Step 1, drive the 3 or 4 miles from the single Bhutan international airport into town. Hard not to notice the road. You’d think, only commercial airport, the heavily traveled route into town, the first thing anyone sees when entering the country, that this could be a higher priority road maintenance-wise. The road is, in reality, one lane of pavement carrying two way traffic, everyone darting in and out to share the pavement / shoulder, swinging between the ditch and the centerline, stray cows drifting back and forth, packs of schoolchildren giggling and fighting as they walk on the narrow shoulder that the cars are using to avoid each other. Just like Thailand, they are driving British style on the left. And when you do get to town there’s a foot deep storm gutter between the sidewalk and the street where everyone parallel parks — if you’re a tad off with the backing up, you’d get a wheel caught down. I began to appreciate why we had a dedicated driver separate from the guide. This is a seriously skilled profession in this country.
We ended up sitting next to some Canadians over lunch who had been in country awhile and were back in Paro for their flight out. Their comment was “the further you get from Paro and the capital Thimphu, the roads deteriorate.” And I thought WTF? They get worse?
I will mention the food because people have asked and I don’t believe that we were really ever eating what the natives were. That we were being served what they decided was what the tourists like to eat which was a buffet of red rice, fried potatoes, sautéed spinach, chicken or beef stir fry / mixed dish, fried eggplant. The only local dish we were offered was fried chiles with cheese sauce. They were moderately spicy, and novelty being that I’m used to eating chiles mixed with things, not served standalone as a vegetable. And once the guide decided that I liked them / would happily eat them, he would bring a special bowl of them for me from the kitchen if they weren’t on the buffet. A couple times we had vegetable dumplings that were delicious, when we finally got to Thimphu we were in a hotel that catered to Indian businessmen so there was some excellent curry and lentils with toasted nan bread. But it was not a foodie trip. The food was very plentiful, enormous servings 3 times a day, hot food sitdown meal 3 times a day, but not really much to write home about.
The first day we roamed around Paro. We went to the Kyichu Lhakhang, a 7th century Buddhist temple.
They were having a consecration ceremony outside in the courtyard with some tents set up and monks and locals sitting around and some guy with a garden hose sprinkling the grass in front of a table laid out with various packages of offerings. The monks chanting, people spinning little handheld prayer wheels, and the stray dogs sacked out in the shade.
Let’s talk about the stray dogs, shall we? In fact, it was in the car from the airport where the guide apologized for the number of stray dogs in Paro, that they’ve tried once or twice to round them up but there’s always as many left over when they’re done as when they started. The town is crawling with stray dogs, 10 to a vacant lot. Half of them (the female half) pregnant or with a litter of puppies. And the humans and the dogs just ignore each other. They don’t even seem to make eye contact as if they’re living in different planes that don’t intersect. I guess it’s a Buddhist live-and-let-live thing. The dogs are obviously pursuing their own destiny and why would you get involved in that? At night, they are a choir of voices, talking to each other and the moon, holding congregations of howling, below your window and then off in the distance. They were not the skinny dogs, so they must have been eating something. Garbage? But the dogs were everywhere, always in the corner of your eye, even during religious ceremonies. None of them were pampered.
From there we went up the hill to Paro Rinpung Dzong (where a dzong is a fort / compound of government buildings which also seems to include a monastery).
The architecture with the whitewashed stone and the painted wood is beautiful. And not just the dzong or the monasteries. Ordinary houses are all built in this style and richly painted with mythical creatures. Farm houses, houses in villages, the buildings in the bigger towns are all done with this style, giving a very consistent style. Again, this is their culture and they embrace it.
The monastery portion of the dzong was covered with the most amazing wall paintings. This was our first introduction to the Guardians of the Four Directions that are usually painted at the entrances. They are:
- Dhritarashtra, the King of the East, white in color and plays a lute.
- Virupaksha, the King of the West, red in color and holds a small stupa in his right hand and a serpent in his left.
- Vaishravana, the King of the North, yellow in color and carries a banner of victory in his right hand and a mongoose that vomits jewels in his left. Popularly known as God of Wealth.
- Virudhaka, the King of the South, blue in color and carries a sword and scabbard.
You’ll notice that there’s no pictures inside of the monasteries.
Later, toward sunset which always comes early in a mountain valley, we wandered around Paro. Notice the chiles drying, you see them everywhere. Notice the national uniform. Notice the ladder to get into the shop.
The complete set of pictures from the trip is here.