Kathmandu is of course your first destination as you embark on the tour of your lifetime, and you can be assured of having a rich experience indeed. At the same time, Kathmandu serves as a most convenient gateway to some of the most exotic regions in the eastern part of the hemisphere. Bhutan is one such place. Go to Bhutan to see one of the smallest countries in the world, go to see Bhutan, a country with a unique identity, and yes, go to Bhutan to observe first hand one of the weirdest animals on earth.
First you fly to Paro, a small and charming town that’s pretty spic and span anyway you look at it. The flight itself is an experience by itself, flying as will with the magnificent Himalayan peaks in your sight most of the time. Paro may be small, tiny by most standards, but it sure is pretty. It’s surrounded by lots and lots of lush green fields and there are plenty of small villages and hamlets scattered around close by. It is, however, the houses of Paro that will enchant you. Here, a few words about Bhutan architecture in general are called for to give you an idea of what to expect.
In Bhutan, single roofs and half-timbering are the norm, and brick-like rocks form the lower half of buildings. The walls, built over a stone foundation, are made of rammed mud, and half-timbered generally. The timber frame structures are filled by plastered bamboo weaving and the wide windows mostly face south. You’ll find sliding wooden shutters to close the window in many houses. Another thing you cannot but fail to notice are the various motifs—floral, animal, and religious—painted on some of the houses. The paints used are bright and colorful.
Now, all this goes towards bestowing a charming air to not only Paro, but to the country as a whole. Nevertheless, it is true that Paro is believed to have the prettiest houses in the nation. The streets too are neat and tidy, and the hotels here may be simple, but they are clean and hygienic enough to put the finickiest traveler’s mind at rest. There’s a dzong (fort) overlooking the town that’s called Tashicho Dzong, and of course you have to see it. It’s another fine example of Bhutanese architecture, and besides, it has the national museum as well. There’s another place you may want to visit, it’s Paro Rinpung Dzong. One of the social highlights of Paro is the Paro Tsechu Festival, a colorful occasion during which you get to see the biggest masked dance of the country. Actually these kinds of festivals are held all over the country, and are held on the 10th day of the lunar calendar to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rimpoche. However, the ones held at Paro and Thimpu are the best.
From Paro, you drive for some two hours to reach the country’s capital, Thimpu, which is located in a wooded valley, and on a hillside on the west bank of the Thimphu River. Some of you might be amazed to see such a small capital city. There are many shops with traditional fronts lined up on the street sides selling all sorts of souvenirs. Most tourists will find their time well spent browsing through these shops, and most probably, they will come out with bags laden with lovely silk, woolen, and cotton souvenirs, or with solid silver jewelry and beautifully made wooden items. Some might go for a fascinating thangka or two to liven up their sitting rooms back home.
No doubt, shopping for souvenirs is an engrossing pastime, but there’s lots to see, so you might want to carry on sightseeing as well. What’s there to see in Thimpu? The Memorial Chorten, for one. It was built to commemorate the third king of Bhutan. Then there’s the national library, which may absorb the attention of the more scholarly as they’ll find really ancient manuscripts here; the textile museum, the arts and crafts school, and the Trashichho Dzong. The last is certainly not the least in this case. It houses the Chief Abbot and Central Monastic Body as well as the Throne Room, and serves as the secretariat building as well. There’s also the Semtokha Dzong, the oldest fort in the country, and in which is located the Center for Cultural and Language Study. You may get to interact with some; you know, get some wisdom.
From Thimpu, you can drive up to Sangaygang View Point from where you’ll get an insight as to how the soaring eagle views Thimpu; a bird’s eye view, get it? And, oh yes, on the way, you get to visit the Motithang Takin Sanctuary to see the takin, the national animal, which should leave you shaking your head. It’s an endangered species, so have an eyeful. There’s also a most intriguing tale behind its origin, one that must be told here. Lama Drukpa Kuenly, who lived from 1455 – 1529, was known as the Divine Madman, and was the country’s most revered saint. He was said to be a ‘madman’ because he sometimes did things that defied logic. One day, some devotees asked him to perform a miracle, but the Divine Madman told them to serve him a cow and a goat for lunch first. Whole. Well, having devoured it all, except for the bones, he then stuck the goat head on the bones of the cow. Next, at his command, the thing so devised sprang to life. The devotees called it “Dong Gyem Tsey”. Later-day scientists didn’t know what category to put it under, so they called it takin and put it under a new category, Budorcas Taxicolor.
What does it look like? It has a plump, bovine-like body that’s covered with thick long yellow to brown hair. It has short and stocky legs with two large two-toed hooves and strong claws. The big head is distinguished with an aquiline nose. The horns are 25-30 cm long and curve out wickedly. The larger takins can weigh up to 300 kg and stand to a height of 130 centimeters. You can see most of them in the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Park but a small herd is kept in Motithang Takin Preserve as well.
So, you see, Bhutan has some amazing things to offer to visitors out for a unique experience, and it should be noted that the above are but a few of the many splendors of the “Dragon Kingdom”, one of the last remaining Shangri La’s on planet earth.