Bhutan happened to me rather strangely. During a seven-minute conversation at the Jaipur Literature Festival, surrounded by a surging mass of humanity at Diggi Palace, I found myself agreeing to organise a literature festival in Thimphu. Suddenly a place that seemed inaccessible became central to my life.
Embroiled in the logistics of planning a festival, I had little time to research the place itself. Three breezy insights planted in my mind by a friend were all I had when I boarded the flight: protocol is important, the national dish is made from cheese, and there is butter and salt in the tea.
As it turned out, I was glad I went without research and expectations; my mind was like a sponge. From writers like Kunzang Choden, Pek Dorji, and Lily Wangchuk—all women who exuded quiet, dignified strength—I learnt my first lessons about the Bhutanese nature. People here are calm and rooted, fiercely loyal to their country and their identity. I learnt that most Bhutanese youth who study abroad return to work in their homeland. I met many academics, journalists, and travel company- owners working abroad, who juggle their schedules to spend a few months every year in Bhutan. People like actor Kelly Dorji, who lives in Thimphu and runs a gallery of contemporary art.
On the flight there, as instructed, I sat on the left side so I could see Mt. Everest as we flew past it. Now, five years and many trips later, the sight still has me glued to the window. Landing in Paro, the country’s only international airport, for the first time, I noticed the air was deeply serene. On the drive to Thimphu the river flowed gently by the road over which rugged brown mountains towered, occasionally glinting purple in the sun. The driver let the car cruise quietly, well within the speed limit, as if wary of disturbing the sounds of the valley. Around us, apple and pear trees were in full bloom, like white lace ruffles on the hillsides.
Some of the experiences I had on that first visit have become rituals that I now repeat each year. Like going to the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery, built in the 12th century. It is perched on a ridge north of the city from where you can see all of Thimphu. Its main chapel houses a unique statue of a seated Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. It is a place where I can sit for hours, doing nothing, just being.
Visiting the country’s beautiful monasteries, I soon realised how intrinsic faith is to Bhutan’s people. When my driver, Tshering, took me to Dechenphu monastery to pray for the success of the literary festival I was organising he said: “It won’t rain if you give of yourself in full faith.” I did. I still go each year. Keeping the rain away is important for hosting music concerts at the Clock Tower, giving all of Thimphu a chance to join in our revelry.
Driving past the Memorial Chorten in Doeboom Lam in southern Thimphu, I observed people on their way back from work, college, or wherever, stopping to turn prayer wheels. It’s a habit that connects them each day to their spiritual roots. I noticed the Bhutanese wear two identities with ease. In the morning, school children, men, and women walk to work wearing vibrant woven ghos (men) and kiras (women). In the evening, the same teenagers hang out with their friends, wearing jeans and tees. It reaffirms the social and cultural ease with which people straddle their own little universe, and the comforts and technology of the West. Choki Tshomo, who heads Kuzoo FM, a Bhutanese radio channel, tells me that Dzongkha language channels have three times the listenership of their English channel.
Democracy in Bhutan is nascent, but during the election campaigning I witnessed individuals and parties conduct themselves with dignity, adhering to a certain restraint. But things are changing. Reports of petty crime pop up more frequently in the newspapers. Smoking has been banned and there is a lot of grumbling about that. In five years, I’ve seen the number of cars swell. This year, for the very first time I was stuck in a traffic jam.
My relationship with Bhutan is not all love. There are moments of frustration. I stress about how things happen only at the last minute. But just like in India, one learns to manage.
Any sightseeing I’ve done is the result of minutes stolen from meetings or in the course of work. I visited Trashicho Dzong, built in 1641 and the seat of government and religion in Bhutan, to attend a meeting and marvelled at its immensity while walking in. Climbing its large stone steps was quite the workout. Inside, intricate carvings in rich gold, red, and yellow surround a larger-than-life statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha. When a morning meeting fell through, I used the opportunity to go to Dochu La (3,088 m), a pass where 108 stupas stand sentinel. On that frosty morning the clouds lifted to unveil the most spectacular view of the Eastern Himalayas, with seven mountain peaks including Gangkar Punsum (7,570 m), Bhutan’s highest. A trek to Paro’s famous Tiger’s Nest, where Guru Padmasambhava meditated for over three years in the eighth century, happened because the flight back to Delhi was only on alternate days and I had an extra day. Guru Padmasambhava’s meditation marked the beginning of Buddhism in Bhutan. Walking towards the monastery silently, among candyfloss clouds, I passed flaming red rhododendrons that suddenly shot out of the ravines. While climbing the last few steps to the monastery, I caught the faint sounds of monks chanting. Close-up, the chanting made me fall under a spell. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move.
The only noisy place I’ve encountered during my visits to Bhutan is Thimphu’s weekend vegetable market. Mounds of red chillies, asparagus, mushrooms, and greens are arranged in neat rows of stalls under a single roof. Jovial women with doma-stained mouths (doma is like Indian paan), deftly sell and pack vegetables. Each year I buy asparagus and mushrooms to carry back home to Jaipur, stuffed in my suitcase along with brown rice and honey. I haven’t seen or tasted healthier or crisper asparagus. And the red chillies add a nice sting to the Rajasthani laal maas I cook at home.
Food has become an important part of my Bhutanese love affair. My first Bhutanese meal was at the Taj Tashi, whose structure melds into the geometry and character of the town with understated elegance. It began with a mild soup of churu riverweed in jaju stock, followed by an explosion of flavours from dishes like norsha paa (red rice with beef and radish) with ema datsi (cheese and chilly) and kewafing (potato and noodles in vegetable broth), ngetshoen (fish curry) and puta (buckwheat noodles).
The best meal I’ve eaten is at the Folk Heritage Museum. In search of catering for the festival, I had driven 20 minutes out of town to Chuniding, a resort run by Kesang Choeden who manages the museum restaurant. She served a multi-course high tea with traditional Bhutanese momos bursting with different fillings and a flavoured herbal tea that sealed the deal. Interestingly, Kesang worked as a lieutenant colonel with the Bhutan Police for 23 years before she gave food, her passion, a chance.
Over the years, I’ve acquired other favourites. The Zone, right next to Mojo Park in Changlam serves mean pork ribs, beef chilly, and house beef burgers. I’ve had incredible meals there sitting outside on nippy, starry nights, guzzling beer with pork ribs, followed by an amazing apple strudel. I’ve even carried that strudel on my lap on a flight back to Jaipur via Delhi.
A good incentive for eating out in Bhutan is to meet people. My ideal breakfast is egg fried rice with ezzy, the local red chilli paste. On a night of karaoke, I’ve seen royalty singing away with everyone else. Many nights, Mojo Park is the place to be in the city. Thimphu’s young musicians are all there, taking the mike and keeping their audience singing along. Kunga Tenzin Dorji of Bhutan’s first rock band, Who’s Your Daddy, is full of surprises. He sings, talks politics, and social issues, and does a radio show with the same panache as he writes romantic poetry.
However, my absolute favourite place in the city is the Clock Tower Square in Norzin Lam, just above the national football stadium in the heart of Thimphu. It is the Bhutanese equivalent of a European town square. It is the capital’s living room, where everyone converges. Deltaic veins lead off it to cafés and craft shops, and people gather to renew their connection with anything artistic or entertaining.
Crowds head bang at rock concerts, hoot at basketball matches, and cheer at talent shows. On some Sundays, citizens gather to clean up the Clock Tower area. A fascinating exercise which is classless; I’ve seen cabinet-rank ministers there picking up rubbish along with everyone else.
Sometimes, it’s wise to travel without expectations, or a mountain of facts and figures. Each time I visit Bhutan, I discover a little more of its character, its rhythm. It’s an unfolding story, without an end.
Thimphu is the capital and largest city in Bhutan, located in the Wang Chuu valley formed by the Raidak River. It lies in the Himalayan kingdom’s west-central part.
Bhutan’s only international airport is at Paro (52 km/1.5 hours east of Thimphu). Weekly flights to Paro are available on Druk Air, from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra, and Guwahati. Fares are discounted for Indian nationals.
Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians are the only foreign citizens who do not need visas to enter Bhutan. You need to present a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months. However, Indians can also use their Voter Identity Card to gain entry into the country. Those entering by road at Phuentsholing must apply for a permit there, which can take a few hours. Those who wish to enter districts (locally called dzongkhags) other than Paro, Thimphu, and Phuentsholing, must apply for special permits at the immigration office.
Thimphu’s weather is pleasant in spring (Apr-May) and autumn (Sep-Nov), when daytime temperatures peak at 25°C. There is heavy rainfall between May and September; landslides are common. Temperatures drop below zero during winter (Dec-Feb) and the region experiences thick fog and snowfall. The Mountain Echoes literary festival takes place every August.
Taj Tashi Thimphu Located in the city’s centre, the majestic luxury hotel (inspired by Bhutanese dzong architecture) has 66 rooms with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Facilities include a lounge bar, and Jiva Spa that offers hot stone baths (Post Box No. 524, Samten Lam, Chubachu; +9752-336 699; www.tajhotels.com/leisure/taj-tashi-thimphu/default.html; doubles from $500/₹31,000).
Druk Hotel The 51 rustic-chic rooms and suites in this four-star hotel overlook a stately clock tower in the compound. The restaurant offers Bhutanese cuisine, as well as a choice of Chinese, Indian, and Thai food (Clock Tower Square, Wogzin Lham; +9757-7198819/+9752-322 966; doubles from ₹7,800 during off-season).
Namgay Heritage Hotel This restored hotel, a fine example of Bhutanese architecture, is as beautiful to look at as the mountains surrounding it. It’s advantages include a central location, gym, and Wi-Fi. Some of the suites have Jacuzzis (+9752- 337 113/4/5; www.nhh.bt; doubles from ₹4,000).
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Story Without an End”.