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Travel: Chilling Out In Bhutan

  • (Photo courtesy: Supa chai Petchtewee/ THE NATION)
  • (Photo courtesy: Supa chai Petchtewee/ THE NATION)
  • (Photo courtesy: Supa chai Petchtewee/ THE NATION)
  • Signature Bhutanese cuisine ema datse. (Photo courtesy: Supa chai Petchtewee/ THE NATION)

The erstwhile kingdom is like one slow, endless drink of cool, refreshing water.

One of the most unforgettable memories I have of my trip to Bhutan, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen on God’s earth, is speeding down the smooth road that hugs the mountains, surrounded by mist, while Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played on my iPod.

Then, after a few minutes in the mist, we turned a bend, and I held my breath. In front of us stretched a gorgeous green expanse, framed by clouds and embraced by green mountains. This was Phobjikha Valley in western Bhutan, an important wildlife preserve and home of the rare black-necked crane that flew in from China in the winter. It was indescribably beautiful, like a postcard from heaven, a sight so breathtaking it moved one of my friends to tears.

The erstwhile kingdom of Bhutan (which recently became a democracy, after the much-loved king Jigme Singye Wangchuck stepped down in favour of his son) is like one slow, endless drink of cool, refreshing water—it’s all quiet, dignified monasteries, impossibly green mountains, cool and clean air, gentle people, and calming landscapes as far as the eye can see.

It is such a tranquil place that within a few hours of arrival you find yourself slowing down, smiling more, and moving more deliberately and in less of a frenzy. Even after a challenging three-hour trek to Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest, one of Bhutan’s most famous monasteries sitting some 900m above Paro Valley, we remained quiet and unruffled.

"Somehow, with the Bhutanese’s straightforward ways, the radical cuisine made sense."

This dream-like state of mind was shattered, however, when I had my first taste of Bhutanese cuisine. No, it wasn’t inedible; after the aforementioned three-hour climb, you’ll eat pretty much anything. But the fact is, compared to its next door neighbours, India and China, Bhutan has pretty ho-hum food. That is, the flavours are neither rich nor interesting and the food generally devoid of any of the exotic spices that Indians make wonderful use of.

Except for one: chillies. Lots and lots of large, green, extremely hot chillies. In fact, the Bhutanese don’t use chillies as a spice; they’re treated as vegetable, eaten as a viand, and sometimes, to my horror, picked on by the locals without batting an eyelash. This, after my tongue feels like it’s been to Dante’s Inferno, or is paying for the sins committed by my other body parts.

Fortunately, the setting wasn’t so terrible when we had our first taste of the national dish, ema datse, or chillies slathered (or is it disguised?) in a cheese sauce—think good old macaroni and cheese, but rated XXX.

By the way, there are other versions of this, like kewa datse (potatoes in cheese sauce) and shamu datse (mushrooms in cheese sauce), but the chillies are the all-time favourite.

I should have gotten the hint when, sitting in the dining room of our beautiful lodge in Phobjikha Valley, with a fire keeping us warm on that cold, rainy night, our amiable Bhutanese guide Tshering ordered some ema datse)—with three platters of rice.

Now there were three of us hungry travellers with very unladylike appetites, plus our guide and driver, but the platters were huge ones, and Tshering had the frame of a teenager barely out of high school, so we wondered about the disproportion.

Tshering replied with a twinkle in his eye that he wanted us to sample three varieties of rice, in three different colours, including a deliciously nutty red version.

Thankfully, Tshering had the best antidote—a bottle of the locally made beer, Red Panda, cool and flavourful and brewed in the traditional way, so you can almost taste the barley grains.

There would be more encounters with ema datse, and when there was nothing else I could eat, having sworn off meat, I managed to eventually enjoy it. I would later learn that lots of carbohydrates, chillies, and even animal fats were essential to the Bhutanese diet, to keep them warm in the winter. Somehow, with the Bhutanese’s straightforward ways, the radical cuisine made sense.

We had another sublime taste one day, visiting Cheri Goemba, another monastery on a hill outside the city of Thimpu. Here, Tshering ran into an old schoolmate, now a monk in this Buddhist country where every family still gives up one son or daughter to the religious life.

The monk invited us into his room, a small, simple wooden space with a bed, and a window with a fantastic view—how easy to contemplate the divine, I thought, when waking up to this sight each day. There he served us stale biscuits and the Bhutanese tea called sudja, laced with butter and salt. It tasted oily, more like a soup than a tea, and absolutely delicious—a drink that warmed the body, in a place that soothed the soul. It was the taste of Bhutan itself.

Five Ways To Enjoy Bhutan

Planning a trip to Bhutan is not simple since you must course arrangements through an overseas travel agency with direct links, or directly through a government-accredited tour agency. You can do the latter through e-mail—check out Lonely Planet Bhutan or www.tourism.gov.bt for a list of agencies—and they will arrange visas, hotels, itineraries, plane tickets, meals, everything for you. No backpacking allowed, as Bhutan controls the number of tourists who come in each year, so plan at least three months ahead. We had an excellent experience with Yu Druk Tours and Treks (www.yudruk.com).

Only one airline flies into Paro, the national carrier Druk Air, and it goes via Bangkok, Delhi or Kathmandu. Don’t worry, though; the planes are new and clean and the flight crew efficient, although flights can be delayed. Tip: If you’re flying in via Kathmandu, get a seat on the left side of the plane; on a clear day, you can see Mount Everest, close enough to touch.

If you feel light-headed after you land, it might be altitude sickness. Take it easy, rest, and drink lots of water, and it will pass. If you go trekking and it feels worse, the only cure is to descend.

The essentials: a jacket/raincoat, an umbrella and good trekking shoes. Oh, and if you don’t bring a camera, you might as well bonk yourself on the head with a rock.

Don’t be scandalised to find wooden or brass phalluses being sold as souvenirs, or hanging from the roofs of houses, sometimes crossed with a sword (ouch). It’s a favourite Bhutanese symbol to ward off evil, so when a monk in a monastery blesses you with one during a religious ceremony, try to be respectful and keep a straight face. (By ALYA HONASAN In Thimphu/ The Philippines Daily Inquirer/ AsiaNews)

MySinchew 2009.04.03

 

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