Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

There's nowhere like Bhutan

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Bhutan's Paro dzong. Photo / Thinkstock
Bhutan's Paro dzong. Photo / Thinkstock

2.30am: The air outside my Bangkok hotel is warm, moist and perfumed with a whiff of frangipani. Although the roads of Thailand's capital city never actually sleep they are least slumbering as we head for the airport.

8am: Sunlight is glancing off the saturated, pearly landscape of early morning over Bangladesh. As we descend towards Kolkata however, a swathe of palm trees transforms the landscape green, with the occasional mould-splashed concrete building emerging from the fronds. When we land the windows of the Druk Air (Bhutan's national carrier) plane immediately fog up in the humidity.

8am: We're moving back in time but now flying north - 40 minutes from the Bay of Bengal, out of India, briefly back into Bangladesh airspace, back into India and then before us the Himalayas and the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. Off to the west, rising above a tumult of cloud is Everest and closer to us, Kachenjunga - the world's highest and third highest mountains respectively - viewed over the rim of an orange juice.

9am: We begin to descend into Bhutan. This has to be one of the world's best, if short, white-knuckle flights. Hillsides clad in blue pine loom up on each wingtip as we wend our way along a river valley to the airport.

Prayer flags flutter above us on the wooded ridges, rice paddies now beginning to turn to burnished gold, signalling the onset of harvest-time and autumn, fill the windows as the plane banks steeply to round the bends of the river; we fly so close to some of the farm houses we can almost count the bright red chillies drying on the shingled roofs.

Everyone on the plane seems transfixed - tourists, Bhutanese returning home from shopping trips to Bangkok, Indians flying in to do business. When we land, the passengers burst into spontaneous applause.

4.30pm: My tour group has visas, Bhutanese ngultrum (the local currency), lunch and their rooms. We are now inside their first dzong - a unique Bhutanese institution which combines the administrative centre for the district and the main monastic body.

The Paro dzong is a whitewashed 17th century fortress - the first courtyard is the secular realm, the second is the domain of the monks. The office staff are heading home but the courtyards are far from deserted - young monks, aged about eight - are cavorting around, one is trailing part of his deep red robe behind him like a cape while three slightly older monks sit perched on a wall intent on texting with a cellphone.

In the deep shadows of an inner courtyard sits the discipline captain - a portly older monk who has a plaited whip on his lap. Should some of the young monks' antics in their free time get too out of hand he'll literally crack the whip but at the moment he's looking to be in more contemplative mood.

9pm: There was yak on the menu for dinner, the national dish of whole chillies in cheese sauce to accompany it, and a glass of locally brewed Red Panda beer. I'm feeling giddy with fatigue but one lucid thought I can still muster up is that there truly is nowhere else on the planet like Bhutan.

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