Film of my Ride in Bhutan
Jaigaon – Paro (Tiger’s Nest)- Thimphu – Punakha – Gelephu
Ever wondered that Someday you will visit this exotic country. My motorbiking adventure in Bhutan was a good reminder that not every country should be the same. Preserving one’s cultural heritage and values is one of the pillars of Gross National Happiness.
Jaigaon – Paro (Tiger’s Nest)- Thimphu – Punakha – Gelephu
The road to Punakha was rather demanding. Royal Enfield does not have very long suspension and neither does my spine. The night before in Thimphu, I heard from an American couple that the road was bad and they thought it would not be possible with a bike!?! If cars can go, so can bikes, a nonbrainer! But the road is bad and currently being rebuid for the entire distance. When the works are done, the road will be magnificent! Punakha itself has an impressinve fortress and it has a nice story to go with it. When the enemy was approaching the fortress it was clear that the troops in the fort were really undermanned. The fort however, had two entrences of which only the main gate was visible and known to the enemy. The fort kept the troops marching in from the main gate with the enemy watching and replenished the marchers from the side door. The enemy was impressed and did not dear to attac such a mighty force! Good thinking from the fort’s people.
Also on the list of places to visit was a huge statue of the current Buddha on a hilltop. This was not yet completed but already draw masses and the parking space was running out.
The last day of riding in Bhutan took us to Gelephu near the Indian Assam border. Now this road was again one of the most enjoyable ones. Largely in good condition, lots of hairpins, hills and valleys and it was also quite narrow. A fun road to ride. I did not know it at the time I was riding the road and Karma said he wanted to keep it as a surprise, but according to him, I was the first tourist to ride that stretch on a motorbike. I am honoured! The area was earlier dangerous due to ethnic groups organising kidnappings and other kind of skirmishes. Tourist visas were not granted for that part of the country. But now everything was plain sailing and we had a picnic lunch on the way as there were no restaurants available en route.
Gelephu was clearly close to border with Indian tourists in town and border controls were checking on us kilometers before the town itself. Gelephu would still reguire the normal immigrations visits and stamps but that would not be before we spent the last night in Bhutan.
The Code is not easy for a foreigner to see but it seems to be very deeply rooted in the Bhutanese people and behaviour. Cultural heritage is one of the pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and old customs are maintained also in everyday life. By law, if necessary. I already mentioned the TV and Internet, but many other examples exist. The Code with numerous different flags is also complex, from good luck to remembering the deceased. GNH is today also taught in schools as a subject. I cannot help thinking that if we in Finland had similar emphasis on cultural heritage, it would be deemed racist in today’s political correctness. Gho, the national costume worn by men. This is used daily in offices and schools. If you visit a government office, a Gho must be worn. And visiting a higly enough regarded official, office or a monument, a scarf called Kabney is added to the uniform. Colour codes are many. The Gho has usually white cuffs for officials and office workers. Farmers and some other manual labour professions have light blue cuffs (white collar, blue collar in the west). The length of the cuff also signifies the wearers position. A nice youtube video about the Bhutanese clothing is found here. As mentioned earlier, houses also have clear cultural characteristics. These are visible in windows and colours. And in the fact that in most houses, top floors are wider.
As customary when travelling, in temples you must remove shoes. Also photography is limited in places. I was told that I can take a picture of the goverment builging, but not during office hours. I was not allowed to take a picture of the kings house. This may just have been a policeman’s way if showing respect to the king, though. Buthanese food was excellent and perhaps closest to the Finnish pallette out of the three countries India, Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutanese momo dumplings were great, a close contestant to Ram’s aunt’s dumplings. Another peculiar dring was the butter and salt tee. This is really tee with (yak)butter and salt, milk and perhaps something else.
Images of a male penis are littered in the religion but The Divine Madman deserves a chapter and a few photos.
Wikipedia: Phallus paintings in Bhutan are esoteric symbols, which have their origins in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. The village monastery was built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived in the 15-16th century and who was popularly known as the “Mad Saint” (nyönpa) or “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching, which amounted to being bizarre and shocking. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drukpa_Kunley
Arriving to the Indian border town of Jaigaon was a nightmare. The traffic was absolutely horendous with the dust, diesel fumes, trucks, busses, all kinds of vehicles sometimes so close you could not fit a sunday paper between them. And I was trying to find the immigration office… Riding towards Bhutan on the Indian tea plains and seeing the mountains in the distance, I was full of excitement. Hiting the border town Jaigaon was a shock. The contrast arriving into Bhutan through a large gate was notisable. This was no longer India, but something resembling India, only quiter, cleaner and slower paced. Traffic was no longer aggressive the way it was a moment ago. I don’t think I can make Bhutan justise. This is a country of old tradition and modern life amalgamating together in a unique and fascinating way. And I must say I like it. Like it very much.
Immediately from the border the road started to lead up higher and deeper into Bhutan. It was soon clear that any comparison to India or Nepal would not be right. With only 700.000 inhabitants this was a clean and environmentally conscious country. That you could also note from the dozens of signs promoting green values. Bhutan is clearly living its Gross National Happiness values, one of which is Conservation of the natural environment. Here the streets and environmet are clean from the plastic rubbish and cigarrette packs lying around in the more populated neighbouring countries. Really refreshing to see nature again.
The road leading to Paro was quite dramatic at times. It was mainly in very good condition but had some great cliffs overhanging the road and steeply falling roadsides. Great fun to ride! The town of Paro at 2300 meters is the second largest town in Bhutan after the capital Timphu. Paro is truly a fascinating sight. All houses are alike. Not exactly the same but consist of similar windows (by law) and five colours used in different ways. No house is out of the norm. This is keeping with hte other GNH value, Preservation and promotion of cultural values. After all it was only 1999 when TV was legalised here!
Bhutan looks after the limited number of tourists visiting the country. You can only come on a pre-paid trip in the company of a local guide. This is easy enough to organise and my guides from Bhutan Traditional holidays are doing great job. Really easy for me now. Even the restaurants have separate “better” areas for tourists and we are well looked after. Food is excellent. Very similar to India and Nepal but with a local twist. The national dish is Chili with Cheese! Surprising but really good.
This was a hill climbing day. Four hours on rather difficult path up to 3000 meters and to the Taktsang monestary. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon. Thereafter, he meditated here for three months. Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest Monastery was blessed and sanctified as one of Bhutan’s most sacred religious sites. It hangs on a cliff and stands above a beautiful forest of blue pine and rhododendrons. Another good lunch on the hillside cafe and a short run to Timphu was in the programme.
Buddhism is full of folklore and unbelievable tales. I cannot wait to learn more about the Divine Madman!
Bhutan is a remote and tiny Buddhist kingdom with just 750.000 inhabitants. Not only geographically, Bhutan is also isolated by the desire to preserve their unique Buddhist culture, mainly against the western influences. Even the ban on tv and internet was lifted as late as 1999.
Bhutan has a very cautious approach to tourism and in 2014 only 133.480 tourists visited the country. To enter, some pre-planning is required and you must come on an approved travel programme (or be a guest of the government). This means that you need to contact one of many tour guides, who will sort out your itinerary for you.
I have with me my recommended local guide, Karma Wangdi of Bhutan Traditional Holiday, who is experienced with motorbike travelers like myself and has organised all the bookings and arrangements for me and will also be with me along the route.
Most have heard about the Bhutanese measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH is again predominantly designed to preserve the buddhist values. The GNH concept has inspired a modern political happiness movement and in July 2011, the United Nations Resolution was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly.
The four pillars of GNH philosophy are (Wikipedia):
My plan is to get happy and enter the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan from India on the 29th of October 2015.