Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Bhutan Chapter

In my previous blog post I wrote about how to plan a trip to Bhutan and the things you need to know when planning. In this blog I have written about the places we visited during our stay in Bhutan. I have tried my best to pen down my experiences and hopefully it would motivate you to travel at the earliest :)

We left Kolkata at 8:30am IST on April 23rd 2018 by DrukAir and after an hour’s flight we landed in Paro International Airport at around 10AM local time. The view during the flight is awesome. If you have a good camera then you can zoom to see the Kanchenjunga peak (though you won’t know which one is the peak so let us just say you see the Himalayas). Make sure you book seats on the left side in the plane on the way to Bhutan to get the view.
The Himalayas, far far away!
When you are approaching the airport you will see hills on either side which will give you the feeling of Luke Skywalker cruising through the narrow duct in star wars (I might be over exaggerating but it sure does look close). The airport is small and you have to walk from the plane to the terminal.
Royal airlines of Bhutan
Airport - This is half of the arrivals terminal

We got the passport stamped with the immigration entry and the entry permit for the major cities. We then took a taxi from outside the airport to our hotel in Thimphu which was an hours drive from Paro. We had the list of places to visit thanks to the online itineraries. We prepared a rough plan of what to visit and when on the empty spaces of the newspaper we got on our flight. We basically calculated the distance on foot and the direction which we should go from our hotel to reach each of the places. We freshened up and it was almost lunch time so we visited Thijha Cafe which was near our hotel for lunch. After having rice with the local spicy vegetable mix we started our journey by foot to explore the city.
Rice with the local spicy vegetable stew
We first visited the Bhutan Postal museum which was on the way to the immigration office. The postal museum charges a nominal fee of 200 nu per person. The museum has stamps to commemorate almost every occasion in Bhutan and world history. They have a collection of 3D stamps, stamps printed on a CD label and holographic stamps. You can get stamps printed with your photo and use them to post letters or postcards back home. We also got an interesting demo of stamps with QR codes that plays music in various tunes when scanned.
Some snippets of the stamps and museaum

We then went to the immigration office where we applied for the route permit for Punakha and we were asked to collect the permit after 2hrs. So we visited the handicraft emporium and walked around the city looking at what to buy and admiring the cleanliness and the peace all around us.
No signals, no electric poles, no garbage!

We stumbled upon an old Buddhist temple a bit away from the main road and we were allowed to go inside. It only had locals and looked like no package tours bring tourists to this place.
Most temples we saw look similar

We later got our route permit and bought a few souvenirs (yes on day 1 but then that was the cheapest we got throughout our trip). The street food was almost similar to the ones we get in India. We had pakoda, channa chat and their local tea before heading back to the room after walking for more than 4hrs! For dinner we visited Mojo Park which was beside our hotel. It is a lounge and they had good live music on a Monday night! All the lounges and restaurants mostly cater to the tourists.

On day 2 we planned to visit the places that are in the outskirts of the city. So as we do in any trip we take, we woke up late, had the complimentary breakfast, lazed around for a while and then headed out around noon. It was our anniversary day so we had looked up some nice restaurants for lunch and dinner but since it was Tuesday (dry day in Bhutan), all the good places were closed :( It was as if lord Buddha wanted us to have local cuisine. So we filled our tummies with the noodles, thupka and momos.
Staple food of Bhutan
We then rented a taxi for Rs 500 to visit the Buddha point and then negotiated to visit couple more places for a total of Rs 1000. We first visited the national Memorial Chorten (Stupa) which was good to look at but not worth the 600 bucks we paid to enter the memorial.
This was it.

Next was the Buddha point (Buddha Doredama) which has a 51m tall steel statue of lord Buddha. Its at an altitude so you can see the entire city from this view point. It has a lot of breeze so carrying a jacket is advisable (which we did not have). You can enter the temple below the statue where you will find thousands of tiny Buddha statues.
Various Buddha statues around the large statue
The statue and the temple lies beneath the statue

From here we visited “Simply Bhutan” which is called the living museum. You need to pay Rs 200 per person for entry and an additional 100 bucks if you wish to try on the local Bhutanese attire. We came to know that the attire is the uniform and every citizen has to wear it if he/she wishes to enter any government building or monastery. A visit to the museum starts with a traditional welcome with a serving of their home made wine and a brief history of the country and the kings. We then proceed to how they build their houses and tools without the modern technology. We then proceed to wearing the attire and visit to a model home. This free guided tour ends with them performing for us with their folk songs and dances while we are served the butter tea that they prepare at their home. Don't miss out on this experience, it's worth it!
A compilation of things we saw in the living museum

Later we drove past the Dzong and almost near the kings palace which is a restricted area. Oh yes, Bhutan has a king and the nation is a Democratic Monarchy where the king is chosen from the royal bloodline and a decade back they elected their first Prime Minister who manages the country’s administration.
Thimphu Dzong. The palace is at the far end

We asked the taxi guy to drop us by the Postal Museum where we got our pics printed on the stamp. We now claim that the Royal Bhutan Govt commemorated our first wedding anniversary by printing stamps :P
Our stamps :D

It was almost dinner time and we were kinda sad that most good places were closed that day. As we walked around the city, we noticed a cafe which was neither listed on the maps nor suggested on google trips. It was called Ambient Cafe and had amazing burger, sandwiches and fries (Yes - mission lets get fat together was on track!).

For the next day we had booked a taxi from our hotel to cover Punakha. We left the hotel at 9am after breakfast. The first stop was Dochula Pass. Here you get to see the 108 memorial chortens (stupas) and the view is pretty amazing too. There is a small park by the road where you could go for a quick walk. If you reach here early you have less people blocking your pics or you could also stop by on the way back if you see lesser crowd then.
View from the Chortens

The stupas from the park in Dochula

To travel beyond Dochula, you will require the route permit which will need to be stamped during entry and exit. Our driver then insisted we visit the Chime Lhakhang (Temple of the divine madman). He made us walk through the fields from the road while we could have taken the car a bit near to the temple. The walk was pleasant and refreshing though. It is said that this is the temple to visit if you wish to have kids or for the health of your kids (our relatives might have something to say to us after they read this blog).
The pleasant hike
The Chime Lhakhang

If you see paintings or artifacts in the shape of the male reproductive organ across Bhutan then do not be disgusted. Below is the story behind it.
Read on

The next stop was the Punakha Dzong. The majestic fortress which serves as the administrative and religious headquarters for the district. On paying the entry fees of Rs 300/- per person, you get assigned a guide who will give you a tour of the place and tell you the story of Bhutan (The guide comes for free. However you can choose to tip your guide).
Punakha Dzong from the view point

The day we visited was a national holiday on the occasion of the death anniversary of Ngawang Namgyal, who united Bhutan back in the 17th century. So there was a lot of crowd and even the Royal Family of Bhutan was in the Dzong. Sadly we could not get a closer look at the king and queen. On this day they showcase giant paintings depicting the legend of Ngawang Namgyal on the central tower of the Dzong. This painting is on display only during the national holidays.
The big one

The giant painting on the other side of the central tower - You see people rolling it to keep it inside until next national festival

There are two rivers in Punakha - Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother). You can raft in these rivers depending on the seasons. We visited the longest Suspension Bridge of Bhutan which is built on the Pho river. It is about 2 kms ahead of the Dzong and you will have to walk a bit to reach the bridge. Alternatively there is also a road which will take you below the bridge if you do not wish to walk the distance.
The bridge

From the other side

That was all that Punakha had to offer. We returned back to Thimphu via Dochula pass. We spent the evening buying a few more souvenirs as we were told that buying them in Paro would be expensive.
Handicraft street. 50+ shops to buy local stuff for less price
At night, our driver offered to take us to a view point where you get a beautiful night view of the Thimphu Dzong and Palace.
The Dzong at night

For the next day, we wanted to visit Haa valley and Chele La Pass and end the day by checking into the hotel in Paro. Day 5 was reserved for Tiger's Nest Hike and final day was for sightseeing in Paro and travel to Phuentsholing which was our entry point back to India. However on talking to the driver and hotel guys, we realized we need to leave hotel at around 6am to cover the places and it was not really worth visiting. So we changed our plan.

We checked out of Thimphu on day 4 and headed towards Paro. After checking into the hotel in Paro, we decided to go to Chele La Pass. Our hotel was near the Paro Airport, so on the way we stopped by a viewpoint to see a plane land and take off on that tiny runway.
The airport and pretty much the runway

It was cloudy and cold by the time we reached Chele La Pass. Because of the altitude, we experienced a bit of snow which gradually turned into rain a while later. If not for the weather, we would've walked up a nice hiking trail which would further take us up the pass.
The view
We had a local rice soup and momos at a food truck at the pass followed by hot tea. It was just amazing! Kinda reminded us of the cold weather in Switzerland last year (Mandatory blog link - Switzerland).

We then headed back to Paro and visited the Paro Dzong. It was exactly same as the Punakha Dzong but a bit smaller. This can be skipped as it is similar in architecture and history as Punakha. There is a museum behind the Dzong which has a display of the masks that are used in their folk dances. They also have a big TV where the folk dance videos are played at frequent intervals. The entry fee for SAARC countries is just Rs 25 so you can visit this place. Also if you are someone who is interested in folk arts then do not miss this! We were not allowed to take pics here.

We then asked the driver to take us to Drukgyal Dzong which he said was undergoing restoration. We still insisted him to take us there because the pics I had seen of this place were amazing. As you leave Paro town and approach Drukgyal you can see the Tigers Nest from the road and also see the snow clad mountains on the sides. Do not miss this view when you are in Paro.
View from Paro town

That was a hectic day, but we covered everything that Paro had to offer in a single day. We stopped by the Park76 cafe for dinner and were back in hotel by 8pm. The next day was the big day - The Tiger’s Nest trek.

We negotiated the Tiger’s Nest pickup/drop for Rs 800 total. You do not have public transport so you will either have to pool with someone and take a taxi from the stand or get your own taxi. Either way the taxi will cost you Rs 800-1000 for the entire day. There is an entry fee of Rs 500 per person if you wish to enter the monastery on the top. The trek is of moderate difficulty and should take you 5-8hrs total depending on the time you would want to spend in the monastery and in the cafe on the way. You have a choice of taking the horse ride upto the midpoint but I would recommend you walk. You can also get a guide who will accompany you and carry your bags for you. You will need a walking stick for better grip and you can rent one for Rs 50 at the entry point.
You can't see it clearly but tigers nest is on that middle hill

We had our breakfast and left hotel by 8:45am and started our climb by 9:15am. It was just the two of us but we met various other couples and groups on the way to the top. The first couple we came across walked with us until half the way and they told us that they were in Bhutan to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Then we met an elderly person who was probably in his 70s and had climbed all the way alone (his family was way behind with the guide). We also met a group from Karnataka who were happy like us to talk in Kannada in a different country. You have choice of routes to goto the top. First is the one which horses take which is easy but lengthy and you will need to stop frequently to make way for the horses. The other one is climbing up rocks or through trees which is a bit steep. You get this choice of route every few minutes.
The path

If you meet any local guides they will keep saying you are almost there to keep up your spirit. Here is the secret, if you are seeing horses on your route, you have not even reached the halfway mark. At the halfway mark, you have a cafe which is the only source of your food and drinks if you have not carried anything with you. You will not find anything to eat or drink in the tiger’s nest.
The mid point

After reaching the midpoint, you have easy walking paths till the view point. Once you reach the view point, you will be glad you did not give up on the way
The pic to frame :)

From this point you have around 300 steps to climb down and another 200 steps to climb up to reach the monastery.
See the bunch of stairs?

You can take a guide to give you the tour of the monastery or you tag along with other groups, the guides do not mind. You can sit there or on the way back for hours in peace and think “what am I doing with my life?”
We climbed up from down there!

It took us about 3.5hrs to reach the Monastery with our sufficient breaks and chit chats. We spent over an hour on the top and took a little over 1.5hrs to climb down. Our legs were killing us by the time we reached back to the entry point. I twisted my ankle on the way down but recovered quickly. This day you can choose to visit the spa or get a massage in the evening. We bought some snacks from the Paro town, had a hot water bath and ordered room service as we lazed for rest of the day. To make things better, we had twin beds in our room so yeah, all the space :-D
After the hectic trek, you have your space :P

That pretty much concluded our Bhutan trip. We left for Phuntsholing the next morning after breakfast which was a 6 hours drive on the hilly terrain with some amazing views.

Random pics enroute!

We checked into our hotel which was around 100 meters from the India-Bhutan border and spent the evening walking around the tiny town. The atmosphere in Phuntsholing is totally different from rest of Bhutan. It has a major Indian influence and a major Indian crowd. You get cheap stuff here and probably the best place to buy souvenirs too!
On the other side, is our India :)

The next day we had a flight at 3:30pm from Bagdogra. We left from the border town at around 9am and reach Bagdogra by 12pm. The view here is not so great except for the stretch of the coronation bridge where the route splits towards Sikkim. The Bagdogra airport was too small for the traffic it handles. We stood in queue for 30 mins to enter the airport and another 30 mins for baggage scan and check-in. Finally after about an hour in the security queue we entered the waiting area near the gate where we waited for an hour before boarding our flight back. Phew!

And with that we ended our first anniversary trip of Bhutan and were back in office the next morning.

Incase you missed the previous post which had details regarding planning the Bhutan trip then you can read it here - Planning a trip to Bhutan

To summarize our stay and travel:
Stay in Thimphu - Wangchuk Hotel (3 nights - Rs 2700 per night) [Highly recommended by us]
Stay in Paro - Tashi Phuntshok Hotel (2 nights - Rs 4600 per night) [Not worth the price, better book something near the Paro town]
Stay in Phuentsholing - Park Hotel Bhutan (1 night - Rs 3000 per night) [Highly recommended by us]
We had an amazing driver Mr. Sangay from Day 3 of the trip and you can reach out to him if you wish for a taxi only package: +975-7722-1610

You might also be interested to read: Leh-Nubra-Pangong, Haridwar-Rishikesh, Places around Vancouver, California,

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