Bhutan’s Birds from Heaven

by Bhutan

In late 2019, our Digital Marketing Communications Manager, Mary Eden, embarked on a tour through the Kingdom of Bhutan. This feature finds her in Phobjikha Valley – an area of unspeakable beauty in central Bhutan…

The sacred valley of Phobjikha is dotted with clusters of hundreds of white fluttering prayer flags – planted by relatives when their loved ones died to guide and protect the soul as it moves toward the next life.

But look closely and on the wide, flat swampy valley floor are distant black and white shapes – these are the sacred black-necked cranes. Known locally as ‘thrung thrung kam’, they are considered by the Bhutanese to be holy messengers and heavenly birds. Each winter the people of the valley await the return of these auspicious birds as they migrate here from Tibet.

I arrived at the Phobjikha Valley after a journey of many hours via the ‘National Highway’ – a two lane road that twists and turns through valleys, mountains and dense pine forests – sometimes paved, other times dirt road.

Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

My first sighting of the valley was from the 17th century Gangtey Monastery. Set on a hill overlooking the valley this majestic white stucco building with tiered wooden roofs seems deserted. We were the only people there except for a few workmen repairing the crumbling walls, and several maroon-clad monks meandering through on the way to their quarters.

Bhutan Gangtey Monastery
Bhutanese Buddhists walk three times clockwise around their monasteries and monuments as a form of pilgrimage and meditation, and to gain merit. It is said that when the cranes arrive in Bhutan each year, they circle three times around the Gangtey Monastery before flying into the valley. Then at the end of the winter as they leave, they do the same. It is another spiritual connection between the Bhutanese and the birds.

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Bhutan Phobjikha Valley village

From the monastery we set off on a hike down into the valley. The trail took us through small hamlets of traditional houses and farms. Past grazing cows, white-stucco shrines and chiming prayer wheels. In the middle of a field we came across a fire pit and a rustic hot stone bath dug into the ground – used by the villagers in the cold winter months. Find out more in the video above!

Bhutan Black-necked cranes
By the time we got further into the valley, the sun was starting to go down. All of sudden the sky filled with flocks of these magnificent four-foot tall birds making their way back to the valley floor for the night. As they swooped down, their high-pitched cries echoed through the valley.
Bhutan blceck-necked cranes visitor centre
On the far side of the valley we reached the Black-necked Crane Visitor Centre, home to ‘Karma’, an injured crane. There are also telescopes to view the valley and exhibits about the environment and the cranes.
Black necked crane festival Bhutan
The winter months are a great time to visit the Phobjikha Valley, not just for sightings of these rare birds, but also for the Black-necked Crane Festival, held every November in the courtyard of the ancient Gangtey Monastery. Performers wearing black and white costumes and ornately carved masks imitate the graceful movements of the cranes. This the chance for the locals and monks to celebrate the arrival of this endangered and majestic bird.

(Image: natgeotraveller.in)

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