Travel writing is quite a popular genre. People often take the help of the travelogues of friends and family to know about any place before deciding to visit it.
My husband Paul and I are residents of the United States and share a common love for cycling. Both of us believe that traveling by bicycle is the greatest way to see the world. Paul has conquered China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Mongolia and India. Together, we’ve cycled in China and India and this time we embarked on our third cycling vacation together, to climb the Himalayas and explore a serenely Buddhist land - Princely Bhutan.
With our sum-total of varied experiences of riding on short city excursions to world-class roads, we feel confident and inspired to write down this detailed travelogue to provide information about the attractions of Bhutan so that more cyclists get tempted to go there on their next holidays.
About the Place
Bhutan is a landlocked Buddhist kingdom entirely on the eastern edge of the Himalayas and popular for its monasteries, fortresses (or dzongs) and picturesque landscapes. What is noteworthy about this place is that the Tourism Council of Bhutan strongly adheres to the “High Value. Low Impact” policy which has made Bhutan the world's last Shangri-La.
This philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) v/s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has also received international recognition and since, there has been a worldwide upsurge in interest in visiting Bhutan. In fact, the UN has implemented a resolution recognizing that the gross domestic product does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people and that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.
Looking at the world map, it is difficult to locate this tiny little country tucked in the Himalayas. But after having read and heard from friends so much about its glory, this fall Paul and I couldn’t stop ourselves from planning our cycling vacation here. We just felt like we had to go.
How to Get There
Getting into Bhutan is easy but can be tricky sometimes. There is only one international airport at Paro which is located at 7,300 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 16,000 feet.
If you’re traveling from the United States there are many options to fly into Bhutan. One can fly from India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangkok or Singapore. We were advised by our dear friend Prashant Singh, who was also our bike trip designer & leader representing his company Bike Street Boys that the flight between Paro and Kathmandu is one of the most exciting ones as the aircraft passes over four of the five highest mountains in the world.
Isn’t that awesome? Who would want to miss that?
A Quirky Highlight of our Trip
The bicycle takes you to places that no other means can. Our trip had a blockbuster opening as we got to attend the Paro Tse Chu Festival on our very first day. We witnessed one of the most popular annual festivals in Bhutan, it is the first festival of the season, and featuring dances by trained monks and laymen in elaborate masks and costumes. It was funny how the head monk said a chant and then blessed me on the head with a huge wooden fertility phallus.
The legend goes that a Tantric Buddhist teacher named Drukpa Kunley and nicknamed "The Divine Madman" made Bhutan worship the phallus and we also got to visit his abode the “Chimi Lhakhang” after an enduring ride from Thimphu to Punakha. When Prashant started educating us about this temple, it amazed me how for a genteel country like Bhutan a temple dedicated to an outrageous Lama would have been such an unusual event. His narrative kind of, refreshed me!
In fact, now while riding through Bhutan, we couldn’t stop but notice the murals and graffiti on the walls with giant phalluses. As a tourist, I found it weird initially, but with kids playing around and life going on as usual for the locals, I started getting used to it. And now, because the incidence of the murals was on almost every wall it became a fun thing to look at. There were doors with phalluses on both sides and then there were shops with wooden imitations of the male sexual organ.
This is what I meant! A journey on two wheels shows you places and opens your perspectives. You must slow down and pay attention to your thoughts to experience the world in true sense.
Food to Die (not kill) For!
In Bhutan, it is extremely easy for tourists to go without meat. We learned that the government of Bhutan and few high stature monks are strong advocates of vegetarianism and strongly discourage animal killing. Hence, some small-town shops and hotels have signed an agreement to stop selling or serving meat during auspicious months. The authorities are known to conduct surprise inspections of these places and penalize the business owners if found guilty of storing meat.
But it is not that one is not allowed to consume meat at all. We came across properties that were legally allowed to serve meat. However, the vegetarian options are so delicious and so many that our group thoroughly enjoyed being pseudo-vegetarians on this trip.
We were being served menus with several Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese dishes. But we decided to try their authentic local preparations. The local red rice was nutty, healthy and delicious. The fresh organic vegetables burst with flavor, and the buckwheat momos (dumplings) stuffed with carrots, cabbage and onions were simply mouth-watering.
We relished over and enjoyed every sip of the butter tea (Po Cha or Suja) each time it got served with puffed rice or millets. A Bhutanese meal is incomplete without a serving of ema datshi or chili cheese (literally hot green peppers cooked with local cheese), and I couldn’t resist sampling this eye-watering spicy dish.
On a lighter note, I think the chili, a key ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine, poses a greater challenge for many foreign tourists than the non-availability of meat.
Archery: We got to play with the bow and arrow in Thimpu and I was surprised to discover my hidden talent. I scored the highest points and was better than all the boys in our group. I was drawing the bowstring back, inhaling and grunting like a pro-archer and then releasing to hit the target bang-on. Who knows, if I practiced religiously, I could make it to Bhutan’s national Olympic archery team.
The Postal Museum: We loved the dainty setting and it was a very informative tour. Here we got to purchase a stack of some unique postcards as customized souvenirs for friends and family. They also take a quick digital photo of you in front of a backdrop and then print it on usable Bhutan postage stamps. Yes, you are officially stamped!
Red Panda Brewery: Our trip leader knew that we are fans of trying local beers when traveling. So, he made sure to arrange a visit here and got us to taste the Red Panda Weiss or wheat beer. A very lively guide showed us the process of manufacturing and labeling and then lead us to a nearby restaurant to sample the famous beer.
Cheese Factory: Just down the road there was a cheese shop that sold authentic cheese manufactured in a factory run by the same owner of the brewery. We took a tour of the property and then picked us some cheese (for once, without the chili) to go with the beer.
Excellent, unfiltered Weiss beer and cheese - this was an experience to savor!
This new addition, called Princely Bhutan, offered by Bike Street Boys took us from Paro in the west to Bumthang in central Bhutan. With challenging cycling terrains, crossing high mountain passes at 3000 m offering splendid views of the Himalayas and long descents leading us into cooler valleys, out trip was complete and perfect! An equally challenging hike to visit the iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery perched on a misty mountain top near Paro was also included and it looks as magical in the flesh as it does in the pictures. You must see it to believe it.
A Photographic Description
Pictures have no language and hence, they can be understood by anyone in the world. With Paul’s newly found love for photography, we brought home a piece of this happy country. His camera was our Save button for the mind’s eye in Bhutan.
Twelve significant photos in one year is a good crop! So here are 12 handpicked photographs to inspire you for 12 months of an entire year to inspire you to take your next cycling vacation in the mystical kingdom of Bhutan.