It is not hard to not have Bhutan on your mind. A nation which is not often in the news, Bhutan is often an enigma to most world travelers. In a world where everyone is trying their best to get attention, this tiny nation and its people swims against the current. A nation of incredible natural beauty and some of the friendliest people, it flies under the radar of tourists, and prefers to keep it that way.
Orderly streets of Thimphu
My connection with Bhutan is nearly 12 years old. I had two classmates from Bhutan, Karma - a quiet thoughtful guy and Dawa - a bubbly outgoing girl, in my undergrad college at NIT, Jaipur. I was good friends with the guy and having heard so much about Bhutan from him, had always wanted to go there some day. With a lean work period coming up, I decided to finally fulfil my long time dream in early February and booked flight tickets to Bagdogra. Why not fly into Bhutan, one might ask. It is indeed an excellent idea to fly in - I am told the view while landing at Paro airport (the nearest airport from Thimphu, the capital city) are incredible. Moreover, the land route from Bagdogra to Thimphu does not make for an easy journey. You travel 3 hours in a train to Hasimara, then by road to Jaigaon, cross over the international border to Phuentsholing and then travel on an arduous 7 hour, motion sickness inducing road journey to Thimphu. However, I had booked my tickets just two week ahead, which meant flights were really expensive, and Druk Air (the national carrier and the only one flying into Bhutan) flights into Paro were completely booked. Add my preference to backpack and travel cheap, and you get the complete picture. Thankfully, my friend and travel partner, Amin, enjoys a bit of roughing it out himself and took it all in good spirit.
Unlike in many countries, being an Indian citizen is of distinct advantage in Bhutan. The permits are easy to secure and you can manage traveling on a budget, unlike tourists from other countries. Bhutan is virtually off the table for backpackers because of the cost involved - tourists have to mandatorily book a package and spend more than $250 per day in order to secure a visa. It is, in fact one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the world.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is nestled in a valley at the height of about 9000ft. The first two things I noticed about the city was how clean and orderly it was. Granted that my first impression was of the main street - Norzin Lam, but this impression was strengthened over the next few days as we walked around town. The city is a haven for pedestrians, most offices are situated on the main street and paved sidewalks line all streets. We did not take any taxis during our stay in Thimphu and made good use of this excellent opportunity for free exercise. You can also rent bicycles to go around too; the charges however are pretty steep. There are plenty of SUVs on the roads and a few motorcycles too, with the riders wrapped in multiple layers to protect against the cold. Another interesting thing we noticed was the abundance of people wearing their traditional dress - men in Gho and women in Kira. The reason for this being that their traditional dress is also the official formal dress and mandatory to wear at government offices and Dzongs (administrative center and monastery). I thought it was a pretty neat idea to preserve their culture.
Our first destination was to one of the most recognized places of Bhutan online - the Taktsang monastery in Paro, a town about 60km from Thimphu. The monastery, built on the wall of a cliff at a height of 900m above the valley appears to defy gravity. Our hike up started quite late, it was already afternoon when we reached the base of the mountain - the consequence of not hiring an exclusive taxi for ourselves and relying on shared taxis. That said, we were quite excited and did not really worry when the driver warned us of possibility of not getting any rides back in the evening. Now, climbing is hard but climbing at these higher altitudes is even harder. We took plenty of breaks as we lumbered up and tried to get inspired by the few older tourists who were climbing down the mountain already. At one point, just before the final climb, my knees literally shook when I suddenly came upon the edge of the mountain. The impressive Taktsang Monastery is right in front of you on the opposite mountain, after a straight drop of a few hundred meters. Thankfully though, the steps at this point are built well and even have a railing to hold on to. The sound of the small waterfall here was soothing after the long hike up.
Taktsang Monastery - Tiger Monastery
As I entered the monastery after depositing all my belongings (including phones and cameras), a cop there volunteered to show me around and explained a little about the Monastery. It is said to date back to the 14th century and has been rebuilt a couple of times after being burned down. The monastery is also known as Tiger’s nest, a name it earned from the legend that Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress. One can even see the cave where he is supposed to have meditated for years after his arrival here. As we climbed down the mountain, I pondered on how religion has inspired some people to build beautiful structures and at the same time given reason to some others for destroying the same. I had to save my ponderings for a later day, as we had to get back to Thimphu and there was no sign of transport we could hire from the base of the mountain. The Guru Rinpoche must have been on our lookout that day though, we secured a ride to Paro soon after we started walking towards the town. On the ride back to Thimphu, the excellent roads sparked an insane thought - how about running a marathon here? That did not last for too long thankfully as I got motion sick soon after and retired to bed as soon as I got back to the hotel.
The next day, we headed to the eastern regions with our first stop at Punakha. We did not have a fixed plan, but I wanted to meet Karma in
Wangduephodrang, a town with a massive hydroelectric plant further east of Punakha. We also wanted to visit Phobjikha where the endangered Black Necked Cranes migrate to Bhutan during winter. Another day, another taxi - this time the driver was taking his young bride to his hometown. But as soon as we left Thimphu behind, we had an incident. The driver forgot to stop at the police checkpoint and get our permits stamped and was fined heavily for this. The next couple of hours in the car were hair raising as our driver unleashed his fury with some dangerous driving. This was possibly the only instance where I encountered rude behavior during the one week we were in Bhutan. Leaving our angry not-so-young driver behind, we arrived at Punakha Dzong. We were disappointed to find that there were no hotels for us stay over, but how long can you stay down when you are in front of a beautiful, imposing structure at the confluence of two rivers? We walked inside the Dzong for some time and luckily were also witness to an afternoon prayer ritual.
In front of Punakha Dzong
After a refreshing drink of cold, sparkling Himalayan water from the river, we decided to walk the few kms to Khuruthang, where we could decide on our next move. I borrowed a restaurant employee’s phone and called Karma, only to learn that he was not in Wangdue yet and was held up in another town on urgent family business. We then decided to head back to Thimphu and with a plan to meet Karma some other time.
After two slightly tiring day trips, we decided to take it easy and relax a bit. However, I could not pass up the chance of a hike, even though the weather had suddenly turned cloudy and cold. Located about 7km from the city center on a hill, Buddha point with its huge bronze Buddha watching over the city affords you excellent views of the city. As we walked past the memorial Chorten, built by the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, and Druk school, with its immaculate football ground, my biggest concern was if it would start raining. It was Amin’s determination that kept us going through the light drizzle we encountered a couple of times on the way. A little note here, the tourist season in Bhutan begins in March because the weather is absolutely gorgeous, but February is not too bad if you are ok with slightly colder temperatures. And you get off-season discounts too! We
spent a few hours enjoying the breathtaking views of the town surrounded by cloud covered mountains before heading back to town.
Thimphu has many more options on offer for tourists. For the culturally inclined, a visit to the textile and folk heritage museum or the national museum may be of interest. There are many monasteries in the vicinity, one of the big ones right in front of the royal palace. A couple of them are outside the city and may be great choice for a day hike. The main street or Norzin Lam has many cheap hotels and restaurants. Indian food is easy to find too, almost every restaurant serves Puri Sabji for breakfast and Dal, Rice and meat for lunch and dinner. We were not satisfied with just Indian food though and tried Bhutanese dishes at a few restaurants. My personal favorite was Ema Datschi, a simple dish made of only chillies and cheese. I admit that as a person with low tolerance to spicy food, I was a little worried before I took the first bite but the dish somehow just comes together and works really well. It goes great with Rotis and you can choose variations of the dish with meat or mushrooms in it.
I also tried Chilly Pork, another Bhutanese special which a kind chef made less spicy for us. I tried another dish of Pork cooked with Sorghum leaves, but couldn’t really appreciate the taste. There are some really good cafes too on this street - we went to Ambient and The Cafe, both close to the clock tower plaza. Did I mention that our Indian SIM cards do not work in Bhutan, and for a few days it was blissfully peaceful to be off the grid? These cafes lured us back with their free wi-fi and exposed how weak our willpower was. That said, they had amazing food and drinks at very reasonable prices.
Our last day in Thimphu was spent at the Weekend Market, which is open only through Friday through Sunday. A large section of the market is devoted to clothes, which I suppose locals utilize and the rest of it is lined up with stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs. Most of these articles, such as Nemas, Conchs, wall hangings of the Buddha and dragons are also used in religious ceremonies. I tried my hand at some photographic experiments with Amin’s point and shoot camera, some of the results of which, I’m glad to report, turned out pretty well. There were many exquisite articles embedded with local Turquoise stone on sale, which unfortunately were out of my meagre budget but not outside the range of the camera.
At the weekend market in Thimphu
Important tip - do make sure to carry enough cash when you go, as credit card machines are not very common. As I boarded the bus back to Phuentsholing, I realized that this had been my most relaxing vacation ever and I was actually eager to get back to regular work - a perfect vacation!
More pictures on my Picasa album.