It was the first time in my life that I would take a journey lasting more than about five hours, and with a tour at that. I usually prefer to plan my travel myself and journey with friends. This tour was different, though. It was a spiritual pilgrimage organized by my dear friend Hasan Sonsuz Çeliktaş, and this increased my fervor. Our first stop was actually Nepal, where we stayed for 10 days, but that’s the subject of another article. It is not possible to fly direct from Turkey to Bhutan anyway. What’s more, not every pilot can land a plane at the famously challenging Paro International Airport of Bhutan. This means if you want to go to Bhutan, you must fly with their airlines, which means travelling via China, Nepal, or India. If you choose Nepal, like we did, you get to see the Himalayas from the plane.
When I later shared the photos I had taken in Bhutan, I used the phrase “Heaven on Earth.” The country’s area is 70% forest, not just because the constitution states that the forested area cannot fall below 60%. (Although they have rich underground resources, they do not exploit them to avoid damaging the forests.) The real reason why I compare Bhutan to Heaven is how its people regard life, their culture, and the worth that they ascribe to humans and other living beings. As soon as we landed at Paro, they met us with their smiling faces. You are like a guest rather than a tourist. Moreover, the people of Bhutan do not believe in coincidence, so they believe there is a reason why a person enters their lives, and they have something to learn from them. For this reason, your presence there is very valuable to them and they always make you feel this.
While listening to our local guide’s first talk about Bhutan, I got very emotional. Could such a country exist? It sounded so utopic. Finally, I was in the country that I presented as an example in my economic development classes, and it was real. This country measures its development level by a happiness index rather than its GDP. For them, the progress of a country should be measured according to the happiness of its people rather than their productivity or income. They have a king who is incredible and loved by his people. He actually wanted to bring democracy to the country, but the people rebelled against it because they are so content with how they are ruled. They believe that you cannot be a king unless you are born a king. As our guide told us, “Every person born in the US, no matter how insignificant they may seem, has a chance to become president. Here, however, no one has the chance to become a king, because you cannot be a king unless you were born a king.” Their fourth king will abdicate when he is in his fifties, despite being greatly loved, and his son will take his place. The king says that after 60, people lose some of the abilities needed to rule a country. He really is wise, and it’s not surprising that the population refused democracy.
The people have no anxiety about the future. Our guide said, “If things went bad and tourists no longer came, I would just talk with my king, and he would give me some land to grow rice on.” As you would guess, there are no beggars, no pollution, and even no traffic lights. I haven’t heard any horns blasting either. It is even forbidden to smoke outside. Tourists can smoke, but only in certain areas away from people. You also pay a high tax to get your cigarettes through customs there, with this tax, like others, going to the education system. Like most bans, however, this has served to make it more attractive, and most of the young people smoke in night clubs (according to my friends who went to one). However, for me personally, it was one of the best rules in Bhutan.
Of course, you cannot say, “I love this place so much! Let’s move to Bhutan!” Foreigners cannot own anything there, and even if you have a job, you can only stay for a fixed period. The only way to move there is to marry a Bhutanese citizen, assuming you’re single. Even then, they say it’s a lengthy procedure. At the end, though, you would get a job in your field, because needless to say, there is no unemployment. Education and health care is free. Children are educated in English starting at elementary school. They only lack medicine schools, so instead they send their successful students abroad to study with a scholarship. Although their main sources of revenue are rice and tourism, they are very cautious about tourism. There is an annual quota for tourists, and you cannot enter the country without promising to spend certain amount of money every day. In paying this, you can choose one of the packages they offer that includes all accommodation, catering, transportation, and guided tours.
Now you’ve had a short introduction, let’s move on to the main tourist locations. The country’s energy and people are so beautiful that every place seems unique and magnificent. After the first day at Paro, we moved to the capital Thimphu. On the way, we stopped by a bridge made of wire that led us to Tachog Temple. Passing over this bridge, with such clean water below, was such a pleasure for me. A friend of ours from the group left her fear of heights behind in this place.
The hotel that we stayed at in Thimphu was just in front of the Memorial Stupa (Thiumphu Chorten). You can always find many people whispering mantras and turning around this stupa, which was built in 1974. Of course, the first thing we did was to go here and experience the energy.
While you are in the capital, you of course have to see the official buildings complex. This was the only place where they searched our bags before entering. They have such nice security guards, however, that as we left, they offered us fruit they had collected from the garden.
The Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery at Zilukha, which is close to Thimphu, houses about 60 nuns.
Another impressive place close to Thimphu is Dochula Pass (Druk Wangyal Chortens), which is 3100 meters high. It hosts 108 stupas that were constructed by the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk in memory of the soldiers lost during a war that occurred in this area. They pay respect to the soldiers of both countries and emphasize peace for all parties. In the same area, you can also find the Druk Wangyal temple. By the way, “druk” means dragon in the Bhutan language, and you see this word used in various places from airlines to temples
The world’s biggest sitting Buddha statue (Kuensel Phodrang) is also located close to Thimphu. According to legend, it was predicted centuries ago to be built at this location. Its construction began in 2006 and was intended to be finished in 2010, but it only opened to the public in 2015. This 52-meter bronze statue has a third eye made from diamond.
After checking in to our hotel in the middle of the rice fields, our first stop was Rinpung Dzong, which was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and comprises many temples and chapels. In Paro, we went to so many Buddhist temples that I cannot recall all their names, but one of the oldest was Kyichu Lhakhang, which dates back to the seventh century.
The Tiger’s Nest
The most significant place in Paro, if not in Bhutan, is the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang). It is one of the symbols of Bhutan. The Taktsang temple was built in 1692 in the high hills of the Paro Valley. It is centered around a cave where Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated for three years, three months, three days, and three hours. There are many legends about Padmasambhava, such as how he came from Tibet on the back of a flying tiger, which is why this place is called Tiger’s nest. The temple sits 3120 meters high on the hillside, and climbing up there takes about three hours. Hiring a walking stick eases the climb, however, and if you really cannot do the climb, you can also rent a mule. The people of Bhutan believe that as the climb becomes more difficult, they shed more of their sins. It is a very enjoyable climb, though, a journey where you can see white monkeys and some plants that only live in a pure oxygen environment (they die even at a very modest carbon dioxide level). It is certainly not easy, but if a person like me without any climbing experience can do it, I guess any able-bodied person can. On entering the temple complex, you have to leave your bag, your camera, and even your water bottle in a luggage locker. They don’t even let you take anything small in your hand like a scarf. If you want to make a vow inside, I recommend that you carry your prayer flags or some money in your pockets. I took a prayer flag with me, but that day was not suitable according to their beliefs. Instead, a monk blessed it and told our guide that I could hang it some other day.
You feel as light as a bird in that place due to the height and the amount of oxygen, as well as the energy of the place. Your mind becomes silent, and even thinking becomes heavy. For this reason, the return trip passes more quietly and, thanks to gravity, faster. I found the climb down more difficult, however, because the path was slippery from the rain, and I did not want to leave such a wonderful place.
Another Bhutanese tradition is to take a hot stone bath on the night after climbing to the Tiger’s Nest. We went to a traditional Bhutanese house on our last night to both have dinner and experience this traditional bath. The house very much resembled a traditional Turkish village house. There were floor cushions, and a few generations lived there together. They filled the wooden baths with water, and then they put stones, which they had warmed on the fire, into the baths. The water became so hot that I had to add cold water before I could enter it. I then experienced a miracle. As you might guess, as someone who has never climbed so much in her life, I had a lot of pain afterwards. I was unable to sit cross-legged earlier, so I could not sit on the cushions as I had wanted when we first arrived there. After 15 minutes in the hot stone bath, though, all my pains disappeared. I now understood why people do this after every climb. After the bath, I could easily sit cross-legged on the cushions and enjoy my meal.
We only stayed in Bhutan for four nights, so we could only see certain places. Our local guide said that there are many other spiritual places to visit, especially around the middle area of Bhutan. I intend to visit there as soon as I can. It was very difficult to leave the country, where we had been treated as guests. The people were so kind that they put their mean sauces away, acknowledging that we were coming from a different culture and finding us something more to our tastes instead. After going hungry in Nepal, the restaurant of our local guide’s mother was the first place I felt satisfied.
In short, if you are looking for clean air, green landscapes, lovely people, silence, peace, and tranquility, then Bhutan, where life is oriented around Buddhism and happiness, is just for you.