Dragon Tales-Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan and  is followed by 70% of the population . My knowledge of this ancient religion is very limited.After spending  a short time here I feel that Buddhism is the most distinct feature of this kingdom .One week is too short a period to get an insight   but each day was a learning experience.

I wanted to start by  visiting  a buddhist temple and I did not have to look far.

More than 2000 Lhakhangs  or temples are scattered around the 20 districts  in Bhutan.I had my first glimpse of one in Phuentsholing.

Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang  is  near the  immigration office and it has an impressive structutre .It was  6 30 in the morning and  people were coming in large numbers for their morning prayers.

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The main  deities  are Buddha,Guru Rinpoche   who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and Zhabdrung Rinpoche who unified Bhutan.The walls are decorated with murals and frescos  depicting the life of Buddha.  The altar was beautifully   adorned with lamps,prayer bowls,flowers  and incense sticks..It is believed that by gazing at Buddha,lighting lamps,offering flowers,burning incense  , prostrating before the deities  etc ,the functions of the five sense organs are completely immersed in Buddhist practises.As in most  Buddhist temples,there is a large prayer wheel and a huge  fig tree in the courtyard.Remember to spin the prayer wheel in a clockwise direction.Turning the prayer wheel is supposed to have the same benefits as reciting the mantras inside.

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Butter lamps are kept in  a it small room near the main temple and  one can make offerings .

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Giant butter lamp

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Devotion

This temple reminded me of a small village temple where people come for prayers and meeting one another.I am put off  by large , popular temples where one has to stand in a serpentine queue for hours to see the idol for a minute or less before you are pushed out by the milling crowd.Here people  seemed unhurried  and  one can sense the serenity and spirituality all around.

I spent some time in the temple garden and returned to the hotel  happy with the auspicious beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gateway

Phuentsholing or Pling(local term)  is the border town and border crossing  was rather easy .Since I had booked through  a registered Bhutanese tour agent  I was told that I could have a guide  through out my stay.I don’t mind having a guide for  a limited period but    having someone for 6 days  reeling off statistics and  cliched stories  was not  appealing  and I decided not to have one. My attention span is quite limited and   I would rather   see,savor and digest.

Checked into Druk Hotel,situated next to the Immigration Office .I did not want to waste any time and took off to  look around.

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Druk Hotel

It is difficult to imagine that just  an ornate gate separates  the two countries.The contrast is overwhelming.One side is too congested,noisy,polluted,chaotic and the other side is clean,orderly and colorful   with people  in their traditional attire.The architecture is also striking.Phuentsholing is considered as the  financial,industrial and trading  centre and most of the goods come from India.Buddhism is a way of life here and prayer wheels,prayer flags and stupas are seen  everywhere.

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No traffic  signals

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And Bhutanese revere their kings.It is a democratic,constitutional monarchy .Pictures of the royal couple and  the fourth King are seen in  all the government buildings and shops.They are popularly known as K4 and K5.

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Sale of tobacco is banned in Bhutan and if you are caught smoking in public places you will be fined. No such ban on alcohol   and I could see more bars than restaurants in most of the places. It was interesting to know that they have  K5-  a premium whiskey to commemorate the coronation of the fifth  King and Silver Jubilee whiskey to honor the fourth King.

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Bus Terminal

I saw a big temple near the hotel  and decided to  go there the next day  before checking out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing Borders-From India to the Land of Flying Tigresses and Thunder Dragons

I must confess that like most people I did not know much about Bhutan except that it has a monarchy, GNH(Gross National Happiness)as the index of its progress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose it as his first foreign destination and one of my favourite actors Tony Leung had got married there. Also, the Tiger Nest which is the first image that comes to mind when I think of this land. I don’t like to read up a lot before going to a  place as it minimises the joy of exploring and this time I did pay for my casual attitude.

My UK  friend who was to come with me had to cancel her ticket at the last minute  because we did not realise that a person having OCI (overseas citizen of India) card  would have to pay 250$ per day. Confusing? Bhutan strictly regulates its tourism. People having Indian, Maldivian or Bangladeshi passports do not require a visa to  enter the country and the rest would have to get a visa and book through a registered tour operator. We had booked through a Bhutanese travel agency. Then came another shocker. The immigration office at the border town would not be open on Saturdays and Sundays and I was reaching on a Friday evening. They also restrict the entry for solo travellers(no gender bias here ) There was no way to change the dates or get someone to go with me. Being an easy- going unstructured traveller I thought I should just take a chance.

The flight from New  Delhi took 2 hours and I reached Bagdogra at 12 30 and rushed into the waiting taxi. The distance from Bagdogra to the border town Phuentsholing is 284  km and it would take 4-5 hours;  immigration office is open from 9  to 4 pm and I had to keep in my mind that Bhutan time is 30 minutes ahead of India Standard Time. So it was a race against time. My driver took up the challenge and zipped through the well- maintained roads. It was a beautiful drive and I let the sights of green paddy fields, tea estates, army units, Teesta river and many more nameless rivers to steady my nerves.

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Tea estate

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Teesta River

It was 4 30pm  when we crossed the imposing Bhutan gate and  I could not imagine that border crossing would be like this. Jaigaon is the border town on the Indian side and Phuentshoing  its  Bhutan counterpart. I have made it this far and now the time has come for the final formalities. If the office is closed I would have to wait till Monday and I just did not want to lose two precious days at the border.

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Bhutan Gate-Jaigaon side(India)

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Bhutan Gate-Phuentsholing(Bhutan)

 

The immigration office is just about 50 metres from the gate and Singey-the travel agent was waiting there. I rushed into the building with my passport,2 photographs and the duly filled permit form and met a  gracious lady official.   Documents were examined,  fingerprints taken, and I was granted the entry permit. I could not thank her enough. The permit is valid for 7 days and only up to Thimpu the capital city.

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Immigration Office

At last  I was officially in the Druk Yul and thus began my dragon tales.

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