Paro Airport, A Festive Welcome ©Solange Hando
All visitors flying to Bhutan land in Paro, the kingdom's only international airport, roughly an hour's drive from Thimphu, the capital. At just over 2000 metres, it's the perfect place to acclimatise for at least a couple of days before tackling the high Himalayan passes further along the way.
But Paro is well worth a longer stop with much to explore in town and the surrounding area. On a clear day, you can see Jhomolhari, Bhutan's second highest peak, from the ruins of Drukgyel dzong up valley.
Traditional Street in Paro, Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Paro is a lovely little town, laid-back and welcoming, with colourful streets where small shops and houses are finely decorated with carved eaves and window frames. Some have auspicious signs painted on exterior walls, from conch shells and lotus flowers to undisguised phallic symbols.
There are Buddhist flags and prayer wheels, giant incense burners to appease the spirits and chillies drying in the sun. The river babbles over the stones, so clear you could almost see yourself in the water.
Paro Market ©Solange Hando
The local market is one of my favourite spots, barely a tourist in sight, just a fabulous display of garden produce spread on the ground or piled in bamboo baskets, from apples and beans to the ubiquitous chillies.
No one minds you taking pictures and there are plenty of smiling faces.
Taktsang near Paro ©Solange Hando
But for any Bhutanese, Paro holds a special place for it is here that Buddhism was introduced to the kingdom. Just out of town, the Taktsang monastery is one of the holiest sites in the country.
It's a fair trek from the valley floor, two to three hours depending on fitness, but you can ride ponies to the half way point and enjoy the view over the valley and across the rocky precipice to the monastery, known as the 'Tiger's Lair'.
Paro Dzong and Watchtower on Hilltop ©Solange Hando
Taktsang however is only one of the many religious sites with walls covered in paintings,intriguing horoscopes and prayer wheels you spin for luck. Look out for Kyichu Lakhang set among the paddies and of course, Paro dzong, where festivals are held, with its covered bridge and its old watch tower, now housing the National Museum where pride of place goes to an extensive and highly valuable collection of Bhutanese stamps.
The Bucolic Paro Valley ©Solange Hando
You'll find plenty of accommodation in Paro and around, from traditional lodges and farm stays to up market hotels, and you may well feel you'd like to stay a little longer in this peaceful valley.
Temples aside, there's plenty to do, from country walks to driving to the secluded Haa Valley over the high Chele La pass, relaxing in a hot stone bath or watching an archery contest, but don't forget, this is only the gateway to the small but amazing kingdom Bhutan...