For a family of four who live in different cities, travelling together and travelling in train is probably the best way to get together. We started our journey from Kolkata and travelled till Hasimara from Sealdah station. Since we had half of the day with us at Kolkata, we ended up eating and shopping there(cause can anyone come to Kolkata and not eat and shop?).
Since the immigration office remains shut on weekends and national holidays, we started our journey on a Saturday so that we don't have to rush in case the train is late on arrival the next day.
We reached half an hour late from the scheduled time but that was okay since we had anticipated and planned for the delay. Now the journey from Hasimara till Jaigaon is a beautiful 30min ride with tea estates on either side. Our hotel was right in front of the border gate and was available on a super affordable price of Rs.900 per room. It had a vegetarian restaurant in-house and the food was delicious and super inexpensive. We checked into our hotel, freshened up, had our lunch and took our afternoon nap. Waking up all refreshed, we decided to explore the local markets and the land that lay beyond the border gate. Indian side of the market is thronged by Bhutanese customers as the products are available at dirt cheap prices. The same things in Bhutan are available at a price almost double than India.
We crossed the border and went walking to the Bhutan town of Phuentsholing and guys I must say, everything changes with just a gate. The moment you enter Bhutan, you can understand the stark contrast between the two landscapes. There is a calmness in everything there. Life is slow paced and peaceful. The same vehicles that come from Bhutan to India behave so differently in both the countries. No honking vehicles, no shouting hawkers, no littering, proper maintenance of government properties, everything seems so radically different from that in India. We ended our day shopping in India(cause price difference you see)
Travel tip: Don't buy anything in Bhutan. You may choose to carry things from India cause the price difference is evidently high.
This day marked the official beginning of our Bhutan trip. We had booked ourselves an agent for the transportation purpose and hence left the official grill to them. They had arranged for the number at immigration queue and we just had to appear for stamping our permits. All government offices and even the hotels in Bhutan have a picture of the royal family in their premise and wear only national dress during office hours. The permit should take maximum an hour including the waiting time. You need your passport/voter ID card along with 2 passport sized photographs and hotel booking confirmation voucher. You won't be receiving a permit in absence of a pre booked accommodation. There's a tourist SIM counter at the immigration office itself and we got ourselves a SIM card with 100Nu talktime and 1GB data for just 200 bucks. You need to fill up the SIM card application form at the counter and you show your tourist permit for getting a SIM card. That was all. Now we set out for our journey to Thimphu.
The journey I must say was a beautiful one with changing landscapes, clouds hitting your face and amazing views of unique Bhutanese architecture, lush green mountains disappearing into the clouds and happy faces all around. There is this town of Gedu which is almost midway the Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway. It is cloudy at any time of the day and has such amazing views. We did stop multiple times to capture the beauty in our camera.
On reaching Thimphu, it was almost evening and Thimphu was unbelievably chilling. We had booked ourselves a super comfortable 2BHK homestay through Airbnb at a great steal price and it was situated just near the Thimphu gate. We checked into our apartment, set out for dinner at a restaurant run by a Nepalese family(the hosts were super hospitable and made us feel so warm) had Indian food freshly prepared for us and curled up to sleep cause the cold was unbearable.
Early morning after having our breakfast at the same restaurant, we set out for Thimphu sightseeing. What makes the city ride beautiful is the unique style of buildings and the architecture of the houses and offices. We visited the National Handicrafts Museum, Tashicho Dzong viewpoint, Motithang Takin Preservation Centre, Buddha Dordenma statue and the National Memorial Chorten.
The takin is the national animal of Bhutan and is a rare combination of a goat and a cow. The area is huge but we could find only one takin in the fence. The landscape there is super amazing though. The entry fee to the preservation centre is 300Nu per person.
The Buddha Dordenma statue is the most breathtaking sculpture built and it has 1 lac small Buddhas inside the temple. The huge statue overlooks the entire city and can be seen from anywhere in Thimphu. The premise is so beautiful and windy. Not an inch of artistry can be faulty.
The national memorial chorten is a place of religious belief and since it was the day of dissent of Buddha, it was overcrowded with devotees offering prayers. The entry fee to the Chorten is also 300Nu per person.
After the sightseeing we went for lunch at an Indian restaurant followed by some souvenir shopping at the Handicrafts lane in front of the Indian Embassy. There's a row of stalls there and the stuff is pricey there but you can always bargain. After being done for the day, we returned back to our apartment and did the packing for the next day since we had to leave for Punakha.
Since the previous day was a national holiday owing to the dissent day of Lord Buddha, all government offices were closed and hence we couldn't do our permit for Punakha. The permit at Phuentsholing is only valid for Thimphu and Paro. You will need a separate permit for Punakha from Thimphu. We were lucky enough to have our permit processed within an hour or so and then we started off for Punakha.
Punakha is a low lying area, relatively warmer than Thimphu but the journey transcends through a pass that is literally situated in clouds. We stopped by the Dochula Pass and boy!! it was breathtaking. You could feel the clouds hitting your face and the wind almost blowing you away. There's a Lakhang nearby but we were so busy at the 108 memorial chorten that we decided to skip the Lakhang. You just can't have enough of the memorial. After sipping hot coffee, we set out for Punakha.
By the time we reached Punakha, it was almost late afternoon so we decided to just check in, have our lunch and start for the Punakha Dzong that closes at 5pm.
The Dzong is situated at the confluence of a male and a female river, Po Chu and Mo Chu. The Dzong is of utmost importance since this is where all the royal ceremonies are held including the wedding. This Dzong also becomes the winter administrative office. The entry fee to this Dzong is also 300Nu per person accompanied by a guide who will brief about the history of Bhutanese religious belief and how Buddhism set its foot in Bhutan. Since the King had visited Punakha the same day, we weren't allowed to go on the suspension bridge. But the Dzong was so beautiful in its construction and in essence, we were in awe of it.
After visiting the Dzong, we set out to explore the Punakha market and food but it didn't offer many options and so we returned back to our hotel.
We started early today since we had to visit the Chimilakhang or the fertility village on our way back to Paro. Owing to lack of time on the previous day, we had planned to visit Chimilakhang while returning from Punakha.
Now this temple has an interesting story to it. Faith has it that there was a Guru popularly known as the Divine Madman who meditated here and used to bless childless couples with a wooden phallus. The temple still has that huge phallus and there is an album of all the couples who have been blessed with babies after seeking blessings at this temple. Owing to the importance and auspiciousness of the phallus, you will find phallus paintings on every wall in the village. It was awkward for me since I was with my parents. The souvenir shops sell phallus toys and key rings also. I also tried a Kira at a shop. The shopkeeper was kind enough to help me drape the Kira and didn't charge anything for it. People in Bhutan are so helpful and nice, you can't help but fall in love with them.
We then set out for Paro and stopped by the Chujom viewpoint which is the confluence point for rivers Thimphu Chu and Paro Chu. The journey henceforth was the most beautiful journey in Bhutan. River flowing on one side and hills on the other, you can only see to believe it. We also stopped by the riverside which happens to be a tourist and picnic spot. After some zillion photographs there, we headed out for Paro.
The city of Paro is the most beautiful and well maintained city in Bhutan with the best views and markets. After checking in to the hotel and having lunch, we set out to explore the city and its streets and I must say Paro impressed us.
Today's journey was the most crucial since we had decided to skip the Tiger Nest trek (my parents can't do the hike) and go for Chele La Pass instead which is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. Everybody had asked us to go for Tiger Nest trek cause it's almost futile to visit Bhutan and not visit the Tiger Nest. We took a chance and in reaching Chelela Pass, we realized it was chance worth taking. My mom is afraid of heights and it was a tough task convincing her for this one. But the view there just cleared everything out. It is super windy there and it snows during winters. You can see snow capped mountains right in front of your eyes and that is beautiful.
On our way back, we stopped by the airport view point and also visited the Paro Dzong and museum. The Dzong lights up during night to the most magnificent views. After the day's errand and tons of photography, we headed back to our hotel.
After a week of fresh oxygen and mesmerising views, it was time to bid adieu to the world's happiness country. There was a sense of satisfaction of having enjoyed our time in the best possible way. There was also a feeling of happiness of going back home. No matter wherever you go, you will always long to come back home. And this was that feeling. No matter how chaotic, nothing is dearer than India and we were finally returning home.
Things to remember before planning a trip to Bhutan:
1. Always pre book your accomodation for the permit.
2. You need your passport or voter ID card for visiting Bhutan. They don't accept your Aadhar card.
3. Bhutan is expensive in terms of food and other commodities of daily use. The major reason being they source everything from India including petroleum. But strangely enough, the fuel prices are lower in Bhutan by almost 10-12rs.
4. 1 Indian Rupee=1 Nugultrum(Bhutanese currency)
5. Indian currency is widely accepted in Bhutan almost everywhere. They do understand and speak Hindi as well.
6. Indian restaurants and Indian food is widely available. But most restaurants serve alcohol.
7. Buy your souvenirs from Jaigaon if you wish to cause they are available at dirt cheap prices compared to Bhutan.
P.s.. I spent a total of 70k for the entire trip starting from Kolkata including all the shopping for a family of four. That's a steal deal I believe.
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