Visiting Bhutan is like visiting a fairy land with imposing dzongs (fortress), rugged mountains, gushing glacial rivers, towering peaks, winding roads and lush dense forest. People walking on streets in their traditional clothes, buildings made of stone, mud and carved wood and the warm and friendly natives are quite fascinating. You might get carried away by the sight and consider that the ‘Last Shangrila’ indeed remains in the time warp. However, you might be mistaken to some extent for the tiny Himalayan kingdom is opening to trappings of modern world but cautiously. People watch television, keep mobiles and modern modes of transport has made connectivity to the world much better. What will amaze you is the balance that has been maintained between traditions and modernity by the Bhutanese people.
The charming small town of Paro lies on the banks of meandering Paro Chhu River. Its main street lined with colourfully painted wooden shops and restaurants. Maroon-robed monks, locals in traditional attire of gho and kira walking at ease alongside hip youngsters in trendy clothes provide a delightful sight to tourists. Their values and love for their culture is evident while visiting monasteries and temples when these same youngsters don traditional clothes with aplomb.
Don’t miss watching Bhutan’s national game of archery if you happen to be there on a weekend. Several matches keep happening that attracts large crowd. The audience erupts into cheers is when the arrow strikes the bull’s eye. All male archers are usually dressed in ‘gho’ for the competition but sport branded shoes and high-tech bows and arrows.
It was as late as 1983 that Bhutan commenced its air transport. The sleepy town of Paro then became the gateway to this secluded Himalayan kingdom for international travelers. Another claim to its fame is having the most iconic Taktsang monastery (Tigernest) in its vicinity. Most foreigners can’t resist the challenge of trekking here. Even Bhutanese try to visit it at least once in their lifetime. As you walk the dusty path strewn with rocks in rhythm with the sound of forest and the soothing melody of twittering birds, you feel calm and happy. The tranquil ecosystem and sylvan surroundings lessen the physical pain while the faith in almighty urges you to keep climbing.
Perched on the face of a steep cliff at the height of 1000 metre above Paro valley, it evokes immense reverence among the Buddhist. This was the site where Bhutan’s revered Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), founder of Tantric Buddhism, meditated in a cave to subdue the demons. The legend says he had flown on the back of a tigress.
If time and your fitness permits than visit the ruined fortress of Drukgyel Dzong. You can also make a quick trip to 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang temple. Later in the evening either shop for handicrafts in the main market or watch the traditional Bhutanese dances performed in some resorts.
Another tourist attraction is the National Museum located on top of the hill above the Paro Dzong in the renovated Ta dzong (watchtower). You’ll have to drive along a four-km loop into the Dop Shari valley.
There are lots of
interesting exhibits, displays of Bhutan’s flora and fauna, masks,
old weapons, thangkas (paintings of deities) and things depicting
The museum also has a section where the sepia-toned photographs of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira arriving to Paro on the back of a yak in 1958 are on display. These pictures are atestimony to the extension of India’s hand of friendship to Bhutan. Following the visit, India built Bhutan’s first roads, hydro-electric project and spearheaded several development work.
From the museum you can either walk down the path to the Paro Dzong or drive down the winding road. The grand entrance with steep staircase, a large carved doorway, whitewashed walls and richly painted wooden arches appears imposing. Built on the side of a steep hill overlooking the entire Paro valley, the Rinchen Pung Dzong (fortress on a heap of jewels) was built as a fortress in 1644. Strategically located in the two most important trade routes to Tibet, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal strengthened a 10th century monastery, built by revered Guru Rinpoche, into a fort. Built in stones, it was a defense against frequent Tibetan invasions. It was earlier a seat of National Assembly but today it houses both the monastic body and the district Government offices. The film buffs might recognise some places for some scenes from the Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1995 film Little Buddha were shot here. However the Dzong is best visited during the spring festival of ‘Tsechu’, when the large courtyard reverberates with drum beats and masked dancers.
Below the dzong, hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind tied to the railings of a wooden bridge over the gushing Paro chhu. The Buddhist believes that the wind will carry the inscribed ‘mantras’ on the flags across the mountains and valleys. The message of love and peace will spread in all directions.