Arrival & Paro
24.10.2018 - 25.10.2018
In the morning of the 24th of October, we left Nepal towards Bhutan, the small kingdom in the Himalayas. The flight between Kathmandu and Paro, Bhutan’s international airport, is probably the world’s most scenic one. The plane flies just south of the Himalayas and you can see 4 of the world’s 5 highest peaks along the way: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and on the border between Nepal and India, Kanchenjunga. On the day of our flight, the air was exceptionally clear. We could see all the peaks very clearly and even the Tibetan highlands were visible. Already this vista made the trip to Bhutan worthwhile.
There could be no better way to prepare you for Bhutan than the arrival at Paro airport. Unlike the usual glass and steel buildings, the airport in Paro consists of beautiful traditional wooden houses, each painted and decorated more like a temple than an airport. The arrival hall is perfectly clean and the friendly immigration officers greet you with a smile. There are no lines and the entire process is very efficient. That is Bhutan in a nutshell: traditional, clean, secluded, friendly and efficient.
Almost everything about this country is unique, like for example their concept for tourism. Everyone is welcome to visit Bhutan, but the government prescribes a minimal price that every tourist has to pay per night. For our budget, this price was very, very high, which is why we only stayed for 6 nights. This fee however, not only grants you a visa, but also includes a personal guide and driver, 3-star accommodation during your stay, all meals during your stay, entrance to every place you visit and all the necessary transportation within the country. In addition to that, it helps them finance free education and health care for all their citizens. Bhutan does not want mass tourism or backpackers, because they are afraid that this would hurt their culture and environment. The effect of this is that you can visit unique and beautiful places in peace and quiet without the common selfie-crazy Instagram hipsters.
After lunch, our guide brought us to Rinpung Dzong, a former fortress that now hosts the local government and a monastery. We were impressed with how well the old fortress was maintained, compared to similar places in Nepal and Tibet. Also, we were almost the only visitors there. Next, we visited an important Buddhist temple that was founded by the King’s grandmother. 100% of Bhutanese are Buddhists and our guide always made sure that we circled everything of significance in the clockwise directions to assure good fortune for our upcoming trek.
In the afternoon, we strolled through the center of Paro, where red chilies were hanging from the walls of the pretty houses to dry in the sun. It was very curious to see many shops selling penis sculptures between religious items. Apparently, these are revered as symbols of fertility and are popular items for decoration in Bhutanese households. In the evening, our accommodation surprised us with a delicious three-course meal. Soon we would learn, that this is the standard for tourists here.
We left early the next morning to hike to the most famous sight in Bhutan, the icon of the country and a place we were excited to see ever since we had the idea of visiting Bhutan: the Tiger’s Nest monastery. The monastery is built into a nearly vertical wall of rock, at the location were Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated after flying there on the back of a Tigress.
After the hike, we asked our guide if we could visit a monastery that we have spotted near our accommodation. This spontaneous visit turned out to be the most authentic monastery experience we’ve had on our entire trip so far. This was not a tourist site, so we were the only visitors there and during our visit, a group of monks, probably aged between 6 and 18, entered to practice some prayers. They allowed us to stay and sit with them while they played various traditional instruments and recited their prayers under the supervision of two elder monks. The monastery, apparently sponsored by a rich businessman from Hong Kong, was just a few years old and decorated lavishly with gold and intricate paintings covering every millimeter of the building.
We enjoyed our two days in Paro immensely. While we did pay a lot of money for our stay in Bhutan, we did not expect that our visa fee would translate into such a great experience.