The AFAR Guide to Bhutan
With its mountain temples and legendary landscape, Bhutan gets at the heart of adventurous and cultural travel. Located in the eastern end of the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan is home to fewer than one million people, providing a stark contrast to its neighbors, India and China. While much of the country’s early history is shrouded in mystery, the evidence that Buddhism played a pivotal role in shaping its culture couldn’t be more clear.
Chang Lam, Thimphu, Bhutan
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. Serious archery. These gentlemen (the Prince was a competitor before he became King) are so good they hit targets we couldn’t even see from the competitors end of the grounds. When they did well they would all do a little jig in celebration. Their equipment was extremely high tech in this tournament but we saw others with what looked like regular gym class style bows and arrows. When in Bhutan you will have no problem findng a tournament to watch - the archery grounds are near the center of town usually near the river.
Mongar - Trashigang - Trashiyangtse Road
After a hard day of chorten circling and monastery mayhem, there’s nothing like a cellar temperature beer and some fresh, hot fries to drive out the demons of the day’s travels. We found ourselves in this remote corner of Eastern Bhutan, actually all of Eastern Bhutan is remote, with our stop for the night at the Karmaling. It had to be good with “karma” in its namesake. Of course, there was no power in Trashyangtse the afternoon we arrived, typical, and a town without electricity that is normally pretty quiet, is really quiet. The propane was still working at the hotel and the fries were hand-cut and served with a homemade ketchup. The place was really quite comfortable and the owner, very accommodating. The town is home to Chorten Kora, a stupa style normally found in Nepal; revered here and well preserved. The Himalayan south slope seems close enough to touch with the river Kulong cutting through the valley and picking up speed. There is the Rodungla trek west to Tangmachhu with its twelve thousand foot pass, but we couldn’t find anyone to talk with that had done it. A short day hike up out of the valley was enough of a persuader to send us back to town with a sense of having done enough. The Karmaling is a sweet spot at the end of the road north. The road east leads to Arunachal Pradesh, India and the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. We couldn’t talk our guides into sneaking us into India for a quick visit; instead sending us south with the mountains in the rear view.
Taktsang trail BT, Taktsang trail, Bhutan
Countless people have made the arduous trek to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery in Bhutan but I would venture to say that few have ever made it to the spot shown in the photo. This small, unassuming structure, nestled high up in the crook of the mountainside, is located just before you ascend the last set of 800 steps to reach the base of the Monastery. Continue on your trek to Tiger’s Nest but on your return trip, check out the place. You’ll be in for an nice treat! When I entered the building, a friendly monk greeted me. He waved me towards a collection of cups and told me to help myself to a cup of tea. After that long hike to the Tiger’s Nest, a cup of restorative tea and a short break was a bit of welcomed relief. Next to the cups were tea bags, sugar and flasks that contained a concoction of warm water and milk. I made my own brew and walked around while I sipped on it. I heard the sound of monks chanting. I later learned that this place is a Meditation Hut; a place where monks come to pray and chant. They are commonplace throughout Bhutan. I also found out that the tea is free! The monks offer it as a service to pilgrims coming to the monastery. If you are hiking up to Tigers Nest Monastery, be sure to stop for tea at the Meditation Hut. Please consider bringing tea bags or sugar to leave behind as a contribution.
Officially called the “Palace of Great Happiness,” Punakha Dzong was Bhutan’s seat of government until 1955. Built in 1638, the monastery has hosted every coronation as well as last October’s royal wedding between King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Pema.