Samtse symphony



A haven in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

The crossing into Bhutan was made so seamlessly, we were in the Land of the Thunder Dragon before we knew it. We entered from the south-western tip, from Siliguri in sub-Himalayan West Bengal. The road was rough in patches, flanked on both sides by pineapple orchards and acres of tea gardens; the landscape dotted with tea pickers bent over green bushes.

Forest everywhere

`Welcome to Bhutan,' said the bright banner above the Duar, the traditional gateway, which had dragons emblazoned on both sides. Into Samtse, squatting 800 metres above sea level, with an astounding and heart-warming 72 per cent of the district under forest cover, the Chamuchi River winding its unhurried way past the place. We passed the occasional man and woman in brightly sashed ghos and khiras, the Bhutanese robes, and smiles were happily exchanged.Samtse is not exactly the most populous of Bhutan's districts since the mountain-dwellers tend to shun what they believe are the `disease-ridden' plains; the locals are a mix of early Nepali settlers and the Lhopu tribe; the latter lot supposed to predate the Tibetans who came in from the north. They lead quiet, almost cloistered lives here, growing cardamom and oranges and farming their land.The local gompa, monastery, is believed to be 400 years old. The interiors were dark, serene, almost austere, with the larger-than-life statue of the Padmasambhava, rows of wicks in silver urns fuelled with yak butter, a brace of prayer wheels flanking an ornate chandelier, thangkas depicting the life cycle of the Buddha... and, of course, photographs of the King of Bhutan and the Dalai Lama.Outside, a thin mist had descended on Samtse. Little Lama boys were bent over a small, cemented pond, their eyes lit by laughter. Conversation proved to be an insurmountable barrier given their total lack of Hindi; moreover, we found even their gestures inscrutable!We'd come to town on the day of the weekly haat, the bazaar.

Variety fare

Vendors had spread their wares , with an interesting mix of Bangladeshi cloth, Tibetan kitsch, Maggi noodles, Amul cheese and all the famous Druk sauces, tinned fruit and jams from Bhutan. Lunch was eclectic with the local taashi bread, momos and rotis with good old moong dal. On our way back, we stopped at a little distillery where the affable manager showed us around. Premium brands like Bhutan Mist jostled for space alongside exotically named stuff like Dragon Rum and Jachung Brandy.One again, a border check, fast but thorough for all that. And we were back in north Bengal, Shangri La's cadence of hills and dales receding behind us in a shroud of mist and jungle.


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