- Time of Travel: June 2016
Kingdome of Bhutan, though it is our close neighbor with somewhat similar culture, it has its own distinct characteristics. Let’s talk about similarities first. Bhutani people look just like fellow Indians in north eastern part of India; they understand and speak Hindi very well, Indian currency is well accepted in whole of the Bhutan, you will find most of the Indian grocery brands in local shops, our very own India Army is on duty on this land and Indian Govt. spends good amount of funds for the development of this nation.
Now the differences, it is the only country in the world with negative carbon emission and has more than 75% forest cover. Its constitution has provisions to protect forest and nature. People have deep faith in their king and they worship the royal family like God. Roads are in good condition in most of the country, with very less traffic. People literally obey all traffic rules and pedestrians are being respected and considered humans unlike Indian Metro cities culture. There is no industrialization in Bhutan, and main sources of income are agriculture, tourism and power generation. Crime and corruption, both are negligible. The whole of county follow the same religion ‘Buddhism’.
Liquor is the most easily available liquid after water in whole of Bhutan (Tea cost Rs. 25 and single peg was of Rs. 15 as per our driver) and it is very difficult to find pure vegetarian restaurants/hotel (Beef and pork are the most popular non vegetarian eating options).
We started our trip from Bagdogra, West Bengal and hired an Innova. We booked all the hotels/resort in advance after some basic research and reading reviews, made payment in advance, so we could travel with little cash. The journey began from Bagdogra around 11 AM and our first destination was Phuntsholing in Bhutan. It’s the entry point for Bhutan, if you are going via road route. The international Boarder between India and Bhutan is shared by Jaigaon in India and Phuntsholing in Bhutan.
There is free access between these two places, however you are required to get permit to move beyond Phuntsholing. After an hour of journey, the view besides the road began to change and after crossing large fields, tea estates appeared. Total journey was about five hours and before we realized we reached Bhutan. It was a big gate, painted with colorful dragons and guarded by soldiers from Indian BSF and Royal Bhutan Army.
Though it is the same land, just a matter of a border, but you can easily make out the difference between two nations. The moment you enter Bhutan, you find the place cleaner, calmer and more organized. There were no encroachments over the roads by shops, honking was minimal and roads were clean. For Indian Citizens, no visa is required; just a permit from the authority office is all you need to enter further in this country.
The permit office is operational during 10-5, so we planned to get it done next day. Phuntsholing consists of market area and hill side, most of travelers opt to stay at the hotels in market area for the ease of paperwork, but we booked Pelling Resort, which was about 15 minutes drive from border and offer terrific view of lower Phuntsholing and Jaigaon from its Balcony.
There was a check post of Royal Bhutan Police before the resort, and it required the permit to entre that area. Our driver informed and requested the officials to let us enter and stay there for a night, since permits will be processed next day. Pelling Resort was our first experience of Bhutan Hospitality, and we were warmly welcomed by beautiful staff wearing their traditional dress ‘Kira’ with a big picture of King and Queen right on the entrance. We found their meal rules little weird (later got to know, it applies to most of hotels in Bhutan and there are reasons behind it) like, no buffet system, dinner is to be ordered before 6 PM, no running orders will be taken, limited options for vegetarian food etc.
Bhutan is a country, where most of material is being imported from India including vegetables and other essential cooking items required for Indian dishes. The chef of the resort was also an Indian citizen, who goes back to India every night. There are limited numbers of hotels and resort to accommodate the tourists and due to off-peak season travelers footfall was also less, hence such rules helps them to reduce wastage and cost. We were tired from the day’s journey, so immediately after dinner, we retired to our beds.
Next day, it was a beautiful morning and view from Balcony was awesome. Tista River was visible from that place; it felt good that we have chosen this place to stay for night halt over other hotels, which were situated right in the middle of the market.
Our plan for that day was to get permit, sim card, exchange currency and to reach Thimphu before night. As a tradition on our holiday trips, we always get up early and do a little track near the resort to check out the local area, so after waking up to the sweet sound of chirping birds, we put on our jogging shoes and out of resort. The air was pure and fresh, roads were clean and absolutely no vehicle.
Permit office is situated in the main Phuntsholing near to boarder and being physically present at the office is a must as they take biometric impressions. Passport or Voter’s ID are the acceptable official document as a proof of Indian Citizenship (for kids, birth certificate is also acceptable). We reached at the gate around 11 and got it done within an hour.
Next we headed to a local shop to buy a local sim and exchanged some currency. Indian Rupees and Bhutani Ngultrum are at par, and most of shops accept both happily. The route from Phuntsholing to Thimphu is one of the most beautiful mountain routes I have seen so far.
Even, if you are going Bhutan via air, at least one side of the expedition should be done via road to capture this mesmerizing beauty. The way to Thimphu was of about 5 hours and was full of waterfalls, clouds and greenery. Kids were excited to see the clouds nearby which were running all along with the car. When it started drizzling, we took a halt at a local café to get refreshed and had a cup of coffee.
Both the kids sitting in the car were looking out and busy with their imaginations. We reached to Thimphu city, the capital of Bhutan in the evening, checked in the hotel and relaxed after tiresome drive. Getting decent vegetarians food (pertinent to mentioned, which is suitable to north Indian taste buds) is getting difficult in most of hotels in Bhutan. We somehow settled with what was available at our hotel at that time and came out for a walk and ice-cream shots.
It was around 8 PM, and to our surprise, most of shops were already shut. And among those which were opened, they either don’t sell ice-creams or refuse to take walk-in orders. If we leave the food part, rest everything was above expectations in Bhutan, be its stunning natural beauty, it’s simple and humble people or its culture and heritage. In total it was a wholesome package.
Next day was dedicated to Thimphu tour including permit for Punakha (our next day target place), which is being issued in Thimphu. In Bhutan cities, roads have speed breakers with zebra crossing painted over them at short distances to facilitate pedestrian. If you are standing near to zebra crossing, even not on the move, the cars usually stop to give you way. It was more than overwhelming for us, as we are not used to of this respect in India especially in this era of road rage.
This city is situated on the bank of Wangchu River and surrounded by mountains. Thimphu is the official residence of the King and Queen of Bhutan, has many Govt. offices, a football stadium, hotels, shops and restaurants. After breakfast we headed to permit office, and with help of our driver, got it done in fifteen minutes. We visited National Memorial Chorten first. It is a memorial built by the royal family, located in the central town and is a famous place for worship. It has a small garden, large prayer wheels and a big stupa inside.
Bhuddha Point was our next destination; it is a gigantic statue of Lord Buddha, situated on the top of the hill. While going up to that point, aerial view of the whole of Thimphu city can be seen.
It was a huge, pure golden majestic statue at just perfect location. The detailed Interiors were equally amazing as its grand view. Tough it was not completed yet and some finishing work was still under process when we visited. It is an irresistible sight to behold and should not be missed at any cost.
After this magnificent man made wonder, we visited a 12th century monastery, Changangkha Lhakhang. This place is considered a very pious place and parents take their new born babies to name them. The monks inside sing the religious chants together with the help of instruments. Camera was not allowed, so no pictures of this place could be shared.
Afterwards, we planned to go the national zoo to show various animals to our kids, but due to rain this could not materialized. Since it was an open zoo in hilly area, our driver suggested going up on the hill, so that animals could be viewed from top above. We liked the idea, and taking our umbrellas out, we were ready to see the animals from the hill. The second picture below is of Takin, the national animal of Bhutan.
National Folk Heritage Museum was our next halt during the day trip, however before reaching to museum; we stopped at the National Library of Bhutan. We were running out of time, so could not see the books collection there, but the location of library was completely stunning.
National Folk Heritage Museum is actually a traditional double story mud house from yesteryears that has been maintained in the same old state to give visitors a glimpse into the traditional way of life in those days – the kitchen with the olden-style utensils, the store room for grains, the prayer room, the living room etc. There are weapons on display, grinding stones (quite similar to those used in India in olden days), traditional apparels etc. Photography inside the Museum was prohibited, so we just click few shots outside.
It was lunch time by then, and we discovered a good north-Indian restaurant ‘Chula’ in main market of Thimphu. In the second half of the day we planned to visit Thimphu Dzong. A castle is called Dzong in Bhutani language. There are various Dzong in the entire Bhutan, which have been occupied by the different generations of royal family for residential purposes at different period of time.
The present royal family stays in the newly built Dzong in Thimphu and rest other Dzongs are now converted into district offices, including the one we visited. The official residence of the present king is a restricted entry place; general people can only visit the old Dzongs after office hours. We reached at the Dzong around 6 PM and missed the flag ceremony by few minutes.
Both architecture and location of the Thimphu Dzong were excellent. Amidst tight security checks and long queue, we entered the premises. The structure showcases the traditional and religious side of Bhutan. There is monastery inside the Dzong and it also hosts various traditional ceremonies of royal family. This place is surely worth a visit when you are in Thimphu. There is a beautiful park on the bank of Wangchu River, which has lots of kid’s swings. Also it has few Machans at distances along with the river to sit & relax while watching the flowing water. We spent another hour at this serene place before walking down to our hotel.
The next part of this log will be covering two another strikingly beautiful places in Bhutan, Punakha and Paro.