This article appeared in DigitalSLR Photography magazine and Aperture Magazine on the month of December 2014. This article is reproduced in whole with the consent of DigitalSLR Photography and Aperture Magazines.
This is no ordinary place — it’s a Himalayan kingdom holding many mysterious stories for you to discover and magical landscapes for you to shoot! Photographers will have the chance to take snapshots of snowcapped peaks rise above shadowy gorges cloaked in primeval forests. If you’re searching for ‘Shangri La’ from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, then Bhutan is as close as it gets.
GET ON BOARD
Since Bhutan opened up their ‘doors’ about 10 years ago they have been limiting the number of tourists into the country, but lately the country is welcoming to more visitors. Our trusty travel guide, Maxby Chan told us that Bhutan has always been a reclusive and a land of mystery, which is why he listed this country on his bucket list. Well, he can certainly cross Bhutan off his list now as he just came back from a tremendous trip to Bhutan earlier this year!
“It’s great to discover Bhutan and since it is still at an early stage where they are welcoming more visitors, the country is still not tourist-shocked yet. Bhutan is nestled in the beautiful Himalayas — expect a mixture of stunning landscapes, exotic monasteries clinging impossibly and precariously on ledges hewn out of sheer cliffs, as well as various people interest shot opportunities,” Maxby said.
Alas, there is no direct flight to Bhutan from Malaysia but Maxby have recommended Drukair, which flies out directly to Paro International Airport from Singapore once every week. But there is another alternative to make your way to Bhutan, which is to enter the country via Kathmandu — a much cheaper alternative than the direct flight, but only if you’re comfortable flying in a propeller plane.
Paro International Airport is the country’s only airport that is located in the beautiful Paro valley — one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan with its slate-roofed farmhouses, graceful willow trees, and rushing glacial river beneath snow-covered peaks. Maxby said the moment you land the breath of clear and crisp clear mountain air will fill your lungs and will be awed at the forested ridges and imposing monasteries, all the while being welcomed by friendly Bhutanese people in their striking national dress.
WAY OF LIFE
Bhutan holds many surprises — it is where monasteries are part of the mainstream, and where giant protective art in the form of a willy is painted beside the entrance to many houses. It’s not easy to miss that the people here strongly uphold its Buddhist traditions.
Buddhism has been the pre dominant religion in Bhutan since the seventh century and has rooted deeply the value that all forms of sentient life – not just human life – are sacred. The country is surrounded by nature environment that seems untouched at all; the Bhutanese treasure their natural environment, as it is seen as a source of all life and abode to the gods and spirits.
Maxby also mentioned that the population of Bhutanese people only mounts up to about 700,000. And if you’ve been following us on many destinations for the past 6 months you might have noticed that one Maxby’s favourite location to learn more about the country’s culture is by exploring the local markets and bazaar.
“It is fascinating to watch local people in their traditional dress and going about their day in a typically unhurried Bhutanese way. I would also recommend to walk through the farms and villages nearby as you might have more photo opportunities there as well as an insights into the Bhutanese rural lives,” he recommended.
Other than that, Maxby said that the Memorial Chorten is another place that photographers wouldn’t want to miss. It is located in the country’s capital Thimpu, which is about an hour drive away coming from Paro. The temple is built in 1974 in memory of the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchunk.
“Local residents flock here in the morning to chant their daily prayers as they walk clockwise around the chorten (temple), while spinning prayer wheels as they pass fragrant columns of smoke from smoldering juniper branches that carry a stream of prayers to the mountain deities,” Maxby said.
NOT TO BE MISSED
One of the reasons that many people visit Bhutan is to see the famous Takstang Monastery or also known as the Tiger’s Nest — perched on the side of a cliff 900mm above the floor of Paro valley. There’s actually an interesting story behind the Tiger’s Nest: Bhutanese believe that the great Buddhist saint and teacher, Padmasambhva – who brought Buddhism to Bhutan – flew to the site of the monastery from Tibet on the back of a tigress, hence its name.
“Unfortunately we will not be able to use a flying tiger, the only way to get to the Tiger’s nest is to hike two hours uphill, or maybe ride a rented horse, which is also an option,” Maxby laughs as he said this.
“It is definitely worth seeing the monastery when you’re in Bhutan because it’s just amazing — I dare say it is one of the many wonders of the world! When you really think about it, can you imagine how they manages to build a whole monastery beautifully on a cliff 400 years ago?” he added.
Photographer should also be on the lookout for various dzongs (fortess) around in Bhutan, which is usually built on strategic points to serve as an effective defence against an attack or invasion. But today the Dzongs are the seats of district administrations and house the offices of the civil authority. Maxby named a few that he highly urges photographers to visit including Tashichko Dzong (Thimpu), Punakha Dzong (Punaka), and Rinpung Dzong (Paro).
And if you ever find yourself in Thimpu, which is only an hour drive away from Paro, don’t miss out on seeing the Buddha Dordenma Statue — at a height of 51.5 meters, it is one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world and it is also made of bronze and is gilded in gold.
“The Buddha Dordenma is located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the statue that’s also been cast in bronze and gilded!” Maxby enthused.
DOs & DONTs
– Bhutan is just opening up to visitors. Tourist facilities are minimal. Be prepare to rough it out
– There are a lot of trekking to do as most places are an hour or two’s trek to reach
– Most locals are on vegetarian diet. Meat is imported from India. Local food is rather blend and contains little meat.
– Accommodation is good but not great. In some places, one has to put up with basic accommodation facilities. If you are going on a couple of days’ trek, be prepared to stay in tents.
– There are lots of people and landscape scenes to shoot. Festival time is the best if you want to shoot events. The people and children are very friendly and they will pose for you if you ask.
– Do not be afraid to engage the locals in conversation even if you have to use sign language. Some of the locals can speak English.
– Try to understand the Bhutanese culture. You have to witness for yourself why this place is called the land of Happiness and its wealth is measured by the Happiness Index.
– Bring an extra camera body if you have. It is not easy to find someone to repair your camera here.
– Bring lenses from ultra wide to a tele-zoom of about 200mm. This will cover most shooting situations.
– If you intend to trek around Bhutan, then you need to downscale your camera equipment.
– Polarisers (CPL) and GND filters are great for landscape.
– Bring along some warm clothing. The temperature drops over the highlands.
– It may rain during the trip so be prepared with your raincoats or umbrellas.
– Bring some small gifts like toys, sweets, stationeries, or even and Instax camera for the people and children you meet during the trip. You will never know how easy it is to open the social doors.
– Spend time to “smell the flowers” do not rush into a photo taking frenzy at the first opportunity.
– Most important is to bring your humour, do not leave this at home. Very often, things will not go according to plan. Accept it as part of the photography adventure.
Photosafari is organising another photography trip to Bhutan from 17-25th October 2015. This time we will be traversing from West (Paro) to the East of Bhutan. October is also autumn in this Himalayan land. One will witness the beautiful autumn colors along the route. This trip also coincides with the Mask Dance Festival at Jakar. If you are interested in this photosafari trip please email: Maxby Chan
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