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Bhutan beckoned me for its enigma and its elusiviness. This mountain kingdom had cautiously opened up to tourists only as recently as 1972. Considering that almost all of the rest of the world had roads, trains and even flights in the fifties, how arduous a journey must it have beeen to travel within this secluded kingdom!
Bhutan has its own reasons to protect its unique culture and the fragile eco-system. Norman Myers in 1988 considered Bhutan to be one of the ten bio-diversity hotspots in the world. Budhhism is a way of life for the Bhutanese. With no manufacturing industries or rapid development that could harm the environment, emphasis is given to agriculture and high-end tourism.
Indian engineers built the first road in 1962 and since then ponies, mules and yaks have given way to sleek Toyotas, Marutis and Hyundais.
Bhutan has a very low GDP (Gross Development Product) per capita, but is “ranked among the happiest nations in the world.” The recent film release Lunchbox made reference to Bhutan as an idyll, distributing happiness on its residents—the land of “Gross National Happiness.” This term was coined by the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s in response to the world going crazy about GNP (Gross National Product). The United Nations has bought into this vision, and marked March 20 as the International Day of Happiness Day, in 2013 at the behest of the King of Bhutan, who marketed the idea of happiness as essential to sustained development.
The adventure, I’ve read, begins on the airplane itself, for landing at Paro airport is very challenging. A narrow runway, on the banks of river Paro Chhu at an elevation of 7,300 feet, is surrounded by lofty mountain peaks towering at 18,000 feet. Landing and take-off are often disrupted by strong winds blowing across the valley. The irony is that one of the most beautiful airports with its terminal building looking like a heritage fortress with impressive dzong architecture is considered the most dangerous in the world. Only a few pilots are trained to handle the Airbuses painted with lovely yellow dragons on its wings. We were lucky not to face this ordeal but when we saw our Airbus A319 plummeting at a steep angle through the narrow channel between the mountains, we held our breaths.
You can fly into Paro International Airport, but only on Druk Air, the royal kingdom’s official aircraft. It is the country’s only direct link to the world and keeps Bhutan connected, but in the most Bhutanese way.
We were on a week-long trip, which was to culminate with a trek to the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery built in 1692, on a steep cliff, by Gyalse Tensin Rabaye. The itinerary was designed so that our bodies could acclimatize to the high altitude and we could get accustomed to walking through the hilly terrain across Bhutan before taking on the ultimate challenge of trekking to Tiger’s Nest, also known as the Paro Taktsang Monastery.
Chillies and Intestines
So straight from the airport we went to the weekend market to have a glimpse of the chief ingredients that go into Bhutanese cuisine. There were the usual suspects of potatoes, beans, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, sour cheese, dried brinjal and dried fish.
There were lots and lots of chillies, the country’s staple vegetable. The ear mushrooms, dried persimmon and fiddlehead ferns looked exotic but what caught my attention was a dark brown, tubular, rope like objects. I squirmed, and my kids peered over my shoulders, curious to look at what had so offended their mom. It turned out to be the dried intestines of cows, a snack to go with tea. They definitely looked hideous. I moved towards the wafting swirling mist of incense and felt the urgency to buy some.
Land of Thunder Dragon
After lunch we headed towards Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Norzin Lam is the main thoroughfare in Thimphu where you can feel the pulse of the city. It is buzzing with locals and you get to see trendy and hip youngsters aping the latest Korean fashions. Ambient Café is a happening place to see the hustle and bustle of the street below. Take a sip of their delicious coffee with carrot cake, munch grilled sandwiches and you’ll be tempted to pen a haiku in this ambience.
The people are friendly and laidback, and their “cool quotient’” makes up for any lassitude encountered. In Bhutan, it’s a delight to watch women in the forefront, whether manning shops or managing the hotels. It’s interesting to note that they are a visible and public face of the workforce.
I talked to some travelers from the United States and Hong Kong who recounted how they were often harassed in the Indian subcontinent but Bhutan was like a whiff of fresh air. No one stared curiously at their brown hair or pale skin or tried to fleece them at the marketplace. Bhutan is a place where a woman can travel alone and without any fear.
This tiny Himalayan kingdom is replete with myths and legends, ancient spirits, Buddhist teachings, deities and demons. So don’t shoo away the barking dogs for they are respected for chasing the spirits at night, according to my guide Yashi Dorj. Yes, Buddhism permeates every walk of life. The diehard belief in Bhutan is the triumph of good over evil and this has ostensibly kept the people honest and contented to a large extent.
In the 1970s Bhutan was referred to as “The last Shangrila” and then later by the title, “The Land of Thunder Dragon.” Historically, the Tibetans called Bhutan the “Lho Mon,” which meant the dark southland. The reason was the practice of animalistic rituals by the Bhutanese while the neighboring Tibetans practiced the Buddhist tenet of Ahimsa (non-violence) that shunned killing of animals in the name of religion. Tibetans had considered the Bhutanese ignorant and had invaded Bhutan several times but the Bhutanese always managed to drive them away.
In Paro I could see youngsters in trendy clothes rubbing shoulders with maroon robed monks and people attired in their national dress of “gho” and “kira.” There are cars but its purchase is regulated lest they cause pollution. And the cutting of trees have to be officially sanctioned. Everywhere in Bhutan one tends to see a balance.
One of Bhutan’s strongest and strategic fortresses Rinpung Dzong in Paro, was first built in the 10th century by Guru Padmasambhava as a monastery. As Paro stands strategically in the center of two most important trade routes to Tibet, it was strengthened as a fortress. Built in stone on a rocky outcrop of the hill overlooking the Paro valley it is also the area’s administrative center. It houses a big collection of masks and religious costumes some dating back to centuries. “Rinpung” meaning “heaps of jewels” is said to have all the jewels destroyed in a fire. Only a “thangka” (a painting on fabric depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala of some sort) could be saved. It was rebuilt in 1907.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, and we were able to watch a league match at a local club in Paro. The archers wore the traditional “gho” but with brand-name, western shoes and using expensive high-tech bows.
Trekking to the Nest
I was eager to see the iconic Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery, carved into the cliffside near Paro, but my heart was almost in my mouth on the journey up. The horse I rode had the unpleasant tendency to walk at the very edge of the rugged pathway. The sheer fall of the cliff into the bottomless valley had my nerves on edge. What if the horse missed a step or lost its balance under my weight? All my prayers to Budha and muttering the name of the horse handler stood me in good stead. The harassed Prenjo, the horse’s owner, had a tough time convincing me not to worry. The friendly chap kept his cool throughout with a smile on his face—a trait I found in many Bhutanese.
The trek to the Taktsang monastery also made up for the spectacular view of the Himalayan ranges we missed from the aircraft due to a veil of mist over them. It was refreshing to see the Paro valley below enveloped in lush greenery.
We came across prayer flags—red, blue, green, yellow and white flags fluttering in the strong breeze throughout the trek. The Buddhist believe that the mantras inscribed on the prayer flags are transmitted across the land by the blowing wind.
The Tiger’s Nest clings to a sheer 3000 m high rock face. Appearing to defy the law of gravity, it balances itself pretty well. It looks awesome and enigmatic no matter which angle you choose to admire this imposing structure. For the camera toting tourists it’s a dream come true going click-click after every few steps.
Depending on your fitness and stamina it takes 2-4 hours to ascend and the same amount of time to descend the monastery, with an hour to spend while inside the Tiger’s Nest.
Almost mid-way up the journey is Taktsang Cafeteria, where you can rest, while sipping hot beverages on the way up and have a hearty Bhutanese meal at Rs 420 per person ($7) while coming down. For all the walking you do, the set buffet meal of Ema Datshi (chillies with cheese), Kewa Datshi (potatoes with cheese), chowmein, spinach, Bhutanese red rice and a fiery chillies pickle taste superb. The chillies are used as a staple vegetable and the red rice is quite unique to Bhutan.
In the Nest
The monastery is grand with ornate designs, paintings and colors. The legend says that Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew on the back of a tiger from Tibet and holed up here for meditation. He is credited to have brought Mahayana Budhism to Bhutan and is the most revered Guru here.
The monks in their robes go about their daily work across the spacious courtyard. All the frayed nerves seem to calm down in these peaceful surroundings. One feels in sync with oneself. The meandering Paro Chhu flowing across the Paro valley (originating from the revered Chomolahri range) looks stunningly beautiful from the dzong.
There are four connecting temples at different levels within the structure. Deep inside is a cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated. There was a sense of freedom and peace within the cave. The monastery is said to be one of the highest temples in the world
We were told that come spring this dzong comes alive with religious dancers wearing masks and elaborate costumes known as the Paro Tsechu. Organized on the tenth day of a lunar month in the spring, different religious festivals are held for five days. While locals flock to partake in religious fervor, the tourists love it for the unique photo opportunity it presents.
The ancient watchtower that looms on the hill above the dzong looks tiny from its spacious courtyard but is actually a tall structure. Converted into the National museum in 1967, it was under renovation while we were there. Amidst the collection of masks, thangkas, religious items and other things of significance what caught our eyes were old pictures of Pandit Nehru and his daughter.
On the Way Down
Much to my relief, while descending we had to compulsorily walk down for the horses tended to slip in the steep slope. Though it is a relentless downhill trudge, and even though my feet ached and toes turned blue, I was happy to be on my own two reliable feet.
After the arduous trek to Taktsang monastery, all us tourists at the Metta Resort sat by a large bonfire watching the locals perform Bhutanese folk songs. The cool night, crackling firewood and the rising flames made a spectacular sight.
Bhutan is transforming, but at its own pace, and on its own terms. It is still a road less traveled for its policy of low volume high quality tourism. It dissuades many travelers due to the prohibitive cost of $250 per person per night. Though the cost is all inclusive of meals, accommodation, permit fees, transportation and guides, Bhutan could never be done on the average backpacker budget.
With two-thirds of Bhutan covered with forests, the pollution-free clean mountain air worked as magic on a city-weary soul like me. It is truly the last shangrila with its colorful dzongs (structures with Buddhist origins), serene monasteries and pristine surroundings. No doubt, the Tiger’s Nest is one of the significant contributors to the happiness index in Bhutan!
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.