Atop my happy place: Bhutan

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This appeared in The New Indian Express website.

Bhutan has been both an adventure and a lesson in resilience, says the actor

I had wanted to visit Bhutan ever since I was a little girl, mostly because I had heard so much about the place from my father who spent two years in Haa Valley, a quaint hamlet in the country. He was there as part of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT). So when an opportunity to visit the place presented itself as a guest of the Tourism Council of Bhutan around New Year, I grabbed it with both hands, and my husband, four-year-old son and I set out on an adventure.

The flight from Delhi to Paro takes a little over two hours. An hour’s drive took us to the capital city of Thimpu where we stayed at Taj Tashi for three nights. After some rest, we stepped out for a stroll on the main street and were struck by how clean the place is.

Most people wear the vibrant national dress—kira for women and gho for men.

A long, but picture-perfect road trip to Dochu La, a scenic mountain pass at 10,000ft, awaited us the next day. It has an elaborate complex with 112 chortens (stupas in Sanskrit) and the Druk Wangyel Temple, not to mention, two lovely cafes. It was 2°C that day and sipping hot tea seemed far more enjoyable than usual. It had snowed the night before, remnants of which were visible on the trees. After paying our respects at the temple, we walked around the chortens, before heading up to the meditation caves.

I would highly recommend buying the NU 500 ticket to go to the temple as the view from the top and the temple itself is breathtaking.

Equally spectacular is the Simtokha Dzong, the oldest dzong (a quadrangular temple complex surrounded by a fortress, which is usually square) built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1629 CE, renovated by the Indian government over the years. The dzong functions as a monastic and administrative centre. By now, we had worked up an appetite from all day’s activities and were ready to dig into a traditional Bhutanese meal, especially the famous ema datshi, or chillies cooked in cheese sauce, eager for the next day, which was to begin with a trip to the Pangri Zampa College of Astrology. Locals visit the place for yearly predictions. But more than the future, I was transfixed in the present by the beautiful cypress tree that stood in front of me, said to be the oldest tree in Bhutan.

Talking of ancient things, Simply Bhutan, often described as a living museum, is a must-visit for its depiction of the various aspects of traditional life. From kitchen instruments to household tools and wood carving, the place keeps Bhutan alive. Don’t forget to sample its local cuisine and brew. I even tried my hand at the national sport, archery.

Our next stop was the Great Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic statue of Lord Buddha, which houses over
a hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each made of bronze and gilded in gold. Since it’s on a hill, it offers some of the best views of Thimpu.

About 50 km from the capital, Paro is a smaller city but a charming one nonetheless. Perched on a hill, the National Museum here, called the Ta Dzong, is Bhutan’s tallest building at 72 feet. Built-in 1649, the building was converted into a museum in 1968, which houses some of the finest art, including bronze statues and paintings covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage.

The next day came with a new high—a visit to the Haa Valley, via Chele La at 13,000 feet, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. Haa is the headquarters of IMTRAT. The building at Haa Dzong houses offices and a temple. The Lo Dzong Military School was raised in 1962, where the personnel of the Royal Bhutan Army and Royal Bodyguard of Bhutan are trained.

The highlight of our trip was a trek up the Tiger’s Nest at 10,240 feet. A bit concerned about how my son Nihal would do this, I was pleasantly surprised to see the agility with which he climbed the mountain. The main temple is perched right on top and the serenity one experiences here is unmatched. It was now time to head back.

The two things that stood out for me in this trip were: First, the love and warmth that Bhutanese people extend to everybody who visits their country; second, I was amazed by Nihal’s ability to adapt and thrive in conditions that were out of his comfort zone. We underestimate our children and what they’re capable of, inadvertently limiting them. Let’s never do that. Not during travel and not in life.

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