On the trail of “happiness” in Bhutan
It is true that some of the most magnificent landscapes in the world are off-limits to all but those who lace up their boots and head out into the wild. I did this after landing in Bhutan to hike the Trans Bhutan Trail after the country finally reopened to tourism on September 23rd.
The story of the trail
For hundreds of years, the Trans Bhutan Trail has been an important route of trade, pilgrimage and communication. In fact, until the years 1906, when the national road was built, it was the only way to travel across the country. For the first time in 60 years, the Kingdom of Bhutan has opened this sacred hiking trail which crosses from Haa in western Bhutan to Trashigang in the east (near the Tibet border) and spans 403 km.
Hiking the entire trail takes about a month, but since it’s divided into sections, you can choose how long you hike. Day hike or multi-day trip, solo or in a group, there is something for every hiker. I chose a three hour hike from Dochula Pass to Thingleygang to dip my toes into the trail. This section of the trail is considered one of the most beautiful, winding through forests of rhododendrons and majestic trees whispering the ancient secrets of this mystical region. Colorful prayer flags tied to trees add a spiritual dimension while the mighty Himalayas behind the veil of thick mist look like a dramatic painting. Although the hike was not technically difficult, I quickly got out of breath from the climb and descent. After three hours and 30 minutes, a sloping path brings us to a small cluster of village houses built in the distinct Bhutanese style with carved wooden window panes and arched wood-lined roofs. It is also the place where our car is parked for the rest of the trip. The pleasantly exhausting day ends at a campsite with fellow hikers eager to swap stories and toast the day’s accomplishments.
A holiday beyond walks
The Trans Bhutan Trail is not only a series of endless treks but also involves the famous sites of Bhutan along the way. In Punakha, a visit to the Chimi Lhakhang (also known as the Temple of Fertility) is on the program. This revered place of magic and miracles is where women struggling to conceive are forced to carry a wooden phallus three times around the temple. Then there is the Punakha Dzong arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country and one of Bhutan’s top three tourist spots, the other two being Tiger’s Nest Monastery and Dochula Pass. Access to the dzong is via a suspension bridge and entry is via steep wooden stairs. Massive golden Buddha statues, exceptional wall paintings and courtyards dotted with bodhi trees make this dzong one of the most impressive in Bhutan. Excited by the success of my first trek in Bhutan, I attempted another along the Trans Bhutan – Simtokha Trail in Hongtsho.
This one was epic mainly because of the scenery and the remoteness of the trek which was absolutely amazing. The well-marked trail is full of enchantment with plank walkways and bridges that cross swampy bogs and summer streams. But thrills don’t come easily. The path is rocky, rugged and often steep. But dizzying views of mystical streams, sculpted mountains, and deep, silent lakes are well worth the extreme fatigue that follows the next day. There is a “lost world” feel to this characterful hike. The reward at the end of this four-hour trek is a Bhutanese picnic in an apple orchard.
Food & accommodation
Delicious Bhutanese delicacies are one of the highlights of the trail. expect a lot ema datsi (which literally means chilli and cheese) with every meal and steamed and fried momos with Bhutanese chilli sauce ezay. Rice is omnipresent as also whore or buckwheat noodles. Puffed red rice called wow soaked in salted butter tea
is a national pastime. Stay options along the trail include campsites, heritage farms, rural homestays and comfortable four-star hotels. Whichever part of the trail you choose to explore, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views and tranquility. Even the route between rides is littered with rainbows! So dust off your hiking boots and hit the trail.
Bhutan Fact Pack
Bhutan has only one airport, located in Paro. Two airlines Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air serve Bhutan from Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai in India.
Indians visiting Bhutan will be required to pay a Sustainable Development Tax (SDF) of Rs 1200 (US$15) per person per day. A pre-arranged guide, hotel accommodation and permits are essential. This can be arranged through a Bhutanese agent or independently.
The best months to visit Bhutan are March/April – for warm temperatures and stunning rhododendron blooms – and October/November – for unobstructed views of the Himalayas and popular festivals.
There are different routes and packages to get a taste of the trail starting from a week to a month to explore the full length of the trail (403 km). The prices depend on the length of stay and the accommodation chosen.