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Bhutan Diaries
by Narayani Manapadam

It was the seventh of December 2012. As the 35-seater aircraft began its descent amidst the treacherous mountainous terrain, I was torn between a desire to pray for my safety and the urge to gawk at nature. I opted for the latter. It was, after all, our maiden trip as a couple to Bhutan, the Dragon Kingdom.

 

The Druk Air flight from Kolkata to Paro was memorable. During the hour-and-a-half journey, the pilot announced that we could view the imposing Mt. Everest from our windows. The sighting of the magnificent Himalayas was the perfect soothing balm for our excited souls.

 

The time to land arrived. The experienced Bhutanese pilot successfully maneuvered the aircraft between peaks as high as 5,500 meters. A tiny, false move could end up in a disaster. I was spellbound, as I watched the brown, rugged peaks from my window, while the husband clicked pictures from his camera nonstop.

 

Thankfully, the landing was successful, and although the experience was nothing short of ethereal, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

 

We disembarked from the aircraft. An official from the airport, dressed in the traditional Gho and Kira, graciously offered to take a picture of us standing in front of Druk Air. Thanking him profusely, we proceeded to the immigration counter.

 

Trivia - Smoking is banned in the Himalayan kingdom. Hence tourists must declare all the cigarettes and pay a hefty tax.

 

Taxi drivers surrounded us, as soon as we exited the airport. The Bhutanese speak Hindi and English, so communication was not a problem. We hailed one taxi, which drove us to our hotel.

 

We checked into the Phuntshok. As the breakfast was complimentary, we ordered aloo paranthas. However, there is a catch in Bhutan. Food is prepared fresh, and hence, we should exercise patience. The chef put the potatoes to boil. We had plenty of time to kill, so we drove down to a museum selling a variety of masks. Unfortunately, on that day, there was to be a private party of the royal family, so photography was prohibited.

 

After a hearty lunch, we drove to the base of the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Since we were not physically and mentally prepared for the arduous five-hour-long trek, we clicked pictures from our position.

 

Another monastery housed a huge statue of the divine Buddha, and we bowed down in reverence to Him. Outside, a beautiful black cat lay curled up, Zenlike, oblivious to the presence of tourists and devotees. Being ailurophiles, we posed with him and even ran our hands lovingly over his velvety fur.

 

Paro is a photographer’s delight. Many a time, we requested the taxi to stop at places. The gurgling pristine streams, dotted by green trees on either side, meandered their way to their destination. The roads were spic and span. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. The drivers are disciplined, and hardly an accident occurs. The speed limit is around thirty, and it is seldom broken.

 

Being vegetarians, our options were limited. But we managed to try the famous Ema Datshi - a dish consisting of red rice, which is a Bhutanese specialty, shredded cheese, and hot chilli peppers. For a no-smoking country, Bhutan is highly tolerant towards alcohol. So, in a cheerful state of mind, we sipped our beers and went to sleep.

 

The next morning, we checked out of our hotel. The same driver picked us up. The uphill drive to the Chelela pass took two hours, but we were not complaining. Situated between the Haa and Paro valleys, the place borders Tibet. We encountered beautiful yaks, which are reared by the locals for their meat. It was a bright and sunny day, and the glimpse of snow-capped mountains in the distance proved to be the perfect setting for the perfect picture.

 

Unwilling to let go of the blissful moment, and much against our wishes, we bid adieu to Chelela and began our downward journey to Thimphu. The cosmopolitan capital of Bhutan is a stark contrast to the conservative Paro. Here I found young men and women ambling around in jeans and tees.

 

The highlight of Thimphu is the drive to the top of a mountain. The Buddha sits tall, overseeing the city from His vantage location. The panoramic view takes one’s breath away. another noteworthy place worth visiting is the Takin Reserve. For the uninitiated, takin is the national animal of Bhutan. Also called a gnu goat, it is a muscular animal with thick fur and looks like a fusion between a calf and a sheep.

 

There are plenty of shops selling traditional handicrafts. Most are run by women. We looked at the brilliant display of Thangkas which are vibrant paintings on scrolls of garments, the Buddhist prayer wheels with the words Om Mani Padme Hum, and ornate frames encompassing the present-day (and extremely good-looking) royal couple. The monarchy is still held in high esteem by the Bhutanese.

 

After the brief, yet memorable stay in Thimphu, it was time for our next destination. The bus ride to Phuentsholling took six hours. The vehicle paused when it reached the highest point - a cool 8230 meters above sea level. I caught my breath, as my eyes darted to the plunge. Due to fog, the visibility was poor, and the driver had to rely on his instincts to navigate the countless hairpin bends. Nevertheless, the drive was unforgettable.

 

Phuentsholling is a trading place. It shares a border with West Bengal and is home to many Indians. We visited a crocodile reserve and roamed around the small town aimlessly. Soon, it was time to leave Bhutan.

 

With a heavy heart, we crossed over the border to Jaigaon. The difference could be felt immediately. On one side was the small Bhutanese town, neat and clean with smooth roads. And here we were - in our country, with its pot-holed roads and garbage.

 

We took an auto to Hasimara, and from there we boarded the Kanchankanya Express to Sealdah.

 

A decade has gone by, yet the wonderful memories remain entrenched in our psyche. Bhutan will always retain its special place in our hearts.

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Image by Kenny Eliason

Narayani works in an IT firm. She has garnered appreciation for her stories, poems, and travelogues in various literary platforms like Penmancy, ArtoonsInn and Beyond The Box. Her works have found a permanent place in anthologies and magazines like The Hive Publishers, Pachyderm Tales, Chrysanthemum Chronicles, MeanPepperVine, Asian Literary Society, The Wise Owl, and Tell Me Your Story. She is the recipient of the Sagar Memorial Award 2023 (3rd Prize), and the Bharat Award for Literature 2024 (1st Prize). She resides in Jamshedpur with her accountant husband Venkatesh and their mischievous cat Uttam. Her website is https://www.yaniwrites.com/]

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