Paro was our first and last impression of Bhutan as it’s where the international flights land and it was a great one. Nestled in a beautiful valley the highlights include a hugely impressive fortress, an excellent museum and a lovely main street lined with colourful wooden shop fronts – perfect for souvenir shopping at the end of our trip.
The nicest hotels seemed to be outside of the town centre so we opted for the Tashi Namgay Resort which is directly opposite the airport on the other side of the Paro Chhu river – not an issue for noise as there are so few flights. The rooms are big and pretty comfortable by Bhutanese standards and the food was a bit more varied than other places we ate. And there are some really nice grounds to wander and sit by the river to watch the planes navigating the mountains during take off and landing.
Our first visit in Paro was to Dumtse Lhakhang, an atmospheric temple that was undergoing repairs and reminded me of many I’d seen in Myanmar with a central core that you walk around. As you follow the winding path inside it gets really dark but with a torch you can see some of Bhutan’s best murals representing hell, earth and heaven. Just be sure to watch your step.
Next we headed up to the National Museum which is normally housed in an old watch tower but was damaged by an earthquake in 2011. It was due to reopen in 2016 but was clearly running a few yeasr behind schedule.
Instead we visited some of the museum’s temporary exhibitions in a former office building behind the tower. They include a large collection of masks used in dances, some of which were pretty scary! The display I found most interesting was one celebrating 50 years of Bhutan’s close relationship with India. It has some great black and white photos showing the first time an Indian prime minister visited Bhutan after travelling there on horseback. Other photos show meetings between former Kings of Bhutan and Indira Ghandi.
There’s also a large section on the natural environment covering each part of the country and the animals, trees and plants found at different altitudes. Environmental protection and conservation is super important in Bhutan and a key element of the Gross National Happiness philosophy which states the country must have at least 60% forest cover. There were also quite a lot of stuffed animals that we weren’t so keen on!
After looking at the exhibits we walked down to take a closer look at the outside of the water tower and get an excellent view of Paro’s fortress, known as Rimpung Dzong which is where we were headed to next. It’s a huge structure with massive walls that can be seen throughout the Paro valley. It’s also more square than other forts in Bhutan as was used to defend the country.
As with other forts it houses both Government administration offices and the local monastic body. But as it was a Saturday there was no Government business underway in Paro that day, so it was much quieter than other forts and we almost had the place to ourselves.
The first thing you see on the way in is a series of paintings including one of the four friends, a great Buddhist fable about four creatures who help each other. The elephant, the monkey, the rabbit and the bird. There’s also a gorgeous painting of the Buddha wheel of life showing the six realms all being held by the Lord of Death who decided the fate of each person.
Once inside, the courtyard of the administrative section has a large central tower that’s five stories high. Nearby is a small temple dedicated to the 11 headed God of Compassion which is decorated with painted wood carvings.
The monastic quarter is of course ranged around a courtyard too with a large prayer hall and classroom. The first day of the Paro tsechu is held here, an annual religious festival which takes place in each district of Bhutan. They are big social events attracting many local visitors so the courtyard would be packed for it. The fort also attracts people who are fans of the film Little Buddha as some of its scenes were filmed here.
Just below the fort is a covered wooden bridge Nyamai Zam which crosses the Paro Chhu river. The original was washed away by a flood and in earlier times the bridge would be removed during war times to protect the fort. We walked down a flight of stones steps to cross the bridge, not least for the stunning view of the fort from that side of the river.
Before heading for lunch we were very keen to check out some archery in action. As mentioned in an earlier post it’s Bhutan’s national sport and we’d had a go at it on our first day in the country. What we saw at the Paro archery ground was pretty different to our attempts. The course is so long we could hardly see the archers at the other end and the arrows flew passed us so quickly we couldn’t see those either until they hit the target.
Archery is hugely popular and played in leagues in the same way as we play cricket or football. It was brilliant to sit and watch for a while, not least to see the celebratory dancing when they succeeded. Again if you read my earlier post you’ll have seen the photo of me getting involved in some dancing after finally hitting the very close target!
Lunch at the Charro restaurant was pretty good too. As also mentioned previously the food served up to tourists in Bhutan can get a bit repetitive, but Paro seemed to have more variety, maybe because its one of the most visited places.
After lunch we made a quick photo stop to take a look at Drukgyel Dzong, a ruined temple burned by fire in 1950s which is now being renovated for the crown prince. It’s in a lovely setting and they have plenty of time to finish it as he’s currently only three years old!
We were on our way out of Paro town to visit Kyichu Lhakhang, Bhutan’s oldest temple. It’s a beautiful place believed to date back as far as 659AD and attracts many elderly pilgrims who walk around spinning the many prayer wheels in its walls.
The inner part of main temple has Buddha at its centre behind a grill with statues all around and a large chandelier. There’s also a wonderful statue of the God of Compassion where you can get close enough to see the 1,000 arms with eyes and the eleven heads. The wall paintings are very dark as butter candle smoke has faded them over time.
The complex also includes a pagoda filled with large prayer wheels and a newer temple which was built by the Third King’s wife after her Buddhist spiritual master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche died. There’s a statue of him as well as a five meter high statue of Buddha and some gorgeous carved wooden pillars. As ever no photos allowed inside a Bhutanese temple so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
The site where the Buddhist master was cremated is nearby and though it isn’t open to visitors our guide Kencho took the opportunity to explain about cremation in Bhutan. It essentially involves the family breaking their loved ones bones into the meditative position, then wrapping the body and taking it to a cremation site. Not something I could imagine doing, but when it’s the custom you grow up with I guess you don’t question it.
Our final stop of the day was Paro town centre for a bit of retail therapy. The main street is lovely with great views of the mountains and fort at one end and an array of interesting shops staffed by friendly Bhutanese people. Yuesel Handicrafts was a particular favourite and we also took a walk through the local market.
The next day was our last and as with most tours of Bhutan the plan was to finish big with a hike to the famous Taktshang Goemba, otherwise known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Tours are planned that way partly because it’s Bhutan’s best known and most photogenic monastery hanging from a cliff face and also so you’ve had time to acclimatise to the altitude before attempting the hike.
Unfortunately the weather scuppered that plan as we woke up to a very rainy day. It was only the second we’d had during the week but it was very heavy which meant the path to the monastery would not just be steep but very muddy and slippery.
We headed up to the starting point but the rain wasn’t easing so we went back to the hotel and spent the morning intermittently packing and watching planes navigate the challenging take off and landing through the Paro valley mountains.
After lunch it was still raining but easing a bit so Kencho offered to take us part of the way up to the monastery. But after suffering a bad knee injury hiking in Patagonia last year and having already survived a challenging hike to a cliff-hanging nunnery two days earlier, I decided not to push my luck. Instead I spent a relaxing afternoon of Pilates and then exploring the hotel grounds once it finally stopped raining.
My friend decided to give it a go and managed to get almost half way up to Tiger’s Nest before it got too late to go any further. She took my camera and long lens, so even though we didn’t make it up to Bhutan’s most famous monastery we did get to take home some pretty good photos.
Later that evening we went out for a farewell dinner with Kencho and our driver Mr Dawa. Of course what they had to eat and what we had was pretty different though Kencho did try some of our tourist food to be polite. He still didn’t use our names, preferring to only call us Ma’am but he did let us buy him a beer, which was a small victory.
Then on the way home we stopped off by the river for one last look at Paro Dzong, with the watch tower above it and the bridge below, all lit up and shining at us through the darkness.
It was the perfect way to end what had been one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever done. Bhutan is definitely not like anywhere else I’ve visited and was a big tick off my bucket list. I hope it won’t change too much and it shouldn’t if they continue with their high value low impact approach to tourism. But I’d maybe get over there soon, just in case.
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