I am a little unsure as I stand at the edge of a zebra crossing at Norzin Lam, the main street of Thimphu as cars drove by. Apart from the fear of crossing roads, residing in Mumbai for many years has made me very cautious; thanks to the rash driving that is a common feature on the city’s streets.
At Norzin Lam, I wait for the signal to turn red and the traffic to stop before I cross the road. I ams feeling a bit lost as Bhutan’s capital (Thimphu) doesn’t have any traffic lights. It is the only capital in the world to have this distinction. I gingerly put one foot forward and nervously look at the approaching car. As if taking the cue the man behind the wheel stops to give me way. Over the next three days, I take full advantage of the drivers’ discipline on roads and have a great time exploring the friendly town on foot.
Where old meets new
Being the first Sunday of the month, the day is celebrated as Pedestrian day in all major towns of Bhutan. It seems the city is trying to please me and bestow all its goodness on me. The pleasant afternoon with a nip in the air prompts me to stay back at Norzin Lam and explore the vicinity. The whole town seems to be out on the streets. Most men and women in their national attire of ‘Gho’ and ‘Kira’ rub shoulders with hip youngsters sporting trendy western clothes. Camera-wielding tourists pose with monks in maroon robes. The dzong-like architecture in every building with vibrant hues is a visual treat. The locals, too, make the most of the day walking and cycling along the winding roads. The clock tower square is abuzz with them hanging around or catching up with friends and family.
Today Bhutan is known for its Buddhist tradition, cultural authenticity and isolation. But it was only in 1974 that it opened its doors to foreigners. The Internet and television paved their way in the country as late as 1999. The popular conception is that Bhutan is a staid Buddhist place. But with its happening nightlife and vibrant crowd, Thimphu seems to be a far cry. Girls sporting latest fashion trends and boys in funky hairstyles hang out at nightclubs such as Space 34, Club Ace and All Stars disco, Zest (a bar and lounge) and Mojopark (a live music pub). I am surprised to hear some electrifying music, reminiscent of European clubs, in the calm Himalayan town.
Thanks to the new music hubs, a lot of restaurants have also mushroomed in the town. Norzin Lam is lined with some good eateries including The Bhutanese for local cuisine, Rice Bowl for Chinese, Tandin for good Indian and Bhutanese and Chula, a fine Indian dining restaurant. Those in the mood for authentic Bhutanese cuisine can visit the Bhutanese Kitchen that offers a buffet comprising the unique red rice, Ema Datshi (the national dish of Bhutan made with cheese and chilli peppers), dried beef and vegetables. Red rice, chillies and cheese are the staple items in Bhutanese cuisine. Ema Datshi is known for its spice quotient but most eateries now add onions and tomatoes to tone it down.
Book readers’ club
As I tuck into fabulous cheese sandwiches and carrot cake at Ambient café at Norzim Lam, I spot a stack of some good books on Bhutan in the eatery. Relishing the accompanying lettuce and tomato salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar, enjoying the view of the bustling street below while perusing through the books is a wonderful feeling. No wonder, Ambient Café is a favourite hang out zone with foreigners. If you are in the mood for some light read, then you can also visit the Karma Coffee at Phendey Lam that stocks many local magazines and newspapers.
For more serious reading, one can visit the National Library. The four-storied building houses Vajrayana Buddhist scriptures and other texts written in the classical language of Choekey. A small traditional altar and stupa on each floor lends a spiritual ambience to the venue. Books on Bhutan, Buddhism and the Himalayan region are also available. What caught our attention, however, was a 5 X 7 feet book, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across The Last Himalayan Kingdom, certified as the largest published book in the Guinness World Records.
Steeped in culture
Despite the advent of technology, it’s heartening to see youngsters stay connected to their roots. At the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, students learn as many as 13 traditional arts of Bhutan. Almost all things painted, carved or stitched have religious significance. Intrigued by this rich cultural heritage of the country, as I start a conversation with Chenzeedhar Chane, a student. He tells me that the colourful pieces of silk that he is stitching will be hung in temples and at altars in homes.
The Folk Heritage Museum houses an actual village house in its premises. Climbing up and down the narrow wooden slats piled steeply like stairs in the four-storied stone and brick house is quite an exercise. While in this magical city, one must visit the Chorten memorial, which was built in 1974 to honour the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Resplendent with golden spires and bells, it is a prominent religious landmark in the city. The grand imposing structure of Tashichhodzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of Thimphu, is also a sight to behold.
While visiting the various Dzongs, chortens, stupas, temples and rotating the colourful prayer wheels one finds how the tiny Himalayan kingdom is replete with myths and legends, ancient spirits, Buddhist teachings, deities and demons. After I’m unable to sleep one night due to the incessant barking of the dogs, our guide Yashi Dorje says that in Bhutan this is a common occurrence as the animals chase the spirits that roam at night. Though I am amused initially, one look at Dorje’s face convinces me that he is extremely serious. In retrospect, it is these Buddhist tenets and diehard belief in the triumph of goodness over evil that has kept the locals honest and happy.
If you haggle at the market place, vendors tell you the real cost honestly so you know their scanty margin of profit. If you complain of laidback service or unavailability of a product in the market, they grin at you innocently and almost magically you find yourself smiling at their simplicity. Unemployment is minimal and a great impetus is given to agrarian economy. Bhutan has made a conscious decision to protect its fragile eco-system, so what it lacks in industries and manufacturing unit, it compensates by investing in agriculture and its tourism policy of low volume, high-quality tourism. Indians are lucky as they are exempted of US dollar 250 per head per day that is charged for others. So one should grab this opportunity and visit Bhutan for its simple life.
How to get there: Druk air operates three daily flights between Kolkata and Paro in Bhutan. Thimphu is a short drive from the airport.
Where to stay: The Taj Tashi, a five-star resort, is probably the best luxury hotel in Thimphu. The Druk Hotel and the Amankora are two other top choices.
Traval Tip: Make sure you have sufficient light woollens even during the summer months as this Himalayan nation enjoys 12 months of cold or cool climes. Ideally don’t come calling during the monsoon months but if you happen to be there, do carry your umbrella, raincoat and waterproof shoes. Winters are biting cold and the view of the snow is awesome.