Bhutan: The Kingdom Where Nature meets Soul

Tripoto
22nd Jan 2017

When I was planning for Bhutan, I did a whole month of research and all the blog posts were about how beautiful the country is, how the environment is different and how people fall in love with this kingdom at the first sight. I was intrigued by the pictures and blog posts that I could not wait to start my journey to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. In this post I will be sharing my deep felt experience in Bhutan and my day-wise itinerary too.

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DAY 1: Delhi – Bagdogra – Phuentsholing

So, my journey started on 22nd of January, 2017 with four of my school friends and while we were boarding the flight from Delhi to Bagdogra, I was not aware that the next coming week would be life altering and enlightening for me.

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IGI Airport

We landed in Bagdogra by afternoon and chose to hire a taxi to Jaigaon which is the bordering town of India with Bhutan. It took us four hours to reach Jaigaon, including stopping at a roadside dhaba to have our lunch which was too pathetic. But we had to compromise because West Bengal is not like North India where dhabas throng the highway sides.

It was early evening that we reached Jaigaon and were welcomed by the beautiful Indo-Bhutan border gate and a signboard saying “Welcome to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan”. When one visits an international border, he/she expects heavy customs and immigration checks and some kind of armed forces overseeing that no unwanted activity is taking place between two countries. However, what I saw was completely the opposite of this. Indians and Bhutanese people did not seem to be different.

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Ind0-Bhutan Border gate

The bordering town of Bhutan is known as Phuentsholing and to get there, we breezed through a gate that had ENTRY written over it and manned by one Bhutanese police officer. And that was it, we were in Bhutan! My excitement could be seen on my face. This destination was on my bucket list since a year and here I was, on my first international trip to Bhutan.

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After the excitement mellowed down, we started searching for hotels to spend the night. As we had not pre-booked, we had to roam around the streets of Phuentsholing to get a decent hotel for low price. After half an hour, we checked into Hotel Fhola, which was a good budget hotel.

DAY 2: Phuntsholing – Thimphu

In order to go further into Bhutan, one needs to get permit from the immigration office in Phuentsholing and then proceed. For Indians, it is a very easy procedure as they can get this permit by showing their passport of voter ID card. But if you do not have either of these then you need to go to the Indian Consulate Office in Phuentsholing and get yourself an identification slip by giving copies of TWO Indian identity proofs (Driving licence, PAN card, AADHAAR card, student ID, etc). And you also need to have two passport sized photographs with yourself for this whole thing.

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Phuentsholing town

I had read in blogs that the tour operators in Jaigaon are a lot cheaper than those in Phuentsholing, so we crossed the border again and went to look for a budget tour package. Did I mention that you can cross the border any time and as many no. of times you want. The gates are open till 11:30 pm and you can have your dinner in Bhutan and take a night stroll in India.

Coming back to tour operators, we went to a travel company named Jaigaon Tours and Travels and asked about the package. At first they quoted a package 34,000 INR for five people which included six days travelling and accommodation ( Phuentsholing to Phuentsholing). I was negotiated with them and after a lot of talking we came down to 29000 INR for the whole package. And luckily they also got our immigration formalities done at no extra cost. I would really recommend Jaigaon Tours and Travels for Bhutan packages because the hotels were nice on the budget category and the price was reasonable too.

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By late afternoon, we had our backpacks loaded in the car and headed for Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. We reached our hotel in Thimphu by 10:00 pm that night and on the way we got to see the extravagantly beautiful parliament situated right at the middle of the city and adorned with lights that made it dazzle under the ink black sky.

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en route Thimphu
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Parliament in Thimphu

DAY 3: Thimphu – Dochu La Pass – Punakha

When we were entering this beautiful country I was not aware that I would spend the whole week without mobile phone signals, with very limited internet access and no social media to boast my trip. At first I was mortified with the fact that I would be able to use my phone just to click pictures and nothing else. But as I slept through the night and got absorbed by how beautiful this country was I forgot that I need my phone.

Next morning, we had decided to have the day to visit Thimphu and then head to our next destination which was Punakha. As charming this city was under the night sky, during the day too, it was equally mesmerizing. I could not believe my eyes at how well planned and clean this country was. The difference between the two countries can be felt right when you enter Phuentsholing but the difference here was felt even in the air. It was like I had not taken in such pure and fresh air ever in my life. There was this fruity and woody fragrance in the environment that followed you around.

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Thimphu City

Thimphu had a lot of things in store for us but due to shortage of time we went to visit only the major places. We got to witness the magnificent Buddha statue which is the tallest statue of Buddha in the whole world and the Chorten Memorial. After seeing these two places, we collected our restricted area permit for visiting Punakha and Chele La and started off towards Punakha.

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Chorten Memorial
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Buddha Point

On the way to Punakha, we had to cross Dochu La pass (3100 mts), which is another amazing place that one cannot miss out. Druk Wangyal Chortens are 108 memorial stupas which are built on this pass in the memory of 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died while helping Indian Army fight off terrorists in Assam. And while standing on this pass you can see the high rising Himalayan peaks on the opposite side of this mountain. We were showered with luck because while we were there the sky was a clear turquoise blue with not even a single cloud to obstruct our view of the amazing peaks right in front of us.

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Druk Wangyal Chortens
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View of the Himalayan peaks

We spent some of our time amidst the chortens, getting soaked with the warmth of sunlight and feeling the icy cold wind on our face. It was a place where I could spend hours without moving. And trust me, Bhutan will give you many moments like this, it definitely gave some more to me.

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As Punakha is not such a touristy town, there are not many hotels or restaurants that will serve to your taste but the place is nice. We went for an evening stroll through the market place which was on the verge of closing but there was not even a single moment when I felt unsafe or uncomfortable. That was one city where I noticed what gender equality was. There were equal number of women running businesses and hotels with or without the help of their male counterparts and it was amazing to see such progressive thinking.

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No one even gave me a look or that uncomfortable stare that I would get in India when I am the only girl in the whole group. It was like no one cared who we are till we are not causing any trouble. We spent a few hours roaming on the streets and sitting by the road, looking at the stars as if they were diamonds dangling off the sky. And one thing that really connected us was the absence of our mobiles. For the first time we had endless discussions about numerous topics that never popped up between us.

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The King and Queen of Bhutan

That night, according to us, we had an experience paranormal activity too. The incident shook us throughout but I do not know whether there was really something or it was just in our head. Whatever the thing was, all five of us slept in one room that night.

DAY 4: Punakha – Paro

After the hysterical night, the next morning we got all dressed up to visit the Punakha Dzong. The special thing that made me visit the Dzong was that the place where this Dzong is built, two rivers meet, namely Pho Chu and Mo Chu (Father River and Mother River). One has its origin in China and one in Tibet. This dzong is famous for holding the royal weddings too.

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Punakha Dzong

Therefore, to see this kind of place that holds such historical and royal value was a big deal for me. While entering the dzong I got greeted by so many monks with a sunny smile that made my day. This visit made me believe the saying that people in Bhutan are too happy. One old lady even complimented me.

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The dzong seemed to hold life for people around. There were students who were taught by their gurus, there were monks who were meditating and praying, there were many people who lived there and then there were us, who were witnessing something so ordinary, yet it left a stamp in our memories.

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The architecture of the dzong caught me in its depths. Every pillar, wall, window and door had such intricate paintings that made me wonder about the stories behind it. Punakha Dzong was an architectural beauty that left my mind boggling.

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Inside the dzong
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Moving ahead, our next stop was to reach Paro, which is another major city of the kingdom and the only city that has an International Airport and the funny thing is that there are only two flights that operate to and from the country: Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines. So if you are planning to fly to Bhutan, you would have to use any of these two airlines.

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Paro International Airport

The route to Paro was the best route I had ever seen. Every turn made me go wow and I could not afford to blink an eye in fear of losing an amazing view. The whole route is amazing. And on top of that the roads are also in great condition, so there won’t be any bumpy rides.

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The winter spell had left the mountains barren and the orange glow of sunset made it look magnificent. And as a cherry on the cake, the sky was clear. That view still revolves around my head as a masterpiece made by nature itself.

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I loved the ride within the mountain valleys and a river snaking its way with us as we moved ahead. We took a stop to see an old chain suspension bridge which is too common in Bhutan. However, this one was closed and a new bridge was constructed over the river. After a few photographs we started again.

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Chain Suspension Bridge

It got around evening when we entered Paro city. The city had its own charm. Where Punakha was historically strong, Paro was a modern marvel. This city made me feel as if I had stepped into Kashmir again. The same wooden houses surrounded by trees and the high mountains. It was déjà vu for me and I loved the feeling to the core.

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The city was bustling with tourists when we reached there. Ours was Hotel Paro and our driver asked us to get changed and be ready for party. Yes, Bhutan does have a fun side too. We got to know that every Wednesday and Friday nights were party nights when the clubs and karaokes opened and the locals partied their heart out. And every Wednesday, the ladies could get in for free. How cool is that!

There was a club right in front of our hotel but we decided to let it be and roamed the streets of the city. Paro has enough shops for buying souvenirs but they are on the pricier side, so be ready to bargain. I bought my souvenirs from some street vendors at the starting point of Tiger’s Nest Monastery trek. They are pretty cheap and cool.

DAY 5: Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Today was the day when we had to do the Tiger’s Nest Monastery Trek or locally known as Taktsang Monastery Trek. I will put up a blog post specifically for this trek, so I would not be elaborating much on this here. But all I want to say is that this is one thing that you should not miss. It is definitely tiring but the labor is worth it. When you reach up there and get to see what you achieved, you will have that satisfaction which nothing else can give you.

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Our whole day went into scaling the monastery and coming down. We were tired to the bones and decided to retire for the night soon.

DAY 6: Chele La Pass

This was our last day in Paro and we were to visit Chele La Pass. It is the highest point at Dantak Road in Bhutan situated at an elevation of 3,988 mtrs above sea level. I had high expectations from Chele La Pass and I was expecting snowfall in there because the weather app forecasted so.

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The road to Chele La was winding with too many sharp turns and U-bends. It is rare that you would find a straight road throughout the way. There were many places where snow had melted down and frozen at the roads. My expectations for snow got higher and higher and at last broke down to nothing. Because when we reached the pass the sun was happily smiling over us and there was so much wind that snowfall could not happen at any cost.

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But I did not get sad as the view from that pass was amazing. The cold wind was so fast that I felt I would get carried away with it if I do not hold anything. We climbed down the road to a nearby cliff and my friends started getting their pictures clicked. But I did not want to get indulged in photography sessions and miss out this marvel of nature before me.

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So, I took a spot on the cliff and sat there looking at the valley before me. That was Haa Valley. We had to go there too but our driver denied and said that he won’t take us there until we pay him another 2000 bucks. So we decided to give it a miss.

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Coming back to Chele La pass, it was the best time for me in Bhutan. The time I spent sitting there, thinking about just nothing and seeing the clouds dancing atop the opposite mountain was something I had seen for the first time. On my side it was completely sunny but on the other side grey clouds were gathering and it seemed that it two worlds were merging into each other.

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There were times when the sun hid behind clouds and some rays peeked through them, making the entire view too good to handle. That time I realized that some things cannot be captured in a camera, you need your eyes for that and store it in your mind.

We spent a few hours at Chele La pass and then decided to climb back up but that was getting too difficult for me as the wind had gotten faster and I felt as if I would topple over but nothing like that happened and we reached up safely. And lastly, we finished our visit with hot cup noodles atop the mountain, looking at the clouds laden with snow and rain, moving towards us.

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Our rest of the day went by doing local sightseeing in Paro which included only one museum. Entry to the museum is for Rs. 50 for Indians and it is worth a visit if you want to know about the culture, natural history, geography, etc. about this kingdom. The museum is small but I really liked it as all of the country’s history was compiled at one place.

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DAY 6: Paro – Jaigaon – Siliguri

This was the day when we were leaving this mesmerizing country with a heavy heart. We had seen only western part of the country and so much more was left to discover. But the morning sunrise gave us another spectacular view to remember. This morning, all of the surrounding mountains of Paro were dusted with fresh white snow and this valley was looking nothing less than a winter wonderland.

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I had wished to stay a day more just to experience snowfall but we had our flight the next day, so after having breakfast which we cooked ourselves in the hotel’s kitchen (yes, you can do that at a very low cost) we left for Jaigaon.

And for the last time, Bhutan gave us another site to remember. The roads were covered with blankets of clouds and one moment we were seeing the clouds hovering over the nearby mountain and another moment we were entering that cloud and going through it. It was such a beautiful experience and I felt so close to nature that I never wanted to go back.

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At last we reached Jaigaon by 3:30 pm and the weather was cloudy and it was drizzling. We were late and the taxis were charging exorbitantly high to take us to Bagdogra. We decided to walk down to the nearby bus stop and get a local bus to Siliguri that is nearby the airport. But unfortunately the last bus had left and we were stranded in Jaigaon again.

But luck was in our favor, a very nice and helpful person (thank god for him) told us that there is a train named Kanchankanya Express leaving from Hasimara station (the railway station in Jaigaon) at 4:40pm. He made us get on an auto-rickshaw and we got off at the station within half an hour. We bought general tickets to Siliguri Junction and got on the train on right time. It took us 3 hours to reach Siliguri Junction.

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The airport is just half an hour away from the station so we decided to take a room for the night near it. The hotel that we booked was Gananarayan Hotel and it was a very modest hotel at an affordable price.

DAY 7: Bagdogra – New Delhi

So today we packed our bags finally and got on the flight to New Delhi. This is where our trip ended with lots of memories, stronger friendships and cute little souvenirs to remember this amazing week.

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Bhutan has given me so many things. The air is so full of nature and love together that you cannot be anything less than happy. The country that made me fall in love with its simplicity, the country that measures its growth in Gross National Happiness had increased my happiness meter too. Here I learnt that I can live without my mobile phone and internet whenever I want to because that is not so important in your life. Whatever is important is with you, whether in person or in your heart and nothing else matters.

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This country has changed me from inside out. The kind of cleanliness I saw in there has made me more cautious about keeping my country clean. The way people are happy with smaller things in life has made me realize that it is okay if you don’t have the latest iphone or the maximum likes on a picture, my happiness is not limited to these materialistic things. I got to know how quickly time flies when you are with the people you love and you need to cherish each moment wherever you are.

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So, this was Bhutan for me and if given a chance, I would definitely go back.

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