Bhutan – The Land of Thunder Dragon

An escape was inevitable for us from the deafening hustles of city life, geometry of cubicles, intake of smoky dusts and shackles of time table. It couldn’t had been a perfect choice for us to pick Bhutan and so we decided to visit one of the most scenic places on Earth. Be it dense forests, majestic mountains, austere monasteries or the pristine environment, every aspect of Bhutan was extraordinary.

When the rest of the world measures wealth by weighing their assents in the treasury, Bhutan believes that the real measure of prosperity is the happiness of the people. When others play with numbers to calculate GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Bhutan measures GNH a.k.a Gross National Happiness. GNH has often been explained by its four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.

When it comes to environmental protection, Bhutan have already set an example before the world. Nature conservation together with cultural preservation is the core value of Bhutan. With more than 70% of its land covered with thick forests, its is the one of the rarest countries in the world that has the distinction of being “Carbon Negative” (which means its forests absorbs more Carbon than it actually produces). in short there is no alternative for Bhutan and its a unique kingdom.

Best time to visit : March, April (end of winter), September, October (start of winter)

Getting there:  Fly to Paro from New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bagdogra, Guwahati (India) Kathmandu (Nepal), Bangkok (Thailand), Singapore, or drive overland from India.

Currency: “Ngultrum (nu) is the currency of Bhutan. Approximately 67 nu = 1 US$ (in Oct 2016) and 1 Ngultrum= 1 Indian Rupees (Rs.). Both Ngultrum and Indian Rupees are equally accepted in Bhutan (Indians please don’t bother about changing your money). I read in many places that 500 and 1000 Rupees note are not accepted, but it is a totally wrong statement. I never had issues with any Indian Rupee denominations (of course there were instances where the other person didn’t had change and hence my 500/1000 notes were not accepted). Well can’t complain about that. Bhutan has a good number of ATMs at main areas. I never tried any of the ATMs as I carried hard cash with me.

Time Zone: Time Zone of Bhutan (BST) is different from Indian Standard Time (IST). BST is GMT +6 hours which is 30 minutes ahead of IST. Therefore 4 PM in India will be 4:30 PM in Bhutan.

Language Spoken : Dzongkha is Bhutan’s official language, however if you can speak English or Hindi then you can manage easily at hotels/taxi/restaurants.

Visa Requirements: 

Nationals of India, Bangladesh and Maldives are exempted from taking a visa, however they require to obtain an entry permit (FREE OF COST) either at the border gates or at Paro Airport. For the rest, its a costly affair to visit Bhutan as the fixed minimum daily rate of US$200 or US$250 per person is mandatory, although this does include transport, meals, guide and accommodation. For more details : Bhutan Visa.

For Indians, even if you don’t have a passport, you can get the permit by producing a copy of your Voter’s ID card.  The entry permits (valid for Thimphu and Paro Districts) are issued for a period of stay of 7 days. If you intent to visit other districts (Punakha, Haa, Bumtang, Gangtey, etc.) then you need to apply for additional permit at the “Immigration Office” in Thimphu. The duration of your stay can also be extended at the same office.

Travel Planning

Like all of my trips, I have planned myself for the journey and no travel agents had been involved. My starting point was the inputs I got my friend (Mainak Biswas), who visited Bhutan last year with his wife. I did get a great amount of information fro him and using that I started my research and planned my itinerary.

As in all of my travels, I really spend a good amount of time planning the optimal way  to complete the trip, keeping in mind cost incurred, time taken and places covered. The general route and mode of transport during my trip is as shown below.

Route Mode of Transport Cost (for 2 pax) Travel Time
Bangalore to Kolkata Flight Rs. 10100 2h 30 min
Kolkata Sightseeing Taxi Rs 2100 10 h
Kolkata (Sealdah) to Hasimara Train Rs. 2600 14h 30 min
Hasimara to Phuentsholing Auto Rickshaw (shared) Rs. 60 30 min
Phuentsholing to Thimphu Taxi Rs. 2800 5 h
Thimphu Sightseeing Taxi Rs. 1800 8 h
Thimphu to Punakha Taxi Rs. 1200 2h 30 min
Punakha Sightseeing Taxi (shared, point to point) Rs. 380  3h
Punakha to Paro Taxi Rs. 2000 3h (non stop)
Paro Sightseeing Taxi Rs. 2400 8 h
Paro-Taktsang-Paro Taxi Rs. 600
Paro to Phuentsholing Bus Rs. 470 6 h
Phuentsholing to Hasimara Auto Rickshaw (shared) Rs. 60 30 min
Hasimara to Kolkata (Sealdah) Train Rs. 2600 14h 30 min
Kolkata to Bangalore Flight Rs. 10100 2h 30 min

1 US$ = Rs. 67

Hotel Booking 

When it comes to hotel booking, please forget about all the hotel booking websites (at least for now).  You won’t find the budget hotel names in the travel websites and you need to do it manually by writing emails or calling them directly. Thankfully there is a website which lists a good amount of hotels in Bhutan, www.hotel.bt . You can get the room tariff, facilities, location, photos and contact details of the hotel from this very useful website. Once you have shortlisted your hotels, then you can search for user reviews in tripadvisor. The following are my hotels where we stayed (all are double bed rooms).

Day Date Travel/Stay Hotel Rate (Rs.or INR)
Day 1 01 October 2016 Flight to Kolkata, Train to Hasimara
Day 2 02 October 2016 Phuentsholing Hotel Peljorling (A/C) 1320
Day 3 03 October 2016 Thimphu Hotel Taktsang w wifi @ lobby 2100
Day 4 04 October 2016 Thimphu Hotel Taktsang w wifi @ lobby 2100
Day 5 05 October 2016 Punakha Damchen Resorts w wifi @ lobby 2200
Day 6 06 October 2016 Paro Hotel Jigmeling w wifi 1500
Day 7 07 October 2016 Paro Hotel Jigmeling w wifi 1500
Day 8 08 October 2016 Paro Hotel Jigmeling w wifi 1500
Day 9 09 October 2016 Train to Kolkata
Day 10 10 October 2016 Flight to Bengaluru Atithi Inn A/C (half day) 1600
Total Cost (Rs. or INR) 13,820

Itinerary

Day no. Date Night stay Places Visited
Day 1 01 October 2016 Train to Hasimara Flight to Kolkata, Kolkata Sightseeing (Belur Math, Howrah Bridge, Princep Ghat, Victoria Memorial), Train to Hasimara from Sealdah Railway station
Day 2 02 October 2016 Phuentsholing Walk Around
Day 3 03 October 2016 Thimphu Permit taking at Phuentsholing, Travel to Thimphu
Day 4 04 October 2016 Thimphu Memorial Chorten, Changangkha temple, Takin Preserve, Institue for Zorig Chusum, Folk Heritage Museum, Thimphu Dzong
Day 5 05 October 2016 Punakha Travel to Punakha, Dochula Pass, Punakha Suspension Bridge, Punakha Dzong
Day 6 06 October 2016 Paro Travel to Paro, Paro walk around
Day 7 07 October 2016 Paro Paro Airport viewpoint, Chelela Pass, jangtsa Dumtseg Lakhang (monastery), National Museum, paro Dzong, Drukgyel Dzong, Kichu Lakhangg (monastery)
Day 8 08 October 2016 Paro Taktsang Monastery, Sovenir shiopping
Day 9 09 October 2016 Train to Kolkata Bus to Phuentsholing, Train to Kolkata
Day 10 10 October 2016 Flight to Bangalore

The total expense incurred for this trip comes to Rs. 65,816 (US$ 1000 approx.) for two adults (ex. Bangalore) inclusive of all expenses (airfare, visa fee, entrance fee,sim card, taxi, food, water, souvenirs etc. etc. ), which comes down to Rs. 32,908 per adult. 

Day 1

Target : Reaching Kolkata, Kolkata Sightseeing, Leaving to Hasimara

We booked an early morning flight from Bangalore to Kolkata (5:30 AM) so that we cab reach Kolkata by 9:00 AM and will have enough time for a quick city tour. As suggested by one of my friends in Kolkata, I had earlier booked a cab for a full day from Kolkata Cabs. As I didn’t made any room bookings in Kolkata, it was important for us to get a car that was trustworthy (which can take us wound and also where we can keep our luggage while we do sightseeing). The cab driver’s number was messaged to me a day before and he was ready at the airport when we arrived. After a quick breakfast at Haldirams, we decided on where all to go (listed below) before we catch our train to Hasimara at 8:30 PM.

  • Belur Math (Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission)
  • Howrah Bridge
  • Princep Ghat
  • Victoria Memorial

We managed to visit all the above places as planned and after an early dinner our cab dropped at Sealdah Railway Station by 7:15 PM. I always thought Howrah was the only big railway station in Kolkata, but Sealdah Railway Station proved me wrong. It was buzzling with people all around and we managed to find our platform. Thanks to the high-speed wifi provided by Railnet, time flew watching some videos from hotstar until our train to Hasimara arrived (Kanchankanya Express).  We boarded the train and the train left on time.

Suggestion : It would be ideal if you can get 3AC or 2AC tickets. Start of October was found to be humid and it wasn’t a pleasant ride till Hasimara in the normal sleeper coach that we booked.(However I booked 3AC tickets for our return journey through tatkal, thanks to my sister, back home).

Day 2

Target : Reaching Phuentsholing (Bhutan) and then Thimphu

Reaching Hasimara

Our train was supposed to reach Hasimara by 10:45 AM, however for some reason the train could only reach there by 12 noon. Once you reach Hasimara, Phuentsholing (Bhutan border)is just 18 kms away. The Indian side of the town is known as Jaigaon.

Options to reach Jaigaon/Phuentsholing

  • Share auto rickshaw – Rs 30 per head
  • Bus (may be Rs 20 per head)
  • Auto rickshaw (Rs. 200)
  • Taxi (approx. Rs. 300-Rs. 400)

We took the option of share auto rickshaw. For this you need to walk straight to the finish of the platform and you can find autos waiting there (you will have to cross the railway line though). For other options exit through the railway station ticket counter.

bhutan0015
Entrance to Bhutan

We reached Jaigaon by around 1:00 PM (which is 1:30 PM in Bhutan). Make sure to adjust time in your watch and mobile. It was quite funny that 30 minutes of time was separated by a single gate. We walked inside Bhutan (through a side gate). I am not sure about other nationals, but for Indians we don’t need to show any of our IDs to enter into Phuentsholing. I heard that Indians can travel to about 5 kms inside the border without any documents.Our plan was to get the entry permit for Thimphu and then leave for Thimphu by around 3 PM.

Surprise Surprise!

The day we reached Phuentsholing was a Sunday and as per a recent rule change no permits are issued for Indians from Phuentsholing on weekends (I am not sure about other nationals). I was taken by surprise as I never read anywhere about this, otherwise I would have planned accordingly. I double checked this with some locals and found the same answer. So I realised that there was no other options, but to stay in Phuentsholing/Jaigaon and wait until the next day when the permit office opens.

Once I crossed the Bhutan side, I didn’t wanted to go back to the Indian side. It was much peaceful, clean so I took a room in a nearby hotel (Hotel Peljorling) and cancelled my room for the day in Thimphu (by making a call). Its better to take an AC room as the climate will be still warm and humid.

Phuentsholing

We were absolutely exhausted by the train journey and were covered with germs and so a shower was inevitable. After a shower, lunch and a quick nap, we decided to take a look at the town by walk. I took a SIM card from “Tashi Cell” (another alternative is Bhutan Telecom). There is a Tashi Cell customer care office at the shopping center near to the park. To obtain a tourist sim, you need to fill the application form and submit a copy of your ID (I gave passport copy). The SIM will cost Rs/Nu 210 (loaded with Rs. 200 talktime) and I added a data pack for Rs 99 (400 MG 4G/3G data). You can call India at Rs 4 per min. For more details : Tourist SIM – Tashi Cell. Bhutan Telecom is slightly cheaper and is equally good.

We were then looking for options for our next day trip to Thimphu and therefore walked towards the bus stand where you can check out bus/taxi options. There are two taxi stands, one near the bus stand and other on the way to bus stand.

Travel options to Thimphu

  • Taxi (reserved) – For 4 or less travellers, you can take the option of WagonR/Alto/Santro/Vista. Rate varies from Rs. 2800 to 3000. For more than 4 heads, Mahindra Bolero (Rs 4000-4500) /Toyota Innova (Rs 4500 -5000) (although you wont find that many Innovas unlike in India).
  • Taxi (Shared) – Small cars (4 pax) will charge Rs 700 – Rs 800 per head, Boleros will charge Rs 600-Rs 700 per head.
  • Bus – Buses are mostly of the make Toyota Coaster, operated by private operators. Each operator have their own timings to respective destinations and you need to go to the bus stand and check out at their counters (timings will be displayed there). Tickets needs to be booked in advance to be on the safer side (counters will close by 5 PM). The seat numbers are allotted based on first come first serve basis.

Day 3

Target : Getting entry permit and reaching Thimphu

Getting entry permit

Th following steps are valid only for Indian citizens. There is a dedicated building for issuing entry permits for Indian nationals. This is different from the emigration check post where other nationals are issued their visa/permits. The office starts at 9:00 AM and before that you can get the permit application form filled (applications forms are available in the nearby Photocopy/Xerox stores. Attach your photo, passport/voter’s ID copy along with the application form. I heard that the office is under renovation and the process of issuing permits will be streamlined in the future (it badly needs to be) so my experience can become extinct in the near future. Anyways, it was chaos after the door opened, no one knew what to do, which counter to go and to make the situations worse some Indian travels agents were trying to push their list of applications (bulk, for which they would have charged those travellers). Once the application is submitted, we will have to sit on a chair where our photo will be taken and after a while our permits will be signed and issued to us. We got our permits issued by around 10:45 AM (it was a big sigh of relief). The bright spot was that amid the chaos we met a group of three from Kerala (state where I belong) with whom we decided to share our ride to Thimphu.

For Self Drivers

If you are travelling inside Bhutan in your own vehicle (registered in India) then after you receive your permit, you need to go to RSTA (Road Safety and Transport Authority of Bhutan) office to obtain another permit which will allow you to drive inside Bhutan.

We walked to the taxi stand, managed to get a Toyota Innova for Rs. 4500 for a drop till Thimphu and by 12 noon, we started to Thimphu.

Destination Thimphu

Honestly we were quite skeptical about the condition of roads. We were expecting narrow, bad roads with pot holes for the best part of the 180 km journey and that was the reason why we chose Innova (even though Boleros were cheaper than it). But we (all 5) were proved wrong. The road is definitely not wide and was curvy, but had minimal pot holes. If you have motion sickness then its better to swallow an “avomine” 30 minutes before the travel to avoid any vomiting sensations. Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian organisation for maintaining the border roads in India is responsible for maintaining some of the strategic roads in Bhutan (including the roads connecting Thimphu with rest of the cities). Many of the roads are funded by India and its surprising to see the contrast in quality between the roads in North East of India (which for most part of the stretch can give you backbone injury) and the roads in Bhutan (not really a carpet, but far better), however both maintained by the same BRO. This is what happens when “x” amount of rupees allocated from New Delhi for maintaining roads, reaches Bhutan as “x” and not as “10-20% of x” in NE India (you know what I am talking about).

Once you reach 10 kms away from Phuentsholing, the weather starts to cool off and our car AC was asked to be shut off. Start of October presents a really enjoyable weather indeed in Bhutan. The more we travelled, Bhutan started to unfurl its beauty and I couldn’t turn off my camera. Our driver stopped at some stunning locations, including where we had our lunch. We also stopped at the two emigration check posts where our permits were checked and stamped.  By around 6 PM, we started to see some tall apartments (about 5-6 storyes) as we approached the National Capital, Thimphu. It was a true blend of nature+urbanisation and Bhutan had really balanced it well.

Thimphu

We checked in to our hotel (Hotel Taktsang) by 7 PM, while the 3 others checked in at (Hotel Tandin) which was at a walkable distance from ours. Most of the city hotels are located in and around the street named Norzin Lam, where our hotel was also located. There are couple of things that you can do at night. A night trip to Buddha point can give you the view of Thimphu city under lights and on the way you can see the Thimphu Dzong illuminated in shaded of white and red. We asked the same drive who dropped us in his Innova, but he demanded Rs 1000 for the 20 kms round trip ride (till then we had a good impression about this man, finally he spoiled it). It was getting late and we decided to drop the plan, walk around and have our dinner.

Tranquility on roads

Bhutan had done a great job by maintaining tranquility on roads. The traffic discipline explains a lot about the character of the people and we were thoroughly impressed (Indians will definitely appreciate the same). There is not even a single traffic signal installed in entire Bhutan, yet pedestrians can cross the road with ease, there are no honking, no illegal parking and vehicles turns at junction with ease and peace. My advice for non-Bhutanese driving inside their own car to respect their laws and culture.

Day 4

Target : Thimphu Sightseeing

As I already lost a day to be spent at Thimphu, I had to make sure to cover the prime tourist spots in Thimphu in a day and most importantly obtain the permit for Punakha (as the permit obtained from Phuentsholing is valid only for Thimphu and Paro).

Getting entry permit for Punakha

The Immigration office (location in Google Map) in Thimphu opens at 9 AM (better reach at 8:45 AM). I was expecting the same scenes as in Phuentsholing, but it was far more peaceful. Get the form from the office, fill it (make sure to include all the districts in your itinery Punakha, Bumtang, Haa, Gangtey etc.) Please don’t miss any of the districts or else you will have to come here again and re-apply (it doesn’t cost you anything, so be generous in naming the districts). Also if you plan to stay for more than 7 days in Bhutan then you need to apply for extension in the same office  (need to attach passport/voters ID copy).

Once you make the submission, then the staff will let you know the time when the permit will be ready. For us it was 1 hour (10:15 AM) from time of submission, so we had plenty of time for our breakfast. As promised we received the permits (in which the districts you have mentioned in your application will be printed).

Thimphu Sightseeing

Start : 11:00 AM

Travelling in multiples of 4 is the best option in Bhutan, as most of the cars are in 4+1 (driver) configuration. The drivers stick to the rules and there will be no adjustments, 4 means 4 (“thoda adjust karo bhai”, “chalta hai bhai”, “hum adjust kar lenge bhai” all these hindi dialogues are invalid here). Unable to find a bigger car, we decided to travel in two cars (WagonR is the best option). To catch taxi, its better to go to the city bus stand (Google map location). Once you reach there multiple drivers will approach you. Make sure you describe the places you want to visit as the rates will vary. I showed them the list of places and I was offered a tariff of Rs. 1500 for sightseeing till 4 PM and Rs. 2000 for the whole day.  Finally I managed to negotiate for Rs. 1800 for the whole day (2 cars, Rs. 1800 each).

National Memorial Chorten

11:30 AM to 12:00 noon

National Memorial Chorten is built in 1974 to honour of Bhutan’s third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972). It is located in the heart of the city, is designed is a Tibetan style Chorten. The Chorten is known to be the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan. At the time of our visit, some special prayers were happening and therefore we could see a large gathering there. Buddhist prayers were being chanted, tea, biscuits and rice were served to all the visitors. We spent about 30 minutes in there, had a cup of tea offered to us and came out.

Changangkha Lhakhang

12:15 PM to 1:00 PM

Changangkha monastery is an old fortress like temple and monastic school located on a high location overlooking the Thimohu valley. It was established in the 12 century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who came from Ralung in Tibet. We need to climb a few steps to reach the temple with prayer wheels all along the walls. The monastery offers a stunning view of Thimphu valley and we spend quite a bit of time taking photos.

Motithang takin preserve National Park

1:15 PM to 2:00 PM

“Takin” is the national animal of Bhutan and Motithang Takin Preserve is a wildlife reserve area for Takin. Long back this was a mini zoo, however later the King of Bhutan felt that it was improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals for religious and environmental reasons. He therefore ordered the release of the animals except takin in order to offer protection for the species which was already less in number. The preserve also holds a few sambar and barking deer. Do not expect a full fledged zoo here but there is enough greenery, peace and calmness. ENTRY FREE : Rs/Nu. 100 per head (bit on a higher side compared to what on offer).

Institute for Zorig Chusum

2:30 PM to 3:00 PM

The Institute Zorig Chusum was founded to provide vocational training for Bhutanese youth in painting, sculpturing, wood carving, tailoring etc. The institute plays a key role in transferring Bhutan’s hundreds of year’s of knowledge in traditional crafts to the next generation. I wouldn’t say this is a must visit place but if you have enough time, you can take a look. Here again the entry fee is Rs.100 per head.

NB: While coming from the Takin preserve to the institute, make sure you stop at the hilltop from where you can see the Thimphu Dzong and most importantly King’s palace (the size of it will definitely surprise you, one of the modest palaces in the world).

Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point)

4:00 PM to 5:00 PM

Buddha Point is massive Shakyamuni Buddha statue which measures in at a height of 51.5 meters, making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The statue is made of bronze and is gilded in gold. The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall. The meditation hall is equally spectacular and glitters with golden shades. Buddha Dordenma is located atop a hill in Kuensel phodrang Nature Park and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. This is a must visit place and I guess we reached there at the best possible time. The air was cooler and we enjoyed a stroll on the vast courtyard in front of the statue. The beautification works were still going on and I guess it will take a few months before it will be completely finished.

Tashichho Dzhong (Thimphu Dzong)

5:30 PM to 7:00 PM

Tashichho Dzong is a fortress cum Buddhist monastery in Thimphu on the western bank of the Wang Chu River. This was built in 1641 and since 1952 Tashichho Dzong has been the seat of the government. The Dzong presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. The entry to the Dzong is allowed only after the office hours, from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM by paying Rs/Nu 300 per head. Bhutan believes in equal powers to government and religion (the colours of Bhutanese flag itself is a symbolizes it as Yellow symbolizes the authority of the king, while orange is symbolic of the Drukpa monasteries). Therefore all the Dzongs in Bhutan are divided into two portions, one for government offices and other serves as a monastery.

Within the Tashichho Dzong tourists can visit the Buddha temple, however access to the administrative area is restricted. Once the darkness falls, the Dzong will be illuminated with shades of red and white. Its a brilliant treat for photographers once the lights comes to play.

It was almost 8:00 PM when we reached back to our hotel. Next day we were supposed to leave for Punakha and therefore I decided to get the transport sorted out. My first preference was to get a car bigger for 5 of us and I was told to go to the Thimphu share taxi stand (beside the RSTA office – Google Map location). I went there walking but couldn’t find a 5+ seater and then decided to get two cars.

Travel options to Punakha

  • Taxi (reserved) – For 4 or less travellers, you can take the option of WagonR/Alto/Santro/Vista. Rate is almost fixed at Rs. 1200 (one way).
  • Taxi (Shared) – Small cars (4 pax) will charge Rs 300 per head (one way).
  • Bus – Buses are not plenty to Punakha, however you can check out the timings at RSTA Bus Stand (Google Map location)

NB: The drivers might offer you one way transfer+ full day sightseeing in Punakha (Rs. 2700 to Rs 3000). Well the main attractions of Punakha are the Dzong, Suspension bridge and Chimi Lhakhang. If your plan to visit only these then paying extra Rs 1500 to Rs 1800 will be waste of money. Punakha is a very small town and you can get share taxis locally which are much cheaper. Thankfully we just opted for the one way drop, however the driver kept asking me about the sightseeing package.

Day 5

Target : Punakha Sightseeing

We left Thimphu by around 8:00 AM in two cars for a 70 km journey (3 hour journey, if non-stop) to Punakha. Punakha is another district and was the capital of Bhutan till 1955. The route starts with a climb to Dochula Pass (3100m above MSL) and the road conditions are pretty decent (barring 10-15 kms stretch, which is undergoing widening). The special permit (obtained from Thimphu) needs to be shown at one of the check posts.

Dochula Pass

9:30 AM to 10:15 AM

Dochula Pass is located at 3100m above MSL and is characterised by 108 memorial chortens/stupas. It offers a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of Himalayan mountain range (provided there is no fog/drizzle). It was foggy when we reached the pass. We stopped at Dochula Pass and decided to have breakfast from the only restaurant available on top. The restaurant looked pretty good and we started to doubt the prices. Thankfully it wasn’t overpriced and we enjoyed the breakfast there.

Punakha

By 11:30 AM we reached Punakha. We were expecting a city similar but smaller compared to Thimphu, but it was way too small to be called even as a town (given the fact that it was once the capital of Bhutan). Also Punakha is warmer compared to Thimphu or Paro as it is not located on high altitude. Khuruthang is the main area in Punakha where you can find restaurants, shops and taxis. The resort we booked (Damchan Resort) was thankfully in Khuruthang, right next to the Puna Tsang Chu river. The resort was really nice and was in a quiet place, however restaurant bills can be on a higher side (if you are a budget traveller). We checked in and decided to have lunch from a restaurant in the town area. We also decided to just visit the suspension bridge and the Dzong (wasn’t so keen on more temples).

Punakha Suspension Bridge

3:00 PM to 3:30 PM

The suspension bridge in Punakha constructed above the river Pho Chhu is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan (Google Map location). Its constructed for pedestrian movement and connects the village across the river. The area offers breathtaking views and its a delight for human eyes as well as camera lens. You could see adventure seeking tourists carrying out river rafting through the Phu Chhu river.  We took a share taxi from Khuruthang till Punakha Dzong (Rs 40 per head, 5 kms) and from there reserved a taxi for Rs. 200 (to and fro journey, 5kms). Cars can only only reach about 500 m away from the bridge and you need to walk to get there. The bridge is suspended at a good height from the river and after the initial jitters we managed to cross it. On the other side of the bridge is a big prayer wheel, a paddy field and a grocery shop. Our return journey was delayed by few minutes as we had to give way for couple of cows who were crossing the bridge.

Punakha Dzong

3:45 PM to 5:30 PM

Punakha Dzong is the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. It was the administrative centre and the seat of Government of Bhutan till 1955.  Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of Pho Chhu (father)& Mo Chhu (mother) rivers. The Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani. The wedding of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was held at the Punakha Dzong, on 13 October 2011. The access to the Dzong is through the wooden bridge across river Mo Chhu. Like any other Dzong, it has administrative area and area for religion. It is a six-storied structure with a central tower or utse at an average elevation of 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) with a scenic, mountainous background. The materials used in building the Dzong consisted of compacted earth, stones and timber in doors and windows (ref: Wikipedia).

The Dzong is a true deligh for photographers and architecture enthusiasts. We spent considerable time roaming around and taking pictures. ENTRY : FREE, and the Dzong closes for public by 5:30 PM.

Other Attractions in Punakha 

However we didn’t visit these places. After visiting the Dzong, we took a share taxi (Rs 40 per head) back to Khuruthang. On the way don’t forget to stop your car just before the river confluence point to get the best view of the Dzong. We spent the rest of evening by spending some time near the river, had a costly tea (from our resort, Urrgh didn’t check the menu on the first place), had dinner and called it a day.

NB: The hotel options in Punakha are limited and if you are unable to get a hotel then just plan a two way trip from Thimphu. If you start early from Thimphu, then you can visit Punakha and return back the same day (consider 6 hours travel time for the round trip).  

Day 6

Target : Reaching Paro

Now that Punakha had been covered, our next destination was Paro.

Travel options to Paro

  • Taxi (reserved) – For 4 or less travellers, you can take the option of WagonR/Alto/Santro/Vista. Rate is almost fixed at Rs. 2000 (one way).
  • Taxi (Shared) – Small cars (4 pax) will charge Rs 500 per head (one way). It might be difficult to find travellers to share the ride till Paro. In such a case, travel to Thimphu (Rs 300 per head) and take another share cab to Paro (Rs 200 per head) .
  • Bus – I don’t think there is a direct service from Punakha to Paro. You need to take break journey till Thimphu and pick another bus to Paro. You can ask locals for the timings.

The team splitted as they wanted to see a local festival in Thimphu, so it was just the two of us heading towards Paro. A fully reserved car was becoming a luxury for us, so we decided to share the co-driver seat to someone else (reserving back row – 3 seats for two of us) saving Rs. 500. Well it took a few minutes before we could find a co-passenger and we headed towards Thimphu by 10:15 AM. It was a non-stop ride (almost) and we reached Thimphu by 12:45 PM. The taxi dropped us at the taxi stand and the driver himself was kind enough to find us a shared cab for our journey from Thimphu to Paro (50 kms).

To reach Paro by road, we need to travel for 27 kms on the Thimphu – Phuentsholing highway after which we need to take a detour across the bridge over river Wang Chu. The road takes us kissing the hills and through apple orchards. About 6 kms before we reach Paro downtown comes the only international airport in Bhutan, the Paro Internationl Airport. The road goes parallel and and about the same level as the runway. An old temple is located just at the entrance to Paro and we were dropped at our hotel (Hotel Jigmeling) by 2:00 PM.

We had already reserved this day for rest and was totally relaxed. After a late lunch, we strolled through the town, window shopping at the souvenir shops, advance booking our bus ticket to Phuentsholing (didn’t want to miss the seat).

NB: You may find many handicrafts and souvenir shops in Paro town. Of course they are of good quality and there are lots of choices available. However before buying anything from there, visit the base point of Taktsang trek where you can find many stalls setup, which offers the best rates in Bhutan. Masks sold for Rs/Nu 1000 in Thimphu will be Rs 500-600 in Paro town and Rs 200-300 at the Taktsang base point. 

Day 7

Target : Paro Sightseeing

The day started with a strange note that for the time in the trip a Bhutanese taxi driver tried to cheat me. While having our breakfast at our hotel he approached us and offered ride in his taxi to see around Paro for Rs 3800. I wasn’t prepared either as I didn’t know the rates before hand. I almost negotiated for Rs. 3500 but suddenly remembered the golden words of one of the previous taxi drivers “never ask for or accept taxi booking from inside your hotel, go around and ask for the rates“. I immediately phoned the driver who rode us from Thimphu to Paro and he suggested not to accept anything above Rs/Nu 2700 (unfortunately he was not in town). Anyways I rejected the Rs 3800 offer (which came down later to Rs 3200, as he saw me talking on phone), went to the taxi stand and there I met the best driver in my entire trip, Mr. Chen Cho (Mob no: +975 17610739). Looking at his smile I could sense that he was a nice guy and we agreed for a price of Rs 2400 for the whole day. By around 9:15 AM , we started for the day.

Chelela Pass

We reached Chelela Pass by around 11 AM and it was chilly as expected. Chele la Pass is one of the highest motorable roads (3988m above MSL) in Bhutan and it separates the districts of  Haa and Paro valley.  The drive till here from either Paro or Haa is through dense spruce and larch forests according to the seasons. On a clear day one can enjoy the beautiful view of Bhutan’s second highest and best known peaks the Jichu Drake and Mount Jumolhari. If its your lucky day and weather is on your side then you can even catch a glimpse of Mount Kunchenjunga the 3rd highest mountain in the world from this view point. The descend to down to the Haa Valley down to the town of Haa starts from here if you are coming from Paro, however Haa district must be specified on the inner line permit that you have taken at Thimphu in order to cross over to Haa.

Paro Airport view point

1:00 PM

We can get a bird’s eye view of the Paro International airport while traveling on the road to Chele la Pass. I did took a note of this place and made sure on our return journey from Chele La, we get a shot of the airport. The Paro airport is a tiny airport nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas is said to be the most dangerous in the world located at an altitude of 2235 m above MSL. We were just in time to see a take off and I got my camera ready capture the moment. Though it was a small aircraft, it was still worth a shot.

Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang

1:45 PM

After our lunch we moved on to our next destination. Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang is a Buddhist temple built in 15th century. We didn’t enter the temple just took a few pics and moved on to our next destination.

National Museum (Ta Dzong)

2:00 PM to 2:45 PM

The National Museum of Bhutan is located within Ta-Dzong, an ancient watchtower. The Museum has in its possession over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It gives a quick tour on the past and present of Bhutan. The room of masks is spectacular and give plenty of details about the different type of masks and their significance. The round shaped clock tower was under renovation and therefore we weren’t allowed inside. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum, but you can photograph the Ta-Dzong and surrounding grounds.

Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong)

3:00 PM to 3:30 PM

Paro Dzong‘s full name is Rinpung Dzong, which means  “the fortress of the heap of jewels”.  The dzong is smaller compared to the ones in Thimphu and Punakha, but is located on a higher elevation overlooking the Paro town. The valley’s annual springtime religious festival called the Paro Tsechu is organized each year in the courtyard of the dzong and is attended by tourists from all over the world. One of the balconies of the Dzong presents a spectacular view of the Paro town, the river and the valley. We can also get view of the guest house in Paro where the King resides while visiting Paro (however its bigger than the Palace in Thimphu).

Drukgyel Dzong

4:00 PM

Drukgyel Dzong used to be fortress but is now in ruins. It is located 15 kms from the Paro town. The Dzong is supposedly built in 15th century to celebrate victory over Tibetan efforts to invade Bhutan. The Dzong was destroyed by a fire happened around 1950. We couldn’t enter inside the Dzong as it was raining and the entry to the Dzong was slushy.

Kyichu Lhakhang

4:15 PM

Kyichu Lhakhang is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Bhutan. The Jowo Temple of Kyichu was built in the 7th century and is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. It is considered to be one of the four (4) border taming temples built by the Tibetan emperor Songtsän Gampo. The temple is surrounded by paddy fields on one side and hills of the other. Its a small and simple temple complex with lots of flowers grown around it.

Our Paro sightseeing came to an end by 5 PM and it was a relaxed experienced. Moreover our taxi driver (Mr Chen Cho) was extremely nice. He used to always be alert when I was about to take pics from car. Chen quickly understood my taste in photography he used to stop the car at places that looked stunning for me to take pics. I wished we had him as our driver for the entire trip. Though his Hindi wasn’t that fluent, we managed well together.

By the time we were back in Paro town, the three others were already in Paro after halt in Thimphu to watch a festival there. It was part of our plan to meet at Paro and go for the trek to Taktsang Monastery, the next day. We spent the evening packing our bags with water bottles and snacks for the trek, before having dinner.

Day 8

Target : Taktsang (Tiger Nest) Monastery

8:20 AM to 3:30 PM

This was probably the most awaited day in our entire trip as it was the day for the trel to the Tiger Nest Monastery (Taktsang Lhakhang). It  is Bhutan’s most iconic landmark and one of the most holy sites in Bhutan. The name Taktsang translates to “The Tiger’s Nest”. It is believed that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon, was first built in 1692 at a cave where Guru Rimpoche meditated in a cave, in the 7th century A.D. for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours in order to subdue evil demons residing within it. The cave has been considered a sacred site ever since and many famous saints have travelled to meditate in it.

In order to arrive at the temple you must trek for around 2-3 hours through beautiful, shady pine forests that is colorfully festooned with moss and prayer flags. Ever since I heard about this trek, I had been longing for the experience. Now that I was travelling with my wife, it was absolutely necessary for me to give her confidence and take her along with me for the trek. I was greatly relieved to get the company of other three (Sreejith, Neetha and Ashin) as they made adjustments to their travel plans to come with us for the trek.

Chen Cho, our driver was ready at 7:45 AM with a flask of tea prepared by his wife (who was from Sikkim, India). The other three took another cab and we decided the starting point of the trek as the rendezvous point. By 8:20 we started the trek from the base point and we could see the Taktsang Monastery pinned to the side walls of a cliff 3000 ft above us.

Preferred dress and gear for trek:

  • Dress: For tourists, anything that covers upto the feet is enough to get into the monastery. Better not to wear jeans as it will be difficult for the trek (unless you are used to it for long walks). Track pants/khakis will be ideal.
  • Shoes: A trekking shoe would be ideal, however normal sports shoes will be sufficient. You can see the locals walking with chappals/sandals.
  • Water: Carry as much as you can. Better to have glucose drinks (eg: Gatorade, which you will have to buy from India or Thimphu)
  • Raincoat/Umbrella : You can expect drizzles on the way its ideal to carry an umbrella or raincoat.
  • Snacks : Ain’t a bad idea to carry some chips/biscuits.
  • Cash : carry some cash for your souvenir shopping from the basepoint after you finish the trek.
  • Walking stick : If you dont have one, you can buy wooden walking sticks for Rs 50 from the base point. Better to have one for better stability and assistance while trekking.

Visiting Options

  1. Walk until the monastery – 2 to 3 hours walk one way
  2. Mule Ride + Walk : Mules and horses are allowed until half way mark (near the cafeteria). One can either enjoy the view from there, come back in the same horse/mule or can walk from thereon to reach the monastery.
  3. View from Base Point : No need of trekking. Taxis can drop you till the base point.

Timings (at Monastery)

  • Winter (Oct to Mar) : 8 AM to 5PM
  • Summer (Apr to Oct) : 8AM to 6PM
  • Lunch break : 1PM to 2PM (no visitors allowed inside)

We were slow to climb compared to other travellers, but it was part of the plan to prevent getting exhausted. Travellers older than us were overtaking us continuously, which was kind of embarrassing, thanks to our fitness levels. However we kept our cool, burying any possible blood rush and sticked to the slow and steady attitude.

On the halfway mark (beyond which horses/mules are not allowed) there is a restaurant run by Dept. of Tourism, Bhutan. Rates will be on a higher side there and that’s when the snacks we carried came in handy for not burning our pockets. As we approach closer to the monastery we will reach a point where we will be on a higher elevation than the monastery. Its because we will be on the cliff opposite to the one on which the monastery is built. We may think that we have reached, but not yet. We need to climb down some stairs kissing the cliff from the point until we reach a waterfall between the cliffs and from there we need to climb up. The views and feeling are something that I can’t explain.

Finally by around 12 noon we reached the great Taktsang Monastery. It was the perfect time as we got 1 hour to visit the monastery before it closes for lunch at 1PM. No cameras, bags, mobile phones are allowed inside. Free lockers are available and you can lock up your stuffs before entering the temple. The monastery buildings consist of four main temples and residential shelters ideally designed by adapting to the rock (granite) ledges, the caves and the rocky terrain. All the buildings are interconnected through steps and stairways made in rocks.

We came out by 1 PM and were offered with tea and some snacks as there was some volunteering done by a local school. By around 1:15 PM, we started our return journey from Taktsang. It was relatively easy now and our rate of descend was better than our climb. By around 3:30 PM we were back at the base point, with that proud and accomplished feeling which you won’t get to experience that often. Souvenir shopping was in top priority right from the beginning from the trip and based on what I read from other blogs, I was waiting untill I reached the Taktsang base point and I wasn’t surprised why so many people have recommended this place. For a comparison, fridge magnets that cost Rs 150 in Paro were sold for Rs 75-100 here.

As mobile networks was available for most part of the trek, I was able to call my driver to come for the pick up by 4PM and our man Chen Cho was there on time, waiting for us. We were dropped at a restaurant and it was time to say good bye to our dear Chen Cho. We took buffet option and ate like a pig, went back to room and took a shower. Our Bhutan sightseeing thus came to a finish with the trek being a grand finale.

Day 9

Target : Train to Kolkata

Our bus to Phuentsholing was scheduled to depart Paro by 9 AM and we reached the bus stop by 8:30 AM. The seat numbers were already allocated when we booked the tickets two days back. It was a fun ride as the driver’s family was also travelling in the bus and it was family time with chit chat and songs played. There was a 30 min lunch break and we reached Phuentsholing by 3 PM. Our train was scheduled to depart Hasimara station by 4:45 PM (Indian Time) and it was only 2:30 PM (IST). We had plenty of time and we took a taxi from the bus station to get ton the Indian side (Jaigaon). Taxi from Phuentsholing to Hasimara might cost you upto Rs 600, however we just asked him to drop us at a place from where we can get share auto to Hasimara. For that (about 2 kms ride) he charged Rs 100. From there we took share auto which dropped us at Hasimara railway station by 4 PM. The train was on time and we started our journey back to Kolkata.

Day 10

Target : Reaching Kolkata, Flight to Bangalore

We reached Sealdah Raliway station by 9 AM and from there we booked a Ola cab to the hotel we booked for spending the day. As it was the day of Durga Pooja, I have booked the room on VIP road which is away from Pooja crowds and easily accessible to the airport. We were still in the hangover of the bliss and peacefulness of Bhutan and a kick was necessary to bring us back to reality. This was provided by “Vesper Guest House cum restaurant” in VIP where I booked a room for the day. We reached there and was told that all rooms were sold out. I couldn’t believe as I had booking confirmation from GoIbibo.com. After a fight with the manager whose attitude would drive away any guests and informing GoIbibo about my experience, I crossed the road and took a room in Atithi Inn. (GoIbibo had later refunded the cash). Our flight was at 9:20 PM and till 6:30 PM we roamed nearby, visited Pooja pandals and did sweets shopping from Haldirams. We left for airport at 7 PM, reached airport by 7:30PM, baorded the flight by 9PM and was back in Bangalore by 12 am.

Trip Summary

I like travelling to places and my experience with Bhutan was one of its kind. We were so happy to choose Bhutan as our holiday destination and the country and its people never disappointed us.  The photos that I have posted above are sufficient enough to speak volumes about what we experienced and what you can expect from this Himalayan Kingdom. I just wish Bhutan to stay green forever, preserve their tradition and enchant the visitors with its beauty and charm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s