My travel agent Singey stays in Paro and I decided to go there in his car. This would be a good way to get to know this country and its people. Singey had done his high school and college from Kolkata, and he is immensely proud of his homeland. Over the next few days he and his family took me around, and they won me over with their hospitality and warmth.
Paro is 175 km from Phuntsholing and it is a pleasant 5 hour drive through well maintained winding roads with majestic mountains, lush green valleys, and sparkling free- flowing rivers. The weather was perfect with clear blue skies and cool winds. There was not much traffic and over here people seemed to be in no hurry. Bhutan is a carbon sink( a fact most seem to know) and about 72 % of the land is forested.
Singey patiently tried to answer my queries. It was more interesting to learn from a local and I was glad that I opted out of having a registered tour guide. Hydropower projects and tourism are the main revenue earners and more than three fourth of the electricity generated is exported to India. So India is an important regional ally. Most of the roads are built and maintained by the Indian BRO(Border Road Organisation). Till 1960 there were no schools, hospitals, proper roads, currency or electricity. Tourism was introduced only in 1974. High value low volume tourism is their mantra.
The population is about 780000. Education up to high school and health care are free. The medium is English and Dzongkha. Depending on the high school grades the college education is also supported by the government. Many go to India, USA, UK and Thailand for higher studies. Singey told me that most of them prefer to come back after completing their education. But unemployment is an issue.
Prayer flags and stupas are regular sights. After crossing this bridge at the confluence of Wang Chhu and Paro Chuu(chhu is river) we are in the Paro valley. Soon the airport came into view. This is the only international airport and was opened in 1983 and is considered to be one of the most challenging. It would have been thrilling to come by air but now I can just look at the tiny airport and admire.
I checked into Hotel Drukchen near the airport. All the buildings in Bhutan are required to have traditional Bhutanse designs and this was a fine example.
Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan and is followed by 70% of the population . My knowledge of this ancient religion is very limited.After spending a short time here I feel that Buddhism is the most distinct feature of this kingdom .One week is too short a period to get an insight but each day was a learning experience.
I wanted to start by visiting a buddhist temple and I did not have to look far.
More than 2000 Lhakhangs or temples are scattered around the 20 districts in Bhutan.I had my first glimpse of one in Phuentsholing.
Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang is near the immigration office and it has an impressive structutre .It was 6 30 in the morning and people were coming in large numbers for their morning prayers.
The main deities are Buddha,Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and Zhabdrung Rinpoche who unified Bhutan.The walls are decorated with murals and frescos depicting the life of Buddha. The altar was beautifully adorned with lamps,prayer bowls,flowers and incense sticks..It is believed that by gazing at Buddha,lighting lamps,offering flowers,burning incense , prostrating before the deities etc ,the functions of the five sense organs are completely immersed in Buddhist practises.As in most Buddhist temples,there is a large prayer wheel and a huge fig tree in the courtyard.Remember to spin the prayer wheel in a clockwise direction.Turning the prayer wheel is supposed to have the same benefits as reciting the mantras inside.
Butter lamps are kept in a it small room near the main temple and one can make offerings .
Giant butter lamp
This temple reminded me of a small village temple where people come for prayers and meeting one another.I am put off by large , popular temples where one has to stand in a serpentine queue for hours to see the idol for a minute or less before you are pushed out by the milling crowd.Here people seemed unhurried and one can sense the serenity and spirituality all around.
I spent some time in the temple garden and returned to the hotel happy with the auspicious beginning.
Phuentsholing or Pling(local term) is the border town and border crossing was rather easy .Since I had booked through a registered Bhutanese tour agent I was told that I could have a guide through out my stay.I don’t mind having a guide for a limited period but having someone for 6 days reeling off statistics and cliched stories was not appealing and I decided not to have one. My attention span is quite limited and I would rather see,savor and digest.
Checked into Druk Hotel,situated next to the Immigration Office .I did not want to waste any time and took off to look around.
It is difficult to imagine that just an ornate gate separates the two countries.The contrast is overwhelming.One side is too congested,noisy,polluted,chaotic and the other side is clean,orderly and colorful with people in their traditional attire.The architecture is also striking.Phuentsholing is considered as the financial,industrial and trading centre and most of the goods come from India.Buddhism is a way of life here and prayer wheels,prayer flags and stupas are seen everywhere.
No traffic signals
And Bhutanese revere their kings.It is a democratic,constitutional monarchy .Pictures of the royal couple and the fourth King are seen in all the government buildings and shops.They are popularly known as K4 and K5.
Sale of tobacco is banned in Bhutan and if you are caught smoking in public places you will be fined. No such ban on alcohol and I could see more bars than restaurants in most of the places. It was interesting to know that they have K5- a premium whiskey to commemorate the coronation of the fifth King and Silver Jubilee whiskey to honor the fourth King.
I saw a big temple near the hotel and decided to go there the next day before checking out.