My trip to marvellously mountainous Bhutan will go down as one of my favourite trips to date. This small Himalayan gem has intrigued me ever since a friend visited some 7 or 8 years ago and returned with the most incredible photos and stories of soaring mountain landscapes adorned with colourful prayer flags, hair-raising switchback road journeys and friendly locals in traditional dress. So needless to say my excitement level by the time I even got to Heathrow was off the chart!
After flying into the chaos of Kathmandu for a one night stay in the really rather nice Hyatt Regency (in a room with impressive views of the Boudhanath Stupa no less) I rose early the following morning to try and secure a seat on the left hand side of the Drukair ‘plane flying me into the small town of Paro, Bhutan – I was assured this would offer me views of the snow capped mountains including Everest!
Sadly I missed out on the window seat (how early did I need to get up?!) but did get a left hand aisle seat next to two very accommodating European ladies who kindly took some photos for me of the truly wonderful mountain landscape below and didn’t mind me leaning over to take a look. At the pilot’s announcement that we were now passing Everest if the ‘plane had been a bus it would have been in danger of toppling as everyone shifted over for a look!
Coming in to land offered views of rugged mountains, blue, blue skies and colourful ripe rice terraces glowing golden in the sunlight. Disembarking onto the runway at Paro airport and strolling across the tarmac to the terminal building was a world away from the madness of Kathmandu just the day before. Passing briskly through immigration and luggage collection I was met by my companions for the next 11 days, Dawa my guide and Tashi my driver, both looking exceedingly smart in their traditional Bhutanese gho’s.
The first thing I noticed, other than the mountain views, was the quiet which was complemented by the unhurried pace of Tashi’s driving and their polite and quiet chatter from the front as we journeyed along the largely empty road towards the capital, Thimphu. En-route we stopped and crossed the traditional suspension bridge leading to Tamchhog Lhakhang (temple) with impressive views through the chain-link bridge to the crystal clear waters of the Pa Chhu (river) below.
Onwards to Thimphu on a road cut into the side of the mountain – for such a small country the immense scale and beauty of Bhutan is breathtaking: a sheer hillside rises to the right with the blue-green waters of the Pa Chhu to the left. Colourful prayer flags dot the landscape, the flashes of red, yellow, white, green and blue catching the eye as we drive by, cows lazily graze the roadside and see little reason to move and traditional rooftops are adorned with patches of red chillies drying in the sunshine. Children playing on the roadside offer a friendly wave as you pass by and giggle playfully as you return the gesture and locals dressed in the traditional gho’s (for men) and kira’s (for women) which at first sighting seem quaint quickly become routine.
Driving into the ‘sprawling metropolis’ that is Thimphu, population approx 100,000 of a total country population of roughly 750,000, I was struck by just how small a capital city it is. All buildings are built in traditional Bhutanese style with the main street leading towards the popular Clocktower Square – the city is a combination of the modern and traditional and offers a fun, if low key, night out and a chance to escape the hotel buffets.