I’m sure that my passport was super excited to get ‘stamped’ while we waited eagerly to secure the permit on arrival as soon as we crossed the Bhutan main gate and entered the land of the Thunder Dragon. I mean, why wouldn’t it, right? Every stamp in a passport, after all, has a story to tell.
Just that this time it was going to be a story about mountains, some shrouded by clouds and others with a blanket of fresh snow; about the mystery that this place was and the magic that its architecture added to it; about its peace loving people and their unswerving faith in Buddha and his teachings.
The group of nine met our guide (Karma) and driver (Ngawang) for the trip while at Phuentsholing, the border town that shares its dramatic landscape with India and the point of entry for tourists travelling by road to Bhutan.
After an early morning breakfast, we started to Thimphu via the oldest road constructed by Dantak, the Border Roads Organisation, in 1962. Yes, this country is quite young but is taking its baby steps pretty fast.
The closer we got to the capital city, the colder it got and we slowly began to pull our mufflers, caps and jackets out of our backpacks. Karma smiled when he noticed this and notified us that it was only late spring and summer is just almost on its way. “It is a great time for you people to visit us, actually. Our country is going through a lot of changes – infrastructure-wise, culturally, climatically and otherwise.”
“When I was a small boy, my friends and I used to place our cups of milk mixed in sugar on our rooftop. If we didn’t take it on time, it turned into frozen milk chunks” he chuckled and continued before anyone could interrupt him.
“This was way before we had the refrigerators at our homes, mind you! Unfortunately, these are things that our kids would never relate to now,” he recounted turning to Ngawang who was enjoying the story while he swerved the vehicle with ease as the long and narrow mountain roads twisted and turned.
It was time for lunch and we stopped to sample some Bhutanese cuisine. We ordered what they called Ema Datshi along with their famous tea, that they suggested we try. No, don’t get puzzled yet. No, really! Having tea for lunch is fine. And no, Ema Datshi was all right too. It was a bowl of rice, a lot of red chillies (“ema”) and truckloads of liquid cheese (“datshi”). Quite spicy but definitely flavourful.
What confused our taste buds was their tea. Tea and coffee have been part of our culture and every Indian household for decades now. But have you ever tried adding salt to it?
They served us their national beverage, the Himalayan butter tea, also fondly called ‘Suja’. Want to know what it is made of; tea leaves, yak butter and salt! Ask me whether I want one more cup, hmmm, I really wouldn’t mind! Fresh and full, we hopped on to our van.
We saw these colourful flags hung almost everywhere while traveling in and around Bhutan – by the river, in front of buildings, beside hotels we stopped to eat, on the bridges and tied to poles next to the mountains.
Curious, I asked our guide as to what it signified. He explained with a broad smile on his face. “These are prayer flags, ma’am! We hang it for multiple reasons; for good luck, long life, great health and sizeable wealth. We believe that if they are hung in such a manner, that the winds will touch the flags and pass the prayers on to the people living around. We consider it very auspicious”.
He spoke about how they also had the ‘prayer wheels’ and that they could be made out of wood, metal, stone or even leather. They, like the prayer flags, are believed to spread positivity and good vibes. Just like how the breeze activates the prayer flags, you turning the wheels with your own hands in a clockwise direction will bring similar blessings. I knew that very moment that it was going to be a journey into a very different kind of reality and that falling in love with this sacred country and its people weren’t going to be difficult, one bit.
While we were almost approaching Thimphu, we saw a life size statue of what the Bhutanese call the ‘Four Harmonious Friends’ and you can see them as paintings, wooden carvings and sculptures all through in the country. And according to our new favourite storyteller, Karma, this is how the story goes.
Once upon a time, in a dense jungle where light couldn’t penetrate the canopy, stood a tall and strong tree that bore some tasty fruits. When it was time for the fruits to ripen, four animals who lived in that forest came to claim the rights to the tree and the fruits on it. There was an elephant who said that he saw the fruits first and that it was rightfully his. Then, there was the monkey who said that the tree was his home for a long time and that the fruits that grew on it was legitimately his. The rabbit intervened and said that she came here while this tree was just a small sapling and that she had been putting her rabbit droppings beside it ever since. That has helped the tree grow into the massive size it is now and bear such tempting fruits. Finally, the bird who stood listening to all this, spoke!
“But I had flew a long way and had had spat out the seeds of this tree here years ago”. The elephant, monkey and the rabbit bowed to the bird in awe and high regard. They went on to become friends, share the fruits and protect the tree.
Karma, Ngawang, their captivating stories and interesting conversations with us and between themselves became what I looked forward to for the rest of the journey.
And from them I knew that there was so much to love about Bhutan. Stay tuned for more! 🙂