Traveling from Bhagdogra, 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: sprightly forests, mighty mountains and sparkly rivers with twinkling sand for shoulders, under the all-pervading sky, rise and fall along the way.
The route we essentially traversed 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 a Narniya style time warp transition. Salwars and Sarees turned into wraparounds. Straight hair became straighter. Monotonous, squarish concrete buildings transformed into vibrant and artistically decorated wood clad buildings, with sloping roofs. You can’t read the names on the shops or so much as pronounce someone’s name without asking for an encore anymore. As you reach the Bhutan gate, the clock indicates you are 30min 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 queen and king towering you in all the directions as opposed to movie posters.
Bhutan’s dress code is unique and it’s called Driglam Namzha. If you thought 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 to understand a complex technique and above all a lot of patience I gather.
According to legend-our kind and chirpy guide- Bhutanese prefered monarchy over democracy. In case your jaw dropped to the floor, like mine did, you’ll be delighted to know Bhutan is rated happiest country in Asia and 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 very apparent that Bhutan chose to stay as far away as possible from problematic globalization.
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro, a town situated in a valley, 149km from Phuentsholing. One has to enter Paro to visit other parts of Bhutan. For a nomadic spirit like me, Paro is like Disneyland. River passing right through the whole town, wooden bridge, Dzongs, colorful and decked facades of the buildings, expansive and vacant airport, and the weather, almost everything about this town was distinctive. And the best drink you’ll ever enjoy in chilly Paro is a glass of really hot water.
Taktsang aka The Tiger’s nest monastery in Paro was built in 8th Century and needless to say that it is one of the most visited and renowned monasteries in Bhutan. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan has meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in this cave. Perhaps he had a fetish for number three. So he flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong to tame the Tiger demon. 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 and for another, it hangs precariously onto a cliff. As you get closer, the splendor and serenity of the monastery gradually dawn on you. This is by far one of the best monasteries you’ll visit in Bhutan.
Things that’ll mystify you about Paro are: It’s sparsely populated. There are absolutely no apartments. There is enough space between buildings to erect a mall. Our driver/guide didn’t so much as apply break, let alone honk. Traffic jam is an alien concept to them.
Thimpu is 65km from Paro and it’s the capital of Bhutan. It’s a quintessential, frown evoking, noisy, dirty, busy and congested city. Traffic, rude people, malls, showrooms is a usual sight.
Thimpu is exactly 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 2Rs pay and use toilet. For a Fridge magnet, half the size of a Britannia Marie biscuit, would set you back 550Rs.
However, unlike the other cities, it is surrounded by glorious Himalayan Mountains and you can see the grandeur of these mountains from anywhere in Thimpu. So this is the only consolation if you had no choice but to stay in Thimpu.
After spending five days in Bhutan I didn’t think Phunsuk Wangdu was a weird name anymore.
Phobjikha is 135km from Thimpu. It is a remote village in a glacial valley, speckled with only a handful of houses surrounded by endless bright 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 the month of October.
Standing in the patio under the starry night sky with peace and quiet for company and Black Necked Cranes calling occasionally in the distance for music, the night spent at Phobjikha was best time I spent in Bhutan. It was a transcendental experience.
Bhutan’s national dish is the ubiquitous Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese stew) and you get to eat this dish 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 your upper body workout. In these few days I’ve visted monasteries enough for one lifetime.
Punaka was the capital of Bhutan till 1955 before Thimpu. It is 72km from Thimpu. Chimi Lakhang Temples also famously known a Fertility temple is situated in Punaka. Locals believe that if a childless couple seeks the blessings of Lama Drukpa Kuenley, the couple will soon bear children. A brief conversation with the locals will make you believe science itself is just a myth. Interesting thing here is, facades of the houses across the village are painted and adorned with Fertility symbols. Also wooden carvings of these symbols are sold in all the shops. Initially I was scandalized; however, gradually I warmed up to the unique tradition.
Dzongs, lamas and a few other words you can barely pronounce; sound of winner flags, whispering wind and sometimes silence will be ringing in your head punctuated only by chattering teeth till you leave Bhutan.
Bhutanese generally are laidback, simple and peace loving people. They don’t know arranged marriages exist in some parts of the world. It reflects in their attitude that money is not really a big deal. People from the other parts of the world definitely 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 in Bhutan. However an Indian id proof should be produced after arrival at the Bhutan gate to acquire permits for a certain period.
Indian rupee as well as Bhutanese ngultrum is accepted in Bhutan
There are good and inexpensive hotels across Bhutan
People speak Hindi and slightly Bhutanese version of Indian food is available.
ITNatureclub organizes trips to Bhutan. For more information contact Geetanjali Dhar at email@example.com