I do not know whether you find or lose yourself in Bhutan. The sounds you most often hear are the rustle of the leaves, the gurgling of the river, the slow rhythmic chants of the monks on the monasteries on the hill, and the song that plays in your head. - See more at: http://therucksacktraveller.blogspot.in/2016/01/the-bhutan-narrative.html#sthash.aMs79lzO.dpuf
Paro airport welcomes you with the embrace of mountains around you. That's the first sight that you see on disembarking. That, and the ever-smiling tomato-coloured faces of the Bhutanese children.
Paro is just almost as big as my college campus. There's a single main street, and small distributaries jutting out, containing the markets and the humble hotels. There are bridges under which the river flows. At the cost of sounding poetic, the mountains smile from a distance, sometimes revealing their snow caps. The shops are few, and portray a middle class contentment.
If you cross the bridge and walk a little further, you come across an old temple. They say it's 1200 years old. It may be less. It preserves the faith of the people in religion.
Paro itself sleeps by 9 p.m. Sleep comes early in the mountains. Perhaps it's because there is nothing much to do otherwise. But there is no sense of urgency. Everybody helps you, and people go about their own work which would give the illusory impression that they are busy (even if they are not occupied).
Never have I seen the people of a place so content with their life. They seem to want no development. They are happy living in the hills, in the small hamlet they call their town.
It was a clear day. The journey to the Chelela pass provided so many beautiful images that I wouldn't have minded if the destination were a little disappointing. It is even a great experience to stop the car and take a leak at a random corner in the hills. It's not often that the bathroom promises such freshness in the air you inhale.
We reached Chelela pass, and the mountains shone with all their magnificence. The snow capped peaks afar were as beautiful and unreachable as the happy memories of a long-lost love story.
During the descent, our driver very innocuously asked us if India has a king. He was very disappointed when we said it didn't. He was of the firm belief, like the rest of his countrymen, that the presence of the king prevents crime. How can India, being such a big country, not have one?
I broke my travelmate's glasses while attempting to take a photograph. The problem has been temporarily resolved though. Paro has two optical shops. The kinds you found twenty years ago in a small Indian town.
Tiger's Nest is said to be the main attraction here, and the biggest tourist draw. It is not a difficult trek really, but it's rather long. The trek ends at the monastery, which is the site where Guru Rinpoche is said to have reached on the back of a tiger and meditated.
Throughout the journey, I kept wondering as to why the Guru could not choose a more convenient place to meditate. But just when I reached the monastery, after a lot of huffing and puffing, I felt I knew the answer. You can see a waterfall from the monastery, probably flowing into the Paro river. The monastery, jutting out of the hill, overlooks the valley. There are two sounds - one of the tourists in their various languages, the other of the monks in their prayer language. Both would have been absent 1200 years ago. The place would have been eerily deserted. I guess the wise man can find salvation only in such quietude.
During our descent, we were the only people around. And then, I could only hear the rustle of the leaves. For the entire journey downward. I would stop at various intervals to take in the feeling. I had never felt tranquility from so close in my life. For an antisocial like me, it seemed a perfect place to set up a house. I kept looking at the monastery from below to visualize what it must have been for a man all those years ago to come and meditate here. Scary? Difficult? Serene? All of these? What was it that was revealed? Someday I wish to return here, or go to somewhere similar in search of peace. Till then, I shall keep traveling.
It had started raining and I had to see the Drukgyel Dzong, a 14th century ruined fortress. Drukgyel, I am told, means "Victory of the Druk". With the Dzong being absolutely run down, with not a soul in sight except me and no sound except the pitter patter of the raindrops, the place seemed haunted. I cannot write more here, since I am always scared of such places, and their memories. But notwithstanding all that, it is an experience which I recommend everyone should have, and if possible, in a way similar to mine.
Drukgyel Dzong - The ruined fortress
Thimphu, the capital, is an obvious way markedly different from the other places. To begin with, it is much larger than Paro, and a large part of the valley has been cleared of the vegetation to accommodate all the important administrative and commercial centres. Unlike Paro, which can be exhausted on foot, Thimphu has avenues, one ways and all such things befitting a capital city. However, the essential culture is retained in the architecture.
A good vantage point to see the valley is the Changangkha Lakhang. Sit on one of the benches and look down, breathing in the city. Drive across to Buddha Point, which is still under construction, where the huge statue of the Buddha looks over the city. Did you say Rio? There's something really serene and calm about the smile of the statue, which in turn lends a certain calmness to the entire atmosphere. Make a visit to the Memorial Chorten. It is the biggest Chorten in Bhutan; the queen mother built it in memory of her deceased sun. The square is surrounded by hills, and it is worth a visit.
The Takin is the national animal of the country. It is a harmless herbivore, with the appearance of a cross breed between a hippopotamus and a goat! The Yadkin reserve offers you the opportunity to say hello to the Takin.
Roam around Thimphu for the shopping; there are numerous shops lined along the main market area selling touristy paraphernalia. Make sure you bargain. Try exploring the city by walking around the main market area. Have momos at Zambala café. You’re lucky if you get a table by the window at the Ambient café; that’s another recommendation.
The Tiger’s Nest to be trekked at Paro has become the most popular sight in Bhutan due to its magnificent views. From Thimphu, there are similar treks to monasteries on the hills. They are often way lesser traversed than Tiger’s Nest. Treks to the Tango and Chagri (or Cheri) monasteries offer the same quietude (perhaps even more), the same dried-leaves-on-the-way trek, with the additional sound of the gurgling of the river. Tango and Cheri are located on two separate hills, though they are close by. Which means one has to trek twice. However, the trek is easier and shorter than Takhtsang.
While I was descending from the trek, Pema, our driver, suggested that we play a game of ‘Khuru’ by the river. It is a primitive version of the dart, with the aim being a piece of wood, and the prize being a piece of cloth to the winner. After the game, I stopped by the Wang Chhu river, just to sit on one of the rocks by the river and see it flow by. It felt like I had stopped there for an eternity, just to gaze at the river and the forests surrounding it like a protective parent.
The evening was spent walking around Thimphu. But I would recommend you to go to Taj Tashi for dinner. Believe me, it’s not a snobbish suggestion. If you wish to have good, authentic Bhutanese food at reasonable prices (Rs. 1,800 all inclusive for two), try Taj Tashi. And yes, they haven't paid me to write this here.
Make sure you drill it into the mind of your hotel manager that you will be late if you will be later than 9:30 p.m. in the evening, er, at night. Everything shuts, including your hotel, so make sure your manager has really understood you. I don’t wish you to have the same experience as I did. You don’t want to be banging your fists on the shutters, crying, “Hello, hello, hello. Is there anybody in there?”
It takes more than four hours to reach Punakha from Thimphu. Unlike other occasions, the route this time is not particularly pleasing to the eyes. There’s congestion, dust, repair work – all things that are offshoots of landslides primarily. Fantasies apart, the hills are not so easy to live in.
Our first stop on the way is the Dochula Pass. Hidden in the morning clouds are a hundred and eight Chortens. As one climbs up, there’s a panoramic view of the mountains. I knew we were getting late and there was quite some way to be covered, but I guess for some time I let such thoughts be. What is a vacation after all, if we follow routine? It was just nice to sit on the grass amidst the innumerable chortens, watching the clouds swaying above in agreement with my happiness.
We carried on to Punakha district, and stopped next at the Chimi Lakhang. The Lakhang is a popular religious reference point here in Bhutan. Chimi Lakhang is the fertility temple, consecrated in honour of the ‘Divine Madman’, who blessed couples with boons of fertility so that they could beget children. That the temple is the fertility temple is made a bit in-your-face obvious with images and structures of erect penises all over. This I suppose is the symbol of fertility. (Somehow, the penis seems to be quite an important symbol in another religion too). Pema says he too was blessed with his son after a visit here, and he comes every year with his family now. His son was named Kile Rabge, as the priest here told him to. Kile will turn three this year, and he loves cheese.
The Jacaranda tree flowers around this season in Punakha, and so all around the Lakhang, I saw purple spring flowers. This view was slighted by more imposing views of the purple-blue Jacaranda flowers at the Punakha Dzong a little later.
The Punakha Dzong is situated on the confluence of the Mother River (“Mo Chhu”) and the Father River (“Po Chhu”); the identification being of the father being fairer (no pun intended) than the mother. The fairer river being male is no coincidence – Bhutan is inherently a patriarchal country.
One enters the Dzong through the cantilever bridge overlooking the rivers, surrounded by hills. To enter the Dzong, which is one of the largest in Bhutan (and clearly the most impressive), you need to pass through the garden of Jacaranda trees, and the crowd of tourist-photographers. Inside there are huge temples dedicated to the many Buddhas and Bodhisattwas (Oh yeah!). There are administrative centers, hostels for monks, more temples. And there’s quietude.
We headed to our hotel – Punatshangchhu Cottages. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy on seeing a hotel room. But I have never before seen a room which overlooks the river, with the hills in the background, and the town that can be seen in the distance. I could open the broad window to step out of the room into the grass, which goes down to meet the river.
I’ve always had this dream of spending my life alone in a valley, overlooking the river, with the hills in the distance and civilization at a week’s length – I continue to have it. For this one evening, I get to live the dream. I read a few lines from my book but mostly stared outside. The urge to live a life in such a place grew stronger. I wish to grow old and die somewhere here, alone in a valley, overlooking the river, with the hills in the distance and civilization at a week’s length.
We were having dinner and there was a group of Maharashtrian tourists, led by their tour operators, Kesari. The tour operator had promised its clients ‘Aamras’ in Bhutan – there was aamras for dinner. I’m told their USP is providing Maharashtrian Poha to their clients under the Eiffel Tower. Depressed, I head back to my room to see the view once again, to take in a sight that will last me a lifetime, even if my dream doesn’t ultimately fructify.
It is in every sense a village, this place where I am staying today. Somewhere close to the Phobjikha valley. A small road leads to the cottage where we are to stay. Alongside the road there are a few small shops selling biscuits and chips. They cannot believe it that I bought junk food worth a hundred rupees – didn’t want to take chances.
My room on the second storey has the most basic look. It has wooden walls and a window that offers a view of the valley. The only meat available in this place is beef; thankfully I am not religious. There is a run-down Dzong just opposite the cottage. Very basic again, nothing impressive. But I’m told that this is the place where the young monks are trained. Despite the rustic look, there is something attractively simple about this place.
I have nothing much to write about the day. Except that I perhaps needed it. Away from all the touring, hidden away in a silent corner, watching the night descend quietly on the countryside. I guess sometimes one even needs a break from travelling while travelling.
The only thing on our agenda today was a ride to the Phobjikha valley. As we descended down to the plain land from the U-shaped valley, it offered a panoramic image, with violets (viola? What are those plants called?) on the ground. Lots and lots and lots of them. There are small brooks flowing along the narrow, winding road.
Pema got a log from somewhere, and within seconds he was ready with a Khuru dartboard. So the violet valley became our playground, with the brooks and flowers next to us, and the hills and a Dzong in the distance.
On our way back we stopped at the U-shaped valley. For another round of khuru. The Buddhist flags fluttered away, and there was the river below, and the hills afar. I had the ground to me – to build another imaginary house on.
Not finding lunch anywhere else, we returned to our cottage. The rest of the day was just spent reading Gabriel García Márquez’s short stories, and staring out on to the valley from my room. I tried some ‘Ara’ at dinner – the local drink here. They cautioned me against consuming too much, since it was apparently too strong. Nonsense!
This post was originally published on 'The Rucksack Traveller'.