By Iboyaima Laithangbam
Bhutan, the cleanest Himalayan kingdom is the only country in the world where the people do not wear caps or any headgears. The simple hearted Bhutanese explain without rancour to the inquisitive tourists that as it is the king’s prerogative to wear a cap the commoners cannot emulate him. A decree of the king is the law and nobody dares to question it.
For tourists with money to splurge there is the international airport at Paro where there are regular flights from India But the backpacking wanderlusts who want to enjoy the drive along the meandering mountain roads there are brand new taxis from the Immigration office adjacent to North Bengal to Thimphu, the capital. The Immigration office prepares the documents and undesirable elements and journalists cannot travel to the country The Bhutanese prefer to remain in solitude and secrecy. The world has not heard much about this kingdom and its political system even after the “democratic elections” underpinned by India. News filtering out of this kingdom is very sketchy. Despite their plastic smiles and warm hospitality the people are extremely cagey and a visitor cannot learn much of their politics, role and clout of the venerated king.
The mountain road from the Immigration office to Thimphu, about 5 hours’ drive in the taxi, is well constructed and maintained, the like of which we Indians do not find almost in all states. The construction and repairing works are done by the BRTF. Lilting Bhutanese songs which are heavily superimposed by the Nepali songs are played softly during the drive which never exceeds 40 KPH. The Hindi speaking taxi drivers donning the traditional Bhutanese dress are conditioned never to utter a word unless spoken to.
The mountains which are bereft of greeneries are very high. There are some lay bys en route where the tourists halt for light lunch at the eateries. For aperitif there are mini bars inside the hotels where measures of alcoholic drinks are sold at reasonable prices. There are mouth watering dishes of rice, fried chicken legs, buffalo wings and stewed vegetables. Strong mountain wind blows from all directions unfurling the window screens and threatening the loose dresses of the women tourists. These are scenes to be photographed for memory and if you do not have the cameras these should be stored in some recesses of your brain.
As the cavalcade of the taxis cruise somewhere midway of the road there is the final checking point to verify the tourists including head counts. This is to ensure that some sleazy characters do not vanish in the thin air. In the past militants from the NE India had opened camps in the mountains and forests of this kingdom. There had been joint military operations by the Indian army and Royal Bhutanese army.
There are expensive and luxuriantly appointed lodges in the capital. For the backpackers and those on package tours there are clean rooms with attached bathrooms in hotels and chalets at affordable amounts. One remarkable feature that will strike the Indian tourists is that the capital and all market towns are clean and no rubbish litters. The office buildings, residential houses, shops, public houses are constructed in the unique Bhutanese architecture. Rupee and Ngultrum which have the same value are freely circulated and accepted.
One should not miss visiting Paro, about 50 km from Thimphu. It skirts the airport and as one travels along the serpentine road one sees the rabbit warrens at the far mountain slopes which are mostly covered with snow. Monks stay in these warrens for years for penance. The ditches and mountain slopes along the road are covered with snow and all stations are picnic spots. Paro is a moderate town where hotels, shops showcasing various items are there. The people are well behaved and courteous. Food and drinks are moderately priced.
A little distance from the Paro town there is a hillock where there stands of the prison of the yester year. The prison cells are constructed in such a way that it was impossible for the prisoners to have escaped. Tourists do not miss this prison and they get photographed with it in the background for memory. Most of the 1.7 million people in the kingdom are directly or indirectly benefitted by the ever expanding tourism. Consumer items are brought from Nepal and India by truckloads. One kg of cabbage (organic) is sold at Rs 130 whereas the inorganic one is available as cheap as Rs 18. Smoking is strictly banned in the kingdom. Some kiosk owners clandestinely keep cigarette packets for the Indian tourists. It is sold at Rs 100 per packet as against Rs 20 in India. One kg of pork is sold at Rs 350 and mutton Rs 600. Despite these high prices there is no beggar or dilapidated house in the kingdom.
Apart from the colourful dances they have popular sports like archery and throwing of multi-pronged darts. The people mind their business. They are so law abiding that police are conspicuous by their absence. Officials say that it is once in a blue moon that there is a serious crime like murder or rape. Long after returning home an Indian tourist will see the beautiful landscapes in his mind’s eyes and the melodious songs will haunt him for a long time.