amankora's lodges are designed to capture Bhutan's serenity
Amankora's lodges are designed to capture Bhutan's serenityCourtesy: Amankora Lodges, Bhutan

Throughout the way, sunlight filters in through the gaps in the trees as my eyes catch the colours of the prayer flags–red, yellow, green, white, and blue–all fluttering like kites in the crisp breeze. Some people are being carried on mules until the mid-way mark, where there is a cafeteria. The climb after that gets less strenuous, but I notice many people halt their hike at this point. We stop for around 15 minutes to catch our breath at the cafe and then resume our journey.

After nearly two gruelling hours and some much-needed breaks later, I spot it. Perched precariously on a cliff is the most stunning monastery I have ever seen. The Paro Taktsang looms impossibly on a cliff face, in all its brocaded beauty.

"The Guru Padmasambhava (Lotus-born) flew on a tigress's back to take refuge in the caves that are now part of the monastery," Nawang explains. "He meditated for three years, three months, and three days without any food or water to drive away evil forces from the region." Before entering the interior chambers of the monastery, we submit our bags, cameras, mobile phones and the other carry-on items we have. As we enter the caves, the sudden drop in temperature is jarring; I am glad I carried a light jacket. There are no windows in the first storey; they only appear on the upper levels of the monastery.

The stone steps guide us to the chambers with different incarnations and forms of the Buddha. One of the biggest ones survived the fire of 1998 that nearly destroyed the entire building. The current structure is a result of a restoration project that finished in 2004. Our guide tells us to offer our prayers with three prostrations.

"One for all sentient beings, one for your family, and one for your health," says Nawang. There are four temples within the entire complex, and in each, the walls are covered with thangkas (a painting on cotton and silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala), and the altars are filled with various offerings from visitors.

Outside, I have a humbling experience. I stand at the edge of the bannisters admiring the bird's eye view of Paro. Zeroing in on the starting point of our trek from above, I feel staggering gratitude for what my body is capable of. My fellow hiker, Pallavi, and I stand there silently, thankful for the experience, until our arms get cold, and it’s time to depart.

As we start our descent, I pause and look back at the majesty of the facade I was leaving behind. With aching limbs and a full heart, I realised the trip had peaked here.

Thimphu's Rainy Welcome

I pick up three gifts on the first stroll through the Crafts Bazaar. I have some Bhutanese Ngultrum with me to spare, although the Indian rupee is acceptable everywhere. Several fridge magnets, multicoloured pouches, keychains, and a thangka later, I have my fill of souvenirs from Bhutan. The rain has momentarily let up, but the sky is overcast.

We take refuge from the impending rain at the privately-owned Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre, known for producing traditional hand-woven textiles of the region. They also make ceremonial wear for the royal family of Bhutan. On the first level, we see the weavers, all women, at work, their hands moving in a flourish to conjure up intricate patterns and minute details beyond general dexterity.

"Kelly Dorji's bar is downtown, so you girls could go and check it out," suggests Jonathan Lithgow, country general manager of Amankora Bhutan, on our last evening in Thimpu. We are discussing the resort's farm-to-table policy with Executive Chef Anton Nico Rautenbach and other sustainability initiatives. But our attention is scattered after the mention of Dorji, the well-known model and actor of Bhutanese origin from the 90s.

Tashi Delek

As I drive away to the airport at four in the morning the next day, half-drunk from bar-hopping a few hours prior, my heart twists along with the thunderclouds bidding us farewell. Bhutan's hospitality and the warmth of its people offered me balmy support against the country's always chilly weather.

"It seems The Land of the Thunder Dragon doesn't want us to leave," I quip, looking at the dark nimbus-covered sky. "We are giving you a thundering farewell, you see," Sonam smiles at me. "But you are always welcome here. Come back soon, and good luck! Tashi Delek!"

Getting There

The easiest way to reach Bhutan is to fly into Paro International Airport. Connecting flights are available from Mumbai, Guwahati, Kolkata, Bagdogra International Airport, and Delhi.

To reach Bhutan by road, you have to go through three border points in India—Jaigaon–Phuensholing Border, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar.

Ensure to carry your passport or a voter ID card to acquire the entry permit from the Immigration Office of the Royal Government of Bhutan at the Jaigaon–Phuentsholing border.

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