Walking around the Bhutanese town of Paro, it's easy to be confused. Firstly it seems hard to believe that this rather tiny place is actually the second biggest town or city in the country and secondly, you can get confused about which century you've found yourself living in. The first impression I had was one of wandering through an almost medieval town where all the buildings looked SO old yet so well preserved. Then I started to wonder at how tidy and well laid out it seemed to be. Surely something so seemingly old would have degenerated into a rather more chaotic place by now? The mystery was soon solved; despite looking like it's been there since time immemorial, most of current-day Paro town dates back only to the 1960s. Stretching neatly for about 4 or 5 blocks in one direction and one mile in length, most of what you see today is really very new. However, at a time when my home country was building massive concrete monstrosities like Corby, Peterborough and Milton Keynes, the Bhutanese were constructing neat buildings made with traditional craftsmanship and to traditional designs. Perhaps the give away when seen from above - and you will almost certainly see it from above when visiting the Dzong and the National Museum - is just how tidy the grid pattern is and how uniform the pattern of green corrugated metal roofs appears.
The roads are wide and untroubled by much in the way of traffic. There's a single fuel filling station and even a roundabout - maybe two. And of course they drive the British and Indian way - i.e. on the left side of the road. There's plenty of space for parking and open spaces where children play out or locals gather to chat and pass a warm afternoon. There are scores of shops although all seem to be tiny and to be selling pretty much the same things - or rather two sets of things. Small grocery stores for the locals and vastly overpriced trinkets for tourists. If you find yourself weakening and your hand starts to twitch towards your credit card, ask yourself first "Is this really local?" and secondly "Is this worth the ridiculous price?" - try if you can, not to get carried away. We are not strangers to the region and so we knew that most of what we saw in the shops of Paro and Thimphu could be bought for a song when we got to India after our Bhutan trip was over. If you go only to Bhutan and will never have a chance to buy over-priced Nepali or Tibetan goods ever again, then go ahead and buy. But you will kick yourself when you get over the border when you find you've been taken for a mug.
The houses and shops are heavily decorated in traditional carved and painted wood. The windows are tiny - presumably to keep the warmth in during winter and many windows have metal bars across them. From what I could figure these were nothing to do with protection or keeping out thieves - the bars appeared to be for hanging threads loaded with fiery red chillies up to dry. My first thoughts were that the chillies were to ward off evil - you often see holy Basil, chillies and limes hanging up in Asian countries. Not so with Bhutan. They are drying chillies for the national dish, Ema Datse - literally chillies and cheese. This scary concoction uses chillies as a vegetable rather than a spice and will take your head off.
What else is there to see in the actual town of Paro? To be honest, not really very much. The museum and dzong are just outside the town and the town itself is more of a functional centre for the locals. Aside from the souvenir shops there's a mildly interesting weaving centre where you can watch local ladies weaving fabrics for the traditional local dress, the kira. A kira made on the traditional looms retails for about £1000 (at the time of our visit, that was about $1750) - it's a lot of money for a bedspread or table cloth! There are restaurants and bars but you'll be taken where your guide wants you to go and there's not a lot of opportunity to go 'off piste'. If you've arrived in Paro at the start of your holiday you'll probably change money in Paro's bank.
Whilst the town itself isn't very exciting, the attractions in the Paro area are excellent and most are reviewed in my journal so I'll not go into detail. The world-class Taksthang Monastery, better known as the Tiger's Nest, is outstanding and the Paro Dzong is a great introduction to the dzong concept. Two local temples at Kyichu and Dungtse are also very interesting and my favourite visit was to the serene and secluded Drukyel Dzong, ruined several decades ago and standing in the shadow of Mount Jumolhari.