There is an ethereal beauty to Bhutan that visitors just can’t get enough of.
It was just after 11pm, Wednesday, in the western town of Paro, Bhutan. It was also Ladies’ Night, and we were walking towards Destiny Club disco to celebrate the last night of our trip. Young girls in mini-skirts and heels overtook our big group, checked out our casual clothes and said: “Tourism day?”
A jibe. In Bhutan. The happiest place on earth.
It was, for me, a timely wake-up call, after spending days walking around with my head in the Himalayan clouds, mesmerised by the kingdom’s natural beauty and its tales of magic and mysticism. But far from being offended, that encounter rendered the country more intriguing. The Land of The Thunder Dragon, sandwiched between China and India, is caught between the past and the present as it tries to protect its traditional way of life, while opening up to the outside world.
Before its first and only international airport in Paro opened in 1983, Bhutan was only accessible by land. Even now, only its national airline Druk Air regularly flies to the airport, and most visitors – except those from India, Bangladesh and Maldives – need to book a package holiday with a licensed tour operator to get a visa.
And then there’s the long journey there. My flight from Singapore to Bhutan – via Thailand and India -took a total of 20 hours. I braced myself for arrival in Bhutan as Paro’s airport is located in a valley surrounded by mountains some 5,000m high, and pilots have to land the plane following strict visual flight rules – which means conditions must be good enough. Thankfully, I was distracted by the sight of cotton candy clouds strewn around green hills dotted with farmhouses. Before I knew it, we eased ever-so-gently on to the short runway.
The view from the plane was just a teaser. As we zig-zagged through the hills and valleys of Paro to the capital, Thimphu, and the old capital, Punakha, imposing monastic fortresses, ancient temples and bridges with prayers flags fluttering in the wind beckoned silently, while clear rivers flowing past rice fields, ramshackle houses and thick pine forests reminded me of my childhood summers. Our group guide Tshering regaled us with the legends behind the historic sights and attractions. More importantly, he made sure we were safe. I have no doubt I’d have rolled down the ravine during the trek to Taktsang Monastery, the main highlight of our trip, if he had not been there.
The awe-inspiring Taktsang, also called the Tiger’s Nest, is perched on the edge of a cliff 800m above Paro Valley. It is the most sacred place for the people of Bhutan. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche – who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan – flew to Taktsang from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated there. We felt a small victory reaching the halfway point. The next 700-plus stone steps, though steep, seemed easier with the monastery so close by. In all, it took us four hours. At the complex, we visited three temples before going back the way we came.
In Punakha, we explored the Punakha Dzong, which sits on a point where two rivers converge. In ancient times, it was known as “the palace of great happiness” and served as the centre of religious and political power when Punakha was the capital of Bhutan. At the rice fields to the Chimi Lhakhang temple, a pilgrimage site for barren women, we learnt that it had been blessed by the Lama Drukpa Kunley, known as the Divine Madman. Incidentally, he is remembered in images of phalluses that we saw painted or carved on houses.
On the way from Punakha to Thimphu, we passed by the scenic Dochula Pass, with its 108 stupas, and the Dochula Resort, which has a restaurant and guest rooms for those who want to wake up to a view of the sunrise over the Himalayas.
Looking at these wondrous sights, I counted myself lucky. Only 1,349 visitors from Singapore travelled to Bhutan in 2011, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan. But that number is bound to increase with the introduction of twice-weekly direct flights by Druk Air from Changi Airport – with a short stopover in Kolkata – on September 2. So it’ll just take five-and-a-half hours to get there.
Nevertheless, you can always recover in style at Amankora Thimphu. With its stone buildings and large courtyard surrounded by a pine forest, it was hard to tear myself away from the spacious room with its large bathtub. In another part of town – closer to the bustling Hong Kong Market, with shops catering to foreigners and locals, there is the Taj Tashi – which is also the biggest hotel in Bhutan with 66 guest rooms. The Amankora Punakha has only eight suites, which guarantees some peace and quiet. Let’s not forget the beautiful property of Uma Paro, where Hong Kong celebrities Tony Leung and Carina Lau famously tied the knot in 2008.
Yes, the boutique and luxury hotels are here, and the Como group is in the process of building Uma Punakha. Change is coming, but the kingdom’s beauty and gentle rhythm can still lull you into a deep sense of peace. Which hopefully will remain untampered.
You’ll need to pay tarriffs if you’re visiting Bhutan. For a group of three persons or more: US$200 (S$250)per person per night for low season; US$250 per person per night for high season. It includes a private guide, a driver and vehicle, as well as all meals, accommodation (three-star hotel) and camping equipment. Individual tourists and groups of less than three will be subject to a surcharge.
by Trixia Carungcong for www.todayonline.com