By Joe Cummings
Jan 6, 2020
Photographed by David Van Driessche.
On my first day in Paro, I learn to make ezay, the omnipresent chili paste that accompanies every meal and almost every dish in Bhutan. I’m in Paro Penlop Penjor Dawa Heritage Farmhouse, a restored 18th-century residence built for a Paro governor who once ruled over nearly all of western Bhutan. His descendants still own and inhabit the house today, catering to locals and visitors who pay to view the antique contents, and to experience authentic Bhutanese cooking.
After climbing a worn wooden staircase that is as steep as a ladder, we’re invited into a rustic kitchen with an ancient-looking wood-fired mud stove. The patriarch of the family, a tall, sturdy man with close-cropped steel-gray hair and a warrior’s bearing, takes charge of the ezay. Squatting on the smooth wooden floor, he tosses a handful of roasted red chilies, along with garlic cloves, Sichuan pepper, tree tomato, ginger and salt into a large mortar, and then mashes it all together in steady, patient strokes. He stops twice to sample a bit of the paste and, after correcting the balance of ingredients, passes me a spoonful.
The ezay is so explosively tasty that I’d be happy to eat nothing else for the whole meal. But soon all the other dishes are ready and we join the family on the floor to share the feast. We spoon food from iron cookware into our thick wooden bowls, and then use small handfuls of steamed red rice to scoop the contents from bowl to mouth.
The star of the repast is shakam paa, a spicy hash of dried beef and daikon radish, redolent with roast chilies and long pepper. Kewa datshi, a hearty dish of sliced potatoes, Bhutanese cheese and chilies, tastes like scalloped potatoes taken to the next level, especially washed down with jaju, a soup of milk, butter and turnip leaves. My taste buds and I feel right at home.
The common conception of a trip to Bhutan is a five-district circuit through Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang, made up of permitted drives between and guided day hikes from the increasing number of international luxury hotels. But on this, my second visit to Bhutan, I’m planning to focus on Paro. I’d stayed just one night here three years earlier, and want to experience more of a town that is so often overshadowed by Thimphu, its larger, busier neighbor and capital of the kingdom. On this trip, I will take a quick road trip there for the annual Thimphu Tshechu—one of the country’s biggest religious festivals with masked dances and many thousands attending—but this proximity only underscores the attractiveness of Paro.
Not only does the comparatively more rustic and real Paro offer plenty to do and see on its own, I also reckon this is my chance to spend more time getting to know one place, to explore, meet locals, and experience traditional Bhutanese healing techniques. I want to delve into cuisine beyond the fare typically served to foreigners in hotels certified by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
Even for a long-time resident of Thailand accustomed to chili-forward intensity, the homemade ezay presents a bold entrée into Paro food culture, and I’m hoping my long stay in the city will likewise bring more impact and depth than the usual circuit route.
Perched near the top of pastoral Neyphug Valley just north of town, with its massive whitewashed walls and tiered flattened-pyramid roofs, Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary could pass for a renovated Bhutanese palace or monastery, even up close. Monumental crimson-and- bronze gates guard a stone-paved courtyard, on the other side of which is a sturdy wooden bridge leading to another set of only slightly less grand doors. These open to reveal a foyer shrine where one is invited to “leave your stress behind” by lighting a butter lamp and incense stick on an altar set before a Wheel of Life mural. I know I’ll hold onto my stress for at least another day or two, but I appreciate the ceremonial gesture.
The property advocates real cultural immersion, rather than moving towns every second night—and this is exactly the kind of experience I’m looking for. Owner Louk Lennaerts spent more than two decades in Vietnam developing all-inclusive wellness resorts such as Fusion Maia Da Nang before turning his attention to Bhutan after a chance encounter with Bhutanese Rinpoche Gyalwa Dokhampa. The lama gave Lennaerts a copy of his book The Restful Mind, which, the Dutch hotelier says, inspired him to integrate his own inner journey with the project in Bhutan.
In a country famed for its five-star retreats, the Sanctuary is the only one where the entire wellness program, including all herbal treatments, massage, yoga, meditation instruction, and consultations with two on-site Bhutanese healers are included in the room cost. Signature treatments include kunye (traditional massage) and numtsug (hot oil compression). There are 10 therapy rooms, a sauna and a steam room, and a sizeable wood-floored room for yoga and meditation. A serene indoor pool with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of the valley becomes one of my favorite late afternoon spots.
My dedicated well-being guide, Dr. Thinley Om, checks my pulse and my eyes before prescribing a course of traditional treatments and herbal teas to boost my chi over the next few days. One is a moxibustion session in which little sticks of dried mugwort are burned close to meridian points of your head, neck and upper body. The pinpoints of intense heat moving in series has a strangely calming effect on me that’s only superseded a day later by a long soak in a traditional artemisia- flecked bath heated by fired river stones. A soothing Bhutanese massage, which felt like a hybrid of Burmese, Thai and Swedish techniques, rounds out Dr. Thinley’s prescribed therapy for the week—although I’m invited to choose as many treatments as I care to from the extensive wellness program.
For the Sanctuary’s dining room, head chef Parash Chhetri takes just about all the produce he needs from rock-walled gardens and greenhouses on the premises, or occasionally from local farms, turning out creative, daily-changing four-course lunch and six-course dinner menus. Only meat and fish are brought in from the outside, a necessity in a nation where slaughterhouses, fishing and hunting are banned. One afternoon I revel in a fresh garden salad, shamu datshi made with handpicked wild chanterelles and local farm cheese, and jasha maru, a spicy Bhutanese chicken stew. For breakfast I enjoy red rice porridge and gondo datshi—eggs scrambled with butter and cheese, Bhutanese style.
All 24 guest rooms, each with an ample veranda, boast sweeping views of the valley and villages below. Across the way at a higher elevation stands Eutok Samdup Choeling Goenpa, a picture-perfect Buddhist monastery established in the 15th century.
Though it’s not on the tourist circuit, the Eutok abbot allows guests from Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary to visit the monastery with a guide from the resort. It’s a 10-minute SUV ride or a stiff 40-minute hike—the latter option proves well worth the effort to meet the 70 resident monks, most from six to 20 years old, who study Buddhadharma, learn to recite scripture, and meditate here. I visit at midday, and sit for an hour in a sanctuary lined with manuscript cabinets and deity altars, absorbing the peaceful soundscape of chanting. Afterwards I’m invited to the monastery canteen for a quiet yet light-hearted meal of rice and vegetable curry. The abbot himself pours tea for the young monks after the meal, a humbling gesture.
Of course, I’d be remiss in skipping the one monastery on everyone’s bucket list. My humility and chi are both put to the test when I make the trek to revered 17th-century Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, built precariously over a cave where, legend has it, Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years in the 8th century. Near the trailhead, I catch a first glimpse of the mist-shrouded Buddhist sanctuary clinging to the side of sheer rock cliffs, and gasp at what appears be a near-impossible climb. It is almost a full kilometer above Paro Valley, and as my mind adds that to the four kilometers of ascending trails, I almost turn around and leave.
But it’s a perfect day of blue skies, drifting white clouds and crisp mountain breezes. The trail, though difficult, is lined with fragrant blue pine, and scattered rows of yellow, orange and magenta wildflowers. The altitude makes hiking a slow march, but three hours later I’m walking barefoot inside hallowed chapels filled with bronze deities and incense smoke, alongside throngs of monks, local pilgrims and happy tourists.
Not very Bhutanese of me, but if ever an accomplishment has earned me a beer, this is it.
So I head into town to visit to Namgay Artisanal Brewery, which has only been open for two years and reflects the younger generation’s growing interest in global cultural trends. By all appearances it is set to become the country’s premier craft brewery, and its adjacent spacious wood-and-stone brewpub, NAB Bistro, hosts live music from local bands with names like Crystal Dew Brothers, Baby Floyd, and Blue Phantoms.
I meet owner Dorji Gyeltshen, who learned to homebrew while studying hotel management in Switzerland. After graduation, he set up Namgay Heritage Hotel in Thimphu and ran it for five years, “because that was the deal I made with my father,” he says. But his dream was to build a brewery. “I invited someone from Brooklyn Brewery to stay in Paro for a few months and show me how to take production up to 2,000 liters per batch.”
About 80 percent of the ingredients in Namgay beer are locally sourced, Dorji says. The water comes from a tributary of Paro Chhu. The base malts, hops and yeast are imported for now, but Dorji will soon begin malting locally and hopes to work with local farmers to experiment with hops one day.
Today he’s producing six different types of beer plus apple cider, of which I taste Red Rice Lager, Dark Ale and Milk Stout. All three are tasty, with the smooth stout my instant fave. While most of the fare in the brewpub is Europe- or India-inspired, a few Bhutanese dishes stand out, including hogay, a crunchy, spicy salad of sliced cucumber mixed with chili flakes, tomato, cilantro, onions, Sichuan pepper and crumbled Bhutanese cheese. It goes very well with the Red Rice Lager.
The following day I stop in at Your Café, annexed to a newly restored 15th-century farmhouse in Shaba, for a perfectly made latte. The renovated mud-walled structures, collectively called Neyphug Heritage, include the café, a business center and shared workspace, an art gallery, and an outdoor farmers market. Conceived and overseen by the Neyphug Trulku, the complex donates all proceeds to support ongoing restoration of Neyphug Monastery, which was totally razed by a 2006 earthquake, and its monastic school. Serving a short menu of Thai, European and Bhutanese fare, it’s the only eatery in Paro that’s fully vegetarian.
The heart of the city is a matrix of narrow streets and older buildings emblazoned with hand-painted, pastel-hued Bhutanese Buddhist icons—treasure vase for longevity, parasol for wealth and protection, and lotus for enlightenment, among others—and ornately carved and painted eaves jutting from each floor. It’s easily navigated on foot or bicycle. Near the town’s main produce market, my gho-clad guide Sonam Tobgyal Dorji brings me through an unmarked door into Momo Corner, a local legend of Paro street food. The rustic dining room’s collection of padded benches and low tables is filled with locals.
Sonam orders, and soon we’re sharing plates of fresh-steamed momos, crescent-shaped ones containing minced beef, and round ones with chopped greens. Eyeing them for size, I reckon I’ll enjoy munching three or four, but end up gorging on 10. Dunking them in the house chili paste, a coarse, brick-red ezay, makes them especially moreish, and I recall that for the last finished episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, in which he ate his way across Bhutan, his first meal in-country was momos. “It’s enlightenment,” he gushed about what would remain his favorite dish. “It’s your third eye opening, man.”
Looking back on my week in Paro, I feel like all senses have been graced by bursts of enlightenment. From sinus-clearing ezay to the soul-cleansing goenpas, fortified by Dr. Thinley’s herbal magic, I’m ready to descend from the Himalayas and take on urban life with renewed vigor.
Five days is about the right amount of time to take in the best Paro has to offer, including the day hike to Paro Taktsang, or, if you’re more ambitious, an overnight trek to the much less-visited cliff monastery of Bumdrak.
Visas are required for all nationalities except citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives. To receive a tourist visa, you must book travel worth US$200 to $250 per day per person, depending on the season. Licensed Bhutanese travel agencies such as Bhutan Soul Journey (bhutansouljourney.com), the main agent for Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, can easily make the visa arrangements when you book your visit through them.
You don’t need a route permit for Paro or Thimphu, but travel in the rest of Bhutan requires a Restricted Area Permit, available via Bhutan-affiliated travel agencies.
Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary bhutanspiritsanctuary.com; doubles from US$1,100, with introductory rates as low as US$650 through 2020.
Momo Corner Opposite Post Office in downtown Paro; 975-1747-1589; momos from US$0.70 per plate.
Namgay Artisanal Brewery & NAB Bistro fb.com/nabparo; tasting flight of six beers and one cider US$5.
Paro Penlop Penjor Dawa Heritage Farmhouse Carpenters Road, Paro; 975/1775-3585; lunch from US$15
Your Café & Neyphug Heritage fb.com/yourcafeparo; dishes from US$4.