The Happy Kingdom
The lofty Himalayas stand tall in all their glorious splendour as the sun shines brightly after days of cold and chilly weather. I stand there hyponotised for more than 10 minutes, as four mountain bikers covered in the slickest adventure gear zip past me in a hurry. My local guide, Karma, whispers in hushed tones, “Don’t stare, that’s his Majesty! (sic)”. I look back in excitement as the group fades behind the winding turn, just as the last guard turns around with a dismissive smile to make sure that we aren’t following them. Typical of all the ‘king’s men’ I guess as I get back into my car, dejected at a missed photo opportunity.
I am atop one the many mountains in Thimphu, the capital city of the hilly kingdom of Bhutan – the land of the flying tigress and the thundering dragon. An hour away from the picturesque Paro – the sole international airport in the country. Thimphu is the only capital city in the world without any traffic lights. Inhabitants seem to prefer the white-gloved stiff traffic cop gesticulating to control the thin trickle of vehicles.
This doesn’t surprise me anymore. As I have realised walking through the green pastures and dark alleys of the city, that Bhutan which became a democracy very recently, is in the midst of a transformation – from the traditional to the contemporary. Being here is like being stuck in a jammed time machine going through some repair work. People still wear their traditional outfits (Go for men and Kira for women) on an everyday basis, colourful prayer flags flutter at every corner, crimson-robed monks walk around lost in their chants, paintings of ancient whimsical characters adorn homes and almost everything sold on the streets is handmade from local produce. Justified, considering that it’s also the only country in the world that measures the quality of life and social progress through GNP or Gross National Happiness rather than the customary GDP or Gross Domestic Product.
Even our hotel, the Taj Tashi, located in the heart of Thimphu, showcases a magnificent combination of the traditional Bhutanese Dzong architecture and modern design. The lavishly appointed interiors reflect the charm of ancient Buddha art while the burnt ochre and charcoal walls contrast with intricately hand-painted murals. With a breathtaking view of the pristine mountains from almost all of the 66 elegantly done-up rooms, the property, replete with dramatic paintings, ceiling motifs and the impeccable hospitality takes luxury a notch higher.
Walking around the narrow pathways is the best way to explore Thimphu and an easily identifiable central point to start from is the Trashi Chhoe Dzong or the fortress by the bank of the river Wang Chhu. Built in the 18th century, this white-washed magnificent structure with triple-tiered golden roofs, houses the secretariat, throne room and offices of the king and the ministries of home affairs and finance. The neatly-cobbled pathway lined by luscious cherry trees leads to the huge courtyard and the Lhakang Sarpa or the New Temple. The area has an imposing air around it, and quite understandably so for the king’s palace – cleverly camouflaged by thick foliage – is just a stone’s throw away.
A long walk uphill leads to the Dechen Phodrang, a Buddhist monastery, with a school for student monks enrolled for courses that last up to eight years. The monastery is an exciting treasure trove of art, for it houses some 12th-century paintings monitored by UNESCO and a noted statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (a revered figure who unified Bhutan as a nation) and the Goenkhang (chapel devoted to protective and terrifying deities). Young monks shyly smile at us as they dip biscuits into their butter tea, watching us with a bemused expression as we excitedly walk around the temple rotating the multi-coloured prayer wheels. In an unexpected gesture, we are invited inside the temple once the chanting starts. The rituals look very intense and intimidating as we huddle together quietly in a corner at the back. As if on cue, a young monk not more than 10 years of age, gets tea and a big bowl of savouries exhibiting the hospitality the country is known for. It feels surreal as the aroma of the sandalwood incense and Buddhist chants fill up the tiny room and I sit back sipping my butter tea, warming my hands against the hot cup. We notice a couple of adolescent monks stealing a curious glance at our girl gang, even as the teacher looks at them scornfully. Boys will be boys!
Gathering our pashminas, we take leave and head out to Kuensel Phodrang or the Buddha Point. Situated on top of a hill, the Point is the best place to get a bird’s eye view of the entire Thimphu valley with the largest Buddha statue for company in the background. Made of bronze and gilded gold the incomplete statue seems daunting already and is expected to hold a dazzling 1000-piece diamond on the forehead upon completion!
We decide to call it a day after a quick stopover at the Motithang Preserve which houses the Takin – the national animal of Bhutan. As mystical and ancient as the country it resides in, the Takin created by ‘The Divine Madman’ is perhaps one of the most distinctive species in the world, with a goat’s head and an antelope’s body!
A sumptuous dinner at the Taj’s authentic Bhutanese restaurant, Chig Ja Gye, comprises some delectable kakru jaju – garlic flavoured pumpkin soup and norsha paa – braised beef with radish, local dry chillies and spring onions along with the usual accompaniment of kharang or broken corn and white rice and ema datshi – Bhutan’s national dish that is a splendid combination of fiery chillies and creamy cheeses.
The next day starts really early at 6 a.m. As we gather at the hotel’s lobby, our group of eight is divided about trekking up to the Taktsang Monastery or lazing around the scenic Paro town. Decision made, three of us hike up the six-hour trail to the monastery on top of a cliff. Legend has it that Padmasambhava (one of the main leaders) flew to Taktsang (Tiger’s lair) from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated here for years. I pick up a string of hardened yak cheese to keep me going through the 800-odd steps (after a two-hour long hike) that lead to the main temple. The blazing sun and the rugged pathway make the walk difficult but as soon as you catch the first glimpse of the monastery, floating on the clouds, every step seems worth its sweat.
The walk back is quick and leads us directly to the local cafeteria. Tired and hungry, we settle down for kewa fin or potato and glass noodles with naya tsoem (Bhutanese fish curry). Continuous rounds of chicken momos served with hot chilli dip complete our rural gastronomical experience.
The mighty Himalayas are revered in Bhutan and form an integral part of the culture, beliefs and customs. Visiting the Dochula Pass in the Punakha district thus becomes vital for our group as the trip ends. Located at about 3000m above sea level, the spot provides a spectacular 360 degree view of the regal Himalayan range. The 108 Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens or stupas built by the eldest Queen Mother add a mystic aura to the area. The detailed work in the temple demonstrates the blending of the past and the present to narrate the tale of a supreme warrior whose vision pierces the distant future; befitting for this small kingdom that is slowly emerging on its own terms in the world. As per tradition, I tie the multicoloured prayer flags and make my wish, as brooding dark clouds begin to descend, to cover up the unforgettable view, even as the blurring mountains stand tall on the distant horizon.
Cheese stew and yak meat
The Chig Ja Gye 108 is a must visit authentic Bhutanese restaurant at the Taj Tashi. Dramatically done up in black and brown, the restaurant provides the most sumptuous flavours of the country. Bhutanese cuisine uses a lot of red rice, buckwheat and maize. Their diet also includes chicken, yak meat, dried beef, pork, pork fat and lamb. Soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils and dried vegetables spiced with chillies and cheese are a local favourite. The ubiquitous ema datshi – Bhutan’s national dish and a personal favourite – is a stew made of cheese and raw green chillies and a must in the winters. The executive chef, Arun, replaces the chillies with beans on our first day which tastes just as brilliant. Another must from his kitchen is the Dolom ngou-ngou or the butter garlic sautéed aubergines which make for a fine accompaniment with the thick red rice and some chilled white wine.
The Jiva Spa at the Taj Tashi equipped with luxurious single and double treatment suites is the perfect salve for sore feet and a weary body after all the hiking and trekking across Bhutan. Their signature treatment Manda Snana (intoxicating bath) not only calms the mind but detoxifies the body leaving you in a relaxed and sublime state. The treatment starts with the traditional hot stone bath and involves the release of minerals to ease tension, relieve stiffness, revitalise and re-hydrate the entire body. This is followed by a deep exfoliation and an invigorating scrub infused with essential oils and local herbs.