Day – 1 Bhutan

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Time – 5 PMish BTT ( Bhutan Time )  on 7th of Aug 2016.

Place – Paro International Airport

Status – Landed and lost in the beauty of the place.

En route to Thimphu

A drizzle and almost touching the clouds.

The Paro airport with the natural settings and the traditionally styled buildings wow…am I in 2016 or have I time traveled. The air had a taste of mist, light and pollution free.(Flying in from IGI airport, New Delhi. You can wonder.) Post immigration and baggage claim we faced our first hurdle. Bargaining with cabbies for a drop to Thimphu. Thankfully it was quick and we were on our way. Our chauffeur, Mr. Chencho helped us with the bags and showed us his driving card with all details; confirming he was a registered driver and the vehicle belonged to him. He also offered us a packet of Doma, beetle leaf, lime and a half areca /beetle nut. This was a surprise, to be offered paan ( Doma is a simple version of paan eaten widely in India). He helped himself and that was the start of the journey. We crossed the Paro chu (River) while leaving the airport and crossed numerous water-lets en route.

During our journey we did come across roads which had signs of landslides and at some places road expansion work was in progress. We were aware of landslides and houses being washed off in southern parts of Bhutan a few days back and were hoping mother nature would be kind to all.  Observation during the journey – no honking, most vehicles were driving @40 Km/h speed. Was surprised, most shops including the general stores, bakeries read “Bar” along side. Curiosity was addressed by the driver explaining to us that most Bhutanese men and women drink. Drinking is very common and socially accepted.

Chencho, was kind enough to offer his services for our trip. He shared a few tips of hiring local vehicles which would bring down the costs against hiring a vehicle for the entire trip. As we neared Thimphu we could see cluster of houses or commercial buildings. More populated than Paro. Most buildings are at least ground + three/four. Decorated with traditional paintings and wood work; every house looks similar, yet different. I could only think of Kerala, where every house is decorated differently. Most houses had the traditional paintings of the six lucky signs. As we entered Thimphu, we were welcomed by the warm gaze of the Buddha Dordenma; a huge statue of the Buddha over looking Thimphu.

As we entered Thimphu we could see the lane discipline followed by vehicles and the same overseen by uniformed traffic police. Thimphu being the capital and densely populated has many one ways to accommodate traffic. There are no traffic signals, only a traffic police using hand signals to direct the traffic. That was way back in India probably in the early 80’s. Vehicles stop at every zebra crossing allowing pedestrians to cross first. These are rare for an Indian to see in his own country. We were dropped at our hotel which is 5 mins walk from the clock tower, a prominent land mark in Thimphu.

Enjoying the view from our room on the third floor, sipping a hot cup of tea. Our first evening in the land of the Thunder Dragon; memorable. We saw three rooms before settling down with this one. The room had a good view above the neighboring buildings facing the east.

We ordered dinner at the hotel(a must do if you intend to have any meal, preorder at least 2 hours before else you could help yourself with road side eateries) and rushed to the market to get a Sim card and see the town area. A Sim card with a month’s validity is available to tourists on producing one’s passport and a copy of the permit. We also got a data recharge. The town has many pubs n disc. Almost every other building houses a shop. The market area had shops in the form of plaza. Every storey had different section. The food, fresh meat, dairy, bakeries and confectioneries or groceries were in the basement or ground level. Mobile electronics stationary were in ground and upper levels. We did find many people speaking Hindi with an Bihari accent.

During the day we saw many young men and women in their traditional attire of Gho and Kira. Evenings was different, people were seen in western wears and the pubs and discs were filling up. Most people walk around the city as the commercial areas are densely populated in the center of the city and interwoven by residential places. Most of the crowd in the city is young and have moved in from their native villages or towns for livelihood. Tourism being the second largest means of income for the country. First being Hydro power. The weather was cold compared to Aug weather in most metros of India.

Our dinner had Bhutan’s national dish – “Emma Datsi” ( Chilli cheese ). The hosts had tamed it down to match our tastes. We enjoyed roti’s with datsi and dal with rice. The next day had a trek planned to Cherry monastry along with a visit to a privately run art school. We retired to bed in the calm Himalayan country; happy to be there and looking forward to soaking in their culture.

 

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To the land of The Thunder Dragon – The plan before the act.

Bhutan – The land of the Thunder Dragon.

It was fascinating to hear about gross national happiness and made me inquisitive to explore. How could a small Himalayan country land locked from all sides provide for its people, preserve 60% of its forest area and be carbon negative? does it raise your eyebrows, it did for me and guess what I planned a visit to explore.

It was in the month of April the thought crossed my mind and four months down the visit happened. Being Indian national we ( me and better half ) were happy to learn that the     a) Indian currency was accepted and had the same value as Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu) (Money matters), b) we could set our own travel budget, unlike other nationals who have to pay $250 or $200 based on the season chosen for visit , c) No visa required, we required a valid Passport or Electoral voter ID for a written/stamped permit if entering by land or by air (Paro airport).

We preferred the off-season month to avoid crowd and bring down costs. The duration of stay mostly dictated by possible leave approval from work came out to 7 nights and eight days. The costs shared by travel agents for central and western Bhutan was generally on a higher side than from what we could make out from visitors inputs and costs as seen on websites for stay, travel and food. We decided to go budget and backpacking.

Booking of the fight tickets was a firm decision to visit and start putting time and efforts in planning the trip. Most of my so-called free time and dedicated times went in reading blogs, posts, travel sites, planning and re-planning our visit.

A rough itinerary based on inputs on WordPress, Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, Quora, blogs and from friends who have visited Bhutan, helped us sketch a realistic one. ( Thanks to all the bloggers, WordPress, Tripadvisor’s, Lonely Planet and Quora digesters, your inputs were valuable, keep writing for the benefit of many. I take your inputs seriously, hence i too share.) The plan was to see places in and around Thimphu, Punakha, Paro and if possible HAA valley.

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The land of the Thunder Dragon – Bhutan Calling

More in the next press – the places we stayed, the places to see, the food, culture, travel.