6 Days in Bhutan
By Sapna Shahani
This article has been published in Timeline magazine in Goa, subsequent to this blog post.
When I needed a break from work in Goa recently after the hectic peak season time, my partner and I decided to visit the mountains. Our original plan was to go to Sikkim but when we discovered how close it was to Bhutan by road, we changed course. I’m very glad we did. Not that we won’t visit Sikkim another time, but Bhutan had the appeal of ‘another country’, which was tempting to check off our bucket list. Here’s a recounting of our trip for those of you aspiring to similar sub-continental adventures.
How to get there? From Kolkata, we flew to Bagdogra and then got a cab to Siliguri, half an hour away, and then boarded a bus to Jaigaon on the Indian side of the border to Bhutan. We just about made the last bus, which is at 3 pm by the way. The journey was five hours long and not that comfortable with three people crammed in a space meant for two of our healthy sizes. But we got to Jaigaon by dinnertime. Walk through the huge ornate border gate and you’re in Bhutan. No checking of passports, nothing. But be warned, we heard that the border does close at 930 pm, so arrive before then. Of course, one can also fly directly to Paro, Bhutan’s lone airport, from Kolkata or Delhi, but it’s a lot more expensive, and with fewer flight options.
As soon as we crossed the gate, we were struck by the contrast of cleanliness in Phuentsholing, the border town on the Bhutan side. We had booked a room at the Druk Hotel for around 3000 Rs, only a minute’s walk from the border gate. The room was very comfortable and there were loads of Indian and English TV channels and the first of many hotel rooms that give great value for what you pay – a feather in Bhutan tourism’s cap.
Dinner was recommended at the nearby Zen family restaurant where we tried our first version of ‘datsi’, the most typical Bhutanese dish made with cheese and any other accompaniment, this time with mushrooms. The Druk beer was a great accompaniment after the arduous bus travel and we were glad that we could smoke back in our hotel room, although we did contemplate walking back to India for this ‘essential’ purpose because we read that smoking is not allowed in any public place in Bhutan. Curiously, a lot of people chew tobacco instead, sporting betel stained smiles, but you don’t see nasty red stains everywhere making you wonder where they spit?!
The next morning, we got a fright when the reception told us that the permit processing office would be closed that day because of the ‘Losar’ new year holiday. Luckily it wasn’t or we would’ve lost a precious day of our itinerary. However, it’s a good idea to enquire ahead with your hotel about the processing centre’s timings and holidays. We stood in line with our forms/ passport copy/ voter ID copy / one photograph in hand. Although we were there by 9 am, we didn’t get our permit documents until 2 pm because of their servers being down. That was disappointing but we lifted our spirits with delicious croissants and cappuccinos at the Kunzom Café.
We also visited a crocodile shelter nearby which had several gharials, 2 chubby muggers and some adolescents as well. We met some young Indian travelers and shared a jeep for 5000 Rs to Paro, five hours away. Little did we know that buses are available for a lot less and are more comfortable.
We stayed at Tashi Ling on one of the main roads in the small town centre of Paro, which had a clean comfortable room with no fuss for 1800 Rs. The cabbie was nice to talk to en route to Rimpung Dzong, which I read on the Lonely Planet website was the best temple to visit, and the National Museum. I liked the small galleries of sculptures and natural history displays where I learned about Bhutan’s respect for the environment. Another reason to love the country if you didn’t already.
It was easy to keep track of expenses and compare rates because the currency exchange was one to one, although Indian rupees are accepted just about everywhere. I strolled around the several lanes of the small downtown area and checked out all the handicrafts shops. Unfortunately the prices were quite high for the knickknacks I wanted, so I stuck to buying smaller things like handmade soap, lemongrass room spray, a childlike Buddha miniature and local peach wine.
I had heard about the hot stone baths and loved the idea. What an interesting experience! Out in the valley, a couple kilometers from town, an old lady heated large river pebbles over a woodfire and put them into a tub part that jutted out of a hut cubicle. An hour’s soak costs only 1000 Rs. She put some medicinal root into the water and we had a nice talk with her son over chai afterwards.
We went back to the hotel thinking we would tuck in early since we had to wake up early to trek to Tiger’s Nest, the most famous of Bhutanese sights but the blaring karaoke from next door kept us up. So we decided to join them, and hit the club Ecstacy next door. We had a nice chat with the bubbly bartender and got invited to dance with a group of young girls. An odd cultural exchange opportunity but somehow I got roped into mentoring them in (gasp) dancing! We even picked up local slang and almost started ending every sentence with ‘la’ instead of ‘ya’, like we do back home.
The next morning, somewhat groggy, we took off for Tiger’s Nest, which is a few kilometres from Paro town and paid the 500 Rs fee each that unluckily for us, began only the day before! I decided to take a horse up which, at 600 Rs seemed like a fantastic deal, saving me hours of vertical climbing! But the skinny horse had other ideas and was in no mood to climb without his owner leading him up. So I huffed and puffed every 10 steps for the next few kilometers up the mountain slope. It took us three and a half hours to make it up to the main temple complex, past a waterfall and a chunk of snowy ice, down hundreds of steps and up the same number. It is singularly the hardest trek I’ve ever done.
Once we were up there, utterly exhausted, you find that it is surreal and mindboggling to think how the monks managed to carry bricks, heavy statues and other supplies to build these temples! We had to leave our bag, cell phone, etc with security before entering Tigers Nest, so you don’t get pictures inside. But I like the idea of leaving some moments only to your memory. Feels like the right Buddhist approach to such a spiritual experience.
My partner braved the narrow, dark, shaky ladders down the actual Tigers Nest meditation caves. I wouldn’t dare after the guide said an American died there, having fallen into the forests below a gap in the cave. They’ve now put a barricade in, but it seemed eerie nonetheless. My legs hurt for three days after the climb, which might give you an indication of how difficult it was. Not for the faint hearted!
Back in Paro, we packed some momos for the ride to Thimphu and reached in 1.5 hours. We were struck by how much bigger than Paro it seemed and thought we should’ve gone there first. But we ended up staying for two nights after all which was enough time to do what we wanted. We stayed at Khamsum Inn, which cost 2700 including taxes and breakfast. It was a nice room and close enough to the downtown shopping area. A friend suggested we go to the Zone for dinner where we tried the Yak Burger, a taste similar to beef.
The next day, I spent a long time sifting through all there was to do in Thimphu and consciously decided not to go to any more temples. We were ‘dzonged out’ as someone we met at a café described later. We did walk to the Simply Bhutan museum, which was small and quaint. The pretty guide poured some ‘ara’ or fermented rice wine for us. We were really looking forward to trying it but decided that we like urak a lot better, back home in Goa.
Next, we were shown the phallus area and explained how these fertility symbols are kept outside houses to guard against evil spirits! Like the ‘kama sutra’ temples in Khajuraho are iconic as they are eccentric in India, the Chimmi Lakhang seems to be the equivalent in Bhutan. I really wanted to visit this phallus temple built by ‘the divine madman’ Drukpa Kunley in 1499 but couldn’t fit it in since it was in Punakha, another area, for which you need to get a special permit.
The cabbie suggested we go to Buddha Point to see the giant stupa that cost 250 crores to bring from China, but we declined, feeling it was too touristy. Instead we went to the zoo, also known as the Takin Reserve, where they keep Bhutan’s national animal. We were looking forward to seeing Takin, which are a cross between a goat and a sheep, but it was closed for maintenance that day. For lunch, quite a few people had suggested Bhutan Kitchen but we weren’t too impressed by the fried cheese, radish, dal like soup, corn rice etc. Only the chilly ‘datsi’ or chilli cheese was delicious. It didn’t help that they just started a holy month and weren’t serving meat. So we decided to do a double lunch and got fried momos at Zombala 2. Yes that’s the name of a cute restaurant that has two branches!
Wondering how to spend my afternoon, I looked up massages and came across the Dungsel Massage Centre, which was run by visually impaired persons. Half an hour cost me 1200Rs but it felt good to support a worthy cause, and I thought to myself, someone should do this in Goa. Next, I went to check out the weekend market where farmers bring all kinds of vegetables and dried fish. It seemed a lot like Panjim Market being a two-level building with sellers in rows hawking their fresh produce.
At Coffee Culture, we met a nice gentleman and his daughter who was there to have the chili ‘datsi’ or chilli cheese momos, only available there. They were really delicious! The rest of the evening was spent walking around the clock tower area lanes and the myriad handicrafts shops. Around 930 pm so we made our way Mojo Park for live music on our last night. The band was amazing, playing reggae covers by a favourite band ‘Sublime’. The Red Panda Weiss beer was very tasty and we met a lot of nice locals outside by the fireplace… A perfect end to our holiday!
As I write this on the bus back to Phuentsholing, gazing at the tall mountains and trying to hold steady along the windy road journey. We will spend our last night in the border town and take a train back towards Bagdogra tomorrow. I take back loads of happy memories from Bhutan, and hope there is more interactivity between our two countries. I’m ashamed that I knew so little about how wonderful this little country is, but will certainly learn more now and in the future. I was deeply inspired by the gross national happiness philosophy and to see people truly living it. They love their king and are a proud, humble, well spoken and above all, kind people. Tourism is on the rise and changing their way of life a lot, so I hope people get to visit sooner than later and enjoy their delightful national dress, gorgeous landscape, and cheesy food! So what are you waiting for, la?