Paro: In and About Town

dscn5074Paro, although not a must visit destination in Bhutan, still has a number of interesting places worth a look. There are a number of dzongs in the vicinity of the tourism-oriented town, including one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, and it also claims ownership of the country’s National Museum, International Airport and the valley that houses Bhutan’s most wondrous treasure, the Tiger’s Nest.

Our visits to Paro were many but short in duration. Our first encounter (discounting our initial arrival in to the country at the airport) was to the National Museum on our third day in the country. This turned out to be our only major attraction on that day and unfortunately the museum, which had been temporarily shifted to a smaller, nearby location due to renovations to the usual building, fell below our expectations. The inside contained only four small exhibits detailing the history of Bhutan’s Buddhism, displays on the country’s wildlife and geography and a minuscule collection of handcrafted clay figures. After an introductory video explaining the varied dances and masks worn during important festivals in Bhutan, we flew through the rest of the museum’s few displays in a few short minutes. There were a handful of items worthy of photographing but, as is irritatingly the case in areas of importance in Bhutan, cameras and phones are prohibited. Considering this tiny attraction was the only area of note we were taken to for our $250 that day, we couldn’t help but feel a little short changed. One small consolation was the views afforded from the outside of the museum where one can see Paro off in the distance, resting in the crook of its valley.

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Paro, as seen from the National Museum

We made a flying visit to the town of Paro next where we had dinner at Soechey Restaurant. The food on offer was of the usual Bhutanese fare and was relatively tasty in comparison to some of the meals we’d previously had in the country. However, the staff inside were so stunningly miserable that it brought the atmosphere of our visit down to a level that was distinctly uncomfortable. We ate up as quickly as possible and were relieved to beat a hasty retreat from the place.

Our guide Jimmy then allowed us a little while to wander the town and look for souvenirs. The town is nothing much to look at but it is quite well stocked with shops catering heavily towards tourism and as such is a good place to pick up good quality gifts at reasonable prices. The stock and value of the items each store holds varies wildly so don’t settle for the first purchase you set eyes on, shop around for a bargain. There are plenty of places that sell things at marked down prices although our guide did try and nudge us initially towards more expensive places with which he obviously had some sort of connection. Try and have small notes available for your arrival as some stores will struggle to give change on small purchases made with large denomination notes. Smokers should also note that Paro is a good place to pick up cigarettes if you are running low – although there is a tobacco ban in Bhutan it is loosely implemented. Note that many of the smokes available are Indian brands that can be rather harsh.

On the way to our hotel (the highly recommended four star Tashi Namgay Resort) where we would while away the remainder of our day, we did make a quick stop at a local recreational area where we were able to watch Bhutanese people partaking in a spot of archery  which is the country’s national sport. Participants aim their bows (now of the futuristic compound variety you will see at the Olympics, much to the chagrin of some traditionalists) at targets a whopping 100 metres away and show astonishing accuracy considering the distances involved. Although most shots miss, they come agonisingly close to the intended target. What makes this all the more astounding is the fact that their opponents are actively encouraged to try and put them off their shot by shouting at and antagonising them and generally trying to break their concentration. Anyone who is talented enough to loose their arrow home is awarded a prayer flag-coloured square of fabric that denotes their score which is then hung from the belt of their gho.

We made stops at two further points of interest in Paro on our final day, during the few hours before our departure flight. First up was a stop at Kichu Lakhang, a quaint little temple that is one of the oldest in Bhutan. First built in the 7th century, the temple is said to be constructed on the knee of a giant demoness which, in conjunction with hundreds of other temples across Bhutan, serves to keep her pinned beneath the earth. As we arrived, our guide noticed that there was more activity than usual around the site. Colourful bunting was hung from the gates as we entered the site and everywhere you looked you were greeted by busy folk sweeping the pathways, cutting the grass and attaching prayer flags and yellow awnings to every available surface. Around us were manicured orange trees and pretty floral displays, all of which indicated the arrival of some important ceremony.

As you cross the threshold of the temple, the grotesque face of the demoness it helps to subdue can be seen imprinted on the largest  flagstone you encounter at the doorway. The interior of the temple was quite small with a decorative style in fitting with the other temples and dzongs we had frequented throughout our visit. Monks scurried busily around us, hefting furniture and tidying the place up, giving us frequent frowning glances that soon had us feeling a tad uneasy. As we left the temple a confused-looking police officer greeted our departure with a disbelieving stare and an explanation for these put-out looks. His sole job for the day was to block any tourists from entering the temple owing to the important festival that was about to begin there. We had, however, caught him off guard as he had nipped for a quick toilet break and accidentally sneaked inside at the most opportune moment! Inadvertently we had become the last tourists to visit this temple for the seven days that the festival was to run for! We apologised profusely but the officer seemed to take his error in good humour, chewing a mouthful of doma and treating us to a bright red toothy grin.

By this point in the day our remaining time in the country was growing short. We made a final, fleeting call at Rinpung Dzong which we had been able to observe illuminated at night from our hotel for the past two days. Very much reminiscent of a fortress, the sizeable grounds of Rinpung are many and spacious and often play host to important religious festivals and processions. It houses fourteen important shrines and chapels although some interior areas look less pristine and poorly maintained when compared to other dzongs such as Tashichhoe and Punakha. The style was again identical to previous temples we had visited meaning the the most notable part of this visit was the impressive views on offer from one of the balconies and not of the structure itself. Just as people complain about being ‘templed out’ in areas around Asia, by our final day in Bhutan we had definitely seen our fill of the local dzongs!

A short walk down a sloping hill from Rinpung’s entrance leads to a raging riverside and a picturesque old bridge which affords the departing tourist one final chance to snap a memorable photo of their trip to Bhutan.

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