The best way to get to Bhutan for Indian travellers is to fly to Bagdogra and cover the rest of the journey on road. Though there is a direct connectivity to the Paro from Delhi and Kolkata (Druk Airways apparently gives you a view of Mt. Everest on a clear day! But this is both expensive and you end up missing out on a beautiful road journey!). As soon as you land, the entire landscape changes and you instantly get into a holiday mode!
We booked a cab from the airport to Phuntsholing. The journey took us some 4 hours and was some what reminiscent of Goa /Kerela backwaters on a rainy day plus a lot of tea estates :-)
PS: Bagdogra airport doesn't have an ATM. The nearest town in case you have to stay the night is Siliguri.
Its advisable to stay the night at Phuentsholing instead of Bagdogra (A transit town where you can get all the travel permits; also a major Bhutanese city for trade/ exports).
We spent the night roaming around the city on foot; getting the feel of the people and culture. Had food at a small joint where we tried the local cuisines and drinks.
Vegetarians beware! It's not called the land of *Thunder Dragon* for nothing ! Chances are you will be breathing fire at your first attempt of Ema Datsi (chillies in a cheese fondue) :D
Interestingly, a lot of ordinary looking supply stores double as eateries and drinking bars all over Bhutan. You might walk in for a pack of batteries and end up having a beer! Which totally explains why they rate so *high* on the their Gross Happiness Index!
PS: The permit office opens at 9.30 am in the morning and the whole process takes about an hour. You need to carry your passport/ voter ID card, photocopies and photographs etc.
Lot of cheap options to stay, around the permit office. The price ranges from 1-2k a night on the higher side. We booked a cab from Phuntsholing for the rest of the trip for about 3K per day (15K for 5 days). The drivers usually double as tour guides and are fluent in Hindi and English.
A cafe called Kizom is recommended for a scrumptious breakfast (incase you're a toast, eggs and bacon kinda person).
Try Ara and Druk 11000, for the local flavour in wine and beer.
Thimpu City has a small-hill-station cum valley, look and feel to it. The city has a distinct culture and soul; you feel you've travelled back in time with castles and royalty and relics adoring every shop / corner of the city.
We stayed in the middle of the market area in a hotel called Tandin (Very much recommended @ 1.5K per night) which made it easy to move around on foot and check out the local flea markets / handicrafts and museums.
Somehow we were lucky enough to be visiting on a Friday which is apparently *Disco Night* in the city!
While walking around the market place in the night, we came across a karaoke place bustling with Bollywood music which turned out to be a dance bar! Before we could even process what was happening we were shoved inside by a beautiful waitress, who assured us it a *family place* and pointed out to a women and men sitting in large groups with small babies !
We decided to have a quick drink and move to another place and payed some 350 Rs. for 2 bottles of beer. To our surprise, the waitress authoritatively *demanded* for another 300 Rs. as a tip and finally was *generous* enough to give us a 100 Rs. *discount* on account of our naivety seeing our blank faces ( This is apparently the norm in the city, where pretty waitresses chat you up and you have to buy them a drink as a gesture of goodwill ...Suddenly the atrocious service charge we pay in Delhi seemed to be much more agreeable :-)). She was however, nice enough to point us to one of the more happening places for a clubbing experience (Space 34 and Vivacity). We found the Bhutanese youngsters (especially men) rather umm forthcoming and friendly and partied till late in the night :-) Tobacco is illegal in Bhutan, but its not uncommon to see certain discs and night clubs with smoking lounges.
PS- Honey Singh is quite a rage in the Bhutanese clubs !
Thimpu is mostly sightseeing and museums. Here is what you must visit while you are there: Memorial Chorten, Bhuddha Point, Motithang Takin Preserve (For the national animal Takin - Half Goat half cow), The Royal Palace, Zorig Chusum Art & Crafts School, National Library and the Folk Heritage Museum. All these places can be covered in half a day.
You will be surprised to see something called the phallus dragon; small key chains/ souvenirs with a dragon wrapped around the male genitalia (that's right), being sold locally - somewhat of a cultural shock to many.
The story dates back to - Drukpa Kunley, (colloquially known as the Divine Madman) - was a badass (Barney Stinson equivalent ) Bhutanese saint who professed unconventional and rather profound ways of spreading Buddhism.
He spent his years preaching spirituality and deflowering young women with his *magic thunderbolt of flaming wisdom*. There is apparently a monastery in Phunaka dedicated to him where young women are tapped on the head with a wooden phallus to ensure fertility ! :-/
Unwind the day by googling up his stories over a nice Bhutanese dinner with friends - will leave you in splits and should definitely be on your list!
Buy - A book called Phallus : Crazy wisdom from Bhutan; Souvenirs; The national traditional dress called Gho / Kira
Eat - Ambient Cafe, Bhutan Kitchen, Swiss Bakery, Wine and Dine
Paro City is a small sleepy town which can be covered in foot in under 2 hours. Tigers Nest is the major attraction of the city. You will have just the perfect time biking / hiking and relaxing here. Very much recommended to spend atleast 2-3 days here doing *nothing* if inner peace if something you are looking for :) We ended up taking a swanky hotel here (the best one was 3k a night) as we just wanted few days of relaxation and luxury. A restaurant called Sonam Trophel is recommended; the lady who runs it is very enterprising and chatty. She was our go to person on all days for advice on things to do around the city.
Tigers nest – Frankly Im kinda out of words for this place ! No picture, blog, travel story can do justice to the mystique and the tranquil the monastery offers! The climb is worth the effort and scenic beauty will stay with you for a long long time :) The restaurant midway provides a breath taking view of the serpant clouds trough the valley and some great food.
Interestingly, the monks who run the place have a super cute, super jumpy pet cat called "Karma" who is literally the star of the place and will keep you engaged for hours! Karma is not a bitch after all ! :)
Other places, which we wanted to cover but couldn’t were, Gedu, Ha and Phunaka …
My advise: Go to Bhutan, without a return date. Go get lost without a plan and find yourself in the process! Go with people you like. Or go all alone and make new friends and assimilate a new culture; especially women planning a solo backpacking trip. This is the safest you will ever feel.
This Himalayan country will give you back a piece of your soul and you will definitely not come back the same again ...