Bangkok to Bhutan, Tour of Paro

Friday – The Druk Air flight leaving from Bangkok was jam packed with Indians heading for Kolkata bearing excess baggage. In the world of international trade, it was interesting to see this personal shopping technique still thrives. The airline people took us out of line to a special counter. It was probably wrong to use our Special Western Privilege, but I do hate lines, so…

The new Bangkok airport is humongous. I followed Cynthia of our group to the business class security check line, smiling my way through. Later, the others said the regular check wasn’t bad. I had a latte and then passed the gate for the bus (Paro passengers first) to the plane way out on the tarmac, just as it began to rain. It took a while to get loaded. Still, the plane took off only slightly late.

Surprisingly, after a flight over Burma and Bangladesh, I found myself briefly back in India as we landed in Kolkata (somehow I had thought the flight went through Kathmandu). We were on and off the ground again quickly, considering how much stuff was offloaded there. Guess I’m visiting a few countries on this trip even if I only set foot on two. I definitely could not live for long in Bangkok or Kolkata – or Los Angeles for that matter.

The rest of the flight was amazing, with clear view of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas. The approach was a low altitude S-curve through mountain valleys. I relaxed and figured the pilots must know what they were doing. I took video which was quite fun to watch later.

The airport at Paro (2250m/7382ft) was beautiful, as we’d arrived on a perfect clear day. It was easy getting through customs with the group. Kutira, our driver Pema, and guide Sonam were right there to meet us with a small bus. We drove over bumpy roads, becoming impressed by cows and architecture, and checked in to our hotel, the Bhutan Metta Resort and Spa.

After that, lunch was delicious at the restaurant Sonam Trophal owned. She has been friends with Kutira for many years, and made a Bhutanese fusion. There were about a dozen dishes including ginger potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, chicken, and momos, all incredibly seasoned with chili’s – which are a thing here. Really a spectacular meal. Lowered our center of gravity.

Next, we went to the Paro Dzong, a 17th century fortress overlooking town. A dzong is a combined monastery and government building. More incredible (I’m having an adjective shortage) architecture and views from the courtyard. We visited two prayer rooms. There, ancient murals (under a cloth protecting them from sunlight) depicted living and future Buddhas. Everywhere, the statuary and painting boggled our minds.

From there, we strolled down a path next to the dzong and met the bus after crossing a wooden bridge over the river. The water was crystal clear as it flowed through town. The valley is definitely a Shangri-la, mountains rising around it in every direction. Global warming is noticeable even here – Sonam said they have not received snow in recent years.

Despite uniquely progressive policies on the environment and a desire to maintain what makes the country special, change is coming –  and already here. Everyone seemed to have a mobile phone, and most cars were new. The country looks prosperous, particularly in comparison to Nepal or India. The Buddhist culture and traditions are strong, yet opening up could prove a mixed blessing. Winna in our group recalled that Nepal had a similar feel before television and westerners arrived there. Kutira thought Bhutan maybe has five years before the culture shifts greatly. It’s quite amazing now, so this was not such a happy thought.

The bus stopped then at a ceremonial gathering in the middle of town. Over a thousand people were waiting to receive a blessing from prominent religious teachers. Everyone was sitting patiently, peacefully. We went to the side to take photos…since we are tourists after all. Instead of “security”, those managing the crowd wore shirts saying “friends of police”!

We continued down the road and visited Kyichu Lhakhang, a smaller temple compound surrounded by happy dogs. We entered the courtyard, removed our shoes and moved into the meditation room (Jowo Lhakhang). Before the altar, there were indentations in the wooden floor, marked from hundreds of years of prostrating devotees. We continued to a small meditation room (normally off limits) where the Buddhist teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had given instruction for many years. In fact, he actually passed away on the bench in the room while in meditation. We sat for a time in contemplation and meditation ourselves – the nicest and most peaceful moment thus far, as we remembered to be more than just tourists.

We returned to the main room, and behind the altar viewed a side room filled with ancient Buddha statuary. Kutira noted this room had previously been open to the public but was now closed, viewable only through a screen. With the influx of tourists, particularly from India and China, more and more of the religious buildings had to limit their access. There is also a room in the Paro Dzong – a Tara shrine which she had visited privately before – but this is no longer allowed.

Then it was back to the hotel for packing, a short dinner (after the big lunch I could hardly eat), and then the hot stone Bhutanese baths. The bathhouse was a traditional building, each room with two wooden tubs, painted walls and draped with fabrics. Behind the rooms was a fire where an attendant heated the rocks, lifted a trap door and place them in a trough containing water flowing to the baths. The rooms were filled with candles, very peaceful and calm – but the water was really hot! After a half hour or so it was a shower and then back to the room.

I really liked the hotel bathrobes. I’m not much of a shopper, but fortunately Kutira is an expert.  Clearly I will need an extra bag or two going back.

I went right to bed – we were getting up early for the flight to Bumthang.