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Bhutan. A cute little green country of strangely “happy” people, obsessed with its culture and religion, the dragon-land was a constant dose of culture shocks for ten straight days!
Getting to Bhutan is a rather difficult journey, more so for foreign nationals(except Indians and Bangladeshis) who pay $250 for each day in the country. Housing one of the most dangerous airports in the world with limited flight availability, i decided to take the roads from the closest Indian town, Bagdogra. I took a couple flights from Bombay to Delhi and Delhi to Bagdogra, stayed near the border for a night, and then drove into their national capital, Thimphu, the following day.
Fifteen minutes inside Bhutan, and i fell in love with the country – i stepped on a zebra crossing and a car stopped in front of me. i looked behind my back, nothing. i looked at the car again, still waiting. I felt rather embarassed and stupid to have him wait, as i rushed across the road. From then on, i felt a strange happiness everytime i zebra crossed, a rather dark pleasure in having cars wait for pedestrians. Boy, does Salman Khan need to visit Bhutan!
As we were going through immigration, i noticed a stark contrast from the other side of the road. The population difference was very apparent, very similar to what i’d witnessed while crossing into Nepal last year. Another eye-catcher was the dressing style of Bhutanese people, men wearing skirt-like capes and women wearing long gown-like wrap-around sarees!
Anyway, the drive to Thimphu was as beautiful as it gets, as our driver fulfilled his GTA fantasies along the mountain roads. Stopping along a local restaurant, i was introduced to Bhutanese cuisine, EmaDatschi and KewaDatschi being their favorites! Similar to Nepal, rice was their staple diet, and cheese was the prime ingredient in almost every dish!
We stayed in an airbnb in a beautiful college campus in Thimphu, i sneaked in a couple short runs as well! As we explored the capital for a couple days, i realized the significance of religion and culture in the everyday lives of Bhutanese. Lord Buddha is unusually celebratred and decorated everywhere, this 51 metre tall statue currently under-construction is touted to be the eighth wonder of the world! Lakhangs(temples/monasteries) are spread along the breadth of the city, one of them uniquely famous for the name-keeping of kids. An interesting tradition that i witnessed in that lakhaang was the dad rolling die to discover the “good luck” of his child. Looked stupid, but then “What is life if not a game of dice!”.
Thimphu was also a hub for all cultural museums and libraries, which were both boring and intriguing at the same time. It seemed to me like this was a country very proud of its culture and traditions, proud of having a monarch at the head and never been colonized. At the same time, it felt like a rundown for tourists, maximising the economic gain from tourism. The national library’s books were predominantly in Dzongkha(their national language), the textile museum was unabashedly nationalistic, all of which felt a little too much culture to me. A reminder of what India could’ve been without colonization!
Tashichhodzong was one of the major attractions of the city, a majestic fortress situated very close to the King’s Palace. Learnt a lot from our guide about Buddhism in Bhutan, about the significance of architecture, the statues, the decoration and more! I realized how a lot of order in the society comes from a huge God-fear and allegiance to the king. They looked comfortable with clearly discriminative laws for Eastern Bhutanese, who’d come from the Tibetan region, they were comfortable with very strict laws about formal dressing in dzongs and lakhangs. And still, religion seemed to be like the most bustling industry, monks and nuns of all ages were everywhere to see!
After Thimphu, we made a one-day visit to Bhutan’s older capital – Punakha, a relatively warmer town marked by the majestic Punakha Dzong. Built along the river banks of “Mo Chu” and “Pa Chu”, Punakha provided a perfect running atmosphere! We went over one of the biggest suspension bridges i’ve seen, supported by steel wires on both ends – the views were magical! The Punakha Dzong, said to be the most pictueresque dzong in the country lived up to its name. These fortress walls were used to resist Tibetan invasion into Bhutan. At this point, i was legitimately bored of dzongs probably because of “religion overdose” or because almost all dzongs’ architecture felt the same!
A notably famous policy of Bhutan’s government is that of tracking “Gross National Happiness”, a measure of how happy and fulfilled the populace is. This might be a case of selection bias, but we definitely observed happier people overall – whether that might be drivers, waitresses, hotel managers or even kids on the mountains! This might be because of lower poverty levels, lower population and a lower crime rate, or probably there is a negative correlation between happiness and industrialization of a country. Left me with a lot to think about!
Our final couple of days were to be spent in Paro, a small town famous for its dangerous airport! i was fortunate enough to witness an actual game of archery(their national sport) in a long outdoor arena-of-sorts. One team’s celebration after they won was pretty unique, as they sang and danced in front of the archery board! Again a callback to strong traditions even in sport.
If i were to remember chunks of memories from this trip, the trek to Tiger’s nest would be so very dominant. The trek wasn’t very difficult or tiring, and i didn’t get a high off completing the trek – however, the views of the monastery from the steps were absolute insanity. This was a rare situation where my eyesight couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of what i was witnessing. The lakhang, built in the 1600s, is perched off a cliff, which goes down 900 metres straight, with a mere bridge as the crossing point into that mountain. A strong testament of human capability :)
As i reflect back on the last ten days, the trip feels more like a perspective-opener, challenging my views on happiness, development and religion. Got some quality thinking time on the roads, which is quite a rarity in the urban jungles we live in! It was a peaceful, fun country to visit, leaving traces of nostalgia within me!
The more i know, the more i know i don’t know