Into the mouth of the dragon
30 minutes. That’s half of the time I spent talking trash with my friend Kay who gave me a ring around midnight to check up on me, it is exactly the time of sleep i managed to get through this night, and it is roughly a fifth of the time I spend rotating in the bed listening to the sounds of the night, trying to relax and get some sleep. The powerful thunderstorm passed rather quickly, the crickets and frogs remain, as does the annoying moaning from the room next door. I am quite relieved having to check out and proceed to the airport. My main concern of finding a taxi at this hour proves to be unnecessary as I stumble on a cab right outside the door. Over at the check in counter I am surprised at the number of travellers, there are loads of mainly Americans with gigantic bags waiting patiently as the formalities of Druk Airways take their time. Druk refuses anyone without a valid visa to board the plane.
More or less the entire plane seems to be loaded full with tourists and the occasional Indian business traveller (the plane makes a pit stop in Calcutta) and we are travelling with some VIP monks who of course go biz class. I am always confused when I encounter buddhist monks in unexpected locations. I know that they are a revered part of society, yet I was always taught that the life of amonk should be a life of simplicity. Anyhow, as we finally get going in our transfer bus my heart begins to beat faster as the Druk Airways Airbus comes within sight. This is it! Finally! Bhutan has always been there in the back of my mind, ever since I had a very good friend of mine in kindergarten (Hi Tenzing!) with roots in the mysterious kingdom. While it always had the misfortune of being down-prioritized due to some other crazy travel plans I feel happy to finally give it the attention it deserves.
Once again I find it impossible to obtain a window seat, at spectacular flights such as this one they disappear fast I imagine. Instead I find myself seated next to a Miami cowgirl named Debbie who helps pass the time on the four hour flight. Our pitstop in Calcutta is rather uninspiring, not much action at the airport at this hour. The Bhutanese meal we are served looks a bit dreary but tastes really good. I can’t really make out much of the views as the weather is a bit cloudy and a lot of water is massing on the window closest to me, but from the excited chatter from my fellow passengers I can understand that I am probably missing out.
Bhutan only has one airport in Paro, the only valley in the north to allow for commercial jets to operate. Druk Air wish to extend their capabilities and replace their A320s (which in turn recently replaced the RJ85s) with larger craft, but the Paro airport lacks the capacity to receive them. There are plans to build a new international airport in the southern part of the country but that would drop passengers off far from the capital. As it is now, Thimphu is about one and a half hours drive from Paro. Additionally, the border area close to India has its own trouble spots with separatists that stir up problems from time to time.
Our pilots guide us down through the Paro valley and I begin to see green hills on both sides of the aircraft. The landing is rather rough but we’re down and greeted by a country showing off its best sunny and comfortable weather. As we disembark the plane we are all swept by some kind of collective feeling of amazement, and everybody start whipping up their cameras and start shooting in all directions, myself included. The airport security team aren’t too bothered about it, they’ve obviously been through it a lot. Only when some photographers start spreading out in search of better angles do they calmy point them in the proper direction. The Paro airport itself is a worthy attraction, built in traditional style with plenty of detailed woodworks. It is surrounded by a valley of forest clad mountains, littered with small white mud and wood houses and with the majestic Rinchen Pung dzong beckoning in the distance it is hard not to get excited.
However, we all have to give up our excitement for a while, as the immigration proceedings seem to take forever. Basically you first queue up at a desk where you hand over your visa permit and pay a fee of twenty U.S. dollars. A clerk then writes down a number on a piece of paper which you will hand over to the immigration officer after standing in another line. Next in line is the queue at customs, and you need be careful to list any valuables you might bring along. I had left this field blank in my form but on the insistance of the customs officer I had to list my camera and mp3 player. Finally i stand in a queue outside the bank office to obtain some local currency, the ngultrum, which is convertible to the Indian rupee. You may use Indian rupees if you have them, but ngultrum cannot be used in India.
Finally I am ready to enter the country and I make contact with my guide and driver just outside the airport entrance. I am pleased to see that my guide is a young man my age and his English is excellent. This promises to be a great trip! Without further delay we jump into the car and start driving towards Paro town. Our ride is a Suzuki/Maruti Esteem, quite similar to a typical Bangkok taxi. I am still not recovered from my Bhutan shock and continue looking left and right in amazement spouting adjectives around me constantly. “Oooohh!”, “this is so beautiful”, “wooooooahh…”, etc. etc.
The drive downtown takes a few minutes and we start the trip by going through the days activities over a cup of tea at a local restaurant. The first stop will be the national museum, housed in the old Ta Dzong guardtower which is overlooking the city just above the major Rinchen Pung dzong below. A dzong is the typical historical structure of Bhutan, a large building that doubles as administrative centre and fortress. Think Pothala in Lhasa but smaller and a bit different and you are almost there. Each province in the country has a dzong which now serves as a government office. Back in the day of feuding clans and Tibetan invasions they used to be the definitive strongpoints to control the provinces. However, the combination of using mud and wood as building materials paired with the traditional butter lamps mean that a fair share of the dzongs have been damaged or destroyed by fires. Many have been restored in part or full, yet still look as spectacular.
The national museum is my first introduction to the particular kind of Mahayana buddhism practiced in Bhutan, which has some differencies compared to other places. My guide Tshering gives me a rundown on the different appearances of the famous gods, demigods and boddhisattvas and at this point it is just spinning inside my head. Outside again we walk to the ridge to have a spectacular view of the Paro valley. This must be one of the most beautiful and harmonic places I have ever seen.
We drive back down to the fields outside of town to pay a visit to the Chorten at the Dumtse Lhakhang. A chorten is essentially the same thing as a stupa, a sacred place where a number of relics have been sealed inside a little tower. This particular chorten though is quite large, and you can enter inside it where there are three cramped levels around it. To enter you will need a special permit which should be obtained at the stage of planning the trip. Inside there are small altars in each of the four major compass directions. Small offerings from the villagers are placed in front of the shrines, foodstuffs, soft drinks, rice, money. Except for in front of the small shrines there are no lights inside, and there are no windows. We walk carefully up a steep staircase to the 2nd level where it is even darker and more cramped, and see similar shrines on this level. A visit to the third level repeats the findings. Everywhere the sweet smell of incense hangs in the air.
Going back to Paro we return to the restaurant where we made an order before venturing out. We have some chicken with vegetables and rice and I am surprised to learn that our shy driver prefers to eat on his own in the kitchen. I confront my guide about stories I have read in the Lonely Planet about local guides getting into trouble with visiting tourist ladies and he just laughs and starts telling some anecdotes. There seems to be a level of truth in these claims for sure.
After dinner we learn that there is a big game in an ongoing volleyball tournament happening today, and as our driver is crazy about it we agree on checking it out. Apparently the match is taking place in a field next to an archery range. The home team is the Bhutanese army and they are taking on the Indian army, a play for honour for sure. The field is full with spectators and roaming horny dogs that run around and bark at each other which gets a bit uncomfortable. We spend more time looking at the archers, who are after all, representing the national sport of Bhutan. Tshering gives me some facts about the archery crazed practitioners, and having tried a bow only once in my life (with miserable result) I am duly impressed by their skills. We also have time for a quick trip around the town centre, which is basically centered around two streets. Still, Paro city is growing, there are plenty of new multistory buildings chewing up land at the expense of the crops growing there.
As the sun is about to come down we make an excursion to the nearby Drukgyel dzong in the nearby village of the same name. The road follows the Paro Chhu river and we end up in a small village where crops are grown on terraces. This is also the starting point for some of the popular treks that begin in Paro. The Drukgyel dzong was destroyed by fire a long time ago and is still awaiting restoration, yet the ruins situated on a small hill give a good impression of its one time beauty. On clear weather days this is a good spot to watch Jhomolhari (7.314 m) in the distance, but at this hour the sky has become obscured by clouds so the mountainspotting will have to wait until some other time.
In the evening we drive to the Paro Holiday Home Hotel which lies just a short stretch downstream from the Rinchen Pung dzong. The place feels a little deserted, but the room is of good standard and the selection of foreign TV channels surprises me. I have some noodles sent to my room and go to sleep in a comfortable bed after a long and intensive day, and after last night’s sleeplessness I have no problems closing my eyes this time.