Happiness is a place – Bhutan

*** Disclaimer : My sincere apologies if this seems to be a never-ending blog; this is also a memoir of one of the most amazing travels I have had. I would hope the pictures keep you interested right till the end where I have written my heart out absolutely honestly. I am sorry if it hurts the sentiments of the readers – that was never the intention. Happy reading !!

Having travelled to the North, South and West of India over the years, I had been eyeing the East for a long, long time. At a get-together of friends, the clichéd discussion of “lets plan a vacation somewhere” came up!! Someone suggested Bhutan. I had read a lot about its famous ‘Gross National Happiness Index‘ and being smitten by the minimalist bug recently, I was really keen and excited to explore this place.

Travel Dates:
As weird as it may sound, we first decided when were we ready to travel instead of looking for when is the right time to visit Bhutan !! Last two weeks of December is what seemed fine to us.

In order to ensure we don’t keep playing around with the dates too much, the next thing we did was book the flight tickets.  We also wanted to avoid the Christmas rush and save travel costs and hence chose the week before Christmas (17th Dec to 24 Dec).

Itinerary:
We decided to fly in and out of Bagdogra on our own expense and take the 8-day 7-night package that would cover our travel from Bagdogra into Bhutan and back to Bagdogra. The package included our hotel stays – with 3 separate rooms for the 5 of us, breakfast, dinner and the local sight-seeing in Thimpu, Punakha and Paro. Our driver-cum-guide would get all the necessary permits done for us.

Day Zero : Finally…… D – Day :
To save time and money, we were travelling on the red-eye flights which meant little to no sleep at all. But the excitement of the travel had reached a tipping point, enough to make us forget sleep !! I reached the airport just after midnight just to let my folks sleep peacefully and not disturb them at the late-night hours. This encouraged Dhruv-Vaishali, Shailendra-Nandita to also reach the airport early.

I had the window seat and ensured I made the most it !!

The night between Pune and Hyderabad

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Under the blue sky and above the clouds at cruising altitude between Hyderabad and Bagdogra.

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The first sight of the refreshingly new landscape of eastern India at the descent over Bagdogra.

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DAY – 1 : The Journey On the Road Begins :
Our travel package began from this point. Ashish, our driver -cum-guide was ready to receive us at the airport.

We were heading towards the border town of Phuentsholing in Bhutan, which is also the financial hub of Bhutan. It’s a distance of about 170 kms. and would take 5 to 6 hours of travelling time. We were travelling on the Sevoke  (West Bengal) – Guwahati (Assam) NH-17 which was re-constructed just recently and hence was absolutely smooth, comfortable and most importantly – toll free. The refreshing new landscape that I had seen from the window of the aircraft was now very close and I was cherishing every bit of it from the front seat !!

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PHUENTSHOLING :

We reached the border which has Jaigaon on the Indian side and Phuentsholing on the Bhutan side at around 17:30 hrs. Since we were in the eastern part of India, it was already dark. We went for a stroll in the town while dinner was being prepared. The town seemed a lot more quiet, with everything moving in sync – no honking in spite of considerable traffic on the very narrow roads.

DAY – 2:
It had started drizzling early morning but still it was our first view of Phuentsholing and Bhutan, in broad daylight. The town was completely quiet in the wee hours of the morning which helped me get these beautiful pictures around our hotel.

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While we waited for Ashish to get the permit done, we engaged in a long, intriguing discussion with Mr. Jigme, the hotel owner.  He gave us a lot of information about Bhutan, its people, their lifestyle, the politics, the condition of youth, Indo-Bhutan relations, etc. But most importantly, he gave us very crucial tips that we, as tourists, had to bear in mind while travelling in Bhutan.

This is what I was looking for from this trip – to get a closer look and understand the everyday life of the people of this country. Because only then can I connect to a place in the real sense and unless that happens, my travel is not complete !!

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Ashish returned with our passports stamped with the permit. As a traveller, I had collected my first tourist stamp and I was absolutely overwhelmed !!

The drive from Phuentsholing to Thimpu was a continuous climb of about 150 kms. It was still drizzling and as we started gaining height, it started to get a lot colder as well.

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The fog was getting thicker as we climbed and it soon started getting dark
as well. Being in the high mountains, we knew how important it was to stay on the road and not drift anywhere else. At one point, I even had to put my head out of the window, in the chilling cold, to help Ashish locate the road.

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We finally reached our hotel around 20:00 hrs. It was chilling at around 3 – 4 degrees and we could see lots of snow everywhere. We were welcomed by a chirpy bunch of young hotel staff. They were very happy since, as per tradition and rules, they had a day off on account of the first snowfall of the season !!

All of them were very comfortable speaking in Hindi and were big Bollywood fans. Shailendra, in fact, also sang a famous Bollywood romantic song in chorus with Karma – one of the staff members. Meanwhile I also found a fellow Liverpool Football Club supporter in one of the staff members, who was absolutely overwhelmed that I recognised him from the club scarf he was wearing !!

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DAY – 3 :
It was still pretty cold early in the morning and as I peeped through the curtains, I was left completely spell-bound – I was seeing SNOW for the first time in my life !!!!!!!

The view I woke up to !!

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IMG_20181219_071931963It was one of the most serene, peaceful and blissful mornings of my life !! 

We set out for the local sightseeing after a lovely breakfast and visited the Bhutan textile museum, the Folk Heritage museum, Changangkha Lhakhang (a monastery where all the new-borns in and around Thimpu are brought to seek the blessings of the monk). We  also saw the work being undertaken by the Bhutan Youth Development Fund (YDF) to keep the country’s youth occupied during school vacations.

We then spent some time at the Buddha Point (which is actually called Kuensel Phodrang). Its a newly created site on a ridge over-looking Thimpu and has one of the largest bronze statues of Lord Buddha. This, to me, was the second biggest attraction for coming to Bhutan, after the Tiger’s Nest.

I have visited very few places that felt as divine and spiritual as this !!

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DAY – 4 :
We left Thimpu for Punakha which is the old capital of Bhutan.  Even today, the senior most monks shift to Punakha in the winters and so it still has a lot of significance. Its a drive of about 85 kms. from Thimpu.

I thought I had seen heaven when I saw the snow covered hills and surroundings from my room in Thimpu. I couldn’t have been more wrong !!

I am at a loss of words to express the excitement and awe of seeing the Dochula Pass clad in fresh white snow !!!!

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The majestic snow-clad peaks of the eastern Himalayas were an absolute treat to watch. Thanks to Dhruv for the amazing clicks !!

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When we finally set course for our onwards journey, we had to drive through snow and ice covered roads – a very very tricky drive which Ashish manoeuvred quite comfortably.

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Our next stop was the Chimi Lhakhang monastery which is also known as the  “Temple of Fertility”. It was a refreshing short trek through the Bhutanese countryside.

We finally reached the Punakha Dzong which is a majestic piece of architecture and has a lot of history attached to it. This is where I also understood the difference between a Dzong (Government office and Fortress) and a Lhakhang (monastery – place of worship)

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The sight of the Punakha Dzong at night is any photographer’s delight

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The hanging bridge of Punakha was the last attraction of the day – a beautiful, long pedestrian bridge located in a very picturesque location.

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Our hotel for the night was on the bank of this same river. But the most unique thing about this hotel was it was almost completely managed by women. For the first time ever in my life, my luggage was dropped at my room by women.

The thing I admired the most was – these women were absolutely down to earth. There wasn’t an iota of arrogance or attitude for doing something that is generally considered the job of men !!  They seemed happy and proud of what they were doing and striking a feminist statement seemed the last thing on their mind. That, to me, was the biggest example of gender equality !!

DAY – 5:
We left Punakha for Paro – our last stop in Bhutan. It was a distance of about 125 kms. and should take us about 3-4 hrs. of travel time. We reached Paro around 14:00 hrs.

After lunch, Ashish took us to a place where we could wear the traditional Bhutanese dress – Gho for men and Kira for women. I was very reluctant at first to try it out and thought sight seeing was more important. But the group convinced me and thanks to them or else I would have missed out on a wonderful experience.


DAY – 6 :
This was undoubtedly the biggest attraction of the entire travel – we were going to trek the mighty Takshang Lhakhang commonly known as – Tiger’s Nest !!

We were told the trek would take about 5 – 6 hours to-n-fro. With the shorter winter days, we had to ensure we returned before 17:00 hrs. It was after a while that all of us were getting back to trekking and so were excited and a bit anxious too. None of us wanted to leave this unfinished; we in fact wanted to sign-off from Bhutan feeling accomplished in more ways than one.

That’s us at the start of the trek. The white spot on the middle hill is Takshang Lhakhang (Tiger’s nest).
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The entrance was still a good 45 minutes away even from this point – so near and yet a bit far !!

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As tourists visiting places of worship in a different country, it is absolutely imperative that all of us follow the DO’s and DONT’s to the ‘T’.

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It truly was the most exciting part of our entire Bhutan travel and all of us enjoyed the trek to the fullest. We managed to complete it well in time and earned ourselves a well-deserved celebration in the evening !!

DAY – 7 :
We had arrived in Phuentsholing and Bhutan on a rainy, overcast day but were leaving it on a cheerful, bright and sunny day with bags overflowing with  –  memories for a lifetime !!

We realised we were back in India when Ashish’s driving transformed from disciplined and patient to aggressive and borderline rash. However, I was surprisingly, feeling confident and relaxed – it was a feeling of being back at home – although technically I was still a good 2000 kms. away from home.  I guess that’s what INDIA does to you !!!
We checked into our hotel near the Gorumara National Park with an ambitious plan of getting up at 03:30 AM to get the tickets for the 06:00 AM jungle safari !!

DAY – 8 :
I guess it was the effect of everything going exactly as per plan so far that all 5 of us were up and ready exactly at 03:30 AM. Thanks to the amazing liaising skills of Shailendra, we were in an open gypsy heading into the Gorumara National Park by day break !!!

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The timing of our return flight couldn’t have been any better !!! It was an absolute treat to watch this beautiful sunset from 35000 ft. above with some amazing memories checked-in with us !!

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And that’s when I got a chance to truly re-live the entire experience. There were a million things going on in my mind and for a change, I didn’t stop it from wandering. I had learnt a lot about a new country, its people, its history and geography. But at the same time I had also learnt quite a few things about my country, my people, my group and of course, myself !!

  • The population of entire Bhutan is just under 8 lacs. and the cumulative population of the four places we visited is around 1.58 lacs. (Source Wikipedia).  Shailendra put things in perspective quite easily – in India, a town gets a municipal corporation only if its population is more than 10 lacs.

  • While the traffic discipline and cleanliness in Bhutan is absolutely admirable, I can’t ignore the fact that a lot of these good practices can be efficiently implemented with such a sparse population. And that’s one of the biggest lessons I sincerely and honestly wish all Indians take back from Bhutan. Its about time we do something about our exploding population !!

  • Bhutan gets more than 70 % of its total international grants from India. All the beautiful, pothole-free, toll-free roads that we travelled on in the last 6-7 days are built by the Border Roads Organization – an Indian organization. As I write this blog, the Indian government has approved Rs. 4,500 Cr. for various projects in Bhutan and this amount is over and above the grant that India gives. India is Bhutan’s biggest import as well as export partner. Bhutan does not have its own air force or navy and its army is trained by the Indian Army both in Bhutan and in India as well.

    In spite of all this, a lot of common Bhutanese people didn’t seem very welcoming of us Indians. On probing we found the reason for it – the completely ignorant and arrogant behaviour shown by quite a few Indian tourists, people who didn’t respect the sanctity of the monasteries, people who didn’t follow the etiquettes in hotels and restaurants. Indians form the majority of the tourists visiting Bhutan every year – almost equal to Bhutan’s own population. And still the Bhutanese travel agents and companies seemed to prefer other nationals over Indians. Apart from the dollars, pounds and euros they get from the others, apparently, they were also a lot easier to handle.

  • We didn’t believe any of this until we saw some instances ourselves. And that left us with a feeling of shame, anger and frustration all at the same time. In spite India being everything a good, responsible big brother could be to Bhutan, we don’t get the kind of respect we deserve!!  And ironically, a lot of the blame lies with us. I sincerely hope and wish we Indians realise our worth and conduct ourselves accordingly, especially when outside India!!

  • Although Bhutan in itself is extremely beautiful and picturesque, it still doesn’t have a sand desert,  neither sea-shores and beaches nor the back-waters of lakes and rivers, they can never see a sunrise or a sunset as I can, they don’t have the freedom of speech and expression that we Indians take for granted so often !!
    And that’s what makes INDIA truly, truly special. If we realise the worth of our history, geography and most importantly – our own selves, the world will truly be at our feet !!

  • A lot of my friends poked fun at me, first, for choosing Bhutan over Bangkok and second, for travelling with not one but two couples !!
    I would like to believe this memoir gives enough justification of my choices. A big, big thank you to Vaishali, Nandita, Dhruv and Shailendra for being truly amazing travel partners !! 
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