The Most Dangerous Landing in the World
Paro Airport in Bhutan is 1.5 miles (2.4km) above sea level and surrounded by sharp peaks of up to 18,000ft (5486 m) tall. It is enveloped by the mighty Himalayan mountains and is said to be the most dangerous airport in the world to land in. So treacherous is the landing that only eight pilots in the world are qualified to land there. Planes have to weave through the dozens of houses that are scattered across the mountainside – coming within feet of clipping the roofs. Strong winds whip through the valleys, often resulting in severe turbulence.
The research that I do before any trip can sometimes be more discouraging than inspiring. For all that, the landing in Paro, while clearly tricky, as the pilot had to manoeuvre through the mountains and valleys, wasn’t as terrifying as it was made out to be in all that I read and saw on YouTube. It was a good flight from Singapore with a brief fueling stop at Kolkata. The weather was clear and luckily there was hardly any turbulence. We flew over the vast Himalayan mountain range and as we managed to get seats on the left of the plane (research pays), we got a clear view of Mt. Everest which, even at that distance, was easy to spot for her sheer height!
The excitement of finally going to Bhutan was barely containable! The Land of the Thunder Dragon! Here we were at last! This trip was a few years in the planning, something or other had always come in the way. To be doing this at last was a dream come true.
The Paro airport is such a pretty airport that passengers on alighting, just milled around taking photos! The holiday began right there on the tarmac! We followed suit of course and couldn’t believe the sheer beauty of the place!
We were met by Rinzin Dorji, our guide, and Namgay Wangchuck, our driver – two friendly, polite, soft-spoken, eager-to-please young men who were going to be our travel companions for the next ten days. They were dressed in the gho (the traditional attire for Bhutanese men) and their welcome and greeting were also traditional – draping a white scarf around our necks. With pleasantries exchanged, we got into a Hyundai four-wheel drive for the hour and a half drive to Thimpu, the capital of the kingdom. (The reason we didn’t start in Paro was its elevation 7,333ft (2,235 m) – to allow us to acclimatise, we started in Thimpu which is at a lower altitude than Paro.
We were told “to expect anything in Bhutan” and a short drive later, we met the unexpected – a landslide! That kept us on the mountain road with cars snaking their way on either side of the landslide. Instead of being stuck in the car, we got out and walked to a 15th century monastery which was located not too far from where we were. There was this most interesting wire bridge across the river from the monastery which I took a few tentative steps on but decided against crossing as it seemed a tad too precarious for me.
With the road cleared, we drove on to Thimpu and had lunch at the oddly-named “Edelweiss” restaurant. We loved the Bhutanese food instantly! Red rice, a meat and lots of vegetables. I’ve never eaten more wonderfully prepared cauliflower ever (and it’s not a vegetable I am particularly fond of). The best part was the national dish – most use chillies as seasoning but here it’s the whole dish! Emadaste is the national dish and is a combination of chilli and cheese! As someone described it “it is a merciless dish” – but as a lover of spicy hot food, I instantly loved it! Yak cheese is used in almost every dish – yak cheese and mushrooms, yak cheese and potatoes …
After checking into our room with no view, we visited the Chorten Memorial and then went up to Buddha Point, so called because of the imposing 169 ft (51m) Buddha statue that was recently built up there. From Buddha Point one has a clear view of the magnificent valley below. It was blustery up there and I was pulling my jacket so tightly around me and treading very carefully taking one careful step at a time, planting my feet as firmly as I could on that sloping ground as the winds were very very strong indeed.
We then drove down to the beautiful Thimpu Dzong. A dzong is both the seat of local government and a monastery. Life in every town revolves around the dzong, it is the hub of the community.
By the time we had dinner, we were so tired, having started our day very early to get our Druk Air flight from Singapore. Thimpu is known for stray dogs and their barking into the night … we didn’t hear any of it.
Acclimatising in Thimpu
It is an odd-looking creature, the takin – head like that of a goat’s with a body of a cow! The takin is the ‘national animal’. It eyed us indifferently from a distance. We were at the Takin Reserve … not sure why this was on our list of places to visit. We had a full morning – visiting the Heritage Museum and the Folk Medicine hospital before hiking this short distance to the reserve. The hike itself was refreshing and we stopped along the way to buy scarves from a lady who was weaving them by the side of the path we were taking. It was quite captivating watching her do it with such deftness and speed.
Our itinerary then took us to the ‘BBS Tower’. The view of Thimpu from there was breathtaking. All the way up were the ubiquitous prayer flags virtually covering the mountainside. We stood there just taking in the mountain air.
Thimpu is a small city and lies in a valley along the Wang Chuu (‘chuu’ meaning river). There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. Traffic lights were introduced in Thimpu at the main city intersection some years ago but was removed as the residents preferred a real person.
Our visit to the local market was most interesting – people were more than willing for us to take photos. After more touristy visits to a handicraft centre and a weaving centre, Shyam and I decided to treat Rinzin and Namgay to coffee and brownies at the “Karma Coffee”. Whoever said you can’t get good coffee in Bhutan had obviously not heard of Karma Coffee. The coffee was excellent and the brownies completed it beautifully. There was some contained excitement on the part of Rinzin and Namgay when the King’s brother walked in. Karma Coffee is a happening place.
We spent the evening in art galleries and ended up buying a couple of pieces directly from the artist. He had held successful exhibitions in Singapore and was delighted to see us!
All in all, a lovely day of acclimatising and tomorrow we get to higher altitudes and more amazing sights.
‘Climb High, Sleep Low’
The views were magnificent and wherever it was possible to stop safely, we got off to take photos. And then we reached the Dochula Pass! Oh my, what an amazing sight – such majesty and beauty … you had to simply stand and stare and feel humbled. It is indescribable. The air was clean and fresh and the view was stunning beyond words.
We had to reluctantly leave and carry on with our upward and onward drive to higher altitudes. We got to Somsokha where we stopped for lunch at this lovely place which had a beautiful view of paddy fields and a nearby village. After an excellent lunch we walked through the paddy fields and came upon this strange little village which had walls covered with very artistic and colourful drawing of the penis! This was rather curious.
We wandered around and went into the Chimi Llakhang temple. Rinzin explained that the Chimi Llakhang temple is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kunley (also known as the Divine Madman) and is popular among childless Bhutanese couples as a temple to seek blessings for fertility. We went in at a time when the priest was blessing those present. Not to be impolite, we bowed our heads and got his blessings! It was only after he moved away that I noticed to my utter surprise that he had blessed us with a large wooden penis! Politeness won over my urge to burst into laughter! Did we really need this blessing at our stage of life?!
The walk back was so lovely, there was a cool breeze and the view was so peaceful, it was a wonderful feeling and I just had to stop on the hill and take it all in.
We drove on to the ‘Hilltop Nunnery’ (more like mountain top actually) and once again we were met by grand sweeping views of mountains all around. The nuns were out in the sun busy painting small clay lamps and they didn’t mind us watching them and taking photos. (In fact no one in Bhutan seemed to mind their photos being taken!).
We then made our way down the mountain and the long drive to Punakha Dzong. What a breathtaking scene that was! We turned a corner and there it was so majestic and imposing and its location by the river making it so dramatic!
We spent a few hours there and we had also walked across the Po Chuu suspension bridge. It wasn’t as scary as it looked even though it did sway in the wind!
We stayed the night at the Kichu Resort which was at a slightly lower altitude. (The golden rule for managing altitude is – ‘Climb High, Sleep Low’.) The resort was lovely with a river flowing by, the sound of the river drowning out all other sounds. What a relaxing sound to hear as you fall asleep.
The downpour got heavier and our drive down the treacherous mountain roads was a very slow and careful one. We drove back to Paro via the Dochula Pass. It was rainy and cold that the amazing vista that we saw on our way up was completely shrouded in thick mist that we couldn’t see anything beyond the immediate hill. The view of the Himalayas was totally blocked. We were so thankful that we got to see it on a bright sunny day on our way up. I can’t imagine missing that majestic view. We stopped at Thimpu for lunch and met two of the staff of the travel agency we used for the trip. One of them was in Singapore and I had arranged this trip through her, so it was really nice meeting her.
The rain had stopped when we resumed our journey to Paro. We checked into the Metta Resort, run by a Malaysian lady married to a Bhutanese. (Hers is an interesting story.) She was happy to see us – we sat chatting a while, she introduced her rather dashing husband (her reason for staying in this beautiful country) to us and decided we needed to have ‘nasi lemak’ for breakfast and had it specially made for us! The food here was fantastic. A wide spread of Bhutanese, Malaysian and Western food and really tasty.
It was much colder here than Thimpu or Punakha and we felt winded when we walked up a short flight of stairs due to the altitude. That got us a little anxious about our trek to the Tiger’s Nest.Tomorrow is the Paro Tsechu (festival) – one of the main highlights of this trip.
Paro Tsechu and the Gross Happiness Index
Tiger’s Nest – Nearer the Heavens
We started early, nervous and excited all at once for today we were going to trek up to the Taktshang Goempa also known as the Tiger’s Nest monastery. It is dramatically situated on a sheer cliff, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. The monastery is one of the most venerated places of pligrimage in the Himalayan region.
Breathing was hard at that altitude, but our personal trainers prepared us well on breathing techniques. Rinzin and Namgay (who decided to come along too) adopted a similar whistling out method to relax as they climbed. Some stretches were really steep. There were many who took ponies up and frankly that looked rather terrifying as the ponies would hug the edge of the mountain as they climbed!
We had the option of stopping to rest at the ‘cafeteria’ – a teahouse located halfway up, but we pursued and stayed the course. There were many climbers who were elderly. There was one particular Caucasian man who looked like he might be in his 70’s who put us to shame. He kept a steady unrelenting pace, his breathing in sync with his strides, his face a picture of determination. He was amazing. He whizzed past us as we stopped to take deep breaths!! We just sheepishly raised our eyebrows at each other. I wish I will be that fit at 70.
About two and a half hours into this vertical climb on rocky terrain, we reached a path that had hundreds of prayer flags strung along both sides, as if to spur you on and lift your spirits. A little further from there the Taktshang Monastery finally came into view. The first glimpse of it made you gape in awe. We stopped a long while here taking photos with the many others doing the same. (Rinzin stood protectively at a particular spot making sure we didn’t walk backwards and fall as one Japanese photographer took a mis-step and fell to his death. I could actually see how that might have happened – you’re so focused on the amazing sight in front of you, you can quite easily fail to notice the sheer drop just steps away.)
We thought we were almost there, we were wrong. From this point it was a further arduous trek and then down a series of steep steps, past a waterfall and then came the final ascent.
Legend has it that in the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava (also known as the Guru Rinpoche) flew to this spot from Tibet on the back of a tigeress and is said to have meditated in a cave here for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. The temple complex was first built 1692, around the cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. It seems impossible – how did they build something this magnificent at this height on this treacherous location? Clearly, impossible is nothing!
The temple complex has many temples within it. It was a magical, mystical and mysterious place that made you feel as if you were in a different time and dimension. The trek may have been strenuous but it was deeply rewarding.
After about an hour there, it was time for our descent. I was glad for the hiking sticks as the trek down was harder on the knees! We stopped at the midway point at the Cafeteria and had a wonderful hot buffet lunch. That really fortified us for the rest of the way down.
We did it! We were tired, our quads and knees were screaming but our minds and souls were soaring!
The World’s Last Shangri-la
It was inspired planning on our part to keep yesterday light and easy after the trek of the day before. We had a massage and hot stone bath which was immediately soothing and relaxing and we were ready for the drive to the Haa Valley today.Haa Valley lies to the south west, close to the Indian and Chinese borders. Not surprisingly, it is also an army base. To get to Haa, we had to drive through the amazing Chelela Pass which is at about 12,000 ft (3988m). It was cooold!! There was unmelted snow like meringue still clinging to the mountainside! The view as always was incredible.
We got to Haa at about mid day and a cute little boy clung to S and entertained us with his antics and endless chatter none of which we understood! We took a walk around this rather quiet town and Rinzin bought some dried yak cheese as snack. This was the only food we did not take to! It was hard, dry and tasteless but Rinzin and Namgay relished it!
We then went looking for a suitable spot by the Haa River (the Haa Chu!) for our planned picnic but didn’t find one, so we ventured further afield and found a fantastic spot on a hill with a great view of the fabled ‘Three Ridges of Haa’. Needless to say, once again our food was delicious!
On our way back, we spotted a dear and decided to stalk it. We approached it tentatively and with all seriousness like we knew what we were doing … thinking back it always cracks me up – we must have been such a comical sight!
It was a rather happy drive back through the mountain passes and hairpins again and at one point, both Rinzin and Namgay started laughing for no apparent reason and watching them we couldn’t help but join in and we were all laughing hysterically and were reduced to tears! It was a lovely way to end this amazing trip – with so much laughter and happiness!
I hope that all that makes Bhutan so lovely will never be lost and that it will always retain its charm and beauty and remain the world’s last Shangri-la.