I still couldn’t remember exactly how we decided to go to Bhutan for a year-end holiday. All I remembered was an incredible amount of frustration of trying to put together a trip to Japan and failing to do so, and a vague impression of watching a video of bridal shoot in Bhutan. One Whatsapp and many hours of researching, calling and planning later, we found ourselves onboard Drukair to head to Bhutan, the happiest place on earth!
First we had to fly from Hong Kong to Bangkok, spend a night, before taking a flight to Paro, where the international airport of Bhutan is located at. Boarding Drukair reminds me of a simpler time, where there’s no fancy entertainment system (unless you count in-flight magazines), and food are still shrink-wrapped when presented to you. Mind you, I was in business class (not by choice) and already I found the flight, which took some four hours with a stop over at Calcutta (hey, I was briefly in India!), to be quite tiring.
Am I spoiled already? Gosh.
Landing at Paro was an incredible moment. The airport is located in a valley, so as the plane swooped down in between the mountains, you can see incredible sights out of your windows. Monasteries perched on top of mountains, dainty houses dotted along a running, green river, and many paddy fields (which were empty, as it was past harvest season) – breathtakingly beautiful. I briefly considered trying to work up some panic for such dangerous flying, but I couldn’t bring myself to. It was just too God damn beautiful.
(At this point it is worth pointing out that my journey into Greenland was much more dramatic, what with its vast expanse of ice and a too-small a plane, but I was repeatedly reminded that these are two very different journeys. That’s one lesson I ought to remember as I experience Bhutan).
Paro International Airport was small and efficient. There’s a small table manned by an equally small man representing the Bank of Bhutan offering to exchange USD into the local currency, Nu. We weren’t entirely reassured by the setup, so we didn’t peruse his service. It was later on I realised that even the biggest government office in Bhutan is set up in such simple, fuss-free manner. Nothing grand, nothing modern. I reckon the catch phrase is “as long as it gets the job done”.
Clearing the custom was rather simple too. You’ll need a visa to enter Bhutan, which needs to be pre-arranged by a local tour agency (I wouldn’t go through the details, you can research and read about this at plenty other websites). Everyone who works for the government, plus majority of the locals, wore their national costume. With pride. The men wore knee-length dress; the upper part of the gho is tied up with a hand woven plain belt called kera around waist and forms a pouch in front (otherwise known as “the largest pocket in the world”). The lower part breaks into two neat folds at the back leaving a small space in between folds. The sleeves of the gho are neatly folded to form white cuffs called lagey, meaning hand sleeve.
At the airport we were greeted by So Nam, our tour guide from our agency of choice Little Bhutan, whom will be with us throughout the journey, accompanied by Deepak, our driver. So Nam speaks incredibly fluent English, and it wasn’t some sort of rehearsed script or FAQs. So Nam explained that English is the second language here, after the Bhutanese language, and it is taught in schools to everyone. The local education system, and their healthcare, are free for citizens. It was my first glimpse into the inner working of the Bhutan government that would go a long way in explaining why Bhutan is the happiest place on earth.
Our first destination in Bhutan is Timpbhu, which is the working capital of the country, located some 90 kilometres away from Paro. The journey was smooth and not as winding as I read it ought to be. Everyone seems not to be in a hurry – Deepak hardly drove the car above 60 km/h – and So Nam reminded me that I should ask him to stop the car if I see any sceneries or places that I would like to take photos at. As tour guides, they are so used to them that they somewhat took it for granted.
Took it for granted, I’ll say. The scenery out of the car window was jaw-dropping. It was all cliffs and rock formation, with a winding river that relentlessly flow along our car. The air was crisp and clear, and everywhere I look was green, green and more green. By law, 60% of Bhutan are to remain forested, and as a result the country feels like summer in a bowl, everywhere. That would explained the somewhat backward development (not a skyscrapper in sight) and the pollution-free environment.
Could these be another reason for why the people are so happy and contented? Because they are healthy and didn’t know anything else “better”? I intend to find out on this trip.
As we arrive at Thimpbu, our first stop is a weaving workshop, which was an alternative to our intended textile museum. At first I was hardly amused that our first stop is a shop, but not wanting to get off the wrong foot with the tour guide, we played along.
The weaving workshop was a buzz of activities. Local Bhutanese women were seen doing some incredibly intricate work, weaving the trademark Bhutanese colourful paterns thread by thread with hand, and then energetically pulled them on their large wooden machine. Some of these work, which is produced by silk, could take more than a year to complete. I marveled at the level of dedication that these women have for their craft. I shall remember that the next time I found myself too lazy to do a bit of blogging.
As we watched some of the more senior craftwomen guided the younger ones in learning the trade, we overheard some chanting from the floor above. It was a series of low grunts by men, in a tongue that I have never heard before (and I have been to many Buddhist temples in my life). It was somewhat unnerving, and I was told that those are Bhutanese prayers.
It was my first touch of the spiritual side of Bhutan.
After some time looking at some woven goods (but of course) and some pretty nice contemporary art pieces at a nearby gallery, So Nam and Deepak took us to their first destination, the National Memorial Chorten.
(At this point, it is worth pointing out that at no time we were pressured to buy anything at the shops that we went to. Sure, there were some hellos and smiles. But all the while the shopkeepers stood politely to one side, and we were very much left to ourselves in admiring their goods. And I quite like that. Not that I would have spent any money. But I would be likelier to do so, had I been inclined to).
The chorten is the most visible religious structure in Bhutan, and one that is frequented by the locals for their daily worship. As I stepped into the courtyard of the chorten, it felt deeply… spiritual. Old men and women shuffled quietly around the chorten (always clockwise), murmuring to themselves. Men and women bow and lie flat on their face in prayers. Children played somewhat noisily around the giant prayer wheels located a shrine next to the entrance.
So Nam told me that as human, we do both good and bad things. With prayers, Bhutanese believe that they can wash away their sins by walking around the chorten. We joined the throngs of local folks in walking around the chorten three times, and spin the many heavy prayer wheels.
A story of the wheels – there are supposed ten million prayers engraved inside each of these wheels, and by turning the wheels, it is as one recited the prayers ten million times. I found that to be highly efficient and somewhat amusing, but to the local, that is a local tradition that is deeply embedded in their worship routine.
It was a deeply spiritual experience.
After spending some time at the chorten, we retreated and checked in to our accomodation of choice in Thimpbu – Hotel Osel. This one-year old hotel is spanking new, and from the inside, I guess one could consider it to be modern. I am not exactly used to such large hotel rooms, but hey, when in Bhutan, you learned to take things in your stride.
After a brief rest, we walked out of the hotel and went into town. And I am using the word town very liberally. For a capital of a country, Thimpbu consisted of several large hotels and main streets, and… that’s it. The shopping malls were heaving with locals, but even by my hometown standard, they were incredibly old-fashioned and small.
We took a pit stop at a local cafe not far from the hotel, for it was late afternoon and we were starving. Not knowing what to order, we opted for a spicy chicken sandwich and a chicken briyani (the menu was more Indian than Western, although it is a cafe). We were told that the briyani will take sometime, to which we shrugged off, sure, we have time to spare.
And then we proceeded to sit down and watch in amusement as the shopkeeper ran in and out of his small kitchen preparing our order. The rice were cooked from scratch, the herbs prepared on the spot. It took more than half an hour before both our orders arrived at our table.
We were warned that Bhutanese liked their food to be spicy, and they were not joking. The best food in town were said to be offered in hotels (more of that later), but for a more fiery experience of the real local food, we should try a local restaurant.
Which we did, and oh man, I think my tolerance level to spicy food has just been tested again. The briyani rice was innocent looking but packed quite a bunch. A few spoonfuls in and I couldn’t feel my tongue. My eyes watered. The shopkeeper looked on somewhat amused. And of course we didn’t finish the food.
We then walked around the town a bit more. The locals were an exuberant bunch, though one could easily feel the disconnect. Disconnected as in… well, they didn’t appear to be particularly happy to me, yet not sad either. Everyone kind of going around doing their own business… slowly. We experienced what it really meant by slow development and lack of urbanisation can do for a country.
At that point, walking around an area somehow named as “Hong Kong Market” (I have no idea why), all we could think of all was how outdated everything is. It bears noting that at this point, we were still new to Bhutan, we know little of its people, culture, and history. Everything we took in that night, we took it face value.
Which is to be honest, nothing much. It is like stepping back in time by thirty years.
After the long walk in town in some seriously cold weather, we headed back to the hotel for a proper dinner. It was our first touch on proper Bhutanese food in hotels, and the selection, at that time to me, was mind boggling. Meat, vegetables, lentils, curry… all sorts of stuff were piled onto our table. Of course we couldn’t finish everything.
And so we planned for our next meal… and it gotta to be away from the hotel.
See more of my Bhutan 2015 posts: