The approach to the Paro Airport in Bhutan requires weaving through some impressive mountains and so I was thankful for the sunny day and hoped that the pilot was not discomfitted by his passengers anxiety, which was palpable in the cheap seats. The landing turned out to be uneventful and the sixteen of us that had signed up for the “white water rafting and yoga in Bhutan” trip organized by North West Rafting Company, were relieved to arrive in the land that many call “Shangri-la”.
Bhutan is a country with a very distinct identity and character. Tourists are strictly controlled and are required to pay a daily fee for being in Bhutan ($250). The Bhutanese are open to western culture, and to some extent they embrace it, but there is also a distance between the Bhutanese and the rest of the world. The lack of incidental foreigners just hanging around separates Bhutan from almost every other culture on the planet. It is a place that enjoys welcoming tourists, but it also has an equal enjoyment in saying au revoir.
We were met by our tour leader and owner of NWRC, Zach Collier, at the airport with two buses with Bhutanese drivers and two Bhutanese guides, Bhupen and Dhiraj. We were piled into the buses after a quick loosening up session by Susan Fox, our yoga guru, and taken into the center of Paro to enjoy the festivities in progress to celebrate the fourth king’s 60th birthday. (That king abdicated in favor of his son and now has a passion for bicycling the roads of Bhutan.) The celebrations included dancing, singing, hanging about and archery. It was the archery that most captivated our attention as the archers shot arrows at a target about the size of a trash can lid from about 120 yards. When an archer hit the target, there were whoops and celebration and when he missed, there was taunting from the other team. Periodically, they would take a break and have a drink at the shed which was about half way between the two targets.
Needless to say, the taunts, although in Bhutanese, were clearly about an opponent’s ability to hit the broad side of a barn and if not that, something very close to it. From there we walked to the Rinpung Dzong (government building that also houses monasteries). It was uphill, not that far, but it felt like a hike, probably because we were at 6,500 feet of altitude and were only just getting used to the thin air. The dzongs were built as fortresses, not unlike castles, only with a separate building within the walls that would be equally difficult to breach should invaders get into the courtyard. And it was all painted and decorated with colorful and mannerist designs. And, of course, it housed at least one Buddhist monastery.
The food in Bhutan is not inspiring. Nothing is killed in Bhutan which means that all meat is imported from India. The quality of the butchering is de minimis and so if you are eating chicken, beware of bones. The rice is fine as are the vegetables and potatoes. It is a great chance to go vegan or vegetarian and, save for one or two meals, that is what I did. A visit to a monastery after lunch and then finally to our hotel which was far better than I expected, spacious with comfortable mattresses and very clean. It was my first day in Shangri-la and I have to say I was not disappointed. The company I used for this trip: http://www.nwrafting.com/