A trip outside my comfort zone was just what I needed after a gruelling 3 years spent learning the art of operating upon the the human body. And what better place to choose than Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon.
The preliminaries were minimal. Either a passport or an Election ID were required for travel to and from Bhutan. An authorised agent of the Ministry of Tourism of Bhutan planned the entire trip for us.
To start with, there was only one airline that flew in and out of Bhutan, i.e Druk Air, the national airline, which had flights operating from the Mumbai Airport only twice a week. The Airbus A319 transported us across the Indian sub-continent to the land of one of its closest allies. A beautiful view of some of the tallest mountains in Bhutan presented itself to us as we landed at the airport in Paro, which was made up of two small multi-storied buildings with an airstrip right in front of them. The airstrip was located in a small opening between two mountains, with the pilot banking the aircraft while landing, to avoid a potential disaster of crashing into the mountains. This was one of the most picturesque airports in the world.
A private vehicle with a driver-cum-tourist guide awaited us at the airport to drive us to Thimpu, which was a pleasant two hour journey from the airport.
Wrong turns and poor road sense of the chauffeur led us to a beautiful building, set against a tall mountain with a thick lush green cover and an unparalleled view of the lake, which was supposedly the hotel we were booked at. On further probing, we realised that the hotel had been shifted out and the building was now a residential one. While waiting for the chauffeur to confirm the details, we hit it off with a beautiful Bhutanese girl, who looked like she had just crossed her teenage years. After providing us with some guidance she spoke fondly of the time she spent in India and her love for almost everything Indian. After exchanging numbers and promises to meet up again we set out on our way.
The hotel room awaited us travel weary guests to check, as the first day in the capital city was spent just soaking in the sights and sounds of the market place.
An early day and a good morning walk, where we experienced the dawning of sunlight, was followed by a car ride to a hilltop which housed the tallest statue of Lord Buddha in the world. Standing at a commanding height of 169 ft, the statue overlooks the entire city of Thimpu. The workmanship and the sheer audacity to build something of this magnitude left us awestruck.
The Kuenselphodrang Nature park lying adjacent to the Buddha point was the next place we visited. A beautiful nature trail with an unparalleled view of the city and canopies at strategic areas, which served as a resting point as well as a picnic spot. As we climbed we came across a jolly Bhutanese family, out for a picnic on a holiday, who offered us some water and food as they enjoyed their afternoon meal.
Climbing down the mountain, we reached the Royal Palace, home to the Royal Family of Bhutan. On account of the cultural festival, it was thrown open to public, barring a few areas in the palace. The palace was enormous and beautiful with traditional Bhutanese art demonstrated in the wall paintings or the Thangka’s as the Bhutanese called them. At the other end of the palace was an enormous amphitheatre, where performances were ongoing as a part of the festival. We entered the grounds and headed for the amphitheater. The sights, sounds and colours amazed us. The “Dragon Dance”, one of the twelve traditional Bhutanese dances was co-ordinated to perfection with the bugal producing deafeningly loud music. Its said that every Bhutanese should watch the Dragon Dance once in their lives to attain salvation. We definitely attained ours that day! The palace wasn’t the biggest I have seen, but yet it was culturally, the richest palace I have ever seen.
The afternoon progressed to evening and just as the sun was about to drown into the clouds, we decided to invite our new Bhutanese friend and her roommate for dinner and drinks. The evening was spent at the market place of the city, where we treated ourselves to some authentic Bhutanese dishes, followed by some spirited and soulful singing at a local karaoke bar.
Bureaucracy is synonymous with South Asian countries and Bhutan was no different. Obtaining a permit to visit Punakha, the third major city in the country was no mean task. It had pushed back our plans for the day by a couple of hours.
Nonetheless, we set out on a topsy-turvy ride à la a roller coaster. The roads were dug up and the repair work that had been carried out was shoddy. Within the hour, we had reached the Dochula Pass , a vantage point with a view of four of the tallest peaks in Bhutan, each one being a part of the Himalayan range.
Fortunately, we had a good day with clear skies, one which allowed us to view the mountain peaks in all their glory. A quaint French Cafe lay on one side of this point and a memorial housing 108 Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chhortens lies on the other side. These Chortens offer a tribute to the selfless service and visionary leadership of His Majesty the King, and are now a sacred legacy to the nation and the Bhutanese people.
The brief stop-over at the Dochula pass was followed by an even bumpier ride to Punakha to tour the Punakha Dzong, the venue of the most recent Royal Wedding in 2011. The entrance was adorned with a canopy of flowers and dragons, one which was used for the wedding
The Dzong was majestic in its appearance, constructed at the point where the two rivers, the Ko Chu and the Pho Chu met to form the KoChu-PhoChu, a single river which flowed into the Thimpu valley from thereon in.
What we enjoyed more than the Dzong was the ride back from Punakha. Due to construction work, the roads leading to Thimpu from Punakha were blocked for a few hours daily. And as luck had it, the roads were blocked at the time of our return.
Not ones to waste the opportunity, my friend and I set out on foot along the meandering roads in the hills leading down to Thimpu. The roads were dirty and messy, but the surroundings were surreal. It seemed as though we had descended onto the Shire in the fictional “Lord of the Rings” with mountains on either side leading down into a valley which was dotted with a single habitat surrounded by swathes of trees and grass. The wind was friendly and the temperature just right for an unplanned excursion as this one.
We walked for almost an hour, covering close to 5 km, a distance our vehicle covered in just 10 minutes. No vehicle could make us experience what our trek helped us experience.
We returned to our hotel rooms, later that evening, exhausted but enriched with the experience. An experience to cherish for a lifetime. The night was spent eating local food and whiling away our time at the same Karaoke Bar.
Our last day in Thimpu, was spent visiting the Jigme Dorji National Park, one which housed the national animal- The Takin, a cross breed between a goat and a cow and the Memorial Chorten, built by the Queen Mother in memory of her son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the erstwhile King of Bhutan.
The afternoon was spent lazing around at the Market place shopping for souvenirs and memorabilia from the beautiful city of Thimpu.
The day was capped off with an invite to the residence of our newly made Bhutanese friends for a scrumptious Bhutanese meal.
The meal consisted of well cooked Kewa Datsi (potatoes cooked in cheese sauce), Ema Datsi (beans cooked in cheese sauce), noodles and rice, with some spicy chilli serving as a side dish. The meal was utterly delightful and our hosts very hospitable.
After gulping down every last bit of the meal made by our local hosts, we enjoyed the night life of Thimpu.
This was our last day at Thimpu. It was time to move to Paro for the next three days.
(To be continued.. )