Monday, March 25, 2019

Mankad - Stop It!

Mankad - No other word evokes so much emotion amongst the players and spectators in Cricket as this one word. So much that one such incident has made me sit up and conceptualize this article in the middle of the night! Here is my take on it.. 

The Incident
For those who don't know cricket, this article is not for you, thanks for coming!

For those who follow cricket, but wonder what the fuss is about, Mankad is basically when the bowler starts running in, realises the batsman at the non-striker's end is out of the crease, and runs him out. Pretty simple, huh?

The Emotion
It's wrong, it's ridiculous, it's against the spirit of many negative emotions usually accompany just a mere mention of this word..

Let's break it down - For people to feel emotion, there needs to be a protagonist and an antagonist, with a stronger antagonist evoking a stronger reaction. People have realized this a long time ago. Hence parents tell us stories as kids with "Good" and Bad" characters and the best movies have strong villains. In Cricket, why not pitch the principal participants one against the other? They are duelling as part of the game anyway, why not frame them "Good" and "Bad" to create a story to hook the audience to your product (or 5 different products to be precise - T10, The Hundred, T20, ODI and Tests)?

Emotions associated with the Batsman - Anger, Frustration, Disappointment, Righteousness...

Emotions associated with the Bowler - Guilt, Shame, Ridicule, Contempt...

The Protagonist and The Antagonist
Another important concept to understand is the notion of certainty. The audience should not be confused who is the "Good" and who is the "Bad". Depending on the maturity level of the audience, they should either realise at the beginning of the story (like the young kid), within a short time (like in masala movies), or at the maximum before the climax (like in thrillers). Otherwise the audience will get confused and the story will be consigned to the realms of an "art movie". For all practical purposes, Cricket falls under the masala movie category that needs to appeal to a wide ranging audience. It is also the reason people don't really get Philosophy, which is closer to reality, depicts people as both good and bad, and deals with greyish concepts.

Let us understand the key players, pun intended. It is very obvious from the beginning of the story that the Batsman is the Good Boy and the Bowler is the Bad Boy. [While people with higher maturity levels will start arguing at this point, heck you are just poking your nose into my script..] Good Boy is playing the game within the rules, minding his own business, when the Bad Boy comes along, does something naughty to create trouble for everyone including the Good Boy and when the Good Boy starts crying and the Teacher comes along, says he is playing within the rules! How dare you, Bad Boy Bowler!

The Line
That brings us to the concept of The Line, which is central to the rule.. "The Line" that everyone in cricket 'agrees' should not be crossed became the butt of all jokes after Australia started liberally using it, stretching it, manipulating it and what not and other teams started creating their own versions, as any self-respecting nation would do.. This concept reached its height at the infamous Cape Town ball tampering scandal. "The Line" is synonymous with "The Spirit of Cricket" and is analogous to the "Good and Bad" in Philosophy. You think you understand it, but you don't..  Gotcha!

The Laws
And finally the rule itself, that MCC the self proclaimed guardian of cricket, sits around a board room to decide how the game should be played in the maidans of Kolkata. Smart children create their own rules to play in the backyard, but I think we have already established that most of the people watching cricket are not inherently smart, especially with their time, especially those young fathers watching test cricket...

Anyway, coming back to the story, the MCC Laws state thus -

Stumped - which is essentially the same thing at the other end

Run Out - which is essentially the same thing at both ends

No Ball - which is essentially the same thing if done by the bowler

Mankad - bad, bad, you naughty boy, look away! (the law technically covers this under run out)

As you can see, the above is certified to be confusing by lawyers and challenges every single grey matter in your brain, so let me simplify for you..

The Rule
As with anything in this world, there are written and unwritten rules that needs to be adhered to.

Written rules
The Good Batsman at the striker's end can cross the line to whatever extent he thinks he can get away with, without getting Stumped.

The Good Batsman can run anywhere he likes inside or outside the Pitch or the Line or even the Boundary, without getting Run Out. Once he gets run out, the focus shifts to Good Fielding or his persona changes to Lazy Runner (Mind you, he is still not a Bad Batsman!).

The Bad Bowler can cross the line before delivering the ball, in which case:
1. The batting team gets 1 more run
2. The batting team gets 1 more ball
3. The batsman does not lose his wicket
4. The batsman gets a free hit to make fun of the bowler and swing his arms without worrying about losing his wicket the next ball - *&€*&*$@!!
5. The bowler gets a black mark - No balls are specifically recorded and tracked for shaming him long after his career is done (Remember that guy Ishant Sharma?)

The Bad Bowler can do naughty things, like Mankad a batsman at the non striker's end, when the batsman is innocently walking/ running the length of the pitch without paying attention to the bowler. How dare you Bad Boy!

Unwritten Rules
The Good Batsman can evolve into a Smart Batsman if he moves outside the line before/ after the ball has been delivered using the crease, stands outside the line to counter the swing or back up by stealing a few steps at the non strikers' end before the bowler has bowled the ball - To the extent he is admonished by the team and the commentators if he doesn't do that and gets run out! Which idiot will not exploit the freedom to the fullest?

If a few Good Batsmen do not score many runs, it's a Bad Pitch that warrants ICC attention. How dare they tilt the scales towards the Bad Bowler! What messages are they giving to the millions of impressionable young kids watching the game? Do they want them to become Bad Bowlers when they grow up?

The Good Batsman must be begged multiple times to stay within the lines, and if he doesn't listen, a decent guy should simply overlook his inadvertent act. IF YOU DO NOT LISTEN TO ME, YOU WILL BECOME A BAD BOWLER!!

The Result
Over the last 120 years, The Gentleman's game has morphed into a Batsman's Game. I cannot think of any other sport that is so heavily weighted towards one set of players. [Chess is slightly more advantageous with White, but that's adjusted by alternating the colour through a tournament]. The rules have been heavily tweaked to favour the batsman, increasingly so over the last few years. Even the terminology has biased connotations now that I think of it. You score a boundary or a century, but lose a wicket. Let's make it more even to enjoy the game more.

Incidentally, it was the second instance for the batsman in question to be Mankad-ed, and he reacted with the same fury and claimed moral high ground as with the first one, so clearly some people never learn their lessons, don't believe they have done anything wrong or are used to complaining about Bad Boys in school. This also shows that the current rules are inadequate and puts the onus squarely and unfairly on the bowler for identifying and penalising the batsman breaking the rules. Imagine what would happen if the batsman is responsible for telling the bowler each time he has overstepped?

Broadly, in the age of cutting edge technology, why should fielding teams even 'appeal' for an OUT like LBW, caught, run out or Mankad?

The Solution
Dear ICC, there is a simple solution. If you can use technology to deduct 1 run for each foray outside the crease before the ball is bowled, it will eliminate the problem and take the focus off the bowler and umpires in such situations, while the batsman might also be happier off not losing his wicket. Second instance in the same match might be worth 2 runs etc.. but that's my mind wandering way past the current reality. Don't you have a Code of Ethics that this should be part of?

At the very least, hope you realize soon that a good movie requires a good antagonist...

As for Mankad, let us STOP villifying the Bowler for holding the Batsman accountable to the same extent that he is!

Random Access
The search has just begun!!!
(Used to be an opening batsman)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bhutan Trip - Day 6 - Paro Tiger's Nest

My daughter woke up feeling better this morning, which was good news to start the hectic day involving a hike to the Tiger's Nest, probably the most recognized monastery in Bhutan. The breakfast was Indian continental fare, so we feasted on puri and potato curry, gobi bhajji, in addition to toast, corn flakes and by now my favorite drink black tea.

We went on a 20-min car ride to the base of the Taktsang Monastery (actual name of Tiger's Nest) trail. We were apprehensive about how the kids will react to the hike. My 6 year old daughter held up surprisingly well and walked up all the way up and down the 6 km trek (one way). My 3 year old son meanwhile didnt take well to the horse dung littered along the way and wanted me to carry him. We managed to overcome his initial resistance and convinced him to walk along, distracting him with some impromptu games whenever he started whining. We packed the essentials for a hike with kids, but that made the bag an additional burden. In hindsight, almost everything we packed was used, so no regrets on that front!

My wife and I alternated between the kids to keep them entertained, as they are not at an age where they can appreciate the natural beauty around them that is hard to see anywhere else in the world. We wound through the pine forests and with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains in almost every turn. There are horses available to ferry people halfway up the trail where there is a big prayer wheel. The horses are well trained, but we decided to trek the whole way up, earning quite a few raised eyebrows and praises from passers by, and we were actually faster than a few of them. We stopped for an occasional drink from the water bottles the guide carried for us. Beyond the halfway point, there is a cafeteria, where we got some biscuits, tea and coffee. It took us about 2 hours to reach this midway point.

After the stop over there, I decided to buy an orange juice bottle, which was one of the best decisions I have ever made in life :) It was a master stroke for the second half of the trek, which is even harder with rugged steep terrain. The orange juice acted as the reward for my son to walk a further 100m each time. The trail was mostly rocky paths laid crudely in the mountain, and the mud mixed with water and dung can be quite slippery in places. About an hour and a quarter from the halfway point, we came to a viewpoint from where the Tiger's Nest seems almost within arm's reach. It offers a great photo op and this is where most of the photos in the internet come from. However, due to the geographics, we have to take a flight of steep stairs down to a 100m waterfall, before climbing up steeply a few hundred steps to the monastery.  Apparently, the trail was improved after a fire at the monastery in 1998. There were 2 deaths in this part of the trail in the recent past, prompting the authorities to install railings. Climbing down with kids on the narrow stairs, I cannot imagine how scary it would have been without railings, especially those with children.

It started drizzling just as we entered the Tiger's Nest. This was a monastery founded by the second Buddha, Padmasambhava, born on a lotus in Srilanka, who apparently flew here on a tiger from Tibet, hence the name. There is a cave inside the monastery where he had meditated for 2-3 months and laid out a prophecy foretelling the arrival of the unifier of Bhutan. There are 3 sanctums inside, including one of a Spoken Buddha. You cannot escape feeling the calmness and peacefulness inside, to the extent my daughter started meditating!

As we finished our rounds, the rain had intensified, as did the kids' hunger that is directly proportional to their crankiness. Rains so far in Bhutan have not been more than a mild inconvenience, as "intense" showers hardly make you drenched. It is just the start of the rainy season, so I could be wrong, but we decided to commence the trek downhill in the rain without an umbrella. My son started acting up and wanted me to carry him. A soothing doze of Milo didn't seem to calm him down, so thus began the trek back carrying him in my arms. It didn't take long for me to become exhausted at that altitude, even before I reached the top of the stairs near the viewpoint. Our guide Karma (a very common name in this country) didn't think twice to start carrying my son and walking. He has a son of the same age, so he definitely can relate to what I was going through I guess. He was so agile through the steep portions of the trail that I had trouble keeping up with him carrying my child! We ended up alternatively carrying my son all the way down. I was so thankful that he didn't insist on being carried on the way up! We stopped for lunch at the cafeteria for some decent vegetarian buffet (apparently, it is the same dishes here every day, but tourists don't have to worry about that point).

In all, it took about 4 hours up and 2.5 hours down including the midway stopovers, at the end of which I was sure about 3 things:

1) I was incredibly proud of my children for trekking on their own
2) There is definitely something divine about the place that you can only feel when you are there
3) DO NOT under-estimate the trek when you are travelling with kids.

Our guide told us an interesting story that every time somebody does something naughty in the vicinity of the monastery, it rains in the area. A part of me couldn't stop wondering how things would be if a similar thing applies to Chennai, maybe a hurricane every day!

After the exhausting hike, we did a quick tour of Paro downtown, with a stop at the vegetable market to pick up some local delights (like chilli and cheese of course) to try back home. A Bhutanese dinner with rasmalai rounded up what was an amazingly lovely trip of Bhutan that I would highly recommend everyone. When I think about the trip, some things are just meant to happen in life :)

Bhutan Trip - Day 5 - Thimphu/ Paro

The day started off on a not so great note, with my daughter and wife both down with food poisioning symptoms. The pharmacies nearby were closed, so we commenced our journey after a light breakfast.

First up, we went to the National Handicrafts emporium to browse through the work of the local artists. While generally costlier than what you would find in the town markets, we still spent a few tourist dollars on some items. Clothing items were too costly for our liking though.

Next, we went to the Painting School, where they teach the local students 13 artistic skills, and give them a stipend while they study that typically is for 6 years. There they are taught a wide range of skills, including drawing, painting, sculpting, stitching, designing etc, and the stipend accrued over the learning years can be used to start a small business upon graduation. This also acts as a means of keeping the at-risk youth engaged in meaningful work.

We made a hurried trip to the National Postal Museum, which we had to abort halfway through following another vomiting episode for my daughter. But, the highlight of the place is that they print customized stamps with your own photo.

Instead of the Folk Heritage centre that was on the agenda, our guide recommended that we visit a more general museum called Simply Bhutan. There, they had their own guides explain to us the Bhutanese way of life, from the way they build their houses without nails!, the tools they use at home both in the past and the present, how their houses look like and the life history of the Kings. We could also try our hands at archery (and no one could hit the target from 5 feet :P) and toss some coins into the Wishing Well. The whole experience was so engaging that my daughter forgot her illness for a while. My son didn't want to leave the grain grinder and taking coins out of the wishing well with a magnetic stick. Given the hour long journey to Paro, we decided to have lunch inside Simply Bhutan itself, where they treated us to a sumptuous spread along with a nice live dancing performance.

Tired from the morning sojourns, both the kids slept off on the journey to Paro. Paro is another lovely city in  beautiful valley, cut through by the river Pa Chu. The main town is effectively made up of two main parallel streets. However, there are a lot of houses and other attractions higher up the mountains surrounding the valley, which is mainly used for farming.

First, we went to the National Museum, situated in a building that used to be a watch tower for the Paro Dzong some distance below. On the way, we passed through a wooden bridge without any nails that can carry cars and trucks. The National Museum comprises of 4 galleries, including one with various masks used in the folklore as part of the Tsechu and their significance, one gallery on old paintings, one describing the flora and fauna of Bhutan, and the final one with statues. It was a compact but interesting museum. Unfortunately, they dont allow cameras inside.

Next up was the Rinpung Dzong below, which was no different to any of the other Dzongs visited earlier. Paro was one of the most powerful Penlops earlier, which is one of the only three Dzongs in the country to have a separate watch tower.

Afterwards, we went to the Kichu Lhakhang, the oldest temple in town built in the 7th century. It comprises of the old temple with a relatively newer annex built in 19th century by the Queen Mother. The old temple has a blessed orange tree which is believed to be blessed in the past and bears fruit all through the year, in an area where orange trees do not grow much at all due to the weather conditions. One of the Indian grannies visiting started praying to the tree in front of us and an orange fell at her feet, creating a bit of a flutter. Bhutanese are highly spiritual and superstitious, so everyone around the old lady got excited. They said the oranges from the tree dont fall down even in very high winds, so they felt that this was a divine blessing to the old lady. The lady in her 70s was a bit flustered by all the attention, saying she was just praying for the well being of all people.

We finally made our way to Dewachen Resort, in a fairly remote hillside outside central Paro, but with beautiful views of the snow capped mountains and a star filled nightsky. We had a light dinner with a busy day coming up, with probably the biggest test of our stamina.

Bhutan Trip - Day 4 - Gangtey/ Thimphu

Today started off with a bright red light waking me up. When I opened the door at 5.30am, it was the sun rising on top of the Himalayas! What a fabulous opening to the day. We have a long drive ahead of 6 hours back to Thimphu today, so we had a nice breakfast comprising of toast, cereals and su ju (butter tea, another local favorite) before heading out.

On the way, we saw more yaks and a snow covered Himalayan peak, incredibly for the first time in 4 days. We traced back our journey, winding through the mountains, passing Punakha before heading up the mountain to Dochla Pass. This day, the weather was more conducive and we could see a couple of mountains of the Higher Himalayas amidst the clouds. We enjoyed some cakes and pastries at the mountain top restaurant stop while taking in the views.

The 6 hour journey through winding mountain is not for the weak stomachs, as my daughter was nauseating the whole way before vomiting just prior to reaching Thimphu. The Bhutanese are so conscious of their environment that we were requested to bring back the vomit bag to the bus for us to dispose off in our Thimphu hotel! Salute! We went to a local restaurant for lunch. I realized from talking to the restaurant staff that they need to serve at least 6 dishes along with rice for it to be considered a meal and the wait for guests to waste a portion of it to feel that they are satisfied. But it was all too much for us after the long journey.

After lunch, we visited the Thimphu Dzong. While it is just like other Dzongs in architecture and functioning, what makes this Dzong unique was the fact that this contains the King's office and the most fabulous rose garden I have even seen! White, red, purple, yellow - you name it, there were big beautiful roses, all with its own scents, carefully tended to by the royal gardeners. There are roses everywhere outside and inside the Dzong.

Still floating in the aroma of its rose scents, we made our way to the Weekend Market, where farmers from all over the country come to sell their fresh produce, incense sticks and more. We grabbed a couple of bamboo baskets before heading across the river to the souvenir shops to do the touristy thing.

As our final program of the day, we went to the Archery Stadium to see the games, which is the national game here. Archers with traditional bamboo bows and more modern composite bows line up on different parts of the stadium and were vying for glory on either side. While the modern archers were more successful in finding the target, it is no mean feat aiming at a small Styrofoam board 140m away! After 30 mins or so, the kids got fidgety and we had to coax our guide to drop us at the hotel.

Bhutan Trip - Day 3 - Punakha/ Gangtey

Waking up with the Himalayas in front of you in its morning glory is a visual treat bar none! This is one of the (many) memories of a lifetime. Kids getting up at 5.30am as well and asking you a thousand questions doesn't quite allow us to fully enjoy the scenery around us, but I sneak in some time on the patio, enjoying the views and getting some writing done.

After some nice breakfast by 8am, we bid our hosts Tashi Delek (adieu) and start on our journey for the day. A 30-min ride takes us to the start of our hike up to a temple. We cross the bridge and walk past vegetable plantations on the hillside. My daughter was game for the hike, but my son started protesting after the first few hundred meters. My wife and myself had to alternate carrying him and coaxing him to walk in between. It wasnt too steep, but was muddy and slippery in places.

The 3-storied temple on top was adorned in tantric style, with all God figurines in masks. At the top, it was a beautiful view of the Mo Chu river meandering along the Punakha landscape dotted with terrace farms. The way down was a lot more easier, especially if you have to carry your kid. The whole hike took about 2 hours and was well worth the effort. White water rafting was offered near the start of the trek, but at Ngultrum 10,000, it was a tad too costly and the kids were too tired after the hike, so we had to skip. Btw, Rupee is 1-to-1 with the local currency Ngultrum and is readily accepted everywhere). Ngultrum is also not useful outside of Bhutan, so we spent all local currency we had except those as souvenirs.

Another 30-min ride through roads that would struggle to fit in one and a half cars took us to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, spanning 140+m across the Po Chu river. We savoured a local cucumber with chilli powder as we took a short 5-min walk to the bridge, with 2 bees annoyingly stalking my son and myself. The bridge is a nice photo-op, but we were intrigued by a cow grazing grass in the middle of the swift flowing river. Even the guide had no idea how it got there, but the cow didnt seem to mind it one bit!

Another 30-min ride back down the Po Chu river brought us to our lunch stop at Bhabee Restaurant, Wonakha, a bit outside Punakha, where we were served with Indian fare. The Phulka and dhal deserved accolades, but the curd seemed a bit odd, so downed it with some pickle.  At the restaurant, we saw the cutest little baby kitten, with its mother guarding the baby ferociously, chasing away a few dogs as they veered too close for comfort.

After lunch, we embarked on a 2-hour drive to Gangtey. Halfway through, the roads gave way to patchy mountain roads, challenging both the driver's skill and the car suspension. The roads near Gangtey were especially tricky to navigate. We also saw some Yaks along the way, which was the highlight of the road trip.

Gangtey Gompa temple is another majestic old shrine headed by the 9th re-incarnation of Penlop (local ruler). It consists of a resident monastic school as well. The legend has it that the people here didnt trust the head monk due to which he went to Tibet. After that, the village was ravaged by wild animals to the extent that the villagers went to Tibet to recall the head monk and soon things came back to normal.

From Gangtey Gompa, you get a fabulous view of the Pubjikha valley below, where black neck cranes migrate from Tibet to roost in the winter. Interestingly, the cranes circle the Gangtey Gompa temple 3 times before landing in the wetlands and also before they migrate back to Tibet in spring.
There is a crane information centre in the valley to educate the local population and conserve the environment. There is an injured crane named Karma residing there. The wetlands are not without danger for the cranes though, with foxes and leopards spotted with night vision cameras.

We stayed at probably the only hotel in the valley of about 6000 inhabitants. My kids started playing with a local girl and her cats, and the rest of the evening went in a jiffy with shrill screams of running kids and playful cats. The dinner had so many dishes that we were overwhelmed, but everything tasted wonderful. In Bhutan, you can never fault the people or the food. It does get quite cold in the valley @ 2900m even on a summer evening, so it was early bed for us with maximum heater on.

Bhutan Trip - Day 2 - Punakha

After a nice breakfast comprising of bread toast, baked beans, aloo paratha, yoghurt and fruits,we set off on a 3 hour drive to Punakha. It was a lovely drive up the Himalayas to Dochla Pass (3120m) and then down to Punakha (1200m). The views are spellbinding and the gentle curves winding its way up makes you feel very close to nature and gives plenty of time for reflection. Near the top, there are a few settlers who were Tibetan refugees, given the land by the third King. Interestingly, some accepted the land and hence have Bhutanese citizenship, bu some refused in the hope of going back and they do not have citizenship. Shortly after that, we came up to an Immigration Point. It is the first time I
have come across Immigration within the same country. Bhutan has immigration points between regions to track the movement of people and goods.

Shortly after passing immigration, we were at the highest point. 108 stupas and a temple are a sombre reminder of the lives lost fighting the Bodo terrorists in 2003. The view from the top of the Himalayan mountain is nothing short of stunning. It was drizzling a bit with fog rolling in, so we were denied a view of the Higher Himalayas with peaks up to 7350m visible on a clear day.

Coming down through the mountains, we were literally inside clouds at times! It was full of beautiful views of the cloud covered mountains and pine trees giving way to warmer climate and more diverse vegetation as we drive down.

Punakha is one of the most prosperous regions and was the capital until 1970. It still acts as the winter capital for the monks. However, the roads are not as good, with more potholes than asphalt in some areas. You can also feel the heat here and the lower reaches of the mountains being more barren. There are two main rivers - Po Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female), with most of the valley used for terrace farming.

We had lunch near the Punakha Dzong, with Bhutanese menu - including ferns, Emma Datshi and Kewa Datshi. While the ferns may not be for everyone's liking, Emma Datshi was fast becoming my favorite menu item. After lunch, we crossed the small bridge to go into the Dzong, which is split equally into an administration and monastic portions, with 3 courtyards. The first courtyard is the biggest and includes admin offices. The courtyard is also used for local festivals (Tshechu), where a big painting is hung from the central tower and shown to the public. The second courtyard is where the monks live and the third houses a temple that contains the dragon relic. A public portion of the temple contains the royal seat of the King and Abbott. There is a clear demarcation between the executive (headed by the King) and religion (led by the Abbott).

After the Dzong, we take a rough ride to the Temple of Fertility, since the kids didnt want to trek up the hill. The bus slowly navigated coarse muddy roads to the top of the hill where the temple is situated. It was created by the Divine Madman, who mized religion with indulgence. The story goes that the Divine Madman saw a young cowherd in the Dochla Pass who was scared. He realized
that there were lot of demons there whom he slayed and dragged the head of the demon who had changed into a form of a dog to the hillock. The demon then tried changing into a beautiful girl, but to no avail. The local name of the temple literally means the "Temple of the Dog", with a black stupa at the entrance marking the spot where the demon dog lay buried. People without children come here to seek blessings for a child, hence the more common name.

We checked into Hotel Lobesa, which seemed to be probably the only hotel in the small town. But they more than made it up with large rooms with a patio overlooking the valley, the kindness and warmth of their staff and their attention to detail. They even offered the kids customized menu options and the kids lapped up the chocolate milk shakes, mango juices and ice creams that came their way.

We had time to kill in the evening, so we took a stroll down to the market about 1km down the road. Almost every stall was selling the same stuff - fruits & vegetables, rice, chilli, packed puri and paani puris. Yes, you read that right - it came as a surprise to us as well! There were quite a few general provision stores as well. We came across an ice cream store so treated ourselves to some. We slept off early with a nice view of the Himalayas.

Bhutan Trip - Day 1 - Paro/ Thimphu

We were all very excited about this day. My daughter couldn't sleep and I slept for 3 hours fleetingly. Waking up your kids at 3am for a 7 hour flight is never a good idea, but we didn't have a choice so we just mentally prepared ourselves for a challenging flight and day ahead.

Our flight took us from Singapore to Paro, with a 40 min stopover at Kolkata. Halfway into our journey to Kolkata, my son started getting fidgety and decibel levels increased. This was our first flight with our two kids without a screen in front of them. My wife and myself just exchanged helpless glances. So much for parenting in the 21st century! Thankfully, the siblings didn't get into the usual fight mode, so that saved us further embarrassment. Breakfast was served at 8am, which seemed like eternity with hungry kids onboard. However, the food was surprisingly tasty. I had my first taste of Emma Datshi, a spicy curry made of chili and cheese, one of the signature dishes of Bhutan that is a Must Try. All of us not so much as tasted but devoured the offerings. I picked up a few keywords in Dzongka (the official language) through the in-flight magazine.

Based on discussions with some recent travellers, I was looking forward to the landing at Paro, which is the 5th most dangerous airport to land in the world, with supposedly only 8 pilots approved to land there! I was unfortunately stuck in the aisle seat due to the kids' preference for a window seat, which is not great for visuals but the images stuck in my brain now are still awesome. It felt as if we just grazed the side of the mountains as we approached the runway. There was much less turbulence or direction changes than I envisaged, but that is probably due to the skill of the pilots!

The Paro airport is postcard-purrfect, located in a picturesque location surrounded by the Himalayan ranges. Getting through Immigration was a breeze and after greeting our guide, we were on our way in a comfortable van. The road between Paro and Thimphu (capital) was very modern, not something that I expected of a mountain road. We stopped on the way at the Iron Bridge built by a Tibetan saint who had supposedly built 108 such bridges in the Himalayas. Bhutan itself was unified as a country by a Tibetan monk who migrated from Tibet due to a Buddhist sectarian conflict. He brought with him a lot of culture and tradition, including a relic of a dragon (hence the name "The Land of the Thunder Dragon"), which was the source of conflict between Tibet and Bhutan for centuries. But the Bhutanese pride themselves in never being colonized by a foreign power. This also explains why the country is dotted by numerous imposing Dzongs (fortresses) that gave rise to the official Dzongka language as well.

The Iron Bridge is majestic, although a modern bridge has been built next to it for daily usage. Another interesting phenomenon is that almost all the bridges and mountains have prayer flags tied to them. This is because the Bhutanese have a strong belief of "enlightenment by seeing". So the logic is that anyone who passes through the bridges or looks up at the mountain will be blessed (actually, its so conspicuous that no one can ever avoid it!). the prayer flags come in 5 colors signifying the 5 elements, and in 3 varieties - all inscribed with Mantras. The plain flag is used as a memorial to the ancestors and is usually on a pole in a mountain as it is more private.

We also went down to the Pa Chu river (Pa stands for Paro and Chu means water) and touched the cool, rapid waters. The water from the mountains was so pure that I couldn't resist taking a few sips. We then made our way to the point where two rivers connect with each other (one originating in Tibet and another in Bhutan). There were also 3 Stupas (memorials) there, one each in Nepalese, Tibetan an Bhutanese styles. It's a must stop location for a photo shoot.

Onward onto Thimphu, the capital, the guide felt at 100,000 population, it was overcrowded. Thimphu is a city nestled in a beautiful valley (like with most other Tibetan cities), surrounded by hills on pretty much all sides. The city itself has expanded in the recent past as people from all parts of Bhutan migrate into the financial centre. While the buildings in the newer town definitely look more modern, the architecture is very consistent. Traditionally, the houses had 3 stories - the lower level for the animals, the middle level for the dwelling and the top level for drying grains. While these have made way to apartment blocks typically 3 stories high, there isn't much that suggests that the Bhutanese way of life has changed much. Being from a different part of the world, seeing a vehicle every few minutes hardly comes across as being crowded to me, and I couldn't fully appreciate the guide's perspective.

We went to the Chorten Stupa in the center of the town, which was dreamt up by a monk. He couldn't live to complete it, so his mother spent her money, time and energy to complete it. It had a prayer hall with big prayer bells containing 100,000 mantras each. This also serves as a community hall for the old people to congregate, chit chat and pray together. The stupa is laid out in 3 floors, representing the main branch of Mahayana Buddhism as well as the two sects.

We then went up the hill to see Buddha Dordenma, the biggest Buddha in the world at 162m in a place called Kuenselphodrang. This is still under construction, containing a 5-level temple complex inside. Just entering the complex, I felt a certain calmness and peace that was worth the trip! With a great view to boot giving a 360 degree view of Thimphu, this is definitely a must visit place. We then visited the oldest monastery in Thimphu, built in the 12th century, where people with young kids come to pray for children's well being. Locals not attired in their national costume is not permitted though.

In the evening, we went to check in to Hotel Pedling in the heart of town. The hotel room and service were all very warm and cosy. We went for a stroll in the market street next to the hotel and bought ourselves the national dress and some souvenirs.

To round off a lovely day, the dinner was awesome, with the Dal especially reminding us of home. The Bhutanese staple is rice (comes in brown, red and white varieties), dal, chilli (as a vegetable) and some other veges, including the exotic ferns. The chilli and cheese (Emma Datshi) and potato and cheese (Kewa Datshi) appears in almost every meal and its definitely worth its salt. After a very positive and better than expected first day, I was really looking forward to the rest of the trip.