Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon
Visited 1988, 1992, 1995

My first visit to Bhutan happened partly by design and partly by accident. I had taken 2 weeks off from work to travel in first in Sikkim and then in Bhutan. From Delhi, I flew into the small town of Bagdogra, in northeastern India. The Sikkim tourism office in Delhi had assured me I could take a helicopter from Bagdogra airport to the state capital of Gangtok.

When I reached Bagdogra, however, I discovered that the helicopter tours had been cancelled 6 months ago! There was a road link, but a large part of the road had been swept away in the monsoon rains. I would have to wait “a few days” for the road to be repaired. Further inquiry revealed that the few days could well stretch to a week.

I decided instead to take a bus to Phuntsholing, across the border into Bhutan. I would turn my holiday around, travelling by road to Bhutan for the first week and then finding my way to Sikkim from somewhere in Bhutan.

I never did make it to Sikkim. It remains on my travel list. But I found an unbelievably beautiful Shangri La-like mountain country in Bhutan and couldn’t tear myself away until I absolutely had to. I returned to Delhi with 50 rupees on me (and no credit card) on the day my leave ended.

I missed the last bus to Phuntsholing, but managed to hitch a ride (for a small fee) in a Royal Bhutan Police jeep. I immediately fell in love with the charming little border town – not knowing what splendours awaited me in the rest of Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

I went on to Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. I marvelled at high mountains and low, low valleys; admired the unique architecture of the zhongs, Buddhist temples and stupas; was driven through treacherous passes and along partially swept away roads; made friends with the environment minister, whom I ran into in 2 of the 4 towns I visited, and restaurant staff in the gorgeous hilltop hotel in Paro. Everywhere I went, people befriended me and showed me immense courtesy as a fellow human being, a guest in their country and a foreign woman travelling alone. This last was quite obviously a novelty in what was then an extremely remote Himalayan kingdom.

Each town I visited was different. Phuntsholing was quite definitely a “border town.” I doubt it would even have existed as a town if it hadn’t been for the border. Thimphu was (and is) the capital, the seat of government, the residence at the time of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and the 4 sisters he had married. It has a magnificent zhong. Every town in Bhutan has a zhong, which includes both administrative offices and the largest Buddhist temple in the town. Although Bhutan at the time was run by a monarchy, the lamas exercised a good deal of power and influence.

Over the years, the separation of power between state and “church” (or, in this case, temple) became clearer and Bhutan is currently in the process of changing to a full parliamentary democracy. Two rounds of parliamentary elections have already been held, although a king remains in power.

But, to get back to 1988… Thimphu was a town of one a half streets. Really. Rather surprisingly, there were two good hotels in town. I would rate them as very high class 3-star hotels. No swimming pools etc, but beautiful clean rooms. The favoured breakfast place of the few foreigners living in Thimphu was the Swiss Bakery, which was quite a landmark.

Paro was a slightly larger town – the only one with an airport. (I didn’t get to use the airport until my second trip, which merits a short story of its own.) The planes seemed to be flown mainly by Indian or Swedish pilots. The Nordics loved Bhutan. Of all the foreigners based there, they were the most at home in the high mountains, green, wooded valleys and cold climate. During my second visit to the country in 1992, I met a woman from Iceland who had just installed the first sauna in the country – in her own home.

But, once again, back to the first trip. The main town of Paro is in a green valley surrounded by mountains, some above the (permanent) snow line. The valleys seem low in Bhutan because the surrounding mountains are so high, but in fact the valleys are at fairly high altitudes themselves. Once you get into mountainous country, every where is high – it’s just a question of how much. There is invariably a river at the bottom of these gorgeous valleys, named after the town they run through. The word for river is cchu. The river in Thimphu is called Thimphuchhu, in Paro Parochhu, and so on.

On my second trip to Bhutan, I visited a town called Ha, near the border with Tibet (and, in October, bitterly cold). The river here is called – yes, it is – Hachhu. Gesundheit.
So, Paro. Beautiful white peaks, green hills, an eighth century temple in the valley, rice fields along the hillsides, and not one but two zhongs. The old zhong has, unusually, a prominent circular tower and is situated on the top of a rock half-way up a mountain. The less old zhong, still in use (and also pretty old by the looks of it) is in the valley. Up in the mountains near Paro is a fantastic monastery literally clinging to a rock – the Taktshang Monastery, or "Tiger's Nest." My driver/guide offered to walk me up there in 8 hours. I thought if it takes him 8 hours, it’ll probably take me 3 days, and passed! (Climbing at those altitudes is especially hard for a girl from the plains.) Now, I believe, there is a motorable road most of the way up to the monastery.
Closer to the road, we came upon what I can only describe as an old, partially ruined castle. I say partially ruined because there appeared to be people living in parts of it. While I was wandering around, a young boy suddenly peeped out of a window in one of the walls. That wall, too, was well maintained, obviously painted quite recently.
I had travelled from Phuntsholing to Thimphu by a “luxury” mini-bus, with only a few adventurous moments when we went over a bridge that looked like it could fall into the ravine below any second. It had obviously been damaged in the rains. The driver asked all the passengers to get off, but insisted that I, the honoured guest in his country, not sully my feet by actually walking across the bridge. He was so polite, I couldn’t bring myself to say I’d really rather not risk going down with him… Needless to say, the bridge held and we survived.

In Thimphu, I had dropped in on a colleague at the United Nations. Just a courtesy call. But when he learnt that I was planning to go to Paro by bus, he insisted I go in a UN vehicle, which was going to Paro the same day. This meant leaving sooner than I had planned, but he was so insistent I agreed.

On my way back to Thimphu from Paro, there was no convenient UN vehicle to hitch a ride from. So I took a local bus. Wow, what a ride! There were novice monks – as there are everywhere in Bhutan – a peasant with a basket full of (live) hens and chickens and, generally, an incredible number of people. By the time I boarded the bus, there was standing room only. Which was OK until I found myself pushed more than half onto someone’s lap! I apologized but really couldn’t do anything about it. He was polite and did not seem too bothered – perhaps he was used to it, with people being thrown into one another’s laps all the time. Luckily for him, I was a good 20 kilos lighter than I am today!

In Thimphu, I hired a car to take me to Punakha. My colleague’s shocked face now made perfect sense to me. This was a wise decision, especially since Punakha is much lower and was quite hot the day I went. It has a fabulous zhong, situated between two rivers. The zhong has a beautiful temple. High, as the zhong temples tend to be. A lot of steps to climb. But well worth the effort. Part of the zhong burnt down soon after my visit and was rebuilt exactly as it had been. It still looked different, though, on my second visit because the wood looked so much more "new" - as, of course, it was.

In subsequent trips, I visited the beautiful Bhumtang valley and Ha, where I learnt to appreciate the warming qualities of the local rice brew in zero degrees centigrade with no heating. The yak meat was good too, when it was finally cooked around 10 p.m. It’s possible the chhang-drinking before dinner made it taste even better. Ha itself was fabulous and the surrounding snow-covered mountains – ahhh.


  1. Wow. What more can I say? Thank you for sharing.

  2. Love the story, especially the Hacchu.

  3. Yak meat? Loved reading this post. The image with the boy is great!

  4. Fascinating post. I love the photo of the young boy. And I wonder what life must have been like for those 4 sisters married to the same man....