Paro: Bhutan’s Sleepy Gateway

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Asia, Bhutan, South

Masang Gang, part of the Bhutanese Himalayas

Our last morning in Punakha started quite uneventfully; James and I had switched back to our pants and shirts and Kinga and Phuntsho to their gho. As usual, we left the hotel at 8.30 but this time instead of moving eastward as we’d been doing since our first day in Bhutan, we headed back to the west, right where we started this trip. Paro – our destination – is located at about the same elevation as the nation’s capital, Thimphu. However, thanks to its wider valley and relative proximity to the capital, Paro hosts the country’s sole international airport, often considered one of the most difficult commercial airports to fly in and out.

Before we could explore Paro and see what it had to offer, we had to once again navigate the snaking roads and mountain passes of western Bhutan, including the Dochula Pass – known for its iconic 108 chortens – which acts as the border between Thimphu and Punakha. Along the way, I spotted a gas station owned by India’s state oil company (Bhutan exports most of its hydropower electricity to India, but imports fossil fuels from its giant neighbor), a modest street-side restaurant called Pizza Hut (which most likely is not related to the American restaurant chain), the white stupa of Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang on top of a hill, beautiful Bhutanese traditional houses … and before I knew it I’d fallen asleep, but not for too long.

I was suddenly awakened by the loud sound of the minivan’s sliding door. With my eyes still half-closed I tried to figure out what was happening.

“That’s Masang Gang,” Kinga pointed at a snow-capped mountain whose subtle outline in the far background was a stark contrast to the verdant ridges closer to us. Despite the cloudy day, and the abrupt wake-up call, I was happy to finally see one of the peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas especially since thick clouds had blotted them out on our first crossing over Dochula Pass.

After the brief stop we continued our journey westward and just before we entered Thimphu, an imposing dzong built on the slope of a hill beckoned. Welcoming visitors was not why dzongs across the country were built in the first place: instead, they were constructed to provide the Bhutanese with protection against Tibetan incursions. Finished in 1629, Simtokha Dzong is in fact the oldest of its kind which still retains its original form. In spite of being smaller than the capital’s Tashichho Dzong, Simtokha Dzong was itself a sight to behold. Unfortunately we had to carry on our journey to Paro for the western Bhutanese town was awaiting us.

The 17th-century Simtokha Dzong

Neyphug Heritage, located between Thimphu and Paro

An abandoned monastery brought back to life

Inside Your Café at Neyphug Heritage

Delicious vegetarian dishes for lunch

Halfway between Thimphu and Paro at around 1.30pm we pulled over at what seemed to be an old structure which had been renovated to house a restaurant, a modern-looking one no less. A young staff member greeted us; he still appeared a little awkward, which was understandable given the restaurant’s location in the countryside (he probably was a local) and the fact that the dining venue was not 100% finished yet. We were at Neyphug Heritage, a project that breathed new life into the ruins of an abandoned monastery, helping to improve the lives of villagers by providing a market where they can sell their produce and a restaurant focusing on vegetarian dishes with ingredients sourced from local farms.

The interior of Your Café, a rather underwhelming name for a place that serves good quality food, couldn’t have been more different from the typical local joints where we’d had a multitude of Bhutanese dishes in Thimphu and Punakha. The walls from the ruined structure were kept intact while a minimalistic table arrangement and lofty wooden ceiling gave the place a cozy and warm ambiance. While they also served Indian and Western cuisine, we, as always, opted for a Bhutanese set lunch which included radish and dried chili (which was surprisingly sweet), ema datshi (chili and cheese), red rice, suja (butter tea) and a few other dishes.

Feeling full and impressed by the quality of the food and the presentation, we had to leave and keep driving to Paro. At the same time I was thinking how nice it would be to return to this place a few years from now and see the progress of this project. With a patchwork of paddy fields laid before our eyes – most of them looked barren as the rice must have been harvested a few days earlier – we finally entered Paro, a town of less than 12,000 people with a charming downtown area dotted with old houses built in traditional Bhutanese style. However, if there’s one landmark most visitors remember from this sleepy corner of Bhutan, that would probably be Rinpung Dzong, a rectangular 17th-century dzong with a tall utse (central tower) overlooking the international airport where a handful of planes come and go every day during the daytime.

Paro’s Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong and Ta Dzong (the watchtower above)

The wooden bridge to enter Rinpung Dzong

Walking to Kyichu Lhakhang

Paro Valley’s hills and mountains seen from Kyichu Lhakhang

Traditional decorations at Kyichu Lhakhang

The central tower of the temple

A pilgrim turning the prayer wheels

A type of marigold at the temple’s garden

Pretty in pink

Above the dzong is the National Museum of Bhutan, occupying a seven-story round structure also known as Ta Dzong. However, at the time of our visit it was still closed due to the ongoing renovation work carried out following an earthquake that struck several years ago. A small part of its collection, however, is currently displayed at a much-smaller building nearby. Later, down in the wide Paro Valley, Kinga and Phuntsho took us to Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan which was built by a Tibetan king in the seventh century who is attributed as the founder of the Tibetan Empire. Kinga walked us through the different sections of the ancient temple; in one sacred chamber he pointed out centuries-old statues as well as newer ones, and in another part of the temple he showed us where the former abbot used to live. Outside, beautiful gardens adorned with blooming flowers were calming to the eyes, and the sight of an elderly pilgrim turning the prayer wheels was soothing to the soul.

At around 5.30pm we returned to the center of the town. “I need to get something, you can walk around and explore this area,” Kinga said to us. While most shops along the main street sell souvenirs – from fridge magnets to t-shirts and beautiful handicrafts – we were drawn into a grocery shop across the street for one reason: food! At first I was curious about the local products available at the shop and thought of buying some snacks (unsurprisingly most of them were imported from India). But in the end we ended up buying a jar of Bhutanese honey with honeycomb produced in Bumthang, a district in central Bhutan known for its historical buildings and rich cultural scene.

Before the sun set, we checked in at our hotel and found out that our room had a large balcony with a nice view of the airport. We even saw Bhutan Airlines’ (not to be confused with the flag carrier, Drukair) Airbus A319 arriving from Kolkata just before dark – thanks to the mountains and hills surrounding the airport, night flights are practically not possible (here’s the link to a video showing the landing approach to the international airport from the cockpit). We ended the day with a hearty dinner at the hotel; apart from the usual ema datshi and red rice, the meal also included a combination of mushroom, noodle and cheese which joined the list of my favorite dishes in Bhutan. Before going to bed early, for we had a big day ahead of us, I couldn’t help but ponder what Kinga told us earlier that day regarding the impact of development on this unique kingdom.

“The valley is wider here in Paro. So ten years from now there will be even more development here than in Thimphu.” Having seen what development had caused to the rice fields in the capital, I’m not sure whether that future Kinga foresaw is the kind of future Bhutan actually needs. But who am I to judge?

Ta Dzong, today’s National Museum of Bhutan

An ornately-decorated bridge at Ta Dzong

Absorbing the view of the valley

The circular structure of Ta Dzong

Paro Valley on a cloudy day

Another view of the valley

A testament to Bhutan’s love for chilies

The valley and the dzongs viewed from our hotel

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

40 thoughts on “Paro: Bhutan’s Sleepy Gateway”

  1. Pingback: Paro: Bhutan’s Sleepy Gateway – Timeless Wisdoms

  2. Beautiful photos, as ever. Kyichu Dzong and Chele La are my two brightest memories of Paro. Neyphug heritage is new to me, of course, and something I will definitely keep in mind if I visit again.

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    • Thanks! Next time you come to Bhutan, if you fly in Paro, Neyphug Heritage is on your right side on the way to Thimphu. It’s a great initiative in preserving cultural heritage while at the same time providing jobs for the locals.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That restaurant looked pretty nice to me even if it had a few rough edges! If you think that a lot of establishments go to fairly extreme lengths to make their places look like that…

    I’ve to say, Bhutanese architecture is really growing on me. Don’t know why, but those white buildings are quite appealing. I imagine they’d all have some sort of nice internal courtyard, won’t they?

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    • True. A lot of restaurant owners have Instagram in mind now when they design the interior of their venues.

      That white color with the brown/reddish band around its upper walls is quintessentially Bhutanese. I didn’t go to the courtyard of Rinpung Dzong, though, but I did go to the ones in Punakha and Thimphu. I first went to the latter and I was impressed with what I saw. But when I visited the former, its three courtyards blew my mind away!

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  4. Yet another beautiful town in Bhutan. The chilli decoration outside of the souvenir shop is really cute. The wooden bridge at Ta dzong is so, so gorgeous. I love those colorful wooden carvings. I watched the video you’ve linked of landing in Paro, and my god it looks scary! The scenery of the green mountains is absolutely stunning.

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    • I don’t recall chili being used so much in Nepal as it is in Bhutan, am I right? I guess drying it actually makes it sweeter as it concentrates its flavor. Unfortunately Ta Dzong was still closed when I was there; I’m really curious about its interior since I was also astonished by its intricate wooden carvings. I remember the approach to Kathmandu was not that easy either, but I think landing in Paro is even harder since the runway is shorter than in Tribhuvan International Airport and as you can see that not too far from the beginning (or end) of the runway there’s a hill with houses on it.

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      • By reading your blog posts on Bhutan, I am sure that we don’t use chili nearly as much as the Bhutanese hehe. Oh that’s unlucky about the Dzong, I am sure the interiors would have been spectacular too!
        After all this flying, the only time that my heart paces like crazy when about to land is when I am above Kathmandu. So I can’t imagine Paro if the runway is even shorter!

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      • One day you should take one of those flights to Paro and experience the thrill yourself! 🙂

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  5. That cafe looks like such an awesome blend of tradition and cosmopolitanism! Not to mention that Himalayan cuisine, which is something special and unique in itself. Your pic had me salivating haha

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    • That cafe was not something I expected to see in Bhutan knowing how staunch the government is in preserving the Bhutanese culture. But I guess it’s a good example how embracing modernity doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing old traditions. I know Bhutan is quite far from Berlin, but when you get the chance to go, you really should!

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    • I bet it would have looked even more beautiful had it been a sunny day with blue skies. I hope those rice fields will stay for many years to come.

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  6. There are so many interesting aspects of this post but I’m intrigued by the beautiful space that has been created in the renovated monastery. If I didn’t see out the window it could almost pass for a restaurant in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. That veggie dish is so nicely presented. What a great project.
    That view of Masang Gang high up above the green hills is stunning. Your photo of the handicraft shop with the chilies and the cigarette-smoking owner is a winner.

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    • I didn’t expect our guide to take us to this place since he always took us to very local restaurants on the previous days. We were seated next to a wide window where we could see an expanse of rice fields which had been harvested. On each table there was some sort of floral decoration, only it was made from different types of moss instead of flowers. Overall I was very impressed with the restaurant and the restored structure next to it. If you visit Bhutan one day, you can ask your guide to take you to this place, Caroline. I wonder how it will look like a few years from now.

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  7. I’ll be your look into the future development of the heritage center and restaurant in the old monastery … assuming I go in April and assuming it’s still there and moving ahead! Very appealing place. I also hope I get some snow-covered mountain views like the one you got of Masang Gang; with almost nine days of hiking planned, I will surely see some good Himalaya views as well as those of the gorgeous green fields. Once again, you are getting me psyched for my trip!

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    • That would be lovely. I really hope as the project progresses, the local community will get the most benefit. And when that happens, this can be replicated all over the country — I saw similar ruins in another valley which looked even more interesting given their location. Hopefully you will still go in April, and the weather will be even better than when I went, so you’ll get that glorious view of the Bhutanese Himalayas. Wishing you the best of luck!

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  8. Thank you for this wonderful stroll down memory lane, Bama! I loved everything about Neyphug Heritage – the food, the rustic yet modern decor, and the fact that some forward-thinking locals decided to restore and repurpose a ruined structure in such a sensitive manner. It was so unexpected after days of going to simpler, no-frills eateries.

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    • My pleasure, James! This is clearly the work of someone who has a vision and the right taste and sensibility to bring that vision into reality. Everything was done really well, from the food to the interiors. The staff members still need more time to practice what they’ve been taught in a more relaxed yet professional manner, but it is something that can be worked on over time.

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  9. Bama I have to admit my eyes almost popped out of my head when I read ‘Pizza Hut’. Thank goodness fast food chains have not begun clogging up Bhutan! However perhaps Your Cafe could do with a rebranding. 🙂
    Such a delight to travel with you through Bhutan.

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