An ancient Buddhist culture that pervades every corner of this Himalayan kingdom takes ARUNA CHANDARAJU on an unforgettable journey across Bhutan.
Mt. Everest was outside our window! Incredibly beautiful. As stunning as the world's highest peak can look on a bright, sunny day. The billowing clouds and mist-curtains that had serenaded our plane till now, magically moved away at the right moment to show us this section of Himalayan range in all its glory — every contour and ridge clearly outlined in the brilliance of the early morning sun.
We had been advised to take seats on the left side of the small aircraft of Druk Air — the only airlines that flies in and out of Bhutan — on our way there, and the right side on the way back, for the best views. And also not to worry about scary lurches of the plane while landing and take-off since Paro airport is one of the world's most challenging airports to land in.
Bhutan is indeed exotic. By nature. And by design. For one, it has breathtakingly beautiful scenery and an ancient Buddhist culture including a rich art and craft heritage. Also, the mountain kingdom which remained closed to the outside world for ages, even now deliberately encourages only a limited access to tourism and fiercely guards its traditions.
So, even with great appeal to many kinds of travellers, Bhutan is, mercifully, not overrun by touristy hordes or resorts of all kinds, even at its major attractions. In fact, Taj Tashi in the capital, Thimphu, where we stayed, is the city's only five-star property. From the fabulous views the rooms offer to the gourmet cuisine, including Bhutanese specialities; and thematic interiors with classical hand-painted murals and ethnic musical instruments; Taj Tashi which reflects Dzong architecture, does all it can to match the enchantment of the land and people outside. The all-day restaurant Thongsel serves European cuisine and a wide range of Indian staples and specialities.
Five days might seem like a long visit in a tiny country, but not when it offers so much. Thimphu's Folk Heritage Museum provides insights into ethnic culture. We also visited Memorial Chorten, a monument to peace cum memorial to late king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk.
The towering National Library building with elegant handcrafted products, houses the world's largest published book Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom. Weighing a staggering 60 kg it's seven by five feet! Buddhism pervades every aspect of life in Bhutan — even this library has a shrine with chorten.
We trudged up a steep, winding road to Takin Zoo to see the takin, Bhutan's national animal with an antelope's body and goat's head. It is an unusual-looking creature with peaceful demeanour and unseemly gait.
Dinner at Chig Ja Gye restaurant in Taj Tashi embellished with gold-leaf paintings and dhungs (horn instruments) offered what is hard to find in India — a spread of authentic Bhutanese cuisine. The Ara Bar, named after Bhutan's traditional liquor, has folk-music instruments for wall-art.
The ride to Punakha takes you past scenic mountains including Dochula Pas which offers a 360-degree view of the Himalayas when the weather holds good — it did for us. Bridges and monasteries festooned with colourful prayer flags; pretty prayer wheels on roadsides and quaint farmhouses punctuate the landscape.
The drive to historic Paro town also offered great views. Taktshang Monastery, Drukgyel Dzong, National Museum, Kyitchu Lhakang, and Jangsarbu Lhakang with its famed Sakyamuni Buddha statue, are major tourist draws.
There is not much the interiors offer by way of shopping; so our forays were limited to sightseeing and getting acquainted with local culture — most Bhutanese know Hindi. Thimphu's only major shopping centre, Norzin Lam Road, is a small stretch crowded with shops. From exquisite Thangkha paintings, woven textiles, wood carvings and stone figurines, we found a wide, but expensive, range of handmade products.
Another amazing sighting of Mt. Everest on the return flight to Kolkata and we were ready for the haul back to our hometowns.