On one of our many long coach rides around the countryside of Bhutan, fellow traveller Audrey (who is bubbly and inquisitive and adorable) once questioned our Bhutanese guide Kuenzang and Bhutanese co-teacher/artist Rajesh about happiness – Bhutan is after all nicknamed to be “The Happiest Country In The World”– So how exactly do the Bhutanese know that they’re happy?
Our newfound Bhutanese friends stared at us wordlessly for a few seconds and then Rajesh came up with a reply that I won’t forget:
“We don’t question our happiness, we just are!”
What a stunningly simple answer that made absolute sense – When you’re truly happy, do you question yourself and ask if you are?
During the course of seven days in Bhutan, I came up with my own conclusions as to why the Bhutanese are so happy. Much of it has to do with just how beautiful Bhutan is, and another quintessential part is to do with the deeply entrenched teachings of Buddha that the Bhutanese people grow up with and live their lives by.
Bhutan Day 4: Punakha Dzong & Suspension Bridge
We rose early to catch the morning light, as all of us were eager to begin sketching and painting for the day! The huge balcony/observatory deck at the hotel had a splendid view of the valley and far-off Chimi Lhakhang, the subject of our morning art jam session.
It was a hot and balmy morning – Don’t forget that temperatures are much warmer down in Punakha, so don’t forget your sun protection, sunblock, and hats!
Here’s Erwin demonstrating how to work with light and cool tones to bring out tonal values in watercolor! The technique looked effortless but was real frustrating to achieve.
Nonetheless, we had a gratifying morning session and then it was time to move on to the highlight of the day, painting the famed Punakha Dzong as well as exploring its grounds!
Painting Punakha Dzong
Sitting at the confluence of 2 rivers, the Punakha Dzong is a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture. Built in 1637, it is the second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan. This massive structure is six stories high with a central utse (tower) that stands 3, 900 feet tall!
Halfway through painting the Dzong! Everyone was utterly absorbed in their painting, and I almost couldn’t bear to stop for lunch, which would have been a grave mistake; lunch was so so good!
Our outdoor lunch prepared and set-up for us right on the spot! The food was delicious!
Lunch was so flavourful and hearty – Everyone dug in hungrily and even went for second and third portions!
My completed painting of Punakha Dzong!
Moving on to our next activity, which was probably the most touristy thing that we did hehe. Everyone was game to don on the Bhutanese Gho and Kira (provided by Druk Asia) despite the hot weather, so we had to take this group photo in front of the Punakha Dzong!
Spot the two real Bhutanese men – Rajesh and Kuenzang! I have to say that everyone looked really splendid in the Kira and Gho, love the traditional ethnic patterns and bold colors!
Here’s my touristy shot! 😀
Exploring Punakha Dzong
We spent the afternoon exploring the Dzong with our guide Kuenzang, who was dressed in his Gho together with a long scarf called a “kabney” – This attire is mandatory for the Bhutanese when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers.
Notice those gigantic honeycombs under the roofs of the Dzong? Those bee hives are said to be auspicious!
One of two massive prayer wheels that flank the main entrance into Punakha Dzong.
These impressive-looking cylindrical wheels commonly seen at temples and dzongs contain scrolls that are inscribed with mantras. It is believed that by turning the prayer wheels clockwise, mantras inside are activated and released. The mantras are said to purify negativity, generate compassion, remove barriers to enlightenment and bring benefit to all sentient beings.
A wall decoration depicting the Zodiac Calendar.
As in most dzongs and holy places, we were not allowed to take pictures within the temple due to strict restrictions.
Please do step in, because the interior of the temple is stunning, with mammoth effigies of Buddha, flanked by Guru Rinpoche (who is widely celebrated for bringing Buddhism into the kingdom of Bhutan) and a colorful myriad of sculptures and statues that I did not recognise.
We were lucky enough to be given permission to sketch and draw within the temple, thanks to Kuenzang. A good one hour was spent sitting on the cool wooden flooring in silence and rapt attention as I watched Erwin bring the Buddha effigies to life with his pen and brush!
Posing with Rajesh (who cut a dashing figure in his Gho!) at the traditional wooden staircase leading up to the temple in the six-storeyed Utse, the central tower of Punakha Dzong.
You absolutely must visit Punakha Dzong 🙂
Suspension Bridge at Mo Chhu River
Apart from Punakha Dzong, my personal favourite spot would have to be the suspension bridge at Mo Chhu River, also known as the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan!
For those who have a fear of heights, crossing the long suspension bridge may seem intimidating. I was utterly in love with the view from the bridge, especially as we had particularly brilliant weather that day. The clear blue skies and muted sunlight filtering in through the veil of slow moving clouds made for a spectacular view as we crossed the suspension bridge.
Look at those prayer flags merrily dancing in the cool breeze that lifted my spirits and brought a smile to my face 🙂
A postcard-worthy image of two elderly monks crossing the bridge ahead of me – They were just as enamored with the beauty of the scene and were about to take a picture right there.
The bridge connects the town of Punakha and the Punakha Dzong, mainly used by locals from the other side of the town as a shortcut to Punakha Dzong.
A bright-eyed pup enjoying the breeze on the other side of the suspension bridge as we sat there, savouring the glorious weather and great view!
It was a productive and well-spent day, and we returned to the hotel in good cheer for a wonderfully wholesome dinner!
Doesn’t dinner look so good? 🙂
We were able to admire the gorgeous landscape of Punakha Valley right from the hotel balcony!
Bhutan Day 5: Punakha to Paro
All of us were reluctant to depart from lovely Punakha, but it was time to pack up and leave to head back to Paro, where we would be spending our last two nights in Bhutan.
My last breakfast in Punakha – This homemade bun that’s deep-fried and has a soft, fluffy texture was so good! Eat it whichever way you want; I filled mine up with the potato dish that was served up for breakfast and it was so satiating.
Our coach drove us back through Thimpu City along the way to Paro, where we commenced for lunch and also visited the local Post Office!
I had these customised stamps made at the Post Office 🙂 Serves as an excellent keepsake and souvenir of the trip!
Old buildings in Bhutanese architectural style just across the Post Office, and two Bhutanese ladies in their kiras doing a spot of shopping.
An adorable stray dog – One of the many that stole my heart in Bhutan!
We hit the road again after lunch and soon arrived at Paro Town, which is a good place to stop by if you’re looking for quirky souvenirs or gifts to buy home.
For instance, religious ornaments like erm phallic wooden statues and the likes?
I fell in love with this soft baby yak wool shawl and bought it for myself 🙂 It was around SGD50 if I remember correctly! Not cheap eh, but since I didn’t get anything else on the trip….
Our last destination for the day was one of the oldest and most beautiful monasteries in the country – Kyichu Lhakhang.
The temple is popularly believed to have been built in 659 by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet, to pin down the left foot of a giant demoness who was thwarting the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. It’s one of 108 temples King Songsten Gampo built throughout his reign, and each temple is said to correspond to a point on the body of the demoness.
One interesting feature you may notice within the temple grounds is the presence of two orange trees which bear orange fruit: This is particularly rare as orange trees do not grow at such high altitudes, and the trees are rumored to bear fruit all year round as they are blessed trees!
I might not buy completely into all the mythology and lore told to us by Kuenzang, but it was fascinating to know the stories behind each and every temple and monastery.
Caught these two monks in the act of taking a selfie, I guess monks also progress with the times, don’t they?
Love these colorful tasseled banners!
A row of prayer wheels surrounding the compound.
Did another ink and wash illustration of some of the distinctive Bhutanese architectural details that I liked a lot 🙂
We checked into Metta Resort & Spa, another charming hotel that had meticulously-kept gardens in full bloom and lush views of mountains all around!
My huge and spacious room for two nights!
Bhutan Day 6: Ascending Tiger’s Nest
On the sixth and last day of our time in Bhutan, it was finally time for the highlight of the trip – The ascend up to Tiger’s Nest, one of the most recognizable sites in Bhutan.
Tiger’s Nest, also known as Taktsang Gompa is believed to be built on the site where Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave having arrived there on a flying tiger. Built precariously on a hillside cliff, it sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level and is accessible only by a foot path.
Although the trek up to Tiger’s Nest takes at least 2-3 hours (depending on weather conditions and your fitness level), it was most definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip and well worth the climb!
The coach brought us to the starting point of the trek, where I’d also recommend you to purchase one of the wooden walking sticks (if you don’t have your own hiking pole) being sold at the little stalls set up there.
You can also choose to pay and ride horseback for two-thirds of the journey, but none of us did that – the poor horses, although magnificent creatures, looked rather worn out and forlorn as they trudged along the steep path up to Tiger’s Nest.
The trek up got fairly steep, and I highly recommend trekking shoes if you have them! The weather wasn’t so fine that day, the skies were overcast, and it even started raining rather heavily at some point of the day.
Nonetheless, the trek up to Tiger’s Nest is still very manageable – Just take it slow and steady when you start getting tired or out-of-breath!
Old man’s beard lichen, which is said to grow only in places with clean and pure surroundings. Don’t they almost look like fairy lights with the little droplets of moisture on them?
About halfway up the mountain!
Even along the mountain paths, we ran into many stray dogs who weren’t at all afraid of us. Prayer flags were also strung up everywhere, making for a pleasant and cheerful sight.
Horses had to stop at a certain point, where you’ll need to carry on by foot. So I took the opportunity to get a picture with one of the pretty horses hahaha.
The higher you climb, the better a view you get of Paro, looking like minuscule little white specks far below!
At a little cafe halfway through, where you can stop to catch your breath and take a coffee break. On a good day, you’d be able to see Tiger’s Nest distinctly, but it was way too cloudy, and we could barely make out the outlines of the monastery still a great distance away!
Back to the path. Thank goodness I was prepared with a disposable poncho that kept me relatively dry when it started to rain!
It was raining quite persistently at this point in time, and the entire mountain was shrouded in thick clouds.
The skies must have heard our prayers, because just as we reached one of the best view points along the trail, the passing clouds suddenly cleared away, leaving us with a magical view of Tiger’s Nest!
Doesn’t it look unreal?
We quickly snapped away with our cameras, admiring the surreal sight before us and marvelling at it in wonder.
It took another 20-30 minutes of climbing up and down flights of steps along the cliff edge before we reached Tiger’s Nest, at long last!
Passing by a huge waterfall right before the steps lead upwards again to the final ascend to Tiger’s Nest.
After removing our shoes and being stripped of all recording devices (including your mobile phone!), we entered the monastery, where Kuenzang showed us around the various holy sites in hushed tones of reverence. You can also bring along some money for offerings, or even purchasing a butter lamp to burn for blessings.
When the rain cleared up, we started to make our way down to get back to the car park where we started out from. This would have been a lot easier on a dry day, but due to the rain, the ground was wet and muddy and made going downwards challenging. Some of us slipped and fell due to how slippery it was! 🙁
The wet conditions we faced – My UGG snow boots that were waterproof and had extra traction helped me greatly, thankful for packing them along!
We took a break for lunch while halfway down, never been happier to see food in my life! The food was brought up piping hot for us on the back of a Bhutanese local, how amazing is that?
We gobbled down the food like we’d never eaten before lol.
A vegetarian meal that never tasted better even without any meat!
That look of joy on my face when I’d finally, finally reached the base and located our coach! YASSSSS!
Our total journey up and down Tiger’s Nest (inclusive of our time spent inside the monastery, break time and lunch time) took us close to six hours, and it was late afternoon by the time everyone made it down.
It was absolutely exhausting, but the awe-inspiring view was worth all the effort!
We returned back to our hotel knackered and tired, though a hot shower soon set me right again. I even had the energy to join Erwin and few of the other girls in a short botanical painting session before our evening programme started.
In the process of laying down graduated color washes – Definitely not an easy task!
What better way to round up the last night of the trip, then with a cultural dance performance of traditional Bhutanese song and dance? We laughed, clapped and cheered along to the dancing next to a crackling campfire, moods buoyant and spirits upbeat. That being said, there was a palpable tinge of sadness in the knowledge that this otherworldly experience was coming to an end, and we would be leaving Bhutan too soon.
All in all, Bhutan is one of the places I’m very glad to have checked off the bucket list. It was truly an experience like no other, and I can understand better now, why Bhutan is nicknamed “The Happiest Country In The World”. I feel like I left Bhutan a lot more spiritually enriched, and a little more at peace with myself.
Big thanks to Erwin and Druk Asia for such a memorable one-of-a-kind trip, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and will have fond memories of beautiful Bhutan for many years to come!
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