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.
I must confess that like most people I did not know much about Bhutan except that it has a monarchy, GNH(Gross National Happiness)as the index of its progress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose it as his first foreign destination and one of my favourite actors Tony Leung had got married there. Also, the Tiger Nest which is the first image that comes to mind when I think of this land. I don’t like to read up a lot before going to a place as it minimises the joy of exploring and this time I did pay for my casual attitude.
My UK friend who was to come with me had to cancel her ticket at the last minute because we did not realise that a person having OCI (overseas citizen of India) card would have to pay 250$ per day. Confusing? Bhutan strictly regulates its tourism. People having Indian, Maldivian or Bangladeshi passports do not require a visa to enter the country and the rest would have to get a visa and book through a registered tour operator. We had booked through a Bhutanese travel agency. Then came another shocker. The immigration office at the border town would not be open on Saturdays and Sundays and I was reaching on a Friday evening. They also restrict the entry for solo travellers(no gender bias here ) There was no way to change the dates or get someone to go with me. Being an easy- going unstructured traveller I thought I should just take a chance.
The flight from New Delhi took 2 hours and I reached Bagdogra at 12 30 and rushed into the waiting taxi. The distance from Bagdogra to the border town Phuentsholing is 284 km and it would take 4-5 hours; immigration office is open from 9 to 4 pm and I had to keep in my mind that Bhutan time is 30 minutes ahead of India Standard Time. So it was a race against time. My driver took up the challenge and zipped through the well- maintained roads. It was a beautiful drive and I let the sights of green paddy fields, tea estates, army units, Teesta river and many more nameless rivers to steady my nerves.
It was 4 30pm when we crossed the imposing Bhutan gate and I could not imagine that border crossing would be like this. Jaigaon is the border town on the Indian side and Phuentshoing its Bhutan counterpart. I have made it this far and now the time has come for the final formalities. If the office is closed I would have to wait till Monday and I just did not want to lose two precious days at the border.
Bhutan Gate-Jaigaon side(India)
The immigration office is just about 50 metres from the gate and Singey-the travel agent was waiting there. I rushed into the building with my passport,2 photographs and the duly filled permit form and met a gracious lady official. Documents were examined, fingerprints taken, and I was granted the entry permit. I could not thank her enough. The permit is valid for 7 days and only up to Thimpu the capital city.
At last I was officially in the Druk Yul and thus began my dragon tales.