From time to time I get the urge to just get away from it all; from the daily routine and the every day habits of a working life and living in a big city. Often this urge has no particular reason other than to remind myself what a great place this country actually is - if I don't feel I'm stuck in it. And what better way to gain perspectives on one's life and appreciate my own country other than to travel to another part of the globe?
Although with the world becoming smaller and the march to modernity is painting every corner of the earth with the same brush, looking for that remote location where the people, language, culture and traditions are very unfamiliar is getting increasingly difficult.
So I thought I'd try Bhutan, where I am at the moment of writing this. A place whose name conjured much mystery and until recently, only existed in my memory as colourful stamps during my childhood philatelic days along with exotic places like Magyar and Mongolia. A faraway place where the menfolk wear knee length tunics, handstitched boots and fancy colourful hats. Where they eat butter and cheeses made of hairy yak's milk. And where their cheeks are permanently sun kissed.
Getting there was surprisingly easy considering there's no Bhutanese embassy where one could apply for a visa. The important thing is to have a tour operator arrange everything via internet and email and turn up in Bangkok where one has to catch a connecting flight on Druk Air (Bhutanese one and only airline) to the town of Paro.
Bhutan is a tiny country of around seven hundred thousand people locked between the Himalayas of Tibet to the north and India to the south and about the size of Switzerland. The adventure begins with the arrival in Paro, the only town in the country that has a straight enough valley floor that could accommodate a short runway. According to the guide only eighteen pilots were licensed to fly to Paro as landing the plane is a tricky exercise involving skillful manouevering between two ranges of dangerously close hills. A slightly cloudy day could mean a return to Calcutta 45 minutes away, which is where the flight transits, for refueling and another attempt at landing that does not risk crashing into the hills.
I was fortunate enough to experience a flawless landing though the clouds obscured a much anticipated sight of the Himalayas. However, the cold biting wind upon arriving left me in no doubt that I had left the tropics behind me along with the noise and the pollution.
Here is where the earth meets the sky in a landscape still largely unspoiled by human arrangement: a picture postcard country of mountains and valleys with pristine rivers in between. Of pine trees, terraced rice fields and uniform chalets nestling in the slopes and scattered on the plains. While forming the backdrop are mountains in different shades of blue with some covered in permanent snow.
Where the menfolk and the boys wear belted tunics and knee high socks while the women and girls wear ankle length wraps often of woven textiles and short coats with contrasting sleeves. Where the kings, the present one who is barely thirty years old and the previous one, still in his mid fifties, are so handsome they would outshine any sinetron star.
Moreover, being concerned with their people's happiness they exude great kindness and evoke much respect. I note that the handful of tourists that go there are largely Westerners past the peak of their lives and enjoying their twilight years, thus conforming to Bhutan's tourism policy of low volume high quality; in other words not friendly to backpackers and other budget travellers that might spoil the land with their littering.
Indeed, exoticism here does not come cheap. But then for a sight of massive monasteries perched precariously on the edges of cliffs and where red robed monks chant and pray it's a trip worth saving for. After all what other countries have towns with names like Thimpu, Punakha and Gangtey.
My first overnight stay in Bhutan was in a remote farmhouse lodge in the middle of the rice terraces in Punakha. To reach it one has to cross a swaying suspension bridge over a river so clean that trouts can clearly be seen swimming in the water.
Upon arrival beautiful Bhutanese employees in long checkered tunics greet the guests in the local language, bearing friendly smiles and hot towels. The evening was chilly and I was grateful for the cup of hot apple cider with honey. The lodge manager came to greet us enthusiastically.
'Apa kabar?' He was Indonesian.
Suddenly I felt at home already.
(Desi Anwar, March-April 2009. First appeared in The Jakarta Globe)