Four of us travelled to Bhutan and spent a week there (Nov 21 – 27, 2015). Some of us are senior citizens; a couple of us were from India and the other two from the US. We hadn’t heard much of this small Himalayan kingdom but were intrigued by whatever little we had read about it: the natural beauty of the country, its happy and calm people and storied history. In a way it’s a small mercy that Bhutan doesn’t suffer from a surfeit of ugly tourists with bulging shopping bags and loud mouths! This post is meant more for Indians wanting to visit Bhutan.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) website is a good place to start – it provides valuable tips to tourists. Since it’s advisable to go to Bhutan with an accredited travel agency (Indians don’t really need to use the services of a tour guide but for other foreign nationals it is mandatory) we started our search for a good and reliable tour operator considering we had to pay the monies in advance; we didn’t want to be taken for a ride by some fly-by-night operator. There are thousands to choose from so we started scouring the internet for comments from previous travellers, including at tripadvisor. We zeroed in on a few and sent them a brief idea of what we wanted from our trip, our interests and the places we wanted to see. All of them responded promptly with standard packages and costs. We opted for Heavenly Bhutan Travels (HBT) not only because they had some very good reviews but were very reasonable in their quotes, and most important, flexible in considering our choices of places to visit and accommodation. After exchanging many emails with the ever-patient Ms Menuka we finally firmed up our travel itinerary; she responded to our queries and requests with such alacrity and civility that she won our hearts even before we got to meet her in person. HBT did all the planning, booking and travel arrangements to a tee including our air tickets, visas etc. All our headaches were taken care of efficiently.
This pretty kingdom proved to be an eye-opener in more ways than one.
On our flight into Bhutan (we flew Bhutan Airlines from Calcutta), we took the left side seats and thus had a grand view of the majestic snow-capped Himalayan range and the sprawling valleys below. The airplane (Airbus 320) navigates between mountains and lands in Paro valley.
The bracing air is the first thing we experienced as we stepped off at Paro accustomed as we are to polluted cities. The sky was a clear winter blue with a few idyllic cotton clouds and the sun shining through. In November the weather is crisp and cool – yes, we needed our woollies in the evenings.
At Paro airport with minimal fuss we went through immigration control and our passports were stamped with tourist visas. Non-Indians though need to have prior visa approval letters to board the aircraft; for us these were arranged well in advance by HBT. At the airport one can acquire a local SIM card to use a Bhutanese prepaid telecom service.
Outside the airport terminal we were greeted by Dhanapati from HBT who was to be the tour guide throughout our stay in Bhutan. We were whisked away in a Toyota van to Thimphu – about an hour’s ride. On the way we saw the Tamchoe Lhakhang (Buddhist Temple). At Thimphu we stopped for lunch and had our first taste of Bhutanese cuisine: rice is the staple diet; vegetable and meat dishes taste quite exotic, not as spicy as some Indian dishes but hot, so beware of hot chillies!
After a sumptuous lunch we did a lot of sightseeing: Memorial Chorten, Changangkha Lhakhang, Buddha Dordenma, National Textile and Folk Heritage Museums. The next day we spent seeing Trashi Chhoe Dzong (fortress) and the weekend market. The town is in a valley; some of the sights do call for a steep climb. The view of the Thimphu valley from Buddha Point is spectacular at sunset. We stayed at Osel Hotel, a modern hotel with spacious rooms and a splendid view, near the centre of Thimphu. The meals served were very good and the service exemplary.
In Bhutan, the streets are clean – a novelty for us Indians. Cars don’t honk ceaselessly so the quiet is surprisingly pleasant. People always have a ready smile; they speak softly and are very courteous. There is only one traffic police island in Thimphu, and in the entire country. Hard to believe Bhutan adjoins India! The influence of Tibetan culture and Buddhist sensibilities can be felt everywhere.
Though towns like Paro and Thimphu has modern multi-storied buildings they have a touch of distinct Bhutanese design: each is decorated and painted intricately with Bhutanese motifs and Buddhist symbols that are pleasing to the eye and of significance to Bhutanese way of life.
There are shops aplenty but thankfully no shopping malls. Entire Bhutan is a no smoking zone. Bhutanese liquor and beer are available everywhere. We tried the rice-based Ara and local vodka (Raven) – both were good and kept us warm and in good spirits in cold evenings. Hotels do stock imported wine, liquor and beer but they can be a bit pricey.
After two days in Thimphu we headed for Punakha valley. It took about 3 hours to cover 75 km, with a stop at Dochula Pass where we got a breathtaking view of the Bhutanese mountain range and saw the 108-Stupas. A haven for camera-clicking aficionados like me.
The hilly highways beyond Thimphu are all under various road widening projects. As a result in many places roads are treacherously narrow, often blocked by stones and mud and construction works; making progress on these twisting mountain roads can be painfully slow, the rides bumpy and precariously close to the edge. So say your prayers quietly!
Before entering Punakha we trekked through rice fields and up a hill to visit Chimi Lhakhang. On the way there are some shops selling superb Thangka paintings and other Bhutanese artefacts. Then we went to Punakha Dzong, built in the 17th century at the confluence of two rivers. This is arguably the most important Dzong in Bhutan, and had been the seat of power for centuries. Architecturally the fortress is majestic with colourful gardens all around. At Punakha we stayed at Meri Puensum – a resort with very spacious rooms with alcoves overlooking the valley. The view in the morning was dreamy with the entire landscape draped in mist.
From Punakha we travelled for four hours to reach Phobjikha – a distance of 100 km. Again the journey was slow because of bad roads. Our driver, Ram, kept us regaled with stories and his amazing knowledge of flora and fauna found on the way. At length we reached Gangteng Gonpa, a 17th century monastery with exquisite wood carving and painting. From the monastery we took the nature trail – a two hour walk through fields and pine woods – that culminates in the vast wetlands of Phobjikha valley where black-necked cranes congregate in winter after flying in from Tibet. We did spot a few of these cranes in valley basin. Tired, we reached Dewachen Hotel perched above the valley. The hotel built with wood in Bhutanese style is quite comfortable; the rooms are heated by a wood-fired stove.
In the morning we found mist rising from the wetland valley and everything covered in white with frost. After an early breakfast we started for Paro. Normally it ought to take no more than five hours but because of the road works it took us eight to cover a distance of 175 km. Paro is a beautifully spread out town on the bank of the river. The two must see places at Paro are the Rinpung Dzong and Taktsang Lhakang (Tiger Nest Monastry). We stayed at Gangtey Palace – a unique hotel which used to be a palace situated on a hillock overlooking the Paro valley. It’s almost like living in a dzong; though the place is old the rooms have modern amenities and are quite comfortable. The view from the sit-out and cafeteria in the front is to die for. Paro is practically a one street town lined with curio shops; we even found a café – Brioche Café – selling great pastries, croissants and coffee.
From Paro we took the return flight to Calcutta to resume our mundane existence amid din and fury of our daily lives. On the whole it was a memorable trip made more so by our guide Dhanapati and driver Ram. We would highly recommend HBT to anyone wanting a peaceful yet stimulating vacation in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
On return to Bangalore, to my amazement I found so many people ignorant about this little kingdom tucked away in the Himalayas, next to India; but many were curious and hence this post.