“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part One

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A woman reading prayer beads, Phuent Sholing.

My purpose for going to the Bhutan trip was very clear: I needed to heal. This year’s been one of the worst yet on many levels, and the opportunity to travel to Bhutan came along at the perfect time. In many ways, the country purged me of some monsters, helped me regain my equilibrium and brought me back to life. It welcomed me with open arms and an atmosphere that’s completely devoid of negative energy; after all, when everyone around you is content with their lives, the feeling tends to rub off on you.

The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.

The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.

I read somewhere that travelling is like flirting with life, that we would love to stay and spend some more time, but really, we have to get going. With Bhutan, we flirted that way with the places, spending every night in a different part of the country, waking up early each morning, packing our bags and heading out to the next destination. It was exhilarating to be out so early in the day, riding through cloud-cloaked Himalayan peaks and nippy mountain winds.

Happy mornings.

Happy mornings.

It’s difficult to capture the essence of Bhutan – and honestly, I want to keep the country as much of a closely guarded secret as I can because I don’t want it to change, ever – but I’m giving it a shot anyway.

The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.

The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.

Day 1: Phuent Sholing, 180 km

Phuent Sholing is the border town and therefore, one’s first impression of Bhutan. Mine was that it reminded me of London in some ways – there are no people yelling and screaming; everyone goes about their work quietly; every building is beautiful to look at, even the petrol bunk is fancily painted with symbols and creatures; and the air is clean. The roads are tarred and smooth. There are hardly any two-wheelers around – almost everyone has a car and it’s either a sedan or an SUV. The Bhutanese are very strong on culture, so you’ll find almost everyone dressed in the traditional attires of Gho (for men) and Kira/Tego/Onjo (for women). What was remarkable was that the difference between the countries was very apparent with the single step I took from the Indian border into Bhutan.

The streets of Phuent Sholing.

The streets of Phuent Sholing.

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Every building is embellished with ornate designs in Bhutan. People spend enormous amounts of money on hiring artists who specialise in  these traditional designs to decorate homes/shops/hotels.

On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.

On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.

Day 2: Paro, 130 km

Riding through and over mountains, one reaches Paro, a quiet town scattered across a lush green valley. The royal palace is located here, but nobody’s ever seen it because it’s tucked awayon a hill all its own, with nothing around it.

The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.

The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.

Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.

Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.

Paro is also home to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Legend has it that a monk saw a tiger flying across the mountains and he wanted to see where it would go. One day, as the tiger was passing by, he jumped onto it and was carried to a cliff. So impressed was the monk by the entire phenomenon (I would be too, especially with a flying tiger), that he decided to build a monastery on the edge of the cliff.

The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) too ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.

The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro on the way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) to ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.

The trek to Tiger’s Nest is not for the faint-hearted. Trekking and I are like embittered enemies, so even though I thought I was mentally prepared for a fair amount of walking, seeing the monastery from the point where I was going to start the climb turned my legs to jelly. My heart nearly stopped. Here’s why:

See the specks of white on the mountain? That's where I had to go.

See the specks of white on the mountain? That’s where I had to go.

So, you have to trek across two mountains – and it’s a bloody steep climb, mind you, with no proper path – and reach the third for the monastery. It’s at least six kilometres one way. I have never, I swear to you, trekked so much or come so close to giving up on living in all my years. With a little help from kind biker souls, though, I pushed myself to reach the monastery. I needed to own and relish that sense of achievement.

On the edge...

On the edge, about a kilometre and a half away from the monastery.

Day 3: Thimpu, 90 km

If Paro’s the older brother who’s more responsible, calmer and sorted, then Thimpu is the younger brother – wild, vibrant and Quixotic. 90 kilometres is like a whole world between them, that’s how different life is in both places. The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu is a cultural melting pot, with textile museums alongside government offices, coffee shops alongside gaming zones in basements, and a whole stretch of the main road cordoned off for an arts and crafts exhibition. In the distance, a giant Buddha looks on, gleaming gold in the sunlight.

Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.

Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.

While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.

While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.

Thimpu is a great place to walk around, because the roads are big and almost traffic-free.

A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!

A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!

Day 4: Punakha, 190 km

The ride from Thimpu to Punakha is beautiful. We rode up some steep mountains, slicing through the clouds covering the slopes. At one point, as we ascended to the Dochu La pass, we were greeted by a most magnificent sight – a series of chortens places in a circle, white and deep red and gold, peeping through the clouds zooming in. The scene took my breath away.

The chortens at Dochu La.

The chortens at Dochu La.

Being a riverside town is half the charm of Punakha. The other half is the Punakha Monastery – the biggest in all of Bhutan, I am told.

Punakha Monastery rests on a sliver of land, with the river flowing by it. Major restoration work has gone into making the monastery the way it is right now, possibly for the royal wedding in 2011. Whatever the case, the monastery is gorgeous. There weren’t too many people around when we visited it, so I explored the place unrestrained. Walking around, I also noticed that some of the rooms inside the monastery functioned as various government offices. As we moved deeper into Bhutan, I realised that this was true of every monastery we visited.

Punakha Monastery.

Punakha Monastery.

The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.

The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.

Our stay in Punakha was the most entertaining of the lot – we celebrated a birthday, miraculously managed to find a cake to cut and indulged in the madness that comes standard with a mini-party. A group of 11 big-ass bikes is an unusual sight in Bhutan, so we also had cops dropping in on us to see the bikes and take a ride. I was highly amused.

"His helmet is so much better than mine...", said the cop, depressed.

“His helmet is so much better than mine!”, thought the cop, depressed.

Little did I know that there were more amusing things in store as we rode on to Trongsa. I was chased around the monastery by a rooster, fell off the bike a couple of times, and had interesting conversations with a group of locals.

For all that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part Deux.

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17 thoughts on ““Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part One

  1. Pingback: Why you must trek in Kemmanagundi (even if you’re not the trekking types). | Adventures of Potli Baba

  2. Pingback: “Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part Two | Adventures of Potli Baba

  3. LOL @ the last paragraph of your post. Eagerly waiting for Part 2 now. :)

    Bhutan sounds all the more magical now, thanks to your descriptions. You are tempting me to make a visit there soon!

    That bridge scene is lovely. And the Tiger’s Hill monastery shot had my mouth agape in wonder. How in the world were they able to build the monastery there, in the first place? :O

  4. Such a wonderful adventure! Your photos are excellent and take me right there. While I like staying in my place in the word, right now the Hopi desert of Arizona, and soon the wildness of Alaska, I am grateful for world travelers such as you sharing the beauty of worlds I may never touch in this lifetime.

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