DAYS AT THE TINY, ENIGMATIC KINGDOM OF BHUTAN
KUZUZANGBO LA (“Hello in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan)
I started travelling to the Himalayan region in 2005 with my first trip to Tibet. I got a taste of the Buddhist way of life up close and personal, and fell in love with it. In the years to follow I returned to Tibet two more times, and visited Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, India and Thailand. One last place where Buddhism is prominent remained on my bucket list until now: the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
My curiosity about Bhutan heightened when I read about its philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and even more so when I met an young Bhutanese who spoke so proudly of his country’s eco friendly stands and determination to protect its cultural fabric.
But Bhutan’s adherence to a policy of “low high-value, low-impact tourism”, with its strict rules and expenses, was a downer for someone like me who embraces solo, independent travelling as the desirable way to visit a country and get a true view of its people and culture. Eventually, I came to understand that the
strict travelling rules were intertwined with Bhutan’s sustainable approach to tourism and foreign influence. So, here I am, kind of biting the bullet, as I embark on a tailored, all-inclusive tour with a set and expensive daily fee by independent travelers’ standard. THE JOURNEY:
The planning for this journey started with the booking of yet another free ticket using frequent flier miles, meaning I was in for a very long journey, with 5 stops, in 4 countries. I left home at 4:50am on Friday to arrive in Bhutan on Sunday at 11am.
There is only one airline allowed to fly to and from the small kingdom: Druk Airlines. Check in was fast and efficient and I got the last window seat on the left side of the plane, to get the best views of the impressive Himalaya.
Within an hour of the bumpy flight, a delicious breakfast was served (putting any American airline to shame, with their pretzels and peanuts): yummy noodles with tofu and a green vegetable, fresh fruit salad with papaya, dragon fruit and pineapple, yogurt, croissant, and a dessert. The crew was super polite, on the flight that had
only 9 Westerners, including me.
A quick stop at a town in North India and soon the majestic Himalaya could be seen. I have seen it flying over Tibet and Nepal, but its beauty never ceases to amaze me.
We landed on the small and only airport in Bhutan, in the city of Paro. Changed a few dollars and headed out to be greeted with a white scarf by the guide and the driver who were to spend all the upcoming days with me. With the clock ticking and no time to waste, I relied on pure adrenaline to get going and start exploring Bhutan on a few miserly hours of sleep in 3 nights. PARO:
We headed to PARO, a very small valley town, which I would not necessarily describe as charming, at first, but in time, got to see that charm goes beyond physical beauty.
Dzongs are fort like structures which houses both monastery and government offices. The Paro Dzong was of beautiful architecture, with colorful woodwork and wall paintings similar to Tibetan monasteries. But I visited it on Sunday, and it felt pretty empty, with no workers and the very few monks.
I actually enjoyed the Dzong more from the outside, after crossing the traditional Bhutanese bridge over the river, steering at the lovely view from the river bank.
We walked to the outdoor weekend market. Quite small and with a limited variety of products, ranging from vegetables, fruit, and herbs, to powdered incense. A small area sold monastery horns.
Men wearing the traditional clothing“Gho and women the”Kira”. Teeth tinted red by the chewing of bettle-nut wasn’t charming. The sky was blue, the temperature surprisingly warm, and after a stroll we headed to a restaurant used to catering to travelers. A variety of dishes, enough to feed a family, was put in front of me, and by my request all were vegetarian and chili free. Red rice, delicious pumpkin, green vegetables, mushroom soup, and fried bread. All very tasty.
Living Paro, we stopped to watch a group of men wearing the traditional dress GHO, playing a game of darts. Very interesting, as the 2 teams sang, danced, and got colorful scarves around their belts as they scored.
We headed to the capital. See it on the next blog.
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