Eagerly looking through the airplane window, I couldn’t wait to see the scenery unfold as the clouds cleared. Bhutan has only one international airport in Paro – the only town that has sufficient flat land for a runway long enough to allow a small passenger jet to land. But given the heavily mountainous terrain, landing in Bhutan is restricted to specially trained pilots from Bhutanese carriers. These skilled airmen are able to perform acrobatic manoeuvres to weave aircraft through the mountains to land on the small strip of tarmac. One of the most treacherous descents in the world makes for spectacular viewing as the 5000+ metre cliffs magically open out into Paro Valley.
Driving from the airport to Thimphu, there’s a glimpse of the 15th century, with the restored iron chain suspension bridge which has origins in the 1400s, attributed to a Tibetan saint, Thangtong Gyalpo, who moved to Bhutan from Tibet. This, like many other bridges in Bhutan, is festooned with several multi-coloured prayer flags that flutter quietly in the wind.
Prayer flags are extremely popular in Bhutan. They essentially consist of rectangular pieces of cloth of one of five colours with mantras and religious chants printed on them. The Bhutanese believe that as the wind brushes past the prayer flags, it carries the good energy associated with the mantras to everywhere it blows. So it’s very common to see the Bhutanese tying up new flags, particularly on special occasions.
Each Bhutanese temple usually has a story connected with it, and many were built by people who once came from Tibet. The beautiful Memorial Chorten is a Tibetan style stupa that was built in memory of the Third King of Bhutan by his mother. As in all Bhutanese temples, you are enveloped with a sense of calm, renewed energy, and rejuvenation. There are also plenty of opportunities to light butter lamps at each of these temples and just sit inside and reflect, contemplate life and pray – with nothing but the wind or the noise of a nearby river in the background. I often sat for several hours, initially just thinking, staring into space, and then trying to meditate (with varied success!). Temples usually have many of Bhutan’s elderly who come to spend their retirement in meditation, spinning prayer wheels or murmuring ancient chants.
The Changanghka Lhakhang is another temple, built in the 12th century by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo who came from Tibet. Traditionally, this lhakhang is visited by many Bhutanese parents who come to get auspicious names for their newborns.
Thimphu city, with its numerous temples, is quite a slow-moving, sleepy capital city (despite being the busiest city in Bhutan). You’ll hear the locals talk about rush hour traffic at 9am (I was shocked to hear the small line of 5-10 cars being described as traffic) and plenty of handicraft shops geared to tourists. Given I was there in January, most of the cafes in Thimphu were closed for the month. It was only then I realised that they too were almost entirely geared towards foreign visitors (who are few and far between due to the biting cold weather in January). Luckily for me, the Art Cafe was open – I went twice and greedily gobbled their delicious carrot cake.
As you walk through Thimphu’s streets and see its wooden and clay buildings constructed in classic Bhutanese style, with interlocking wood and no nails, you’ll begin to understand its old world charm. Adding to Thimphu’s charm is the Trashi Chhoe Dzong – the fortress that is home to the secretariat, office of the King, ministries of home affairs and finance, and the summer residence of the central monastic body. Standing in the central courtyard, the imposing architecture humbles you into silence; an atmosphere of serenity, with locals dressed in their traditional garments silently perambulating across the courtyard. Typically at dusk (around 5pm) there is a routine flag lowering ceremony to signal the end of the working day where Bhutan’s armed forces lower and carry away the national flag, after which tourists are allowed to go inside the fortress.
One other thing that you notice after a while is that you never see any traffic lights in the city. Bhutan is the only country in the world that doesn’t have any traffic lights in its capital. Instead, policeman stand at busy intersections to manage the flow of traffic. Apparently the government tried introducing a set of traffic lights at a particularly busy roundabout and there was a public outcry, resulting in the traffic lights being removed and policemen being brought back in. Coming from Sri Lanka where policeman are constantly yelling, violently flailing their arms and blowing whistles, watching this policeman was like seeing a ballet dancer in action – no sound, just gentle flowing movements, which the public obediently followed!
Bhutan’s local fare is mostly vegetarian, as every living animal has equal right to live in Bhutan – so if any fish/meat is served, it’s usually imported. Vegetable dishes in Bhutan are curiously almost always accompanied with cheese, and are most often eaten with red rice. The most popular of these dishes is ema datshi – chillies with cheese, which is considered the national dish and available everywhere. I was fortunate that the first few times, it was “spiced down” so as to avoid burning my tongue and stomach, and lured me into a false sense of bravado. Little did I know what the real version was. Needless to say, my mouth exploded, much to the amusement of the kind lady who had served it. A fantastic (albeit slightly touristy) place to have a traditional Bhutanese vegetarian lunch would be the set menu at Folk Heritage Museum cafe in Thimphu – very atmospheric, with amazing floor cushion seating (book a day in advance). I also had my first sampling of traditional butter tea – typically made from tea leaves, water, salt and yak butter – although butter from cow’s milk is more widely used now given its lower cost. Butter tea, being quite rich (butter is the primary ingredient) and resembling more a purplish broth than the classic cup of earl grey, requires a slightly acquired taste but is a fundamental part of Bhutanese and Tibetan life.
My vote for favourite dish, however, has to go to the momos – steamed dumplings with a filling of some kind – a delicacy in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and Northeastern India, complemented with a light, spicy chilli chutney. The best momos in town have to be at the Zombala 2 restaurant – a very down-to-earth, canteen-style eatery where the eclectic clientele vary from Buddhist monks playing on their phones, families with children, teenagers on dates, and the odd tourist.
While much of Bhutan’s scenic beauty lies outside of its towns and cities, Thimphu has a small oasis of majestic, towering blue pines and takins at the Takin National Reserve – a short drive from the town centre. Bhutan’s national animal, the takin, is a very peculiar creature. It’s a cross between a cow and a goat and according to local mythology was formed when a Tibetan saint – Drukpa Kunley (“The Divine Madman”) – fused the head of a goat to a skeleton of a cow that he had eaten for lunch in a flurry of magic to create a live animal. The animal is commonly seen roaming on the hillsides of Bhutan and is revered because of its magical creation.
I also ventured to one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries – Cheri Goemba (a short drive from Thimphu). An hour-long hike up a fairly steep mountain slope led to the tranquil, secluded monastery nestled at the top. There were barely any visitors apart from the monks who lived there and the friendly mountain goats grazing quietly on the slopes. Built in 1620, it is still an important place for meditation in Bhutan, with several monks here for the standard three years, three months and three days. Sitting and staring outside the monastery on a cement seat was like living on top of the world – seeing the world unfold before you, with the only sound being the rustle of the leaves in the gentle breeze and the river making its way down the mountain.
Fun tip I would give a fellow traveller?
Visit the National Post Office in Thimphu, borrow a gho (traditional Bhutanese dress for men) or kira (for women) and pay about £5 to get a set of personalised international postage stamps with a photo of you in them – and you can actually use them on post cards and send it to people!
Up next: Wandering through the Gangtey and Phobjika Valleys in Central Bhutan