Travelling with parents has always been one of my favorite things to do. Of course there’s a limit to the drinks that you can pour and hours you can stay out late but the luxury is unbeatable! Dads never compromise on the quality of sleep a bed can offer or the meals that we eat on a holiday.
Bhutan was quite a sudden plan that my father whipped up. He realized that he was retiring soon and his only child was going to get married in a year’s time. He contacted an agent who helped us get our documentation ready which by the way is quite a process. Visa is on arrival for Indians but it’s important to plan well for a trip to Bhutan because 1) no frequent flights from India 2) Tourism has starting picking up in the recent past and hence, not a varied number of options to choose from. Since we were unable to find an airline for our preferred date of departure in the last week of December, we chose to take a flight from Mumbai to Bagdogra and enter Phuentsholing which is the business capital via road.
The journey to Phuentsholing is about 3 hours from Bagdogra. We stopped at a small restaurant which served delicious momos and thukpa. That’s when I marked the beginning of our holiday! Soon, we reached the border and oh, the stark difference will not go unnoticed! You’ll see paan stained walls, posters of Mamata Banerjee on hoardings, semi rusted electric poles and then suddenly you enter Narnia! Clean roads, thatched roofs, typical Asian architecture, well manicured lawns… I love my country, okay, no doubt, but we’ve got to learn! Phuentsholing is a cosmo town with a lot of Indian and Nepalese workforce. We spent the evening exploring cafes, bought a sim-card and some local wine called Takin (named after the national animal of Bhutan) and had suja tea. Suja tea is made of suja leaves, butter and water. It’s more of a soup, it’s savory!
The weather was cold but not as much as I thought it would be. We visited a monastery nearby before retiring for the night.
We woke up early next morning, had breakfast and met our driver and guide who were with us for the rest of the tour. Sweet chaps, both Bhutanese, spoke decent English and loved to groove to Bollywood music! The first thing that we had to do before leaving the town was to get our passports stamped and that took a while due to peak holiday season. What we noticed is that Bhutan is frequented mostly, only by people from neighboring countries. We saw families and couples from India of course, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Hardly any from Europe or America..Soon after, we left for Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, also where the King resides. The journey to Thimpu was so beautiful! Lush green forests, valleys and waterfalls.. soaking in the fresh air which we’d never get to breathe back home, we felt at peace. By the time we reached the Capital, the sun had begin setting and the temperatures dipped all of a sudden.
It is absolutely essential to carry warm clothes because even though the temperatures might not go as low as probably in Himachal, the wind factor is what gives you goosebumps. Thimpu was again, green, great roads, lots of public schools, hospitals, embassies, local shops but not one mall in sight. There is no McDonald’s or Burger King or a Nike store in Bhutan. They have not opened up their economy to multinationals so local businesses thrive. We checked into our hotel and had dinner where we were served typical Indian cuisine. There are a couple of Bhutanese dishes which are made with cheese, mushroom and cabbage however, locals prefer eating gobi ki sabji and roti and steamed rice. The eating habits are quite similar to ours.
Next morning after a scrumptious breakfast, we proceeded to visit Buddha Point which is a beautifully built monastery with golden walls and is one of the biggest Buddha Statue in the world. It overlooks a gigantic valley with a breathtaking view of cloud covered mountains.
We then visited a couple of other monasteries as well. When we wanted to see where the King lives, we were told that he stays in a very regular looking house and not a palace. Also, tourists aren’t allowed to see where the royalties live. If authorities get to know that tour guides are showing them their residence, they could lose their licence! Quite private and non-showy. Finally, for dinner, we got to taste the real food of Bhutan. It was spicy and flavorsome!
The next day was an adventure – we left Thimpu to travel to Punakha, the old Capital of Bhutan. En route Punakha is the Dochula Pass which is one of the highest motor-able roads in the Kingdom. The view from here is stunning, with snow capped mountains and white clouds teasing the peaks. We got down from our car and the cold wind hit our faces so much so we couldn’t open our eyes! We downed a couple of hot cups of tea to maintain our body temperatures but that didn’t really help! The wind froze us, we had to get back into our car to feel at ease. Also, then was the first time ever that mom and I held naturally formed snow in our palms! It was magical.
We visited a fertility temple (or monastery) on our way called as Chimi Lhakhang. Married couples who are unable to conceive, seek blessings here. A little amusing in the beginning but realizing that it’s nothing to be giggled about, we noticed a lot of pictures of phallus drawn on buildings, walls, murals being sold at the local market and books about the importance of this temple, with explicit photographs.
We reached our hotel at twilight and the balcony view took our breath away! It overlooked the valley and we could spot tiny dots which were little kids playing with a furry dog! Bhutan, we realized, is such a peaceful country, their main source of income being tourism and hence, courteousness was guaranteed. The commonest crime committed is drunken driving and that’s what the government is working towards curbing.
It was Christmas Eve. We were invited for a special dinner in the hotel lounge. Mom Dad and I leaned against the cold wall of the terrace, sipping Hot Toddy, peering into the darkness of the valley with a casual dog bark or an owl hoot heard in the background. The wind was extremely cold however the growing flames of the bonfire made us feel comfortable. We also happened to spot a satellite among the stars on a fairly clear night!
It was around 3am when I fell terribly sick. I threw up my entire Christmas dinner on Christmas Day and I was miserable! I kept throwing up whatever I ate till about 11am when we decided to not proceed to Paro – another major city. I was instead taken to the hospital where I was declared to be “altitude sick” I kind of figured because 1) of course the height at which we were staying 2) I drew myself a warm bath right after eating a heavy meal. This is something which, in any case, must not be done! Because the temperature was low, my body couldn’t produce enough heat to digest the dinner and hence, I suffered from indigestion the next day coupled with altitude sickness which sucked so bad because I was super excited to drive down to Paro. Although, we did get to see what wasn’t part of our plan. A government hospital in Bhutan! Medical facilities in Bhutan are provided free of cost not just to the citizens but even to tourists and non-residents. I fell in love with the country even more.
Christmas was spent in bed, in the old Capital of Punakha. The next day, we left for Paro which was once again, a very beautiful drive.
We stopped at a beautiful monastery on our way and learnt a lot of Buddhism as a religion and the culture of Bhutan. Their beliefs and rituals are quite similar to Hindu customs and the founder of Buddhism, Siddharth Goutam was born in Lumbini which is modern day Nepal, then, part of India. We also learnt that water does not come from rivers, instead every tap, every tank, every water storage contains water from underground springs! They believe that rivers must remain untouched and pure. Such a beautiful thought! The government is also encouraging people to have more than one child because Bhutanese population is dwindling.
Our stay in Paro was at serene location, atop a cliff from where we could see the peak of Jomolhari – one of the highest mountains in Bhutan. It is, at times, also called as the bride of Kanchenjunga. Our hotel room was nestled right in front of the peak that was glistening in the dusky sunlight. My parents were sort of cursing me for falling sick; we could’ve stayed here for an extra night! I stuck to a simple dinner of dal and rice and retired early that night.
The next morning, our itinerary said that we will have to climb the famous Tiger’s Nest which is what Bhutan is most famous for; the iconic Taktsang Monastery which translates into the English name given to it. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhav, a Buddhist guru from the Indian sub-continent flew on a tiger’s back and landed here. He built the monastery in 1692. Now, the question was, should we or should we not. Our guide, very honestly, told my parents that their knees are weak and I was on the road to recovery from “altitude sickness”. The choice was ours. We did opt out of climbing to monastery however, didn’t really regret the decision knowing my trekking abilities and my parents’ willingness to deviate from a relaxing holiday. But, the monastery, oh so beautiful!
Photo courtesy: Wikipedia
We shopped at the local market in Paro. The shopping experience is quite similar to ours in India. Roam the place, scrounge for what you want, select the item and then walk away if it’s not affordable! And then of course, the shopkeeper will stop you and offer it to you at the price you want. Voila! Mum is an experienced shopper and bargainer so worked out pretty well for us.
The next morning, we thanked our guide and driver and drove back to Siliguri with lots and lots of memories!! 🙂
Bhutan is truly the Kingdom of Happiness. The people are so kind, the food is so wholesome and prepared with love, the dogs are so furry and cute, the mountains are so majestic, the place is so peaceful 🙂 So glad made we happen!
Places of stay:
Phuentsholing: Lhaki Hotel
Thimpu: Hotel Migmar
Punakha: RKPO Green Resort
Paro: Tashi Namgay Resort