Today we left our town experience behind, and have now come into rural parts of Bhutan. From Thimphu, we are going eastwards towards Bhumthang, which is considered to be the most sacred valley in Bhutan, lined with many monasteries centuries old. Bhumthang lies at the edge of Central and Eastern Bhutan, and is also an important place because the first king of Bhutan came from the region.
On our journey from Thimphu, which we have now broken at Wangdue Phodrang, we crossed the Dochula pass, at a height of 3125 mts, and then descended down to the 1200 mts of Wangdue. The pass is a beautiful area, ornamented with 108 chortens built as a memorial for 12 Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting the Bodos. Like everywhere else in Bhutan, this place too is marked by a soothing calm which quickly descends to the heart. Perhaps it is the vibration generated by millions of mantras chanted in the air which is responsible.
After two hours of descent, we landed in Punakha – the most remarkable and beautiful dzong of Bhutan, Punakha dzong stands here at the confluence of two rivers. Once the seat of both administration and monastic activities, it has now retired to become only the winter capital of the religious body. And what a beautiful capital! The coronation of the king takes place here. The main monastery where this happens, is an ornate hall, lined with thousand Buddhas all around and pays homage to Buddha, Second Buddha and Zabdrung. The three statues are towering, like all Buddhist monasteries I have ever visited.
After Punakha, we stopped at a village restaurant in Lobesa, a small hamlet close to Punakha. While the lunch took its time to get to the table (even though we asked for the menu of the day), we sat quietly, eavesdropping on a chat between two travelers – both Americans apparently. Given the pitch of the conversation in that small place, perhaps eavesdropping is not the right term. Anyway, the man was a TV producer, and the girl just someone moved to travel, and by her own admission, also moved to do something for the ‘suffering people’. That is the reason that took her to South Africa, for two weeks – but from what I heard, there was a lot of talk about surfing and bars, and I wonder what little suffering kids do there.
The TV producer professed to have produced some TV series, out of which the name ‘Cold cop’ stood out. He seemed to be giving a lot of dope on the working of ‘script writers’ community, but it seemed he was trying hard to impress the girl. The two of them soon got on to comparing notes on their travel experiences in the region. The girl seemed not to have enjoyed India at all, thanks to her experience with many touts. It was a little sad to hear that, even though the reality of it is all too familiar. So much that the country is blessed with, often does not come to reckoning because of what surrounds it.
She also did not enjoy her time in Nepal, with daily load shedding and low internet penetration being a constant annoyance. In comparison, Bhutan is a much better place. A better infrastructure, people who do not pester the traveler, and almost no crowds.
Tonight, we are staying in a river resort about 9 kms from Wangdue. Wangdue is a different place, old and crumbling. Realizing that its current location is not sustainable for growth (poor sanitation, lack of water), Govt. has decided to relocate the entire town in a place closer to the river bank. The land is allocated to the inhabitants of the old town, and they are given assistance in getting new houses built. To lay down the basic infrastructure, Govt has already built roads and a power station. It is a remarkable feat of planning and foresight. Something nearly impossible in the mammoth habitations of India.
In our conversations with Phub, and also through a fact book I purchased, a few things I came to know – Health care and education are both free, tax rate is 10% even in the highest slab. And court cases do not require a lawyer as people represent themselves! Also learned that the revered fourth king married four women, all of them sisters, after having lived with them for almost a decade, and having sired 8 children! Not surprisingly, this last fact did not come from Phub, but from a book written by a NY Times reporter, Barbara Corsette.