A trip to Bhutan

The Land of Happiness!

While I have visited various places in India, for the first time in March 2017 I have been visited a foreign country — Bhutan, and it’s exciting.

Despite being a foreign country for India, there are few important aspects that do not allow an Indian to get a real foreign-trip feel upon visiting Bhutan.

  1. You don’t need a VISA (Passport for that matter) to visit Bhutan. Although, a little paperwork is required to enter Bhutan, but a voter ID card would do for all the documentation.
  2. You don’t need to bother about currency exchange. Though Bhutan has its own currency Ngultrum (Nu.), Indian Rupee is widely accepted all over Bhutan and 1 Bhutanese Ngultrum equals 1 Indian Rupee.
  3. You speak Hindi? You are good to go! Despite Dzongkha (pronounced as Jonka) being the official language of Bhutan, every Bhutanese can speak English and Hindi. So, it really doesn’t feel like you are in a foreign nation.

However, Bhutan follows BST (+6 GMT) which is 30 minutes ahead of India. This time zone difference makes you feel you are not in your home country. But don’t get excited, you won’t feel any jet lag. ;)

So altogether it was a quasi-foreign trip with my college friends from IIT Kharagpur. We took a train from Kharagpur to New Alipur Duar, the farthest point in West Bengal and just an hour odd far from the India-Bhutan border, from where the actual tour started. For the namesake immigration documentation, one should cross India and enter into Phuentsholing, the immediate neighboring city of Bhutan for India, through the only pedestrian entry (Yes, there is another gate for the vehicles to move cross-border) guarded by Bhutanese security personnel.

The cross-border passing gate for the vehicles

There are quite a few things that one is inescapable to observe.

The dressing of the Bhutanese: The police, called the Royal Bhutan Police, wear a U.S. cop type black outfit with a black cap bearing the Bhutan official badge. Another distinctive feature of Bhutan is their traditional dress. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouch at the front traditionally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today, however, it is more accustomed to carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones and Doma (beetle nut). 
Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a Tego with an inner layer known as a Wonju.
Although, one can see considerable local-ites wearing western shirts and trousers.

Traditional dress of the Bhutanese (Courtesy: Bhutan Tourism)

The build: After strongly mentioning that I’m a no racist, the skin tone of the Bhutanese is quite distinguishable from the typical Indian skin tone. Due to all-time cold weather, the Bhutanese have a very fair and a pale pink skin tone and silky black hair and Mongoloid facial structure. Also, as all other Himalayan people, Bhutanese are a bit shorter than Indians and are well built.

The smell of Doma (betel nut): 6 out of 10 in Bhutan has a red mouth chewing betel nut, which is called Doma in their local language. While this is similar to the Supari which is common in India, it is the smell that differs. Doma has a very pungent smell and one would easily feel nauseous on constant inhaling of the smell.

The rule abiding citizens: Bhutanese are very rule-abiding. An outsider can feel this at the very first step in Bhutan by observing the commuters following the traffic rules. People cross the roads only on the zebra crossings, and honking of the horn is almost nil. A pedestrian can blindly cross the road on the zebra crossing without any need to observe the passing by vehicles, as it is the responsibility of the vehicles to stop at the zebra crossing at any cost, at any speed. I being a typical Indian where zebra crossings are seldom used and vehicles unless about to hit do not give way for pedestrian crossing, always experienced this wonderful feeling while crossing the roads in Bhutan.

The roads and vehicles: Despite being a mountain terrain country the roads (even in the Ghat section) are well laid in Bhutan. Though they are not any 4 lane or 6 lane roads like in India and other developed countries, the roads are quite sufficient for the 4-wheeler-dominated lowly populated country. The roads follow left-hand-drive and have a parking lane on the edges. 
There are also very less or may be zero traffic signals and only a few areas have a traffic police shelter at the center of a junction, sheltered by a traffic police waving hands and controlling the vehicles. (I shall cover further about this while discussing my visit to Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan)

Unlike India, which is dominated with the middle-class segment sedans and hatchbacks, vehicles in Bhutan are mostly high-end models which Toyota and Hyundai as leading brands. It is might be due to the terrain or the tourism domination, the high-end vehicles like Land Rover are quite common here. 
The vehicles are classified into Government, Taxi, and Common based on the usage and are differentiated by the number plates. The format is with the city name at the top of the number plate, written in Dzongkha and the number below it. While the taxi vehicles have a yellow colored number plate, the government and common vehicles have a red background. Also, the taxi vehicles have a taxi roof-top light and name of the registration city or town written in big on the right side of the vehicle, on the doors.

After a namesake immigration work and a currency exchange of few bucks from the travel agency back in India, we boarded the Toyota Hiace which was our personal vehicle for the entire trip duration and started uphill to visit Paro. It is a 5 odd hour journey from Phuentsholing to Paro — a tourism-dominated town of Bhutan known for its trekking spots. Except, Phuentsholing rest of the Bhutan is amidst the snow mountains. There is a huge variation in temperature from these 2 places with Phuentsholing having normal tropical temperatures ranging from 30 to 50 degrees, and rest of the Bhutan uphill with predominantly cold temperatures ranging from -2 to 15 degrees. We have unpacked our winter wear and braced ourselves for the cold evening at Paro. Being a mountain region, the sun sets soon and the country (almost) comes to a halt by 9 pm. So, we took a mid-way halt to Paro at Sonam restaurant for dinner.

Food is another aspect of differentiation. Non-vegetarian food is very popular with all dishes of all varieties of pork, beef, chicken and other items. Brown/red rice — the only variety of rice that is grown in the high altitudes — is the staple food of the Bhutanese. It has a nutty taste and is usually served in combination with Ema Datsi (Chilli Cheese Stew) or Kewa Datsi (Potato Cheese Stew). One can predominantly find these dishes all over Bhutan along with various soups. Food is very costly in Bhutan because of the high altitudes which are not so suitable for farming and also the fact that most food items are imported from India down the hill.

By 7 pm, the temperature had hit 2 degrees with freezing gusts of wind. It took another 4 hours to reach Paro. Due to the unexpected delay in the itinerary, we couldn’t go for any sightseeing on that day in Paro.

Day 1

Though the itinerary for the day 1 included visiting Chele-la Pass and Ha valley, the unexpected snow blizzard had made the day stand still. We strolled along the roads playing in the snow and capturing some moments till the late afternoon.

Snow stuck Paro
Those snow-ish moments!

After surviving on Soup and Puri Sabzi in the late noon lunch, we visited a distant hill area to again enjoy the snow and took a leave for the day.

The retrospection reminds me of the content life that the Bhutanese live. Due to the non-stop snowfall for a day, the entire Paro town was out of electricity and still, it did not really bother any of the localites. While we visitors were worried about mobile battery, heaters, and Wi-Fi at the hotel and constantly inquiring the hotel owners about the updates, they were just chilling at the snow and weather sipping a hot soup or coffee now and then. It made me realize how attached we became to the modern materialistic life and how hard it is for us to survive in ‘real’ peace.

Day 2 — Tiger’s Nest a.k.a Taktsang Palphug Monastery

PS: You cannot find any Tiger’s here!

Due to the previous day’s snowfall, we were very much apprehensive about the 2nd day’s weather and our itinerary. Fortunately, there was no snowfall and the previous day’s snow started melting giving a sunny and bright view of the mountains far away. However, the water in the hotel’s tank got frozen due to no electricity for a long time since the previous day. After adjusting with limited water we had breakfast and hit the road.

Our day-2 plan included a visit to the ‘Tiger’s Nest’, a trekking spot known for its high altitude monastery. Before we planned for the Bhutan trip, I heard that this trek is ranked as world 2nd by a famous travel enthu. So, we were very excited to complete the arduous trek starting at an elevation of 2,200m.

A brief history: The Tiger’s Nest or the Taktsang (Tiger’s Lier) Palphug Monastery is a huge and sacred monastery built in 1692 by the fourth ruler of Bhutan, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, on the edge of a cliff. It was built upon the piety of Guru Padmasambhava, the second Buddha also called as Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava on his way to India flew to this area on a flying tigress (and thus the name Tiger’s Nest) and killed a demon Belgye Singye in the avatar of an angry-faced Dorje Drolo, one of the eight avatars of Padmasambhava. After that Guru had meditated here for a period of 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours and preached Buddhism to the Bhutanese. Hence this place is sacred and one says the trip to Bhutan is incomplete without visiting the Tiger’s Nest upon an arduous trek.

The trek is usually a narrow slippery mud path on the mountains and takes around 4 hours for a round trip. But due to the previous day’s snowfall, the entire area and the path was covered with dense snow and made the path more slippery and risky. 
After grabbing a light snack at the base camp, we bought a trekking stick and started our way up to the monastery.

The base is a flat and little steep climb, covered by the local handicraft vendors and notably dogs. These dogs, which I believe a daily routine, with a ‘puppy’ face, stare at the trekkers for food, and not only that but also accompany them for the entire trip with faith.

Few of our friends stepped back soon after starting the trek due to the cold climate and elevation, while the rest could make it till slightly above the half-way. Unfortunately, no one was able to make it to the magnificent view of the monastery and the valley from atop, due to the dangerous slippery condition of the path covered with snow half melting, which otherwise would have been a fairly easy trek. 
I managed to trek till the half-way and returned after enjoying the nature and snow covered surroundings of a small temple and a waterfall.

All the temples/monasteries (called as Dzongs) here have almost similar structure and architectural style. Spread across a wide area, the monasteries have white walls with red sloping roofs (which is also common structure for any house or building in the Himalayan region) protecting from the cold weather elements. Monasteries are the former fortresses where the Bhutanese used to fight with the attackers, which later by Guru Ngawang Namgyal were converted into monasteries making a home for administrative and religious activities. With mostly single-story and high threshold structures, dzongs comprise heavy masonry curtain walls surrounding one or more courtyards. The inner area is divided into rooms for administrative and religious purposes where the monks stay. The rooms are often dim lighted and are decorated with cloth hangings depicting the religious history. The sanctum sanctorum is located at the center of the dzong where the idol of the God (usually Buddha or Gurus) reside. The idols are made of bronze with golden outer color.

The outer open area of the monasteries usually have a chorten, which is a stupa like structure and the corridors typically have a series of prayer wheels called khor along the compound of the monastery. These prayer wheels are a cylindrical structure made out of brass or wood and embossed with a set of Mantras. These prayer wheels are spun by the pilgrims circumambulating in the temple corridor. These Mantra-embossed khors, in Buddhism, are believed to subdue the evil by the power of the Mantras in the form of vibrations when spun. The same is the case with the auspicious religious flags inscribed with prayer Mantras. These flags are also believed that when fluttered by the air, transform the power of Mantras into vibrations and spread along the air to fight the evil. Prayer flags are usually square in shape. Some long vertical prayer flags can also be found tied to a wooden stick dug into the earth.

Hence these Monasteries can be seen built on the mountain cliffs, hill tops or near to important water streams to serve the purpose of the fortress to protect the kingdom from the enemies and also to fight the evil.

On the way back to our hotel after the trek, we visited the Bhutan’s oldest monastery, the Kichu Lhakang situated in the Lango Gewog district of Paro. This temple was built in 7th century by the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo. It is believed that this temple was built to fight the giant demon laying across the entire area of Tibet and Himalayas preventing the spread of Buddhism.

The monastery is the house for the idol of God Chenrizig, with 11 heads and 1000 arms and a 5m high statue of Guru Rinpoche. The outer are of the monastery contains a chorten and a huge brass prayer wheel.

The day ended with a stroll on the road and a grab of noodles and momos in a small restaurant at Paro.

Day 3 — The National Museum of Bhutan, en-route Thimpu

By the third day of the tour, along with the morning chores, we were also used to the chores of our driver cum tour on our punctuality. Even a trivial 15-minute delay upon agreed reporting time hits his nerve. In addition to it, breakfast (for that matter any order at any hotel) takes a minimum of 1 hour for preparation and serving.

After a discourse on punctuality from the driver, we started to Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan, checking in at the National Museum of Bhutan and Lama building.
Lama building and the museum situated nearby are an old dzong like buildings. The night view of these buildings in colorful lights far from the water bridge is a magnificent and a must-to-watch view. Lama building is where the King, HRH Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck visits for official purposes and has no entry for visitors. Above that on the hill is the art museum which portrays the history of Bhutan and its wildlife. This museum is called as Paro Ta Dzong, initially a watchtower built by La Ngoenpa Tenzin Drugdra, the first Penlop (Governer) of Paro. It is a huge building with circular corridors surrounding the halls. The building used to serve as the residence of regional administrators as well as a storehouse which would ensure supplies in the event of warfare. At one point, the Ta Dzong offered shelter to the first king of Bhutan, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, during the years preceding his reign. Later when political stability was established in Bhutan, these watchtowers became unused and turned into ruins. In 1960, Paro Ta Dzong was renovated into the now National Museum of Bhutan.

The 4 floor museum consists of Thangka Gallery — a wide array of Thangkas of Buddha and the arhats, Buddhist masters and deities dating back from the 16th century; Heritage Gallery — a gallery of ancient arms and armour, wine containers, jewellery and numismatics, folk dresses, the famous Bhutan cultural masks; and the Natural History Gallery — a wide array of flora and fauna of Bhutan including specimens.

Out of all, the display of animal corpses ranging from crocodiles, birds, buffaloes to Takin, the national animal of Bhutan is an eye-catching view. The holographic view of Bhutan map at the Thangka gallery and the permanent mask exhibition are also a few attractions at the museum.

Thimpu is a 2-hour journey from Paro, and the Paro international airport, the only airport in Bhutan, also falls on this way. The airport is one of the world’s dangerous for its 5,500m high mountains surrounding and just a 1,900m odd long runway. One can often see Drukair planes flying at a very low altitude between the mountains facing the irregular terrain and trying to land.

After a 2 hour journey, we have reached Thimpu and directly went for sightseeing. Thimpu is a little highly developed city compared to the spacious town of Paro. The buildings are multi-storied but following the same tradition structure of the sloping roof and Bhutanese architecture style. And at an altitude of 2400 meters, Thimpu always have a chilling weather with heavy gusts of cool wind.
Unlike in Paro which is completely on tourism, in Thimpu, we can observe factories, offices and various automobile showrooms. (On seeing these, we felt that at least people of Thimpu work on something normal, unlike completely on tourism).

The first spot is the Palace viewpoint. It’s a hill edge with a magnificent view of the King’s palace. The fact that the King and Family are very down to earth and practical will be clearly evident upon a glance at the series of buildings in the palace compound. The compound consists of the Supreme Court of Bhutan towards the back end, administrative buildings at the middle and a huge parking lot at the front end. The King’s palace is located adjacent to the parking lot nearby the administrative buildings. The point to consider is the size of the palace compared to the other buildings in the compound. One can hardly call it a palace compared to its tiny structure with the gigantic administrative buildings. Long Live Ruler!

From there we next visited a nearby Monastery with a noticeable tall prayer flag hoisted pillar (similar to the Dhwaja Sthambha in Hindu Temples) in front of it. The idol of Drubthob Rinpoche Pikey Jadrel inside the Monastery is an inspiring piece of art. The story goes as, Drubthod Rikey Jadrel came to Bhutan from Tibet in 1974, corresponding to the Wood-Tiger Year through Ladakh (in Jammu, India) on being invited by Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden, the Queen of His Majesty Jigme Wangchuk, the King of Bhutan at the instigation of H.H. Ponlop Khen Rinpoche. Drubthob Rikey Jadrel stayed at Bhutan for 2 years at places like Paro Dumtseg Lhakhand, Bumdrak, etc devoting his time for meditation. It is known that Drubthob Rikey Jadrel had set up a bamboo hut at this place to subdue the evil forces, where the current temple was built later in 1981, and completed in 1983, the Water-Pig Year according to the Bhutanese culture.

The prayer flag hoisted infront of the Drubthob Rikey Jadrel Monastery.

A few minutes ride from there is the National Library of Bhutan, another marvelous piece of Bhutanese architecture. Like in the Harry Potter movies, this library is huge and multi-storied and lighted with dim yellow-tint bulbs. 
The library is a huge collection of books from all fields mainly covering the history and culture of Bhutan. The ground floor contains all the books with the reading section at the center. It also covers about the previous rulers of Bhutan. The upper floors stores the multi-colored prayer flags.
The idols of Gods straight at the wall opposite to the entrance is common on every floor.

(From the left) The picture of the King’s Family, The area of Idols in the ground floor.
(From the left) The Idol stand at the second floor, The books on Bhutan History in the ground floor.
The entire gang (me at the center) at the National Library

The next in the same compound is the mask gallery. In Bhutanese culture, each mask (of each animal) has a significance and describes its nature. The mask and flags exhibition next to the library showcased few of the many masks seen throughout Bhutan.

The mask and flag exhibition next to the National Library

The next visit was to the Thimpu Chorten, a memorial with chorten at the center. The 4 huge prayer bells at the left side of the entrance and a medium size park filled with pigeons eating grains is a peaceful view.

Next we moved to the most awaited place, the Buddha Statue (called as Buddha Dordenma Statue) situated atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. The bronze made, gold gilded gigantic statue of Buddha in meditating posture and with a Vajra in the front is 51.5 meters high and is said to be filled with 1,25,000 small (8 inch and 12 inch) bronze Buddha statues. History says that the then King has built this with an aim to build 1,000 Buddha statues over this hill, which satisfies the ancient prophecy that this statue gives peace and happiness to the entire world. 
Beneath the Buddha statue is the meditation hall surrounded by marvelous gold gilded sculptures of females. The meditation hall consists of small Buddha statues placed along with a large Buddha statue at the center.

We were lucky to have the magnificent view of the statue in the morning sun. Also the statue can be seen from anywhere in the Thimpu valley, glowing in the night lights.

The not so good part of the trip:

At around 3 pm, we reached the Singye Hotel which was supposed to be our stay for the next 2 days at Thimpu. After having so called Indian lunch at Red Dragon restaurant, we checked in at the Hotel. Every experience, right from the luggage picking staff of the hotel to the receptionist, was unexpected and shocking. A female had come to lift our very heavy (I should say very very heavy) luggage, and the reception is in the 2nd floor of the building with commercial shops in the basement adjoined with no lift facility. The pungent smell of the betel nut spit all over the basement adds to the shady look of the hotel. The 2nd shock is after reaching the reception. The same female was also the receptionist. The multiple personality disorder of the person had left us spellbound. The next unwanted, unexpected surprise was that our rooms located on the 4th floor (remember, there is no lift). Before we could recover from the gasp from climbing 4 floors holding our luggage, the next shock was already waiting for us in the form of the rooms. The walls were painted in dark brown (I wonder why would one use this and at large why would a company manufacture this shady dark light absorbing, mood spoiling paint color) absorbing all the light. One of the 3 rooms provided to us had walls dampened due to the water leakage. Few calls to the tour operator had did nothing much of a favor but a meager change of rooms. We were consoled a bit upon seeing every room fitted with 5 lights. But the hotel staff ensured no customer to be happy by fitting all lights with a 10 watt bed lamp kind of bulb inside. It was already 5 pm and temperature dropped to 5 degrees and we realized that the hotel doesn’t provide a complimentary room heater service. Even the Wi-Fi was not working and upon complaint the hotel owner rushed into the streets to get the internet connection recharged.

After multiple attempts of self-consolation to adjust to the room, we had hit the roads in search of ATMs, and also for sightseeing. Due to the high prices we ran out of money sooner than expected. The worst part was the aftermath of remonetization (or call it as demonetization) of India in 2016 which lead to all debit cards blocked for use out of India. Lack of Indian mobile number also added to this. Luckily after few tries and struggles by calling to India, 2 of our friends had got their cards activated, and we again became rich.

The hotel is located near to the Clock Tower which is a famous visiting spot in Thimpu for its location in the central part of the city and the hotels and shopping area surrounding it. We strolled through the roads, visited few handicraft outlets and had having dinner at a south-Indian restaurant (just the name). This was the only food that we got at comparatively cheaper price in the entire trip.

The Clock Tower Square at the heart of Thimpu

We ended the day by a singing few all time Bollywood hits at a nearby karaoke lounge. (Bollywood songs are very famous even in Bhutan)

Day 4: Punakha via Dochula Pass

God knows how we had hit the bed in the chilling weather with no room heater, but wokeup early in the morning to visit Punakha, a 100 km far away hill station (what is a hill for a hill?) from Thimpu. After satisfying our taste buds with the amazing Dosa at the same south-Indian restaurant, we started to Punakha.

On the way we visited Dochula Pass — 30 km from Thimpu — famous for the 360 degrees panoramic view of the snow capped mountains all around and the 108 Chorten temple built under the commission of the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was victorious in the struggle to dislodge the rebels who were using Bhutan as a base to raid India.
The previous snow fall effect could be clearly seen all over the place. It was cold and the Temple and mountains were blanketed in snow. There was also a river rafting point which we didn’t show interest due to the cold temperature. (Also hear that the river rafting here is no such of a wonderful experience).

The snow capped mountain and the 108 Chorten Temple

After an hour odd journey we reached the final visiting place of the tour — The Punakha Dzong. Located at the convergence of 2 rivers Pho Chhu (Father) and Mo Chhu (Mother), Punakha Dzong is located at 1200 meters above the sea level. It is also very much linked with the history of Bhutan. This place served as the capital of Bhutan from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly of Bhutan was held here in in 1953. This second oldest and second largest building of Bhutan was also the venue for the grandiose occasion of the wedding of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his fiancé, Jetsun Pema.

Punakha had a pleasant climate with warm temperatures. Rice/Wheat fields can also be seen here.

The entry to the Dzong is through the Bazam bridge over the thin stream of the river. The wooden bridge slightly elevated at the center is a wonderful view point of the river.

The Dzong is a structural beauty with 182 meters in length and 72 meters wide. The spacious corridors of the Dzong gives a perfect view of the architectural beauty. The main observable characteristic of the Dzong is its steep elevation. The steps are way steeper than the normal steps found else where in the world. There are a total of 5 floors in the Dzong and the main idol of Buddha is in the top most floor. The top view of the corridors resembled me the Kukki Subramanya Temple back in Karnataka, India.

(Left to Right) The Wheat fields, The Punakha Dzong along the river, The green lust.
The entrance of the dzong, The Bazam Bridge
The Bazam bridge, The outer corridors of the dzong for parikram
The front end steps of the dzong, The characteristically tall walls of the Dzong and the architecture, The top view of the inner corridor from the 3rd floor
Stunning architecture of the dzong.

The lake behind the Dzong is also one of the attractions. Amidst tall trees and green grass the lake adjacent to the Dzong gives an enthralling view and takes one into a sleep of peace.

The lake in the backyard

Punakha is also the place of hanging bride, but we couldn’t visit it due to time constraints. We started the back journey to Thimpu experiencing the panoramic view of the night city and reached hotel by 6 pm.

The mountian view of city at night

After having dinner at the same south-Indian restaurant, we slid into the bed and waved bye to the day.

Day 5: Back to Matru-Bhumi

We were already nostalgic by the last day at Bhutan, but shaken up by the jolt of empty taps in the bathroom. Being 5 o’clock early in the morning, even the receptionists were out of reach and had to fight a battle for water.

By 6 am, we started back to Phuentsholing and then to India to catch the train at New Alipur Duar ending the wonderful ‘Trip to Bhutan’.

Today, with lot of memories running through my mind and heart, sharing my memorable experiences at Bhutan with all of you!

Thanks for reading! :)

Good-Bye Bhutan!