Bhutan has been on my bucket list ever since I heard about 'Gross National Happiness', a concept that replaces GDP in Bhutan. What amused me was that while every other country is trying to become a super power, this country has recognized 'Happiness' as the key to national development. What a paradigm shift in the way we look at national progress and growth! Since then, I desperately wanted to tour Bhutan to witness their culture, traverse across the himalayan landscapes and see how happy Bhutanese were.
The long weekend of Ganesh Chaturdi gave us the right opportunity as a 4 day leave would give us a 10 day vacation! (3rd Sep to 12th Sep 2016 - 5th was Ganesh Chaturdi and 12th was Bakr-Id).
We started as a group of 6 at the planning stage, but as we approached the 'ticket booking' stage only 2 of us were left - my childhood friend, Krishna Murthy, from Pune and I, Shashank, from Bangalore! Rest of them dropped, each with a different excuse. How and what all we planned for the trip is a different story in itself but our goals were clear:
1. Keep the trip as spontaneous and flexible as possible - we had few places in mind but we were ready to change the entire itinerary based on our conversations with the locals after reaching Bhutan
2. No pre-booked tour packages - as this would limit our interaction with the locals and divert our attention towards normal tourist attractions. This eventually helped us in visiting places and doing things that don't reflect on regular tour packages.
3. No pre-booked hotels - as we had no clue where we would be on a given day unless we decide after reaching Bhutan!
4. Use local transport as much as possible - This would give us more opportunity to interact with the locals, witness their culture, discover new places and keep our expenses minimal.
5. Do not rush. Spending some quality time in one good place is better than rushing to 10 places just for the name sake.
Simply put, we just wanted to go with the flow exploring and enjoying. Here's how it went...
The Journey begins...
Krishna took a flight from Pune to Bagdogra, stayed there in a nearby hotel and joined me on Kanchankanya express at Siliguri Junction the next morning.
I took a flight from Bangalore to Kolkata, train (Kanchankanya Express) from Kolkata to Hasimara (Krishna joined at Siliguri) and we took a share auto from Hasimara to Jaigaon and crossed the Bhutan border on foot!
The permit office at Phuentsholing stays closed on Saturday and Sunday. That day being Sunday, we had an opportunity to explore the town in leisure, talk to locals, enquire about the travelling options and plan our next day. No permit is required to roam around Phuentsholing.
We visited Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang, a temple at a walk-able distance from the Bhutan gate. Then took a cab to Richending Gompa, a monastery on top of a beautiful hill. The view from the top of the hill was simply stunning. We could see all of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon with a broad river flowing across Bhutan and India border. Thought of going near the river bed but couldn't go as it became dark by time we came down the hill.
Phuentsholing to Thimpu (Capital of Bhutan):
Permit office in Phuentsholing opens at 9:00 AM Bhutan time, which is 30min ahead of Indian Time (i.e., 8:30 AM IST). We reached the office a bit late and there was already a big queue. Met a guy there from Kolkata, Krishan Das, who was travelling alone to Bhutan to attend a friend's marriage at Thimphu. So, we decided to go to Thimpu together. He was asked to give a letter declaring that he's responsible for what ever happens to him as he was travelling alone. Our permit was done in about an hour. To my disappointment they didn't stamp in my passport after verification. This was my 1st trip abroad and I expected to get a stamp in my passport :-(
One of the best things I came to know by googling about Bhutan trip was to take a local Bhutanese sim card. Three of us took Tashi (Bhutanese cellular network) sim cards (Rs. 210/- per sim with Rs.200 talk time. Instant activation! Data packs available starting from Rs. 49 for 170MB of 3G data valid for 7 days. India calling - Rs. 4/min - no additional pack required - as on Sep 2016)
Checked out from hotel at 12 Noon, took a shared taxi to Thimphu for Rs. 600/person.
Our journey started at around 1:00 PM.
Words are just not enough to describe how beautiful the entire path was from Phuentsholing to Thimpu. It wouldn't be an exaggeration if I say it was a 5 hour feast to our eyes and heart. I soon realized that our cameras were not yet capable of capturing such beauty. Some things are just meant to be seen through our eyes. The road was running through lush green mountains and valleys covered with dense fog. There were numerous sharp bends and we could hardly see 10 meters ahead of us due to the thick fog. It was slightly drizzling at times making the surrounding look more greener. There were dense green mountains after mountains for as far as we could see. Then came the most beautiful spots of all - the highest point between Phuentsholing and Thimphu at height of 8350 feet above MSL from where we could see a beautiful river gushing through the valleys crossing all the mountains. The clouds were below our eye level. One can only witness such a sight with awe and amusement.
The road then took us downhill and soon we are riding right next to that river for a very long time. Then there came the confluence of 2 rivers where a diversion would take you to Paro. We headed towards Thimphu, bought local apples on the way. Very juicy and very cheap (Rs. 80 for 6 apples!). Reached Thimphu, took a room in a hotel right opposite to the tower clock.
Thimpu - local sight-seeing & permits:
We started at 7:30 AM to Memorial Chorten.
Then the Buddha Point on top of a hill. The view of the Thimpu city was spectacular from up there. The morning fog slowly covered the Buddha statue to a point where we could hardly see it! It was an amazing experience.
Spent some time there admiring the nature and started to permit office at 9:00AM. We took permit for touring Punakha, Wangdue, Paro and Ha Valley. We then roamed around the city covering Textile Museum, Tazin zoo, Football stadium, a park next to the river with a standing Buddha and few more places but none of them pleased us after seeing the Buddha statue. We wanted to go to that place again and we did! Sat there for some time enjoying the beauty of the valley and clouds, took few more pictures, and returned back to our hotel.
In the evening we went to the local bus stand, inquired about the bus timings to Punakha, Paro and Phuentsholing. Booked tickets from Thimpu to Punakha (8AM next day) and from Thimpu to Phuentsholing (7AM bus on 11sep, Sunday)
Thimpu to Punakha:
Bus started at 8:00AM sharp. The route was very beautiful with scenic valleys, mist and little waterfalls.
Got down at Kurthang village, which is around 15 min drive from Punakha Dzong, at around 11:30AM. Found a little hotel nearby and took a room. View was awesome from the room window.
Kept our luggage and started to Punakha Dzong. Shared cab fare from Kurthang to Punakha Dzong was Rs. 40 per person (one way fare).
The road goes next to a beautiful river. Punakha Dzong is built right at the point of confluence of 2 rivers Mo chu (female) and Po chu (male) - 'chu' means water in Dzonka, Bhutanese language. It was majestic. It's the most beautiful Dzong we've seen so far. It's architecture was amazing. The location was simply awesome. We spent a lot of time inside the Dzong, took some 360° PhotoSpheres.
Our hotel receptionist told us about a little known suspension bridge that's behind the Punakha Dzong. To our surprise it was very long over the river Po Chu. Later we came to know that it's the longest Suspension bridge in Bhutan. The bridge was awesome with a 360° view of the gushing river and beautiful valley. There was a little canteen and paddy fields on the other side of the suspension bridge. Had some snacks there.
We wanted to get our feet wet in the river. So we crossed the suspension bridge and walked down the hill to the river bank. The bank was full of curved stones. To our surprise, the water was ice cold! We couldn't put our feet for more that few seconds in the water. It was freezing! Spent some wonderful time there went back to our hotel.
Punakha - Hike & Raft!
Our day started with a refreshing hike to Khamsum Yule Namgyel chorten (a temple above a small hill which takes an hour to hike). Cab driver took Rs. 300 to take us to the starting point of the hike. The hike was not very strenuous. We could reach the chorten in 45 min. The view was amazing from up there with the river zigzagging across the valley. Clear blue skies with thick white clouds made the view even more spectacular. The chorten was a 4 storeyed temple with Guru Rinpoche on the Ground, 1st and 2nd floors and Buddha on the 4th floor which also is a sort of small terrace with a breathtaking 360° view of the valley.
Next was the most exciting part of the day - White water Rafting on river Mo Chu. , The starting point of the hike happened to be the starting point of the rafting too! Rafting guys were ready by the time we came down. The rapids were very gentle. We got wet at few rapids. It was fun. The view was stunning as we approached Punakha Dzong. More than the rafting, we enjoyed the 360° view of the beautiful scenic valley all throughout our 14 km raft which took around 2 hours. Swam in the river for some time. The water was freezing cold. We were amazed to observe how our bodies got adjusted to such cold water just within few seconds after we took a full dip. Had lot of fun swimming in such a flowing river after a very long time. Once again I realized how hard it is to swim upstream (against the flowing direction of the river). Just lying on my back took me very far from the raft! Had to struggle a bit to reach the raft before the shallow section began. It was totally fun and a very different experience. The crew members were very supportive. They took us on raft till the Kurthang village where we stayed. Thanks to 'Druk Rafting Service' for such a wonderful ride.
Packed our bags, checkout out of the hotel, took a shared cab and started to Thimpu. Saw Dochula pass on the way. The area was totally covered with mist.
Reached Thimpu bus stand, immediately got another shared cab to Paro. There we met Sonam, a local tourist guide. He sat next to me in the back seat. I was discussing about my tour plan in Paro and was asking him about his job in Paro. To my surprise, he offered to show us places in Paro the next day. After we got down at Paro, he was very kind enough to take us to many hotels and got us discount for a beautiful room at Sondem Norzin hotel for Rs. 1000/- (Actual price was Rs. 1500/-). We agreed to meet at 10 AM next morning and he left for the day.
Paro - local sight seeing:
Our new friend, Sonam, joined us at sharp 10:00 AM. We initially thought we shall roam around paro on bicycles but the cycle rental shops were closed. So we hired a cab from the nearby taxi stand for Rs. 1400/- and started our day excursion.
We saw, Ta Dzong, Museum, Paro Dzong, Kichyu Lakhang, Drugyel Dzong (which was under renovation) and Jangsarpey Lakhang (a very old Monastery in the shape of a Sthupa, a 3 storeyed building - ground floor dedicated to Mahayana, 1st floor for Hinayana and 2nd floor for Vajrayana Buddhism). At each place, Sonam would tell us about the history of that place and make us understand different aspects of their culture. He brought a new dimension to our tour that day.
We thought of visiting all the above places by lunch and then start to hike the Tiger's Nest monastery. But as it started raining, he advised us that it was not safe to start the hike then and suggested to start early the next morning. Came back to our hotel in Paro and took a short nap.
Then was the most awaited part of the day - 'Hot Stone Bath'! Sonam spoke to one of his friends and arranged for a Hot stone bath in a farm house. We started to the farm house at around 4:45 PM and it was a 30 min drive from our hotel. The farm house was made of wood right next to the bank of River 'Paro Chu'. His friend lived there with wife and 2 kids. They offered us biscuits and Surja (Bhutanese tea made of cheese, water, salt and tea leaves - no milk).
He showed us the wooden bath tub filled with water and medicinal leaves, brought the red hot stones from the yard and put them in the smaller partition of the bath tub. The water started getting hot. Once the temperature of water was bearable enough for us, he stopped adding hot stones. We soon wore our shorts and got into the tub!
Hot water, white fumes, green leaves. It was very relaxing to lie down there in the hot stone tub doing nothing but enjoying the warmth of hot water on a cold evening. Soon, we started dehydrating and wanted to drink water very badly. Not sure if it was tiredness but we didn't even have strength to stand up! Somehow I managed to go and get 2 bottles of water. Dipped again in the water and were there for almost an hour and a half!
It was very different experience. After an hour I was feeling dizzy, as if I've drunk! I was laughing for no reason! All my body was so relaxed. It even lowered the pace in which I talked. We totally underestimated the power of a hot stone bath! It was totally worth every penny. We got him to play some Bhutanese songs while we were enjoying the bath!
They called the cab for us to return back, it became too dark. Once the cab arrived, we came out of the tub. I was so relaxed and happy. Couldn't stop smiling and laughing. Lied down on a wooded cot outside the farm house. KM pour hot water all over me. It was too good especially in such chilly climate under the stars.
Went back to our hotel with a wonderful feeling, had dinner and slept peacefully.
Paro - Hike to Tiger's Nest
Finally the day has come to visit Bhutan's most famous hike, Taktsang Lhakang, translated as the Tiger's Nest. Had a quick breakfast and took a cab to Tiger's Nest. Our Bhutanese friend Sonam couldn't join us due to some personal work. We were there by 9:00 AM. We bought some little souvenirs from the local shops at the starting point of the hike.
It was a clear day with warm sunshine, clear skies and milky clouds. Tiger's Nest was hanging there at the edge of a cliff infront of us. You can hire a pony or a horse to take you to the Tiger's nest if you think you may not be able to hike but you have to come down on your foot.
The hike was a bit strenuous at some stretches but all your efforts will be rewarded through the visual feast you'd be enjoying all the way up. Beautiful green valley on one side and the majestic Tiger's nest on the other. Soon you'd start wondering how they might have built such a big structure on the edge of a cliff.
It took around 4 hours for us to reach the Tiger's Nest as we stopped at several spots to take pictures. We even lost our way and climbed the hill next to the Tiger's Nest! It gave us a beautiful top view of the Tiger's Nest. Here's the pic...
There's a big waterfalls right before you reach the Tiger's Nest. It was wonderful!
There are many temples inside the Lakhang. To our surprise, there's a dark cave deep in the rocks which's named 'Tiger's Nest'! By the time we came out of the Lakhang, the climate has completely changed. The sunny day has turned dark with black clouds. It started as a drizzle and soon turned into a stormy rain.
All the muddy paths have become passages for rain water and the route became very slippery. Luckily, we took our rain coats which saved us from getting drenched. It took us little more than an hour to come down slowly. It's one of the most adventurous hikes I've done lately.
Took a cab and reached our hotel. Checkout out and started to Thimpu in a shared cab. Remember, we've already booked tickets from Thimpu to Phuentsholing for the 11 Sep when we were at Thimpu at the beginning of the week. It was a 90 min ride from Paro to Thimpu and we were lost in the memories of all the places we've been in the last one week.
It was Saturday night and almost all the hotels in Thimpu were full. It took a while for us to find a room. We finally took a 3 bed room which was the only room left in a hotel! Had a nice sleep.
Thimpu to Phuentsholing:
Our bus started at 7:00 AM sharp and reached Phuentsholing at around 1:00 PM. We bought apples on the way. Thimpu is very famous for its juicy apples. Don't miss them!
After reaching Phuentsholing, we visited the Crocodile breeding farm which was very near to the bus stand.
Took a cab till Bhutan Gate, had lunch - Indian Thali after 1 week! Took a share auto Hasimara railway station and got our train Kanchankanya express at 4:30 PM. Krishna got down at Siliguri as he had to take a flight next day from Bagdogra to Pune.
I reached Kolkata next morning, roamed around the city, met an old friend and took a flight to Bangalore that night and reached home by around 4:00 AM.
This trip has left me mesmerised, bringing me a bit more closer to nature, introducing me to a new culture of peace and happiness. It made me realize that language is not a barrier to make new friends.
Hightlights of the Trip:
--> Buddha Point at Thimpu
--> Suspension bridge behind Punakha Dzong
--> Rafting on Mochu river
--> Hot stone bath in a local farm house at Paro
--> Hike to Tiger's Nest at Paro
One week was just not enough!
Checkout my PhotoSpheres here:
This is my first writeup. Hope you liked it!
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