The Journey to Bhutan – The country that made me a storyteller!

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Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

Photo of Thimphu, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

I always wanted to travel solo and explore on my own, but I never knew if I would be able to do it. I think a lot of people get stuck in the phase between deciding to travel and actually making it happen. You know, we all have that “I’ll do it later” syndrome. Making the leap from the idea of traveling to actually putting a plan into action can be daunting. There is a lot to consider and a lot of choices to be made. But sometimes things just happen on their own. I’m glad it happened to me!

Initially, I kept this to myself as it was my first time travelling alone and I didn’t want people to discourage me. After days of battling it out with myself and answering few “Why alone” questions, I was finally on my way for my first ever solo travel. I was scared (but excited as hell!). In my mind and heart, I knew I wanted to do this “NOW” and that’s all that mattered.

The preparation:

I started to gather information and list down things I had to take care of. Booking flight tickets, hotels to stay, shared cabs, places to visit and most importantly, getting the permit to enter BHUTAN were on my check list. My first challenge was to book flight tickets. Since this was my first air travel, I took help from my friend Nakul and he did the bookings for me (after two attempts :P). Next on the list was Bhutan permit. Among two ways for Indians to get the permit, applying online was more suitable for me as my travelling dates were fixed. Getting the permit at the Immigration office felt more risky as I was travelling during their national holidays. Last but not the least I had to decide the places to visit. After much research, I listed down the places and the details. This was a very well planned trip, with a detailed itinerary. Even places to have a coffee were noted!

How I reached Bhutan:

My journey started from Bengaluru, Karnataka. I booked round trip tickets from Bengaluru to Bagdogra (West Bengal), landed in Bagdogra airport and reached Siliguri by cab. Since I had a plan to visit Darjeeling, I started my journey to Bhutan after two days. I took the early morning bus from Siliguri and reached Phuentsholing by noon. After getting my passport stamped at immigration office, I took the shared taxi to Thimphu and started my journey.

And the journey:

On the way to Thimphu

Photo of The Journey to Bhutan – The country that made me a storyteller! by Sindhura Sunkad

The journey from Phuentsholing to Thimphu was breathtaking with the apple and orange trees growing on the hillside, and the temperature dropping from 25 degrees to 8 degrees. I felt lucky to be sharing a taxi with Bhutanese locals. There were no tourists as it was the off season. The locals were friendly and offered the front seat to capture the beautiful scenery along the way. They told stories, showed me beautiful villages and explained about their lifestyle, culture and not to forget those authentic Bhutanese momos with chai. By evening we reached Thimphu, and the driver dropped me in front of my hotel Tandin near NORZI LAM. Since it was their national holiday, none of the shops were open to buy a local sim. I was tensed as I did not talk to my mom and had to wait for a day more to get a sim to call her. Mr.Ramjim, the person who travelled along with me offered his phone to call my mom. The taxi driver gave me the extra sim he had, so I could use it during my stay. Both of them shared their numbers, asked me to give them a call if I need any help. Waaaaa… I was overwhelmed by their hospitality. I checked in to the hotel, got freshened up and came out to stroll the lanes. Tired from the long journey I didn’t roam much, had dinner and crashed to bed.

Thimphu:

Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Photo of Thimphu, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

It was a chilling morning in Thimphu, I was up early and ready. Hot poori and Aloo sabji was my breakfast. There was a lot to see in the city itself, so I started early. I always imagine capital cities as a place of hustle and bustle, crowded streets, busy people, high-rise buildings and heavy traffic like Bengaluru. Thimphu painted a different picture with its beautiful landscape, warm-hearted people, no honking, no traffic signals and Bhutanese architecture in all buildings. I started searching in google maps for direction, but thought of asking any locals first. I happened to look at this beautiful lady (Tashi) who greeted me with a smile, I took a chance and asked her the directions to reach the Folk Heritage museum. She was not sure about it, so she called Chophel (her then boyfriend now husband) who happened to be a tour guide in Bhutan. In the mean time we had a small conversation and introduced each other. Through Chophel, I got required information and directions. I was all set to go.

To my surprise, Tashi asked me to join her as she was visiting the Tango monastery with her friends on the occasion of their new year. I was in a dilemma for few a seconds, whether to take the risk of travelling with strangers or not. I trusted my gut feeling and decided to go with them. This decision changed my entire trip into an ‘INCREDIBLE’ experience. I met Tashi’s friends – Chophel, Chogyel, Geli, Chuki, Chuki’s cousin and Wandala. Everyone was in their traditional attire as it was ‘Losar’ (The Bhutanese New Year). Tango requires an hour’s ascent from the base on a stone path built by the monks. The climb was tough but pleasant with the fresh air, sound of birds, water in the background, and not to forget Wandala’s PJ’s along the way. We visited the monastery and hiked to the view point which had an incredible view. I was very lucky to get a taste of Bhutanese homemade cuisines as I shared lunch with them. While coming back we had to walk for a few miles to reach the next bus stop as we had missed the last bus. In an unknown country, with unknown people, thick forests, darkening light, chill weather, no phone reception, and I am walking without knowing where exactly I was going. Wow! This was the most thrilling moment in the entire trip! After walking for a few miles, we decided to ask for a lift. Finally one car stopped and we reached Thimphu late in the night.

Photo of Tango Gompa, Thimphu, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

With Chophel’ s help I planned to do local sightseeing in Thimphu for the entire day. After having pastry for my breakfast, we started to figure out how to extend my permit to visit Punakha – the old capital of Bhutan. After couple of hours we finally managed to get it done. Feeling relived, we started our journey in a local taxi and started visiting nearby places. We started with Buddha Point, followed by Takin preserver and memorial Chorten. We met up with Tashi and Chogyel for lunch, who both works for Bank Of Bhutan (BOB). We then went to the Folk heritage museum, textile industry and Postal museum. I met Tashi in the evening to buy ”Kira“- a traditional Bhutanese dress for myself. I bought a Kira recommended by her and the shopping went on for a while. I was invited by Wandala (Chophel’s friend) to the ‘HUB’. He works for a band as a guitarist. I reached late in the evening. He played many Hindi songs and dedicated a Bhutanese song to me. What a musical night it was!

Punakha:

Dochula Pass

Photo of Dochula, Thimphu, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

Punakha is a two and a half hour journey from Thimphu, so we decided to leave as early as possible. I booked Geli’s (A friend of Chophel) taxi for a day trip. On the way we had Bhutanese style vegetable fried rice and super-hot coffee for our breakfast near Hongtsho Thimphu. Our first stop was Dochula Pass, a mountain pass in the snow covered Himalayas on the road from Thimphu to Punakha. It has 108 memorial chortens or stupas built by the eldest Queen mother. There is also a monastery called as Druk Wangyal Lhakhang and the country’s first Royal Botanical Park adjacent to it. Then we visited Chimi L’hakhang temple, a pleasant half hour walk in the village called Sopsokha, through rice-paddies and fields. Upon entering Punakha, first stop was at the Punakha River point (Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu) and the garden. I met school kids who were preparing for their exams. Next up was Punakha Dzong, the oldest Dzong and the most recognisable attraction of Bhutan. I wanted to wear their traditional dress to visit this dzong. Geli took us to Chuki’s house, where her mother and aunt helped me wear ‘Kira’. Lovely people they are! After lunch we reached Punakha dzong, which is located by the side of Punakha River and offers beautiful views. One of its tributaries has a walk on the wooden bridge to the monastery. This dzong serves as a monastery and an administrative office for the local government. It is a fort like structure with a very big external wall surrounded by temples, housing for monks and a beautiful garden. I got to see the traditional dance and singing practice sessions in the yard as they were preparing for their upcoming festival, so we spent half a day inside the monastery enjoying the cultural environment. Finally we went to the Iron suspension Bridge, within walking distance from the monastery. Blessings written on the prayer flags, a calm and peaceful river flowing along was a beautiful sight to see and enjoy. After a day well spent, it was time to head back to Thimphu. While returning I felt like I was dreaming. Everything was in slow motion, a beautiful sunset, lonely mountains and road ways and a slow song in the background. We bought some locally grown oranges and vegetables on the way. We reached Thimphu late in the evening. The view of Thimphu dzong in the night was a sight to behold. I reached hotel, had roti and panner sabji for dinner and went to bed.

Punakha Dzong

Photo of Punakha, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

Paro:

On the way to Paro

Photo of Paro, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

The day had finally come. I was to hike the Taktsang Palphug or Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro (Hours of gym in the last two months was going to paid dividends :P ). Initially I had planned to stay in Paro for a night. But I decided to stay in Thimphu to be with my new friends and hang out every evening. So my visit to Paro became a day trip. We reached Paro early in the morning, had breakfast on the way. Since we had to hike, we bought water and snacks to help us along the way. We started our hike at 9.30 AM from the base. At a medium pace the hike can be completed in 2 to 2.5 hours. Although the views during the ascent to the top were awesome, but the best part was yet to come. Despite the chill, I was enjoying the hike and the scenery. About halfway through the hike we came to a rest area with the giant prayer wheels and flags. The Tiger’s Nest felt so close yet so far! We continued up, inhaling the pleasant aroma of the pine and oak trees. We reached a fall peak. Ahead of us I could see the descend of 500 or so steps followed by 200 or so ascending ones. As we got closer to the temple we walk over a wooden bridge beside an icy waterfall. The rushing water providing the soundtrack for the next section of our hike. Finally we reached the entrance to the monastery where all our belongings were warned to be kept aside. Upon entering, one can see the detailed and elaborated paintings, prayer wheels and of course good vibes everywhere. There was also a giant boulder with an indent. Chophel told – “If you can close your eyes, walk straight to the boulder and press your thumb directly into the indent you will be blessed with good luck”. He told I have a three chances to do that. I tried but it’s not as easy as it looks. After this, we visited temples and offered our prayers. We explored every nook and corner of this place. I sat at the corner for a long time looking at this beautiful place. From the monastery we had a spectacular view, but couldn’t capture as cameras weren’t allowed! Heading back down the trail is surprisingly easier. After reaching the base we went to Sonam Trophel to have lunch as we were damn hungry. Later we visited Dungtse Lhakhang – a chorten shaped temple, Rinpung Dzong, Paro Chuu river, and the National Museum. On the way back to Thimphu, our last stop was Tachog Lhakhang dzong and Iron Chain Bridge. I was very tired from hiking, had no strength to even have dinner. I ate some fruits and went to bed early.

Tiger’s Nest monastery

Photo of Tiger's Lair Temple, Paro, Bhutan by Sindhura Sunkad

The Final Chapter:

Last day I had time till noon, I decided to explore the city on my own. After a very nice breakfast, I started wandering on the street. I ended up visiting Thimphu Dzong, nearby temple, clock tower, stadium, high court and handicraft market. The Thimphu city is a perfect mix of liveliness and peace. While coming back to hotel I wanted to meet Tashi one last time. When we first met I sensed her love for India and Bollywood. I decided to gift her the hand knitted tops from Darjeeling that I had bought for myself. With help from the locals I got the directions, I reached BOB and met her. We wanted to spend little more time together. We hurried to hotel, took my bags and checked out. We hugged each other and said good bye. And promised each other to visit again. She became my best friend in no time. She told she will definitely come to my marriage! :D. She was with me until my taxi left for Pheonsholing. Coincidently, I happened to meet the taxi driver who had lent me the sim. After thanking him I returned the sim and boarded the taxi I booked (Unfortunately it was not his).

On this note I would also like to thank Chophel, my impromptu tour guide who explained all the detail of cities we visited very nicely.

Wow! The entire journey was mesmerising and thrilling at the same time, one to remember. I had made my mind up to visit this beautiful place again for the hospitality found nowhere else, for smiles that reach the heart and a spectacular gem of nature to be found nowhere else!

Until next time Tashi Delek & Le Shim Bay Jo eh!

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