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.
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.
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?