The Paro Tsechu Bhutan travel guide
A long time ago, I sat on the Nepalese border looking across the Rolwaling valley deep into Tibet, and resolved one day, to attend an ancient Tibetan festival, like one of those shown in the early TV documentaries; the festivals with the long trumpets and lines of monks in splendid costumes.
Decades later that quest would become a reality, as I sat with the locals enjoying the pomp and ceremony of a Tibetan Tsechu, accompanied by the drone of ceremonial horns. However, it would not be in Tibet but in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, at the 5-day Tsechu of Paro, commemorating the Buddhist saint Guru Rinpoche, who brought Tibetan Buddhism to Bhutan.
The first day of the Tsechu was held in the inner court of the Rinpung Dzong, the fortress-monastery located on a small bluff overlooking the mountain township of Paro, Fig2. I sported a tie and jacket, as all the locals were dressed in their finery and best clothes of national costume. By mid-morning it was packed, but there was only a handful of foreign visitors. The opening day was special, partly as it was held inside this magnificent medieval monastery, with all the atmosphere generated by the splendor and excitement of the occasion, and partly for the enactment of the black hat dance Fig4, where monks in brocade costumes danced the sacred thunderbolt steps; one of the few rituals where the participants are not hidden behind ceremonial masks.
The remaining four days of the Tsechu were held outside, in the festival grounds just above the Dzong Fig2, where there was a small square bounded by an amphitheatre on two sides seating the spectators.
The highlights over the four days were:
♦ The dance of the lord of death and his consort, where a giant puppet of the Great Shinje Fig6 was escorted on the shoulders of priests to his throne on the square, where later the faithful came to get blessed by the priests,
♦The enactment of the judgment of the dead Fig7, where the soul of each man was weighed to determine the future of his soul. You could feel the tension in the audience.
♦The ceremony on the last day, where around 3am in the morning, the Thongdrel of Guru Rincpoche, a huge embroidered silk tapestry, was unfurled for the final rituals and dances Fig8. The proceedings had to be concluded before sunrise, before the rays of the sun touched the tapestry.
Over the period of the Tsechu, I found a number of the dances were repeated or appeared to be highly similar, so on some afternoons I did slip out to visit some of the other places of interest surrounding Paro.
Some Other Bhutan Highlights and Excursions.
♦ Bhutanese stamps.
I was most impressed with the collection of Bhutanese stamps. There were talking stamps in the form of miniature records that could play the national anthem, jigsaw stamps that formed a photo of an English football team, Holographic stamps, scented stamps, sculptured stamps, small stamps, large stamps. I was so impressed that I went and purchased of a set of 1975 gold embossed round stamps Fig9. at the Thimpu weekend market.
♦ The National sport of Target Archery.
Target archery is very popular in Bhutan. Not the normal kind of archery conducted over the Olympic spacing of 70 paces, but an archery competition held over a distance of 140m. From where the archers stood, I could barely make out the circles on the small target. The Bhutanese seemed to have the same problem, as team members stood preciously close to the target shouting instructions to the competitor. The bows they used were not traditional wooden bows, but high-tech Olympic archery bows.
♦ Haa village via the Chele-la Pass.
I went on a one day excursion to the village of Haa in the adjoining valley via the Chele-la pass at 3900m. The 45km approach to the pass was one of constant switchbacks through pine forest and Rhododendron stands, with some clearings which provided panoramic views of the Paro valley. I was surprised how massive the mountains were in this region. At the pass, the landscape was more open with snow on the ground, prayer flags flapping in the wind and there was a panoramic view of the snow peaks with the sacred mountain of Jomolhari (7314 m), located 50km away on the Tibetan border. I got out and walked around in the snow. It didn’t take long before the effects of altitude took hold, and I had to slow to catch my breath. The guide told me the Chele-la was the highest road pass in Bhutan. The rest of the journey to Haa took about an hour and half, passing a few isolated hamlets, some Yaks grazing in a field, and many dogs.
Haa lies in a narrow valley with steep heavily forested slopes. A small river flows through the valley floor, and there is a number of scattered temples and Dzongs including the 7th century white and the black Temples guarding the southern entrance of the valley. The township is compact and small; it has traditional buildings and can be traversed by foot in a few minutes. The village had a more frontier feel than Paro, and there were farmers working in their fields of millet and barley.
♦ Thimpu, Bhutan’s Capital.
I overnighted in Thimpu, (a 6 hour drive from Paro), on the way to Wangdue Phodrang in central Bhutan and again on the way back.
Located in a shallow valley at 2350m elevation, Thimpu had that special feel of a small mountain town, with many examples of classical Bhutan architecture, but the downtown area had incorporated a lot of the global trappings.
At the Memorial Chortan, (for the late King Dorji Wangchuk) I enjoyed the spectacle of enormous prayer wheels being turned by older citizens, who with their other hand were spinning personal prayer wheels, all the while chanting mantras.
♦ Visit to Central Bhutan via the Duchula Pass.
I took an extended day excursion to the area around Wangdue Phodrang, a small town with white washed wooden shops and restaurants in Central Bhutan. I found the small farming villages and the visit to a traditional farmhouse very photogenic and attractive and would have enjoyed staying in this area a few days longer.
On the way we stopped for tea on the Duchula pass at 3050m with its fluttering prayer flags, 108 small stupas, expansive tea rooms and snow on the ground. It was cold under a clear blue sky. The air felt thin and a little windy, but I loved the feeling. The Duchula pass was a good vantage point from which to view the distant Himalayan snow peaks on the Tibetan border some 80 Km to the north.
Some General Observations.
♦ Travel to Bhutan is only open to groups. But you can go in a group of one. The group will be afforded a guide, a car and driver, and assigned hotels, all for a fixed daily rate.
♦ If you want better accommodation or want a particular hotel, then there will be additional fees.
♦ The assigned guides can be of varying experience. The tourism council of Bhutan lists the tour guides, and senior tour guides and their tour operators or townships at http://www.tourism.gov.bt .
♦ Airplanes can only fly in and out of Paro during the mornings when visibility is good, as clouds tend to form later in the day. Thus it is quite possible that the planes may be delayed or even cancelled for that day. So it is advisable to allow extra time at both beginning and end of the stay. If the departure is delayed for a day or more, then the government will bear the cost of the extra days.
♦ If the Bhutan visa needs to be issued from Bhutan, (copy can be emailed) then it will be sent about two weeks before arrival. This can be an issue if Bhutan is part of an extended international tour.
♦ Arriving from Delhi, Kathmandu, Kolkata , the best view of the Himalayan range is on the left hand side and departing on the right.
♦ I did not go trekking in Bhutan as I have previously spent a total of some 6 months trekking in Nepal. Some of my lifetime highlights.
♦ The sun can be intense, creating dark shadows and bright highlights, resulting in high contrast images. Fill-in flash will help, but must get advise from guide regarding social sensitivities.
♦ Note, that my top photos are not published here, as they are reserved for my book.