It has been 4 years since this trip and Bhutan is now 'THE' place that people are looking forward to for ideal backpacking experience. Back in 2015, there wasn't much information available online. They were definitely there but you have to dig the web deep.
Now, I started my 24-day backpacking experience in the month of April 2015. The idea was to do the following
1. A week in Bhutan
2. Travel to Sikkim and do a 1o-day Vipassana at Changey
3. Travel Silk Route
4. Travel North of Sikkim
Let skip the journey part for it was not at all great, probably will write another article on it someday. Keeping it Strictly to Bhutan, this one!
How to reach Bhutan from India?
Take any train to New Jalpaiguri
And another important thing to consider here is that Thimphu is the only capital in the world with no traffic signals. Yes. Its true.
Walking past the countryside of Thimphu is an extraordinary experience.
It was evening by the time we reached Paro and since we didn't book our hotels, the driver helped us out to find a decent(read, cheaper) one.
Then, board a train from New Jalpaiguri to Hasimara
Get down at Hasimara and take the shared cab to Jaigaon, probably they will drop you to Bhutan border from where you can cross the gate and enter Phuentsholing, an entry point to Bhutan. Now, remember that as soon as you enter the gate, you will need to fast forward your clock to 30 minutes. Yes, even the border town has its separate timing. I almost missed a bus to Thimphu considering IST as a standard time there.
And off we go this hotel is located centrally at Norjim Lam which is like the marketplace. Ms.Sonam runs this small hotel who was a full-time school teacher before.
Budget: Bicycle Rent (600) + Room (400 Per Personight ) + Food (1000, for 4 meals we had here) = 2400 Rs. for 2 nights and 2 days at Thimphu.
Next morning, we were set for a trip to Buddha Dordenma (one of the tallest Buddha Statue, 54Mtrs). For that, we hired a bicycle. Samik gave up too quickly since the ascent was steeply coupled with ghastly winds. I forayed into it and seriously, that was some adventure. I was alone on the way to top which is around 5Kms from the main city.
Tip for Day 1: Get the local sim card as your Indian card will not work here. Give your Bhutanese number to friends and family so that they can call you. Outgoing was little expensive back then.
The ride is fun for any adrenaline junkie as I was the only one with the mountain bike to go on the top. They came with family or a group renting a car. Yes, you can rent a car for I guess around 600-700Rs (2014) to reach up there.
To hire a bicycle in Thimphu, you can contact locals as there are many shops allowing such rentals. The ones that we found it from was from a shop opposite to a Memorial Chorten.
Reaching the top
Next thing, we got to our hotel room and ordered rice and Datsi for dinner along with some drinks to end our day.
Taxi (750/ Per person) + Lunch (150) + Hotel (500ight, per person) + Food (600, 3 meals) = 2000 Rs.
Breakfast was on the cards and we visited Swiss Bakery.
The ambience here is so captivating that it might just leave you spellbound. The smell of old timber blends with coffee as you enter this cafe and what adds up here is the French feel to its furniture and settings.
Permit Fees + Bus Fare + Food: 1000Rs.
Go to Phuentsholing Immigration Office to issue a permit for staying and travelling in Bhutan.
They consider the following Indian documents valid for permit ID
- D/L License
- Voter ID Card.
Not sure about the Aadhar card as I went in 2015 and it wasn't a big deal back then.
Now, your job is to explore the town and probably ask any decent hotel guys to keep your luggage (they are usually reliable and welcoming to travellers).
Take the next immediate bus to Thimphu to reach there sooner.
I met a solo traveller there in the immigration department. He was from Kolkata and we decided to do the trip together so as to share our expenses.
And there we go... took an evening bus to Thimphu, en route the most beautiful of roads, drizzling misty sky, group of locals with us and befriending two local girls in the bus to know more about the place and country. Such a warm-up it was already. They also helped us find a better and cheap place to stay. They informed us everything we should know before spending 2 days in Thimphu.
Visiting Tiger's Nest Monastery and spend an evening in Paro, roaming around.
Hotel room (500) + Food (800) = 1200
This was our Big Day in Bhutan. Yes, we were about to visit the iconic Tiger's Nest in Paro which is known as Paro Taktsang. We woke up to find that we could see a small ice-clad hill from our room window. Indicating that we will are in for a surprising day. This view + Bathtub... Total bang for the buck. This is Hotel Paro
This is the place where I and Samik finally met for a coffee - Tsherayens' cafe Cafe. This cafe may not exist anymore as I can not find it on the map. :(
Staying at Ugyen's Homestay (700 pp. includes dinner and breakfast) + Other food/beer (450) + Small shopping (500) + Bus fares (150) = 1750 Rs.
We got the bus and headed for Haa. Thought it takes just a couple of hours to reach via taxi, bus takes a long route via Chuzom road junction and took around 5 hours. Doable if alone or backpacking.
Next, we already had a word with Dodo (Ugyen's brother) regarding our accommodation and it was just about reaching there. Easy to find a place as everyone in the village knows each other. Actually, their homestay is not in the Haa town but in a village called Domchu.
Getting dropped at Chumzom, we were unable to find a bus to Phuentsholing. Samik had a train to catch as he was returning back to Kolkata and I was staying over for a night and going to Sikkim the next day. With Samik nearly having anxiety attacks out of fear of missing the train, we found a meat carrier giving us a lift till Phuentsholing. Thankfully, it was an empty one.
Took us a few hours and we reached Phuentsholing. The border town again and it was the time to say goodbye to my new old friend. We managed a quick lunch and I saw him off. He was getting back his 30 minutes now.
On the way down, I stopped by at Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. Nothing much in here but you can have your own peace. It is quiet and peaceful. Plus, you will get a good view of the city from the top.
The descent was all the more exciting as it took just 7 minutes to reach the destination. Down there, my friend Samik was waiting for me at Tashichho Dzong. A must visit place for photographers and culture enthusiasts as this one blends religion, culture, history and politics.
A funny incident followed while on the way to the Hotel. I was dragging my bicycle as Samik had left his one and I wanted to accompany him. The traffic police caught me asking that I was on the wrong side of the road. I said, "I am just dragging it and not riding". He asked, "are you from India". I replied in affirmation to which he remarked sarcastically "In Bhutan, all wheels go in the same direction. Please go to the other side and drag".
That was pretty embarrassing, to be honest, but then I was glad to see such rules being followed with utmost precision in Bhutan.
With an aim to get hold of culture and people over monastery visits and we had quite a nice day because almost everyone will indulge in a good conversation with a tourist from India. They have high regards for Indians (Minus the traffic Police, *wink wink*) and they help you get acquainted with their culture pretty easily. We watched a football match at the dinner and had a banter with the owner about Messi and Ronaldo. That was the end of our first and perhaps the only day in Thimphu. Next day we were headed for Paro - getting a small trek experience in Bhutan for Tiger's nest.
I had chocolate mousse with coffee and trust me it's one heavenly place to have breakfast. I went there to have coffee on my last day at Thimphu. This is the best place to just sit and read books and even write one.
Now, our task was to find a taxi that drops us to Paro after visiting Dochula Pass. Dochula has 109 Chortens/Stupas built in the memory of Bhutanese soldiers martyred in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.
We were accompanied by one crazy driver who was so funny that actually opened up one more thing about Bhutan - Matriarchy. Yes, the head of the family is a woman in Bhutan and his wife was being possessive of him, asking him to send snap with the travellers and the location of it. He also told us that she earns more than him being a manager in a small company at Thimphu and having a respectable job.
We were hoping to spot the Gangkar Puensum (the highest mountain peak in Bhutan) but there was way too cloudy. If you are planning to visit Dochula and have a good number of days in hand at Thimphu, pick a sunny day to visit here.
After a short visit there, we were headed for the Paro via Chuzom. Chuzom is the meeting point of Haa, Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. Wang river runs all throughout this point. Expect heavy traffic in the daytime here.
Next thing, we checked into our hotel room which has a bathtub :) and took a shower (read, dip). And then, head to explore the city life later in the evening.
Now there is something called Drayang in Bhutan which is essentially a place for hanging out with friends and have some drinks. Peculiar thing is, women would be singing/dancing and there will be people buzzing near you as they smell tourist from distance. They start with offering you drinks and this happened with us only to later know that he was a pimp. We immediately ran out of that place purely because we don't support this (personal choice, collectively).
We called it a night and then headed back to our room.
We took a shared jeep to reach the Taktsang base and get started for what my travel partner Samik would say 'Humare bacche ko bataenge hum yahaa chaddey theey' place.
The climb is a decent one which could probably take around 5 hours for a novice or someone who enjoys nature along the way. Otherwise, its an easy 3 hours climb for someone with good trekking experience. We took close to 4 hours for this one because we were busy taking pictures, playing the flute on the way and sometimes even small videos.
And for the flower-lovers, you may well spot a bunch of rhododendrons en route. Please don't pluck them.
I guess after about an hour we discovered there are mules carrying people to the top. Samik was tempted but then I had to remind him of saying things to his children (it worked). We carried on for the trail until we reached closer to our destination and clicked some more pictures of Taktsang. This time, a postcard one.
Just when you are about to reach the peak, you will be seeing a waterfall. Its refreshing, the sound of the water hitting the rocks and you see tiger's nest at a closer distance. For the first time, I felt I don't want to reach the destination as I wanted to relive the journey, the excitement to reach one of the places in my travel bucket list. I didn't want to tick it off. Not yet. So I gazed at the waterfall and realized how far I came, how much I waited for this moment. The waterfall truly a metaphor for my experience evoking an epiphany.
And there we go, entering the most vibrant place I've ever been. The energy is at another level here. There are lamas chanting the mantras as you visit the monastery from inside. Yes, it is allowed. But clicking pictures is not allowed.
Tip: Bring your own lock and key. Thank me later ;)
Take a good look around and there will be monks telling you more about the monastery and the culture. Soak in the ambience and vibes for as long as you can, you don't know when will you be visiting this holy place again.
On our way down, we stopped by the prayer rooms and took some more pictures of Taktsang.
The descent was quick since we didn't stop much. We were hungry and munching on Sneakers for lunch. Still, we stopped by a little to drink water. After 3 hours, we were down at the base after successfully living our small dream :)
The next thing we did was heading back to our rooms, get freshen up and explore Paro. We also enquired for the bus to Haa as it was our next stop.
An evening in Paro was an extraordinary one. The sheer beauty and calmness was something that captivated me and Samik. We both were on our ways to explore and decided to meet at one cafe for a coffee.
We called it a night after taking a stroll in the market and a quick dinner. Next morning we were aiming to take the only bus to Haa at 5:00 AM.
We were graciously welcomed by Ugyen's wife and children. He was out in the woods, collecting stuff for his cattle. Ugyen's family is very generous and highly hospitable. The room was perfect for two of us.
Next up, one of my best solo travel experience. Sitting by the river stream in a big field, listening to the sound of flowing water, children playing cricket at far, and horses and mules grazing randomly. The sun was peeping out of the clouds and you could see the rays hitting the planet earth in a soothing manner. Like, a call from heaven. It certainly was. My eyes were wet, throat - heavy. A reminiscent that there exist heaven on earth. It was a sheer, purest form of happiness I ever experienced. Was nothing special actually, but just the feeling.
"There is always a time in travelling, especially alone, where you stand still and just sense your eyes getting wet. That is the moment of self-realization, true happiness. This place, this whole atmosphere made me cry - not for I was alone and far but for being there - only for a while, for the fact that I won't be able to seize this forever"
And then came Samik from distance, clicking me as I witnessed heaven unleashed in front of me.
The road back to our homestay was equally beautiful. This town was at its pristine best but I've heard plenty of homestays being opened up here. I just fear this doesn't get that commercialized.
Now we wanted to explore the Haa main town and there wasn't any transport available. But then a personnel from the Indian Army came to our rescue (Yes, there is an Indian Army deployed in Bhutan). The military guy asked a school bus to drop us to the town. By the time we reached there, it was evening already.
The beauty of Haa lies in how it is located surrounded by tall mountains. The sun constantly plays hide and seek.
Tip: Ask for Archery course there. It is their national sport and you will be amazed to see how far they keep their aim.
Here we met Yeshi, one highly spiritual guy who once lived in a monastery to study Lama and returned back to live the normal life. He runs a small restaurant in Haa with his family.
We really had a nice time here, drinking beer and having some light food, mingling with locals and truly exchanging culture. The reason why I love backpacking alone is that I never come back alone. I still have the contact of Yeshi and we do exchange some whatsapp jokes :)
We fixed our departure to Phuentsholing next morning. Yeshi's friend was going to Chumzom (halfway to our destination) and offered us a lift early in the morning. We fixed the time and place for pickup and he dropped us back to Ugyen's house where dinner was waiting, along with the whole family, ofcourse.
We were served veg Thukpa. While having dinner, I and Ugyen started talking about life in general where his son would translate my Hindi to Dzongkha (Aka Bhutanese). Ugyen and his wife understand very little Hindi and so it was altogether a different experience where someone would translate language both ways at the dinner. We really had a great time with the entire family and then we headed for sleep. Next morning, Yeshi's friend was coming to pick us up at 7 AM and we would be going to Phuentsholing from Chumzom.
Free Lift till Chumzom + Hitchhiking to Phuentsholing + Food (350Rs. yes we did offer lunch to the one who got us a lift) + Hotel at Phuentsholing (800rs) = 1150 Rs
We started off early but for some reason, my head wasn't feeling that good. I started feeling some sort of altitude sickness (that never ever happened before or after this one). And Samik having completed his MBBS asked me to not see outside and yet keep the ice open to avoid getting unconscious. He held me a Coke and asked to gulp it with Sneakers (probably low sugar). But whatever it was keeping the eyes open and not seeing outside seemed like an impossible task. But then, have to deal with it.
Another thing I observed here was the difference in managing rainwater. It rained that evening and after a couple of hours of heavy rainfall, I visited the Jaigaon (India) to take a stroll. The roads were muddy and things were in chaos while back here in Phuentsholing it just doesn't feel like it rained.
1. You will have to visit to the embassy before you exit just to inform them that you are leaving. They will enter some sort of a data in their system. If you do not do that you may face some sort of a problem upon visiting again. That's what they told me.
2. Locals will be giving you Bhutanese Ngultrum(currency) but don't take it too much as tending exchange for INR will deduct some charges. I also heard that Locals get INR and exchange it at a higher rate. Some small business that goes on.
End of a day. End of Bhutan Trip. Next morning, I got a shared jeep from Jaigaon to reach Kalimpong. A whole new experience awaits in Sikkim starting with the Silk Route (East Sikkim).
Total Cost for Bhutan Trip: 6 Days, 6 Nights - INR 9,500