Bhutan Travel is like experiencing a few small precious jewels scattered in a Himalayan valley folded between layers and layers of mountains. It is a country that still tries to keep itself wrapped like a mystery. It is a simple place with simple people, most of whom you would find always smiling. They have a curiosity about the world outside, but at the same time, they are very happy with wherever they are.
Bhutan Travel – An Experience
For Bhutan Travel, you can either fly to Paro or enter the country via road from Phuntshillong, which is the border town on their side. For entering via road, from Kolkata, you can take a train to NJP or fly to Bagdogra. Jaigaon is the border town on the Indian side and a small colorfully decorated arch separates the two countries. People move across this border without any formalities. The first check post where you have to show valid papers for your entry into the country is good 60-70 km away from this border. Thimphu is a good 6-7 hours drive from Phuntshillong.
As you travel on this route you would feel you are crossing the folds till you reach a beautiful valley with a river, which sustains the small city of Thimphu. At first glance, everything in Thimphu would look the same. All buildings have the same color, and the same patterns of artwork adorn the windows and doors. Owing to the similarities and size, it almost gives the feeling of being in a model place rather than a real place. But as you spend time there you would start noticing the finer nuances in the buildings, and the artwork.
I am told the population of Thimphu is not more than 30,000. While the whole of the country has a population of about 650,000. Paro the second largest city in the country has the only airport in the country, but probably the most beautiful one.
As a physical place, you may not find it very different from India, especially the adjoining areas like Sikkim, but Bhutan as a soul is very different. Because of being a very closed and contained country, it still retains its culture very strongly. And you can smell it everywhere. On your way to Thimphu or any other place, you would see new houses right next to the ruins from the olden days. Everything in the country has its base in religion, and you see religion everywhere. You see it on mountains and bridges as prayer flags, as Chortens, as prayer wheels that are at times rotated manually and at times using water.
Dzongs which literally translated would mean Fort, are the places where senior government officials including the King sit. The Dzongs would invariably have a temple and a monastery. You would see the colors Red, Yellow, and Golden wherever you look at anything that is not natural. The vehicle number plates are red with numbers written in Yellow. The signboards follow the same color scheme. You would then see the same colors on most prayer wheels in public places, the same color on Lamas, the same colors on the monastery walls, and in paintings.
The best place to see Bhutan is the National Museum in Paro, which has been tastefully done and tries to introduce all the facets of the Bhutanese lifestyle. This would be one must-see that I can recommend to people visiting the country.
One of the unusual things that I did on my Bhutan Travel was to get invited to a Monastery for a cup of tea and sit and chat with the Lama and his students. It gave me a glimpse of how they live and lead their lives. To me, it was also the closest I got to seeing the Guru Shishya Parampara. Where the students live under the guidance of the Guru and learn all aspects of life and not just a few like in the modern education system. The tea was not very inviting, but I could see the best food items in the monastery.
The place was just like any other home you see. The popular soft drinks seemed to be the favorites, as, besides their usual consumption, they were also used for Prayers as offerings.
Other things that were offered to me with tea included tinned cookies, obviously imported from India or some other country. All in all, I could not find any Satvik element in the food being consumed in monasteries. One thing that you may not appreciate is the Smell that most monasteries have, the kind of smell that makes you feel not so clean. In fact, a peculiar smell is all over the country, but it becomes more pronounced in monasteries, probably that is where the density of people is highest.
The other unusual thing was visiting a ‘Skills Competition’. Where there was a countrywide competition for skills like Tailoring, Embroidery, Wood Carving, Thangka painting, and Table setting. One of the organizers very sweetly took me around the whole competition and explained how they are trying to ensure that traditional skills like Thangka painting are not lost. And are also trying to make the youth of the country learn skills like tailoring and table setting so that they need not import these skills from India. It is an effort to ensure some level of employability also for the country which does not have many options for youth.
The Bhutan Kingdom
Bhutan is one of the few remaining kingdoms in the world where there is a complete monarchy. And the King’s word is the last word in the land. You would find the King’s photograph in every shop, every office, and every other place. People seem to be very happy with the king. Incidentally, the country is going to be a democracy next year onwards and is preparing for its first elections. Everywhere you see posters explaining to people what is a democracy. How does the electoral process take place? And what are their rights and responsibilities as citizens of the nation?
I was having a conversation with one of the Bhutanese hotel owners who had lived in various parts of the world. On monarchy vs democracy, he said ‘You know Anu, we have a lot of freedom, and I am not sure if this would continue’. I also found it to be a very liberal society. I was told that both polygamy and polyandry are legal there, as long as the first spouse agrees to them.
There are only three newspapers and two of them publish once a week and one twice a week. One of the ex-pats living in the country told me that they do not have enough news to publish newspapers every day. Even the weekly newspapers are filled with tender notices for the current infrastructure projects going on across the country, for the king’s coronation next year. The country does seem to be on a construction spree. All the roads are being rebuilt, new hotels popping up in both Thimphu and new government offices are being constructed.
Mobile & Internet
When I was doing my research before Bhutan Travel, I was told that there may not be any telephones. And this place is really cut off from the rest of the world. This is right to some extent, but you would not miss cell phones anywhere. The calling charges were high like the initial mobile days in India. But literally, everyone carries a cell phone. There were also quite a few internet cafes in both Thimphu and Paro, but the speed is pathetically slow. The telecom scene in the country today is what it used to be in India in the mid-nineties.
From one of the KBC episodes, I gathered that it is the only country in the world that has a total ban on smoking. The fact is correct but you would find people smoking everywhere. There is a fine on selling cigarettes, but not much fine if you are found smoking. One of the taxi drivers told me that you have to buy cigarettes in black.
One thing you are going to miss is the absence of plastic money. There are no ATMs and only at rare places can you use your credit cards. Which means you have to carry all the cash that you may need there. If you go from India, you would find everything costs at least twice what it costs in India. And this is because of the fact that most of the things are imported from India.
The country has traditional textiles and you see a lot of books describing textiles. I was told that most of the people weave their own clothes, and then I did notice that there were no shops selling clothes anywhere. Only clothes being sold were in the state emporiums which were selling the woven silk garments typically targeted at tourists. As they were so highly-priced that most of the local population would not be able to afford them.
I tried only one meal of Bhutanese food. They do not have many options for vegetarians. The meal had potatoes in Cheese sauce with local rice. Local rice is not very inviting to the eye, but it tastes very good. And it’s fun when the person can show you the field from which the rice came. Cheese, I am told is the key ingredient in most Bhutanese cooking. Perhaps it goes well with the climate there. But let me warn you that it can be very heavy for those of us who are not used to cheese-based cooking.
Apart from this, I must mention Season’s Pizzeria in Thimphu, where I probably had the best Pizza I have ever had in my life. I actually went back the last day to have some more. And I would recommend it to anyone touching Thimphu. It is a small place run by a lady called Sandhya, who caters primarily to the ex-pat population. And is like that corner lady who knows all of them along with their juicy tales.
You will cherish your trip to this mountainous nation.
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