The beautiful Loire Valley, with its romantic chateaus, the flowing river and the picturesque countryside.
Paro in Bhutan is one of the most beautiful airports in the world-ringed by snow-capped mountains, which offer a stark contrast to the imposing red and white traditional structures dotting the mountainside. The view from the Druk Air plane (the only airline that operates in Bhutan) also gives you your first view of a Dzong – the uniquely Bhutanese religious and administrative centres that look rather like fortresses.
We were greeted by our gentle and smiling guide Ugyen dressed in a traditional gho – a long gown belted at the waist usually in bright colours. As we drove to Thimphu, an hour away from the airport for our first stop, our conversation touched on what makes Bhutan an unspoilt and isolated gem of the Himalayas with a rich and unique living culture that is protected and lived everyday. Our hotel, Terma Linca, was on the banks of the Thimphu Chu (river) ringed by weeping willows, far from the huste and bustle of Thimphu, and yet easily accessible. The hotel is constructed in a typical Bhutanese architectural style, and this extends to the interior décor. The rooms overlook a flowing river with stunning views from the rooms and restaurant – we felt ourselves calm down and relax immediately, ready to explore the Happy Kingdom of Bhutan.
Our first afternoon in Thimphu was spent wandering around the city. The King and the Royal Family are dear to the Bhutanese and you can see and feel their presence everywhere in Thimphu. The present king Jigme Khesar Wangchuk is K5 (yes, the kings are referred to by their numbers; K1 was the first king in 1907) and he is a much loved figure among the people, with whom he plays football every week, and travels to the countryside to meet his subjects. This year is also a very special Visit Bhutan year as K4 the Fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk turns 60 and there are many festivals and events to mark the event.
Later that evening I opted for a traditional Bhutanese dinner. We began with small cups of Ara, the local alcohol brewed from wheat and sometimes from rice and barley around the bonfire – in a traditional home this would have been round the Bukhari( central fireplace). This was followed by a hearty portion of red rice with fish stew, Bhutanese style, and the fiery national dish ema datse – chillies with cheese. You have to try it but be prepared for fireworks on your palate! Bhutan loves chillies and you find them everywhere and in all Bhutanese dishes.
Over dinner we discussed Gross National Happiness (GNH), which puts people before money, and a holistic values-based approach for development, with community vitality being key. If you want to know more, a great place to visit is the GNH centre in Thimphu.
The next day it was time to travel east into Punakha Valley. Our guide organised our permit to travel to Punakha. We had to time our departure carefully as the road from Thimphu to Punakha is being upgraded and closed for many hours during the day in both directions. After a 50 minute gentle climb on the road leading out of Thimphu and round a corner, we came face to face with a stunning view: snow capped Himalayas forming the background to the 108 geometric and colourful chortens (Buddhist shrine)at the crest of Dochula Pass.
We explored the Druk Wangyal lhakhang(temple) and had a steaming cup of chai at a cafe overlooking the mountains. All in all a beautiful start to our day in Punakha valley. The road descends all the way from the pass and soon the majestic Punakha Dzong comes into view at the confluence of Po (father) Chhu and Mo (mother) Chhu.
The Punakha Dzong has a special place- it was built by the Zhabdrung,the Prince Abbott who arrived from Tibet in the 17th century, and unified Bhutan and is revered until today as a Great Buddhist Master.The Dzong was the seat of government until it was moved to Thimphu. It is still the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbott) and home to the famous Punakha Drubchen and Tsechu(festivals with dances and enactments in Feb).
A beautiful covered bridge took us to the main entrance into the Dzong.
We climbed steep wooden stairs (the roof above the stairs is home to the biggest beehives I have ever seen!) to come into the first of the three courtyards. The second and third courtyards are grand and have some of the most sacred relics of Bhutan.
After spending a good deal of time soaking in the space we decided to walk around the beautiful gardens full of flowering purple jacaranda trees. We spotted some people playing archery and decided to try our hand at it. The target was a 145 m away and I could not even see it from my vantage point. But the ease with which the local teams shot the arrows was amazing. Plus, we had the added bonus of watching them break out into a traditional dance each time they hit the target. I did lift the bow and arrow and followed the instructions but had no idea where my arrow landed! Better luck next time….
Lunch was at the aesthetic Uma (no relation of mine) by Como in Punakha overlooking the river and terraced rice fields. After lunch we decided to do a short hike exploring the Punakha Valley. Starting near the Uma, we crossed the river and hiked up the narrow path hugging the river and cutting through paddy fields. We passed a few villages, chatted with people along the way and got a glimpse of some traditional dwellings. A couple of hours later we were back at the Dzong and ready to travel on to Paro for the night. We were looking forward to a soothing drink and some relaxation after a long day filled with beautiful sights.
One more wonderful thing to end the day – we discovered “1907,” a superb malt whisky made in Bhutan and named after the year in which Ugyen Wangchuk became the first “Druk Gyalpo” or Dragon King of reunified Bhutan. Having lived in Scotland I know and like my single malts, and my husband and I gave this whisky a thumbs up. I quickly added a bottle of “1907” and a bottle of “K5,” another whisky named after the current king, to my ever-growing shopping list.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PARO..
I have found time to travel to many countries and live in 2 countries (3 if Scotland ever does becomes one!) and 6 cities during my career in finance. I was a diplomat first and started in the Indian Foreign Service with my first posting being Paris – The City of Light. And began my lifelong love of travel and coffee there! An MBA followed and I’ve been in finance since.