Have you ever dreamt of travelling to a dreamy and a magical paradise? Have you ever known any country’s development not measured by Gross Domestic Product but by Gross Domestic Happiness? Yes, welcome to one such paradise, just along the border of India, the land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan.
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The Kingdom of Bhutan is a land locked country in the Eastern Himalayas, bordered by India, Tibet and China. India provides budgetary support to Bhutan and is also influential over defense and commerce. The foundations of the strong bonds of this country to India were laid by our first PM-Jawaharlal Nehru, since then Bhutan shares a bond of friendship, understanding, trust and mutual beneficiary corporation with India.
Geographically Bhutan is known as the last great Himalayan Kingdom and is also known as the “Land of Thunder Dragon” or the “Druk-Yul” because of large and violent thunderstorms whipping down the valleys. The lights of the thunderstorm are believed to be the Thunder Dragon- Durk’s fire in their mythologies
Why travel to Bhutan
Like India, Nepal and Tibet, Bhutan too has its fair share of Himalayas, but what differentiates this country from others is their sense of culture and tradition. While in Bhutan you will be overwhelmed by their beauty in their culture and the determined efforts to protect it.
A strong sense of calmness fills the heart as soon as you cross the Indo-Bhutanese border. From cars parked crookedly on the roads to every vehicle passing by to honk in your ears, to vehicles moving calmly in a disciplined manner, you will find all cars parked systematically in one direction. With pedestrians given the right of way, all cars would slow down for you to cross first.
This country is also known for preserving its ecological biodiversity. Therefore, everything cultivated here is organic and pesticide free, also one of the carbon negative country. The development of this country is measured by its GDH-Gross Domestic Happiness. The country enhances its economy based on its spiritual, cultural and traditional values. Bhutan provides free Primary education to the young citizens, and free healthcare systems for all its citizens
To reach Bhutan
You can reach Bhutan by taking a flight to Paro, Paro has a very short runway, hence only a few certified (less than 2 dozen) pilots are allowed to make a landing here.
Alternatively, you can reach Bhutan from Siliguri, Hasimara or Jalpaiguri. Mostly trains end in Hashimara, from there you could take a rickshaw to Jaigaon Station which is the last town in India before your cross the Borders. The Bhutan side Border is at Phuentsholing.
Indian Nationals need to obtain a permit on the port of entry with a passport with minimum 6 months validity, and 2 passport size photographs. You need to define the areas of your visit earlier. There is no compulsion as to stay bookings to be made earlier. Those who do not have a passport, can carry their voter ID card and get the entry document signed from the Indian Embassy office at Phuentsholing.
It was known that Bhutan government has planned from July 2020 to Levy a sustainable development fee on Indian Tourists of RS 1200/per day for adults and for kids aged between 6-13 yrs. it is 600/day, and kids below 5 yrs are exempted. But even if you are planning to visit Bhutan any time after July 2020, you wont regret paying these fees, I can vouch you on that.
Additionally you can apply for online permits through the below website
Best time to visit Bhutan
The best time to visit Bhutan is during the Spring months- March to May or in the cold October to January. The days here are shorter, and the cold swirls in at nights, so you may want to carry warm clothes with you.
The currency value of Bhutan is similar to that of Indian Rupee ie. 1 INR = 1 Bhutanese currency. In cities you can still use Indian rupees with notes of denomination 100 and less, hence going to a Forex agency is not necessary. Rupee Notes of 500, 1000, 2000 are not accepted. Initially we hadn’t exchanged any currency from the entry point as they charge you for the same. We exchanged 4000 INR at Thimphu city for 4000 Bhutanese ngultrum. Many people are willing for the free true value exchange so currency in Thimphu and Paro cities is not a problem. You may want to keep come exchange while visiting rural areas if any.
Language and Culture of Bhutan
The local language here is Bhutanese, but most people in the city area also speak English.
The people here are so warm, that they are always ready to help. The service at hotels, the public services are also too good. The Bhutanese people have smiling faces which also make them glow differently, the moment they see anyone talking to them, they flash across a wide ear to ear smile
Foods not to miss in Bhutan
Bhutanese food is a spicy specialty because they use chilies a lot, and is also considered as a vegetable here. Cheese (Datsi) is yet another part of this cuisine. So if you do not particularly eat or like spicy food, make sure to mention the same before ordering
- Kewa Datsi: This literally means Potato and Cheese. It is a delicious thick gravy type dish which can be eaten as a soup or also with brown rice.
- Shamu Datsi: This dish is also a combination of Mushroom and Cheese cooked like a thick gravy and spiced with Chilies.
- Ema Datsi: This is a thick spiced gravy. This is also the national dish of Bhutan.
- Jasha Maro: This dish is a mix of chilies, onions, tomatoes, Ginger, garlic and is made with finely diced meat. It is a large portion of meat broth, like other dishes, it is also served with Brown Rice.
- Momos: You might have eaten momos in India, as it is available in most of the northern states, but they aren’t similar as we get it here.
- Arag: You can be offered with a variety of drinks served with your meal, but if you are very lucky, you could be served with Arag, a locally brewed, fermented drink made out of rice, maize, or wheat.
Travelling from Hashimara to Thimphu
Once you get down at Hashimara station, there is a thela just outside to fill your stomachs with some litti chokha, as you wont get much Indian food once you cross the border. You can then take a Rickshaw to Jaigaon Station which could cost you around Rs. 120. You may need 2-3 hours for your entry permits to be processed depending on the rush. Also the permit office closes down at 4 PM, and is closed on all Saturdays, Sundays and all Bhutannese Govt. holidays
We had reached Hashimara early morning, hence we reached Thimphu, processing the permits, and travelling the same day. If you reach Phuentsholing late in the day, you may need to spend the night at a hotel. From Phuentsholing bus stand, there are frequent buses to Thimphu which costs around Rupees 200. There is also a local market nearby where you can buy a Bhutanese sim card. Phuentsholing to Thimphu journey is around 5-6 hours. We had reached Thimphu by 9 PM.
Stay in Thimphu
We had not pre booked any hotel. With the help of the driver, we found a hotel in Norling Shopping complex of Thimphu for Rs 1400/room. It didn’t have much facilities but what important was that it was in the city center, and the hotel had warm water, heater and free Wi-Fi, and these facilities were enough for us.
We headed to a club nearby after freshening up at our rooms. The name of the club was SNS club. It was a real small club with Bhutanese songs playing. Roaming in Bhutan at night is quite safe. After some clubbing, we also strolled around the city tower and adjacent areas before heading back to hotel to sleep
We were wandering quite late night the earlier day, hence our morning was a late morning. Having breakfast in the hotel complex itself we headed out for sightseeing.
National Memorial Chorten
This is a Stupa located around 6Km from the city center. This gigantic stupa is one of the most religious landmarks of the Thimphu City built in honour to the 3Rd Dragon King- Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. For many Bhutanese it is the focus of daily worship. It is open for tourists from 9am to 5pm.
From just 10 mins drive from Thimphu, there is a huge statue of Shakyamuni Buddha built on a hill top. It is a massive (approx. 169 ft) Buddha sitting atop a glided meditation hall made of bronze, covered with gold. We were told by the local people that this huge statue has 125000 smaller Buddha statues hidden inside it, also made of bronze. It was built to honor the 60th Birthday of the 4th Dragon King- Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
The calm statue with wise eyes and a gentle smile, calms your mind to the extent that all thoughts would be cleared out when you visit here. This place is calm, refreshing and serene. Photography is not allowed inside the meditation room. On the peripheral at the pedestal level, you will see lovely Goddesses like structures holding colored fluttering flags. They are the symbols of good luck in Buddhism. Apart from taxis to take you here, it is also a great hiking trail, also a popular cycling route if you have enough time
Thimphu View point
Just besides the hill of the Buddha Statue, is a hill, where cyclers stop for their meal. It is small clearing amidst tall trees. This place has carved wooden barks to sit and rest on in the shades of these trees. Further up, is a view point perfect for a early morning breakfast. There is a table and chair like sitting carved out of wood at the end, where you can have your little picnic meal along with a view of the whole Thimphu valley.
Thimphu Handicraft Market and Permit Office
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town market and getting permit for Punakha. The permit you get at Phuentsholing is only allowed for Paro and Thimphu cities. For visiting Punakha or Phobjikha valley, or Wangdue, you shall need another permit. You can easily get a permit which will be based on your entry permit from Phuentsholing, you will need to submit a photocopy of Phuentsholing permit at the Thimphu office. This procedure may need 30 mins to an hour depending on the crowd. The office works only on weekdays so you may plan accordingly.
We hadn’t obtained the permit the day earlier, hence we had to spend most of our morning at the Thimphu Office waiting for the permit. Then we met a friend who drove us around few government buildings. And by the early evening we had a taxi booked to Punakha. It takes 3 hours to reach Punakha from Thimphu, that’s if you go nonstop. It costed around Rs 1200 for the taxi, but we were 4 to split it in.
Inbetween the road from Thimphu to Punakha, is a mountain pass which gives travelers a 360 degree view of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. This pass consists of 108 chortens (stupas) built by the eldest Queen mother of Bhutan, in the memory of the 108 soldiers who were killed in 2003 in a war against insurgents from India. The Dochula Pass area is a very nice place for a “break or rest-stop” on the long drive from Thimphu to Punakha.
We reached Punakha quite late at night.
To stay in Punakha
There are quite a few hotels around Punakha to stay. Though not many hotels provide heater facilities here. We found ourselves a decent hotel for just 900/room. This is a quite rural area, hence Indian restaurants are quite rare as compared to the city areas. So you may want to book hotels beforehand with some research. Also, beef is widely eaten here, so you find these shops quite common spread all across the street, hence we opted for wearing face masks to avoid the meat smell. The people here also eat fresh beetle to fight the cold which has a strong and pungent smell.
As Punakha is a small city, it can easily be explored by foot. Most tourist attractions are located close to each other. The areas around have very old habitats, hence the houses built are also quite old, and you could see old ladies sitting on the beds just outside their houses doing daily chores.
Pho Chu and Mo Chu river
The names of these rivers were quite intriguing, Pho Chu being the male river and Mo Chu being the female. The water of one river is more muddish and brown in color, while the water of the other river is more blueish in color. Both river meet near the Punakha Dzong. The river banks are absolutely clean covered with smooth white round rocks of all sizes. There are also many adventure sport shops around who offer a package of river rafting on the Pho chu-Mo Chu rivers. The clean, lonely rivers are definitely a picturesque site.
The Punakha Dzong is one of the oldest and the second largest Dzong in Bhutan and has one of the most majestic structures. This Dzong was the administrive center until 1995 when the capital was moved to Thimphu. This Dzong was built back in 1600 century. This dzong also is a epitome of complex architecture of Bhutan with beautifully decorated prayer rooms. There are no charges to visit this Dzong. The Royal wedding also took place here in the year 2011 where the king of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel and Jetsun Pema got married who then became the Queen of Bhutan.
Just few steps from the Punakha Dzong is the suspension bridge connecting the dzong to the Shengana, Samdingkha, and Wangkha villages across the Phu Chu river. This bridge offers stunning views as it is built just above the rivers, spread across almost 180 mts, is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, and surprisingly stable. The bridge is draped in colorful flags and provides a perfect spot for bird watching and nature photography.
Chimi Lakhang Monastery
This is also know as the fertility temple, and a place of magic and miracles. Drukpa Kunley also known as the Divine madman, and is also worshiped in this town had very unconventional ways of teaching Buddhism through an active sex life, has believed to be blessed this monastery. Hence, couples unable to have a child come here to offer prayers and worship this saint and believe they will be blessed with the same.
Because of this saint, his private organ is also known as Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom is a symbol of worship and is seen painted on most of the houses here as well as many shops have this wooden carvings for people to buy it for their house to worship.
There is also a site near this Lakhang which contain numerous prayer flag, most of them white-representing the air, rest colored in blue representing the sky, red symbolizing the fire, green representing the water and yellow symbolizing the earth.
There were few kids selling handmade bookmarks. These bookmarks were made out of pages torn from their school books and had cute doll drawings on them. The drawings weren’t perfect, but just the perfect amount of pretty and made with sooooo much of love. We loved the efforts of these small kids who choose to sell these instead of begging, hence I clicked a picture with them.
We took off to Paro city the same evening. It was a 4-hour drive. The road was not quite easy and straight as it was a hilly road again. Once we reached Paro, the driver helped us settling down with a hotel, as this was just a day before Christmas, we had to look out until the third hotel for availability of rooms, as the first two were already on full occupancy. We liked the third hotel, as it was the only one who had a tub bath in so many days. As it was late, we did not get out of our hotel, we directly slept in.
We woke up early and strolled around the city shops for breakfast. We finally found a Indian restaurant in Paro market place which served Idli Sambar.
This Dzong is one of the oldest Dzong in Bhutan dating back in the 12th century. Many tourists hike along the Dzong for the entire view of the Paro City. Despite being so old, the woods of the structure look new without any wear and tear. This also consists of a cave where Lord Buddha is believed to come to meditate in the 8th century. The Dzong is protected even today with double walls and a bridge. Atop, is a perfect spot for landscape photography. It is walking distance from the main Paro Market.
National Museum- Ta Dzong
Also at a walking distance from Paro Market, the Ta-Dzong was built in the 16th century, but suffered the earthquake in 2011, it was rebuilt and reopened in 2019. This museum contains artifacts and information of Bhutan from almost 1500 Years old. This is the best place to understand the evolution of Bhutan and its people. The entry fee here is 50 Rs for Tourist, and photography in the Dzong is prohibited.
We were already tired by this time and it was already evening, as we had also spent time at the river near the Zuri Dzong. Hence we decided to visit the market for some shopping. At the market we found some key chains and magnets to bring back home. As this was the Christmas eve, we also had entry to the free party happening at the basement of our hotel, which later we realized was a dance bar, and we were the only girls there.
Today was the day we visited the Paro Takhtsang- the Tiger’s nest. We already were informed by many tourists passing by to start as early as possible, hence we were all ready by 7 am.
As we had climbing to do, we decided to skip breakfast and only drunk tea. There were taxis available easily in the market area to drop us at the Takhtsang. The fare was around 150/person one side, there are not many empty taxis while on return so we had to pre book the same driver and tell him a estimated time to pick us up. This place is a long hike of almost 4-5 miles both ways, and hence elders could avoid. Though there were many elders who made it to the top, and many who quit from the view point that is almost at 1/3rd distance.
For more detailed information on the Tiger’s nest trail, please read my blog : One gloved Trek
We were back by 4pm, all exhausted, hence we decided to stay in our rooms only to do the packing, as it was our last day in Bhutan. We had decided to meet our friends back in Kolkata as we had out train journey from Howrah to Pune.
Departure from the land of Dragons
We had our taxi booked early in the morning to drop us back at Phuentsholing which costed around 3000/-. Further we had booked another Bus to back to Howrah station, where we had booked the Azad hind Express which starts around 9.50 PM with 33 hours of travel time to reach Pune.
Write to me in the comment section if you need any help planning a trip here. I will be most happy to help you.