Finding myself on the way to Bhutan was not something I expected to happen in 2012, so from the beginning Bhutan has been nothing but a surprise to me. Mr. Producer, generous husband who he is, secretly booked the trip as a birthday gift for me. A friend of ours wanted to go, had done the research and found a tour company but didn’t have anyone to go with so… Mr. Producer signed me up.
When I found out, I was speechless. I cried. And then I got REALLY excited. Bhutan is a sort of Holy Grail of traveling — mysterious, isolated, unspoiled and so abnormally expensive that young, uber-adventurous, jet-setting backpackers who have explored just about every nook and cranny of the world have largely been left at the Bhutanese border. The expense alone means that if and when you go to Bhutan, you’ll probably be exploring the country among a small number of well-to-do, well-traveled tourists who have been working and saving for a very long time to get to Bhutan. That said, Mr. Producer made a wise financial decision by seizing the opportunity to send only one of us to assess this expensive land of mystery. I was happy to accept the mission.
We, Kelly and Kelly (our friend and I share the same name), were off to Bhutan. We flew from Singapore to Paro, Bhutan with a quick stop in Calcutta on a plane that was nearly empty, as service by Druk Air just started in September. Calcutta looked hot and hazy from the air, with flat terrain crowded by apartment buildings and farmland. Upon landing we took on a huge load of passengers, all looking for a seat on the left side of the plane — the best vantage point for a glimpse of the Himalayas.
We took off and began the final 50 minute flight into Paro. The view to the west featured cumulus clouds as far as the eye could see, but Jhomolhari (7,314 meters/24,000+ feet) managed to poke through the blanket and reveal itself with a wisp of white at its tip. Suddenly the clouds were gone beneath us, we entered the mountains around Paro and began our descent — finding our way as if we were threading needles through mountain valleys, one after another, twisting and turning, finding our way to the airport while from the window it looked like we would surely skim the treetops along the way. Yikes! With one last unexpected tilt and dip of the left wing just before landing, we touched down and passengers burst into applause.
Leaving the plane in Paro, I savored the feeling of being somewhere totally foreign. Several men were dressed in traditional Bhutanese ghos — patterned knee-length robes with wide, white cuffs, a cloth belt around the waist, knee socks and leather shoes. Pretty charming traditional dress! Also charming? The architecture, even at the airport — white-washed with ornate columns and an elaborate wood cornice hand-painted with colorful motifs. And just to the left of the airport entry… meet the Wangchucks.
Move over Will and Kate — the Wangchucks are a stunning young couple and admired throughout the country. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth and current king since the Bhutanese monarchy was introduced in 1907. He’s just 32 years old and was married to Jetsun Pema last year. She is 22 years old. You cannot turn your head in Bhutan without seeing their portraits hanging from at least one wall, signpost, building or billboard. They are simply everywhere, like exquisite fixtures of the kingdom who accompany your every move. Kuzuzangbo la!
Breezing through immigration, we bought a couple bottles of wine at duty-free (yes, Bhutan has duty-free) and pushed our luggage cart toward the exit where we were met by Fin, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan. He greeted us with impeccable English, a smart gho and the charisma of a business owner who knows exactly what he’s doing. We loaded up the luggage and left the airport in his modern SUV — not exactly what I had expected from this surprising little country.
Headed toward Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I surveyed the countryside — a lot like the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Sierras in California. I felt right at home, as Fin drove along and gave us a well-informed lesson on the history and culture of Bhutan. We stopped along the way for a short hike to the river and the first suspension bridge in Bhutan. Strewn with prayer flags, the bridge employed under foot some of the massive metal links used in its original construction (see photo). The wood and brick structures at each end were painted with fascinating patterns. The river flowed cold and peaceful below us. I knew in those moments that Bhutan was a place I was going to love.
We arrived in Thimphu around 5:00. The sun had left the valley, hidden by the high ridge along the west side. We entered downtown — a busy streetscape surprisingly reminiscent of alpine villages in Europe. We drove along as Fin listed off quirky and fascinating facts about Bhutan: the only country without a single traffic light, only one escalator in the whole country, a building code that requires all architecture to adhere to traditional Bhutanese style, dry Tuesdays during which no alcohol can be bought or sold, an emphasis on local organic farming rather than importing fruits and vegetables, no driving in town centers on Tuesdays in support of “Pedestrian Days”, and no smoking or tobacco use anywhere — it’s totally outlawed. Bhutan is surprisingly progressive for such an insular country.
We checked into the hotel as we took it all in. Hotel Pedling was a quaint yellow building in the center of town. Our room was on the second floor, free wifi, toasty warm with wood wainscoting and practically Swiss in its alpine appearance. The tiled en suite bathroom was huge. I had expected we’d be roughing it so I was totally surprised by the modern facilities.
Fin accompanied us to dinner at Ama Restaurant — down a few stairs, just a short walk from the hotel. The food was excellent — potatoes, marinated chicken with vegetables, naan, rice, a curry dish and Druk 11,000 beer. Also, in a small bowl was an authentic Bhutanese dish that accompanied every meal we had during our trip: ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. Sometimes mild, sometimes crazily hot, and slightly different at every meal, I tried it a few times with mixed results. Regardless, let it be known that the Bhutanese love their chili peppers.
Off for an evening drive, we stopped along the road to see the lights of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and admire the National Memorial Chorten by moonlight. At 8:00 p.m. people were still circumambulating the chorten in daily prayer rituals. We would return to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong tomorrow to see the changing of the guard, but for now it had been a loooong and enlightening day. Fin returned us to our hotel. I reflected on the day’s events, reveled in all of the day’s surprises, and fell asleep as a plenitude of dogs barked into the night.Next: Day Two in Bhutan