Road trips start when you get out of your house, train journeys start when the train leaves the station, but most flight trips can only be considered started once you land – there isn’t much room on the plane to have any fun. A flight trip to Bhutan starts about 15-20 minutes earlier. Paro airport landing approach is one of the scariest in the world and only a handful of Druk Air pilots are specially trained in Switzerland to make this landing. As far as I know, no other airlines fly to Bhutan. Make sure you have a window seat as the plane snakes through mountains and hills with many occasions where you see cliffs and mountain slopes horizontally at level with the plane when it is still twisting and turning towards the landing strip. Not for the weak at heart, it can be hair-raising at times.
Once the aircraft lands, you step down on the tarmac and can appreciate the breathtaking views around. This may also be the prettiest airport I have ever landed at. After soaking in the view and a light drizzle, we walked to the terminal building for a quick passport check. This was a more planned trip than usual as Bhutan doesn’t much encourage tourists just to go anywhere and information is still limited. So I had a car picking us at the airport and driving us to the hotel – the amazing Terma Linca Resort in Thimphu. The road from Paro to Thimphu is amazingly good, making this a less than an hour-long ride. The scenery was beautiful and the traffic mostly light.
The hotel was amazing right from the get-go. This was possibly my first experience with women porters. I generally prefer to carry my own bags, unless they are exceptionally heavy. When a small group of local women walked out to get our bags from the car, I was quite surprised and for a minute unsure what to do. Most of the staff in the hotel were women and they could do the job as well as anyone. The check-in was quick and we got a chance to glance out of the windows to see the river the flew just past the hotel structure. I was praying that we would have the same view from our room – little did I know that every room in the hotel had that view.
We probably spent more time than usual just appreciating the hotel. The room was large, clean, airy, and came with a spectacular view and therapeutic sound of the river. There were walkways to take your around and lush greenery all around. There were an archery range and some other small sports to pass time if it was raining too much. It did rain a little more than I would have liked it, even for May. However, that made of beautiful skies and cold breeze almost always. We did have a car at our disposal and went around Thimphu for the sites it had to offer. Most of those were shrines, monasteries, and viewpoints. At some point, we decided to skip a few as just the natural surroundings were prettier than the sites. The one site worth visiting was the newly constructed (in 2015) statue of sitting Buddha high on a hillside. The statue was large enough to be visible from far and also the site offered great views of the valley.
In the resort, we were also treated to some of the most amazing local food. Ema Datshi with red rice was amazing comfort food, especially when paired with local white wine served out of a traditional cask. There were also Indian food options, for those who would want, but stuck completely to local food and it was delicious.
After a couple of days in Thimphu, we started on the road trip to Punakha. It is a nearly 3-hour drive in the direction opposite of Paro. The road was not as good as the one that connected the two major cities of the country. It is a mountain road with a lot of turns and swing-backs making it prone to mountain-sickness if one has that issue. The diesel smoke from the trucks and even other cars was also nauseating as unlike a lot of more industrialized economies, the greet Bhutan has not had the need to move to lower polluting fuel standards. There was a beautiful mid-way stop with a small shop and a probably nice view that was covered with clouds that day.
We eventually got to the Drubchu resort. While the hotel was expectedly simple but clean, the view from just outside was unbelievable. There were green meadows in the foreground, then a small village with some step farms and water bodies. You could look further to see green hills with a background of snow-covered mountains, all in one shot. In Bhutan, mountains are sacred, like all other elements of nature. It is not okay to climb a mountain outside of pre-designated trails and it was not okay for us to dip our feet in the river outside our earlier hotel.