This is a Part 2 of our Article Series for Travel to Bhutan. If you haven’t read it please head over here to read Part 1.
Your Travel to Bhutan is incomplete if you don’t visit the Eastern Part. Bhutan's remote, wild, and rugged but wonderfully quaint eastern frontier is a region you would love to discover. Here time appears to stand still. For in this barely explored part of the country you will be rewarded by tranquil rustic life, delightful little villages and towns that have managed to elude the spotlight (which happily means few or no tourists), magnificent dzongs and temples, some spectacular terrain dominated by dizzying cliffs and gorges, and exquisite forests that harbour exotic birdlife and wildlife. The region is also the home of many minority ethnic groups who live in areas with the highest elevation. It is famed for its traditional arts and craft, especially silk textiles, embroidery, and weaving – giving you glimpses of a unique culture that you are unlikely to experience elsewhere in Bhutan.
For the explorer and trekker at heart, Eastern Bhutan is idyllic. You might want to wander into its off-the-beaten-path districts, just to experience that sense of mystery and adventure.
Trashigang may be one of the most rustic parts of Bhutan but stands out for its spectacular natural wonders, earning it the sobriquet “Jewel of the East.” It spans the easternmost corners of the kingdom, skirting the edge of Arunachal Pradesh State in India. It is the country’s largest district, with elevation that ranges from 600 metres to over 4,000 metres above sea level. Do remember this while attempting to acclimatise!
Trashigang was once a bustling trade hub for the barter of goods in Tibet. Today, it is the junction of the East-West highway with road connections to Samdrup Jongkhar (the entry and exit point into Eastern Bhutan from Assam State in India’s northeast). The East-West Junction is also the main market place for the semi-nomadic Brokpa people whose unique style of dressing distinguishes them from the more well-known Bhutanese Gho and Kira attire.
The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary here, one among the ten most protected areas in Bhutan, is said to have been created in part to protect the migoi (believed to be the yeti), in whose existence most Bhutanese believe.
You will also see the Sherubtse College, one of the most reputed colleges in the country; founded in 1966 by a group of Jesuits, it was the first accredited college in Bhutan.
Climb high. To the ‘The Fortress of the Auspicious Hill’ or Trashigang Dzong. The magnificent fortress which rests atop a spur overlooking the River Dangmechu, was built in 1659 and was once the stronghold of power of all of Eastern Bhutan for over 300 years. The three-day annual Trashigang Tshechu or festival is held in the Dzong sometime in December and is attended mainly by the Brokpa as well as communities from other parts of Bhutan.
Wildlife enthusiasts, especially lepidopterists, will love Trashiyangtse. Not only is the region swathed in 1,500 sq.km of forest cover but is also home to Bhutan’s National Butterfly (yes!), the Ludlow's Bhutan Swallowtail. Swallowtails are rare and are found only in Bhutan, in Tobrang, a remote part of the Bumdelling Wildlife Sanctuary here.
The vast sanctuary harbours animals such as the red panda, barking deer, Himalayan black bears, and several big cats such as leopards and tigers.
Prepare yourself for one of the most visually dramatic journeys in Bhutan as you hit the road to Mongar. It passes over sheer cliffs, deep gorges, and through dense fir forests and green pastures – set at elevations ranging from 400 metres to 4,000 metres. Travellers taking this route will have the chance to visit the exquisite Rhododendron garden…blooms of every colour and variety vie with each other in sheer beauty. And on a clear day, you could catch a glimpse of Gangkhar Puensum (7541 metres), the world’s steepest uncharted mountain.
Mongar town is lined by graceful eucalyptus trees and charming homes that display stone and wood architecture.
Mongar is famed for its weavers and textiles, and cloth produced here is considered among the finest in the country. Look out too for its equally reputed wood-carved craftwork and while you’re at it do try and visit the Ugyen Dorji Paper Factory (for superb quality paper) and the Lemon Grass Oil Unit (Mongar is one of the principal producers of lemon grass essence – an excellent essential oil for aroma therapy). You will also learn how local communities linked to these ventures effectively utilise natural resources to create livelihoods for themselves.
Some of Bhutan’s most significant religious sites such as Dramitse Lhakhang, Aja Ney, and Yagang Lakang are in Mongar. The 16th-century Dramitse Lhakhang is where the Dramitse Ngacham or the ‘Dance of the Drums of Dramitse’ originated. The sacred masked dance was inscribed in 2008 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; it is performed in major Bhutanese festivals all over the kingdom.
Other major highlights include monuments such as the Mongar Dzong and Zhongar Dzong, and Jarung Khashor Chorten; birder’s paradises such as the Phrumsengla National Park, Yongkhala, and Sengor; and the beautiful town and textile-weaving hub of Lhuentse (70 km from Mongar), most famous for its Khoma Village.
There are no paved roads going to Khoma Village but the nearly two-hour walk from the Lhuentse Dzong is worth every bit the endeavour. Khoma is renowned for its signature woven textile, the Kishuthara, woven by Khoma’s women, most apparently introduced to the loom as early as eight years of age. The distinct and highly intricate Kishuthara pattern takes about six months to finish; it is considered a symbol of status as it is quite expensive to acquire, and is usually applied on the Bhutanese women’s traditional kira attire. You would do well to buy a Kishuthara here since it is bound to be much more expensive in Thimphu’s handicraft shops.
There are many places you can explore around Mongar if you greatly enjoy hiking and trekking. But keep in mind that the seclusion and elevation of Eastern Bhutan definitely require you to be physically fit. Some areas call for a two to three-hour exploration strictly on foot else you won’t be able to see much.
There are not very many hotels here either so you could stay on the outskirts of the town or will likely be recommended either a homestay, or camping out under star-studded inky-black skies – the latter alternative might sound good to those who long to get away from the madness, lights, and noise of city life.
Gangtey is simply stunning. This high glacial valley set close to Central Bhutan is a place of visual treats and fantastic for trekking. The Gangtey valley is wide and flat, and without any trees, lending the vast, rolling land an air of open, free space. The two beautiful meandering rivers, Nakay Chhu (Chhu Naap-black water) and Gay Chhu (Chhu Karp-white water) run their course through the valley.
Gangtey, often called the most picturesque valley in Bhutan, does not offer you trinket shops, museums or even places of attraction. And you’ll be glad it doesn’t. For this glorious part of Bhutan gives you what can only be described as one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The magnificent but little-visited Phobjikha Valley, part of the Black Mountains National Park wildlife reserve, is the winter home to 300 of the globally endangered black-necked cranes that arrive every year from the Tibetan Plateau.
The rare black-necked crane is revered in the Himalayan region. These thin, tall, black-necked, majestic birds fly down from the freezing, dizzying altitudes of Tibet to the warmer, lower valley of Bhutan in the winter months. But what they do next is baffling and inexplicable – the cranes circle clockwise over the Gangtey Goempa three times, without fail, both when they arrive and when they leave!
Apt therefore, that these graceful birds have a sacred identity in Bhutanese culture, and often appear in folklore, dances, and historical texts.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), also known as The Black-necked Crane Visitor Centre, is located on the edge of the forest and wetland along the main road of the Phobjikha Valley. The Centre has significant material on the cranes, their environment, as well as their conservation awareness programmes. The observation room is equipped with a high-power telescope and spotting scopes to capture the best views of the cranes.
In November, the courtyard of the Gangtey Goempa is transformed with colours, music, theatre, and masked dances as locals get together to celebrate the Black-necked Crane Festival, held to welcome the avian wonders.
Gangtey is one of the most watched valleys for tourism in Bhutan since it is highly vulnerable to pollution and human traffic. It is perhaps a fine example of how the country has made huge efforts to balance conservation and tourism.
Winter, when you can catch glimpses of mighty onyx and serene yaks, and quietly observe stately cranes, is the most beautiful time to be in Gangtey. But know that although the near-zero temperatures in the valley are ‘warm’ for these wild Himalayan residents, it can be incredibly cold for most travellers, especially with winds that are forceful and unrelenting!
The Gangtey Goempa is the only Nyingmapa monastery on the western side of the Black Mountain and also the biggest Nyingmapa monastery in Bhutan. The monastery rests on a small hill that rises from the valley floor and is surrounded by a large village inhabited mainly by the families of the 140 Gomchens who take care of the monastery.
Gangtey was founded in 1613 by Pema Trinley, the grandson of Pema Lingpa, the famous Nyingmapa saint of Bhutan. The goempa was later extended to make it bigger and rebuilt in the form of a dzong. You can enjoy marvellous views from the head of the valley, where the monastery is situated.
Trekking/hiking is a fantastic way to not only experience scenic nature trails but also pass through villages with homes built in the distinct Bhutanese style of architecture. The Gangtey Nature Trail, that takes you across streams and through rhododendron gardens, is especially worth exploring.
The finest and most luxurious accommodation here is the Amankora Lodge, which has exceptional views of the Gangtey Goempa.
This is a gorgeous, tranquil valley comprising four major valleys – Ura, Chumey, Tang, and Choekhor – with the most sacred of all monasteries and also home to some of Bhutan’s oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Bumthang was also the home of the great Buddhist teacher Pema Linga to whose descendants the present dynasty traces its origin. Till the 1970s, the region was accessible only on foot or mule back. Bumthang’s fertile valleys are carpeted with fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes. You will also see apple orchards and dairy farms here.
According to legend, the ancient Jambey Lhakhang (temple), the oldest lhakhang in Bhutan, was built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in 659 CE as one of the 108 simultaneously constructed temples in order to subdue an evil demoness who lay supine over the Himalayan region. Other noteworthy temples to see are the Kurje Lhakhang and the Tamshing Lhakhang.
The Jakar Dzong, overlooking the town, was built in 1549, by the Tibetan Lam Nagi Wangchuk. It was once an important fortress of defence and was also the seat of the first king of Bhutan. The dzong is now used as the administrative centre for Bumthang valley, and houses the regional monk body.
At the eastern end of Bumthang’s lovely Chumey Valley, traditional woollen yathra pieces hang arranged on racks in the sun outside the Yathra Weaving Centre. Inside, village women sit at backstrap looms choosing intricate yet elegant patterns as they weave the coloured wool with deft, skillful fingers. Yathra is a thick, handwoven woollen textile distinctive for its geometric designs woven in yak and sheep wool. Weaving Yathra is a communal affair – it brings villages, women, and income together and its sale is the source of livelihood of around 240 households in Bumthang’s 13 or so villages. Yathra is also a tradition that has been kept alive by the women weavers here; traditionally, each home in the valley would have its own loom and girls were taught to weave at a young age. The beautiful, sturdy yathra is ideal to withstand the long cold Bumthang winter and is much loved throughout Bhutan.
Explore the Tang Valley which is one of Bumthang’s most remote valleys. The drive to Tang is really off the beaten path since the entire journey is on unpaved roads. On the way you will see rustic villages and scenic vistas. The Ugyen Chholing Palace and Mebar Tsho are two of Tang’s biggest highlights.
Ugyen Chholing Palace, a charming hilltop naktshang (country manor), requires you to trudge uphill – around a 45-minute walk. Originally built in the 16th century, the present structures of Ugyen Chholing are more recent since they were rebuilt after their collapse in an earthquake in 1897. The family that owns Ugyen Chholing has converted the complex into a museum to preserve its heritage and legacy. The remarkable and well-maintained displays offer glimpses of the life and times of a Bhutanese family of nobles. Exhibits include interesting artefacts, books, costumes, attire etc. The Ugyen Chholing Heritage House in the palace complex serves as the living quarters for the current family.
The Burning Lake or Mebar Tsho is a pretty lake set in a ravine of the River Tang Chhu. Mebar Tsho is regarded as one of the most sacred sites in the region as the legend around the lake (how it gets the name) is related to Pema Lingpa. The small freshwater lake is surrounded by bright multicolored prayer flags scattered across the gorge; there is also a small altar dedicated to Pema Lingpa here. On auspicious days people offer butter lamps at this beautiful historical and religious site.
Trongsa lies near the centre of Bhutan and is historically a place of great significance for its once crucial role in controlling the ancient kingdom, thanks to its strategic position. Trongsa town rests on a steep ridge and offers wonderful views of the surrounding valleys.
Lama Ngesup Tshering Wangchuk built Chendebji Chorten in the 18th century, apparently to ward off evil spirits and demons. Chendebji rests in a picturesque valley, and in an architectural style uncommon to Bhutan, the chorten (Buddhist shrine) is designed to resemble the Bouddhanath Stupa in Nepal, especially the signature eyes looking at the four cardinal points. Inside the chorten rests a relic – the skull of Tenzin Lekpai Dhundrup, an important monk. A long prayer wall next to the chorten displays sacred Buddhist scriptures. Many pilgrims visit the chorten during the festival of Sambha Lhundrup Molam Chenmo. Several legends surround Chendebji Chorten. The many legends surrounding Chendebji seem to only reinforce the spiritual and supernatural significance of this sacred spot.
Chendebji Chorten is located on the road between Thimphu and Trongsa.
The Trongsa Dzong is Bhutan’s largest and, perhaps most dramatic fortress. The dzong was originally built in 1647, and served as the seat of power for the first two kings of Bhutan, and was a major administrative and religious centre. The massive dzong is strategically built on the spur of a steep slope that offers exceptional and spectacular views of the River Mangde Chhu. Narrow stone stairs, alleys, and corridors link the structures at every level of the fortress, lending it the quality of an elevated labyrinth.
Inside, are 25 lhakhangs honouring Tantric deities, a watchtower (Ta Dzong) dating back to 1652 that is now a museum dedicated to the Wangchuck dynasty (to which the current Royal Family of Bhutan traces its lineage), and a printing shop that produces religious texts. Today, the dzong, still an administrative and monastic centre, houses around 200 monks during the winter months. The historic fortress was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1897, and eventually restored in 1927 and 1999.
The five-day Trongsa Tsechu is held in the northern courtyard during December or January every year. The important festival celebrates the arrival of Guru Rimpoche to Bhutan in the 8th century and marks the triumph of Buddhism over evil.
Spectacular landscapes, trekking, or even Buddhism may draw most travellers to Bhutan but there are some who have discovered yet another compelling reason to visit and appreciate this beautiful Himalayan kingdom.
Integral to Bhutan’s cultural heritage are its traditional art and craft forms, handed down through generations and over the centuries.
When in Thimphu, make a stop at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum or “the Painting School” as it is referred to locally. The Institute not only preserves Bhutan’s centuries-old art but also teaches it to the next generation. Their eight-year course has students learning Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts— such as painting, woodcarving, clay sculpture, mask making, ornament-making, sewing, embroidery and so on—passed down through an apprenticeship system dating back to the 17th century. The instruction received here is valuable enough for them to be commissioned to create icons, sculptures, paintings, textiles, and other works of art for the country’s important institutions; even for everyday life. The Institute also houses a small souvenir shop which sells ornaments, paintings, and other fascinating objet d'art made by the students.
Watching these young artists is both captivating and inspiring – they are immersed in their work, and give even the tiniest detail their undivided concentration. Especially when they are painting thongdrols or thangkas.
These massive, richly symbolic and intricate sacred scroll paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depict a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala, and are unveiled in their full glory during annual religious festivals. Their wondrous beauty, believed to be a manifestation of the divine, is said to offer viewers protection, healing, and enlightenment.
The materials used in the paint – in vivid hues of marigold, green, yellow, red, and blue – are the natural pigmented soils that are found throughout the country. Each thangka artist is guided by a set of iconography rules that prescribe the exact proportions and elements of each work, brought alive on cloth by hair-thin brushes.
A thangka is a work of faith. And of humility. Entrenched in the spirit of Buddhism, Bhutan’s art follows two principles: that it be anonymous and that it be religious.
For people with a deep interest in both religion and art, the thangka represents a fascinating history of over a 1000 years of Tantric Buddhism.
Interestingly, not all Bhutanese art confines itself to a visual rendition of the Buddha’s teachings. Thimphu, in fact, has some contemporary art galleries and artist communities that encourage and promote visual art that merges the modern with the traditional.
The Volunteer Artists’ Studio (VAST), a non-profit studio, was founded in 1998 by a group of classically trained artists who wanted to use traditional techniques to produce contemporary work. Today, they provide opportunities to the new and/or young generation of Bhutanese artists in contemporary art, promote their works, and also help them explore art as a serious vocation. Initiatives include art classes (and appreciation), art camps, workshops, international art exchange programmes, fairs, festivals, and exhibitions.
But what really sets VAST apart is their idea of ‘philanthropic art’. It means that while they consciously engage with modern thought they do so without ever compromising or forgetting the collective values so deeply rooted in Bhutanese culture. The young artists who come here are encouraged to develop a sense of community, social responsibility, empathy, creativity, and open-mindedness – through a variety of philanthropic activities.
And the people at VAST believe that art is a powerful tool to achieve this.
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