RETURN TO BHUTAN
Yet again I find myself at the Drukair check in counter of Bangkok’s Suvarnhabumhi airport, at the unreasonable hour of 4:30 a.m. Twelve Bhutan bound clients make up my entourage. The usual grumpy Thai staff processes our bags and tickets and scrutinizes visas, not the best introduction for the happiest place on earth. Last opportunity for good coffee I caution, as finding good coffee in Bhutan about at difficult as finding a good steak in India.
Caffeine craving temporarily satisfied, we board the daily flight from Bangkok to Bhutan. Drukair is the only airline to service Bhutan, and does so with a handful of flights from Thailand, India and Nepal. As befits an airline serving a country known as the last Shangri La, and the land of Gross National Happiness the staff try hard to please, with abundant smiles and food and even booze for those with want it with breakfast. I hear a curious sound as we taxi, a sort of pumping sound and ask a flight attendant the source of it. I am not alarmed, though am surprised when not long after take off the purser asks me to come with her to explain the problem to the pilot. I’m hustled up through business class cabin into the cockpit. “No problem” I hasten to say as pilot and I introduce ourselves, just curious about the sound. It’s a hydraulic pump at work; sometimes the duration is longer so passengers notice it, but very standard procedure. The friendly pilot and mechanic (they carry a mechanic in case they need to make unscheduled landing in area where there may not be mechanic) provide me with so much detail about this I’m unable to absorb it all, but I’m more than satisfied we are flying with a tiptop airline. Drukair pilots need special training to land in Paro, Bhutan the world’s most challenging runway and the planes engines have additional power to get them off the ground at the airport’s 7400’ elevation.
We fly 3 uneventful hours, and then land for refueling in Bagdogra, India. Only 35 air minutes separate Bagdogra from Paro, and this is the leg of the flight where you really get good value for your money in terms of ticket price. Shortly after take of the pilot points out Everest, Kangchenjunga and K2 of the left side of the plane, the spine of the Himalayas like a jagged saw, as pointy white peaks jut above a bank of soft cumulus clouds. Despite the lit seatbelt sign, all the passengers stand and move to the left side of the plane, so that I almost expect the plane to list, which of course it does not do. Not too many minutes later, the plane in descends into cottony clouds and the view is lost, while simultaneously soft and melodic chanting music emerges from the PA system. When the plane emerges below the cloud cover, it is soon apparent we are flying down a long narrow and curving valley. Green forested mountains studded with 3 story stone and timber houses and vertical clusters of 108 white prayer flags appear right below or more alarmingly to the right or left of the plane. There is not any flat land to be seen, as the folds and creases of the mountainsides undulate far as the eye can see. The entire cabin is transfixed, people murmuring “oh my” and “how lovely” as the plane continues to seemingly float down the valley at what appears to be a slow speed, so fine is the view. Bhutan is about as verdant as it ever gets now, after the summer rains, and this lush terrain is all around the plane, or so it appears. The homes are now level with the plane, and many even above the plane, a most unusual feeling for those of us inside this metal tube, where the expectation is to look down to view these sights, not crane ones neck upward to see them.
When finally is seems we can get no closer to the ground without touching it, Bhutan’s sole runway appears and the wheels of the plane make smooth contact with it and all 170 passengers begin to applaud. The applause of those who just appreciated a virtuoso performance, rather than the applause of thanks they are still alive I have at times witnessed and participated in elsewhere in the world. Of all my many landings in Bhutan, this was by far the most sublime, and without a doubt most memorable. For the rest of the day my clients talk about this, what a grand introduction.
As always, I am thrilled to have returned to the real Magic Kingdom.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Leupold owns and operates Champaca Journeys, offering small groups cultural tours to Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia and Mexico. Mr. Leupold worked as a landscape designer until the travel bug took over his professional life, now his commute to work takes much longer, though he has absolutely no regrets about life as a tour operator.