Walking down the steps of the Druk Air
plane, I took my first tentative steps onto the tarmac in Paro, Bhutan in June 2015. The air was moist as a recent rain storm had blanketed the town and glimmers of light pierced the clouds above dancing along the hills and trees behind the airport buildings.
Once on the ground, I walked directly into the waiting area, prepared to show my visitor’s visa and passport. The open hallway is decorated in vivid colors and images of past and present monarchs of Bhutan hang above the entryway. The open area funnels people toward the wooden desks where officials are waiting to scan documents and check visas. The immediate feeling is one of quiet and kind efficiency. Smiles are abundant, and the feeling I got was one of an easy going, professional attitude from the staff.
The initial process of entering Bhutan is very efficient and visitors are ushered into a separate room to wait for baggage. Kiosks for exchanging money are here and my recommendation is that exchanging money, now, is the best course of action. Currencies are exchanged for Ngultrum. It is important to remember that Ngultrum are not exchanged on open, currency exchanges anywhere outside of Bhutan. (Although I have not traveled through India to Bhutan and it might be different from Indian banks)
Bags come quickly and the final customs check is made as an additional security scan is necessary to enter the country.
As I walk out of the building, I am met by Namgay, our guide from Illuminating Tours. His friendly hello and welcoming attitude is noted by all of the group I am with. Instantly we feel relaxed after two days of travel from the U.S. to this country in Asia.
Gathering our things, Namgay and our driver Suba load the bags into the vehicle, a small bus with comfortable seats for about twenty folks. We are ten travelers on this trip and have room to spread out. We begin our experience in Bhutan driving out of the airport and then around the grounds and into Paro town.
Our goal, tonight, is Thimphu, the capital city. We head out onto a dirt roadway and then onto a divided highway with passing lanes on some parts of the road. We travel through a canyon as mountains on both sides of the road rise up to frame the walls of the drive. The hills are touched with mostly pine trees. The area is dry, very much like the place we are from, New Mexico. The hills around us, in fact, look almost exactly like our home. Maybe that is why we are all at ease with this trip, one that we have experienced in some way back home.
The road is crowded with vehicles on this morning and with wind our way through the hills and along a river toward the capital. After about an hour, buildings rise up along the roadside and the going gets slower as we make our way into the city. On one side of the road a new car dealership, bright and modern, sits next to a building constructed with bamboo scaffolding. As the road gets narrower in the town, the area bustles with folks walking along the side of the road. Most folks, in traditional dress, line the streets as we make our way into the interior of the city.
Signs of construction are everywhere and those of us who have visited before notice the dramatic changes to the city. Apartment buildings, stop fronts, all kinds of structures rise on the hills in the town.
As we wind our way in to the city proper, we pass the one traffic stop, a police officer directing cars along the roadway, dogs laying in the street, the hurried-slow pace of this hub in Bhutan. We wind our way back and forth along the streets and finally head up a hill toward the giant Buddha being built above the city. As we make our way up, up, up to the structure, the clouds cover the sky and a grey pall rests over the Buddha. Wisps of fog dance around his head, standing about 50 to 75 feet above us.
The gold of the statue shines with the glint of water even in the grey of the cloud cover. Looking out across the Thimphu valley, the din of construction is distant, and the city looks and sounds much more peaceful than it is. The platform we are standing on is being tiled….a huge undertaking. We walk from end to end and count hundreds of steps. The platform will eventually serve as a ceremonial area with hundreds gathered for religious ceremonies.
Our group takes numerous pictures and we marvel at the architectural achievement of this place. The Buddha, serene, sits behind us as we take pictures of the group. One member, Layla, leaps in the sky as happiness grabs her. We all laugh at the spectacle and realize, maybe for the first time, that we are really and truly in a place that is unique, special and wonderful. Someone wonders out loud what other wonders the remaining day and the following ones will bring.