Bhutan is tucked away in the Himalayas, somewhere lost between India and China. Almost 70% of the country is covered in forests and it has a population of less than a million. As a traveller, I am always on the lookout for the road less travelled. Having never known any foreign rule, still natural in its beauty, balancing modern development with conscious Buddhist values, it seemed like the ideal choice.
The small border town sits right across the much-photgraphed Bhutan Gate that separates the two countries. The feeling that you have been pulled back in time by at least a few years is a little too real, the minute you step on the other side of the border. While we waited for our permits to be made out at the immigration office, I decided to walk around a bit. The people in Bhutan, are relatively new to the world at large because they chose to remain isolated long after everyone else had integrated themselves into the modern civilisation. The television and Internet, tools that have played such an integral part in making this world a ‘global village’ had not been introduced in Bhutan until the year 2000. This, I think, is why most people still have the ‘old-school’ mannerisms.
To Eat:Kizom Cafe: This place serves some of the best shakes/ pastries.Asian Kitchen and Bar: If you are craving for some yummy Bhutan/Tibetan food, you are sure to like this place.
The evening was fading as the taxi pulled into the quietest capital city. The permits we secured at Phuentsholing only takes us so far. In the morning, we had to apply for a fresh set of permits, specifying all that we wanted to see within the country. A city with no traffic lights, boasts of men in uniform with white gloves guiding the flow of traffic all day. People clad in Ghos, their traditional dress, were ready to help us at every turn that we took. This city seemed to find the right balance between the old and the new.. the cafes and clubs.. the dzongs and monasteries, they all seemed to peacefully coexist.
Tashichho Dzong: The flag retreat ceremony that takes place everyday in the evening at 5PM makes this place a hit among the tourists.
Memorial Chorten: If you are lucky, like we were, you might be served a communal lunch that sort of mirrors the tradition of langar widely popular in Gurudwaras across the world. This was my personal favourite meal in Bhutan.
Kuensel Phodrang ( Buddha Point): This is the largest statue of Buddha and is made of bronze and stands 51.5 meters high. It also doubles up as a great view point as one can see the Raidāk River (Thimpu river) and the expanse of the city around it.
Changangkha Lhakhang: This is the oldest temple in the country. This place is buzzing with lamas who busy themselves with prayers and hymns all through the day. Yet, there is such peace that is found here.
Thimpu Tower: One of the moments that is sure to stay with me forever is the dinner experience that I had at this place. It was late in the night and the city was almost asleep. Weary and tired we stumbled upon this place, almost by chance. Upon information that a couple of hungry souls have come knocking, the manager, a fellow Indian came out to welcome us. We were informed that though the restaurant hadn’t yet opened its doors to the public, they sure wouldn’t let us go hungry that night. We were served some delicious BBQed chicken wings, peas pulao, veg stir fry and dal. We finished it with some yummy cake. Would highly recommend it, not just for the good food but also for the amazing service.
Hotel Shantideva: Nothing like finding smiling faces, eager to help you when in a new country. This hotel has the best staff and facilities. The room we rented was the best I have ever stayed in during all of my backpacking years.
Located between Thimphu and Punakha, this place marks the 108 chortens built by Queen Mother to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed when fighting the Indian separatists in 2003. This place also has a great view of the Himalayas. If you wish you break your journey to Punakha, you wouldn’t find a better place.
Druk Wangyel Cafe: This tiny tea shop also doubles as a gift shop, where we stopped to gaze at the mountains.
This tiny, out-of-the-way country, had been on my bucket list for the longest time. I had twice before planned a trip to this place, but for reasons beyond my understanding, I failed both times. I was too determined to make it happen this time around. So much so that even a missed flight couldn’t stop me! I booked the next available flight out of the country and off I went.
After the 4 hour long drive from Thimpu, we finally reached the erstwhile capital of Bhutan. The sky was overcast and it had just started to drizzle. After a quick supper at Hotel Kuenga, we decided to take a walk. We followed the sound of the roaring river and came upon the beautiful Punatsangchhu riverbed. It was here that we spent few hours with the river resounding the perfect tune in the background.
Punakha Dzong: The former capital and seat of government nests the second dzong that was built in Bhutan, arguably the biggest in the country. It is built at the tip of the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Male river) and Pho Chhu (Female river).
I have often been told that I see the world around me through rose-colored glasses. True as it may be, here, in this historic town, one can never lose their sense of wonder. We decided to explore the town on foot.
Be it the sight of kids playing Khuru, a traditional dart game, or watching shopkeepers lining up outside their shops for a game of carrom, it was a peaceful walk. The trail took us alongside the river and back the same way through the paved path on either side of the bridge. This is where we were to spend the rest of our days in Bhutan. We just knew.
Chele La Pass: This is said to be the highest motorable pass in Bhutan at 3810 meters. Lucky for us, it was such a clear day that we could spot Jomolhari, also known as ‘the bride of Kangchenjunga’. We walked up a few steps to see the fluttering prayer flags against the whitest backdrop of the Himalayas. It is in moments like these that you really start to reflect what a tiny speck you are in the infinite cosmos.
Kyichu Lhakhang: This is said to be one of Bhutan’s oldest and most beautiful temples. We were lucky enough to witness the monks during the evening prayer. The reverberating, yet peaceful chants while the lamas tossed rice grains in the air as offerings, made for such a beautiful experience.
Drukgyal Dzong: We were to almost skip this one. As my traveller friend would like to quote, “We were dzonged out”. It’s true. We had been to so many of these that it had become a verb to us. But so glad we decided otherwise. This ruined fortress commemorates the victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders in 1644. There’s not much left to the dzong except the front courtyard and ta dzongs (watchtowers) behind.