Border formalities took a couple of hours and soon we were on our way through the Indian state of Coochbihar to the Bhutan border, approximately 2.5 hours away. We drove through tea estate after tea estate, and then had our first glimpse of the Bhutanese hills, rising like sentinels in the distance.
We halted in the Indian border town of Jaigaon to complete the immigration formalities, and crossed the imposing Bhutan Gate into the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing. Bangladeshis and Indians are issued with visa on arrival at no fee, everyone else has to apply months in advance through a Bhutanese Government approved tour operator.
The first thing that struck us was how clean and neat the Bhutan side was, a thought that stayed with us throughout our trip, and was in fact reinforced by each day that we spent in Bhutan.
One must have a Bhutanese guide/driver for any tour within Bhutan, and our driver was 29 year old Choki Dorji, resplendant in the traditional outfit called 'Gho', which he wore with obvious pride.
The journey from Phuentsholing to the Bhutanese capital Thimphu took almost 7 hours. The road winded through mountain after mountain, giving us glimpses of the Wang Chhu River, numerous townships, and the Chhukha Hydro Electric project. The scenery and vegetation changed as we drove. The road climbed to an altitude of 2800 meters at Chupchha and then began its descent into Thimphu valley.
We saw evidence of recent landslides, and heard horrifying statistics of how many vehicles had plunged into deep gorges that year, killing all their passengers, some of whose bodies had never been recovered (shudder...shudder!) Anyway, it soon became dark, and I closed my eyes and left my fate to Allah - and prayed that the driving skills of Choki would do justice to the high reputation of Bhutanese drivers.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, sprawls across the western slopes of the Wang Chhu river valley at an altitude of 2320 meters. It is a well organized city of approximately 100,000 people. The city is a unusual mixture of modern development alongside ancient traditions.
Thimphu does not have any traffic lights. The city takes pride in its traffic police that directs the oncoming traffic with their dance-like movement of their arms and hands. This police box was adjacent to our hotel and I spent a lot of time watching the traffic police.
Norzin Lam is the city's main thoroughfare, and is lined with hotels, shops, restaurants, and government buildings. By regulation, all buildings are required to be designed in traditional style with Buddhist paintings and motifs. The Clock Tower Square is surrounded by shops and restaurants. Fountains and traditional Bhutanese Mani Lhalhor (prayer wheels) make the place a popular gathering place. It is the town's sole open-air theater.
Thimphu is dotted with Lakhangs (temples), Chortens (stupas) and Dzhongs (forts). We visited the King's Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 and dedicated to the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk by his mother Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuk.
I rounded the chorten, clockwise as is the custom, but didn't have a prayer wheel in my hand like the other devotees. I made up for it by turning the dozen large prayer wheels set a little apart from the chorten, and prayed for good health and happiness for everyone I know.
We climbed up hills to see the Changangkha Lhakhang and the Zangthoperi Lhakhang, two old temples.
There were prayer flags in each temple courtyard and they fluttered in the wind - the brightly colored good-luck prayers and the standing white funeral flags. The essence of the flag is that the blowing wind captures and carries the prayers from the cloth into the universe and beyond.
The present Dzhong was built in the 18th century to house government officials. It was later extended to accommodate both the monastic as well as the civil administrative bodies. It suffered severe damage three times from fire and once from an earthquake. Much of the present structure dates back to its historic rebuilding in 1902. The Dzhong was further extended and completely refurbished in 1962, a year after Thimphu was designated the nation's capital.
The Fifth King, 28 year old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, was coronated in the Throne room at Tashichhodzhong in November 2008.
We were fortunate enough to catch the few final days of the festivities on occasion of the coronation. There were musical events, and a big fair, culminating in a day-long celebration that took placenationwide - in each city and town of Bhutan.
We also visited the National Textile Museum which has an extensive display of Bhutanese textiles and costumes. (Now when I say extensive, please don't conjure in your mind the endless costume galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.) Bhutanese textiles are rich in color, pattern and texture. We saw gho, kira and crowns on display from the Private Royal Collection, and mannequins of masked dancers. Photography was not allowed.
(Photos: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/showbiz/images/attachement/jpg/site1/20080721/000d6065c51b09ee318c34.jpg; http://lh4.ggpht.com/storysinger81/RwoyEZYA79I/AAAAAAAABH0/cKDRUfCBtAk/s800/maskfest+167.JPG)
We stayed in Thimphu for three nights, visiting as many places as possible, tasting local cuisine (spicy!), buying a few souvenirs (so expensive!) and generally enjoying the slow-paced lifestyle of the Bhutanese. Such a welcome respite from the craziness of Dhaka. We then packed our bags and headed for Punakha, Wangdue Phodhrang and on to Paro.