TRAVEL: METRO PLUS/SAMTSE, BHUTAN


Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Saturday, Feb 10, 2007

Metro Plus Puducherry

Samtse symphony
SHEILA KUMAR finds a haven in the
 Land of the Thunder Dragon


SCENIC BEAUTY A bird's
eye view of Bhutan

The crossing into Bhutan was made so seamlessly, we were in the Land of the Thunder Dragon (the capital letters add to the mystique!) before we knew it. We entered from the south-western tip, from Siliguri in sub-Himalayan West Bengal, to use the weatherman's terms, and the topography was seamless, too; emerald-hued, dense, verdant. The road was rough in patches, flanked on both sides by pineapple orchards and acres upon acres of tea gardens; the landscape dotted with tea pickers bent over green bushes, rather like something out of a Tourism Department postcard. `Welcome to Bhutan,' said the bright banner above the Duar, the traditional gateway, which of course, had dragons emblazoned on both sides. The border was manned by polite individuals who made short shrift of their work and sent us on ahead. Into Samtse, squatting 800 metres above sea level, with an astounding and heart-warming 72 per cent of the district under forest cover, the Chamuchi River winding its unhurried way past the place. Into a peace and quiet that has to be experienced to be believed. We passed the occasional man and woman in brightly sashed ghos and khiras, the Bhutanese robes, and smiles were happily exchanged.

Samtse is not exactly the most populous of Bhutan's districts since the mountain-dwellers tend to shun what they believe are the `disease-ridden' plains; the locals are a mix of early Nepali settlers and the Lhopu tribe; the latter lot supposed to predate the Tibetans who came in from the north. They lead quiet, almost cloistered lives here, growing cardamom and oranges and farming their land.




A 400-year-old monastery

The local gompa, monastery, is believed to be about 400 years old. The interiors were dark, serene, almost austere, with the customary larger-than- life statue of the Padmasambhava, rows of wicks in silver urns fuelled with yak butter, a brace of prayer wheels flanking an ornate chandelier, thangkas depicting the life cycle of the Buddha... and, of course, photographs of the King of Bhutan and the Dalai Lama. Outside, a thin mist had descended on Samtse. Little Lama boys were bent over a small cemented pond, their eyes lit by laughter. Conversation proved to be an insurmountable barrier given their total lack of Hindi; moreover, we found even their gestures inscrutable! We'd come to town on the day of the weekly haat, the bazaar. Vendors had spread their wares out on cloth in the maidan, an interesting mix of Bangladeshi cloth, Tibetan kitsch, Maggi noodles, Amul cheese and all the famous Druk sauces, tinned fruit (superior to anything we have in India) and jams from Bhutan.

An eclectic meal

Lunch was an eclectic meal, comprising the local taashi bread (unbeatable for its creamy taste), momos and rotis with good old moong dal. The locals, we found, spoke good Bengali but didn't seem at all inclined to linger and chat, thus allowing us to glean very little of the actual character of the place.

On our way back, we stopped at a little distillery where the affable manager showed us around. Despite the presence of huge storage vats, distilled liquor arrives here and is actually sealed, labelled and sent on; premium brands like Bhutan Mist jostled for space alongside exotically named stuff like Dragon Rum and Jachung Brandy.

One again, a border check, fast but thorough for all that. And we were back in north Bengal, Shangri La's cadence of hills and dales receding behind us in a shroud of mist and jungle. Now that the west has discovered Bhutan, one fears that despite all endeavours to restrict tourist traffic (2005 figures were 14,000 people), the Land of the Thunder Dragon will sooner or later be over-run by hordes. Alas and alack, but there it is. 'Tis called progress.

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