Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Was wondering what I had let myself in for when I agreed to spend four days of my short Christmas holidays in Bhutan with my family in exchange for the haven called home.Mymother,sister and my aunt picked me up in Baghdogra for a night of halt at Sikkim house in Siliguri.We mentally geared up for the travel to Bhutan ,a country so close in distance to India and in culture to the land of Sikkim which has a history of matrimonial alliances with the country amongst the royalties then.
Phunstoling was a four hour’s drive from Siliguri .We crossed Doars,a stretch of tea estates,Binaguri,where an uncle of mine had been posted as an army officer long back,Jalgaon,a border of sorts infamous for giving shelter to the dissidents from either side of the border.Incidently,it also had a historical connection to my family.My great grandfather,had apparently been a missionary in the area.I heard it for the first time from my sister.Just prior to reaching Jalgaon we lost time about a kilometre towards Assam instead of taking a turn and so had to drive back and take the right route again.
We were in Phuntsoling by twelve in the afternoon.We ordered Bhutanese food which consisted of redrice,pork curry cooked with chilly(Bhutanese style),ematachee(cheese with chilly),a Bhutanese delicacy and pork ribs…and proceeded to the local immigration office for passes to go further inside.

It was interesting watching a variety of people lined up for passes to go to Thimpuand onwards.We were treated to the rare opportunity of seeing a few locals behind the counter who were extremely gracious to us.We overheard a few tourists from Bengal appreciating the system and comparing it with the pan-chewing ,cha drinking da’s who man the counter and refuse to move the papers unless one greases the palm,in Bengal.
Phunstoling had been recommended to us for shopping.We dutifully scoured the shops to be hit by an onslaught of chinese and Indian goods.We are a prejudiced lot against anything chinese,sans the people ofcourse, but we just could not miss it.
Hotels were booked to the hilt.We got ourselves a suite to be shared amongst the four of us which calculated to be a comfortable,spacious and an economical deal but the hotel was ,I think, a relatively new one and there were a lot of hiccoughs on the way.To top it all,sleep evaded me and my eyes fell on a picture on the wall.It was the picture of the famous monastery(ParoThakchang) built out of and on a 600 ft high rock .I kept staring at it and the rock on top of the monastery looked more like a sleeping dragon covering the entire structure.It had me on my knees praying hard ,even as I read through the psalms..till I felt at peace and fell asleep.
Early next morning,started our journey to Thimpu at seven.Four hours later we were on a way-side restaurant at Gedo,tucking in a breakfast of noodles and warm Tibetan tea flavoured with butter to warm our bones even as the temperature dropped.We saw an unusual sight of vegetables like brinjal being dried in the sun ,to be preserved for colder days .

The drive to Thimpu was long.Just around an hours drive from Thimpu,we saw a familiar site of a GREF settlement and a sign which read ‘Wet canteen’-brought back memories of hot sweet chai and pakoras while jogging in the Ridge park during our school days and ofcourse we stopped.We enjoyed the repast,it was upto our expectation.
We expected Thimpu to surprise us because there was no sign of civilization even till we reached the gate which read’Welcome to THimpu’.It was a gentle drive down the valley to the city of Thimpu,an exotic city.The traffic was disciplined,the shops neat,people genteel ,apologetic and tame.The shops overflowed with over-priced local stuff.We walked past the stalls which sold ethnic goods,there were beautiful handicrafts,bags,shawls,Khiras,coatmaterials,wallhangings,metal stuff and tibetain prayer items all exhibited butexorbitantly priced.
We bought a few kitkats and lunch was a make do affair since it was past two and the restaurants are closed between two to five.We decided to stop at Paro,acity,half an hours drive from Thimpu but famous for it’s landscape and the taktsang monastery which had kept me awake the previous night.
Paro at night reminded me of a small english hamlet,a lovely small town with an avenue of ethnic structures with uniformly carved wooden sign boards on either side of the street selling everything from big brand goods to the local stuff,neat ,controlled and visually aesthetic.This was a country which liked to preserve it’s culture and for some reason had a very strong hold on it’scitizen.There were no concretes in the country.Every little structure was built in the same Bhutanese stye,intricate,detailed stone work in every house.It was hard to tell the class or the economic status of the citizens unless one decided to venture into the houses.I wondered how the authorities had managed a feat like this.One also heard about the infamous dungeons and torture cells in Thimpu where the prisoners were housed in the olden days.
We stayed in a hotel in Paro which had extremely gracious hosts who went out of their way to make us comfortable and treated us to ‘ on the house’ bed tea.They also put in free advices about the routes and our journey back.We drove to Parothaktsang the famous monastery cut in stone ,we managed a view from the view-point.The drive to the place was beautiful,got a few good snapshots of the place and two beautiful pictures of the sun rising from the hill even as we started our journey home,almost a mute reminder to the unspoken story of the times gone by and a prophecy of the time to come .

We drove back to Sikkim .
Bhutan is a scenic country,beautiful,disciplined,exotic,culturally well preserved and yet as we drove past the gate into Rangpo to enter Sikkim,I for one, felt extremely light and happy.It was good to be back home.

There were a few insights which might be helpful to know.
1.I looked hard for churches and could not find one.
2.Tourists, apart from Indians are extremely rare because entry fees as well as charges for everything is extremely high for them.Yet one would think they would find the place out of the world. ‘It was only in 1974 that Bhutan welcomed the first foreign tourists…..Tourist numbers were, and still are, very limited in order to minimise any possible negative effects on the culture and environment.’-Dr Peter Hartney.
3.Bhutan is sparsely populated and you have to look real hard to find a native Bhutanese on the street.Major towns have a population of around 20,000(Department of tourism,Bhutan).
4.UnikeIndia,we do not see too many children around.
5.People are extremely polite and courteous.
6.Bhutan has managed to maintain it’s very unique flavour in a world where every other place begins to look like a clone of the other .
‘In 1952,after centuries of self-imposed isolation ,king JigmeDorjeeWangchukdecreed that Bhutan should start the process of modernisation.From this time onwards however,the country has avoided the pitfalls inherent in a headlong rush to achieve change and progress through the judicious policies of its leaders………..The country remains so uniquely unspoilt,withprisitine forests still covering over half the land,andmountains,glaciers……’Dr Peter Hartney.

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