When a country says their main goals are happiness and well-being, it automatically becomes a must-visit destination. And thanks to Mahindra Adventure, we managed to experience a slice of this paradise called Bhutan.
Everyone has their own ultimate travel bucket list – which typically consists of The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, and the other usual suspects. But, in my list, Bhutan has always been one of the top destinations. It’s quite simple for me really. A country that’s considered to be one of the happiest places in world, one that can boast of negative carbon emissions, has gorgeous natural beauty and measures its prosperity by the principles of gross national happiness (GNH) – forget Disneyland – this is the place to visit! So, needless to say, when Ceat invited us to take part in Mahindra Adventure’s first ever Authentic Bhutan drive, yours truly muscled his way in to be part of this excursion.
We kicked off our journey to the Land of the Thunder Dragon by giving a wake up call to the sleepy town of Chalsa, West Bengal – 75-odd kilometres away from Bagdogra airport. It was a sight beyond words as our 35-strong SUV convoy – Scorpios and XUVs – gingerly made their way through the town and headed for the border town of Phuntsholing. With the border just over 90-odd kilometres away, we were able to make it in good time, finalise the formalities, and then set off to Thimphu. To be fair, every road trip has its own unplanned disasters, but we didn’t expect it to happen so early in our drive. The Regional Immigration Office was a chaotic place, as it is in most parts of the world, and for them to finalise the paperwork for such a large group was a major task. After three cold coffees, one cappuccino, a couple of blueberry muffins, and, if my memory serves me well, a delicious ham sandwich, we were all set for Thimphu after about 6 hours. As the sun was signing off for the day, we decided to put pedal to the metal. Thankfully, the roads were in a good condition and there weren’t any unruly drivers on the road like we have back home. We reached right in time for dinner – starving and completely exhausted.
As we were on a tight schedule, the next day we decided to head to Buddha Dordenma before saying au revoir to Thimphu and heading to Punakha. The Buddha Dordenma, commonly known as Buddha Point, is a 169-foot tall Buddha statute that overlooks Thimphu. The view was magnificent, but to get there you have to climb a flight of steep stairs. Now, if your kindred spirit feels that stairs are your nemesis – like Po in Kung Fu Panda – then you can catch a glimpse of this majestic statue from the parking lot as well. With time not on our side, after a quick and slightly painful climb to the top and a brief photo shoot, we had to scamper back to our old faithful Scorpio and hit the road again.
Now the distance to Punakha was only 85 kilometres, but we had to reach Dochula Pass before sunset – so that we could see the stunning panoramic view of the snow capped mountains of the Eastern Himalayans. As we reached the pass, we also found 108 stupas that were built in the memory of Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in a war against insurgents from India in 2003. Even as we struggled to get a clear shot of the stupas because of the many tourist buses flocking around the memorial ground, you could actually feel a peaceful force calming our impatient and restless nature. And, as much as we would have liked to stay a bit longer, we had a date with Punakha that we didn’t want to miss.
As our race against time continued, Punakha has one of the most beautiful Dzongs in the country. A Dzong is basically a fortress-like structure that houses temples, administrative offices, courtyards and accommodation for monks. Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness), or commonly known as Punakha Dzong, was where we headed. Situated on the confluence of Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers, this Dzong was constructed in 1637 – making it the second oldest Dzong in Bhutan. Apart from its majestic set up, the Dzong houses sacred relics of the Drukpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dzong also has the remains of its founder, Ngawang Namgyal and the terton Pema Lingpa. A terton is a person who is a discoverer of ancient hidden texts. Also, tertons are considered to be incarnations of the twenty-five main disciples of Padmasambhava. After feeling a lot more enlightened than we had bargained for, we decided to skip town and head straight to the historic town of Paro.
The next morning at Paro, we decided to trek all the way up to the sacred Buddhist monastery tucked away in the Himalayas – the Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. It’s roughly a 10-kilometre trek, and a steep incline. First thing we did was hire a hiking stick. Trust me, leave your false bravado and ego at the parking lot and just pick up a walking stick. It really comes in handy. I was quite surprised to reach the halfway point at virtually the same time as some of our team members who took a mule ride. From this point, the Tiger’s Nest was looking down upon us and I have to say it looked spellbinding with fluttering colourful prayer flags.
The final leg welcomed us with a waterfall, where we crossed a bridge that took us to the last flight of steps. With the clouds wrapped around the Tiger’s Nest, it actually looked like a halo around it. After a lot of sweat and painstaking effort, we finally reached the monastery, and I felt a little like Rocky after defeating Ivan Drago.
Now the obvious question one would ask is why the monastery’s called Tiger’s Nest? Well, according to legend, Guru Padmasambhava flew to the cliff of this mountain from Tibet on the back of a tiger. This is where he meditated and later found Buddhism in Bhutan. Built in 1692, the monastery consists of four temples. Each temple has Buddhist icons that are lit up with traditional butter lamps.
I thought to myself that this was the perfect place to do a Master Shifu, and at least try to attain some of inner peace. Unfortunately, this only lasted for a couple of minutes as my stomach started grumbling. As enlightened as I may have become, the only thing on my mind was a visit to a café in Paro city. That being said, I don’t think we could have signed off from our authentic Bhutan experience in a more peaceful manner.