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Kingdom of dreams
The majestic Tashichoedzong in Thimpu is the seat of the Bhutanese government

Pardon the political impropriety but Bhutan is not a country. It’s a different world altogether. Everything from the landscape to the languorous pace of life makes it feel that you’ve stepped into a dream.

Bhutan is beautiful inside out. A nation where the official parameter of progress is GNH, gross national happiness, and not GDP. And though every word written about the country had told me so, no amount of online ‘preparation’ could have prepared me for the splendour of Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon, rightly nicknamed Deki Druk Yul, the Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon).

The visual treat begins from the moment you land at the very quaint Paro International Airport. In fact landing at Paro is the closest I’ve ever come to ‘love at first sight’, complete with that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling (or was that because at 7,300ft above sea level and surrounded by peaks standing at almost 18,000ft, it’s considered one of the world’s scariest landings)?

The one-hour drive to Thimphu only underlines that Bhutan is stuff dreams are made of — wide open spaces dotted sparingly with pretty houses, all white-walled with vibrantly coloured doors, windows and roofs, and… no traffic (Bhutan is a traffic-lights free country!)

A quick check-in and lunch at the Terma Linca Resort & Spa in Thimphu, and I head for Tashichoedzong, the seat of the Bhutanese government. Dzongs are religious and administrative centres of the respective districts — fortresses built in a distinctive style with towering white walls, Chinese-style flared roofs and massive entrances leading into huge courtyards dotted by temples, offices and accommodation for the monks. The grand pink-roofed two-storeyed Tashichoedzong, built in 1641, houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and ministries of home affairs and finance.

Past the main gate and along the length of the dzong, cherry blossom trees bursting out in pink against the white walls can have the most been-there-seen-it-all tourists reach for their cameras. In the dzong’s courtyard is the utse, the central tower, apart from four 3-storeyed towers — one at each of the four corners of the dzong, traditionally built and adorned with exquisitely-crafted animal, floral and religious motifs.

It’s considered auspicious to paint phallic symbols on the walls of houses and other buildings; (below) The Chele La Pass, at over 13,000ft, is the country’s highest road pass; Pic by Iggy Ahluwalia

Next on my itinerary is a quick (thanks to the freezing cold winds) stop at the majestic Buddha Dordenma — a 169ft-tall image of Buddha Shakyamuni on a vajra throne on a hill 100m above the Wangchu River overlooking Thimphu. From there I head for the takin Zoo. The takin, which looks like a cross between a cow and a goat, is the national animal of Bhutan. Legend has it that back in the 15th Century, Lama Drukpa Kunley (also known as the ‘divine madman’) was asked to demonstrate his magical powers. The saint first ordered a cow and a goat for lunch. After his meal, he took the goat’s head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow and brought the creature, the takin, to life.

If that isn’t enough magic already, the rest of the evening is an enchanting treat for the senses — first a snack of beef and veg cheese momos and suja (Bhutanese butter tea), followed by some hot and heavenly ema datshi (a Bhutanese cheese-and-chilli dish) for dinner. And finally a rocking introduction to Thimphu nightlife which, incidentally, rocks to Sheila ki Jawani!

Day two in Bhutan starts with a trip to Punakha, about 72km from Thimphu. Located at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, the Punakha dzong is the winter home of the clergy. An arched wooden bridge across the Mo Chhu takes you into the dzong, whose central tower, the utse, is six storeys high.

Several buildings in Bhutan have depictions of the tiger, the snow lion, the dragon or the mythical Garuda — considered auspicious according to Buddhist belief. While one of the inner structures in Tashichoedzong had the Garuda, I spot the snow lion at the Punakha Dzong.

The other recurrent motif that’s sure to catch your attention is the phallic symbol. Lama Kunley, the ‘div-ine madman’ is said to have started the practice of painting phallic symbols on walls to ward off evil spirits.

My next stop, before heading for Paro (about 140km from Punkaha), is the Chimi Lakhang Monastery. Built on a hillock in 1499, 10km from Punakha, this monastery is dedicated to the ‘divine madman’, known for his unorthodox ways that often shocked the purists. A golden-yellow roofed building, this ‘temple of fertility’ has frescoes inside depicting the saint’s colourful life. The monastery also houses a wooden phallus replica that the Lama is believed to have brought from Tibet. The temple’s priests bless people who come to pray for children by touching them on the head with it.

The highlight of day three is the Chele La Pass between the Paro and Haa valleys — a 90-minute drive from the valley floor in Paro. At over 13,000ft, it’s the country’s highest road pass and has amazing views of the Jhomolari, also known as the ‘bride of Kanchendzonga’ and considered a sacred peak by Buddhists. Snow, quite unexpectedly, on the way up to the pass, a picnic lunch of Bhutanese delicacies and tying prayer flags against the strong chilly breeze — Chele La Pass is indeed the highlight of the entire trip for me.

It’s a short three-day tour, clearly not enough to explore this little slice of paradise, the Last Shangri-La. But as I leave, it’s comforting just knowing that Bhutan is no dream. It’s a dream come true.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: Fly from Delhi (via Kathmandu) or directly from Calcutta. MakeMyTrip has also started special charters from Mumbai and Delhi.

Staying there: Put up at Terma Linca in Thimpu and Nak-Sel in Paro. Go to www.makemytrip.com.

Pocket pinch: MakeMyTrip’s chartered-flight-inclusive packages start at Rs 33,000 per person for seven nights.

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