Armed with a guidebook, printouts from various blog entries and a properly planned itinerary, we waited for our Druk Air flight at the lounge in the Calcutta airport. Several thoughts ran through my head: will we get left hand side seats on plane? Will our hotel reservations stand good? Will we get a taxi from the airport? Will Bhutan be a disappointment?
Well Bhutan was not a disappointment. Far from that. Apart from being one of the most visually stunning countries in the world that I have seen, it is a country well-preserved in its culture, slowly and hesitatingly making connections with new world.
Our flight from Calcutta to Paro Airport ( designated of the most dangerous airports to land in by Airbus – a fact I discovered on my return flight – thank god !) was of 1 hour duration. As we were seated on the left hand side, twenty minutes into the flight, we were treated to the most magnificent view of the snow-capped Himalayas. There it was – Mt . Everest in all its glory. I was jumping up and down like a five-year old kid in my seat, definitely embarrassing my husband with my behaviour.
When we began our descent, Kapil & I went into photo clicking frenzy. As our plane circled into the Paro valley, we saw the most astonishing landscape , mountains covered with pines , snake-like river making its way in the valley and little sloped houses perched on mountain tops.
Stepping on to the tarmac , our eyes were treated to the most breathtaking view. The airport nestled in the Paro valley and all around there were mountains. Adding to the landscape , were the unusual Paro Airport buildings, built-in the traditional Bhutanese style.
Day1-3- At Thimpu
Taking a taxi from Paro we left for Thimpu, where we were to stay for the first 3 days in Bhutan. Now , all websites and guidebooks will give you a long list of things that you can see there. We thought that covering all the touristy spots at a leisurely place will take around 2-3 days. What we did not realize that cities in Bhutan are small – around 2-5 kms in radius. If you have all the required permits and a taxi at your disposal you can cover all the places in a day.
Monasteries generally take more time as you have to trek up and down. So you may want another day for that. We only saw the Changangkha lakhang at Thimpu which was inside the city. As were planning to cover more monasteries at Punakha and Paro , we skipped the ones at Thimpu.
The road to Thimpu from Paro was good and very often Landcruisers and Prado’s zipped by our bumpy Omni. The Paro river ran parallelly till Thimpu where it merged into the Thimpu river. The landscape also got greener. We had booked ourselves at the Riverview Hotel, a sort of 3-star hotel, with all river –facing rooms. The view from our balcony was stupendous!
As it was almost early evening and we were not sure in which direction to head to, we just decided to walk to the main market area that we could see across the river. It was lovely 20 minute walk. We passed office goers on the way home, all dressed in the traditional Bhutanese costume. I paused over the bridge to look at the gushing river water. As we kept walking we came to the town square with its clock tower. It was very quaint and the street area would have looked very British had it been not for the very elaborate paintwork on the walls and pillars.
Tourism is definitely a prime vocation judging by the number of souvenir shops that I saw. As Bhutan encourages more foreign tourists than Indian tourists, things are very costly there. Even then the Bhutanese handicrafts are very tempting. How can you resist intricately crafted prayer wheels and lamps, exotic silk, cotton and wool fabrics, wooden handicrafts and soup bowls made from blue pine? You can’t! So the best advice that I can give you is that buy clothes from the regular stores that sell stuff to the locals. As for other things, there is this amazing open air handicraft market that is set up on weekends on the river bank at Thimpu. There is a lot of variety and bargaining is the norm. Ofcourse, you can’t say what’s the real thing and what is ‘Made in China’ !
The next day , we hired a cab to show us around. If you are without a tour operator you would need to go to the local taxi stands to get a taxi. You can also flag taxis on the road. Negotiation is a must but don’t expect to be too successful. Also be prepared to shell out 1200-150o rupees per day. Taxis charge by the hour and not by kil0meters!
Our first stop as tourists was at National Memorial Chorten , followed by the visit to Changangkha Monastery . On the way we saw some very well dressed people cleaning the drains along the road. Our driver explained that as the coronation of the fifth king was around the corner, the government had requested its various departments to volunteer for cleaning up the city.
Changangkha is easily accessible as it is inside the city. It was very quiet inside the monastery and monks were just getting ready for the prayers. Monasteries in Bhutan are very elaborate with intricate paint work, brass statues, hundreds of incense sticks and oil lamps.
Another image from the trip that has stayed behind is that of prayer flags and wheels. The mountains are dotted with prayer flags. I don’t know who even puts them there. From the monastery we drove to the Sangay view-point, which boasts of the most amazing views of Thimpu.
We also drove past the National Library, Arts Museum and School of arts & crafts . We could not go in as they are closed for the weekend. We then drove back to the city area and passed the massive Tashichho Dzong – the king’s residence. To enter Tashichho Dzong and several other Dzong’s and monasteries permits are required. This Dzong is open to public after 5.30 pm on weekdays and full day on the weekends.
The following day we decided to walk to the weekend market and the Taschcihho Dzong. The weekend market was a fun experience – the most thrilling part was the walking down the steep trail on the hillside to reach the market. I was really scared! After browsing through the goods and picking up gifts and stuff we crossed the river to go to the main street. Bhutan still has these charming bamboo bridges built over the river covered with prayer flags.
Our next stop was the Dzong, but , unfortunately at that time we did not know that we would need permit that would be available only the next day.
The first thing that you need to do you do when you land in Thimpu is that you go to the Department of Culture and apply for permit for all the places you need to visit. Also if you are planning to go beyond Paro and Bhutan to Phunaka you are going to require another permit. This takes 3-4 hoiurs processing time so plan accordingly.If you don’t have enought time, get these permissions at the airport itself.
As we learned this only after reaching Bhutan, half of the following day was spent in getting the necessary permits instead of heading of to Punakha as we had earlier planned. Our schedule was delayed by half a day!
We managed to head out of Thimpu late afternoon and were on the road by 3.00 PM. The terrain from Punakha to Thimpu is different. You basically ascend till Dochula pass, driving on long winding roads. The road is flanked by beautiful pine forests. Of course you have to drive carefully as the road is just enough for two drivers. Thankfully, drivers are reliable and don’t drive rashly at all. Our driver was an ex-employee of the Ministry of Labor who now ran a taxi business. He had actually done his education in Bhopal! In fact , most of the locals that we encountered in Bhutan had spent some years in India for the purpose of work or education.
Dochula pass is most popular for its view of the Himalayas and the 108 victory chortens that form a traffic island. It was quite chilly and the view of the snow-capped peaks only made you feel colder.
After spending 10-15 minutes admiring the view , we started our descend to Punakha. Punakha lies lower in altitude as compared to Thimpu and its hillsides are dotted with beautiful terrace fields of paddy.
As we neared Punakha , the beautiful punakha river came into view. It had the loveliest aquamarine color and the white sands of the banks only increased the contrast. We stayed at Damchen resorts which is on the river bank. Our room had a lovely view of the river and when you kept the windows open you could hear the soft gushing of the river.
Punakha – 2 days
Our itinerary in Punakha included some key items – The temple of fertility , The Punakha Dzong , The Wangdiphodrang Dzong and the Namgay monastery in Khumsum.
On the evening we walked to Khurtang temple ( I hope I have got the name right!) which was just a few hundred meters from the hotel. The most memorable thing about this visit was that we got to see a prayer session in progress.
Punakha is even smaller than Thimpu , in fact about a 1 km stretch of road makes up the entire town. understandably , there is nothing to do in the town. The main attraction of Bhutan is its monasteries and it most scenic landscape. It’s a paradise for trekkers and bikers. In fact , riverside camping is quite in vogue. Kapil and I , who are definitely not into adventure sports or any form of physical exertion, did our fair share of trekking.
Our first experience was when we had to trek to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. The taxi went only till the river. Then from there it was a one and half hour trek to the peak of the hill where the temple is located. The only thing that kept us going was the view of the river and the fields.
Once at the top , we got a chance to see all the four levels of a traditional Buddhist chorten. I am not much of a history or arts expert so a lot of things that the monk explained was lost on me. But I do remember that the ‘prasad’ or the ‘offerings’ to the gods consisted of packets of spaghetti, cream biscuits, maggi etc !! This was most unusual!
The terrace level was basically empty with a small chorten for Lord Buddha. The view from the top was breathtaking. You would think that if there was a place like heaven then this is how it would look.
Our next stop was the Punakha Dzong and this time we had permits ! Punakha is definitely the most scenic of the three places that we went to. As we drove towards the Dzong , our road ran parallel to Ma cho ( the female part of the Punakha river – don’t ask!) . I must have clicked a dozen photographs of it but I don’t believe I did justice to the place. The one thing that I noticed that unlike India you don’t see people bathing or washing clothes in the river. The banks are bare. Apparently the Bhutanese people believe that some river monster lives in the river and will devour them if they enter it. Either that or the rivers are deathly cold and have fast currents and its plain foolishness to enter them!
The Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of Ma cho and Pa cho that combine to form the Punakha river. From a distance it looks like a battleship anchored at the coast.
The Dzong’s were earlier houses for monks or the royal family. Today they mostly serve as government offices. The Dzong is typically a complex of courtyards and temples . The outer courtyard is the one that is usually open to public. The inner courtyards have dormitories for the monks and are generally considered as private places. Separating the courtyards are these huge structures in which the temples are situated.Elaborate murals decorate all entrances.Architecture in Bhutan is all very colorful.
As compared to th Punakha Dzong , the Dzong at Wangde is really ancient. It’s very old , the support beams are sagging, the floor is uneven and worn. It is more of a monastery than an official complex. Underage monks run here and there, playing in the sun, and aroma of the evening meal wafts through the air. Somehow it leaves a deeper impression than the new and shiny Punakha Dzong.
The last stop of the day was ‘The temple of fertility’ – a temple dedicated to procreation! Its one of the most revered places in Bhutan where childless couples come to pray for the gift of the child. It was set up by Drupa Kinley the ‘Divine Madman’ whose philosophy on religion and abstinence were little different from what you would think of a monk. The temple is situated on a small hilltop and can be accessed by a kilometer long hike through the farms. The round trip – to the temple and back will take almost an hour and a half.
The landscape is so beautiful as if painted. Inside the temple you can ask the lama to bless you with Kinley’s bow and arrow and wooden phallus. The phallus is denoted as the symbol of fertility and prosperity and an image is often found painted on the outer walls of houses. Kapil did manage to take a couple of photos without looking too conspicuous, but I am sure that the locals are used to this by now.
Paro – 2 days
Now remained the last leg of our journey – Paro. I had 5-8 places on my itinerary that we wanted to cover that included Paro Dzong , The national museum, the Takstang Monastery and the Cheri Lang monastery . But the long day previously had exhausted us completely and I slept through the 4 hour drive from Punakha to Thimpu. I had really wanted to enjoy the mountain view but no – matter what happened I could not keep my eyes open.
We were lodging at Hotel Olathang in Paro which is run by BTCL. It was quite cold as there was lot of open space near the hotel. Post lunch we decided to head to the Paro Dzong and the National Museum . But we didn’t make it. I guess as the trip was coming to an end we had run out of steam and just wanted to go home. Halfway to the Dzong we just turned back. The whole day was spent in catching up on sleep and watching TV. In fact, we rediscovered television while in Bhutan. As there is not much of a night life you are generally back in your hotel room by 6 in the evening. Bhutan receives all major Indian channels including the Zee and Star Network and Kapil & I caught up on all a lot of movies and shows.
We had one more day to go and were seriously considering not doing anything at all. However, everyone says that if there is one thing that you have to do in Bhutan then it’s the visit to the Takstang’s Monastery. A little info from the guide books – Completed in 1692, Takstang’s Monastery a.ka Tiger’s Nest hangs on a cliff at 3,120 metres – built on a the location where Guru Rinpoche is believed to have landed on the back of a tiger! To get there, one has to climb up to 3000 meters to the vantage points, then take cliff-hanging steps down to a narrow bridge across the gorge and then ascend a few hundred odd steps to the monastery.
I was not very optimistic as Kapil & I rarely exercise and this was clearly beyond us. But this was probably the only time when we would be in Bhutan and it just did not make any sense to skip it. So geared for a light trek , we headed towards the mountain base. It is generally recommended to take ponies up but I just didn’t trust those creatures on narrow trails. It was going to be on foot and if we got too tired we would just turn back and come !
I am not sure what details I should put in here for our 3 hours trek except that the ascend to the first 1000 meters was the most difficult – your body is getting used to the height and its facing sudden exertion making your heart beat very fast leading to breathlessness. We paused whenever tired and drank sips of water at regular intervals. We met a lot of American and British tourists on the way- all upwards 40 and that was really encouraging. Our first stop was ‘The Tea House’ – which is at around 2000-2005 mtrs which had an awesome view of the monastery.
Now we needed to decide whether we should go ahead or not – I guess as we both figured that is the our last visit to Bhutan it just made sense to go for it. So we went back on the trail. It was surprisingly less exhausting and when we reached the final view-point it was totally worth it.
Now came the hard part – going down the 2 feet wide steps cut in the cliffs with no railings to break a fall . Needless to say I completely freaked out. The only way to make it was to NOT LOOK DOWN.
The monastery closes from 1-2 pm for lunch and we just made it to the doorstep at 12.59 pm. A little chat with the security guard and they graciously allowed us in to see the 3 of the 7 main temples even thought the monastery was closing for an hour. Inside the temple it’s just like any other Buddhist place of worship. I guess the sense of achievement of having made it to the top is more satisfying than any religious sentiment, at least for us
The way back was easier but as time consuming. All in all it was a fitting end to our trip to Bhutan.
Things to note:
1. If you are planning to enter Bhutan by flight , it is recommended that you book directly with Druk Air
2. If you are an Indian traveller, it is recommended that you carry money in stacks of 100Rs notes. It is illegal to do transactions with notes of higher denomination. As it wont be possible to carry so much cash , it is recommended to carry traveller’s cheques for hotel payments.
3. When you land at Paro, you will be given permits only to Thimpu and Paro. For any point further , you will requie special permits that can be obtained at the Department of Culture
4. An average meal in Bhutan would cost between 150-400 Rs.
5. Even if you have a taxi at your disposal , be prepared to walk 1-2 kms everyday.
Good websites on Bhutan:
Our Backpack Companion
Driving Holidays in the Himalayas : Bhutan by Koko Sigh