23-25 March 2024

Today, a short 31-mile drive takes me to Paro, perhaps the best-known small town in Bhutan. Here, I find Bhutan’s tallest building at a staggering 72’, its only international airport, mystical Tiger’s Nest, and its crowd-drawing Paro Tshechu. It is where India’s Prime Minister Modi has been hanging out the past several hours. I am here to see all of it, unless rain, snow, or Modi causes it to be closed.

Our drive follows a spectacularly carved canyon and rushing river. Flags and banners of red, blue, yellow, green, and white decorate the entire length of the highway. To welcome us? Maybe, but kinda think it is a mixture of the festival and Modi, whose larger-than-life photos also line the roadway.

First, another Dzong

Between Thimphu and Paro is the Simtokha Dzong. The dzong is one of the oldest fortresses/monastery in Bhutan that has survived in its original state. It was constructed in 1629. Translated as “Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras” it is smaller than most fortresses in Bhutan.

However, its location stands atop a strategic location above the Thimphu Valley.  A legend says that the dzong provided protection against a demon which had disappeared into a rock close to the site and hence taken the name ‘Simtoka’ meaning “demoness in stone.” 

Typical square white-washed buildings with red-slanted roofs, ornate carvings and colorful paintings accent the architecture. The lower level of the three floors is the site of a number of prayer wheels and a group of 300 carvings made of slate which depict philosophers and saints. The main chapel contains a large image of Sakyamuni Buddha and 8 bodhisativas. The colors of the chapels are as vibrant today as I suspect they were decades ago. 

As with all previous temples, it is intensely decorated with flags, banners, butter lamps, incense, bells, idols, an assortment of gurus and Buddha, and water bowls. Tables overflow with offerings of food, milk, beads and scarves. Walls covered in murals depict the life of Buddha and legends of Buddhism. Every nook and cranny is decorated and crammed with objects and symbols.

Especially interesting is the cosmic mandala in the main hall. It is a painted on the ceiling within a square of mountain ranges and yellow squares. The circles within are painted in several colors representing the 12 months. An ellipse painted in red represents the sun’s path and the moons are also present.

Wish fulfilling Buddha

Wisdom to make the right choices.

We have visited many wish-fulfilling Buddhas. This Dzong is no exception. Here, one can meet a monk who will tell your fortune by the throw of three dice. In the presence of monks and Buddha, Gabrielle took her chance and threw the dice. What came up was three ones.

This outcome of a throw of the dice is extremely rare. The monk couldn’t get over her auspicious throw. Certainly, her wish would be granted. In fact, I imagine the monks and observers will be talking about it for years. Others commented that they had never experienced such a toss of the dice. The Monk couldn’t shake her hand enough.

Hence forth, it will be known as Gabby’s Dzong. And what better wish than “Wisdom to make the right choices.”

Tachog Lhakhang Old Bridge

We briefly stop at a traditional iron bridge spanning the canyon and river. It is no longer in use and its replacement runs along side of it.

This 600 year old bridge crosses the Paro River. This restored version came after the original washed away during a flood in 1969. Tibetan Thangtong Gyalpo built the historic brdge which represents one of 58 he built in Tibet and Bhutan. He also built a temple above the river.

Paro International Airport

The roar of engines dominate the air waves and overhead climbs a 737. It shouldn’t be all that exciting but in Bhutan, the departure and landing of aircraft is an event. We saw a couple planes dramatically soar over the mountains. While standing on the view point above the airport, we witnessed a 737 power down the runway and rapidly climb over the surrounding mountain peaks. Impressive.

Paro International Airport’s one runway lies at an elevation of 7,200 feet. Mountain peaks as high as 18,000 feet surround Paro Valley. Evidently, Paro ranks as one of the world’s most challenging airports and only 8 pilots hold certification to land at the airport. Or take off, for that matter.

Paro International Airport

There are videos on YouTube highlighting the approach into the airport, the plane’s rapid descent and track through the long, winding valley before landing onto a runway that is only 7,431 feet long and visible just moments before landing.  Purportedly, the highly trained pilots consider it a matter of pride they avoid the electrical poles and house roofs. Can take-off be much better?

I chose not to view the videos.  

Paro, Best Little City in Bhutan

Paro is a small town located in a deep valley on the banks of the river Paro Chu. This week its streets are bustling because of the ongoing Paro Festival. Wonderful examples of traditional, ornate Bhutanese architecture line the streets. Population is usually around 12,000 but the festival has drawn in thousands more. It is still, in spite of crowds, pleasant to stroll about its streets and soak up the culture and atmosphere.

Nyamai Zam Footbridge and Paro Dzong

Nyamai Zam Footbridge over the Paro River is a charming old wooden bridge downhill from Rinpung Dzong, or Paro Dzong. The dzong, built in 1644, represents the largest fortress in Bhutan. It is here that the holy Thongdril is stored in between Paro Festivals. Both bridge and Dzong are lit up at night.

Not far from the bridge and overlooking the airport is a great craft brewery, Namgay Artisanal Brewery. After a short tour of the brewery, we enjoyed a tasting of their 8 available brews.

The Red Rice Lager and Milk Stout were much better tasting than expected. The owner designed a great label for their Bhutanese brew. Brewery also serves food and has live music on the weekends.

There is a National Museum located in the tallest building in Bhutan. Also, the area does not lack for monasteries and dzongs. The vegetable market is interesting. However, for this visit we are following the festivities of the Paro Festival. Because of the festival, there is a huge carnival-type grounds with everything from lottery games, games of skill, and shopping. Everyone not at the dance festival seems to be there.

Main Street is good and stores are a no-hassle shopping experience. Not all stores take charge cards. And for a peaceful escape and wonderfully cold glass of draft Red Panda, stop by one of the Mountain Cafes in town.

Flying Paro to Kolkata

26 March 2024

Supposedly, attending a Tshechu and witnessing the sacred cham dances and receiving blessings from the monks bestows good karma and brings merit to participants, purifies negative karma, and ensures spiritual protection.

I choose to believe in good karma as I arrive at the airport. Wind is calm, clouds hang low on the mountains with new snow on a few peaks peeking through.

Check-in and security is standard. The airport cat eschews the body scan. A cappuccino later and we walk to the tarmac to board. Within minutes the engines roar and we are speeding down the runway and quickly climbing over the surrounding mountains. We bank left then a rather sharp right as forests and peaks appear below. No worries, Excellent Karma. Good pilots and dice-throwing Gabrielle is aboard.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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