Welcome to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
This unbelievably cool thing is often the first thing you hear when you land in Bhutan. Just as you are stepping out of your Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines aeroplane into the chilly morning or at most noon of Paro International Airport.
You’ll be greeted with fresh, clean and chilly air and the stunning imagery of beautiful mountains across the wide and empty runway (save for the few aircrafts) to your left and a two storied Airport building to your right. Beautifully decorated windows and columns greet you there, a design that you will see on almost every single structure in this country.
But wait a minute. How am I so particular about the airlines and timing of your flight?
Its because these two are the only airlines that operate in Bhutan. Because most activity in this airport happens in these early hours. Paro International Airport is situated between two rows of mountains. Earlier, right before the awe-inspiring welcome line, you also would have had the most awe-inspiring descent into an airport ever.
If you were lucky enough to get a window seat, you would have noticed the plane slowly descend between the two rows of mountains. You’d have noticed that it flies for quite a while with its wingtips actually below the tips of the surrounding mountains. Until touchdown. Only two airlines and a handful of pilots are licensed to do this descent (or climb, on your way out).
A Warm Welcome
Crossing immigration and getting your luggage is a breeze. The friendliness of the officers should give you an idea of how the general population is. Depending on the circumstances of your travel, you may be met with either a guide (if you booked a tour from your travel agent) or other people if you are here on official purpose.
Your guide will most likely greet you by placing a small translucent scarf around your neck, much like an orna. You will most likely depart immediately to the capital, Thimphu town. Don’t worry, you’ll get to see Paro again in detail later. Most travel packages work like that. You arrive at Paro, go straight to Thimpu and tour it, then come back to tour Paro and finally fly back.
A Beautiful Journey
They say the journey is as important as the destination. Nothing else will make you believe this more. You’ll travel on beautiful mountain roads following a fast flowing river. Its beautiful simply to look at; the clarity of the water lets you see the rocks in the riverbed. The roads are smooth enough for you to fall asleep in the coach you will be traveling in, but I would suggest not to. The river and the mountains are so beautiful that the view deserves to be taken in. If you want to take pictures, you won’t really be able to get your fingers off the camera. I couldn’t. Every second I saw a view good enough to be a computer wallpaper.
The Capital Town
You may have wondered why the capital city was called Thimphu “Town”. You won’t be wondering that once you’ve explored the place. I once asked a friend about whether a certain famous restaurant was close to the hotel we were staying in. His reply was, “friend, this is Thimphu. Everything is close to everything else”. Thimphu is amazing.
In a short while, the city somehow feels like a close friend, holding you and everything else together in a tight-knit space. You should pay a visit to the clock tower. Don’t expect the Big Ben, its not a tower you can climb or literally be inside of. It’s a clock on a small pillar. The place is more like a town square and during important events like the King’s birthday, there is always celebration here. There is the National Memorial Garden that houses the ashes of Bhutan’s third king. Its a temple of sorts, if you like that sort of thing. There are other places to visit around the area and both google and guide will help more in that area.
Peace on the Mountain-top | N i r v a n a
If you are enamoured by temples and gigantic statues, the Buddha Point in Thimphu is a must-visit. Google names it the Great Buddha Dordenma, although our guide insisted on the more colloquial “Buddha Point”. At 54 metres (177 ft) it is one of the tallest Buddha statues in the world. Note that this is also the highest point in Thimphu, or at least the highest point you will visit. It is ridiculously cold here, and unless you are well protected you will return with a fever. But at the top of the world (which right now is Thimphu), it is a beauty to behold.
Gautam Buddha rests in peace as if unaffected by the cold perhaps by sheer willpower or by having reached the state of ultimate balance- nirvana. He reminds you though, that you aren’t quite there yet. You feel the cold. You are wearing four layers to Buddha’s one.
The view away is equally beautiful. You can see all of Thimphu from here. You can see the mountains beyond. There is a temple here too that you may enter, although I found it to be more interesting outside.
Bite Worse Than Bark
Stray dogs are a big problem in Thimphu. If you hear them bark at you, do not run. They tend to chase or even bite runners.
The bite of the cold is another problem altogether. As night falls, you will realise that the sun made it hard to understand how cold it is out here. Make sure you are prepared.
The Night is Dark, but Very Peaceful
You’ll have time to explore once evening falls. Thimphu offers many shops full of showpieces, some more appealing than others for you to explore and look for souvenirs to bring to, but beware the pricing. It can be erratic and it is worthwhile visiting multiple shops in multiple areas before making a purchase, as some may charge foreigners quite high. Night time Bhutan is excellent to walk in, but remember that most shops will close by 8/8:30. Some restaurants and eateries linger till 9 before closing shop. If you want to chill in a nice café, try Ambient close to the city centre.
Apart from delicious cakes and good coffee, you’ll find a cute pet cat walking about, shifting between the many small homes the café owners have constructed for the kitty. For momos, try Zombala. They are the most famous, and if you have the odds to meet a celebrity anywhere in Bhutan, this would be the place (We met Sachin Tendulkar).
Back to Paro Valley
With Paro, in general there are fewer buildings and a lot more flat lands. There is a resort right across the airport right beside the fast flowing river we met earlier, and it is a beautiful place to spend your time in Paro. We did not have much time here in either of our visits to this country so I cannot really speak at length about it.
The Birthplace of Gross National Happiness
Bhutan was the first country with this idea of measuring success with the happiness of its citizens rather than the economic output and a small chat with simply anyone around will tell you how that works. I’ve never been to a place where the general attitude of almost everyone around is so friendly. We met a gentleman in Ambient Café in Thimphu who initiated the conversation and upon finding out we were from Bangladesh, burst into the story of him narrowly missing the chance to visit a long time ago. The man was supposed to come for a debate competition but it ended up cancelled due to protests against Ershad who was in power at the time. We met an army officer soon afterwards in front of our hotel who similarly seemed very interested in a conversation and exchange of stories.
We also noticed that they seemed to address strangers with “sir”. We felt that the right thing to do would be for us to do the same.
Spirituality Unlike Anywhere Else
It’s not just happiness and friendliness, Bhutan is also the most spiritual country I’ve been to. This spirituality seems to be everywhere, ingrained in that calm and nice demeanor but nowhere can it be experienced as much as in one of the many temples. There and also in lots of other places, you’ll find prayer flags that flutter in the wind and prayer wheels that are turned by monks and the ordinary people alike as they pass by. There is a certain movement in the prayers they make, Arko tells me. To him, it felt beautiful to see religion like this. I can agree.
I can’t tell if the Bhutanese are very lucky or very unlucky. For one, they have this amazingly clean air free of pollution that seems to imbue in one, pure happiness and contentment, beautiful mountains and an outlook to life that seems to prioritise material needs very little (there are no huge shopping malls, no expensive brands in sight). On the other hand I feel sad for them because living here and experiencing this on a daily basis, can any place you travel to amaze you as much? I asked this to a friend who said she wasn’t sure if she could enjoy the hill tracts just as much after this; it was where she was supposed to go next.
“Maybe the ocean”, replied Saima.