Ticket to Bhutan

This is a third year-end trip that I have taken with my school friends. Since this story is going to be a longer one, keep a cup of coffee/chai and some munchies handy.

Our procrastinating mind always leads us to making same mistakes again and many of them happen during the travel plans. After multiple con-calls, date changes and flight reschedules, we had arrived on a 7 day itinerary from 27th Dec to 2nd Jan for Bhutan. Travel Triangle helped us to come up with a budgeted 10k package and we were counting the days for our first international trip.

Day 1

There was a long day ahead of us. First would be a 5-hour flight journey followed by a road trip to the Indo-Bhutan border for the same amount of time.

कुर्सी की पेटी बांध लें… अब हम उड़ान के लिए तैयार हैं

Our flight left Bangalore at 5 AM in the morning as per the scheduled time and I managed to reach Bagdogra 20 minutes before my friends arrived via Mumbai. The Bagdogra airport is an Army base and has very fewer amenities around the area. We were totally hungry and the most logical option seemed to go to Siliguri which is about 10km from the airport. The Siliguri City Center Mall appears like an oasis when compared to the area around it. Since we didn’t want to take any risks with appetite just before starting the journey, we settled for KFC burgers, though the food-court there offers a variety of options for a sumptuous food. One of our friend Abhishek was yet to arrive that evening and rest of had to kill 3 hours of time at Siliguri.

There is always chai pe charcha when you have some time to kill

We headed to Phuentsholing at 4:30 PM in the evening with a quick pitstop for yummy dumplings on our way. The temperatures were already nearing 10 degrees and it was pitch dark at just 5:45 PM. While all the members squeezed sat inside, our Innova moved quickly on a narrow country road. Our stay was already booked at Hotel Kasturi, 100m away from the Bhutan gate and we made it to the hotel by about 9:30 PM. Since it was already too late to explore the places around, we decided to have dinner at the Kasturi. Our destination was right next to us and the night passed quickly while we dreamed about the scenic beauty of Bhutan.

Day 2

The first look at the Bhutan Gate
Not just snow, December is the season of oranges too

Our tour operator All-Ways had sent a person along with us to help us get the entry permits. The permit office is at a walkable distance from the gate where we need to individually apply for the permit. It is always better to have an agent since they take care of all the hassles and get the process done quickly. The application for a permit should contain our itinerary, a passport photograph, an identity proof such as passport or voter’s ID and a photocopy of the same. Once our documents were verified, we need to wait in a long queue at the permit counters for obtaining the permit.

Since December is an off-season, there were comparatively fewer people yet the place was crowded and chaotic. After exchanging some Indian Rupee for Ngultrum(Bhutanese currency aka Nu) we were ready to head towards Thimpu. Ngultrum has 1:1 exchange rates with Indian Rupee and most of the Indian Rupee denomination are widely accepted in Bhutan. Most of the shops/hotels ask to pay the bill only by cash (Indian or Bhutanese) so it is suggested to keep sufficient cash in hand for the entire trip.

Money…. Money…. Money

We met our chauffeur Sonam and headed towards Bhutan. He was mostly quiet at the beginning and continue to chew Paan while we admired the beauty of the new country. Time at Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India. The cellphones will have no reception and opting for a temporary Tashi cell SIM can be handy. We were awestruck by the cleanliness of the roads and disciplined drivers. The life on both sides of the border was really contrasting.
The immigration check-post is about 5km away from the Bhutan gate where our permits would be stamped. The road to Thimpu was covered mostly with fog as we moved to higher altitudes. Distinct colored prayer flags were in most of the places and a conversation about them was an ice-breaker for us to talk to Sonam. The colored flags were used to ask for blessings and prosperity whereas a bunch of 108 white flags would be used to mourn and pray for the departed souls.

Flags blessing our way

The temperature was dropping and it was too dark while we were more than halfway far from Thimpu. When Sonam overheard us talking about snow-fall, he pointed towards the edge of the road where there was white powdered snow throughout. Since it was too dark, we could just imagine the scenes around.

Our stay for the next two nights was at Amaa suits which is a bit outskirts of Thimpu city. Again due to off-seasonal trip, we got rooms in this 3-star hotel for really less cost. Each suit included two bedrooms, bathrooms, hall and a utility area. It was a firsthand experience for most of us in a 3-start hotel. The beds even had a bed-warmer which kept us warm from the negative temperature outside. We reached the hotel at around 8:30 after a quick dinner. Since it was too dark already, we were yet to see the true beauty of Thimpu.

Day 3

The day started with a freezing cold morning and temperature was still in negative at 8:30 AM. I was struggling to capture the beauty around us from my shivering and numb hands. I had brought a DSLR with me for the first time and didn’t want to waste a moment to explore and capture some pictures. But that’s also the sad part of being the camera person in the group. You might not be in most of the pictures 😅

Our hotel was in the valley surrounded by tall mountains. The grass on them had all dried and the hills were flaunting their golden beauty. Our driver Sonam was asked to pick us up by 8:30, but he was more than an hour late. The sun sets very early (at around 5:30) and most of the tourist attractions would close by as early as 4 PM. It was our only day at Thimpu and we wanted to make the most out of it. After a quick breakfast (it was prepared late, but we gobbled-up), we headed to the Memorial Chorten also know as Thimpu Stupa. This was built in the memory of king Druk Gyalpo. The place had an entry fee of 300 Nu. The three-story building stands tall in the middle of a garden and houses many sculptures and pictures of the king and Budha. The stupa looked even more vibrant covered with all the colored flags. One can get the bird’s eye view of the city standing in the gallery of the second floor.

Buddha Dordenma, a tall Budha statue built overlooking the city of Thimpu was our next destination. The statue was built for the prosperity and well-being of the people of Thimpu which is the reason why they have a plan of keeping 25 thousand small Budha statues inside the majestic Bhudha. The statue is situated on the edge of a tall mountain and can be seen from most part of the city. A tall statue and snow-capped mountains on the foreground really seemed like a wallpaper coming to life. The calm expressing on the face of the statue takes anyone to a trance state for a fraction of a second.

The next place was Changangkha Lakhang monastery. This is one of the oldest monasteries in Thimpu. My advice is to find a guide or a local person/monk who knows about the place. Inside of most of the monastery looks the same yet they have a unique story tied to them. Most of the places have designated guides who enthusiastically explain the place history in either Hindi or English.

The national animal Takin can be seen in the National Takin Preserver in Bhutan. There are very few in number along with few Thar in this park. The entry ticket price was slightly higher i.e. 300 Nu, but seeing these animals from so close is worth the money. I could click some really good pictures here and it seemed like the animals were actually posing.

The Thimpu Heritage museum is at a distance from the monastery and shows the ethnic lifestyle of people of Bhutan. There is a huge 3 storied house which shows the purpose of each of the floors. The entire house is made of mud-walls, wooden floors, and wooden roof. This provides comfort from the harsh weather outside. The ground floor called Okhang acts as a stable for the cattle whereas the rooms by name Barthog and Phuna in the first floor is used to store grains and wine. The second-floor houses bedroom, prayer room (Choesham) and Kitchen (Thabtshang). There was a live display of traditional winemaking where we tasted the local wine Aara. It tasted sweet in the sample they gave, but the one we purchased there turned out to be bitter with an unbearable smell, so it’s better to settle for the sample they give.

The museum also has a restaurant which serves traditional Bhutanese meal including the well-known datshi for 300 or 500 Nu with a variety of options. Cheese in Bhutanese is called Datshi. It is combined with a variety of vegetables and meat to prepare Ema (chilly), Shamoo (mushroom), Kewa (potato) or chicken Datshi. We headed to a restaurant nearby and relished some datshi with red rice, we just loved the Shamoodatshi.

Traditional Bhutanese Dishes: Red rice, ema-datshi, steamed rice, Manchurian gravy and shamoo-datshi

The restaurant experience in our entire trip was always long because each service in the hotel is prepared from scratch. With the combination of skeleton-staff system, it took an average time of 1.5 to 2 hr every time. We were done with the places to visit and our driver dropped us near the handicraft market for some souvenir shopping. There are more than 30 stalls in a stretch where scarfs, hand-purse, wallpapers, wall-hangings are made by the people and sold. The place was already getting cold and dark soon, so we headed back to our hotel after some quick shopping. We had to travel to Paro the next day.

Day 4

When we are dependent on a single vehicle for travel, communication is utmost important. We had messed it up with Sonam and he had arrived an hour later even after the reminder calls. A trip can never be complete without an instance of Murphy’s Law. Just after 10 minutes since we have left, our vehicle stopped due to the frozen cooling system. It took about two hours for the mechanics to arrive and declare the vehicle fit to drive. We were late, impatient, hungry all at the same time, but there was nothing that we could do.

This is where we were stuck. Every inch here is so beautiful

Way to Paro was on the edge of mountains with Thimpu-chu flowing in the valley. Every turn opened to majestic mountains and traces of snow on the way as proof of extremely cold night. After two hours of drive, we had entered the city of Paro.

The first place to visit near Paro was Chele la Pass which is the highest motorable road in Bhutan. There was heavy snow-fall on the top of the hill and we had to stop 20km before the destination due to the slippery and inaccessible road. Bikers were struggling to balance their vehicle. The snow looked like cotton scattered in the forest and all that we could do was to play with the snow and imagine the situations on the hilltop. We left the place at 2 and headed to the city.

Just the look of this pretty Paro city from a birds-eye-view had brought back our enthusiasm only to be stopped by the never-ending wait for the lunch to be served. If your driver knows the hotel, better call them up half an hour early for your trip to be on schedule.
When we had our late lunch at 3:45 and reached the first monastery i.e Tha-dzong, it was already closed. In fact, most of the tourist attractions in Bhutan close by 4 PM (ticket counters close by 3:30). To make the best of time we had left, we visited the Nemi Zam Bridge (the bridge of happiness). It was fun clicking pictures wearing Gho the traditional dress of Bhutan. All sorts of poses from Karate-kid, dragon ball Z and Kung Fu Panda were experimented to get some perfect clicks.

After wandering through the streets of Paro to buy some souvenirs, we headed back to our rooms at Dechen Hill Resort. We had missed seeing three monasteries from our itinerary and our only hope was covering it somehow on our last day. The evenings are really cold in Paro and the city sleeps by 8:30. We had to plan something for the next day since it was new year’s eve and we didn’t want to just sit in our room early at 5 PM.

Day 5

It’s the last day of 2018, and we were all set to hike to Taktsang Lakhang aka Tiger’s next. The place got its name from the legend where Guru Rinpoche flew to the top of the hill sitting on the back of his consort who had taken the form of a tigress. He meditated there for 40 days in a cave and a Monastery was built around the cave in the early 16th century. It got burnt down once by a forest fire and then by a butter-lamp before the current one is built. The cave inside the monastery is closed at all times and opened only for a day on the 6th month of Bhutanese calendar.
The hike was a total of 8km ascend which included a steep climb through the forest and then about 700+ steps before finally reaching the monastery. Cane sticks are available at the foothill for rent at Rs. 50 which can be good hiking support. The entry fee for the monastery is 500 Nu and the entry to the monastery is provided only upon displaying the entry ticket. Ponies are available for rent which can take you uphill till half way but it would be a waste of money since the monastery can be reached only by foot in the second half of the hike.

Though we had started at a decent pace, we fell behind the schedule when our group got split due to various walking speeds. I was busy capturing the monastery from various angles and distance which was a waste of time. To all photography enthusiasts, there is a beautiful viewpoint near the monastery just when the steps begin, so cover the lens and take brisk steps. There is a cafeteria about half way where one can buy refreshments, but for a really higher cost. So it is advised to carry your own food. But remember, do not litter the place.

Just a little more. We can see it already

When I had reached the viewpoint, I was spellbound by the beauty and the structure of the monastery. It would always make me wonder how the ancestors managed to build it on the edge of a mountain while we struggle to climb it in bare hands. The place was really cold up there and the waterfall on top was partially frozen. Again, the guides there were helpful in explaining each part of the huge monastery. I literally jumped with cheer when a 10Rs note I dropped went deep into the cave which was considered a good sign. Maybe 2019 has more surprises waiting for me.

The tiger’s nest

We were sure of not visiting any other place that day so we descended at a moderate pace and managed to reach foothill by 4:15 pm. Our ascending took about 3 hours whereas the descend was just 1.75 hours. Never miss visiting Tiger’s nest at least once. In fact, it is tiger’s nest what you see when you Google for Bhutan.
It was surprising to find out that two restaurants Champa Cafe and Mountain Cafe on the main road of Paro were serving delicious food quickly. Book ark these restaurants for your next visit to Paro. If you are in the street of Paro in the night, never miss a chance to have look at the Rinpung Dzong. The entire fortress lit with yellow lights looks like a bride.

Rinpung dzong in the night. It looks much more beautiful in real

We had our new year’s eve dinner at Mountain Cafe after completing some last moment shopping for all those who had skipped our mind. The streets were getting empty even on new year’s eve. Thank god, the cab service was still available. The taxi drivers here were humble and honest. They refused to accept any extra money or take us to a place which they were not aware of. I was moved when a cab driver said “Yaha Koi Nahi Khata Sahab (nobody accepts bribe here)” when we offered extra money to take us all in a single cab.
We were celebrating New year half an hour early to Indian time, so we decided to celebrate and toast to the new year twice. The evening was spent with a lot of laughs and recalling some funny yet beautiful memories. I wish such evenings happen all the time. We welcomed a new year with smiling and cheering faces.

Day 6

There were few hours in hand to cover the places we missed before we head to Phuentsoling. The first place Kyichu Lakhang was a monastery built in the 7th century. The name is derived from Kyi(peace) and chu(water), literally a peaceful place beside a river. It was one of the first monasteries to be built in Bhutan and still consists of a statue of Budha from the era. Our guide Karma was keen to explain the place history of how each part of the monastery was built by different kings. He had answers to all our questions about the culture and uniqueness of Bhutan. Each painting on the wall came to life when he told us the story of how Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan and how Budha showed them the path to enlightenment through his teachings. I felt blessed when a monk there offered us few oranges.

We then visited back the Tha dzong which we had missed the other day. This dzong was also used as the national museum now shifted to a building adjacent to it. There were huge collections of masks used for the mask festival of Butan conducted on the third month of the Bhutanese calendar. People of Bhutan have a close relationship with nature and hence the masks of various animals and birds. Each mask represents the state and nature of humans. These mask dances are believed to be seen by the great saint Pema Lingpa in his dream and then he taught it to people to pass the blessings. The museum also consists of various birds and animals found in the country as taxidermy. It was surprising to see such display of animals and more surprising to hear that these were created in India. Not a single place I have seen in India displays animals using taxidermy, I am thankful because the sight of it isn’t pleasant at first.

One of the guides there had an answer for our confusions in the terms dzong and Lhakhang. The dzong is usually bigger in size and built at higher altitudes since they were used as watchtower too. Lakhang, on the other hand, was comparatively smaller. It then made total sense when we could view the entire city and the mountains on the other side when we stood near Tha dzong.
The last place to visit was Rinpung Dzong, a majestic fortress that can be seen from any part of the city. It was built to keep a watch on Mongolians and Tibetans who tried to attack Bhutan. The fortress now consists of the Royal court of Paro and the Chief department of monks. It is the only place in Bhutan where the royal court is inside a fortress. The fortress is a visual feast from its interiors filled with vibrant colored paintings and fine carvings. The Rinpung Dzong hosts the first day of the mask festival inside its premises and the rest are conducted in the ground to accommodate a large number of people. Young monks are brought to Rinpung for their religious education. There is a statue of young prince Siddhartha or the unenlightened Budha in the temple of the fortress which signifies that even Budha was a normal human just like all of us before his enlightenment. The paintings inside the temple speak the story Budha’s walk of life and are made using natural dye. The entire fortress is believed to be built without a single nail following the ancient architectural style. Even this fortress got partially destroyed due to butter-lamp and the current one is built about 100 years ago.

With all the places visited, it was time to bid adieu to Paro and head back to Phuentsholing. The entire route is scenic with really fine roads. We had missed seeing these during our journey to Thimpu. On our way back, Sonam reminded me about the white flags and tried to explain every situation where people died while driving. I have spotted not less than 20 such groups of flags which sent a chill down my spine.
Our last stay at Bhutan at the Tsheringma hotel was very close to the Bhutan gate. It was really funny to watch two different countries from either side of the fencing following their own lifestyle.

The entire next day went in a travel first by road and then in the sky. Many of us were compensating for the sleep they missed while I enjoyed the hiccups of memories from the last few days. We had successfully completed our first international trip.

Our Crew. From left: Adhish, Abhishek, Suraj, Karthik, myself, Keshav and Preetham

PS:
1. If you are a first-time international traveler, do carry your passport for identification at the immigration office. You can get your first stamp on passport here.
2. Start your trip early, though it’s cold in the morning. It is better than spending pointless time in the room.
3. Do not miss visiting ‘Simply Bhutan’ at Thimpu. They have an excellent display for Bhutanese culture and food. We did miss this.
4. It can seem like heaven for those who drink alcohol. The prices are dirt cheap. You can try their Zumzin Peach wine and K5 scotch Whiskey which are well known. But drink responsibly.
6. Bhutan is famous for the use of Phallic symbols and art. So don’t be surprised if you see Phallus shaped key-chains or souvenir in the shops.
7. Special thanks to my cousin Sandeep for the camera. I could capture some really good pictures.
8. If you are carrying a DSLR, make sure one more person in the group knows how to use it and stick with that person to get a good picture of yours too 😛