The enchanting valley
For decades, Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist Kingdom, has remained an enigma. There was a time when it was hard to locate it on the map. It was only in 1974 that the country decided to open its arms to welcome global travellers. Soon enough tourists keen to know about its history, landscape and people, eagerly made their way into Bhutan.
The Himalayan Kingdom is a harmonious combination of peaceful oases, verdant valleys, idyllic forests, mystical monasteries, overwhelming architecture and happy people. The beauty and spectacular scenery of the country that has retained its cultural identity is such that the traveller-cum-spiritual seeker experiences tranquility, serenity and calmness in every corner.
A HIDDEN GEM
You cannot miss out on one of the most enchanting valleys of Bhutan — Haa Valley. Haa means hidden-ness. It is one of the least populated dzongkhag (districts) in the country. Blessed with dramatic landscape, it is amazingly impressive. Best of all, it is still isolated, un-spoilt, non-commercial and far from the madding crowd.
From the city of Paro, the way to Haa Valley is a slow ascent through winding roads amidst gorgeous forests and shrubberies. Enroute the valley, there are gorgeous hills, snowy caps, clusters of fluttering prayer flags, clear green mountain rivers, dense willows, rice terraces, vantage points for fascinating views of the valley and there you know that you have arrived at the stunning Chele La Pass. This pass is located at 3810m (13,000ft) and earns its fame for being the highest motorable pass in the country. The place has more prayer flags than I have ever seen. A small stopover is a must in order to soak up the heavenly views of the valley as well as the local tea.
WALK AROUND THE VALLEY
With all the beauty, freshness, gurgling streams, picturesque Haa Chu River, flourishing apple orchards and smiling people, a visit to Haa is also about getting a glimpse of the traditional roots of Bhutan. Also famous as ‘Hidden-Land Rice Valley’, this pure and pristine valley is steeped in history, culture and tradition.
While Haa Valley offers many one day hiking options, there are many short trails leading to monasteries too. The other major attractions are Lhakhang Karpo (White temple), Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple), the hanging bridge, apple orchards, the hill that looks like a horse, Drak temple and the Haa Chu River.
An early morning walk is a must do in Haa. There you will discover its true colours — cattle roaming around nonchalantly, pebbled streets, open fields, locals sitting idle or doing their daily chores, children going to school over small wooden bridges, gurgling streams, dogs trailing behind you. Last but not the least, your lungs will thank you for giving them a chance to breathe in the purest of air and your heart will love the sight of clouds hugging the mountains.
HOMESTAY AT HAA
It is said that homes reflect the personality of people. The simple, old but artistic homes at Haa give us some interesting insights into Bhutanese culture. If you wish to stay in an old, traditional home, you must visit the valley. Ever since, tourists started coming in, many Bhutanese homes have been restored to operate as homestays. I must talk about them because I was impressed to see how they have preserved traditional Bhutanese architecture, paintings, local cuisine, history and heritage and on the other hand, have also provided for modern amenities catering to the needs of global travellers. In between the renovated homes, you will easily find clusters of mud and wooden houses.
It is believed that King Songtsen Goenpo released one black and one white dove from his palace in Tibet. These doves flew into Bhutan and found their abode in Haa Valley. The two temples, one black and one white, were built where the doves had landed.
There are three mountains in Haa which are known as the three brother hills (Miri Punsum) of Haa. They are believed to be three great bodhisattvas — Mañjur, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. It would be hard to believe now but in the pre-Buddhist era, Haa Valley was known for its animalistic rituals and tradition. Animal blood was offered to the deities. Phola Mansang Chungdud or in short Ap Chungdud is known as the guardian deity of Haa Valley. Any mention of the valley remains incomplete without talking about him.
Remember to get your special route permit for your trip to Haa Valley in addition to the regular permit.
CITIES YOU MUST EXPLORE
If you ask me about Bhutanese cities, Thimphu and Paro come first to mind. As I ponder further, I also insist on Punakha for river camping and adventure sports. If you are doing a road trip from India (Bagdogra to Phuentsholing), you may visit the capital Thimphu first. If you choose to fly, Paro will be your entry point which is the sole international airport among the four airports of the kingdom. The upper Paro valley is famous among hikers for Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
(The author is a travel writer and blogger and shares her experiences on www.manjulikapramod.com)