A look at Asia: The Last Shangri-La

By Anirban Sarkar – Bhutan is known as the happiest country in Asia. It is the eighth happiest country in the world. Bhutan enjoys this heartwarming status not for reasons unknown. The most interesting faces on earth, airbrushed by the balmy weather that welcomed us on the day we crossed the Phuntsholing border, never betrayed a frown. Their friendly smile and helpful nature is the biggest treasure a tourist can expect in a foreign land.

It took us about two hours at the immigration office in Phuntsholing; and about four hours to reach Thimphu from Phuntsholing once we got the permission to enter the last Shangrila. It was not one of the trips you plan on a holiday, but a sudden tour cropped up amid the welter of ‘strategic restructuring’ within the organization I work for. Bhutan doesn’t ask for a visa from Indians. Hence, such unplanned trips are always possible.

On reaching Thimphu, we relied on the taxi-driver to find us a hole in the wall. He, instead, dumped us into a decent hotel right in the heart of the city. Food is very expensive anywhere in Bhutan. But wine and liquor certainly compensates for this. A bottle of Sailo wine would cost you just Rs 100, even cheaper than in Sikkim where it is actually produced! Hit, that comes from the brewery of Danny Denzongpa, is also sold at a price lower than in its place of origin. CSJ whiskey, the most popular in Bhutan, comes at Rs 250/bottle. But, of course, you should not smoke within the royal kingdom. Tobacco, in any form, leads you to a thousand legal hassles. Thimphu’s jail is located high up on one of the peaks forming a jagged wall along the horizon. Attempts to escape from there would only lead you to the mystic wilderness far away from human society.

Thimphu is a district in Bhutan that also holds the town of Thimphu. It is the largest district, most populated in Bhutan and evidently thrives on tourists. Thimphu town is pretty small and can be seen in entirety within a day. It houses the king’s palace. Though the strict guards, who would definitely shed a smile of genuine sympathy on you, would never allow any visitor to enter the palace, nor even stand and click from the entrance, our driver, Karma, who had studied in India (in Siliguri and Chennai) and speaks fluent English, took us high up a cliff that overlooks the palace. This gave us quite an exposure to the palace, the assembly and the SAARC village behind.

Thimphu Chuu or Wang Chuu river cascades down the steep slope, lapping up the royal palace on one side and the mountains of the other. The river has barbed wires or fences in most parts. But we managed to jump over the fence and take a stroll down the thickly pebbled riverbed. Lovely round pebbles were strewn all around and as neat and pristine as you could imagine them to be.

Thimphu is a place where you could easily forget about the car and ignore even the slow-moving almost empty public transport. Instead, let your feet take the strain. A wander round the main town along the hilly cobbled streets, dotted by small restaurants, cafés and bars, as well as shops selling antiques for which the city is well-known, is sure to catch your fancy. As I walked around leisurely, I was struck by its intriguing and resplendently wooded architectural styles and the unique Bhutanese painting emblazoned on the walls. Thimphu has a zoo, some monasteries and stupas on the surrounding hilltops.

The town centre has a big tower with a clock. This is the place where they hold all their public meetings or festivals. The town centre seemed to be a popular hangout. However, I did not see a single romancing couple even in a place like this or the meandering high streets surrounding the centre. Yet, an article published during my stay in one of their leading dailies claimed about 90% people living in urban areas in Bhutan have multiple sexual partners. Though they greet you with the heartiest smiles, they sure don’t wear their heart on their sleeves!

Bhutan is one of the most rare countries in the world where law asks every citizen to wear only their traditional clothes at work. They are not allowed inside office premises, schools, colleges, to perform duties anywhere within the country, be it a government office or a book distributor’s, without the ‘Gho’ (the robe) with ‘kera’ (the belt) for men or the ‘Kira’, the traditional women’s wear. This is a thumping royal message towards maintaining their age-old national identity. But for a stranger, the unique dress code adds a real charm and elegance to the creamy complexion and the mesmerizing coyness. And this adds to the mystery too.