“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Buddha
Bhutan seems to completely follow this Buddhist spiritual value and is the only country in the whole wide world to use Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) as an index to measure progress. Both of us have immense fascination towards the tranquility of Buddhist culture and the lifestyle of its followers and this big idea of this tiny land inspired us to zero on Bhutan as our first couple holiday.
Bhutan follows extensive visa formalities before they let other nationals in their geographical boundaries, and because of this a lot of travelers find it complicated and give this country a miss. But they have been a little liberal to Indians nationals, allowing tourist permits at the port of entries making it one of the most accessible and budget international destinations from India. Bhutan is extremely easy to travel, especially from Kolkata.
How to Reach
The only operational international airport in Bhutan is Paro and unfortunately there were no direct flights between Kolkata and Paro when we travelled (now Druk Air has few flights). So we opted for train but you can easily find out the air connectivity from your city. The most convenient train from Kolkata is Kanchankanya Express that departs from Sealdah station at 8:30pm at night and reaches Hasimara at 10:30 am in the morning. One can easily avail an auto-rickshaw or a Maruti Omni from the station to reach the Indian border town Jaigaon that is separated by Phuentsholing by a beautiful painted gate. Once you cross the borders, know that Bhutan Time is 30 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time.
Phuentsholing Permit Office –
- Operates Monday to Friday, 9 am -5 pm
- Lunch time is 1 pm-2 pm
- Remains closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Government holidays
- Passport is not mandatory for Indians, Voter ID card is accepted too
- Time taken for issue of permits usually varied from 30 minutes to 1 hour
TIP – Reach Phuentsholing at least by first half on Friday to smoothly process the permits and not get stuck, as you can only travel till 5 kms without permits.
Day 1 – Phuentsholing to Thimphu
The distance between Phuentsholing and Thimphu is about 165 kms with excellent highway connectivity. It takes about 6 hours to reach Thimphu from Phuentsholing and one can easily avail a bus, shared taxi or private taxi from the bus stand. Our bus was full of young Bhutanese guys and girls who made our journey entertaining with their fun conversations and local songs. Bhutan’s local language is Dzongkha, but people usually speak good Hindi and English. Bhutan has beautiful landscapes and we came across countless mountain ranges, hairpin bends, rivers and lush green lands on our way.
We had started around 3 but by the time we reached Thimphu, it was 10:30 already, so we checked in our hotel and rushed to hog on some local food. Bhutan is a country of ‘Early to bed and early to rise’ followers, so mostly everything shuts down by that time except a few very small restaurants and cafes in the interiors. We did find one place that was ready to serve us some rice, curry and the famous garlic red chilli chutney (dumpling sauce).
Picture Courtsey: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/about-bhutan/food
Let us tell you, the food is lip smacking but usually extremely spicy. So in case you fear spices like us, do tell your chef while placing the order.
Day 2 – Day out in Thimphu
Next day morning the first thing we needed was a local SIM card as our Indian SIMs were not working. It is very easy to get one in Thimphu with a valid ID card, permit and Rs. 100/-.
Thimphu has a lot of fascinating places to see:
National Institute for Zorig Chusum
National Textile Museum
Botanical Gardens and many more
All of these could be easily covered in a day’s time and you can have the evening to leisure and take a city walk. That is our favorite part of any trip.
Exceptional art and craft workshops at National Institute for Zorig Chusum
This institute deserves a special mention because of our love for art. Bhutan is an affluent country in terms of art and culture and this institute in Thimphu specializes in providing 4–6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms to its younger generation. Zorig Chosum meaning “thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan” represents the exclusive “spirit and identity of the Himalayan kingdom”. The thirteen art forms are –Paper Making, Stonework, Blacksmithing, Clay arts, Painting, Bronze casting, Wood, slate, and stone carving, Wood turning, Wood working, Weaving, Silver and goldsmithing, Needlework, Cane and bamboo work.
TIP – Before your exit from Thimphu, make sure you get your additional permits in case you wish you to explore places like Punakha, Trongsa or Bumthang.
Day 3 – Day trip to Chele La Pass
Situated at a height of 3,988 meters, it is one of the highest viewpoints in Bhutan, from where you can cherish the dominant views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
A 2 and half -hour drive (78kms) from Thimphu takes you to one of the highest vantage points, Chele La Pass. While on the way, one can enjoy the majestic beauty of overlapping mountains. We even stopped on the way to capture some in our cameras.
You will also be able to spot divine mountains Jomolhari and Jichu Drake and the Himalayan yaks grazing in the horizon, spread with electricity posts.
Chele La Pass is exceptionally chilly and windy, and one of the most astounding views to be had in Bhutan. We had great time playing with snow and making snow mans.
Dochula Pass and Haa Valley are other major attractions to be enjoyed.
Drive to Paro
After spending the entire day at Chele La Pass and relishing the loveliness there, we made our way to Paro.
We stopped by the surprisingly clean Paro river and spent some time together by the bank.
Our abode in Paro was Hotel Phunsum (budget hotel) and our favorite eatery was a music cafe nearby (missed the name). Paro somehow appeared more attractive than Thimphu.
Day 4 – Day out in Paro
It is a beautifully calm city and the must visit places in Paro are –
Taktsang Palphug Monastery or Tiger’s Nest
Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge
National Museum of Paro
National Museum has an amazing collection of masks, artifacts and wildlife. They also show a documentary on Cham dance of Bhutan on loop, so sit back and enjoy.
Our best memory of Paro is what we got to see inside the Rinpung Dzong. Three distinctive groups of monks were practicing three different dance forms in their maroon uniforms for their upcoming Cham dance (mask dance) festival.
What we saw behind these tall walls was heavenly and we obviously do not have the pictures, but it’s captured in the eyes for a lifetime.
Paro is also famous for it unusual airport which is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports as it is located in a deep valley on the bank of the river Paro Chhu with surrounding peaks as high as 5,500 m.
Ruins of War History: Drukgyel Dzong
This Dzong is approximately 14 kms from Paro and is worth going for history and architecture lovers like us.
We went in the evening and spent good one and half hours there and by the time we were leaving it were dark and little scary as the place is away from the town, so would recommend carrying torches along. The place is good for a picnic spot but there are no restrooms or shops at the spot.
Our driver accompanied us to the top and guided us through the history of the place.Broken walls, secret windows and ventilators, small doors are attractive and hold the interest of the travellers.
Take your camera along for mind-blowing captures, some eatables and water if you plan to spend longer time and walking shoes as it is quite a walk around.
Day 5 – Getaway to Punakha
Punakha being the former capital of Bhutan surely deserves a visit. Punakha Dzong is located at the convergence of the Po Chu and Mo Chu rivers and one of the most majestic structures of Bhutan. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. There is probably nothing that has not been mentioned about the beauty of this phenomenal architecture. The dzong is actually massive and the whitewashed walls might give you a feeling of being in Santorini.
To visit Punakha, an additional permit is needed that could be taken from Thimphu. Water sports like river rafting are a major attraction for the tourists.
Day 6 – The most awaited trek to Tiger’s Nest
What Eiffel Tower is to Paris; Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) is to Paro. We got the first view of Taktsang on our way to Drukgyel Dzong from Paro and what a view it was.
We zeroed on trekking to the top the next day (our last day of the trip). Tiger’s Nest is about 10 kms from Paro and we went by car till the base point and then started trekking. But only after covering 3 kms out of almost 10, we were tired and hired a pony from there. Trek sticks are available at the base point. The trek is not very difficult and could be covered in around 2 and half hours one way. There is one teashop halfway but its better to carry food and water along. The pony left us at a certain point and we had to walk a good number of steps down and up after that. But once on the top, we felt all our efforts were worth it.
Magnificent view, astounding Buddha idols and the 30 feet deep cave are a treat for nature lovers, art lovers and adventure seekers. We left at around 8 in the morning and returned by 3:30 pm.
Day 7 – Drive back home
Next day we left for Phuentsholing from Paro, which is around a 5-hour journey to head back home. One special person deserves a mention who was responsible for this wonderful trip and that is Subba ji, our driver cum guide for 5 days.
Facts on Bhutan
1. All the buildings in Bhutan have to abide by the Traditional Architecture Guidelines and that is why the entire country appears symmetrical.
2. Phallus paintings can be seen on the walls of houses and buildings throughout Bhutan, particularly in villages. Conventionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip. The phallic symbols are, however, generally not depicted in community temples and dzongs.
3. Bhutan still remains largely unmapped in terms of the flower species it enjoys. About 46 species and 10 subspecies of Rhododendrons grow largely wild in Bhutan and most of them blossom during the months of April, May and June but we got to see a lot of them in March too. Apart from Rhododendrons, wild orchids and magnolia could also be seen.
4. The national sport of the Kingdom of Bhutan is Archery, which is played during various events in the country.
The sport is culturally unique because it is considered a form of martial arts and Bhutanese people find archery as one of the most enjoyable sports. It is a great way of socialization and communication. Our guide informed us that it is mandatory to wear the national costume to try hands on archery.
5. Ara is the customary alcoholic beverage of Bhutan. It is made from rice, maize,
millet, or wheat, and may be either fermented or distilled. The beverage is commonly a clear, creamy, or white color.
6. Ideal Season to visit is from October to December. January and February are colder, but from then until April the climate remains dry and pleasant.
Bhutanese people love their King and Queen (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Pema) with all their heart and the proof is that you will get to see their pictures in all possible shops, offices, restaurants and hotels throughout the country. And why not, as the kings have been doing their best to keep the citizens happy.
Picture Courtsey: Imgur.com
Recently thousands of citizens came together to welcome their newborn prince with Buddhist symbols by planting 108,000 trees, each sealed with a prayer for the heir to the throne.
We visited Bhutan in march 2015, and are writing about it almost 2 years later. But in between, we have given itineraries and contact details to a lot of our friends and everybody has come back happy. This land of thunder dragon is absolutely contagious it seems.