LIFESTYLE

Bhutan Diaries: Or, A Week In Shangri La

05/06/2017 5:30 PM IST | Updated 05/06/2017 5:31 PM IST
StephenChing
Paro Taktsang is the popular name of Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as Tiger's Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliff side of the upper Paro valley, in Bhutan.

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At the Paro airport, I alight from the DrukAir flight in an oddly ambivalent state of mind, not quite knowing what to expect of my host country.

Hailing from a developing country like India, a vacation in a another developing country isn't exactly my idea of a fun holiday. Bhutan has been a late starter in practically all trappings of consumerism — electronics, hospitality, infrastructure. To me, this country seemed like a third-world caterpillar jostling with all the nimble-winged economies surging across the globe. I was all but convinced that it wasn't a bucket-list destination for the likes of me. What return-gift could I possibly expect, in terms of experience, from a country that lacked even basic infrastructure until the late 1960s and opened its doors to tourism only a few decades ago?

But since Puja's Law of Positivity says that a 5-night holiday package with 6 friends can turn even no man's land to Disneyland, I found myself on a Bhutan-bound flight, playing Scrabble with fellow pea-podders.

Bhutan's camaraderie with India is visible in the warmth with which we are greeted at the airport.

Bhutan's camaraderie with India is visible in the warmth with which we are greeted at the airport. The nation's core brand proposition, GNH or Gross National Happiness, smiles enigmatically from kiosks, billboards, and hoardings.

Driving from Paro airport to Thimpu, our van (sans bucket seats and shock absorbers) negotiates a bumpy ride across the voluptuous, curvy mountains.

Tenzing, a shy and soft-spoken local, is our 'Raju Guide' for the trip. En route, he enthralls us with local nuggets and cultural trivia about Bhutan. Tenzing's equanimity in the face of our barrage of questions is our first taste of Buddhist detachment and sangfroid. It contrasts sharply with our own harried look as we are being tossed around in the van — like ninepins in a bowling alley. (The bumps on our heads stand alibi.)

At Taj Tashi, our hotel in Thimpu, we are given a princely welcome. From the way the staff is bent upon spoiling us silly with a dozen-plus complementaries, we suspect they have mistaken us for the king's personal guests. Each meal is a royal spread, garnished with loads of hospitality. The hotel suites are like mini playgrounds. In the evening, the hotel organizes a scintillating traditional dance for us and also loans us those one-size-fits-all traditional Bhutanese attires which set us off on a vanity-fuelled, selfie-clicking spree. We sip sud-ja — an exotic Tibetan-style tea peppered with salt and butter, and join the dancers. Dinner is served everywhere between 7:00 and 9:00 PM. No late nights please as we are the last Shangrila (an affectionate moniker bestowed upon Bhutan by travel literature).

From the way the hotel staff is bent upon spoiling us silly with a dozen-plus complementaries, we suspect they have mistaken us for the king's personal guests.

The Thimpu valley is surrounded by steep mountains, dense with evergreen forests, rhododendrons and bamboo, rural villages, the ubiquitous monasteries, chortens (Lamaist monuments) and groves of colourful prayer flags fluttering on long poles, the wind carrying their entreaties up to heaven. We soak in the unhurried, unworried mood all around us.

The Bhutanese love chilies. Their mouth-scorching meals and chilli-infused condiments can catch you by surprise. The local fare is likely to be the national dish, ema datse (chilies and cheese), and meat of questionable vintage.

Two days of food, revelry, and hedonism fly off in a jiffy. It's time for another bumpy ride — this time to Punakha, our next stop. Built into steep cliffs, the road from Thimpu to Punakha is subject to regular landslides. Instead of much-needed guardrails, there are whimsical road signs — 'It's Not a Race Or Rally, Stop And Enjoy The Thimpu Valley'. And, every few miles, a simple, 'Thanks'.

The serene and fetching Densa Resort in Punakha is like a visual balm to our creaking sides and aching derrieres. What it possibly lacks on the service front (if pitted against Thimpu's Taj Tashi), it makes up in the freshness factor. My friends, of course, make up for everything else. Meeting a honeymooning couple from India further sparks up the evening.

Some more food, revelry and hedonism and we are off for one more bumpy ride to Paro, the last leg of our journey.

Paro's air is thin and pure, the sky a brilliant blue, and the surrounding mountains dotted with prayer flags.

Paro's air is thin and pure, the sky a brilliant blue, and the surrounding mountains dotted with prayer flags — rather dramatic. We start our day by pledging a trek to Tiger's Nest but chicken out after covering barely one-third of the mule dung-dotted path. Scuttling back to the base camp, we decide to shop at the roof-less stalls put up by the locals who seduce us saying, "Madam, thora shopping lelo... discount milega."

Trekking done with, we drive up to the Paro Dzong, a combination of monastery and district administrative centre, that resembles a medieval fortress in both, its construction and location. We are there to have our sins expunged. A swarm of monks suddenly appears from the courtyard as we stumble over each other to get a picture with the ascetics. Then, just as suddenly, the flock dissolves in a saffron blur at the far end of the dzong.

Lunch at Uma, the purported Ritz of Bhutan, doesn't quite match up to the resort's classy ambiance, or its inflated bill. However, ogling at the rugged hunk sitting at the table next to ours partly makes up for the dent in our wallets. The hunk is none other than Kellie Dorjee — Lara Datta's ex, for the uninitiated. Now don't ask me who's Lara Datta!

Our last evening at the Neksel Resort, Paro, is marked by champagne-popping and emotional bonding with Tenzing and a few hotel guests. At the airport, Tenzing bids us a warm farewell, as we tip him liberally and gift him bagfuls of the excess goodies picked up by us.

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