Do­ing three cities in the world’s hap­pi­ness cap­i­tal, Bhutan, can leave you re­ju­ve­nated for life

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - By Swa­pan Seth

LAND­ING ON the 6,500 feet Paro run­way is not easy. The plane air-kisses pre­car­i­ously-perched houses and high fives 16,000 feet stoic moun­tains. Pi­lots have to rely less on in­stru­ments and more on vis­ual me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions. No won­der, there are just eight pi­lots in the world who are cer­ti­fied to land at Paro.

As one steps out of the air­craft one can­not help but no­tice the brazen beauty of Bhutan. She is un­wa­ver­ingly un­touched. Poet­i­cally pris­tine. Above all she is shy. Very, very shy.

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “So many peo­ple are shut up tight in­side them­selves like boxes, yet they would open up, un­fold­ing quite won­der­fully, if only you were in­ter­ested in them.”

The thing about Bhutan is that ev­ery few peo­ple are in­ter­ested in it. The few that are, are be­sot­ted by it. As you un­buckle your seat belt, your mind is pre­pared to leave a few things be­hind in the plane: the hur­ried­ness of life, the ur­gency of ex­pec­ta­tions and the scarcity of at­ten­tion.

In his bril­liant piece, The Virtue of Still­ness, Pico Iyer says, “In an age of speed, I be­gan to think, noth­ing could be more in­vig­o­rat­ing than go­ing slow. In an age of dis­trac­tion, noth­ing can feel more lux­u­ri­ous than pay­ing at­ten­tion. And in an age of con­stant move­ment, noth­ing is more ur­gent than sit­ting still. You.”

Bhutan is still. It is quiet. Its val­leys whis­per. Its rivers gur­gle. Its moun­tains, mute in their majesty.

Great ho­tels are thought­ful first, beau­ti­ful later and ef­fi­cient, lastly. As Pema, our guide and friend ush­ered us into the wait­ing car, he handed us a kit that con­tained can­died ginger, a lit­tle some­thing that would pre­vent mo- tion sick­ness. It was ges­ture tossed in thought­ful­ness.

And then, with­out much ado, he whis­pered, “Welcome to Amankora.” Com­bin­ing the San­skrit word for ‘peace’ with kora or ‘cir­cu­lar pil­grim­age’ in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese lan­guage, Amankora is a se­ries of lodges punc­tu­at­ing the cen­tral and western val­leys of Bhutan.

Bhutan’s rivers have forged deep val­leys cur­tained by high moun­tain passes. His­tor­i­cally iso­lated, each val­ley’s scenic dis­tinc­tive­ness and to­pog­ra­phy gives vis­i­tors an op­por­tu­nity for unique jour­neys of dis­cov­ery be­tween them. These are multi-faceted jour­neys. They are jour­neys of ge­og­ra­phy, of his­tory, of cul­ture, of food, of well­ness, of calm­ness. Above all, they are dis­cov­er­ies of one­self.” The lodges are lo­cated in the val­leys of Paro, Thim­phu, Pu­nakha, Gangtey and Bumthang. They are sib­lings of soli­tude, sim­plic­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. We first ar­rived at The Aman in Thimpu. In The

Honourable School­boy, John Le Carre wrote, “Home’s where you go to when you’ve run out of homes.” And The Aman is just that for its count­less devo­tees. A home of a fine friend. There are no re­cep­tions. No lob­bies. And the ar­chi­tec­ture over­whelms you.

Un­known to many, there are ac­tu­ally a lot of things to do in Thimpu. There is the ab­so­lutely ma­jes­tic Trashi Ch­hoe Dzong, seat of the gov­ern­ment and royal of­fices. It war­rants a visit.

I also have a deep in­ter­est in food, so The Farmer’s Mar­ket in Thimpu was right up there on my list of things to do. It is spot­lessly clean. Pick up some de­vi­ously spicy dal­ley paste from there. And while at it, do stock up on kar­gy­ong (smoked, dry sausages). The pork in Bhutan is pure joy.

In­cense (Poi) is also an in­te­gral part of Bhutanese life. And it comes to life in the mar­ket. There are sacks con­tain­ing Ju­niper and Cy­press. I car­ried back truck­loads of them.

And of course, you must buy your­self a Goh, their na­tional dress for men. It is ab­so­lutely way too cool.

Bhutan is also the Mecca of hand­made paper. It is made from the bark of two trees: Daphne and Dhekap. In fact, a trip to Thimpu is in­com­plete with­out a visit to the Jung­shi Paper Fac­tory. It has all kinds of paper and paper prod­ucts. In­clud­ing the one made with mar­i­juana leaves.

After all the di­vine shop­ping, make room for the di­vine. I was for­tu­nate to spend two hours with My­nak Tulku, the 12th Rein­car­nate Lama of the fa­mous My­nak Rin­poche.

The next day, it was time to visit Pu­nakha. For­merly, the cap­i­tal of Bhutan, Pu­nakha has tremen­dous sig­nif­i­cance to this day. All cer­e­monies of sig­nif­i­cance com­mence there. In­clud­ing the wed­ding of the beloved King, His Majesty Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, which took place at the Pu­nakha Dzong, an­other ar­chi­tec­tural marvel.

At Pu­nakha, I rec­om­mend a pic­nic by the river. The Pho Chhu (fa­ther) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers in the Pu­nakha–Wang­due val­ley are beau­ti­ful. Spread a ta­ble and some sun­shine be­sides them.

Our last leg in Bhutan took us back to Paro. Don’t ex­pect a red car­pet welcome. In­stead ex­pect a bed of orange pine nee­dles lead­ing you into the lodge. A beau­ti­ful stream that cuts across the prop­erty. This stream is used to water the myr­iad plants of the Aman’s own herb gar­den. Equally lovely is the coop which breeds hens that sup­ply fresh eggs to your ta­ble for break­fast.

Paro’s main street has the loveli­est places. Do pop by at the Cham­paca Café. It has the most charm­ing cof­fee in Asia. And a stag­ger­ing car­rot cake. The trin­kets store next to it has re­mark­able bead bracelets and chimes. Across the road are stores sell­ing some heart-warm­ing yak wool scarves.

In Paro, light 108 but­ter lamps at Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s old­est tem­ples dat­ing back to the 7th cen­tury. The light­ing sym­bol­ises dis­pelling the dark­ness of ig­no­rance and helps in­crease one’s merit in life. What also lights up your eyes is the bril­liant Bhutanese cui­sine. While the non-veg­e­tar­ian fare pairs odd lads like beef with radish, it is the veg­e­tar­ian fare (spinach) that ig­nites the soul.

I switch on the mu­sic on my head­phones on the flight back to In­dia. It’s the Ea­gles. Ho­tel Cal­i­for

nia. “You can check out any­time you want, but you can never leave.” That’s Bhutan. You leave. It stays.

Bhutan’s scenic dis­tinc­tive­ness gives vis­i­tors an op­por­tu­nity for unique jour­neys of dis­cov­ery

Founder of the ad­ver­tis­ing agency Equus, the writer is an au­thor, colum­nist and avid art col­lec­tor

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