Ceremonial horns are blaring, drums are beating…we’re panting, sweaty and probably a bit smelly, but we’ve made it in time. We are about to meet…the King and Queen of Bhutan.
As the royal couple approaches, I bow and mumble a “Hello, your majesty”, but Sara’s blonde hair catches the eye of the Queen and they proceed to have a (very short) conversation.
“Where are you from?”
“My, that’s a long way from home.”
It was over in a flash, but, like the entire population of Bhutan, we’ve fallen in love with the fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck and his queen, Jetsun Pema.
Stepping off our Drukair flight at Paro International Airport four days earlier, the sense of being transported somewhere special was palpable. The idea of Bhutan being some kind of real world Shangri-La has been played up so much in the media that it’s almost a cliché, but damned if it’s not true.
The cool, crisp air and fast moving clouds gave off a distinctly ‘Himalayan’ impression. Even Paro’s airport terminal lends itself to this postcard scene – its buildings conform to Bhutan’s traditional Buddhist-infused building regulations, making it perhaps the loveliest international airport in the entire world.
Like our new royal friends, we were in the town of Paro to celebrate the valley’s annual festival, or Tsechu. For centuries, the tsechu was the only way to socialise both within and between Bhutanese communities, and despite the introduction of the internet and television in 1999, the importance of the tsechu remains.
Over five days, locals gather in their finest clothing to watch symbolic dances, catch up with friends and family for picnics, and generally enjoy a holiday away from home. For the international tourist, it’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells as Paro’s population of 15,000 swells to almost twice that number as people stream into the grounds of the fortress-monastery Rinpung Dzong from throughout the district.
The final and most important day of the festival starts at dawn with the unfurling of the world’s largest thangka, a gigantic silk tapestry depicting Guru Rinpoche, the holy man who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. We are told by our guide No-No that the thangka ‘confers liberation by the mere sight of it’.
Legends surround this monumental piece of embroidered silk. In 1907, a spilt butter lamp started a fire that destroyed Rinpung Dzong. The only thing saved from the ruins that horrible night was the thangka, which was carried to safety by a single monk temporarily given the strength of 20 men.
The thangka is so precious that it’s on display only once a year, and then, only for a few hours from dawn until the sun hits the wall of the monastery. (It stayed up a bit longer this year, to accommodate the arrival of the King and Queen).
Seeing the thangka can be quite difficult, involving a bleary 4:30am wakeup call and pre-dawn trip to the Dzong.
We arrive in darkness, and the atmosphere is different today than any other of tsechu. Moving into the courtyard, lingms (Bhutanese flutes), dungchens (horns) and chanting monks produce a swirling harmony of noise around us, but all eyes are focused on the giant thangka hanging suspended from wall. At eight stories high, it truly is awe inspiring.
We join the growing line of people making an offering. As light slowly creeps into the courtyard, the benevolent gaze of Guru Rinpoche is met with expressions of devotion etched on the faces of all who pass underneath.
At around 8am, rumours started circulating that the King himself will be dropping by to pay his respects. Sara and I are both hungry by now, but the possibility of seeing K5 – as he is colloquially known – was too good to pass up.
Finally, red carpet is rolled out and the royal lingms start blaring in the distance. Necks craned and on tip-toes, all eyes are fixed on the King and Queen as they arrive at Paro Tsechu. Watching His Majesty move around the festival in such a relaxed and chatty manner, it’s not hard to see why they call him Jigme Wangchuck ‘The People’s King’.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, preparations are made for the giant thangka to be taken down and put away for another year (it lives in a rather undignified steel box in one of the Dzong’s prayer rooms when not on display).
The tapestry is lowered off the wall of the monastery and placed in a bag before being carried off on the shoulders of a cadre of monks. Ours are among the thousands of fingertips that lightly brush the bag as it passes through the crowd, as if the mere touch of such a holy relic will convey good fortune.
It must be true, because an hour later we met the King and Queen of Bhutan.
TO DO AROUND PARO:
VISIT THE TIGER’S NEST
Impossibly perched on the side of a 1000m sheer cliff face above the Paro Valley, Taktshang Goemba, or the Tiger’s Nest is the most famous monastery in Bhutan if not the entire world. There are three ways to reach this ney, or holy place – a three-hour hike, a pony ride, or a flight upon the back of a tigress like the monastery’s founder, Guru Rinpoche is said to have done in the 8th century.
A trip to the monastery is the high point for many visitors to Bhutan, but if you’re visiting during peak tourist season (April-May), especially around Paro Tsechu, be prepared for crowds. The small rooms and narrow staircases of the building can be hard to navigate surrounded by a United Nations of grey nomads.
COLOURFUL FLOWER SHOW
If you love manicured gardens, then this is for you.
The inaugural Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition was held in April 2015 as part of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s 60th birthday celebrations.
Located on the grounds of the Ugyen Pelri Palace in Paro, the exhibition features a vibrant display of gardens and artistic flower arrangements created by competing groups. Visitors are able to vote for their favourite entry, with the winner announced at the end of the festival.
So successful was the exhibition – with some 50,000 visitors to gardens over the five days – It will now be held annually.
Bhutan’s national sport since 1971, archery is everywhere. It’s played on the side of roads, in the capital cities and in the countryside. Archery in Bhutan is an incredibly social affair and tourists are more than welcome to pick up a bow and arrow themselves.
BHUTAN’S DR DOOLITTLE
If you have a passion for animals, a visit to ‘The Barnyard’ just outside of Paro is a must. Run by the truly amazing US ex-pat Jamie Vaughn, the charity provides sanctuary for any animal in need; at present, more than 250 dogs, several cats, six cows and bulls, seven equines, 10 goats, two pigs, and three mice. A donation of food or materials would be appreciated.
HOT STONE BATH
For an authentic Bhutanese hot stone bath, or dotsho, forget the baths at your flashy resort ask your guide to book you into one of the cheaper bathhouses outside of town. Essentially, the bath is a wooden coffin with a grate at one end. The water is seasoned with local medicinal herbs and super-heated with hot river stones while you try your hardest not to feel like you’re the key ingredient in a hot soup.
Once you’re fully submerged, the mixture of herbs, smoke and hot water is one-of-a-kind.
DRUKGYEL DZONG RUINS
The crumbling ruins of the 16th century Drukgyel Dzong in the northern Paro Valley may be an OH&S nightmare, but the chance to freely (and respectfully) explore the ancient site of many battles between Tibet and Bhutan can’t be missed. There are no roped off sections or safety precautions in the complex, so explore with caution.
The Paro Valley is the staging point for two of Bhutan’s most popular hikes, the Druk Path and the Jhomolhari Trek. The Druk Path is hiked over five days and finishes in the capital Thimphu, while the Jhomolhari Trek takes eight days and passes beneath the spectacular 7326m peak of Jhomolahari.
Paro Tsechu takes place between late-May and early-April. The two national carriers of Bhutan are Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. Drukair fly regularly to Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, from Bangkok, Dhaka, Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Guwahati, Gaya, Kathmandu and Singapore. Bhutan Airlines operate a daily service between Bangkok and Paro via Kolkata. The author travel from Kathmandu with Drukair.
Deal direct with an operator in Bhutan. Not only do you get the best rate but your local operator can tailor the style of accommodation, itinerary and food to your preference. The Government of Bhutan levies a minimum daily fee for all tourists of $280AUD for an all-inclusive package including accommodation, food and transport. The author used tour operator, Bhutan Trip Advisor.
As part of your package, a guide and driver will be supplied for every day of your tour.