It was still dark. The alam clock read 4:30AM. Having just arrived in Bangkok the night before from a roadtrip down to Udon Thani from Laos, my mind was still in a murky haze. My companions sleeping in the other bed seemed oblivious to the loud ringing sound emanating from my phone. This was the day we’re flying to Bhutan – the country famously isolated by the Himalayas, where Gross National Happiness is prioritized over economic growth and where the king famously abdicated voluntarily in order to initiate a move to a constitutional monarchy. We were all trying to catch an early morning flight to Paro – Bhutan’s only airport, aboard DrukAir, the only airlines that flies to Bhutan.
checked in at 5:30AM in the morning
Having been to several flights the days prior, my plan was just to go to sleep as the plane cruised its way past Burma, India and into Bhutan. But alas, the pilot made an announcement about Kangchenjunga (3rd highest mountain), and then Mt Everest being visible at the left side of the plane. I opened the window and there they were – a few snow-capped peaks towering above the clouds. It also meant that our approach at Paro Airport was coming soon. The plane descent into Bhutan that came fifteen minutes later has got to be the best plane landing ever – with the plane making 2 or 3 sharp turns during the final descent, evading mountains 5,000m above sea level across all directions and which are only a few meters away. Paro Airport is also one of the most scenic airports in the world, being in the middle of a relatively narrow valley in Western Bhutan.
at Paro Airport
We were greeted by our guide and driver as we exited the airport. Coming from our backpacking trip in Laos, I was unaccustomed to such luxury. Within the first few minutes drive into the countryside, I was immediately awed. It was so idyllic. The river was very clear and I didn’t have to twitch to see the rocky bottom.
view of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital
Our driver was taking us to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and an hour’s drive from the airport. The road was long and winding but the view from the van was scenic so I didn’t mind as much. Like Paro, Thimphu is also situated in a valley with mountains across all directions. The city was quite bustling, and aside from the typical Bhutanese architecture, wasn’t as traditional as I expected. Most people wore the traditional dress but modern clothing was just as common. There were malls selling the latest sports shoes and cinemas showing the latest movies from Hollywood. However, there were no western fast food chains which was fine by me.
spinning prayer wheels in thimphu
We had lunch at Bhutan Kitchen – a common eating spot for tourists. This was where I received my introduction to Chili Cheese, one of Bhutan’s favorite dishes. Unlike other countries where chili is used as a spice, in Bhutan chili is used as a vegetable in the dish. The cheese is delicious but it’s extremely spicy to devour.
mother and child
After lunch, we went around the major sights around the city – including the National Memorial Chorten, a wildlife sanctuary featuring the national animal – the Takin, the Textile Museum, as well as some great view points from which to see the entire city. By this time, it was beginning to look like a packaged tour – but hey, for the fixed daily tariff that we were paying, I certainly didn’t mind having someone plan our day and maximize the sights given our limited time there.
National Memorial Chorten
Visiting these sights, it became apparent to me that the locals are a very spiritual group. Many people outside carried prayer beads and small versions of prayer wheels (a common sight in countries practicing Tibetan Buddhism). Even in office buildings and in private residences, Buddhist motifs could be seen in the wall paintings. Having been to most Buddist-majority countries, Bhutan probably tops the list for being (or at least looking) the most religious.
We ended the day by taking a walk around Thimphu. The streets were full of small shops selling everything from mobile phones to religious items to the latest fashion. From here, it became more apparent that Bhutan is not the poor country that many people think it is. I was able to pick up wifi signals from many places, which gave an indication as to how prevalent broadband internet was in the country. We also made a stop at the Taj Tashi Hotel, a posh hotel in the middle of the city. It was certainly different from the vibe that I felt in places like East Timor, where economic hardship was more obvious.
Sunset came at about 5:20PM and after this time, there was little left to do outside and the temperature also dropped to about 7 celsius during the evenings so I didn’t have much desire to go out. We were billeted at Hotel Kisa, a new boutique hotel in downtown Thimphu. We had dinner in the hotel, and it consisted of the same fare – cheese, potatoes, chili cheese – and the obligatory meat dish. It was simple fare, but tasted quite good. I was only on my first day in Bhutan but I was already operating on a different pace. It was truly unlike any other country I’ve visited and I felt the satisfaction of pushing through with the trip despite its departure from my usual budget.