BPD: Paro, a Paradise on Earth

(BPD: Paro, a Paradise on Earth, 29 Apr ‘15)

Paro, is about an hour from Thimphu, at a distance of 55km and the closest city to the capital. Though a smaller town with lesser business activity than the capital Thimphu, its a much more beautiful place with pristine and natural, breathtaking landscapes. It also has the famed ‘Taktshang’ or Tiger’s Nest monastery, that is the unofficial symbol of Bhutan for tourists, and a single look at which would make one want to visit the country.

Paro is covered on all sides by mountains, and the valley in between is a fertile land cultivated by the Paro Chhu river that runs through the length of the city. Its truly a sight to see the vast number of fields that grow paddy, wheat and a variety of other crops that give its fields several shades of green, brown and red interspersed. This city, like the rest of Bhutan is sparsely populated and only the main Paro city has a continuous line of houses, hotels and shops, which is anyway just 3 streets wide! The city has a calming influence on people and the only sound is that of the occasional plane touching down or taking off from the Paro airport, which is an equally impressive tourist sight, unlike perhaps any other airport in the world.

Arriving at Paro on the night of 28th April, I had about 2 days to spend, before I started my journey back to the border on the 1st of May, until when I had the visa. I started the day with a breakfast of Bhutanese fried rice and freshly prepared spicy pickle, amidst a heavy bout of rains. The unseasonal rains had been playing hide and seek throughout my backpacking trip, but the weather Gods had been considerate enough to not foil or majorly alter any of my plans, anywhere. I decided to spend the day visiting the Paro Dzong and the natural history museum, apart from walking around the city and possibly hiking up one of the many mountains around.

The National Museum of Bhutan is housed in the ancient and renovated Ta Dzong, which is a 7 storey tall watch tower built in the shape of a conch-shell. This structure is currently under renovation following some damages due to the 2011 Sikkim earthquake that rocked the entire Himalayan region. The museum has a good set of antique paintings apart from detailed notes and video on the traditional Masked dances of Bhutan. There are also some ancient bronze artifacts and other exhibits, dated thousands of years old, that trace the culture of Bhutan. However the highlight of the museum is the abundant information painstakingly put together on the natural history of Bhutan, its varied climatic zones, different types of forests in the country and the associated flora and fauna. There are some well preserved taxidermy exhibits of several animals and exotic birds.

View of Paro Dzong overlooking the cityPainting in the fort

The Paro ‘Dzong’ or fort is nearby, within walking distance of the museum and houses a massive structure with an imposing central dome that raises up 5 floors, and for quite some height above the surrounding structure. Since most ‘Dzongs’ are converted into regional administrative offices, there is little tourist focus and no information provided on the history or significance of the forts, which was a disappointment. Taking cue from several forts in India where sound and light shows are organised daily, it would be a great means to explain the rich cultural and historical significance of these structures.

Inside the Paro Dzong..Ancient dustbins made of tanned animal skin!

Guided by some locals, I decided to descend the fort through the back-entrance, that is generally used only by locals commuting to this part of the city. This route offered some stunning views of the entire Paro valley, along with the mountains in the backdrop that stand out with varied shades of pine and fir trees. From the heights of the Paro Dzong, one can clearly see the pristine waters of the Paro Chhu river entering the Paro city at a distance, running through the series of paddy fields on its path towards the fort, and eventually snaking its way along the fort walls and under the ancient foot-over-bridge towards the route that eventually takes it out of the city.

River Paro Chho flowing by the fort

Rear view of the Paro Dzong..Picture-perfect landscape.. view from fort

Descending from the fort and crossing the wooden bridge, I got onto a street that houses the art gallery with some of the best ‘thangka’ paintings that I had come across in Bhutan. ‘Thangka’ is a traditional Tibetan-Budhist painting done on cloth depicting a composition of several minute religious figures. Detailed with vivid colors it appeared to be machine printed to perfection, though in reality all paintings in display had been created over weeks and months of effort by the local artists. Stepping into a painters working room, I could see several in-progress works of thangka art and the kind of detailed sketching and preparatory work that goes into making each masterpiece, which typically takes anywhere from a couple of months to over a year.

I then walked right through the paddy fields to some more breathtaking views and passed some truly rustic homes. Reaching the other end of the valley, I decided to hike up the first visible mountain through a dirt track, which I learnt that eventually goes up to the Chele La pass, bordering the Ha valley. The mountains in the pass were now visible and exhibited fresh snow deposited from the morning’s change in weather.

A walk through the paddy fields..its lush green everywhere!

A set of rustic homes near fieldsA serene place near the house

As I started hiking up, I passed some children who were getting back home up in the mountains, after their day at school. Soon there was no sign of people movement and almost an hour of hiking alone got me to an area where I was greeted with some barking by a pair of wild mountain dogs. I moved perilously past the dogs after picking up a couple of stones to scare the dogs, or rather give me some false comfort! Walking further ahead, I crossed a small village with few huts, and to some louder barking, this time by some domesticated guard dogs in the village homes. Not seeing any people movement in the village, I moved ahead, towards a small monastery that I had heard about being on this route.

After covering some distance, the pack of wild dogs were growing stronger with a couple more additions and all patiently started following me, some wagging tails and others not giving any indication of friendship, or otherwise. Feeding them with some cookies didn’t seem to work with all the dogs, as the friendly ones ate them all up, making the others sulk more. There I was, walking like a pied-piper with a pack of wild dogs following me! Finally, with the monastery in sight at some distance and dusk setting in, I decided not to push my luck further and turned back on the way down. This time, I took the steep trail going down the mountain and managed to converge to the route inspite of missing the half-visible trail at several places. Back amongst some mountain homes I encountered a bunch of little enthusiastic kids who were spending their evening playing near their homes. They promptly greeted me and asked a lot of questions on my whereabouts, but also regaled with their knowledge of Hindi cartoon characters and their dialogues — Chota Bheem, Motu Patlu, Doraemon and the likes seemed to be the most popular Hindi versions that they watched!

View of paddy fields on the way backKids getting back from school

Coffee & pastry at Champaca cafe!Reaching Paro main city, I checked into the Champaca Cafe, an outlet serving great coffee, good food, a warm ambiance with a mini library and free WiFi — all great ingredients to attract travellers and there they were keeping the cafe busy through the day. While in Paro I spent a lot of time lounging around this cafe drinking loads of coffee, chatting with the travelers, reading and writing.

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