A feeling called Bhutan

A feeling called Bhutan

Travel tales

A feeling called Bhutan

Few things prepare you for the final sighting of the Taktsang Lhakhang or the Tiger’s Nest monastery as it perches precariously on the edge of a cliff in the Upper Paro Valley. Like most iconic backpacker hotspots, the sight imprints itself permanently on your mind.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the closed, narrow and slippery climb into the holiest of the holies — the Pel Phuk or the cave in which Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan, is said to have meditated. While the Pel Phuk is humble in its simplicity (it has a picture of the Guru and a couple of butter lamps), this was as close as I could come to experiencing the soul of Bhutan’s holiest site.
The Land of the Thunder Dragon (Druk Yul) has a way of surprising you at every turn. It happens to be one of the cleanest countries you could visit, despite its proximity to India. The difference is so stark that you only have to stand at the border between Phuentsholing and Jaigaon to notice the difference.

Bhutan also happens to have some of the most courteous people you could meet. They are childlike in their curiosity, taking pains to never utter a harsh word. Their innate courtesy extends even to their traffic sense. We hardly ever heard a honk on the widely- spaced Thimphu roads and cars gently slow down for pedestrians to cross the road. The Bhutanese also happen to be very good- looking people — this has as much to do with their looks as with their sense of grooming. Their national dress, the ‘gho’ (for men) and the ‘kira’ (for women), which reminds you of a stylised kimono, only adds to their sense of dignity.

If these sound like the words of a love-struck traveller, they very well are. There was only one aspect that put us off – the ‘Doma’, a Bhutanese ‘paan’, which carries a stink so pervasive, we had to roll down the windows of our car to avoid feeling nauseous.

Thimphu is a charming city and it took us barely half a day to cover all of its high streets. But it’s a city that doesn’t lack character. The majestic Tashichho Dzong, which is the seat of the Government, impresses with its sense of peace and calm, not to forget with its aesthetics too. Bordered with cherry blossoms, the Dzong (fortress, palace) itself is beautifully located on the banks of a river, connecting the other side of Thimphu with an ornate wooden bridge that seemed to have come straight out of the middle ages.

The flag lowering ceremony at the Dzong entranced us with its sense of drama. That’s because the ceremony is not just military but religious too, with Buddhist monks chanting sacred verses as the flag is lowered by soldiers and taken back into the Palace.

Religion and tradition are woven into the very fibre of Bhutanese culture, but don’t let that trick you into thinking that the Bhutanese are upright killjoys. Thimphu has its fair share of Western-style entertainment and we spent pleasant evenings in the company of friendly bar owners, eating delectable burgers and downing the excellent Bumthang-brewed Red Panda Weiss. Live entertainment is also not lacking, with talented Bhutanese youngsters playing original covers and popular rock tunes in spacious bars, that lent themselves as naturally to music as to lively conversations with strangers.

Paro, Bhutan’s second city, is a study in contrast, situated amidst virgin Bhutanese natural beauty. A charming market-lined road led us to our homestay where we were treated to simple Bhutanese village food, including the tasty national dish ‘Ema Datshi’ or chillies with cheese (yak or Amul, depending on availability). Chillies, you must know, are not treated as a spice in Bhutan but as a vegetable.

After enjoying the national museum and the imposing Rinpung Dzong, we spent much of the afternoon and evening lazily wandering around the charming yet urbane Paro market, enjoying the Western-style cafes and bakeries. Mind you, there is no chaos. The roads are widely spaced and the market itself is located next to a river, bordered by mountain vistas as far as the eye can see.

It’s no cliche why Bhutan is more of a feeling, and less of a country. This feeling of happiness for no apparent reason is what we took back with us as we returned to civilisation.
How to get there

We took a connecting flight from Bengaluru to Bagdogra via Kolkata which cost us Rs 15,000 for a round trip. We then hired a taxi to take us to Phuentsholing, the border town in Bhutan. You can also take a flight (Druk Air) directly into Paro from Kolkata or Delhi, which gives you visa on arrival.

Where to stay

* In Phuentsholing, we stayed at Hotel Sinchula. The rooms cost Rs 1,500 per night.
* In Thimphu, we stayed at Hotel Khamsum Inn which cost Rs 3,300 per night.
* In Paro, we stayed at Aum Om Homestay which cost Rs 3,000 per night.

(The author can be contacted on phalgunr@gmail.com)

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