“This summer can we do Bhutan?”
A casual query from Madhuri early last month started a journey of discovery, excitement, some disappointments & much learning about travel, immigration, little-known hiccups one may face while traveling to the North East etc. All this from a short 7-day vacation to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan – ‘The Last Shangri La’.
Folks from the IAF & Indian Army who are veterans on this beat may skip this one. For ‘nevlas’ like me, even the ‘seven sisters’ are a mystery!
Googling my way through the maze of promoted ads and search engine optimized outputs with the keywords ‘Bhutan holiday’ took me to Offbeat Tracks (OBT) – a Hyderabad-based start-up founded by Vandana Vijay, a young army daughter, and former Facebook staffer. I am ever ready to encourage start-ups and this one was from the armed forces crib. Their itinerary was appealing, with an added flavour of local culture through homestays, something we try to avail on all our tours. Tickets on Indigo were available within the bounds of ‘LTC’. Soon, I had in hand three BLR-IXB round tickets starting on a Friday – the first mistake as we were to learn soon. No seats were available on any flight of Druk Air, Royal Bhutan Airlines.
Travel Tip #1
If you plan to travel to Bhutan by air, book your tickets (ex-Kolkata, Guwahati, Delhi or Bagdogra) well in advance. Flights into Bhutan (Paro) from India are few and get booked out well in advance.
Our noon arrival at Bagdogra on a Friday, a five-hour drive to the Bhutanese border town of Pheuntsholing (embarkation point for entry into Bhutan from India by road) and the fact that Bhutan is 30 mins ahead of IST ensured that the Immigration Office had closed for the weekend exactly 30 minutes before we drove in. Immigration (for obtaining travel ‘Permit’) at Pheuntsholing involves some documentation plus biometrics and is done only on working days from 9AM-5PM. Indian nationals will require filling in a one-page form and produce copies of their Passport with minimum 6-months validity (our second mistake as our son’s passport validity was just a few days shy of 6 months) or Voter ID and PP-size photos (one each).
Travel Tip #2
Do not plan to arrive at Pheuntsholing on Friday or days preceding weekends. Bhutan has its share of national holidays too. Before you book your tickets, do consult the Bhutanese Calendar.
We were now stranded at Pheuntsholing; not exactly the Bhutan we wished to see! OBT threw everything they could at the situation, including tapping the enterprise of army officials in India and Bhutan, but to no avail. We cooled our ‘hills’ in Pheuntsholing for a day, exploring local eateries and marketplaces. Arun, our Indian driver from Bagdogra to Pheuntsholing was quick to point out how, soon after entering the gates of Bhutan, indiscriminate honking had to stop and pedestrians took priority over vehicles – something Bhutan’s big neighbour would do well to emulate. Meanwhile, OBT quickly fell back on Plan B with an unplanned but ‘offbeat’ retreat to neighbouring Kalimpong in West Bengal. We relished our stay in the elegant Elgin Silver Oak Hotel, Kalimpong; laughing at our peculiar situation “chale Bhutan pahunche Kalimpong!”
Next day we set out on another long drive back to Pheuntsholing. Bhim Bahadur Chettri – our driver for the Kalimpong trip – impressed us with his safe driving (43 years behind the wheel as per his testimony) and knowledge about West Bengal politics. Bhim Bahadur had got his three daughters married into respectable families after taking out a loan to buy his vehicle to financial freedom – a Toyota Innova – inside which he slept at Kalimpong while we enjoyed the plush comforts of the hotel. That is the life of Indian taxi & truck drivers whom we blame for all the woes on our highways. How little we think of their working conditions and comfort while being quick to chastise them for the slightest mistake.
After a safe return to Pheuntsholing, Bhim Bahadur was gracious enough to take out our heavy bags and deliver them to the hotel reception. He earned a tip of Rs. 150 from me for a 2-day trip undertaken with utmost courtesy. Madhuri reminded me of the Rs. 100 we tipped a smooth-talking steward at Karnataka Golf Association, Bengaluru during our last visit when all that he had done was fetch us two pints of beer while fawning around us meaninglessly. How we get fooled into tipping the scales in favour of those who do little to deserve our attention or money!
On Mondays, the deluge of weekend arrivals at Pheuntsholing start to beat down the gates of the immigration office. Since there is no system of prior appointment or tokens, it was a pure melee outside the immigration office with a thousand tourists and their agents forming their own arbitrary queuing systems. Permit forms are available either at the immigration office or in shops across the road outside. Be sure to carry printouts of your travel itinerary and hotel or homestay bookings (they insist on a letterhead). Those who have neither of these travel documents need to go to the Indian Consulate in Pheuntsholing and obtain an ‘identification slip’.
Travel Tip #3
If you want to beat the rush, arrive early at the gates of Immigration Office. If you have a travel agent, ask them to help you out with the papers, documents and online application a day in advance. If possible, avoid turning up for immigration on days following weekends or holidays.
After much pushing & shoving and a perfunctory document check, the rest of the procedure including biometrics and printing of permits took less than an hour.
The drive from Pheuntsholing to Thimpu is very picturesque albeit a bit bumpy at places. Six hours is a good estimate for fair weather. A SUV is strongly recommended for those who have a choice.
Travel Tip #4
Indian currency works fine in Bhutan. However, some places were unwilling to accept the new INR 2000 rupee note. To be safe, try and carry denominations of 500 or lesser till further advice.
While at Thimpu, we stayed in Damchoe’s Homestay, a wonderful 35-year old mansion nestled in the hills. Finished in rich pinewood, the house is cosy and warm, much like the host Aum Damchoe. She speaks impeccable English and her hospitality and culinary skills bowled us over. Most of the items on the menu came from her own 1.5-acre farm, including some delicious homemade Tofu and fresh farm eggs. Their lovable Great Dane named ‘Tiny’ signifies the contradictions that this small nation faces, sandwiched as they are between two heavyweights – India and China.
Travel Tip #5
Please consider homestays for your stay in Bhutan. Apart from a rich experience of the local culture, you will also make some great friends. But do remember to check the facilities available. There are some homestays which are truly Bhutanese but extremely rustic.
Travel itineraries to Bhutan usually include Thimpu, Paro and Punakha. Driving from Thimpu to Punakha (86 km), do a stopover at Dochula Pass enroute from where you can get a spectacular view of the Himalayas on a clear day.
Along the way from Thimpu to Punakha comes the famous fertility temple Chimi Lekhang dedicated to the Divine Madman. Be prepared. The place abounds with drawings, miniatures, memorabilia and murals of the phallus! Don’t believe me? Here, take a look!
Even the restaurant where we stopped for lunch had small wooden penises on sale (don’t worry, the menu was vegetarian!). A slightly embarrassed Akash observed, “not the best place to bring up a child”. We didn’t visit the temple as we already have abundant blessings in this department 😉
If white water is your cup of tea, you can raft down the Punakha river. Two options are available. Rafting on the ‘Male River’ is only for experienced rafters while families and children can enjoy the much smoother ‘Female River’.
Be sure to negotiate the fare. We talked him down from Rs. 8000 to Rs. 5000 for a raft and guide. You may be able to do better. But be aware that if the winds are blowing upriver, you will have some serious paddling to do if you don’t have a full complement. I had to muster all my strength and experience of having rafted down the Brahmaputra. Madhuri and Akash are not likely to venture into a raft anytime soon!
Continue down to the 400-year old Punakha Dzong, a magnificent temple of Buddhism located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers in Punakha valley. The Punakha Dzong was the administrative centre and seat of the Bhutanese Government before the capital was shifted to Thimpu in 1955. View of the Punakha valley from the road outside the Punakha Dzong is breathtaking.
Be sure to dress conservatively while visiting Dzongs. Avoid half shorts or sleeveless T-shirts. Ladies would do well to wear full-length pants and appropriate tops.
No trip to Bhutan is complete without a visit to the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Gompa, a monastery celebrating the Buddhist spiritual leader Guru Padmasambhava who is believed to have arrived here on a tiger’s back and meditated for three months in the 8th Century. About 10 km north of Paro, the trek to Tiger’s Nest located at an altitude of over 3000 metres is decidedly hard. Mules are available upto a point. 2-3 hours is a good estimate for a family trek (one way) but remember to carry water, a walking stick (available for INR 50 at entry) and some light snacks like biscuits etc. Sunscreen lotion and a hat will ensure you don’t look like a ripe tomato after the trek. The final climb is very steep and terminates in a spectacular, breathtaking view of the Taktsang Gompa. Exercise caution during the trek as a wrong step can take you down to Paro valley 3000 feet below.
An entry fee of INR 500 per head is applicable to be paid at the base of the hill. This covers a guided tour of the monastery too. Entry closes at 1PM (to ensure that you return to Paro before dark). The sheer size of the cliff, precarious location of the monastery, a difficult trek – all make for a lifetime memory; not to speak of breathtaking photo opportunities for shutterbugs. Please be careful while taking those snaps.
The trek sapped most of our energy which was replenished on the return by a vegetarian buffet at the Taktsang Restaurant (INR 475 per plate) halfway down the mountain. This is the only pit -stop on the whole trail.
Travel Tip #7
Be prepared physically and logistically for a hard trek to the Tiger’s Nest. Carry your child’s student ID to avail a 50% discount on his/her entry ticket. If you are starting from Thimpu, it will be a good idea to leave your hotel or homestay by 7AM so that you complete the visit and are back for lunch at the Taktsang Restaurant by 3PM.
We returned to Thimpu after a memorable trip to the Tiger’s Nest; back to the warm comfort of Aum Damchoe’s – our home-away-from-home. The eve of our 20th wedding anniversary was spent with the delightful Damchoe family and a bottle of Peach wine from Aum Damchoe’s cellar.
Our last day in Thimpu was spent on a windshield tour of local tourist spots. We made brief halts at the 169-feet, gigantic bronze statue of Buddha which overlooks the entire city of Thimpu and the wildlife reserve that houses Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin (entry fee INR 100 per head, avoidable). If you are lucky, you may be able to catch an archery ‘shootout’ at the local stadium. The sight of metal-tipped arrows whizzing across the stadium and landing within inches of the opposite camp is something we will remember for a long time.
Aum Damchoe gave us a guided tour of her farm where she grows walnuts, peaches, apples, lettuce, parsley, garlic and strawberries along with a rich collection of Bhutanese flowering plants. She also makes her own brand of Tofu and markets it to the local supermarket. The water from an underground spring in her farm was the sweetest water we had in a long while. I suggested a small-scale bottling plant.
We returned from Thimpu to Pheuntsholing with a heavy heart, a camera full of photographs and a lifetime of memories. I reminded our gracious Bhutanese guide Mr. Kezang (Mob: +97577883988) what a wonderful country he lived in.
Travel Tip #8
Travellers take note that all restaurants and eateries in Pheuntsholing close by 9:30PM. We discovered this the hard way and had to make do with ‘Wai Wai Noodles’ for dinner. One of the locals suggested that we go across the border to Jaigaon in India if we wanted to eat at that hour!
We woke up the next morning (5th May) to another holiday in Bhutan – the death anniversary of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, a monk who was responsible for the unification of Bhutan in mid 17th Century. Another bunch of uninformed Indian tourists will face the disappointment of getting stranded at Pheuntsholing, this time for a long weekend, Friday through Sunday.
We sighed with relief and set course for Bagdogra on our home stretch, gaining 30 minutes as we crossed into Jaigaon, India. Our Indian driver this time around had a habit of spitting out onto the road every now and then. I asked him if he would do the same while driving in Bhutan. He grinned sheepishly replying that he avoids trips to Bhutan and mostly drives the Darjeeling-Gangtok sector where he can continue his disgusting habit unchecked. Different countries have different ways of achieving ‘gross national happiness’, I guess.
Travel Tip #9
Bagdogra airport is terrible. Ensure you reach the airport at least two hours before your scheduled departure. Expect long queues for baggage screening, check-in and security check.
You don’t want to miss your return flight after a wonderful vacation!
Travel Tip #10
This is the last & most important travel tip from my side. Do your homework while planning a vacation and don’t leave everything to the travel agent!
Sharing with all of you the link to Offbeat Tracks who gave us this memorable holiday to Bhutan. Also, visit the website for Tourism Council of Bhutan where you will find all those tips that we didn’t read before our vacation!
If you travel, do share your feedback. Call or write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org, +919591035667) for more information. Happy holidays!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.