Bhutan - The land of happiness


We visited this beautiful country during November 2018, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences. This mountain country is neither too rich not too poor. It has monarchy with democratic government reporting to the King. Bhutan is what India could be with lesser population, better respect for each other and gratitude.

Bhutan is located between India and China, and is well connected by road with India. Roads in Bhutan are maintained in collaboration with India under Dantak project.

We were lucky to have Pasang Tshering (or PK) as our guide and friend there. He took care of all the travels, hotel accommodations and food. He also made us familiar with the Bhutanese culture, history and art. Bhutan was the first country visited by India's current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and PK  was quite happy about this!

Reaching Bhutan:
  • The only airport of Bhutan is in the hilly regions of Paro, and Druk Air provides flights from Delhi/Kolkata, though these are quite costly.
  • Nearest Indian airport is Bagdogra in northern West Bengal. Bhutan border is usually a 4 hour road journey from Bagdogra, though keep in mind the traffic if you have a return flight to catch.
Best time to travel:
  • Except the months of monsoon, Bhutan can be explored during any season, though in each season, we might see different shades of Bhutan. September-October are good for people who want to do rafting or prefer lesser cold. It gets colder from November onwards, with peak during January. March/April provides scenic views during Spring.


View from Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

During our travel, we covered Phuensholing, Thimphu, Punakha/Wangdue and Paro. All these are quite small towns compared to big populous cities. Travel from one town to another is mostly along river on mountain roads, and those journeys are very soothing experiences. It can suddenly get cold as we approach pass (or La in Bhutanese), so keep the winter clothes ready.

Ngultrum is Bhutanese currency, but Indian currency is easily accepted in Bhutan at most the places. Both can be used interchangeably as they have the same valuation.

Interesting trivia - 1:
There were no televisions in Bhutan prior to 1999., and Bhutanese people are fond of Indian music, especially 70-80s Bollywood.

 
Our Travel Itinerary

Phuentsholing


Phuentsholing is an entry point to Bhutan from India. India-Bhutan share an open border here, separated by a wall. On the Indian side, there is Jaigaon of WB. One can easily move between two countries through gates. We stayed at Hotel Namgay during our arrival and departure. Bhutan timezone is 30 minutes ahead of India, so make sure to calibrate your watches here. So on Indian side of border you may have 5:00 pm, while just a few steps away at Bhutanese side, it will be 5:30 pm!

Phuentsholing itself is a very small, clean town, stark in contrast to its Indian neighbour Jaigaon.  One can do a walk around the town, visit the monastery and park here. This is where the immigration is done to enter the hilly regions of Bhutan.

For immigration, one would require to submit id proof (Aadhar/Passport), travel itinerary and photographs. Remember that immigration office is closed on weekends and it takes 1 to 2 hours to get the immigration done. Plan your travel accordingly to get it done in the morning.

On the way from Phuentsholing to Thimphu (near Dantak canteen)

Thimphu


Once you cross Phuensholing, the mountains of Bhutan starts. Our next destination was the capital city, Thimphu. It is a 5 hour journey from Phuensholing to Thimphu. We cross small villages/towns like Gedu, Chukha along the way, as well as famous Dantak canteen. An Indian meal at the canteen is recommended. This road provides multiple water falls, river valleys for the photo enthusiasts.

Thimphu is the place where the King lives, in this beautiful town surrounded by the mountains and blessed by Buddha. With a population of hardly 1.15 L, staying here is a calming experience.  We stayed at Hotel Kenny during our Thimphu journey.

Thimphu - as seen from Buddha Dordenma

Places to visit:
  • Buddha Dordenma
    • Probably the biggest sitting Buddha statue (54 mtr) in the world, this place is a must-see in one's Bhutan itinerary. The statue is located on top a mountain, overseeing Thimphu town. There is a chorten below the statue that houses 1,25,000 small Buddha statues.
  • Folk Heritage Museum
    • Museum showcases a traditional Bhutanese house.
  • National Institute for Zorig Chusum
    • Art and craft school
  • Bhutanese Paper Factory
One can also see King's Palace, Assembly Building and Thimphu town from a view point. There are other places like Memorial Chorten that we only visited from outside.

Buddha Dordenma
Food:
  • Though Bhutan is known for its non-veg variety of dishes, one can find chapati, rice, daal and mix-veg in most parts. Do try veg cheese momos at Zombala restaurant.

Interesting trivia - 2:
There are 20 Dzongkhag (districts) in Bhutan, each having their Dzong, an administration and religious fortress.


DoChu La


DoChu La Memorial

DoChu La is the highest point between Thimphu to Punakha. There are 108 memorial chortens built by former queen in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India, and to commemorate King's victory.

One can see Himalayan mountains from this point given the sky is clean. Bhutan's highest mountain Mt. Gangkar Puensum is also visible from here. There is also a monastery and a cafeteria at the pass.

Punakha/Wangdue Phodrang


Punakha Dzong

Our next destination was Bajo town of Wangdue Phodrang. Bajo is a well-maintained town, with monastery and children park, and small parallel lanes. This is where we also enjoyed traditional Bhutanese food, Kewa Datshi (Potato Cheese). Ema Datshi (Chilli Cheese) and Shamu Datshi (Mushroom Cheese), along with Karela (bitter gourd). We stayed at Hotel Rigsum in Bajo town.

Places to see:
  • Punakha Dzong
    • This is one of the most significant Dzong in Bhutan. The Dzong is located at the confluence of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. This where Royal coronation and Royal weddings take place. Dzong has giant statues of Buddha, Padmasambhava and Zhabdrung. The administrative unit of Dzong also houses a bodhi tree. This is where the festivals are celebrated.
  • Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
    • 9 km from Punakha Dzong along the Mo Chu river, is Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. The chorten is located on a hilltop, and it is a 45 minute trek to reach there. It's a 3 storeyed chorten that provides stunning views of the river and mountains from the top.
  • Suspension Bridge
    • At 160 mtr, Punakha's suspension bridge is the longest in Bhutan. Walk on this 160 mtr suspension bridge over Pho Chu river brings mixed feelings of fun and fear! One can enjoy ice cream and other snacks on the other side of the bridge.
We also went to river beach under Wangdue Phodrang Dzong in a chilling cold, and enjoyed hot tea on the near-by bridge. There is also Chhimi Ihakhang in this region, where we didn't go.

Interesting trivia - 3:
Bhutan's total population is only 7.5 lakhs. One can only be a citizen of Bhutan by birth, that too when both the parents are of Bhutanese origin.

Chele La


Sunset at Chele La

Chele La is one of the highest pass in Bhutan. It is an hour drive from Paro, located at the altitude of 3988 mtrs. We saw yaks, Himalayan monal and other wildlife along the way. There is also a point on the route from where Paro airport can be seen from the top.  The weather at top is windy and chilly, and it was even difficult to keep the hands out. We reached there at 5:00 pm, and were lucky to see the sunset. By the time we returned, the outside temperature was already 2°C at the pass.

Interesting trivia - 4:
There is no railway line in Bhutan. Also there are no road tunnels in the mountains.


Paro


Our last destination on this trip before returning to Phuentsholing was Paro. Compared to Thimphu, Paro weather is much chilly, but it provides a nice clean sky at night with lot of stars. Bhutan's only airport is also located here, and it is a nice drive parallel to the runway. Surrounded by mountains on all four sides, it is one of the most difficult airport to navigate. We stayed at Hotel Silver Pine in Paro.

Like other Dzongkhags, Paro has it's own Dzong. There is also a National library of Bhutan here. We didn't go to both of these places, but rather explored local market and even got good herbs.

Paro Takshang (Tiger's Nest)


Takshang Monastery

Taksang monastery is a holy sight in Buddhism. It is believed that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress, and did meditation here. The monastery was destroyed in a fire in 1990s, but was re-built. It is a sight worth visiting.

Takshang base is a half an hour journey from Paro. From the base, it is a three hour trek to reach the monastery. Most part of the trek is on muddy mountain, with steep steps near monastery. We started early at around 9:00 am, and came back by 3:00 pm. The trek is long and requires reasonable physical efforts, but can be done by people of all age group. We met small kids and seniors, and even blind person, during the trek. There is a cafeteria half way in case you need to reenergise yourself.

We would recommend having traditional hot stone bath after the trek. There are few resorts in Paro providing this facility, and it is worth doing it. Herbs are added in the hot water, and it takes away all the fatigue.

Note:
  • Carry minimum luggage while doing the climbing. Instance energy snacks are good to have.
  • Keep a water bottle. There are multiple places from where water can be re-filled.

Interesting trivia - 5:
Primary and secondary education is free in Bhutanese schools. If the student scores well, Bhutanese government also give scholarship for further studies in India.




With Pasang Tshering, our freind and guide

More pics can be found at - https://www.instagram.com/nimeshddesai




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