Our flight finally departed at around 9:40am, which was actually when it had originally been listed when we arrived at the airport. It was a fairly small but comfy plane which had begun its journey in Bangkok. No explanation was given, but looking outdoors it seemed a fair guess that fog/smog was to blame for the delay.
I’m going to guess that a lot of you are like me and haven’t actually heard of Bhutan before. Until Hans mentioned it and we started sorting out travel arrangements, I know I hadn’t! Well, it’s a small country nestled above the north-east corner of India. It borders India, Bangladesh, China and Tibet. The population is 635,000 or thereabouts – less than the population of a major UK city by quite a margin.
It is also unfeasibly, mindbogglingly, stunningly beautiful.
Remember that I’m a “mountain” person so I’m going to be somewhat biased, but the view you get flying into Paro is just jaw-dropping. The airport is tiny and the flight path takes you down a valley past many traditional wood and stone buildings perched on the side of steep hills. The airport building itself has been built and decorated in traditional style and is, frankly, the most wonderful airport building I have ever seen. Changi in Singapore may be all high-tech and impressive, Kuala Lumpur has free wireless, but Paro is just stunning.
This sight pretty much sets you up for what to expect. Bhutan only opened its borders to tourists in 1983 and limits how many can visit each year. All tours must be done through an authorised tourist agency (there are over 300) and it’s not cheap. Prices are set by the government and vary depending on time of year and size of tour group. As a rough guide, our group of two is costing us $US230 per day plus the visa ($US20) plus flight costs.
Groups of four or more people get down to $US200 per person a day peak season, $US165 a day off-peak (peak and off-peak seasons changed this year, and not in our favour). Of this fee, $US60 is various taxes which go directly back into the country itself to fund development, education and the like. Oh, and it’s all-inclusive to a large extent. Assuming you don’t want to snack or drink a bar dry, you needn’t put your hand back in your pocket again until you leave the country. Even if you do, the currency is directly linked to the Indian Rupee 1:1 and, in fact, Rupees are useable countrywide so if you’ve just come from India there’s no need to change currency.
Enough numbers and more about our day. As the plane landed, the announcement “Your excellency, ladies and gentlemen…” came over the tannoy. This did my ego no end of good until I later found out that a government minister was on board. Dammit.
We passed through the green “nothing to declare” route, only to be directly queried about whether we were bringing any cigarettes in. Neither Hans nor I are stupid enough to smoke, so we truthfully answered in the negative and walked into lovely smoke-free daylight. It is illegal to import tobacco into Bhutan (got to love this place) althought tourists can bring in up to 200 fags for personal use… as long as they pay 200% duty on them.
Our guide was waiting outside with a large sign with our names on. I think this is the first time I’ve ever had someone with a sign meet me at an airport. I’d have felt important if everyone else wasn’t being greeted in the same way.
We were walked to our chariot – a nice big 4×4 – complete with driver and clambered aboard. We were introduced (our guide was Jamyang, our driver Tshewang) and driven to our hotel with a short break for some photos of the cantilever bridge and fort.
The hotel was superb. Built of wood and stone with bright painted decoration it’s both old-fashioned and cosey. Easily the nicest place we’ve stayed in since we met up in Delhi. The bathroom’s sparkly clean, has hot water and the loo even has a padded seat!
We were provided with tea and biscuits while we settled in, then changed into long-sleeved and trousered clothing for a quick trip to a temple and the Rinpung Dzong (fort). First, though, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant which was utterly delicious. I am so glad my stomach decided that today was to be the first day of the rest of its life, and that I’d regained my appetite.
Bhutan is a Bhuddist country and the beliefs are followed… well… religiously. The temple we saw was most remeniscent of the Sri Lankan temples we’d seen, but still had very much its own style. Prayer wheels were embedded in all the walls, as well as one which was permanently spun by the course of a river. These metal cylinders are imprinted with the Bhuddist chant “Om mannie padme hom” (excuse my spelling) and filled with printed papers listing other blessings. Spinning them in a clockwise direction increases “merit” which helps a Buddhist achieve enlightenment. To some, this may sound like a silly tradition but as far as religious symbolism and ideals go, it’s a hell of a lot better then waging war on anyone who doesn’t believe in the same things you do.
Clockwise motion features in other ways, such as the direction one must walk around a temple. Our guide was fascinating, telling us of the history of the building and the significance of just about every decoration we saw. After around an hour we walked back to the 4×4 to be driven to the fort.
Rinpun Dzong is the main fort in Paro and houses studying monks as well as local administration offices. It’s another beautiful building built in the unique Bhutanese style and it perches on a hill over a fast-slowing clear mountain stream. We spent over an hour walking around as Jamyang told us of the various areas and functions. We ended by walking downhill and crossing the bridge we’d photographed earlier in the day.
We returned to the lunch restaurant for tea and cookies (choc chip, if you’re interested, and lovely) before taking a quick walk into town. We’d wanted to get online, but it turned out that today was exam results day and the cybercafes were all crammed with kids going online to find out if they’d passed or not.
Instead, we souvenir-shopped and picked up some postcards. Our guide very kindly paid as we had no local or Indian currency on us and the bank had closed so we couldn’t change or withdraw any money! I’m sure he’s running a tab…
Back at the hotel we were given more tea (for those of a scientific bent, cold weather and tea do act as a very effective diuretic – you can take that from both Hans and I) while we wrote out cards and soaked up the peace and quiet. Our guide then reappeared. He’d called one of the cybercafes and apparently it was now empty enough to make it worthwhile going down.
One over-long cyber-trip later, we returned to the hotel. If I didn’t get to your email, I’m sorry. I had a huge amount to get through and I was also trying to add credit to my mobile which Vodafone seems to be hell-bent on preventing me doing. To take my mind off the convoluted techo-mess they call a website, I buried myself in another delicious meal. Chicken, beef, fresh veg, rice, chillis, cheese parcels and fresh sliced banana (probably the best I’ve ever tasted) for dessert. Oh, man.
And then to bed with another early start tomorrow. We’re going to sleep well tonight. Especially when we pulled back the bed covers to find toasty hot water bottles tucked inside!
I’ll tell you – you don’t realise how noisy India, Bangladesh, London, Brisbane and the like are until you arrive in a tiny pocket hidden amongst the Himalayas. The silence is almost deafening. The purity of the air stifling. The chill of the breeze electrifying.
Not even a day here and I want to come back again.