Change is in the air for Bhutan – the world’s last Shangri-La.
The descent into Paro Airport is one of the most vaunted arrival experiences in the world. hence, passengers in the know will covet window seats on the left aisle to enjoy a sweeping vista of the snow-capped Himalayan ranges, verdant rice fields, farmhouses and pristine rivers as the pilot guides the plane adroitly through the Paro Valley.
Paro is home to many monasteries, temples, dzongs (fortresses which are monastic and administrative centres built without a single nail), and the country’s highest mountain, Mt. Jhomolhari. On a clear day, its snowcapped peak standing at 7,314m offers visitors a rare photo opportunity. I always enjoy museum visits and the Ta dzong, a former watchtower converted into the national Museum, enriched the afternoon’s agenda. architecturally, it’s a stunning circular structure with corridors encircling the halls that previously offered shelter against the invaders. Today, it’s a repository of thangka paintings, sculptures, arms and armour, bronze urns, copper vessels, Buddhist ritual objects and an extensive stamp collection. housing the monastic school as well as the office of civil administration, the Paro dzong (Rinpung dzong) cuts another impressive figure on the architectural landscape. known as the “fortress of the heap of jewels”, the dzong provided the cinematic backdrop during the filming of “Little Buddha”.
A landlocked Himalayan jewel wedged between China and India, Bhutan’s isolation and age-old customs have loaked the country in mysticism since time immemorial. Tshering Wangdi, our generation Y-guide, belongs to a majority of the population who still resides in a remote village. A trip back to see his family each time would necessitate a two-day walk from the road to his village. In addition, it’s unlikely one will find a traffic light, not even in the capital Thimpu. Instead, a traffic warden at the main intersection establishes a seamless vehicular flow. despite these quaint snippets of life in Bhutan, it became evident during our travels to Thimpu, Wangdue, Gangtey, Punakha, Paro and Haa that change is in the air.
With the government aiming to significantly increase tourist arrival figures in the coming years, many new hotel projects were in various stages of construction. in tandem with this, road-widening works were also underway on the long, winding roads; making them treacherous in the face of oncoming traffic. Nevertheless, we strapped on our seat belts and embraced the road travels with chimi Rinzin at the wheel; comforted in the knowledge we had made it to Bhutan sooner than later.
With Buddhism as a way of life, the Bhutanese we met endeared us with their personable outreach. Perhaps having been used to a barrage of questions from visitors by now about their background, culture, lifestyle and aspirations, their candid replies enabled a greater level of understanding and communication. At the Village Lodge in Paro, we connected with Tshering Wangchuk, a 20-year-old waiter who impressed us with his service skills. after having observed us play Uno before his dinnertime duty, he joined us for a few rounds of the card game and won! Needless to say, he was extremely pleased with his beginner’s luck. On another occasion, while mid-way to the Tiger’s nest, a monk who was fluent in English and Mandarin, encouraged us to persevere in our ascent to the monastery. Fondly known as Tiger’s nest – where legend has it that guru Padsambhava had flown to Taktsang Monastery on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave for three months in the 8th century, this monastery is precariously perched on a cliff at 3,120m above sea level. determined to make the climb that Bhutanese pilgrims do at least once in their lifetime, I recovered in time from motion sickness to complete the four-hour hike on my second attempt. It was also heartening to see hikers in their 60s and 70s navigate their way to the pinnacle. While trying to recover my breath, Tshering Wangdi, who was clad in a traditional knee-length gho, bounded ahead of me, eager to point out the tigress’ lair. Even though it was blazing hot, the elation, the distant views of Paro Valley 900m below and the crisp, fresh air combined to make the experience an epiphany.
If I had thought the vertiginous climb to Tiger’s nest was the most exhilarating on this trip, the drive up to the 3,988m chelela Pass in the Haa Valley was more breathtaking. As the road snaked upwards flanked by towering pine trees, a multitude of prayer flags fluttering in the wind along the ridges made our spirits soar. I willed time to come to a standstill as I basked in the unspoiled beauty and tranquility of the surroundings at the top of the Pass. It took a while for the mountain bikes to be assembled, but after a wobbly start, I flew down the 25km winding stretch, past ambling cows and the occasional oncoming car. Living in the moment had never felt so amazing, so alive.
At the institute for Zorig chosum, we visited classes of students engaged in learning one of Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts. in the classrooms where woodcarving and masonry were held, the male students soldiered on determinedly; while quiet laughter could be heard from a group of girls undergoing training in embroidery and drawing.
Accessible via a 200m long suspension bridge, the restored Punakha dzong bears the hallmark of the institute’s artisanal craftsmanship. Standing at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho chu and Mo chu, the dzong not only houses sacred relics and murals depicting the teachings of Buddha, but also, the embalmed body of Zhabdrung ngawang namgyal; the revered unifier of Bhutan in the 17th century. ashort hike across the rice paddies brought us to the chimi Lhakhang, the Temple of fertility. Saffron-robed young monks seated on the floor glanced up from their books as we peeked into their classroom. Dedicated to the eccentric drupka kuenley, the ”divine Madman” remembered for his unorthodox teachings with strong sexual overtones and inclinations, the monastery was frequented by a group of schoolgirls on the day of our visit. Couples, childless or otherwise, are blessed by drupka kuenley’s scriptures and a phallus, in addition to a replica of his iron bow and arrows.
The valley of Phobjikha is the winter roost of the endangered black-necked cranes from the Tibetan plateau. As we hiked through the plains dotted with farmhouses and turnip plots, entered forests teeming with dwarf bamboo and pine trees; and walked past grazing cows and gurgling streams, the landscape seemed to cast a mystical spell. One hopes this will always be preserved in its alluring state. However, as I trailed behind worshippers murmuring mantras while circumambulating the king’s Memorial chorten, I couldn’t help but notice youths in the line busily texting away on their cell phones. Could it be that the gross national happiness, an index of wellbeing and future development introduced in 1972, has also wrought this change? for the sake of generations to come, may the world’s last Shangri-La ride the winds of change judiciously and endure as the mystical Land of the Thunder dragon.