Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Memories of a visit to Bhutan

First things first - This is the video that had planted the idea of a trip to Bhutan.
TED-Video-Youtube . If you haven't ever seen this TED talk, you should!

An amazingly beautiful little country smaller than our 'God's own country', Kerala, but I bet that title would better fit Bhutan by all means. Breathtaking scenery anywhere and everywhere. Though the country is generally cold, the people are warm, soft spoken and friendly. I'm trying to make a log of my 7 days trip to this pristine land which is very comparable to Scotland in terms of its scenery, traffic discipline, cleanliness etc. I wouldn't be writing all the minute details of my trip to Bhutan but I'll try to point the readers to other articles/sites which I feel would be helpful if anyone is planning a trip.

Indian citizens don't need a VISA to enter Bhutan. We entered by road through Phuentsholing which is a town in the border 175 km away from Bagdogra airport. In this town, there is an administrative office that processes permit for Indian tourists to visit the capital city Thimphu and the town of Paro. To visit the old capital Punakha, permit could be obtained from Thimphu. Best option is to go with a pre-booked package through some travels. We had booked our package through Akbar Travels. We flew from Bangalore to Bagdogra via Kolkata and back. Our package included pickup and drop off from Bagdogra Airport. I heard about another entrance through Assam border which is not currently operating because of ULFA threats or something like that (not a 100% sure about the fact)

Another option is to fly into Paro, which costs a little more and the flight options are limited as well. If you can directly fly into Paro, you can avoid Phuentsholing from your itinerary and this will save time, travel and money. I think the difference in flight charges will tally with the money spent on travel and accommodation from Phuentsholing

We traveled in Feb 2017, it was not a high season. If you plan to travel during tourist season, things may be different. You will need to plan out every detail of your trip in advance as the whole of Bhutan will be crowded. Mid February was actually a very pleasant time to travel. We had to use jackets and skull caps in Thimphu (Temperature was max 12 and min 4 degrees). Punakha and Paro were relatively warmer, but still needed jackets. If you travel during winter, definitely would require thermals and all other winter gears.

Language and Currency

Language is not a problem at all if you can manage a little bit of Hindi. Everyone speaks Hindi there. If I could manage, anyone can manage there. They speak far better Hindi than I can ever do. Most of the people speak English too.

Indians need not convert INR to Ngultrum as Indian currency is accepted everywhere in Bhutan including the new 2000 Rs and 500 Rs notes. It is still majorly a cash economy so make sure to carry enough Indian money for your stay. I was surprised to see that Bhutanese people also use our currency for their transactions. You may find hotels with swiping machines but don't be shocked if the personnel informs you that She/He does not know how to operate it, they are not lying.

Not sure if you noticed the She/He above rather than the regular He/She, it wasn't an accident. In Bhutan most of the businesses are run by women as we saw it. You will find ladies managing small vegetable shops to big hotels. In fact in the whole week in Bhutan I found only a few male staff/managers in hotels where we stayed or the places we visited.

Infrastructure, Attire and happiness. 

Most of the people wear the same attire (Traditional Wear). So it is near to impossible to look at someone and guess their economic class. Everyone seems to be from the same background. Probably the happiness index is the best in this country for this reason.  Most of the buildings look the same. There are stringent rules on what design should be followed to build homes/apartments. If anyone fails to follow the rules, they will be heavily fined. We saw a palace near Thimphu, nobody could guess it is a palace because it is a small and humble building unlike the picture that runs in our mind when we hear the term "Palace". Most of the roads are in good condition and the ones that are not, are really bad but still motor-able. Bhutan hardly had any infrastructure before 1960, when Indian government's BRO (Border Roads Organization) took the responsibility of constructing the roads in these most difficult terrains. Till date, India is taking care of their infrastructure. Currently India is undertaking a hydro electric project as well. You can read about DANTAK here - Bro. All through the journey you will be able to see presence of Indian Army personnel and BRO personnel here. So literally it is a country 'Made in India' but the living conditions are far better because of the lack of population and the meticulous administration by the Bhutanese government.

Travel budget

Depends on how you plan it, but if you opt for economy travel, deluxe stay and fine dining the total cost for 3 adults and one child would be less than 1.5 lakhs for 7 nights and 8 days. It is not as costly as traveling to a destination like Sri Lanka. (I had visited Sri Lanka back in 2013, but I regret I never made a proper note about that trip )

Jaigaon / Phuentsholing

These places are just separated by just one big gateway which is always open for to and fro traffic, but these are two different worlds altogether. Jaigaon is a typical Indian town, with roadsides full of garbage, vehicles parked as they please, people honking away to eternity, chaotic traffic, anything that we can see anywhere in India. You enter into Bhutan through that gate, suddenly it stops, clean environment, clean roads, vehicles properly following traffic rules and absolutely no honking. Our cab driver who picked us up from Bagdogra airport and drove the car with absolutely no regard to rules and discipline (He is an amazingly talented driver, I should give him that, controls his car meticulously at breakneck speeds) transformed to an entirely new person when he passed that gate. This small town bustles with activity as most of the goods pass from India into Bhutan through this border. There are a couple of shopping complexes here, where you can buy handicrafts etc at reasonable rates. But if you are looking for Bhutanese products, you are in for disappointment. The only Bhutanese products in Bhutan are jams, pickles, honey (very limited stocks and super expensive), alcohol (a lot of it) and some handicrafts, everything else is 'Made in India'. We stayed at 'The Park Hotel' here. Only by name it resembles the 'Park' hotels in India, but I think that's one of the best stays available in Phuentsholing town. My tripadvisor review here - Tripadv
Dolma Handicraft Stall Tharpai Lam

Phuentsholing Gateway

One curious thing I noted here is that Phuentsholing has a 'Pure Veg' restaurant (forgot the name)

Things to do

Nothing much actually, but make sure to do the handicraft shopping here, we found 'Dolma Handicrafts' in one of the shopping complexes to be particularly cheaper than all other places (Thimphu, Paro). But we discovered this only on our way back, so the damage had already been done by picking up fridge magnets, keychains etc from other places like Thimphu.


The drive from Phuentsholing to Thimphu takes about 5 to 6 hours. Mind it, if you can't stomach traveling through winding roads, you better stay away from this trip or take necessary precautions. We stayed at Hotel White Tara. Amazing experience here. My review can be found here - Tripadv

Things to do

There are a lot of tourist attractions in and around. I'll note down the places we visited.

  1. National Memorial Choeten - You can read all about it here - Wiki
  2. Buddha Dordenma Statue - Details here - Wiki
  3. Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery - Details here - Wiki
  4. Changankha Lhakhang - Details - LonelyPlanet
  5. National Library - Details here - Wiki
  6. Folk heritage museum - Details - Wiki
  7. Shopping street near Changlam Plaza - Very colorful street with a lot of souvenir shopping options, but they are a tad bit costlier than the ones in Phuentsholing as we figured later in the trip.  
       Listing a couple of places where we had food from.
  1. Masala family restaurant, Olakha Thimphu
  2. Kintshen Restaurant - Chubachu Thimphu
  3. A hotel without name near by Sherpa restaurant near Hotel White Tara. 

National Memorial Chorten

Dordenma Buddha Statue 
Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery

National Library
Changankha Lhakhang

Shopping street near Chung Lam Plaza


Punakha is the old capital city of Bhutan before Thimphu took over that title in the 60s. The drive to Punakha takes around 4 hours. There are a couple of tourist attractions on the way which is not exactly at Punakha, but I'll include their names in this section as they are on the way. The route is quite scenic and we could see beautiful snow capped Himalayan mountains at some distance. I think people leave out Punakha as it is quite a detour from usual Thimphu and Paro sites, but it is worth the visit. It is beautifully located where two rivers (Pho chu (father) and Mo chu (mother)) meet each other

 I came to know there are places with hot water springs, but couldn't cover those (List of springs here - Wiki) . We stayed at Hotel Vara. My tripadvisor review can be found here - Tripadv

Things to do
  1.  Dochula Pass - Amazing view point of Himalayan peaks. Also there is a beautiful site hosting Stupas (Chortens) that was created in memory of soldiers. Details - Wiki
  2. Druk Wangyal Lhakhang - Situated very near to the Stupa site. Details are covered in the same link given above. 
  3.  Punakha Dzong - This is a majestic awe inspiring structure and I would recommend every visitor to include this place in their itinerary. Details - Wiki
Mentioning the name of a hotel that we had food from - Kumar restaurant at Punakha town

108 Memorial Chortens
Druk Wangyen Lhakhag
Punakha Dzong

Memorial Site


Drive from Punakha to Paro is around 4-5 hours again. There is a little repetition of scenery because half the way is back through the same road that was taken from Thimphu to Punakha. Paro is an amazingly beautiful valley. On the way there is a view point to see flights landing and taking off from Paro airport, the only international airport in Bhutan. As above, I'll cover the attractions that we visited. We stayed at Mandala resorts. My tripadvisor review can be checked here - Tripadv

Things to do
  1. Lampelri National/Botanical Park - It wasn't the season for rhododendron flowers. I came to know it would be breathtakingly beautiful during the season. Its a good walk nevertheless. Details - Wiki
  2. Paro Rinpung Dzong - This is not as big as the Punakha Dzong but it is amazingly located and is worth the visit. Details - Wiki
  3. Takstang Monastery (Tiger's nest) - I read somewhere that your visit to Bhutan is not complete unless you paid a visit to this place. In fact I can't explain in any better words. The most amazing sight that just makes you forget a long mountain trek. I was very doubtful of completing this trek as my 66 year old mother and 5 year old daughter were also with us. Thankfully we finished it even though it took a little longer than I could've done alone or with my wife. The sight that awaits you up there is worth every drop of sweat that you break, I swear. 
  4. Kyichu Lakhang - Details - Wiki
Baritsho Lakeside Lampelri Park
Beginning of Trek to Tiger's nest.The white spot is the destination
Half way through the trek

Kyichu Lhakhang

Inside Lampelri Park
Almost done with the trek
Rinpung Dzong Paro

Taktstang Monastery

Mentioning the name of a hotel that we had food from - Bimal Restaurant in Paro town.

So, I've covered almost everything that we visited in Bhutan in 7 days. Next one is an important topic that I would like to cover. If you are a vegetarian or a person disgusted by pictures of meat dishes, you can skip this section. Thanks for taking the time to read so far.

What to eat/drink in Bhutan

Buddhist country - First thought that would strike anyone - oh is this going to be a vegetarian trip? Well, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Buddhists are not vegetarians. There are some clauses though that I figured out by reading. Apparently Buddhists can eat meat if the animal was not killed on behalf of them.  Also they don't eat organs (liver, kidney, tripe etc) which is considered non-vegetarian. In a cold country like Bhutan I'd be very surprised if people were not allowed to eat meat or drink alcohol. They don't shy away from any meat and as I figured beef and pork are staple there.
So what to eat and drink? Be advised that at majority of the restaurants, they make food when a order is given. I didn't find any pre-cooked food other than at breakfast buffets.

Let me start with non-veg

  1. Sikkam Pa / Shakkam Pa

    This is dried beef with vegetables and red-chilies. I couldn't quite get the difference between the 2 in the title, but figured that the vegetables will change from place to place. Radish was a common ingredient in this dish. As I could understand, the beef strips are sun-dried and then sauteed in vegetable oil along with vegetables and chilies.

  2. Phaksha Pa

    Dried Pork (mostly fat) prepared the same way as the dish above. (I don't have a pic)
  3. Shakkam Datsi

    Dried beef strips sauteed and added with cheese and chilly.
  4. Pork Ribs

    Pork ribs fried with radish and red chilies.
  5. Chicken Curry

    It was pretty much like Indian chicken curry except that chicken was different in taste, was better than the broiler ones.
  6. Fish curry

    This fish curry was made with Rohu and it was almost like the Bengali fish curry except that it wasn't in mustard gravy. I had heard about a trout fish in Bhutan but it wasn't season so couldn't find it anywhere. 

Now vegetarian dishes

You can get almost all North - Indian vegetarian dishes (like paneer butter masala, etc) with a little Bhutanese twist. The Bhutanese dishes will be mostly ending with Datsi. Ema Datsi is chilies with cheese, mushroom datsi is mushrooms with cheese. You can try out different kinds of noodles. 

What to drink
  1. Bhutan's national tea is called Suja. It is a tea made out of some special tea leaves, hot water, butter and salt. Tried it in different places and it tasted different. Most of the places use Amul butter from India. A must try!
  2. There is a country liquor named 'Ara' mostly distilled at home. This is a must try drink if you like tasting alcohol. One glass will keep you warm for about 4-5 hours. 
  3. The whiskey K5 is better than the best whiskies that we get in India. 
  4. There is something called special courier, which is also good. 
  5. Druk 11000 beer - nice one. A must try beer here
  6. Druk lager - Okayish and avoidable. 
  7. Peach wine - Okayish, a little sweeter than how I like my wines. But a must try one as its different.
  8. Spy 21 grape wine - avoidable. It's a fizzy drink and better stay away from it. 
That pretty much sums up the whole one week's adventure :) 

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