Jumat, 28 Oktober 2011

Travel Diaries: BHUTAN

Published in Now! Jakarta, November 2011


The official wedding photograph of the King and Queen of Bhutan.


Bhutan is heaven on earth — a non-smoking section of the planet with a medieval God-King system and restricted tourism.

The mountain kingdom’s only airline, Druk Air, is run by goddesses in pink ikat sarongs; in every major town men do archery in Argyll socks; and the national spot is flirting.

I was on cloud nine for the five days I was there.

• • •

Getting to Heaven on Earth is only easy if one goes through Hell on Earth, the new Bangkok airport.

The clever Thais decided to ignore the South Asian trend for spacious, light-filled airports and built one inspired by ‘Blade-runner’.

It’s as if they took South Asia’s gift to modern urbanism — the dark, dust-coated, no-go zones under elevated concrete highways — and used it as a theme for the airport’s design.

One wanders around the airport — lost like a rat in a maze — until one sees, in the far distance, the side of a multi-storey carpark painted purple.

Left: A gracious Druk Air flight attendant at 30,000 feet.
Right: Welcoming committee from the fabulous Uma Paro hotel.

For my transit there I stayed at the swank new Novotel Airport hotel (available by the hour via the gate 4 counter but not on-line) before catching a 0415 flight to Paro, the only airport in Bhutan.

Airbone, the small Airbus wove through the misty Himalayan valley skies and set us down gently at 6.30 a.m., just as the first rays of dawn were illuminating Dzong Paro, the fortress-like citadel that guards the town.

The airport building is Bhutanese style with elegantly decorated timber framed windows and a handsome tiered roof. The airport road is lined with cone-shaped conifers, reminiscent of the alleyways at Fontainebleau Palace, near Paris. Outside the airport, the main trans-Bhutan Highway runs along one side of a wide river.

A series of enlightened Bhutanese monarchs have managed to keep out the urban sprawl which has ruined Darjeeling and Sikkim, on the Indian side, and on the other side, the Chinese progressives who they hate since they annexed Tibet, Bhutan’s motherland.

We are now up to monarch number five from the one dynasty formed since the country was ‘united’ in the early 1900s. He is known as K5 and due to great fortune, not planning, is to take his queen on the last day of my stay. Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist country with underpinnings of Bonism, the ancient animistic culture.

• • •

Dzong Paro, on the northern slopes of Paro Valley.

Left: Stupa in a ‘town square’ at the eastern approach to Paro town.
Right: Local lasses stroll past the Dzong Paro fortress park wall.

Left: Interior of Uma Paro
Right: With my butler Pema on our way to the Royal Wedding breakfast at Uma Paro library.

After breakfast I roll down the hill to Paro, the capital of the tiny (pop. 700,000) country’s western-most province.

The township is ‘announced’ by a ‘square’ of painted brick stupa — squat, handsome, pagoda-like structures — adjacent to an archery field straight out of Robin Hood.

I spend the afternoon visiting temples and farm houses in the Paro Valley.

By late afternoon I am head over heels in love…….with everything and everyone Bhutanese. I feel like a big pink lotus finally emerging form the mud into the sunlight.

It was the same feeling I had when I first arrived in Bali in 1973 but with the menacing under-tones of the Soeharto regime replaced by beaming biksu monks and contented cattle.

View of Paro Valley from the Uma Paro dining hall, Bhutan.

Left: Monks and a local Thimpu Abbot perform rites in a farm house prayer room outside Thimpu.
Right: Well-preserved republicans at the monastically-exquisite Amankora.

Left: Shopping arcade architecture, downtown Paro.
Right: Vendor in the handicraft market, Thimpu, Bhutan.

My driver, Ghopal, a Bhutanese of Nepali descent, channels John Galliano in a Paro fabric shop.

Dour chanting fills the air.

My guides drop to their knees to perform suppliances while I case the farm house for further treasures.

In one bedroom wing I find a huddle of monks playing “Hulk Hogan” play-station on a wide screen television.

In a communal kitchen daughters-in-law are preparing a feast.

Later, after butter tea and rice snacks, we are let loose back into the rat race.

It is an experience I will never forget.

Day 5: The Royal Wedding
Most of a day four is spent at the tailor getting fitted for my Gzo costume/dressing gown (see Youtube: http://youtu.be/Uedrh3ITkUM) and today I wear my light grey chequered outfit and long black socks.

Thus attired I hit the hotel library at 7 a.m. to watch the royal wedding before my flight to Bangkok leaves at 1 p.m.

A crowd of employees has gathered. On Bhutan TV, we see processions of princes, monks and the glamorous future queen arriving at the magnificent Dzong Punakha two hours East of Thimpu.

In the broadcast we see that the vast central court of the Dzong fortress — itself the size of Buckingham Palace — is completely ever shadowed by a five storey high Buddhist Thangka, a religious painting in front of which the preliminary rituals will take place.

Later in the morning the newly-wed King and Queen move to the royal chapel for a formal ‘crowning’ ceremony and then out into the park to meet the people.

The popular King and his ravishing new Queen are feted with dances from all over the country including one Gzo-clad break-dancer who wins the newlyweds hearts.