Beguiling BhutanJun 7th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Lifestyle, Travel
A blend of the traditional and the modern, Bhutan is all about simplicity and rustic beauty…
Driving into Bhutan from India leaves you with visual schizophrenia. Jaigaon, the Indian border town, is dusty, treeless, has zigzagging, wildly honking traffic. The shops have a tacky look; the buildings are all indistinctive, concrete. The Bhutan gate is wooden, painted in vivid colours. Across it: wide, very clean streets, buildings with bright, painted motifs, modern high-rises with decorated wooden window facades. There are fewer people, the traffic is orderly, and no one is honking. Two dainty young girls, in traditional costume, check for pollution levels of all vehicles driving through.
These images really summarise Bhutan: a beautiful blend of the traditional and the modern. It is a theme that recurs in many ways as we journey from Thimpu to Central Bhutan.
Thimpu is such a fairy-tale city. It takes half an hour to walk from one end of its “main” street to the other end. It is easy to lose time in Thimpu, soaking the sun, and watching the people. Not that there aren’t things to see, but it seems such a shame to reduce the charming town to the touristy trap. In town, there is the Takin reserve which makes an interesting short visit. There are the twin Goembas (monasteries) of Tango-Cheri, a couple of hours away. One can go and picnic by the riverside; or hike up to the monasteries. Buddhists believe that you have to visit the twin monasteries, visiting only one is not done. The weekly market at Thimpu (and everywhere else in Bhutan) is fun, both for the people and the produce. There are mounds of cheese, fresh and dry, there are sacks of chillies, assorted vegetables and fruits.
The food, like everything else, is a contradiction. Beef is a staple, but all — all — the meat comes from India. As staunch Buddhists, the Bhutanese do not kill animals. I’ve heard of the famous Bhutanese Ema Datse, chillies and cheese. I order it mockingly: how hot can it be? I’m from India, after all. I don’t progress beyond two spoons. A bunch of green chillies in cheese. And that is pretty much it. It’s incredibly, unrelentingly fiery. This, with rice, is staple food for many Bhutanese. The rest of the cuisine — you could try the array of typical dishes at a restaurant called Bhutanese Kitchen — is palatable enough, and the arra (home-brewed rice wine) leaves a pleasant buzz. Momos vary from fantastic to average, at different places. “We hill people don’t know how to make dessert,” our guide Dorji tells us. So we, with our sweet tooth, resort to cakes, pastries, which are good and popular.
We travel from Thimpu to Punakha, and there on to Bumthang, spending a couple of days at each place. Punakha brings home the fast-eroding pristine-ness of Bhutan. There is a pile of plastic on the river-bed; the streets have litter. It is worthwhile to drive through, even without entering the monastery (for which you need a special permit), especially if the jacarandas that line the monastery are in bloom. It is very picturesque: the monastery across a swooshing river, with an ancient wooden bridge.
The Dochu La pass enroute Punkaha is a good bird-spotting stretch. In April and May, the valley is full of rhododendrons: red, pink, white, making the forest look like a garden. We were lucky; we caught the last blooms of the season.
Bumthang is quieter and browner. The monastery rises out of the mist, literally. This is good hiking country. We hike up to the Pelseling Goemba. The younger monks are delighted to see us, and try their English on us. There is a lot of physical activity … monks chopping up firewood, or building, washing or cooking.
At Paro, our last stop, we’re lucky to catch an important archery (the national sport) contest. It is very entertaining; with the scoring team doing a little ritual song and jig to celebrate each hit! Local monks arrive in batches. They chat and joke with the contestants and officials, some of whom have iPhones, and they give the monks a demo. We do the done thing at Paro — hike to the Tigers Nest — the Taktshang monastery that perches on a cliff, Bhutan’s most famous sight. Some other monks are kneading colour into “dalda” or clarified butter, and fashion artefacts that will be kept at the altar. Others are painting a well, in preparation for a ceremony.
I decide to try the hot stone bath at a farmhouse. An old man has heaped large round stones on a nice fire going. While it simmers I am offered arra, and roasted barley. Once the stones are hot, they are dropped into the wooden bathtub. I’m given a bucket of cold water to temper the hot water. I’m sceptical… the water is not hot at all. It gets searingly hot in just a few moments, so hot that some of the stones have to be removed, and the entire bucket of cold water poured in before the temperature is bearable. The Bhutanese believe the stones have medicinal properties.
In Bhutan, be prepared to believe in flying tigers. In goodness. In the benefits of monarchy. In simplicity. In beauty, rustic and untarnished.
It’s a deceptively large country! If you want to see all of Bhutan, enter at Phuentsholing and exit from east Bhutan to Guwahati. Take a train from Kolkata to Hasimara Junction, from where it’s a short jeep or bus ride into Jaigaon, the Indian border town. Stay in Jaigaon, or drive into Phuentsholing in Bhutan. Stay overnight, or drive up to Thimphu, if you can leave early enough for the six-hour ride. Permits are done in Phuentsholing. It takes half-a-day. Within Bhutan, it is best to hire a cab and drive around. There is public transport, but it’s very sketchy.
Another option is to enter Bhutan from Guwahati. Entry permits from Guwahati might be harder to get, but it’s worth checking.
Important: Always go with a Bhutanese Travel Agency for everything: car, guide, reservations. There are Indian operators, but they are mostly out of their depth, as we discovered rather expensively.
An impulsive trip will be difficult to pull off; you’re better off knowing where you want to go, at least broadly. Contact: Mindup, an experienced tour operator at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 17609768 or Dorji, a seasoned driver and guide at 17621214
Prices: Coffees and teas might seem expensive at no less than 15 bucks, but food is affordable, and the portions are always large, and substantial. The cabs are Rs. 12 per km if you drive more than 100 km a day or Rs. 1200 per day. Hotels range from Rs. 800 to Rs. 12,000. Indian currency is accepted everywhere, and in fact, Bhutanese currency is accepted in Jaigaon.