My purpose for going to the Bhutan trip was very clear: I needed to heal. This year’s been one of the worst yet on many levels, and the opportunity to travel to Bhutan came along at the perfect time. In many ways, the country purged me of some monsters, helped me regain my equilibrium and brought me back to life. It welcomed me with open arms and an atmosphere that’s completely devoid of negative energy; after all, when everyone around you is content with their lives, the feeling tends to rub off on you.
I read somewhere that travelling is like flirting with life, that we would love to stay and spend some more time, but really, we have to get going. With Bhutan, we flirted that way with the places, spending every night in a different part of the country, waking up early each morning, packing our bags and heading out to the next destination. It was exhilarating to be out so early in the day, riding through cloud-cloaked Himalayan peaks and nippy mountain winds.
It’s difficult to capture the essence of Bhutan – and honestly, I want to keep the country as much of a closely guarded secret as I can because I don’t want it to change, ever – but I’m giving it a shot anyway.
Day 1: Phuent Sholing, 180 km
Phuent Sholing is the border town and therefore, one’s first impression of Bhutan. Mine was that it reminded me of London in some ways – there are no people yelling and screaming; everyone goes about their work quietly; every building is beautiful to look at, even the petrol bunk is fancily painted with symbols and creatures; and the air is clean. The roads are tarred and smooth. There are hardly any two-wheelers around – almost everyone has a car and it’s either a sedan or an SUV. The Bhutanese are very strong on culture, so you’ll find almost everyone dressed in the traditional attires of Gho (for men) and Kira/Tego/Onjo (for women). What was remarkable was that the difference between the countries was very apparent with the single step I took from the Indian border into Bhutan.
Day 2: Paro, 130 km
Riding through and over mountains, one reaches Paro, a quiet town scattered across a lush green valley. The royal palace is located here, but nobody’s ever seen it because it’s tucked awayon a hill all its own, with nothing around it.
Paro is also home to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Legend has it that a monk saw a tiger flying across the mountains and he wanted to see where it would go. One day, as the tiger was passing by, he jumped onto it and was carried to a cliff. So impressed was the monk by the entire phenomenon (I would be too, especially with a flying tiger), that he decided to build a monastery on the edge of the cliff.
The trek to Tiger’s Nest is not for the faint-hearted. Trekking and I are like embittered enemies, so even though I thought I was mentally prepared for a fair amount of walking, seeing the monastery from the point where I was going to start the climb turned my legs to jelly. My heart nearly stopped. Here’s why:
So, you have to trek across two mountains – and it’s a bloody steep climb, mind you, with no proper path – and reach the third for the monastery. It’s at least six kilometres one way. I have never, I swear to you, trekked so much or come so close to giving up on living in all my years. With a little help from kind biker souls, though, I pushed myself to reach the monastery. I needed to own and relish that sense of achievement.
Day 3: Thimpu, 90 km
If Paro’s the older brother who’s more responsible, calmer and sorted, then Thimpu is the younger brother – wild, vibrant and Quixotic. 90 kilometres is like a whole world between them, that’s how different life is in both places. The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu is a cultural melting pot, with textile museums alongside government offices, coffee shops alongside gaming zones in basements, and a whole stretch of the main road cordoned off for an arts and crafts exhibition. In the distance, a giant Buddha looks on, gleaming gold in the sunlight.
Thimpu is a great place to walk around, because the roads are big and almost traffic-free.
Day 4: Punakha, 190 km
The ride from Thimpu to Punakha is beautiful. We rode up some steep mountains, slicing through the clouds covering the slopes. At one point, as we ascended to the Dochu La pass, we were greeted by a most magnificent sight – a series of chortens places in a circle, white and deep red and gold, peeping through the clouds zooming in. The scene took my breath away.
Being a riverside town is half the charm of Punakha. The other half is the Punakha Monastery – the biggest in all of Bhutan, I am told.
Punakha Monastery rests on a sliver of land, with the river flowing by it. Major restoration work has gone into making the monastery the way it is right now, possibly for the royal wedding in 2011. Whatever the case, the monastery is gorgeous. There weren’t too many people around when we visited it, so I explored the place unrestrained. Walking around, I also noticed that some of the rooms inside the monastery functioned as various government offices. As we moved deeper into Bhutan, I realised that this was true of every monastery we visited.
Our stay in Punakha was the most entertaining of the lot – we celebrated a birthday, miraculously managed to find a cake to cut and indulged in the madness that comes standard with a mini-party. A group of 11 big-ass bikes is an unusual sight in Bhutan, so we also had cops dropping in on us to see the bikes and take a ride. I was highly amused.
Little did I know that there were more amusing things in store as we rode on to Trongsa. I was chased around the monastery by a rooster, fell off the bike a couple of times, and had interesting conversations with a group of locals.
For all that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part Deux.