A place you won't find on most Bhutan itineraries.
Well Bhutan is unarguably the most peaceful place, the last Shangri-la. Shangri-la means a permanently happy land, isolated from the world, a Himalayan utopia.
Life is simple. People are not plagued with wants.
When I started my journey I did not in my vaguest imagination thought that I would be so in love with this place.
It is our neighbouring country but absolutely different.
I crossed into Bhutan through Phuentsholing and there is a running wall which divides the 2 countries. However without that wall also one can easily differentiate between India and Bhutan with the cleanliness, the driving habits and the dressing. Honking is an absolutely no no in Bhutan whereas on India side the favourite activity other than spitting is honking.
People take absolute pride in their country and they are dead serious about preserving their environment. They also wear their national dress called the Gho (for men) and Kira (for women). It is compulsory for them to wear national dress when visiting any school, government offices and on formal occasions. They also need to wear it while on duty as a guide. I hardly saw any locals dressed in anything other than their national dress.
As I entered into Bhutan , it almost felt surreal as the landscape changed into something absolutely beautiful.
Since we reached the border on a Sunday , immigration office was closed. We spent the night in Phuentsholing and in the morning proceeded for our immigration.
The immigration is fairly easy, however if you want to dodge the agents/guides who actually get in line in place of their big tourist groups then try reaching early morning like 8 am with all your documents ready. The immigration office opens at 9.
We got our permits done in an hour and started for the journey onwards.
One can get reserved and shared cabs apart from morning bus from Phuentsholing to Thimpu or Paro. It takes somewhere around 4.5 hours to 6 hours to reach Thimpu or Paro. Due to influx of Indians into Bhutan in large numbers and Indians being (in)/famous for bargaining, the people there are aware of it and they quote a higher price and people bargain. There are no fixed rates.
On the way, do stop at Chukkha for snacks and butter tea. Butter tea , slightly pink in colour, is very soothing beverage for the cold weather.
We reached Thimpu by late afternoon. Thimpu the capital of Bhutan is at 7375 ft above sea level and is one of the highest capitals in the world by altitude.
Some experiences for Thimpu are Buddha Dordenma which is a 177ft tall statue of sitting buddha. Inside the statue there are 1.25 lakh smaller statues of Buddha. It is jokingly said in Thimpu that there are more Buddha in Thimpu than people. Btw Thimpu population is around 1.15 lakh.
The Changangkha Lhakhang, is situated atop a small hill , built in the 13th century and one can see the whole Thimpu city from there. Lhakhang are religious structures found throughout the country.
The Memorial Chorten, is regarded as the most visible religious structure in Thimpu. It was built in 1974 as a memorial to their King. Chorten literally means the Seat of Faith and Buddhist generally refer to these monuments as the Mind of Buddha.
The Tashichho Dzong, seat of the government since 1952, houses several government department offices. It opens for tourists after 5 PM.
Also experience the local cuisine, the unprocessed red rice, yak cheese , chillies to name a few.
In Bhutan we made sure we woke up before the city got busy to experience the sunrise and early morning and the untouched beauty of it. It is also possible due to the city calling it a night by 9 pm max.
From Thimpu we got our permit extended for this place we will be visiting which you would not find on most itineraries. At the time of arrival, initially you get permit for visiting only Thimpu and Paro.
Paro, the capital city of Bhutan , takes about 1.5 hours to reach from Thimpu.
Some experiences for Paro are the Rinpung Dzong, which is again government administrative seat.
National museum of Bhutan , is just above the Rinpung Dzong(on a hill). It is a round shaped building and has an impressive collection of both ancient and modern artifacts.
Don't forget to visit the Airport Bird Eye View point. Paro airport is considered as one of the most dangerous airports Visit it early in the morning to see flights takeoff and land, preferably before 8.
Paro Taktsang or the Tiger Nest Monastery is the most instagrammable photo you would find. It is a picture perfect place.
It is built on vertical rock cliff at about 10240 ft above sea level. The hike is not overly steep. About 4.5 kms one way and it takes about 2-3 hours to trek. Be prepared for the hike mentally, it is doable for most people. We were amazed when an elderly couple from France reached the top just behind us. The husband was celebrating his 75th birthday that day. The halfway of the trek is marked by a cafeteria and the trek after the cafeteria is relatively easier than before as there are some plain patches. The last leg of the trek from the view point has stairs, 700 in numbers in which 500 are down and 200 up.
Most of the photographs you see on the social media are taken from the view point.
Once you reach the monastery, a guide accompanies you inside and shows you around the monastery. You can also meditate inside the monastery and I think it's a great place to meditate , at an elevation of 10000 ft , pin drop silence and awesome weather. Plus it will make you forget all the fatigue of the trek and you will feel relaxed and it will prepare you for the downhill.
Next, we proceed to our destination Bumthang , a place you won't find on many itineraries. We had a flight to Bumthang, it's a short flight of 35 minutes which otherwise takes 12 hours by road. The flight takes you above picturesque snow capped mountains and within a short time you reach Bumthang. I had no idea about the airport, but once I reached, I saw that it is a very small airport , so much so that the parking is just 1 minute walk from the runway and the airport consists of a small house type structure.
I immediately searched online about the world's smallest airports but this was in no list. Probably the people who made these lists have not been here.
So Bumthang it is. A very small picturesque town , in my imagination I dream of living in a place like that. River , mountain , water running through the mountains and a house in front of the mountain. An ideal place, most of the Bumthang district is a part of the protected forest network. We took long walks along the river and I never felt so much at peace before.
Bumthang has many Lhakhang, Jambey Lhakhang, Kurjey Lhakhang, Chakhar Lhakhang , Konchogsum Lhakhang, Thamshing Monastery to name a few. Bumthang Valley is also famous for the Burning Lake or the Membartsho , a prominent place of worship for Buddhists. Jakar Dzong , housing the administrative offices is again a dramatic structure with quintessential architecture overlooking the valley.
Also absolutely not to be missed is the Bumthang Brewery which sells the locally produced Red Panda Beer , peach brandy , apple wine and honey wine.
There is also a palace called the Wangdicholing Palace , however it is under renovation since many years. Still the palace is open for visitors and one can see exquisite wood work in the palace.
Bumthang was awesome and next we proceeded for Kuruthang in the Punakha district. On the way we crossed Wangdue Phodrang which is the major site for hydro power generation.
The bus dropped off at Lobesa and from there sharing taxis take you to Kuruthang.
We visited during the time when the Jacaranda trees were in full bloom. It made the scenery so pretty all over Punakha.
In Punakha , one can visit Chimi Lhakhang, the most photographed (after Tiger Nest) Punakha Dzong and the suspension bridge.
Also on the way from Punakha to Thumping/Paro, you will visit Dochula Pass , situated at about 10000 ft , it has 108 memorial shortens or stupas built in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in battle with Assamese insurgents from India in December 2003.
There is also a monastery called the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang there. To enjoy the views at 10000 ft, do spend some time at the cafeteria there.
We could not visit Phobjika valley due to time constraints, but it is highly recommended.
The feeling of peace will be your constant throughout the Bhutan journey and I did not want to return to our regular hectic life. But I am glad I could take this journey and Bhutan will always be one of my favorites places.
Some recommended hotels :
Phuentsholing - Hotel Druk
Thimpu - Hotel Bhutan
Paro - City Hotel. Also serves delicious Indian food and it's restaurant is always jam packed.
Bumthamg - Hotel Norkhel.