Bhutan’s wonders (not all of them)
In visiting a place, or in simply exploring it digitally, the question of what makes it unique arises. An attempt at answering that question is proposed through this brief exploration of a few of Bhutan’s wonders. In keeping with the theme of wonders, seven are listed (this being far from an exhaustive list). These seven ranges from the ever-popular to the greatly overlooked, with hope that all are fairly appreciated at the end of this post.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery
Bhutan’s arguable poster child, the cliffside monastery symbolizes the kingdom’s unique culture and ever-present Buddhist core. Taktsang Palphug Monastery sees itself tied to Bhutan across its known history.
Located only a short trip from Paro International Airport (around half an hour), the journey to Taktsang requires a 2-3 hour hike (depending on your fitness level).
An ironically popular tip is to arrive earlier in the day to avoid crowds, however, it does still remain useful in avoiding the heat during warmer seasons. The hike to Taktsang has been made accommodating with sitting areas and viewpoints present along the way, and a cafeteria can be found located about halfway through. A paid option to ride a horse up to the cafeteria is also given for the unwilling (to walk) or curious.
The monastery, as it is today, was first built as a lone temple in Taktsang Palphug (Paro), which was later offered to the country’s founder Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel instructed that a monastery be built in honor of Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). Guru Rinpoche famously flew to this site, on his consort turned Tigress (Yeshe Tshogyal), where he then meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days.
The actual monastery began construction in 1692 and was subject to multiple reconstructions and additions across the ages by Bhutan’s prominent figures. The most recent of which was led by the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 2005 after an unfortunate fire damaged the monastery.
Now famed for its location, Tibetan-Bhutanese architecture, serenity, and wonder, Bhutanese and tourists alike climb to the monastery, forever amazed and willingly blessed.
Originally serving as a simple 3100m (10,171ft) mountain pass connecting the two Dzongkags (or districts) of Thimphu and Punakha, Dochula Pass now honors the memory of Bhutan’s fallen soldiers and celebrates His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan.
The pass consists of many elements, though none more notable than the 108 memorial chortens. The monument was built and still stands in memory of Bhutanese soldiers and volunteers who participated in the 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents. The number 108 does not signify a number of people but is instead brought from Buddhism. It was built and completed in 2004 under the supervision of Bhutan’s Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.
Also seen are the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (built-in 2008 to celebrate 100 years of monarchy), the 60th Anniversary Park (built in honor of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s 60th birthday), and the meditation caves (built with the park, the caves remain hidden a slight walk away into a forested area).
Visitors who undoubtedly find themselves stopping at the pass will also come across an incredible view of the Himalayan mountain range, and depending on the season, a burst of colorful rhododendrons, or a soft carpet of snow. In accommodation, two cafes exist at the pass, calling visitors to stay and enjoy all that the pass may provide.
The Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT)
Efforts were made by the kingdom and international partners to effectively rebirth an old way of living. The Trans Bhutan Trail exists as a walking route stretching from the far west of Bhutan to the less visited far east, allowing a path that connects the country to itself.
Known to exist as far back as the 16th century, the trail was the country’s main means of access to its various dzongkhags, dzongs, monasteries, and people. Famously, the path is still remembered in its use by Garps. They were essentially messengers, flying across the country in bare feet or rudimentary sandals, informing those in need, seemingly with no want for rest.
Unfortunately, with roads and highways built, the trail was abandoned and left for ruin. Until, in 2018, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Fifth King, sought for the trial’s reemergence. In collaboration with the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (now the Department of Tourism), and hundreds of workers, the country can now walk this new, yet old, trail.
Walk, run, bike, or rest across the 403km (250 mile) Trans Bhutan Trail, stopping, if you wish, or beginning at any part of this historic path. Traverse through 9 Dzongkhags, including Haa at the western border, and Trashigang in the east. Visit or admire the numerous Gewogs (towns and villages), dzongs, temples, bridges, monuments, and mountain passes. Challenge yourself, or simply enjoy.
Sengor-Yongkola, Mongar Dzongkhag; “the birding capital of the world”
Though not an official title (or even an exclusive one), visitors and bird watchers have dubbed the small forested area of Sengor to Yongkola
(Mongar)as their birding capital of the world.
With close to 800 bird species in this small Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan eclipses the number of bird species in Europe and rivals entire continents (such as North America). Multiple endangered bird species exist in Bhutan, including rare names such as the white-bellied heron and Baer’s pochard. One can also happen upon the world’s most unique and colorful birds, such as the himalayan monal and the satyr tragopan.
With many of Bhutan’s bird species being sighted in the forested area between Sengor and Yongkola (a mere 26 km stretch), its unofficial title as a birding capital is not one of flattery, nor one to scoff at.
In visiting the area today, access can only be brought through a licensed (by the Department of Tourism) tour operator or travel agency. Furthermore, with eastern Bhutan being less developed as a tourist destination than the west, the area remains relatively untouched. Allowing still, for a personal experience of discovery and wonder.
Buddha Dordenma (Buddha point) statue
Dedicated to “bring peace and prosperity to the world”, a 52 m (169 ft) bronze, gold-gilded, statue of the Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha) gazes over Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, with a calm expression, seated atop a hill.
Buddha Dordenma, or Buddha point as colloquially referred to, was simultaneously constructed in celebration of His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan’s 60th anniversary, and in the realization of Bhutanese-Buddhist prophecies.
Beyond the greater statue itself, the monument hosts 125,000 smaller statues of the Buddha, seen only in person due to photography restrictions. To reach the great statue, a visitor arrives through a short drive from the capital, or by a rewarding walk from the foot of the hill.
The local name, Buddha point, can be found to highlight the other aspect of the site, it’s incredible view. Doubling as one of Thimphu, and Bhutan’s, greater viewpoints, visitors are entranced by the sight of Thimphu valley. The entirety of the valley is in view, from houses to commercial streets, from chortens to enormous dzongs, from rivers to forested hills, Bhutan is understood in its harmony with nature, in its values of life.
Mebar Tsho, the Burning Lake
A landlocked nation located in the Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan’s bodies of water consist of glacier sourced rivers, and hidden lakes. Of its religiously significant lakes, the story of one stands out, that of the Burning Lake.
Also referred to as Membartsho in dzongkha, the lake is more so a small pool of water (as a part of the Tang Chu river) hidden in the Tang valley of Bumthang. Hailed as a religious and spiritual site, the root of this belief comes from a 15th-century story of Pema Lingpa, Bhutan’s great treasure discoverer.
A foremost figure in Bhutan and Tibetan-Buddhism, Terton Pema Lingpa, under question by locals, dived into the pool of water whilst holding a burning lamp. He claimed that the lamp would remain burning as he came out of the pool, while also bringing out treasures (Buddhist relics) hidden within it. His success and the awe-inspired onlookers led to the site’s name, and its renowned significance as a spiritual site in Bhutan.
Today, locals, monks, spiritualists, and visitors alike, offer prayers and meditate, hoping to further their journey on the teachings of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), or to simply gain a greater insight into themselves and their lives.
Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary
When looking at a map of Bhutan, one may notice that large parts of it consist of national parks, nature reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. These can be seen to stem from Bhutan’s constitutional promise of maintaining 60% of forested cover, and from its cultural and religious values. Here the single Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is put forth, the reason stated below.
Registered by both the WWF and UNESCO, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary houses various endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna, while also housing the Brokpa culture of the Merak and Sakteng villages.
Rare and beautiful animals such as the snow leopard and the red panda are found in the area, while 35 species of rhododendron (rendering the area to be dubbed the “Paradise of Rhododendrons”) and the national flower, the Blue Poppy, are also found. Beyond its rich biodiversity, a unique culture, solidifying Bhutan status as such, is seen through the semi-nomadic Brokpa people.
Interestingly, the sanctuary, located in the far-east of Bhutan, was reportedly also built to protect the migoi (a Bhutanese version of the yeti), and their smaller counterpart the michum. Both believed to exist by certain local communities, with a supposed michum corpse being preserved within a monastery in Phobjikha valley.
So, through this online exploration of seven of Bhutan’s wonders, you may see yourself climbing hills to visit Buddhist monuments, walking through the country in old footsteps, sighting animals and plants the world deems rare, or even coming across beings once thought mythical. Understand that if you respect this land and all that exists within it, you are welcome to look over a lifestyle most wondrous.