On a wing and a prayer

(Click on the image to read the story in pdf)


Nobody tells you that flying into Bhutan is a mini adventure in itself. From my window seat on the left side of the plane – I have done my research well – I see the Everest and the Kanchendzonga, gleaming white on that clear, sunny day. Immediately after that, we begin our descent into Paro, flying between mountains that seem within touching distance.

We seem to turn a blind corner around a hill and for a few seconds, it feels like we are going to land on top of one of the local homes we are almost grazing. And all of a sudden, we touch down and come to a halt.

Paro airport

Paro airport, 7300 feet above sea level and with a runway just over 6500 feet long, presents one of the most challenging descents in the world. So much so that only eight pilots are qualified to fly this route. At the airport, posters of the smiling king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his beautiful queen greet visitors. It is a taste of things to come.

My first day in Paro is easy, a leisurely stroll around the market, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. This is when I get my first taste of ema datse (also spelt as ema datshi), the cheese chilli dish so popular in Bhutan. The Bhutanese eat chilli not as condiments but as vegetables, adding cheese to make it (only slightly more) palatable. All the years of gorging on stinging hot mango pickle and chutney powder has prepared me for exactly such a meal and I tuck into it with glee, but ema datse is certainly not for the weak willed or the weak stomached.

The next day, all this is soon forgotten as I huff and puff my way up to Taktshang Goemba, also known as Tiger’s Nest monastery. Perched on top of a hill, this most pious of Buddhist spaces in Bhutan seems to be carved into the cliff face itself. I have been told – wrongly as I discover – that it is an easy hike of 2-3 hours.

Taktsang monastery

Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava (also called Guru Rinpoche) flew to the top of the monastery on the back of a tigress. Young Bhutanese women overtake me with ease, some of them even carrying babies in makeshift cloth slings. Local children skip and jump up the steep path with insouciance, while groups of aged pilgrims from Thailand maintain a steady tempo. Meanwhile, I stop at frequent intervals to catch my breath and look around hopefully for stray tigresses.

On to Thimphu, whose claim to fame as a capital city is being one without any traffic lights. At its busiest intersection, a lone policeman stands directing traffic that is extremely orderly to begin with. From the looks of it, this is unique enough to make this junction a tourist attraction within Thimphu.

As with all other buildings in Bhutan, the architecture of the traffic booth is traditional. There are no ugly high-rises, no blaring horns on the roads, no backpacking throngs which have conquered Nepal and South East Asia with ease. Bhutan chose to maintain an air of seclusion till almost a decade ago, thus managing to keep away unwelcome outside influences. Television and the Internet made an appearance only in 1999 and cellphones in 2003. Most locals wear the traditional attire – knee or ankle length robes tied at the waist with a belt – of gho (for men) and kira (for women). And it is not cricket or football, but archery competitions at the local stadium in Thimphu that draw in the cheering crowds and competitive teams.

Thimpu traffic

Bhutan archery

Officially Bhutan is now a democracy, but the royalty is still revered and loved universally (cue the smiling posters). Indeed, in 2008, democracy was thrust upon the local population by the fifth king, Bhutan’s current monarch. Known so far for its unique Gross National Happiness metric, Bhutan now finds itself on the path to rapid social and economic development. The interesting clash of the modern and the conservative is in play all over the country.

Bhutanese kid

Bhutanese women

I see, however, that despite the ubiquitous cellphone and the occasional young men sporting skinny jeans, religion and spirituality have a stronghold on the daily lives of the Bhutanese. Nowhere is this more visible than at Punakha, where phallic symbols stare at you from the walls of homes, shops and schools alike. The story behind this is about Bhutan’s beloved monk, Drukpa Kunley, known primarily for spreading joy and wisdom among his people through ribald humour, copious amounts of wine and uninhibited sexual activities. Till date, the most common symbol honouring this “divine madman” (1455 – 1529) is the phallus, considered a symbol of fertility.

Punakha’s most striking landmark, which graces a thousand postcards originating from the country, is the dzong, situated at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers. Dzongs, literally meaning fortresses, serve as both administrative nodes and spiritual centres. The Punakha dzong, built in the early 17th century, is as impressive as the others I have seen in Paro and Thimphu, with its brightly painted gold, red and black motifs. It is quiet and peaceful inside the dzong at that time of the evening. Prayers are in progress inside the main hall, even as young monks scurry about purposefully on the vast courtyard.

Punakha dzong

Thimpu dzong

In sheer contrast, the Chimi Lhakhang temple is a riot of colour and noise, the red and yellow robes of young monks flying about in the mild evening breeze as they engage in a vigorous game of football. These are monks in training, some as young as seven or eight, and all that pent up energy finds release at the end of the day so. I have walked for thirty minutes across paddy fields dotted with gurgling streams, mini chortens (stupa-like structures) and homes with red chillis drying on the roofs, and then climbed up a mini hillock to get here.


Chimi Lakhang

I sit quietly and watch the tumult that greets every goal, the mock fistfights and the somersault contests. Despite the general air of chaos, at that moment, I understand the Bhutanese idea of Gross National Happiness. And I want to carry some of it back home in a bottle with me.

Friday photo: Mother

Working as I am on a story on Bhutan for a magazine, this Friday, I give you an image from there that always brings a smile to my face. This was on the way to Takhtsang Goemba, or the Tiger’s Nest monastery near Paro, just before I had begun the hike. I had no idea just how arduous it was going to be. Ah, but that is another story altogether…

The Bhutanese – I have also seen this in Ladakh and Sikkim so far – carry their babies in such slings effortlessly, even up on steep mountain roads. This photo is particularly dear to me, the way both mother and child are smiling.


~ Also see: Friday photo series

~ And more stories from Bhutan here, including one on their natural body warmers, viz. red and green chillis…

Friday photo: Football

In Bhutan recently, I watched a group of young monks (monklings?) release an entire day’s worth of pent up energy on a football. It was late evening at the Chime Lakhang monastery at Punakha and prayers were over the day. What started as a listless kicking of a ball around the field soon gave way to a boisterous match between a dozen monks, and soon there was nothing but a blur of red across my line of vision. A few monk(ey)s who were not into footie, were turning somersaults on the grass or just chasing each other with sticks and stones. One solitary monk sat at a safe distance munching on a fruit, while another stood by the goal post staring into space, letting everyone freely score goals.


Kids will be kids, monks or not.

Against the white and coloured prayer flags in the background, this half hour was one of my favourite Bhutan experiences.

Also see: Friday photo series

And other stories from Bhutan

Ema Datshi and Red Panda: eating and drinking in Bhutan

Forget central heating and layered clothing. The Bhutanese eat their body warmers. Chillis. No meal is complete without ema datshi, the world-famous-in-Bhutan dish of chilli with cheese. And it is exactly that – chopped green chillis mixed with cheese. No bells, no whistles. Just lots of antacids.

ema datse

To be fair, they also cook other things with cheese, particularly the soul-soothing kewa datshi (potato and cheese) and the I-can-take-it-or-leave-it shamu datshi (mushroom and cheese).


A Bhutanese meal is typically red rice eaten with dal (watery, going by what I got wherever I ate), boiled vegetables and greens (really, they could put the British to shame), occasionally some meat and ema datshi. When this gets too boring, the usual suspects like momos, thukpa and chowmein are also available in most places.


To wash it all down, Bhutan has a great choice of beers – the Red Panda and Druk come particularly recommended. Don’t be surprised if local beers come in Kingfisher bottles – apparently, the bottles are recycled by beer companies in Bhutan. Don’t look, just drink. For the truly adventurous, there is Courier whiskey. I have personally imbibed better paint thinner but there is no accounting for tastes.



The other Bhutanese must-drink is Suja, or butter tea. The taste is described variously as strange, buttery, like Horlicks and so on… Go on, give it a try.


(Image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpfarrow/132910692/)

I was suffering from the mother of all migraines in Bhutan, so I politely passed up the local maize and rice liquor arra when it went around the table.

Red hot chilli peppers

A word about chillis: they are everywhere in Bhutan. And I mean everywhere. Chillis are not treated as spice or seasoning in the country but as vegetables. Little children tuck into them with insouciance, even as Western palates (and let’s admit it, even many Indian ones) find that the first bite bring tears to the eyes. You know that one about how vishkanyas were given low doses of poison from a very young age to make them immune to any poison over time? Yes, same technique – children are given chillis as part of their food from a very young age. Bring on the ema datshi!

October was chilli drying season and roof-tops across park, Thimphu and Punakha were carpeted in red. Balconies were festooned with chilli garlands peeping out from between drying clothes. And markets were ablaze with a variety of greens and reds.





Here is an interesting read on Bhutan’s love affair with the fiery chilli: Bhutan’s tears of joy over chillies

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