Bhutan it was!

Twelve hours have passed; It was sharp 9 am when I reached office. It is 9:20 pm now and I am still here. I have a call to attend at 9:30 pm. My mind reaches a stage when it starts to hurt to think any further about business or work. It wanders relentlessly to seek peace, to be calm and poised, to escape all the noise in my head.

You know where does this relentless seeking lead to? Wanderlust! It is relaxing to think myself looking at the horizons, at mountains with peaks covered with mist and clouds, from a window of an only house in the foothills of a far-off village. Such imagination is immensely gratifying.

When I am in the process of deciding on my next travel destination; one of my travel philosophies is to ask this question to myself, “what am I seeking from my next destination?” There are times when I want to be surrounded by people, times when I want to be the only human in that place. A place which is not touristy or sometimes a beach vacation works. Sometimes it is nature, my soul surrounded by trees, mountains, and rivers or a humdrum village for which time has stopped winding.

For 2016, I decided upon Bhutan. I had planned for my vacation in June. I wanted to do a couple of things together, I wished to trek the Himalayas but then did not want this vacation to consist only of trekking. I wanted less crowded places, genuine interactions, places which are not touristy, and where I could spend time with nature, in peace, away from all the worldly chaos. Bhutan seemed to be the perfect fit. A couple of reasons:

  1. It is a Himalayan country so I could plan my treks
  2. June is less crowded (although a lot of Indians visit in June) so hotels are cheaper
  3. Proximity to India – so limited travel expenses
  4. Less Chaos plus more nature means solace!

The only consideration was Monsoons as it rains almost all the time once the Monsoons approach, however, I planned my travel in the first two weeks of June. I could find that sweet spot to escape both the heat in India and Monsoons in Bhutan.

 

My Itinerary for Bhutan

I wish I could say that I was able to go to every place I had wished for. It is extremely difficult to fit everything that Bhutan has to offer in two weeks, so I ended up excluding a few places from my itinerary, which I wish, I had visited.

Day 1 – Landed in Kolkata and overnight train to Hasimara

Day 2 –  Phuentsholing

Day 3 –  Entry permit and landed in Thimpu

Day 4 – Thimpu – Monasteries and trekking

Day 5 – Thimpu – Monasteries and Dzong

Day 6 – Paro – Rinpung Dzong and monasteries – If you have an extra day to stay or have a taxi, you can explore Chele la pass, Haa valley, and Drukyal dzong.

Day 7 – Paro – trek to Tiger’s nest (start for Thimpu in the evening)

Day 8 – Bus from Thimpu to Trongsa (reach Trongsa in the evening). If you are renting a vehicle, then I urge you to cover Punakha on the way. Punakha was the ancient capital and has a rich history. You can also cover Phobjika valley and Gangtey monastery.

Day 9 – Visit places in Trongsa and leave for Bhumthang in the evening

Day 10 – Visit the Dzong and monasteries in Jakar

Day 11 – Trek for Ngang Lhakang – homestay at Ngang Lhakang.

Day 12 – Trek in the Tang Valley to Ogyen choling palace.

Day 13 –  Spend a morning at Ogyenchloing palace and start for Jakar town

Day 14 – Rest day in Jakar. (Now I think, I could have used this rest day for visiting Punakha)

Day 15 – Bus from Jakar to Thimpu

Day 16 – Thimpu to Phuentsholing – auto to Hasimara – train to Kolkata

Day 17 – flight back from Kolkata to Hyderabad

What I wish I could have done!

I had planned my trip completely by myself and was not very sure of taxi availability out of Thimpu and Paro. I had read extensively about the road widening work in the middle and eastern part of Bhutan so I wanted to keep an extra day just to make sure that if things go wrong or if Monsoons reaches early, I would have a day to reach back to Kolkata in time.

Having been there and having seen things around, I can certainly say there is a good network of taxis and even if you miss out on your bus (buses are normally overbooked. I had to book my seat three days in advance), you can still make it in time.

I would not have given Punakha a miss or a homestay in and around Gangtey monastery, but that’s about it now.

 

Reaching Bhutan and exploring Phuentsholing

Choices to reach Bhutan are limited. It is easy to choose from the following three options if you have your priorities set (time v/s money)

  1. Take a flight to PARO in Bhutan – Get visa on arrival. This options saves almost two days.
  2. Take a flight to Bagdogra – bus to Jaigaon (4 hours) – cross the border to Phuentsholing (Bhutan) – apply for entry permit – take a bus/taxi to Thimpu
  3. Take a flight to Kolkata – take an overnight train to Hasimara – Take an Auto to Jaigaon- cross the border to Phuentsholing- apply for entry permit- – take a bus/taxi to Thimpu

After researching through all these options, i opted for the cheapest and suited for my itinerary: a flight from Hyderabad to Kolkata followed by a train journey.

I reached Phuentsholing by 12 pm. Train reaches Hasimara around 11 am and it takes 40 minutes to take an auto to reach the border. Auto may cost 200-300 rupees based on your negotiation skills.

I had read on a lot of forums that one could get entry permits on Sundays. I thought of trying my luck and landed in Phuentsholing on Sunday, and guess what? Visa facility was closed that day. Luckily, itinerary did not get affected as I had factored that this might happen.

Pleasantly, this gave me an opportunity to explore Phuentsholing, and get properly rested for my excursion. Phuentsholing gives you a glimpse of what you would get to see in Bhutan. Once I crossed the border, the contrast was vivid. There is a stark contrast geographically, metaphorically and culturally. It is cold, it may rain any time, expect a shining sun and drizzling together many times a day.

 

Getting a permit, finally!

I spent my time going around the town and took a long walk for more than an hour going up and down the hill, towards the main city center, walking up to quarters where people live, and coming back to the city center. It was a lazy, oblivious walk dusting away all the worldly (read work space!) affairs resting on my mind. While coming back to the hotel, I asked around for the permit process. Mostly hotel owners are aware of the process and can guide you on how to go about it.

Next morning, we had to start early, it was 8 am and I could see the queue forming at the immigration office out of my hotel window. We rushed in and submitted our form. Let me tell you, the whole process is chaotic and crowded (if you get what i mean!). It is not just the tourists who need the permits, a lot of businessmen need permits for their travels and they often come with bulk permit requests. If you are landing at the permit office on Monday, it might take longer than expected.

Permit officer would give a number on form submission and you would be called later for an interview (where they take thumb impressions and pictures). The process took 6 hours for us. I was expecting to get the permit in the morning, but was done only by 2:30 pm.

We took a cab which took 5 hours to take us to Thimpu, the journey was mesmerizing. There was a stretch of a winding lane high up in the mountains, shrouded by clouds and mist. I could see the vastness of delta on the Indian side, built by Torsa river and its multiple tributaries. The last two hours were spent on a winding road alongside a river.

My head rested on the window pane, eyes peeping out and looking at the vista of mountains, rivers, and the sky turning grey, the real-world started to dusk into oblivion.

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