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Bhutan

If ever there be a place that can take the cliche out of Sangrilla, then that place is Bhutan. The land of the thunder dragon does justice to the legend of that wonderland, hidden far and away from the prying eyes and humdrum ways of the modern world.

It is still as much about magic and mystery, simplicity and tranquillity; and about a way of life that has escaped the clutches of time.

The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively.  

Location

The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively. With an area of 46,500 square km., Bhutan is comparable to Switzerland both in its size and topography.

History

It was the mighty Himalayas which protected Bhutan from the rest of the world and left the Kingdom blissfully untouched through the centuries. The Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism provided the essence of a rich culture and a fascinating history. The Bhutanese people protected this sacred heritage and unique identity for centuries by choosing to remain shrouded in a jealously guarded isolation.

The history of the Kingdom dates back to the 8th century, with Guru Padmasambava's legendary flight from Tibet to Bhutan in 747 A.D, on the back of a tigress. The Guru, also considered as the second Buddha, arrived in Taktsang (Tiger's Nest), on the cliffs above the valley of Paro, and from there began propagation of the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. In the ensuing centuries many great masters preached the faith, resulticng in the full bloom of Buddhism in the country by the middle ages. Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in the early 17th century, by the religious figure, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The Shabdrung codified a comprehensive system of laws and built dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times, and nowadays serve as the religious and administrative centers of their respective regions. In the next two centuries, the nation was once again fragmented into regional fiefdoms with intermittent civil wars.

At the end of the 19th century, the Tongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern regions, overcame all his rivals and united the nation once again.

He was unanimously accepted as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan in 1907. Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the present King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world's most exclusive tourist destination.

People

The Kingdom is sparsely populated, with a population of only 7,00,000. Four main linguistic groups constitute Bhutan's population:
The Sharchopas, who are held to be indigenous inhabitants.
The Bumthangpas and the Ngalongpas who originate in neighboring Tibet, and
The Lhotshampas, recent immigrants of Nepalese origin.

The inhabitants of Bhutan are gracious, gentle and very hospitable. They are peace loving and possess a lively sense of humor. Today it is the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism. The religion which influences every aspect of life here was also the main impetus behind its birth.

The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travelers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and - perhaps most important of all - the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country which its people have chosen to preserve in all its magical purity.

Visiting Bhutan

Tourists visiting Bhutan may fly in to Paro airport. This is the only international airport in the country and is connected with Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra and Guwahati in India as well as with Kathmandu (Nepal), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Bangkok (Thailand) and Singapore. Druk air is the only international airline connecting Bhutan with rest of the world.

Tourists travelling by road mostly enter Bhutan through Phuentsholing. On the Indian side is the Jaigaon town in West Bengal. You may travel to Bagdogra Airport or New Jalpaiguri Rail Station from where the Bhutan entry point Jaigaon / Phuentsholing is about 3 to 4 hours drive. The entry procedure takes couple of hours. On the Bhutan side Thimphu or Paro is 5 to 6 hours drive from Phuentsholing town. As a result naturebeyond strongly recommends overnight stay in Phuentsholing or neighbouring area and start early next day. Reaching Paro or Thimphu on the same day after arrival into Bagdogra or NJP station is not recommended at all.

There is another entry point through Samdrupjongkar on the Bhutan Assam boarder. This is relatively less used by tourists as this boarder is further from the common tourist circuit of ParoThimphuPunakhaBumthang.

Where to go

Thimphu, the capital city is also the most popular tourist destination closely followed by Paro town which is an hours’ drive from Thimphu. Punakha is a three hour drive from Thimphu and is also a very popular tourist destination. If you have more time you may consider visiting Bumthang, Mongar or even beyond.

What to See

Bhutan attracts as much tourist for its mountains as it does for its unique culture and people. The country remained cocooned from the outside world till recently. The Kingdom has also taken several steps to preserve its distinctive culture. As a result the all pervasive western culture is less visible on the roads of Bhutan. People mostly prefer to wear their National dress of Gho for men and Kira for women. The unique buildings, dance forms, cuisine, sports all go to make your Bhutan experience uunparalleled.

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