Travelling from Bagdogra, India to Phuentsholing, Bhutan by land is a feast for mind, body and soul. You can have a quality “me” time while the bountiful supply of forests, mountains and rivers under the vast blue sky keep you company through the journey.
The route we followed during our eight-day trip with deviation here and there was:
Phuentsholing to Paro -> Paro to Thimpu ->Thimpu to Phobjikha -> Phobjikha to Paro -> Paro to Phuentsholing.
As we arrived in Phuentsholing, the gateway to Bhutan, it felt like I was in a time warp transition. Salwars and Sarees turned into skirts. Straight hair became straighter. Monotonous, uninspiring concrete buildings transformed into artistically decorated wood-clad buildings with sloping roofs. You can’t read the names on the shops or so much as calling someone’s name without asking for an encore anymore. The clock at the Bhutan gate, indicates you are 30 min ahead of your compatriots back home. The fact that you’re in a foreign land will start to sink in when you see the posters of the queen and king towering you in all the directions as opposed to movie posters.
Dress code in Bhutan
Bhutan’s dress code is called Driglam Namzha. If you thought that wearing a saree was a complex process, think again. To dress like a traditional Bhutanese man or a woman, first, you need a lot of apparels and then a mind of a mathematician to understand the complex technique and above all a lot of time and patience as I gather.
Monarchy in Bhutan
According to the legend, our chirpy guide that is, Bhutanese prefered monarchy over democracy. In case your jaw dropped to the floor as mine did, you’ll be delighted to know Bhutan is rated the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest country in the world. After all, it’s a country bursting with red-robed monks busy chanting prayers and those who are not monks busy serving the monks or visiting monasteries. It’s apparent that Bhutan chose to stay as far away as possible from controversial globalization.
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro, a town nestled in a valley, 149 km from Phuentsholing. One has to enter Paro to visit other parts of Bhutan. To me, Paro was felt like a wonderland. The river passing right through the town, wooden bridges, Dzongs, colourful facades of the buildings, huge and vacant airport, and the cool weather, almost everything about this town was exotic. And the best drink I enjoyed in chilly Paro was a glass of hot water.
Tiger’s Nest monastery
The Paro’s 8th century Taktsang aka the Tiger’s Nest monastery is one of the most visited and renowned monasteries in Bhutan. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism in Bhutan. The story goes that he flew from Khenpajong, Tibet to this location on the back of a tigress and meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in this cave. He eventually tamed the local demons and spread Buddhism in Bhutan. There are several variations to the legend with Tiger as a constant.
From a distance, this monastery has an air of eeriness to it. For one, it involves a tiger. For another, it hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff. Only as you get closer, the splendour and serenity of the monastery gradually dawn on you. This is one of the best monasteries you’ll visit in Bhutan.
Things that puzzled me about Paro were its sparse population and lack of apartments in view, although there is enough space between buildings to erect a mall. And traffic jam is an alien concept to them, our driver/guide didn’t so much as apply break, let alone honk.
On the other hand, 65km from Paro, Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan is a quintessential city. It is a frown evoking, noisy, dirty, busy and congested city. Traffic, rude people, malls, showrooms are commonplace occurrences.
Thimpu is the kind of place one would want to spend not more than a few minutes, en route to another place that is.
Shopping in Thimpu and Bhutan, in general, is a nightmare. The only thing that sounds reasonable here is 2 Rs pay and use the toilet. For a Fridge magnet, half the size of a Britannia Marie biscuit would set you back 550 Rs.
As a consolation, unlike the other cities, it is surrounded by the glorious Himalayan mountains, and you can see the grandeur of these mountains from anywhere in Thimpu.
Phobjikha, 135 km from Thimpu, is a remote village in a glacial valley, speckled with only a handful of houses surrounded by endless grassy pastures. And the temperature goes down to -4 °C during winter, we were told. It is frequented mostly by bird enthusiast as the endangered Black Necked Cranes migrate from Tibet during October.
Standing in the patio under the starry night sky with only tranquillity for company, and occasional calls of Black-necked cranes for music, the night spent at Phobjikha was the best time I spent in Bhutan. It was a transcendental experience.
Ema Datshi – Bhutan’s national dish
You get to eat Bhutan’s national dish, the ubiquitous Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese stew) at every meal. You don’t have to fret about all the calories you are downing in the form of cheese, for there are one too many monasteries to visit. And you will burn all the calories taking your shoes off and put them back on at every monastery. Besides, turning the prayer wheels in all the monasteries will also take care of your upper body workout. In these few days, I’ve visited monasteries enough for one lifetime.
Punakha – the ex-capital of Bhutan
The famous Chimi Lakhang temple, aka fertility temple, attracts many tourists to Punakha. Locals believe that if a childless couple seeks the blessings of Lama Drukpa Kuenley, they will soon bear children. A brief conversation with the locals will make you believe science itself is just a myth. An interesting thing you see here is, facades of the houses across the village are painted and adorned with Fertility symbols. And the wooden carvings of these symbols are sold in all the shops. First, I was scandalized, then I gradually warmed up to the unique tradition.
Dzongs, lamas and a few other words you can barely pronounce; the sound of the prayer flags, whispering wind and silence will be ringing in your head punctuated only by chattering teeth till you leave Bhutan.
Bhutanese came across to me as laidback, simple and peace-loving people. They don’t know the concept of arranged marriages exists in some parts of the world. It reflects in their attitude that money is not the driving factor. People from the other parts of the world have a thing or two to learn from them.
Also read: Velas-the village for Turtles here
Indians don’t require a visa to travel to Bhutan. However, an Indian id proof should be produced after arrival at the Bhutan gate to acquire permits which are valid for a certain period.
Indian rupee, as well as Bhutanese ngultrum are accepted in Bhutan
There are good and inexpensive hotels across Bhutan
People speak Hindi and
Bhutanese version of Indian food is available in some places.