The landing is surreal. One minute we are amidst the fluffy clouds and Himalayan peaks, next, we seem to be heading for a collision with the tiny settlements along the slopes. Finally, with a steep descent, we get on the narrow runway at Paro Airport. As I register the anxiety and relief of my co-passengers, I can fathom why this sole international airport in the landlocked mountain Kingdom of Bhutan is regarded as one of the most challenging places for take-offs and landings in the aviation world.
The minute we step out of the aircraft, sleek smartphones and fancy cameras jostle for space, to capture the rugged beauty of the terrain. The selfie smiles are infectious. After all, we are in the happiest place on earth - a country that considers Gross National Happiness more significant than Gross Domestic Product!
This is my maiden trip to Bhutan, and that too on work, on a tight schedule. Touristy pleasures are out of the question. Yet, I'm hooked. Perhaps, it has something to do with the crisp air of Paro, or the dancing raindrops at Thimphu. Even before I reach my destination, I'm in love. Truly, madly, deeply.
The drive from Paro airport to Punakha is a good four hours. So, we stop at Thimphu, the capital city, for lunch. After the scorching summer experience in India, the weather in this Eastern Himalayan neighbourhood is pure bliss. And it only gets better as we drive up the slopes through dense rhododendron forests to reach the Dochula Pass - located at an altitude of over 3,000 metres above sea level. Even on a heavily overcast, foggy day, the view from the top is absolutely awe-inspiring!
What makes Bhutan such a happy place? I ask Dechen Wangmo, a public health consultant, as she drives us to Punakha. Buddhist teachings are deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche of Bhutan, says Dechen. More than happiness, it's a sense of contentment that defines the ethos. However, with the advent of the internet and access to social media, she adds, things are changing.
Despite that, Bhutan has the distinction of being the only remaining Buddhist Kingdom in the world. Fluttering prayer flags and prayer wheels dot the small, but beautiful land. You sense an innate goodness in people, not yet corrupted by the ways of modern living.
When was the last time a bellboy lugged your bags with a smile and song on his lips, without expecting a tip? Well, it happens in Punakha. In my case, it is not a bellboy, but a girl. Given that it's fairly expensive to build an elevator in mountain properties, most hotels in Bhutan don't have that luxury. So, this petite girl, in a kira (the traditional ankle-length dress of Bhutanese women), helps me with my luggage, as I huff and puff behind her, struggling on those oh-so-steep stairs.
Nonetheless, the aches and pains vanish as soon as I open the balcony in my room to witness the most gorgeous sight I've ever seen! The Punakha Dzong (fortress) in all its glory, surrounded by misty mountains and every possible shade of green. With a hot cup of tea for company, I make myself comfortable for a happy rendezvous with nature. For once, flaky Wi-Fi network is a blessing.
A thing of beauty
Located in a lower valley, Punakha is warmer than the rest of Bhutan. It was the capital of the kingdom until the 1960s, and now serves as the winter capital of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan). At the confluence of the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers stands one of the most remarkable landmarks of the country - the Punakha Dzong, also known as the Palace of Great Happiness.
Located on an island, the ancient fortress serves as the religious and administrative centre of the region. It has been the venue for the coronation of Bhutan's kings as well as the royal wedding (of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyeal Wangchuck with commoner Ashi Jetsun Pema) in 2011 that garnered much world-media attention.
You don't have to be a history buff to appreciate this dzong's significance in Bhutan's regal past. As Dawa Penjor, a young Bhutanese man who has travelled the world, regales me with fascinating tales of the revered eighth-century sage of Vajrayana Buddhism, Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche), I'm transported to another world. There's something about the imposing architecture, intricate woodwork, and art treasures housed here that simply uplift your spirit.
For those who seek adventure, river rafting is worth a try. If you are an amateur, go downstream the gentle River Mo Chhu; seasoned rafters will enjoy the thrills of River Pho Chu. Not too far from the dzong, there's a well-known suspension bridge that offers mind-blowing views of the fertile valley. There we bump into a group of photography enthusiasts from India, armed with tripods and DSLRs, ready to capture the perfect sunset. Though, I doubt any camera will be able to do justice to that view.
There's so much to see and a whole new world to experience in Bhutan - the legendary Taktsang Monastery (or Tiger's Nest) hike in Paro, Tshechu - a religious event famed for its mask dances, red rice cultivation in Limbukha, the local brewery in Bumthang, renowned handwoven fabrics, traditional hot stone bath ritual...
I'm definitely coming back. It'll be fun to learn some more words in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. For now, in my vocabulary, I have tashi delek (Tibetan greeting), ema datshi (chilli & cheese), kewa datsi (potato and cheese), and shamu datsi (mushroom and cheese). Yes, the Bhutanese love cheese; Italians have some tough competition. I also need to find out what the Bhutanese have for dessert. During my four-day stay, all I got was watermelon and bananas. More than anything else, I'll be back in Bhutan for that elusive butterfly. Because, as Nathaniel Hawthorne puts it, 'Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.'
Paro International Airport is the sole airport that connects Bhutan to destinations such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Guwahati, Bodh Gaya, Dhaka, Kathmandu and Singapore.
Best time to visit
March-May (spring) & September-December (autumn).
Government regulations need travellers to book through a Bhutanese tour operator or international partner.
Indian passport holders are eligible for visa on arrival.