Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country

24th Dec 2015

Do you have a bucket list? Make one. It will take you places.

I have grown up dreaming, desiring and calculating my travels. 2015 was a good year to start the journey and my list for the year needed a good closure. A Bhutan road trip in December (supposedly an off-season) seemed like a non-touristy thing to do and that was exactly how I wanted it.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country 1/2 by Disha Kapkoti

About my Bhutan road trip

This cliffside click at Tiger's Nest Monastery Paro became my photograph of the year.

But this travel story is not just about the places but also the people I met. Manisha and Chandana are my friend's sisters who happened to be planning a Bhutan road trip in December. I tagged along and began my trip from Gangtok, their hometown. I had never met the two before but the warmth I experienced at the very arrival assured me that I was at the right place. I felt the same when the three of us met Ugyen in Thimphu three days later. From three, we became a group of four instantly.

I got some incredible insight into Sikkimese, Nepali and Bhutanese culture, traditions and most importantly, music. Ugyen, who lived in Thimphu, proved to be the best host, friend and an incredible guide in Bhutan, his home country.

It's ok to travel with people you don't know. Travel melts your defences.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country 2/2 by Disha Kapkoti

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Day 1

After reaching Bagdogra, I travelled along the Teesta river from Siliguri to Gangtok.

When I hired a shared taxi from Siliguri, out of some sort of a genuine concern the driver told me to book two seats on the front row. I didn't. I'm not usually paranoid about safety measures and segregation is definitely is not a solution. But I ended up sitting alone anyway and hell yeah, I enjoyed it. With the beautiful sunset and river Teesta on my right, the drive to Gangtok was a joyride.

From my innumerable Bengali friends, I have heard a million stories about Teesta. They talk about it not as a river. For them it's a starting point for travellers set to explore the beautiful state of Sikkim. The river cuts through the entire state of Sikkim and the sparkling clean stream is only a trailer to the dream that unfolds when you reach the gate of Gangtok.

I reached Manisha and Chandana's house in Gangtok late at night. As soon as I met them, they became Manisha Di and Chandu for me.

That's the first step of travelling together. You make your travel mates your own!

Photo of Bagdogra, West Bengal, India by Disha Kapkoti
Day 2

Exploring Gangtok

The next day Chandu took charge of taking me almost everywhere around Gangtok. We reached the Rumtek Monastery early morning and watched the little monks play carom while enjoying the winter sun on the terrace of the gompa.

Photo of Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Disha Kapkoti

I've been to monasteries before and every gompa has a spirit and character of it's own. Rumtek is all about the perfection, the perfect backdrop of the serene hills and flowing streams, the perfect calm and silence of the gompa and the awe-inspiring grandeur that leaves you wonderstruck as you walk through the huge courtyard.

Photo of Rumtek Monastery, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Disha Kapkoti

Manisha di joined us to visit Hanuman tok and Ganesh Tok. The two temples overlooking the beautiful town of Gangtok seemed like two sacred silent spots where you could muse over the calmness of the town below. Interestingly, inside both the temples the priests were none other than the Indian Army Jawans, serving prashad, wearing the Indian Army uniforms.

The perfect way to travel is to travel with a local. I understood the fact completely when Chandu insisted on visiting the Enchey Monastery. My friend is a believer. She was filing documents for her Vietnam visa approval during those days where she wanted to travel to volunteer. She made a wish at the Gompa and offered her prayers at a small backdoor chamber where an old priest helped us with the rituals.

Chandu is volunteering in Vietnam currently. So here's one place I can recommend to the believers around me.

Photo of ENCHEY MONASTERY, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Disha Kapkoti

We spent the night planning the trip ahead. We studied the map thoroughly, calculated time and distance in the map of Bhutan over and over again. And that's all we did. The only plan was to hit the road next morning, EARLY.

Day 3

Gangtok to Thimphu via Phuentsholing

Following the only plan we had, we took a shared cab from Gangtok and after crossing through a numerous tea garden on the route, we reached Jaigaon. Jaigaon is as 'India' as it can get. Excuse the adjective but what I mean is crowd, of thousands, traffic for over a kilometre and vendors on the streets, chilling like everything is just fine. And I'm too habitual to detest any of it.

Photo of Jaigaon, West Bengal, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Cross the border gate to Bhutan at Phuentsholing and you would be amazed at the stark difference. Bhutan's average population per sq km is 16. So the little crowd that we saw at Phuentsholing was also because of the clever Indian cab drivers who often entered the border to get some cheap fuel.

Indians don't need a passport or visa to travel to Bhutan. All you need is an id proof and couple of photographs and the permit is ready within minutes.

Photo of Phuentsholing, Chhukha, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

We had been cautioned that we might get cheated at a new place and were instructed to take it in the spirit.

So when we hired a taxi on our very arrival at Phuentsholing we were ready for it. I was bargaining Delhi style, quite unsuccessfully. You can't really haggle with Bhutanese people. They would put forth the loveliest smile and give you the most genuine excuses. The taxi we hired from Phuentsholing was charging us quite a amount for taking us to Thimphu at midnight. We got into the taxi reluctantly and told him to wait till we have dinner at a restaurant in Phuentsholing.

This was Manisha di tripping over the new currency at the restaurant at Phuentsholing.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

That was when Choten Agya came to our rescue and we became aware of the overwhelming goodness of the people of Bhutan.

While we were busy hogging, we got a call from the driver who felt apologetic at charging unfair amount and instead sent his brother, Choten Agya, with us who took a relatively reasonable amount. Manisha and Chandana who were conversing with him in Nepali, called him 'Agya' (which means brother) and he was indeed a brother throughout the trip. Not only did the guy find us a hotel in Thimphu that night but also was always a call away during the entire trip. Here's a photograph with him at the hotel we checked in the first day in Thimphu.

Photo of Thimpu, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti
Day 4

Exploring Thimphu with Ugyen, our Bhutanese friend who joined the group and became our best guide to Thimphu.

We woke up next morning with a loud doorbell. Ugyen was there with a plan for the entire day. He was Chandu's friend from college and had invited her time and again to visit Bhutan, his home country. We were finally here and the day began with a visit to the marvelous Buddha Dordenma at the hilltop. Though the construction is said to be complete but this gigantic statue and the site was still not ready for tourists.

Nonetheless, the giant Buddha statue overlooking the entire capital city was a sight to remember. Quite correctly, it is said to be the eighth wonder of the world.

Photo of Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Later this day, we visited the Takin Preserve. Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. According to a myth, when Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman of Bhutan, was asked to conjure a miracle, he ate a goat and a cow. It is said that he fixed the head of a goat into the skeleton of a cow. Sure he did.

Here's a photograph. Look at it closely.

Photo of Takins Zoo, Motithang, Thimphu, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Now came the most awaited moment of my trip. I really wanted to visit the stadium and watch archery. We went to the Changlimithang Stadium and I had my wish granted. We sat awestruck watching the Bakkhu-clad men showing some real talent on the ground.

Photo of Changlimithang Archery Ground, Chang Lam, Thimphu, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Archery is the national sport of the country and it's quite correctly the true game of this land. On this trip I saw men practicing archery and darts by the riverside all by themselves almost everywhere in the country.

Time to introduce you to the night life in Bhutan.

Ugyen had it all planned out for us. His friend, S Tee, owned a bar cum karaoke place in Thimphu. It was time to meet the friends of friend and have a great night. I had the best wine ever and my friends sang their heart out. Manisha di called it her debut international performance and it was indeed quite a performance.

Photo of S Teez by Disha Kapkoti

S Tee sang the best of songs and also got us fantastic steaks from outside when the kitchen was shut. S Teez is place I'd recommend to all the travellers in Bhutan. It's the best place to find cheerful young Bhutanese locals who would teach you how to party at the happiest country in the world.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

That's the deal with the Bhutanese people. They go an extra mile only to make sure you have the best time.

To feel the madness of the moment we even had an ice cream in Thimphu on a December night. Later we went to the clock tower nearby. Lit in magical blue lights in the heart of the city, this was the perfect site to end the day.

Photo of Clock Tower Square, Hogdzin Lam, Thimphu, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Thimphu to Paro and the hike to the Tiger's Nest

The next day we were all set to travel to Paro from Thimphu. Ugyen, our boy, appeared in a Bakkhu since all Bhutanese people always wear traditional clothes while visiting the monasteries. Taktshang was just a destination on my bucket list until I heard more about the fascinating myths and legends about the Tiger's Nest on our way uphill.

Photo of Tiger's Nest, Paro, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava flew on a tigress' back to this location from Tibet. The first look at this monastery on a cliff would take you back in time and makes you wonder endlessly. We saw a monk hiking uphill with mattress tied to his back and on talking to him he told us that he'll be meditating at Taktshang for next 2 years. Now that's when travel experiences make you sit and wonder at the different lives people around us choose to live.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

We were not allowed to take our cameras along inside Paro Taktshang. We entered one chamber after another and every corner of this cliffside monastery evokes some higher spiritual passion in every visitor. Every chamber is decorated with excellent craftsmanship and inspires a unique calmness.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

After spending a couple of hours at the Gompa, we ran downhill. We were now ready to explore the beautiful city of Paro. I had previously heard a lot about the fascinating airstrip of Paro. It is considered one of the deadliest airstrip around the world owing to the high mountain ranges encircling the small city.

Here's a shot of the breathtaking Paro Airport.

Photo of Paro International Airport, Paro, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Next on the plan was to explore the city of Paro. I believe we were in Paro at the best time of the year. Since it was the 4th King's birthday a couple of days back, every house in the city was decorated to celebrate the former King's special day. Ugyen helped buy some souvenirs for friends back home and the shopping experience in Paro was also our introduction to the fine handicrafts of the country.

Photo of Paro, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

The same evening we drove to Haa Valley. Ugyen lives in Haa and we wanted to visit his house and meet the family. Choten Agya was still with us driving the car through the snow covered road. We crossed the Chelela Pass at night and it was only the excitement of the journey that made us step out of the car in the chilly December night and get a photograph here.

Photo of Chele La, Paro, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

We reached Ugyen's house at just the right time for dinner. It was our first experience of a Bhutanese household. His parents were the warmest hosts who made us feel right at home from the moment we entered the house. We had dinner with the whole family. The smiles around, the lip smacking delicacies and the aura of the entire household made it the best moment of the entire trip.

Photo of Haa, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

Later that night, the three of us went for a stone bath. I would recommend this one experience to every person who travels to Bhutan.

Day 5

Haa Valley

This was the last day in Bhutan. Ugyen came early that morning to our hotel and we were all set to explore his home town. We drove around in the beautiful valley and every sight at Haa was picture perfect.

Photo of Haa, Bhutan by Disha Kapkoti

We went to Indian army camps in the valley and watched the officers enjoy Golf on the sunny winter day. They were indeed having a good time away from their homeland at this hidden magical valley. We went to a helipad later and sat on the bank of Haa Chu for hours, overwhelmed by the surreal mountains encircling this small town of Haa.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

Choten Agya came to the helipad in sometime and there we were bidding goodbye to Ugyen who was the man of the trip. We were on our way to Phuentsholing from Haa Valley now. The whole route was snow covered and we had never thought that taking Bhutan road trip during an off-season would be the best decision we ever made.

That's my last shot from the happiest country in the world and that's how I'd love to remember it. A country of endless smiles, warm sun and the warmest people.

Photo of Three Girls On A Bhutan Road Trip With The Good Men Of The Country by Disha Kapkoti

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