The Drukair Airbus A319 which took us from Singapore began making its descent, but seated by the aisle meant the Bhutanese sky and clouds were the only things I could see from the windows on both sides of the plane. As James was kept busy chatting with a talkative Aussie who was sitting by the window, the plane started making a series of maneuvers, tilting to the left and right and left again, though I didn’t really count as each turn afforded me glimpses of Bhutan’s hills which in some countries would be considered mountains. At some points the hilltops seemed to be too close, and unnervingly so – unsurprisingly just a handful of pilots are qualified to fly in and out of this mountainous country. After several minutes the plane made a final turn to the right and soon I could hear the wheels touching the runway. We’re here, we’ve arrived in Bhutan!
After Nepal in 2015, Bhutan is the second country in the Himalayas that I’ve had the chance to visit, although my fascination for this part of the world began way back more than twenty years ago when I first saw a photo of Tibet’s Potala Palace in one of my father’s old books. However, unlike Tibet which is now part of China and Sikkim which was absorbed into India, Bhutan and Nepal remain independent up to this day, making them the only ancient countries in the Himalayas that have not become part of their much larger neighbors to the north and south.
As we walked past the flight attendants who were wearing green tego (a long sleeve, jacket-like garment) and matching kira (an ankle-length woven fabric with traditional motifs), the fresh crisp air of Bhutan rushed into my lungs, which unfortunately are too accustomed to Jakarta’s polluted air.
“I can smell fresh pine,” James recalled a scent that he remembered from his past trips to Canada.
We walked down the stairs onto the tarmac, and those disembarking before us were already taking photos of the plane, the airport and the dramatic landscape surrounding it. We were at Paro International Airport, the sole international airport in the entire country, situated in the namesake town an hour’s drive away from the capital, Thimphu. We entered the small arrival hall through doors and passageways ornately decorated with Bhutanese architectural elements, and before long we were greeted by Kinga, our guide throughout our seven-day maiden trip to Bhutan. His imposing stature made him stand out among other guides, and as soon as we got to our white minivan with Phuntsho at the steering wheel, Kinga handed out two long white shawls, a cultural tradition which is similar with what we experienced in Nepal. In the latter, however, the shawl is usually given upon departure as a token of good wishes.
On our way to Thimphu, Kinga explained to us facts about his native land as he handed me a large envelope filled with a booklet on Bhutan, a brochure from the government containing the country’s statistical data, our itinerary, and a postcard of Tiger’s Nest – probably Bhutan’s most iconic site – shot on a cloudy day. Little did we know that this was a sign of how the weather would be when we hiked to the cliffside monastery five days later, as opposed to the clear sky above us with only a few patches of cloud.
The road snaked around verdant as well as barren hills. On the right side I saw layers of exposed rocks and couldn’t help but wonder if millions of years ago those were also part of the seabed which slowly collided with the Eurasian Plate and created the mighty Himalayas. This was a reminder for me of how unique this country is; for years many things about Bhutan have been intriguing me, from its pursuit of happiness – an unconventional way in measuring its progress as a nation – to the fact that it is the only country in the world that is carbon negative, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide in the air than it releases. Many who had gone to Bhutan before me recounted their own incredible experiences in the country, but I always tend to take things with a grain of salt, hence the lingering question in my head: is Bhutan really a perfect place?
Last year I came across an article exposing a side of Bhutan often overlooked by most people. Beyond the Gross National Happiness that has defined the world’s perception of Bhutan, one journalist reported the country’s growing problem with drugs, prevalent particularly among its young population. Then on their latest annual World Happiness Report, the United Nations placed Bhutan in the 97th position, a conspicuously stark contrast to the Himalayan kingdom’s reputation as a place that emphasizes happiness above everything else. Could there be a misunderstanding among the global community of this small nation? That’s what I was so eager to find out on this trip.
“72% of Bhutan is covered with forests,” Kinga repeated a fact we learned from the country’s outgoing prime minister on a TED talk video we watched a few weeks prior to the trip. “But some of that is a result of reforestation,” he added. “Many of these hills were once barren, then the government started planting trees.”
We stopped by a small iron bridge which is no longer in use. As we walked down from the main road, a small river with crystal clear water was running before my eyes. It was so clean the pebbles at the bottom were visible – I can’t remember the last time I saw a river this clean in Indonesia. With a land area just a little smaller than Switzerland, the entire population of Bhutan is less than 10% of the European nation’s 8.5 million inhabitants (in comparison, Indonesia’s West Java province which is about the same size as Bhutan has more than 46 million people).
We soon learned that Kinga was in fact a fountain of knowledge when it came to Bhutanese culture and tradition. He explained the reasoning behind the colorful prayer flags which are evident across the Himalayas: each color represents one of the natural elements and they must be mounted at windy places to allow the wind to carry the prayers. Then there are prayer poles – typically 108 of them at each location – which are erected as a remembrance of those who have passed away. This aspect of Buddhism (about 75% of all Bhutanese are Buddhists) is similar to the form I witnessed in Nepal, yet so different from the one practiced in places like Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka which follow a different school of Buddhism.
Back on the road to the capital, Kinga said to us that throughout the trip we would try Bhutanese food, “but we’ll take it easy, okay? For your first meal in Bhutan we will go to a Western restaurant to have lunch.”
“Let’s start with Bhutanese food, we love trying local dishes,” James convinced Kinga with me nodding in agreement.
“Are you sure?” Kinga seemed a little concerned.
“Yes, we’re sure.”
We knew how Bhutanese food would be like – a lot of cheese and chilies – and it was in fact one of the things we were looking forward to trying the most in this trip. Discussing with Phuntsho in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language which to me sounded a little similar with Burmese (both belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group), they seemed to agree on an alternative place to take us for lunch. As we were entering Thimphu, the nation’s capital which sits more than 2,300 meters above sea level, Phuntsho pulled the car over at a modest restaurant.
We went inside what seemed to be a family-run venue and were seated inside a small room with four tables and long chairs. Kinga gave us the menu and one dish immediately caught our attention: ema datshi. I learned about this Bhutanese dish two years ago and was instantly intrigued. Chilies with cheese? I had never heard of such an interesting combination before. We entrusted Kinga with choosing the rest, and he ended up ordering a little too much food the four of us could handle. Shakam paa (dried beef cooked with dried chilies and radish), shamu datshi (cheese with mushrooms), shakam shukam datshi (dried beef, white chilies and cheese), jaju (a dairy-and-vegetable soup made with local spinach), and of course ema datshi. For drinks we had suja, Bhutanese butter tea with a dash of salt. Overall our lunch was a great introduction to Bhutanese food which is little known beyond the kingdom’s borders.
With full stomachs, Kinga took us to the local farmer’s market since it was Sunday, the last day of the week before the market was emptied again until the following Friday. We walked past stalls selling chilies – fresh and dried – with some varieties I’ve never seen in Indonesia, fresh fruits, spices, cereals, and dried fish (Bhutan is a landlocked country and most fish is imported from India). “Apart from some fruits and vegetables, we import a lot of things from India,” Kinga explained. As a matter of fact, Bhutan exports 70% of the electricity it produces from its hydroelectric power plants to its giant neighbor to the south, but it imports fuel in return. This seemingly precarious economic relationship between Bhutan and India resonates with what the small country’s outgoing prime minister said in his TED talk. “We are a small underdeveloped country doing our best to survive.”
What’s heartening was when Kinga told us that instead of building dams which have proven to cause great environmental damage in many places around the world, Bhutan relies on diversion tunnels to generate electricity so natural habitats downstream won’t be affected.
The last place we visited before checking in at our hotel was Tashichho Dzong, a large religious and secular compound which has been used as the seat of Bhutan’s government since 1968, a few years after the capital of the kingdom was moved from Punakha to Thimphu. Housing the throne room, the cabinet secretariat, and the offices of some ministries, the fortress is a reconstruction of a previous structure which was damaged by fire. Like all buildings in Bhutan, the imposing complex was built in accordance with Bhutanese traditional architectural elements as regulated in the Driglam Namzha, a set of rules which dictates not only how buildings in Bhutan should be constructed, but also how men and women should dress in public – therefore the ubiquity of men wearing gho and women draped in kira.
As the sun began to set behind the mountains to the west, we finally went to our hotel which was located in the outskirts of Thimphu. As we entered the small hotel’s lobby, Auntie Ugyen who runs the place with her husband welcomed us with a heartfelt hospitality that reminded me of the warm welcome I received in Nepal. One of her staff members was a friendly young woman who gave us hot ginger and honey tea which was perfect as the temperatures in the capital were beginning to drop. After chatting with us a little bit, Auntie Ugyen showed us our spacious and homey room which later that night James told me reminded him of Canada. Dinner was great – we had some of the best food in Bhutan there – and around 10pm off we went for some much-needed sleep after waking up at 3 in the morning to catch our flight from Singapore to Paro. So far Bhutan had been so good to us, and I knew another interesting day with Kinga and Phuntsho awaited.