Why not Bhutan?

No matter how much travel, regardless of how many trips you take, a holiday with your friends which is completely planned by you is something you look forward to and something you want to make extremely memorable. We spend months saving for that one special trip for our closest friends and we want it to be just right.

The truth though is that like everything else, travelling is also far from perfect but it’s the imperfections that make every trip different. My first international trip with friends or our ‘grad’ trip as we called it, the one I had been wanting to go on since a long time, was a trip with my 2 friends from from school, Smin and Nupur. We were meeting Nupur after 3.5 years and this was a holiday we had saved up for, but it took us a long time to decide where to go. We wanted the destination to be just right, something that catered to all our interests and something that fit out budget. To be honest, we randomly came up with the idea of travelling to Bhutan and we did beat around the bush quite a bit, thought of other places, but ultimately, Bhutan was the only place we didn’t, or rather couldn’t filter out.

This was my first international trip with friends, without any adult supervision and so we had to book flights and accomodation well in advance. Bhutan is incredibly cold during the winter and everyone told us it would be tough to go around so a certain amount of planning was required.

Most of our plan was easy since we read about the permit process for Indians, but one thing no site mentioned was the amount of time it takes for the permit to be processed when you enter Bhutan by road, at Phuentsholing. We chose to go by road instead of flying directly to Paro because that way we’d save almost 10K on tickets. We’d read everywhere that the permit can be easily obtained at Phuentsholing and that it’s a quick process; but we ended up waiting for 6 hours, due to which we ended up wasting a day. After removing the travelling time, we had 5 whole days to do what we planned on doing in 6 days, but because all of us were very clear about wanting to do as much was possible, we managed to do almost everything we planned on doing.

We took flights to Bagdogra, from where we took a car to Phuentsholing. After obtaining our permit, we headed to Thimphu, then to Punakha, then to Paro and then came back to Bagdogra.

There’s one route that a lot of travellers use when in Bhutan for a week, which we used as well and built our itinerary according to that.

Our brief plan, was as follows:

We flew from Bombay to Bagdogra, rented a cab and drove to Phuentsholing which is the border town in Bhutan. We had a lovely dinner at Asian Kitchen in the main market after which we went to Kizom cafe for desserts.

On the second day, we went to the Regional Immigration office in Phuentsholing to apply for the permit that Indians require to travel in Bhutan. The permit issued here is only valid for 7 days and for the ares of Thimphu and Paro. If you wish to stay for any more time or visit any other place, you need to apply for an extended permit at the office in Thimphu. We’d read online that obtaining a permit at Phuentsholing was a hassle-free process and that it’s very quick, but we actually ended up waiting for 6 hours to obtain our permit. We ended up leaving for Thimphu at 3pm instead of 10 am and wasted an entire day in just travelling. We visited a monastery in the centre of Phuentsholing before leaving. We braced ourselves for the cold weather in Thimphu and reached at around 8pm. We’d booked a stay in the campus of the Royal Thimphu College. The rooms were lovely and the campus is beyond beautiful. We ate a delicious dinner, walked in the campus in our layers and just admired the stars.

Since we’d wasted one day, we had just 1 day to see everything in Thimphu and it being the capital, there were lots of things to see and do. But the 3 of us resonate so much with Bunny from YJHD and so we knew we had the energy and the enthusiasm to see as much as was possible. Some of our top experiences from Thimphu were:

  • The Buddha Dordenma, which is the tallest statue of Buddha seated. We reached there early so that it wouldn’t be crowded and it felt so peaceful and serene.
  • We visited Memorial Chorten which is one of the holiest places of worship in Bhutan. The entire Chorten was decorated and it look extremely colourful. We went around the chorten like the locals and even went inside the chorten.
  • Weaving occupies an important part in Bhutanese culture and the National Textile Museum describes each weaving style beautifully. Our favourite section was the weaving room where there were girls from the age to 7 to 20 weaving beautifully. The experience was incredibly enriching and something I’ll remember for a long time.
  • Zombala is an Asian restaurant in Thimphu city which has amazing food, we couldn’t get enough of this place.
  • We visited the post office in Thimphu and got personalized stamps made, which we stuck on postcards and posted them to our families.
  • The Takin preserve is where Takin, the national animal can be spotted. The visit was slightly disappointing and this place can be skipped if enough time isn’t at hand.
  • The Jungshi paper factory is a small space where you can witness the entire process of paper manufacturing from start to finish. There’s a shop which sells handmade paper products that’s attached to the paper factory.  We splurged to our hearts’ content.
  • The Taschicho Dzong is the administrative headquarters where the evening march can be witnessed. The Dzong opens in the evening because during the day it is used for administrative purposes.
  • We ended the day with local beers from a bar in the city and headed back to the college campus for a good night’s sleep.
  • The next morning, we headed to the Simply Bhutan museum in Thimphu, which is an incredible cultural experience, one I’d definitely suggest to anyone who wishes to understand the nuances of Bhutanese culture.
  • Bhutanese wine is incredibly cheap and delicious. We sampled some peach wine and absolutely loved it!

On the outskirts of Thimphu is the Dochu La, which is a pass where 108 stupas have been built and where you can see the 7 highest peaks of Bhutan from. A sizeable part was covered in snow and the views from Dochu La were mesmerizing. We climbed to the temple at the top of the complex and there was a room where we could see the mountain peaks clearly with the help of a telescope. All in all, Dochu La was one of the best parts of our trip.

We then bid farewell to the capital and headed to the ancient capital of Bhutan, Punakha. It may seem more rural and sparsely populated in comparison to Thimphu, but it has so many experiences to offer:

  1. The Suspension Bridge is beautiful and offers thje best photo-ops
  2. River rafting in Punakha is a lovely experience and gives you crazy views of the valley
  3. The Chimi Lhakhang Fertility temple and the walk to the temple is one of the most amusing and memorable walks you will have as it is filled with penis/phallus figurines of all shapes and sizes. (Chimi Lhakhang is known as the divine madman and was the one who enlightened and educated the Bhutanese people about the power of sexual intercourse, hence penis figurines are considered to be extremely auspicious and are openly displayed in the area)
  4. Khamsum Namgyal Yulley Chorten is a short hike and will prepare you for Tiger’s Nest.
  5. The Punakha Dzong is a sight to behold and is my favourite Dzong out of the ones I saw!
Punakha Dzong
The hot stone bath in Punakha

We stayed at a traditional Bhutanese homestay for 2 days, wherein we had home-cooked meals, ate breakfast with a view of the mountains and also indulged in a hot stone bath, a Bhutanese tradition which is known to soothe your joints. The stay was slightly expensive for a student budget and our hosts overcharged us for quite a few facilities but since Punakha has less options for accommodation, we were prepared for it, rather, we didn’t have any option.

After experiencing the mesmerizing beauty that Punakha has to offer, we headed to Paro, which was our last stop. Although Tiger’s Nest and the hike were the main reasons we visited Paro, we wanted to go around the city on our first day. By then, we had seen quite a lot of places that were examples of traditional Bhutanese architecture and so we weren’t amazed by the architecture in Paro. The culture, when compared to India, is not as varied and so we did not love the Dzong and the museums in Paro as much as we loved them in Punakha and Thimphu. Regardless, some of the main attractions in Paro are:

  1. The Tiger’s Nest, which is a 6-8kms trek round trip. It is quite a steep trek but totally worth it. This was definitely the highlight of our 2 days in Paro.
  2. Paro Dzong(Rinpun Dzong)
  3. The Airport view-point( Paro is one of the most difficult airports to land in, in the world)
  4. Chele la pass(This requires a special permit, the same as Punakha, since it is outside Paro) We couldn’t visit it because it was blocked due to snow but we heard great reviews about it.
  5. Apart from all these attractions, there are a couple of good museums in Paro as well but they aren’t as great as the ones in Thimphu and so we decided to skip those.
  6. Namgay Artisanl Brewery has decent beers, if you want to kill time and enjoy beer-tasting
Outside Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Halfway to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Paro Dzong

After spending 2 days in Paro, we returned to Phuenstholing on New Year’s Eve. We visited the Karbandi Monastery on the outskirts of the city on our way back. In the evening, we walked over to the Indian border and went on a street food crawl where we hogged on momos for INR 20 a plate, panipuri and a couple of other Bengali versions of chaat.

We returned to the Bhutanese side at night and entered a bar next to our hotel. Phuentsholing isn’t exactly the best place to go pub-crawling and the bar was quite average. We ended up having a few beers and while we were walking back to our hotel, outside on the porch, we saw a group of 2 girls and their guide listening to a song we really liked and we sat with them. We ended up playing many songs after that, singing at the top of our voices and that’s how we brought in the new year. Now that I look back on it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The entrance to the Karbandi Monastery
Bringing in 2019 with people we met outside our hotel

The next morning, we were pretty exhausted, but we got up early and left for Bagdogra in a cab. We got on our flight and flew back to Bombay.

Over the years, I’ve started hating going on holidays where you go via travel packages. I knew people who paid travel companies upto 70000 for a trip to Bhutan, along the same route we took. We ended up spending 38000 for 8 nights in Bhutan, including travel, accommodation in decent places, food, flight to and from Bombay and everything else. This also including the cost of river rafting and a hot stone bath in our homestay.

We could only do this because all 3 of us were on the same page and wanted to make the most of the holiday and make every rupee count, which is why it’s really important to travel with people who are as enthusiastic and as forthcoming as you.

Adding the links of all the Airbnbs/hotels we stayed in here:

Travel is a trend now more than ever. With flights getting cheaper, hostels and Airbnbs popping, it’s so easy to plan international trips. But in planning elaborate holidays to different parts of the world, we often forget the gems that are lying so close to us. When we were planning this trip, people asked us “Why Bhutan?” so many times. It was hard for people to believe that we would want to spend 8 nights in Bhutan. But for us, it wasn’t just about entering a country, ticking some things off a list and leaving. We wanted to fully absorb the culture, do everything we possibly could and leave some extra time for any spontaneous outings. Now I’m not romanticizing the beauty of the country. We did get our overdose of the architecture after the 6th day and we did have a problem finding good vegetarian food at 1-2 places and we were extremely annoyed of Indian tourists being loud and irresponsible everywhere we went; but all these things are a part and parcel of travel. The thrill of river-rafting through Punakha valley, the serenity of living in a homestay in Punakha, the joy of completing the Tiger’s Nest hike, the goosebumps I had at Dochu La and the welcoming vibe of Thimphu city, all these are experiences that I’d never trade for anything. So by the time the trip ended, we had an answer for all those who asked us why to chose to travel to the land of the thunder dragon, the last Shangri-La

” Why not Bhutan?”

Go to countries and places that are closer to you, read about what other people have done but if you feel like it, go offbeat and do what you want to do. Define your own travelling style and find people that match it. Be Khanabadosh, become one with the place you’re travelling to and you might just end up coming back a tad bit wiser than you were before.