Trip to Bhutan: Land of Thunder Dragon

In loving memory of my grandma whose indomitable spirit and energy has inspired generations.

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‘The Land of Thunder Dragon’, ‘Pioneer of Gross National Happiness’, ‘Only country located entirely within Himalayas’, ‘Mysterious’- these are some of the phrases typically associated with this small, landlocked- Bhutan. I visited Bhutan in April 2017 and the only regret I had was that the trip was short.

Getting into Bhutan

If you are not from India, Maldives or Bangladesh, the only option of getting into Bhutan is by air reaching Paro. There are only 2 airlines operating in Bhutan- Drukair and Royal Bhutan Airlines. You need to book 2-3 months in advance to get a ticket and it is expensive (round trip from Bangalore, India was ~$800K). Also, try to fly from Kathmandu to Paro and on a clear day, you can witness stunning Himalayan peaks including Everest.

For Indians, the economical way is to cross the border in West Bengal. Jaigaon is the Indian border town and you can cross over to Phuntsholing (Bhutan’s financial capital). The nearest airport is Bagdogra. From there, the fastest way is to hire a taxi from the airport to the border town- Jaigaon. It costs ~2500 INR.

The permit office is across the border in Phuntsholing and is open only on weekdays. Mondays are extremely crowded during peak season and despite submitting our application for permit on Monday morning, we got the permit only at ~5 30 pm in the evening. You will also need to show a proof of accommodation for at least the first day of stay (recent rule). You will get the permit for 7 days for Thimphu and Paro. If you want to either stay beyond 7 days or visit places outside of these cities, you need to apply for another permit at Thimphu permit office (this takes ~1-2 hrs). There is no permit fee for Indians.

From the border town, Thimphu is ~6-7 hrs drive. Taxi can charge anywhere from INR 2500-3500. We decided to hire a vehicle and driver for the entire duration of the trip for ~2500 INR per day.

Places to visit in Bhutan

Bhutan is a scenic Himalayan country where every single inch of the country is a potential post card picture. Groves of blue pine trees mingling with the colorful rhododendron forests make for a delightful driving experience. While I recommend spending liberal amount of time driving between cities/ towns to soak in the endless views of pine and rhododendron forests, the following places are worthy of your visit.

Phuntsholing

The border town of Bhutan, I would recommend staying in Phuntsholing over the Indian side of the border when you reach the border. There is a stark contrast with the Indian town of Jaigaon and the architectural differences are immediately visible. Considered the financial city of Bhutan, explore the various cafes or Bhutanese cuisines. Our favorite cafe was Kizuma cafe (located near the border and permit office) with a wonderful ambience and a delightful view of the Phuntsholing city.

The picture above: contrasting the Indian side of the border (left) and Bhutanese side of the border (right)

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India-Bhutan border at Jaigaon/ Phuntsholing

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The lovely ambience at Kizuma cafe

Thimphu

The capital city of Bhutan is about 6 hrs drive from Phuntsholing and about 1 hour drive from Paro (Bhutan’s other major city and international airport). The scenic drive kept our spirits up despite the long drive and at the end of it we were only left longing for more.

 

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The views on the drive from Phuntsholing to Thimphu

Bhutan’s economy is deeply mingled with India with a substantial investment and financing into Bhutan coming from India. We passed through Tala hydroelectricity project which generates 2600 MW. It was built with an investment of almost USD1Bn financed by load from India at 9% interest rate (although our driver claimed the interest rate was 30%). All of the power generated is exported to India for use in Delhi- UP belt. As per our driver, the project broke even in 5 years from the commissioning of the first generator. There are 7 other hydro projects being built, all financed by India. Export of hydro generated power contributes significantly to Bhutan’s economy.

Bhutan also pioneered ‘Gross National Happiness’ built on four pillars (or principles)- economic self reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance. Notably, on environmental conservation, Bhutan currently has 72% forest coverage with the constitution mandating a minimum of 60% coverage at any time, 35% is wildlife protected areas and relies largely on renewable energy sources. Culturally, citizens are mandated to wear the national dress at work or while visiting temples/ dzongs. Getting a citizenship in Bhutan is also next to impossible and not encouraged. Work permits are given sparingly and for a temporary period of time. A couple of decades ago, there was an ethnic cleansing with Nepali origin populace evacuated from Bhutan and forced into refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

We reached Thimphu in the evening and the city was decorated with Buddhist flags in anticipation of visit from Bangladesh’s PM. Some of the things worth seeing in Thimphu are the Buddha point (located at an elevated point on the outskirts of Thimphu presenting an aerial view of Thimphu), the handicrafts market and the national museum. The cool hill station weather in the summer season was a pleasant break from the scorching heat from where we had come. We loved walking through the streets of Thimphu taking in the architectural cocktail of Buddhist temple structures and modern construction.

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Clock tower in Thimphu

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View of Thimphu city from Buddha point

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The massive Buddha statue atop the temple. This massive structure is completely gold plated. We were told that twice there were attempts to steal the precious stone from Buddha’s forehead before the government decided to take it off for good and move it elsewhere. An attempt to steal in such an open space as here must have been pretty audacious.

Paro

Slightly less commercialized than Thimphu and about 1 hour drive away, this beautiful valley city of Bhutan is worthy of 2-3 nights of stay. We stayed at a resort on top of a hillock overlooking Paro valley. We enjoyed visiting the Paro museum (closes by 4 pm) going through magnificent displays of art and culture and natural ecosystem of Bhutan. We also visited the handicrafts market in the town (although we didn’t purchase anything based on our driver’s tip that these are available at about 1/5th of cost near Taktsang trek). The Paro temple is considered sacred and the localites believe it will fulfill any wish you may ask. I submitted a huge wish-list to the God.

However, the most awaited part of the trip was Taktsang trek. Located on the mountain cliff, the Taktsang temple beckons hikers from all around the world (more on this here). An easy trek of ~1.5-2 hrs each way, the scenic trail is the icing on the cake. Culminating at the massive Taktsang monastery (translated as Tiger’s nest), we spent over an hour visiting the various temples inside and taking part in the morning chants. The monastery derives its name from the legend that Guru Ringpoche tamed a demon (in the shape of a Tiger) here.

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View from our resort’s dining area

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Paro valley view from a vantage point

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The beautiful facade of the museum building at Paro

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A lit up Paro dzong (administrative office)

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Hiking to Taktsang (Tiger’s nest)

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Still early in morning but the clouds finally relent to give us a glimpse of Taktsang located on the cliff

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Bidding adieu to Taktsang after spending more than an hour in the lovely temple premises

Pro tip: Start your trek early (~7 am) to avoid the scorching heat while ascending as well as the crowds). Spend some time at the handcrafts market near the start of the trail after you finish the trek. The beautifully crafted jewellery made from Bhutanese stones are a steal.

Punakha

About 3 hours drive from Thimphu, Punakha is a pretty riverside valley and home to Bhutan’s most beautiful dzong (administrative office). Located on the confluence of 2 rivers amidst a stretch a green covered valley and surrounded by mountains, Punakha dzong can inspire landscape painters or photographers. Though not architecturally impressive on its own, the white and copper red colored dzong enhances the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

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Punakha dzong

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View from the top of Punakha dzong

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A beautiful Bhutanese lady in their national dress who graciously agreed to pose for me

Another interesting place to visit is the Chimi Lhakhang monastery (also called Divine Madman monastery) located near Punakha on top of a small hillock. The temple contains a wooden phallus that the ‘Divine Madman’ brought from Tibet. He derives this title from his unorthodox way of teaching and was known to indulge in a life of singing, humor and womanizing. All the abodes in the surrounding hamlets sported a huge phallus painting on their walls in sharp contrast to the very conservative Bhutanese society.

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Chimi Lakhang monastery and temple

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The ‘phallus’ was painted prominently on all homes and restaurants in the nearby hamlets of Chimi Lakhang

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Wooden sculpture of phallus- these were popular souvenir adorning almost all the windows of the handicraft stores

Places to stay and cuisine

Bhutanese cuisine was frankly unimpressive though unique. The most famous and also the national dish is ‘Ema Datshi’. It’s a preparation of chilly pepper cooked in a cheese curry. It’s variations include kewa datshi (potato in cheese curry) and shamu datshi (mushrooms in cheese curry). Not a huge fan of cheese, I tried the local cuisine only sparingly and partook of Indian dishes at most of the places.

However, one notable local delight was ‘Suja’, the Bhutanese tea. Looking like any regular tea from texture and color, this tea is made with butter and salt. A highly acquired taste, Preeti and I took no time to taking to this tea like fish to water.

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Suja in a Nescafe mug- this unique Bhutanese milk tea uses butter and salt instead of sugar

Stay at Bhutan was relatively inexpensive with 3 star hotels being good value for money. Following were the places where we stayed at different cities:

Phuntsholing: Hotel Tushita (located on a lane near the border)- INR 1,850/ day

Thimphu: Hotel Shantideva (opp clock tower)- INR 2,300/ day

Paro: Resort – INR 3,300/ day

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