We arrived in Puentsholing hungry, so our priority was to find somewhere to eat. Shouldn’t be that difficult … We didn’t want a big meal – just a snack at a café. Just enough to tide us over until dinner-time that evening.
Down a side road we found a couple of places: Restaurant sign outside; inside, tables, chairs and a serving counter; no customers – but it was perhaps a little late for lunch; two staff. We asked for a menu – which elicited blank looks – followed by giggles. We mimed eating. More giggles – as though it was a ridiculous idea to expect food in a restaurant – and then a call through to the back room (possibly the kitchen?) for reinforcements. We went through the charade again with someone who might have been the cook and got a tentative ‘Coca cola?’ by way of answer, as well as ‘Tea? Coffee?’. We shook our heads and mimed eating again. Yet more giggles – and another response which much, much later we interpreted as ‘Chow mein?’
We tried our luck at the next ‘Restaurant’ – and fared no better. (No pun intended.)
Eventually, after walking up and down several streets, we found a classy Chinese restaurant complete with tablecloths, silver cutlery, the whole works. And they spoke English. So … lots of food? … or no food until dinner at the hotel? Tough one …
Leaving Puentsholing, we drove through lush forest as thick folds of mountains fell away behind us. There were russet and gold tints on the hillsides and splashes of red on the roofs of houses where chillis had been spread to dry. Some were old wooden shingle roofs with stones on top, and largely in disrepair, but many had been replaced by corrugated iron – which must roast the chillis nicely. There were tall stands of frayed prayer flags in isolated places, often on the crests of hills, often in groups of 108 – that being the number of the books of buddha’s teachings. Colourful strings of flags fluttered across bridges and roads. We drove on smooth tarmac, although the roads were ever more winding, just as narrow, and climbed relentlessly. We’d left behind the dust of India … until we hit the roadworks. These were road-widening schemes, however, not patchy repairs to earthquake damage. Ironically the workers were Indian.
Everything about Bhutan is different, from the clothes to the architecture – and if we thought we’d seen colour in Sikkim, here it went to a whole new level with rainbow-bright extravaganzas inside many of the temples.
Traditional Bhutanese houses are usually built of two or three storeys: the ground floor for livestock, middle floor for living quarters and the upper floor for storage, with a ventilation gap between the top of the walls and the wide over-hanging roof. Walls of stone and rammed earth are painted and sometimes further decorated with symbols that give protection to the inhabitants. The most surprising of these (particularly to western eyes) are ejaculating penises – in homage to the mad monk, Drukpa Kunley, who is credited with putting it about a bit in the 15th/16th centuries. Windows increase in size the higher up the wall they are and have distinctive lintels and wide wooden frames painted with flowers, clouds and other motifs. There are no formal building plans – everything is worked out on site by the master carpenter. There are no nails, no metal beams.
Monasteries are built in similar fashion but on a much grander scale (although I didn’t notice any penises painted on the walls) and the fortress-monasteries or dzongs give every appearance of being impregnable, positioned as they are in commanding positions. Inwardly sloping walls rise to a coloured band of cornicing below the wide flaring roofs and protect inner courtyards, arcades and towers.
We visited several monasteries in Bhutan – one dzong leads to another (sorry!) – and to be allowed in, you must be properly attired. For the locals, this means wearing full national dress: for men this is a gho – a garment a bit like a badly fitting knee-length dressing gown blousoned over the waist to accommodate money and personal items, with an inverted central pleat at the back and deep white cuffs on the sleeves. Long socks or leggings (I didn’t investigate that closely) complete the look, together with plain black slip-on shoes – usually – although there seems to be some allowance for self-expression in the matter of footwear. I noticed someone wearing baseball boots and another man in blue crocs. I even saw someone in pink furry slippers with stars on them, although I’m not convinced it’s a look that will catch on. (But what big feet the Bhutanese seem to have.) Ladies wear a close-fitting wrap-around long dress – a kira – with a loose jacket or toego over the top. For children, school uniform also takes the form of national dress. For tourists, the rules stipulate that ladies need to be modestly covered and men must wear a shirt – not a t-shirt, but one with a collar or long sleeves – plus trousers, of course.
Tony is a t-shirt man: shirts are for weddings and funerals – and we weren’t expecting to go to any of those. He did wonder briefly whether his nightshirt would do … it had the requisite collar and sleeves … but we decided that perhaps it might not be showing the desired respect. It’s red and has a Merry Christmas motif all over it – and it would be rather long anyway. Fortunately he’d found out about the dress code in good time; he’d blown the budget and bought an appropriate shirt with collar in Bangladesh. (It was probably all of £2.) In fact, the weather was so cool in Bhutan that Tony didn’t often feel the need to remove his jumper – with its suitably long sleeves.
The monastery in by far the most spectacular setting – as well as the most precarious – was the Tiger’s Nest, the Taktsang Goemba, perched at 3100 ft on the side of a mountain. A cave there was chosen as a holy site by Guru Rinpoche back in the 8th century and it’s claimed that he flew on the back of a tiger to reach it. I could have done with my own tiger … It was inevitably (and obviously) a steep climb … I huffed and puffed my way up as far as the second official viewpoint, to see – and almost touch the monastery across a narrow chasm. Tony carried on, sweating and painting for a further 777 steps to reach the monastery itself … and only then realised he wasn’t wearing the all-important shirt … There was nothing for it but to put his jumper back on and swelter.
I found going down a doddle (I always do), although my big toe squashed against my walking boots rather uncomfortably because of the constant slope downwards and several months later I still had a maroon toenail as a souvenir. Tony on the other hand found going down much more difficult (he always does). It’s a knee thing.
Arguably the most beautiful monastery in the country is the Punakha dzong. It’s picturesquely sited at the confluence of the Mochu and Pochu, the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ rivers, where you can clearly see two different colours of the waters, brown and blue. The King chose this dzong for his wedding on October 13 – and he obviously has an eye for the aesthetic. He even asked if the rice harvest could be delayed until later in the month so that he and his bride could drive to the airport past golden rice terraces rippling in the breeze, rather than past fields of stubble.
Two enormous prayer wheels stand at the top of the stairs by the entrance. Coloured balconies and arcades surround the inner courtyards. As we went in, flocks of crows circled the zhong before settling on the roof, young burgundy clad monks moved quietly about. Inside there are peacock feathers and silk hangings; large Buddha statues with bowls of water and concentric bowls heaped with rice and money placed in front of them; thousands of golden buddhas – small statuettes in glass cabinets, others painted directly on the walls.
Further along the Punakha valley, we walked across (recently harvested) paddy fields to Chimi Lakhang, the mad monk’s temple. It was an auspicious date and other people were also making their way there – taking babies to be blessed and to make offerings. It’s also the place for childless women to go in the hopes of conceiving. Being hit on the head by a 10” wood, ivory and bone phallus by the presiding monk apparently does the trick … although I’m not sure that results are guaranteed. I’m not sure that I’d set much store by it – and I’d also be a bit wary of the outcome, as according to legend, Drukpa Kunley also created Bhutan’s national animal, the takin, a peculiar beast that looks a bit like a cow with a goat’s head. (We’d been taken to see some in a special enclosure at the zoo in Thimpu and they are indeed strange beasts.) The temple is small and intimate and we peered in to see young monks sitting chanting with their teacher, some rather more attentively than others. There were baskets of cooked rice, fruits – and rather unexpectedly, custard creams
We drove through a panorama of golden rice fields and terraces, golden trees bordering rivers, splashes of gold among dark green conifers, mini golden chortens 2”high clustered almost like mushrooms in hillside clefts. Snow-capped mountains ringed our views. Bhutan is a beautiful country.
The highest pass in the country is at Dochu La, 3150m above sea level. On a clear day the views of the Himalayas are stupendous. Apparently. We weren’t there on a clear day. We went over the pass twice … the first time, the 108 chortens had been enveloped in mist and low cloud; the second time they were visible only intermittently through the clouds. We went up to the small temple on the opposite hill. Despite being tiny, the inside was grand and ornate, with chandeliers that would not have looked out of place in the grandest of French chateaux. It was another auspicious date and there was chanting and drumming and sonorous horn-blowing. Again people were coming, bringing babies to be blessed and to make offerings.
The morning we left Bhutan, there was fresh light snow on the mountain tops near Paro. A short flight took us to Kolkata: a short flight to a different world entirely.