Reaching the Bhutan Gate
It all started out with an idea to have a boys trip while I was in IIT Kharagpur. It took us 3 days to narrow it down to Bhutan as it usually happens all the time in case of boys trip. The first question was the mode of transport which we narrowed down to train to conserve budget. We listed out probable tourist locations and scouted for railway reservations. The last minute reservations forced us to choose the slowest train on the route. Teests Torsa Express (Teesta Torsa Express/13141) which starts from Sealdah(SDAH), Kolkata and ends at New Alipurduar(NOQ), West Bengal. New Alipurduar is the closest railway station from the Jaigaon border crossing for Bhutan. The other alternative is to book a hired taxi from New Jalpaygudi(NJP) which requires a longer run on road.
The bus journey from Alipurduar to Jaigaon takes a good 4.5 hours which passes from Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary & South Khairbari National Park giving enough glimpses of greenery and clean rivers. The tiger warning signs keep peeping up to add to some excitement! But 2 hours in the journey and we were wondering why we couldn't get a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas. It was the last 15 minutes of the journey to Jaygaon that we could see the hills as if the himalayas suddenly grew off the ground. The bus dropped us a bit outside the border town. We took a rickshaw to the grand welcoming 'Bhutan Gate', as they call it. That was the first sight of Bhutan's signature architectural style thet we were going to see for the whole journey.
The Bhutan Gate, Jaygaon/Phuntsholing
Getting the permit
There is a free pedestrian entry near the gate with just a metal detector for security. The citizens of both sides move freely for shopping and other purposes. We too entered through the gate and it was a different feeling to realise that we have actually crossed the border and we were on the foreign soil. The contrast was visible immidiately. The people were different in looks, skin tone and attire. Even the architectire differed with just withing 50 meters. The next thing to do was getting the permits for our stay in Bhutan. It was Friday and Bhutan has a five day work week. The immigration office closes down at 3 PM. We had to be quick. Bhutan issues a 7-day permit to Indian citizens for around Rs. 200/person based on their voters Id card. some of us did not have it with us. It was 2.45 and we had to run to the Indian Embassy to provide us with an affidevit. They charged Rs. 100 for the service. With a bit of request, the immigration office counter stayed open till 3.15 and we were the last ones to get permits on the day. The next task was to find a travel agent and personalize our travel. We got quotes from many travel agents in Jaygaon and got a good deal at Rs. 3700/person for 3D/4N in Bhutan. It included Travel and stay but not food. We stayed in Jaygaon for the night to start the journey into the land of dreams the next day. A quick tip is not to travel at nights as the roads are unpredictable and trust me, you do not want to miss the beauty of the Himalayas.
We started our journey early in the morning and were spellbound by the scenery at evey turn of the road. The lush green carpet spread upon the mighty Himalayas with clouds floating upon them is mesmerizing. I would say it can be seen through photographs, but it can be felt only when you are there. The quality of roads is good for most of the part except for the areas of heavy landslides. It happened so many times that we passed from a point and we got the chills after seeing that point from far away and realised that we passed from a retrofitted landslide. The road to Thimphu is certainly the most memorable road I have been to. It had thills and chills like no less than a Hollywood thriller. There are many spots along the way where you would like to get down of your vehicle and just freeze the view in your memory. There are clean small towns, tall waterfalls, green paddy fields, dense forests and lots of colorful flags along the way. You might wanna think twice while leaving a reastaurant behind as there are few of those on the route. The 7 Hr journey showcases the miracles of the nature in such a way that it stays etched in your memory forever.
The highway crosses the river confluence to take the road to Paro, which was our first destination. As we came closer to the Paro city, we could see large paddy fields with Bhutan's primary crop which is rice. There is only one airport in Bhutan which can be seen on the way of Paro with a slight detour.
The Paro Airport
We checked-in the hotel which was a decent one. We gave the driver a break from driving and walked to the nearest Monastery, the Rinpung Dzong. We took an unusual route which passed bu the side of the Paro chu and soaked our feet in the clean and freezing river water. To our surprise, the river access was unrestricted. A quick tip would be to cover yourself well while visiting the monasteries as the rules are strict. The Bhutanese architecture is very unique and distinctively different. The monasteries are hundreads of years old and still well maintained. Photography is not allowed inside the worship chambers where one really gets tempted to capture the spiritual sights. The dzong provides a complete overview of the Paro city.
Tiger's nest (Taktsang Lhakhang)
The Tigers's nest is a Monastery situated 3,120 m above the sea level and is a good 2 Hr trek from the place where you leave the vehicles. It is a moderate hike but can be tiresome for some of the tourists. But when we reached the top, it was all worth it. There is a waterfall near the dzong and the view from the dzong is unforgettable. It was cloudy in the morning and we were trekking in the clouds with a visibility of 20 meters with light drizzle. The weather changed within an hour as the sunlight started peeping in. On the way back, an adventurous friend took a detour and was kind of lost as the track is unpredictable. But the trek is one thing that shoul not be missed at any cost when you visit Bhutan.
The capital city of Bhutan a glipse of urbanizing Bhutan. The roads are well maintained with european styled roundabouts. Thimphu is situated in the vally and is a bliss to watch at night. The city has some good eateries for the foodie in you and glamorous stores for the shopoholic in you! Thimphu has a crafts market with some unusual crafts. There are plenty of temples & dzongs to visit nearby. Thimphu even has cinema halls and nightclubs which was shocking to us as general perception about the country is quiet contrary.
Buddha Dordenma statue (Kuenselphodrang)
Bhutan has world's one of the tallest Buddha statues. A 51.5 m high Bronz statues is under construction near Thimphu. The location is such that the whole city of Thimphu can see the massive statue which is guilded with gold and first rays of sun fall on the Buddha. It was a very spiritual and above the world experience to visit the statues.
Dochula Chorten is situated at one of the highest motorable roads in the world. We happened to visit it on the way to Punakha dzong. Drop in tempereature was extreme while climbing to Dochula.
We started for Punakha early in the morning and planned to return to Thimphu on the same day. The Punakha Dzong is one of the tallest and has massive idols of Buddha inside. The road to Punakha was a bit harsh but was worth it. The Mo chu flowing beside the dzong and the ancient River bridge is a sight worth experiencing yourself. Punakha gave us more views of stepped farming on the way.
The return journey
Early morning start from thimphu gave us enough time to reach Jaygaon and then further to New Alipurduar where we had to board our Train back home at 4 PM. I left Bhutan with the memories of lush green landscapes, fresh blue skies & humble people of Bhutan only to decide to return to Bhutan with my wife when I am married. ;)
Day 1: Reaching Paro, Rinpung Dzong
Day 2: Trek Tiger's Nest, reaching to Thimphu, Buddha statue
Day 3: Thimphu Dzong, Crafts market, Punakha
Day 4: Return to India