Memories of Bhutan-mountains,meadows,monasteries and more

21st Nov 2016
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Paro International Airport

I was still engrossed in the mesmerizing view of the Himalayas from the top, making the most of the window seat, when the crew announced that we were ready to descend at Paro. As our aircraft started losing altitude, we passed white clouds, steep mountain slopes covered in dense conifers, green valleys with small settlements crisscrossed by streams, and finally landed at Paro International airport. I had heard and read a lot about this place and how tricky it could be at times to land safely in an airport like this, surrounded by mountains and having a short surely needs the best and most experienced pilots.

That was my first experience of Bhutan - a beautiful flight experience that ended in a scenic airport, and I could guess how wonderful the rest of the stay would be.

Reaching There

1. By road/ rail - Reach NGP by train and take a taxi/bus to Phuentsholing, the border town between India and Bhutan. From Phuentsholing, take a shuttle/ hire cab to reach Thimphu

2. By air - Take a flight( Druk Air) to Paro. The flying time from Kolkata to Paro is just 50 mins, which shows how close Bhutan is. One can also reach Bagdogra airport and then take the road route.

Visa and permit - Bhutan issues Visa on arrival. Indians need to present Passport/voter ID card to obtain the visa at Paro or Phuentsholing. This visa works in Thimphu and Paro only. Special permit is required to visit Punakha, Bumthang, Wangdue Phodrang etc,and that can be obtained at Thimphu. The visa process is completely hassle free, especially for Indians.

Currency - Indian currency works just fine.

Getting around

Complete itinerary - Paro Airport -> Thimphu (2 days) -> Punakha (1 day) -> Paro (3 days).

On reaching Paro, we took a cab from the airport to Thimphu city. Not sure if it could be cheaper, we paid 800 bucks for a WagonR and roughly 2 hours drive to Thimphu.

On the way to Thimphu from Paro

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On the way to Thimphu from Paro

Photo of Bhutan by Travsian
Day 1

1. Chuzom - this is the confluence of 2 rivers - ParoChu and WongChu, can be covered on the way to Thimphu.

2. Buddha Dordenma - A huge statue of sitting Buddha positioned on the top of a mountain. Take a taxi(cost us 500 bucks for to and fro) or walk if you can start early. On reaching the top, you get a spectacular view of the valley and Thimphu city.. the beautiful statue and the temple beneath.

Tips: Carry umbrellas as it usually rains in the afternoons.

Buddha Dordenma

Photo of Thimphu, Bhutan by Travsian
Day 2

1.Coronation Park by the river - Visit this place in the morning.Will suggest walking as you can explore the city & Thimphu neighborhood more closely.We discovered a local Buddhist temple on the way.

Photo of Thimphu, Bhutan by Travsian

2.Bhutan Olympic Center & National Football Stadium - watch locals practicing archery here. Walk back to the clock tower and have breakfast at one of the restaurants with view of mountains.

Bhutanese practicing archery

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3.Memorial Chorten and Tashichho Dzong - Visit Memorial Chorten followed by Tashichho Dzong in the evening. The dzong is the center of governance, law and order. It also houses a temple. Usually the office closes at around 5:30 PM when the Dzong is opened to tourists. Check with locals on the timings else you will end up reaching too early or too late.

Memorial Chorten

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Rose garden outside Tashichho Dzong

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Day 3

Docula Pass - start for Punakha early on Day 3 and on the way stop at Dochula Pass. This again is a view point and you will be in love with the surrounding panorama once you reach the top.Being at a higher altitude, the pass gets misty at times, making the experience all the more beautiful. There is a small cafeteria serving a variety of hot food for those interested.

Tips: we booked a small 4-wheeler from Thimphu to Punakha and drop at Paro hotel( included Dochula and sight seeing at Punakha) and that cost us approx. 4500 bucks.

Dochula Pass covered in a shroud of clouds

Photo of Dochula, Thimphu, Bhutan by Travsian

1. Punakha Dzong – it is located at one of the most scenic locations in Punakha. The Dzong is open to visitors till 4 PM so plan the visit accordingly.

Punakha Dzong and the river

Photo of Punakha, Bhutan by Travsian

2. Punakha Suspension Bridge - although called a Suspension bridge, this is more of a hanging bridge over the Punakha river. It is about 200-300 metres long but because of the surrounding view, a walk across this bridge is a fun experience.

Punakha Suspension Bridge

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Day 4

1. Chimi Lakhang Temple - walk through paddy fields for about 30 mins to reach this temple. There is no road, just a muddy path surrounded by paddy fields, long grasses at places, prayer flags and the blue sky above.

Tips - the walk to the Chimi Lakhang temple can leave you dehydrated. Carry water and umbrella.Have a Bhutanease lunch at Chimi Lakhang cafeteria and start for Paro.

Keep recharging yourself during the 3-4 hrs drive to Paro from Punakha. On the way stop at any farmer's market, there will be many, and try the extra large Bhutanese cucumbers or fresh garden apples.

Lush paddy fields on the way to Chimi Lakhang

Photo of Punakha, Bhutan by Travsian
Day 5

1. Trek to the famous Taktsang Lakhang or Tiger's Nest - Don't underestimate the difficulty level of this trek.You need a lot of energy to reach the top. Depending on your fitness level and weather conditions, it can take the whole day to reach the temple and come down back to the valley. This trek in my opinion is the most exciting part of Bhutan trip, so save your energy for the best.

On the way to Tiger's Nest trail

Photo of Paro, Bhutan by Travsian

View of Tiger's Nest from the higest point of trek

Photo of Paro, Bhutan by Travsian

Tips - Carry less weight on your shoulders, eat at the Taktsang Cafeteria (don’t carry food) and most importantly, wear water proof clothes or carry the local guides say - "The dragon gets angry after lunch".. Horses are available to take tourists till midway, but trekking has its own charm. As always, start early.

Day 6

1. National Museum of Bhutan- Take a taxi to the National Museum. Apart from the useful information about the culture, history and geography of Bhutan, this place provides a great view of the entire valley - the market area, the Dzong, the rivers and even the airport.

You don't get to see such things everyday unless you are in Paro.

View of Paro Valley and airport from National Museum

Photo of Paro, Bhutan by Travsian

2. Paro Dzong - it is quite simple compared to the ones in Thimphu and Punakha. But Paro is naturally the prettiest of all three..we enjoyed walking down the hill crossing apple orchards; roads lined with cypress trees on both sides; a series of chortens ( Buddhist Shrines); and watching old monks and nuns praying by the road side.

3. Paro Market – Shopping for souvenirs at the end of a trip is mandatory and hence a tour of the market makes sense. We found the place pretty interesting as it still has an old charm to it and not a single sign of westernization. There are shops selling thungkas, prayer wheels and flags, Buddha idols, cham masks, yak wool shawls and other hand-loom items and not to forget cordyceps.. I too managed to pick up a few souvenirs for friends and relatives.

4. Preparation for return – If you have an early morning flight from Paro next day, then book a cab in advance for the next morning from the city taxi stand. For an early pickup from hotel ( before 6 AM), you will be charged between 500-800 bucks.

Day 7

Time to bid farewell to Bhutan - the land of thunder dragons and a country that believes in Gross National Happiness (GNH). For me, the trip was ending and I still hadn’t found out about the four pillars of happiness that formed the basis of GNH concept, but by this time I was pretty sure that the people of this country are living a much more balanced life than ours. On the surface they may seem rustic and 50 years behind us, but in reality they can teach the whole world a lesson on the essence of human life – kindness, goodness of purpose, truthfulness and respect for others.

Travel to Bhutan to find out for yourself.

Other useful tips - a) booking and sharing local taxis turned out to be cheaper compared to booking a vehicle for the entire trip; b) don't forget to enable your credit card for international transactions ( unless you are a cash-only person); c) eat at local restaurants rather than at hotels ( must try local delicacies like datshi, cheese momos and thukpa); d) shop at Paro and at the handicraft stalls opposite to Taj Tashi hotel in Thimphu; e) Price of Druk air tickets vary every day, look out for the best deals that fit your budget

Hotel suggestions - Hotel Osel at Thimphu ; Hotel Lobesa at Punakha ; Tiger's Nest Resort at Paro ( preferably cottages)