Landing on the 6,500 feet Paro runway is not easy. The plane air-kisses precariously-perched houses and high fives 16,000 feet stoic mountains. Pilots have to rely less on instruments and more on visual meteorological conditions. No wonder, there are just eight pilots in the world who are certified to land at Paro.
As one steps out of the aircraft one cannot help but notice the brazen beauty of Bhutan. She is unwaveringly untouched. Poetically pristine. Above all she is shy. Very, very shy.
Sylvia Plath once wrote, “So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”
The thing about Bhutan is that every few people are interested in it. The few that are, are besotted by it. As you unbuckle your seat belt, your mind is prepared to leave a few things behind in the plane: the hurriedness of life, the urgency of expectations and the scarcity of attention.
In his brilliant piece, The Virtue of Stillness, Pico Iyer says, “In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still. You.”
Bhutan is still. It is quiet. Its valleys whisper. Its rivers gurgle. Its mountains, mute in their majesty.
Great hotels are thoughtful first, beautiful later and efficient, lastly. As Pema, our guide and friend ushered us into the waiting car, he handed us a kit that contained candied ginger, a little something that would prevent motion sickness. It was gesture tossed in thoughtfulness.
And then, without much ado, he whispered, “Welcome to Amankora.” Combining the Sanskrit word for ‘peace’ with kora or ‘circular pilgrimage’ in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, Amankora is a series of lodges punctuating the central and western valleys of Bhutan.
Bhutan’s rivers have forged deep valleys curtained by high mountain passes. Historically isolated, each valley’s scenic distinctiveness and topography gives visitors an opportunity for unique journeys of discovery between them. These are multi-faceted journeys. They are journeys of geography, of history, of culture, of food, of wellness, of calmness. Above all, they are discoveries of oneself.” The lodges are located in the valleys of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang. They are siblings of solitude, simplicity and sophistication.
We first arrived at The Aman in Thimpu. In The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre wrote, “ Home’s where you go to when you’ve run out of homes.” And The Aman is just that for its countless devotees. A home of a fine friend. There are no receptions. No lobbies. And the architecture overwhelms you.
Unknown to many, there are actually a lot of things to do in Thimpu. There is the absolutely majestic Trashi Chhoe Dzong, seat of the government and royal offices. It warrants a visit.
I also have a deep interest in food, so The Farmer’s Market in Thimpu was right up there on my list of things to do. It is spotlessly clean. Pick up some deviously spicy dalley paste from there. And while at it, do stock up on kargyong (smoked, dry sausages). The pork in Bhutan is pure joy.
Incense (Poi) is also an integral part of Bhutanese life. And it comes to life in the market. There are sacks containing Juniper and Cypress. I carried back truckloads of them.
And of course, you must buy yourself a Goh, their national dress for men. It is absolutely way too cool.
Bhutan is also the Mecca of handmade paper. It is made from the bark of two trees: Daphne and Dhekap. In fact, a trip to Thimpu is incomplete without a visit to the Jungshi Paper Factory. It has all kinds of paper and paper products. Including the one made with marijuana leaves.
After all the divine shopping, make room for the divine. I was fortunate to spend two hours with Mynak Tulku, the 12th Reincarnate Lama of the famous Mynak Rinpoche.
The next day, it was time to visit Punakha. Formerly, the capital of Bhutan, Punakha has tremendous significance to this day. All ceremonies of significance commence there. Including the wedding of the beloved King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, which took place at the Punakha Dzong, another architectural marvel.
At Punakha, I recommend a picnic by the river. The Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers in the Punakha–Wangdue valley are beautiful. Spread a table and some sunshine besides them.
Our last leg in Bhutan took us back to Paro. Don’t expect a red carpet welcome. Instead expect a bed of orange pine needles leading you into the lodge. A beautiful stream that cuts across the property. This stream is used to water the myriad plants of the Aman’s own herb garden. Equally lovely is the coop which breeds hens that supply fresh eggs to your table for breakfast.
Paro’s main street has the loveliest places. Do pop by at the Champaca Café. It has the most charming coffee in Asia. And a staggering carrot cake. The trinkets store next to it has remarkable bead bracelets and chimes. Across the road are stores selling some heart-warming yak wool scarves.
In Paro, light 108 butter lamps at Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s oldest temples dating back to the 7th century. The lighting symbolises dispelling the darkness of ignorance and helps increase one’s merit in life. What also lights up your eyes is the brilliant Bhutanese cuisine. While the non-vegetarian fare pairs odd lads like beef with radish, it is the vegetarian fare (spinach) that ignites the soul.
I switch on the music on my headphones on the flight back to India. It’s the Eagles. Hotel California. “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” That’s Bhutan. You leave. It stays.
From HT Brunch, November 13
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