“What instrument do you measure Gross National Happiness with?” we’re asked, ten minutes into our ride from the airport. I contemplate this question for a moment, trying to think of a profound and wise reply but Mal comes back quickly with “Why by the size of the smile on your dial. The bigger the smile the more happiness buck you’ve got in the soul bank”. “Then I hope you will feel like a wealthy man after leaving Bhutan” comes back the reply...
If smiles are anything to go by there was certainly a lot of deposits being made. The moment we entered the embarkation hall in Tribhuvan Airport at Nepal in readiness to board our DrukAir flight, the smiles were wide and the atmosphere filled with eager chattering and laughing. It was as if we were all about to head off on a big school excursion, the excitement palpable. We all knew we were going to the same place, possibly see the same things and most probably, bump into each other along the way. People were introducing themselves and asking ‘which tour company’ and ‘when are you hiking Tigers Nest’.
It would have to have been one of the few flights I’ve ever taken where everyone is happy and chatty and when it was time to disembark we’re all blissfully waiting our turn to file up the aisle with not a single huff and puff in sight. Not even when we realised we all had to wait for the VIP that was on our plane to be given a red-carpet roll out and all the staff of the airport ran onto the tarmac for form a guard of honour.
Once off the plane we are greeted by the prettiest airport embellished in beautiful decorative artwork and large billboard sign displaying a most handsome couple – the fifth king of Bhutan – Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his beautiful queen – Jetsun Pema . Cameras are whipped out and people start wandering around the tarmac posing beside the plane, the terminal, and in front of the billboard. There’s a feeling was of complete cheerfulness and unlike other airports where security is at a premium and any sign of a camera brings scowls and reprimands, not so at Paro International Airport. Inside passengers are in awe of the decorative ceiling and continue clicking away at the mandala that takes centre stage. By time we’ve get to baggage collection many of us have introduced ourselves, compare itineraries and depart with a ‘might see you around at one of the towns’.
Outside the front door of the airport everyone is gathered up by their guide and driver. There’s not a taxi tout in sight – just lots of men dressed in Ghos (the National dress for men in Bhutan) and wide smiles. Straight away we see our names on a placard held by a man in his thirties – he has dark hair, beautiful twinkling eyes and beaming smile – our guide. Next to him stands our driver, of equal age, but he has a quiet contemplative look about him. They both look extremely distinguished in their sharply pressed-not-a-wrinkle-in-sight Ghos.
For a split second I get a slight panic feeling as I think, oh my I hope these guys are nice, we’re about to spend nearly every minute of the next 17days with each other – I hope we’re friends at the end of it.
Our first night in Bhutan will be spent in Paro itself, about a half-hour drive from the airport and yet it’s almost next door to the town. The reason it takes so long is we have to traverse the full length of the airport landmass – twice. Once up one side of the runway, over a river and then back the full length only the road runs out at one section and we enter a ‘paddock’ with a bumpy track which we need to crawl along.
“Free massage” quips our guide.
Just past the airport we stop for our very first sight - a magnificent white building on the side of a cliff. Below it, the sweetest little covered bridge and above it sits another white and redbrick structure, also clinging to the cliff – the watchtower. This is the Paro Dzong, also known as Rinchen Pung Dzong. A fortress that was first built around 1644 and over the years has survived earthquakes and fires to rise many times over. Our guide tells us we’ll be exploring this in the afternoon and leads us across the road to a grassy park-like area where archery practice is taking place. He directs us to almost centre of the firing line and tells us to take a seat. “What in front of the archers” I exclaim. “Don’t worry madam, they are professionals.” An arrow wizzes past and thuds into the small target that’s been ‘stabbed’ into the ground.I look at the tree next to me – there are perfectly round holes in its trunk.
We’re zipped through the main street of Paro – ‘old town’ – a quaint little town full of building adorned in glorious art and colour and my eyes widen when I notice that many of the drawings are of large than life penises, and out again, heading towards forested mountains and chequer-board farmlands till we soon arrive at our hotel cum resort. We will notice that nearly every hotel/guest house has the word resort in their name…but they nothing like the standard resorts found in other Asian countries. These are quaint little hotels with gorgeous gardens and lots of stone steps. There won’t be a pool in sight nor a cocktail bar… and definitely no kids club.
Within seconds of arriving at the resort two petite women appear, wearing long skirts and beautiful silk blouses and they have our twenty kilo backpacks out of the car and are carrying them up the steps to the lobby. We protest but they ignore us and shuffle away, Mal runs after them and tries to take the bag off one – there’s a little tug-a-war. The woman wins.
Our room is amazing and the view spectacular but we are given no time to ooh and arh and we’re whisked away for lunch – our first taste of Bhutanese food. Our taste buds are salivating.Our tastebuds are salivating. We're to eat back in Paro and are led to back streets where every building is beautifully decorated and windows hand with chili drapes. Up a set of old and somewhat dark steps, we enter into a room that is as exquisitely painted inside as out and we sit down, excitedly await for the menu. It doesn't arrive. Instead our table is laden with various dishes - rice, noodles, broccoli, cabbage, fried chicken and momos. We stare at it and feel a slight touch of dismay. Other than the momos, it all looks very western - and very plain. We wonder, where's the spice, where's the flavour we've heard so much about. I scoop up rice and vegertables onto my plate and am just about to lift my first fork full into my mouth when a cockroach crawls out of the rice. Oh dear... it's not a good start. But all is quickly forgotten an hour later when we head for the "Fortress on a Heap of Jewels" - the Paro Dzong.
Our guide takes us first to the old watchtower, which was until three years ago the National Museum, but was damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The museum is now in an impressive building just behind the tower. Here we see the incredible masks of the Tsechus (festivals) that Bhutan is famous for and age-old stunning thangkas – some hundreds of years old; their colours still vibrant.
Downhill, past farm homes with chilli’s spread across their rooves to dry – ‘a hot tin roof’ quips Mal - we hike to the massive fortress, the Dzong. Before going in our guide puts a cream colour scarf across his Gho – it is required that all visitors to Dzongs be attired in formal wear – and this includes tourists – women must have long sleeves and men to wear collared shirts. The Dzong is incredible. We walk up a huge flank of steps past two enormous doors and into a darken corridor adorned in stunning buddhist art – wheel of life, images of Guru Rinpoche and the four friends.
From the corridor we step out into a stunning courtyard with a temple in the middle. Our guide tells us that Dzongs house both a monastic community and administration services for the area and some have courts. We don’t know where to look first, the art work and majesticness of the Dzong has us spellbound. One thing we must remember is to always walk clockwise around anything. There are prayer wheels everywhere to and each time we past one we give it a spin, sending out endless prayers to the universe. The Dzong sits on the edge of a cliff and has the most commanding views of the Paro valley and river below – the Pho Chuu. .
As we stare down at it, the DrukAir flight leaving the Paro Airport flies past. After hours of being mesmerised by the beautiful artwork of the Dzong and its temple, we then trek down a wooded path to the quaint timber and rammed earth covered bridge that crosses the Pho Chuu. It’s adorable.
The sun is beginning to lower and the air turns to chill and a stiff breeze whips up but this doesn’t deter us from wanting to explore the ‘old town’ of Paro. At first our guide stays close and tries to direct us to various shops, but I am not use to being led around. This is my first time ever on a tour and a first time every with a guide – both a requirement for your tourist visa to Bhutan. We ask our guide if we are allowed to wander around the town by ourselves. He’s reluctant to let us – this being our first day – and tells us that he should be with us, to help. We assure him we won’t go far and agree to meet him in an hour. Once away I find a charm and delight in discovering Paro.
Every building is decorated – Hansel and Gretel windows painted with flowers and swirling linesThe sun is beginging to lower and the air turns to chill and a stiff breeze whips up but this doesn’t deter us from wanting to explore the ‘old town’ of Paro. At first our guide stays close and tries to direct us to various shops, but I am not used to being led around. This is my first time ever on a tour and a first time ever with a guide – both a requirement for your tourist visa to Bhutan. We ask our guide if we are allowed to wander around the town by ourselves. He’s reluctant to let us – this being our first day – and tells us that he should be with us, to help. We assure him we won’t go far and agree to meet him in an hour. Once away I find a charm and delight in discovering Paro. Every building is decorated – Hansel and Gretel windows painted with flowers and swirling lines.
Ribbons of chilli’s hang over the windows like curtains and Buddhist artefacts, smiling penises and gold and wooden prayer wheels peek out of glass panes. Inside the shops are filled with the finest weavings, ornate carvings, softest scarfs and vibrant thangkas – a treasure trove of incredible workmanship. As I watch a woman sit at a handloom, weaving the most intricate piece of fabric, I feel the presence of my guide – it’s time to head back to the resort, he tells us. Dinner is at seven and we are whisked off.
We bid good evening to the driver and guide and go into the resorts restaurant – it’s a buffet meal, enjoyable, but all continental dishes. Just as we’re finishing our main the staff come over to ask if we care for any more as they are about to remove the buffet – there’s a second sitting. We go to move but they say we can stay for our coffee; they are just clearing away the food. The restaurant fills up - Indian Nationals - and then our noses are tantalised, spicy aromas waft past - the new dishes being put out are curries. I watch Mal’s face drop at the realisation he is too full to indulge. We wander back out into the common sitting area, order a Druk Larger. “At least it’s not dry Tuesday” I tease him – a smile splashes across his dial.
Hello! I'm Kerry
. . . a plan-nothing, have no idea where I'm going travelholic.
A daughter of the gypsies and the wife of a workaholic, I'm forever wondering 'What's over there?' and devising ways to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence of small-business ownership responsibilities and every-day life tangles to discover it.
and this is my book.
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