Tours and trek – Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country in South Asia. Located in the Eastern Himalayas, it is the second least populous nation after the Maldives. Located in AsiaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s relatively unexplored pockets, it allows a limited number of discerning travellers and tourists. This is done in order to preserve its fragile environment and cultures.
Grade 9 of Sarala Birla Academy along with seven teacher escorts had the amazing opportunity to visit this country of rolling hills and towering crags.
Day1:The excursion commenced on the 3rd of October with 61(54 students and 7 teachers) enthusiastic travellers boarding buses at 1.30 am to travel to Bhutan via Bagdogra. We reached Bagdogra at 8 am and after a quick breakfast, geared up for a seven-hour drive to Phuentsholing, which is considered to be BhutanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s financial centre. Phuentsholing is the point of entry for travellers arriving by bus from Siliguri. We were surprised to see the town buzzing with both Bhutanese and Indians. We immediately headed to Bhutan Post building to procure our visit visa.
Day 2:The next day we proceeded towards Paro. The beautiful valley of Paro mesmerised us with its rich culture and scenic beauty. Our tour guides regaled us with the hundreds of myths and legends associated with Paro. Paro is home to some of Bhutan's oldest temples and monasteries, National museum and the country's only airport. The most striking, however, was our visit to the Taktsang Lhakhang or the TigerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Nest. It is BhutanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most iconic structures and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paro. The distinctive architecture of the monastery combined with its distant location and the stunning green valley view made it an unforgettable experience. To reach this monastery, one has to trek for three to four hours through an arduous mountainous terrain. Built in 1692, the monastery is located in a cave where it is believed that Guru Rinpoche meditated in 7th century A.D to subdue the demons residing there.
Even though we were terribly exhausted after the trek, we couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t resist a quick visit to the local market. In the evening, our tour operators had organised a cultural show which presented the rich culture of Bhutan in its full glory. A group of men and women in their traditional costumes welcomed us by presenting their traditional welcome dance. This was followed by the various dance forms of Bhutan which also included one of the most popular masked dances of Bhutan, Drametse Ngacham.
Day 3:The next morning, we geared up for the city visit and our destination was Thimphu Ã¢â‚¬â€ BhutanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s capital. Our first halt was the Rinpung Dzong (Buddhist monastery) and the fortress Ã¢â‚¬â€ of the Drukpa Lineage of the school in Paro District, Bhutan. It houses the district Monastic Body and the government administrative offices of Paro Dzongkhag. On the way, we also stopped at the Tamchhog Lhakhang, a temple that is dedicated to the 13th century bridge builder Ã¢â‚¬â€ Thangthong Gyalpo. This temple is located across the river that flows from Paro to Thimphu. In order to get to the temple, one must cross an iron chain bridge. Crossing this very old bridge with its swaying and undulating movements was quite an experience. The temple is perched on a ridge in the foreground of high, rocky barren hills. It is a picturesque location.
After lunch, we visited the Takin Reserve centre. Located in the Motithang district of Thimphu, Bhutanandis, is a wildlife reserve area for Takin, BhutanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s national animal. Originally a mini-zoo, it was converted into a preserve when it was discovered that the animals refrained from inhabiting the surrounding forest even when set free. The reason for declaring Takin as the national animal on 25th November 2005 is attributed to a 15th century legend about the animalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s creation (half goat and half cow) in Bhutan, by Lama Drukpa Kunley.
Day 4: After breakfast, we were escorted to the Changanagkha Monastery. We were surprised to see the temple premises humming with pilgrim activity. Even little infants were brought in with their parents. Our guide then informed us that this popular temple, perched like a fortress, on a ridge above central Thimphu, was established in the 12th century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who came from Ralung in Tibet. Parents traditionally come here to get auspicious names for their newborns or blessings for their young children from the protector deity, Tamdrin. We watched the children being blessed by a phurba (ritual dagger) and given a sacred thread. We could not visit the Heritage museum as it was closed.
Day 5:Our second visit was the Kuensel Phodrang or the commonly known Buddha Point which is a massive structure of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha. The structure, completed in recent history, is the largest such idol in the country and one of the largest idols of Buddha in the world. This Buddha statue is gold-plated and made of bronze. It houses one hundred and thousand smaller Buddhas of eight inches and twenty-five thousand of 12 inches height and a diamond is fixed at the point of the third eye. This grand and glorious Buddha, which can be seen from any corner of the city, sits regally in the Kuensel Phodrang Park upon a meditation hall which serves as a throne to the Buddha. It is the centre of attraction for all tourists, radiating its splendour in all directions and spreading the message of happiness and peace. It offered us an unparalleled view of the landscape and the mesmerising sights were captured by our lenses. Later in the day, we also explored the Farmers Centenary Market. We were amazed to see how the Bhutanese were so particular about cleanliness. We never found any litter in and around this local market. We then paid a quick visit to the nearby park.
Day6:Dawn broke next day with a feeling of remorse as we realised that it was going to be our last day in Bhutan and we had to travel back to Phuentsholing. We were escorted to the Institute for Zorig Chusum. This institute, commonly known as 'the painting school', operates four to six-year courses for learning Bhutan's 13 traditional arts. Students specialise in painting woodcarving (masks, statues, and bowls), embroidery (hangings, boots, clothes) or statue-making (clay). The craft demonstrations are a photographers dream. Ã‚Â The skill and discipline of the young students was impressive. The store at the institute sold pieces made by students and we enthusiastically bought little mementoes for our loved ones. It was, however, saddening; that some of us had to give this visit a miss as they required medical attention owing to sickness.
Day 7:The groups then travelled back to Phuentsholing as we had a morning flight to Bangalore.
With its beautiful and largely unspoilt Himalayan setting, its rich flora and fauna and its vibrant Buddhist culture, Bhutan dazzled us in all aspects. We learnt about how, in an effort to safeguard its rich natural and cultural environment, the country had consciously adopted a controlled tourism and development policy. With prayer flags fluttering along the high ridges, wild animals roaming freely in dense forests, foamy white waterfalls forming ethereal showers, and the warm smile of its friendly people who proudly profess that they follow a concept of GNH(Gross National Happiness) rather than GNP(gross national product), Bhutan showed how, as a tiny country with a very small population, it has amplified the need to preserve its culture and tradition. This unique culture is a means of protecting the sovereignty of the nation. The distinctiveness of the culture and tradition is visible in the everyday life of the Bhutanese. The visit left an indelible impression in our hearts. We realised that we too should do all that we can to protect our culture. It also made us understand the importance of not shying away from professing and propagating our tradition and culture while respecting other diversities at the same time.
The overall experience of the trip was wonderful and the students complied with the expected code of conduct throughout the trip. The stay, food and travel were all, as promised by the tour operators.
Teachers - In -Charge-Mr Felix Sanctis, Mr. Pravesh Kumar, Mr. Sanjay Singh, Mr Subhrajit Sharma, Mr Vishal Singh, Ms Preetha Suresh Kannan and Ms Fiona Rozario