Monday, April 03, 2023


Our third stop on the Bhutan trip was Punakha, the site of one of Himalayan Buddhism's grandest monuments, the eponymous Punakha Dzong. Getting to Punakha requires you to climb over 3100m past Dochula, where we got to do the trip's first birding session behind a cafe where we stopped for our morning coffee.

Punakha, as the legend goes, is where the 16th century hero Zhabdrung set up his stronghold against Tibetan marauders and eventually unified the Bhutanese people under one flag. That, at least, is what I gathered from our guides telling of the history, which effortlessly mixed fact and legend into one fascinating tale. The fortress, or dzongka, by far the most magnificent we encountered on this trip is situated at the confluence of two rivers Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which are said to be male and female respectively.

The trip to Punakha also included a nice hike up to a temple dedicated to the fourth king of Bhutan. To top it all off we stayed at a hotel right by the river bank (of the tempestuous female one), watching tens of species of birds right from the room windows. 

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Searching for Happiness in Thimphu


From the moment you land in Bhutan there are constant reminders of this country’s smugness about achieving happiness for its citizens. All the souvenir shop trinkets talk about Gross National Happiness. How exactly does one go about increasing this metric? All through my time at Thimphu I kept wondering about this question to see if there are easy answers and takeaways.

At the surface, many things about Bhutan seem first-worldish. The urban planning clearly is more evolved than in our country. The building codes seem to enforce some common architectural motifs - like the use of traditional window frames - that give the cities a harmonious feel, unlike the chaos of our own hill towns. The road infrastructure seemed adequate, and the people using it seemed exceptionally well-mannered. Drivers seemed to strictly adhere to lane discipline and I didn’t hear a single honk in my entire time at Thimphu. In fact, I even learned that there are no traffic lights in the whole of Bhutan. Only one intersection in the city is deemed complex enough to necessitate a traffic policeman directing traffic, making it such a novelty that people stop and take pictures of the officer (and thus complicating the flow of traffic in the process).
The annual per-capita GDP is nearly a thousand dollars more than in India, and you can sense that relative prosperity in some ways. There is no sign of abject poverty even in the biggest cities. The only visibly poor people I saw were migrant workers from India. I did ask a few people (by which I mean our driver and a couple of our guides) about what makes Bhutan happier than other countries, and their answers didn’t indicate any silver bullet. They all seemed to view the royal family very favourably, and they talked about free education and healthcare at all times, and about how the government helped them out with handouts during the pandemic. They all seemed especially proud of their culture and heritage.

In the end I don’t know if there are easy takeaways. To my eyes, people in the Himalayas seem, on average, happier than the rest of us. The people especially in the Buddhist belts (Ladakh and Sikkim definitely, and parts of Arunachal) seem even happier. Maybe it comes with having a benevolent ruler. Maybe it's to do with being a small nation with relative cultural homogeneity. Or maybe the slogan itself - “Gross National Happiness”- serves as a self-fulfilling placebo, as opposed to more negatively worded ones like Garibi Hatao. Whatever the reason, Thimphu did seem like a happy place and it really set the tone for the rest of the trip

The Paro Festival

Since we chose to fly into Bhutan our trip began in Paro where the airport is located, but the real itinerary was set to begin at Thimphu. On the second morning, we met our guide, Phub, who happened to mention some traffic snarls on the highway. We had been told just the previous day that the highways in Bhutan were generally unacquainted with jams, and the news of today’s jam piqued our curiosity. The cause turned out to be the annual 4-day festival that happens at the fortress (Dzong) in Paro. We hadn’t planned this but somehow we were a few dozen kilometres from a special annual spectacle. What our guide described seemed significant enough to warrant a change in our original plan, and we chose toinstead accommodate a visit to the festival. 

The setting was the remarkable dzong at Paro. Streams of visitors - women in their colorful Kiras and the men in their stately Ghos - poured into the courtyard of the fortress, which was going to host a famous ritual called the Mask Dance this afternoon. As stunning as the spectacle was visually, there definitely was a cultural barrier that came in the way of appreciating the performance. The music didn’t seem particularly striking. The dance moves were underwhelming too. At one point, I thought the policeman in the intersection had more intricate moves than the dancers here. There were a few performers in joker masks that were cracking up the crowd, but of course we couldn’t understand them, even when our guide did his best to translate the jokes for us. The local audience, though, was lapping it up, and we were left to feed off their excitement. All said and done, we were glad for the serendipity that led us here, and we felt we were genuinely taking away an experience that was like nothing other.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Arriving in Bhutan

We might share a land border with Bhutan but getting here is not easy. We boarded our flight to Paro after enduring a nightmarishly long checkin and immigration process at Delhi airport, and what should have been a 2-hr flight took us at least thrice as long. We approached the Paro airport on schedule but since the weather didn’t allow a landing there we were re-routed to Bagdogra airport back in India, where we stood on the runway waiting for the distant clouds to clear up. When the weather improved we finally took off . Weaving through the mountains to land on the single runway at Paro we realised why it’s nigh impossible to land here in poor weather. I learned later that only seven pilots are certified to ply their trade at Paro, and landing here is considered one of the riskiest assignments for a commercial pilot. The thrill of the flight aside, it had been a long energy-sapping day, and I suspected that in our mood at that time our family had momentarily brought down the gross national happiness of Bhutan. We cancelled all plans for the day and stayed in at the hotel.