Sunday, October 20, 2013


I started planning Bhutan for my honeymoon 4 months in advance. I was quite intrigued by the tiny nation known to be the happiest nation despite being wedged between two miserable giants. The Himalayan kingdom is very keen on conserving its culture and nature, ergo remains isolated but not completely cut off from the rest of the world.

The Bhutanese government makes a conscious effort to keep tourism under control, and we Indians get the best of the deal. The only flights to Bhutan are Druk Air aka Bhutan Airlines which only fly to and from 5 countries including India. To add to it, Druk Air flies to 6 destinations over India as opposed to one destination each in Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal and Singapore. We Indians also have the added advantage of being able to drive in to Bhutan via the border town Phuntsholing. One more thing in favour of Indians is that the Bhutanese Ngultrum is at par with Indian Rupees. What’s more, they accept Indian currency in denominations of Rs.100 and less.

This exclusivity was one big pull. So when we started planning, we found out that incidentally, we were visiting Bhutan in the best time of the year, October. October and May are said to be the best times to visit as the weather is most pleasant. But when it came to booking tickets, we came to know that despite the website, we could only book tickets to tour and travel agents. We went through various packages from Namaste tours, Bhutan Travel Agency, VisitBhutan and Makemytrip. Many of them give packages excluding the flight fare, in which case, the best time to book tickets is more than 3 months in advance. For instance, we decided to go with one such tour provider 3 months in advance. By the time we finalized,  the ticket rates had jumped by a good 15k INR in 2 weeks. We finally went ahead with an all-inclusive trip from makemytrip.

Day 1. Paro
We flew in to Paro from Kolkata on 11th October 2013. Ready with jackets and warm clothes, we were ready for the Himalayan kingdom. The hills started to welcome us 15 minutes before touching down in Paro. The view from the plane itself gives you a trailer of what you would be witnessing in Bhutan. The view from the flight also includes Kanchenjunga, the world’s third largest peak situated in Sikkim, India.
As we touched down, we were in this really small airport nestled amidst picturesque hills. I have seen really small airports in places like Djibouti and Eritrea, and smaller domestic airports in India. But Paro beats all of them, hands down. The airport was at its busiest at that moment because two flights had arrived, one from Kolkata, and another from Dhaka.
As we stepped out of the airport, to our surprise, we had to take off our jackets. The sky was clear and the sun was shining bright. The air was still pretty cool though. Our driver for the trip, Ram Bahadur soon came and drove us to our hotel. Ram Bahadur is a Bhutanese of Nepali origin and he spoke a lot in a difficult Nepali accent. I asked him if he had any music. Over the next 5 days, I and Soumya would be hearing the same Nepali songs on repeat.  We even returned humming Nepali songs.

Within a few minutes of driving out of the airport, we could see this crystal clear stream of water. It was in a magnificent shade of blue glistening under the shining sun, turning swiftly in a serpentine motion. Ram Bahadur told us, it is called the Paro Chhu. Chhu is the word in Bhutanese (Dzongpha) for river.

We then went past the little town of Paro Valley. A few kms from the town, we drove up a hill to reach our hotel Nak Sel. Ram Bahadur told us that it means forest. The resort hotel was amazing with huge rooms and an amazing view of the hills. We were then offered lunch. We insisted on something Bhutanese. We were served red rice, Kewa Datshi (a potato dish cooked in a cheesy sauce), Gondo Juju (scrambled egg  in a thin gravy) and Phaksha Pha (Pork slices cooked with red chillies). The Bhutanese eat a lot of fatty food. They eat a lot of cheese, butter, red meat and chillies. The food made us wonder how Bhutanese were still so slim and fit. We would get to know the answer on Day 5.

Site seeing began shortly after lunch. Ram Bahadur took us to the National Museum of Paro on top of a hill. Housed inside the revamped Tag-dzong building in Paro, National Museum of Bhutan is a cultural museum that has antiques gathered from different parts of the country, festival masks and models of different species of flaura and fauna native to Bhutan. Photography is restricted inside the museum.

After the Museum, we were next taken to Rinpung Dzong. Dzong is the word for fort in Bhutanese. Dzongs are a very integral part of Bhutanese culture and heritage. Ram Bahadur told us that there are 20 Dzongs all over the country.  Bhutanese as a language is also named Dzongpha after Dzongs.
Most dzongs were built in the mid-1600s to protect the inhabited valleys from invasion by Tibet. The Paro Dzong was started in 1644 on the order of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of modern day Bhutan. Unlike most of the Dzongs in Bhutan, it survived the massive 1897 earthquake mostly unscathed, though it was damaged by fire in 1907.The Rinpung Dzong is a fortress-monastery that serves both as a civil administrative center and as a monastic home for a community of monks. Dzongs display the grandeur of Bhutanese architecture, with white walls and sloped orangish brown roofs. Every Dzong houses a Budhhist temple with prayer wheels aligned along the wall. The Rinpung Dzong is connected to the city with wooden bridge over the Paro Chhu.
After the Dzong, we had a stroll through the beautiful town of Paro. The town is on a small valley with traditional Bhutanese buildings on either side. The city is very relaxed and laid back. After a bit of window shopping, we retired for the day.

Day 2. – Paro – Thimpu

On this day, we headed to Thimpu, the capital city.
En route, we got into the Kyichu Lhakhang. Lakhang is the Bhutanese word for a monastery or temple. Built in 659 by the Tibetan King SongtsenGampo, the Kyichu Lakhang is believed to be one of the 108 temples built to subdue a demoness residing in the Himalayas and is also one of the oldest Temples in Bhutan.
As we entered the premises of the Lakhang, it was booming with echoes of chants. Inside the temple, there were many monks in maroon sitting in front of a huge idol, reading out mantras loudly. The sound of the chants was pretty overwhelming as were the huge idols in the Lakhang.

After the Lakhang, we drove to Thimpu. The drive was pretty exciting. We drove along the Paro Chhu, as though keeping pace with the beautiful river. At times we were just by the river and at times we were at a distant, but the river was never out of sight, and not to mention, the beautiful mountains.
Following the river, we reached a place called Chuzon, where we crossed a bridge and took an about turn. Now were driving along a river but in the direction opposite to its flow. At first it seemed to be the Paro Chhu, but later on we realized it was the Wang Chhu, the river of Thimpu. The second half of the journey was along Wang Chhu against its direction of flow.

After the drive for 60 kms or so, we were in the capital city of Thimpu. The city has the distinction of being the only capital city in the world without any traffic lights. When you pass through the city, you get to know why. There’s hardly any traffic!

Our first destination in Thimpu was the Trashi Chhoe Dzong. Also called Fortress of the Glorious Religion situated on north of the city on west bank of the Wang Chhu. The Dzong was the site of the lavish formal coronation of the fifth King in 2008 and hosts the city’s biggest annual bash, the colorful tsechu festivities.

After the Dzong, we headed to the city for lunch. We decided to go to this restaurant named Zambala, a Tibetan place which is said to serve the best momos in Thimpu. Thanks to Lonely Planet, we knew a couple of options for lunch. At Zambala, like in most other restaurants in Bhutan, there is no menu. The waiter will come up to you and tell you the exhaustive list of dishes. We went for Beef Momos and Cheese Momos. The Beef Momos were very well cooked and succulent, while cheese momos consisted of a thick chunk of cheese with grated vegetables in it, giving it a coleslaw-like taste. After the Momos, we also went for Thupka. It was the best Thupka ever! Enough said.

After lunch, we spent a few hours shopping in Thimpu town before returning to our hotel. Thimpu is a small city which somehow does not have the same laid back charm as Paro.  No buildings in the city exceed 5 stories and it has started developing off late. Ram Bahadur told us that most of the buildings we could see were built after 1995, before which it was all forest.

One interesting thing we noticed as we went shopping was that all shop keepers saw only Star Plus. They all spoke pretty good English and Hindi but seemed to be poor in maths. Or maybe they just loved calculators enough to not let go of any chance to use them. They used calculators for simple calculations like subtracting 375 from 400. Another thing you would get to see across shops is pictures of the royal couple. The Bhutanese as a community eulogise the royal family.

After shopping it was time to go to the hotel. The hotel Terma Linca is a few kms away from the city with every room facing the Wang Chhu. It was another beautiful resort like Nak Sel in Paro, to say the least. After a good dinner at the hotel, we retired for the day

Day 3. Thimpu – Punakha – Thimpu

We left from Thimpu at 8 in the morning, for Punakha, a town 2 hours from Thimpu known for a Dzong and a Lakhang. After a 1 hour drive, we reached a peak known as the Dochula view point. At 3100m, it offers a spectacular view of the Himalayan range. We could see snow capped mountains at a distance. The road to Punakha branches left and curls its way down to the relatively low lands of the Punakha valley. At Dochula, at one view point, there are 108 stupas built by queen Ashi Dorji Wangchuk, to honour the Bhutanese army in the 2003 war of Southern Bhutan. Each one contains effigies of Buddha and religious texts. On a slope nearby there is a Lakhang with prayer flags put up.
After the Dochula View Point, the mountains suddenly turned greener. There was a thick deciduous forest cover that made the view all the more beautiful. After a drive for another hour, Ram Bahadur dropped us at a valley by vast fields. There were handicraft shops on either sides of the fields. We walked past the countryside and paddy fields, evading cow dung and tiny streams to reach the other end from where we could see a Lakhang.
The Lakhang is known as Chimi Lhakhang or fertility temple.  The yellow-roofed Chimi Lhakhang was built in 1499 by the cousin of Lama Drukpa Kunley. Legend has it that Drukpa Kunley, also known as the divine madman subdued the demoness of the nearby Dochu La with his ‘flashing thunderbolt of infinite wisdom’. That has to be the most innovative metaphor for the phallus. The phallus might make visitors uncomfortable, but for the Bhutanese it is a sign of good luck that helps ward off evil. All over the country one can come across phalluses drawn on buildings.
A wooden effigy of the lama’s phallus is preserved in the lhakhang, and it is believed that childless women can receive a blessing or empowerment from the saint. This is why the Lakhang is also known as the fertility temple.
After the Lakhang, we proceeded for lunch by the Punakha river. No points for guessing it was called the Punakha Chhu. Lunch was Indian food provided by our tour operators. After food, we proceeded to our next destination.

The PunakhaDzong majestically stands on an island at the confluence of  two rivers called a male river and female river respectively named Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. The city's dzong is one of the most photogenic of all Bhutan's ancient fortresses, and you will see pictures of it hanging in hotels and restaurants throughout the country. The dzong is joined to the mainland by an arched wooden bridge and contains many precious relics from the days when successive kings reined the kingdom from this valley.
From inside, the Dzong was just like other Dzongs. To be frank, after a couple of dzongs one tends to get bored of them. After the Dzong, we returned to Thimpu. As we left the Dzong, it started raining. The clear skies from the past two days made way for clouds. It would rain for the next two days. Though rain was not all that heavy it was continuous. We went back to Thimpu and retired for the night.

Day 4 – Thimpu.

We began the day at around 1030.
Our first stop for the day was SimtokhaDzong monastery. Built in 1627 by ZhabdrungNgawangNamgyal, it houses the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies. The carvings behind the prayer wheel in the courtyard are a major attraction of this temple. And besides those facts that I googled, it was just another boring Dzong.

From the Dzong, we next went to the Memorial Chorten: also known as the ThimphuChorten. The Chorten is said to have been built in memory of the third king by his mother after he died an early death. Ram Bahadur told us that there is a belief that taking 108 rounds of the Chorten helps increase one’s life span. On that very day, being the Bhutanese festival of Dashaim, the main Lama from Bhumthang was presiding in the Chorten. His chants were being played loud on through a loudspeaker and swarms of devotees from Thimpu had come to the Chorten. Amidst a sea of visitors, we took a round of the Chorten. The experience was overwhelming with such a huge crowd and sounds of chants.

After the Chorten, we headed to one of the highest points overlooking Thimpu, 6 kms away from the city known as the Buddha View Point. The name of the place is pretty self explanatory as there is a huge statue of Buddha presiding over the city. The statue built by the Chinese is close to 50 m high and there is a temple that is still under construction over there. The view from the point is spectacular. Alas, clouds were playing spoilt sport. Standing right in front of the statue, I could not get a clear image of it because of clouds. But it was a nice experience walking through rain clouds and looking down on Thimpu Valley.

After Buddha View Point, we went to Thimpu town for lunch. Thanks to lonely planet again, we selected Chhodon restaurant, a traditional Bhutanese restaurant. And just like Zambala, they did not have a menu. The owner told us they had red rice, Ema Datshi (chilly cooked in cheese), dried pork, dried beef and sliced pork. So I ordered sliced pork, dried beef Ema Datshi and red rice. Soumya decided to avoid the non-vegetarian offerings as she did not like the way the restaurant smelled.
And she was right. The non-vegetarian offerings smelled real bad. The pork was more fat and hardly any meat and the dried beef was stinking. Luckily Ram Bahadur volunteered to finish the beef. But that apart, red rice, dal and Ema Datshi were good. Soumya does not agree on that too. She still blames me for taking her there.
The Takin, Bhutan's national animal
After lunch, we next went to Takin Mini Zoo. Mini Zoo is an overstatement for this tiny slope that houses three animals, Deers, Reindeers and the Takin. Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. Legend has it that the animal was created by the great Buddhist yogi, DrupaKunley, and it can be found only in Bhutan and nearby areas.

After the Mini Zoo, we went to Thimpu city for shopping and retired for the evening at our hotel on the rainy night. We had to retire early for the night as the next day we had to climb the Tiger’s Nest in Paro.

Day 5 – Thimpu – Paro

The day began early at 8. We were retracting the same path we had taken on Day 2. But on that day, it was very different because of rain. The rivers that were a beautiful crystal clear blue had turned brown with all sediments that had flown into it because of the rain. Rocks from the sides of the mountain had fallen on the road and made us drive slowly past them. At some points we could see tiny rocks rolling down the cliff.

We went past Paro to a hill and drove through pine trees to reach the base camp for the Taksang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest Temple)  beyond which cars were not allowed. Me and Soumya were not very sure of how high we would climb. But we thought of playing it by the ear. It was cloudy and drizzling as we started the hike. On many occasions, one can get horses to climb the hill. That day was not one of them.
There are sticks available at the base camp for 30 Nu. Me and Soumya bought a stick each and began our hike. At the start of the hill, there was a plain area with a lot of prayer flags. There was a bit of a crowd over there putting up flags. We walked past them and proceeded for the hill. As we looked back, they all had retreated. We could not see people anywhere near us, but we still decided to go on along what seemed to be treaded paths.

As we were a bit lost for directions, 3 dogs suddenly came running from behind us. Soumya was scared and I had to act brave. But the dogs ran ahead of us. Thanks to the dogs, we knew the way ahead. A while later we could see the dogs intermittently stopping and turning around to see if we were following their directions. It was as though the dogs were God sent.

We kept treading the slippery path using our stick as an anchor. As we kept going up, we soon came across a few more people. A Chinese couple with two Bhutanese guides were trekking. Tired as we were, we asked the Bhutanese how far the Tiger’s Nest was. One guide in a condescending tone told us that we had not even covered 10 percent of the hike.

We asked him how long it would take before we could at least see the Tiger’s Nest at a distance. To which he told us that if it was a clear sky, it would take half an hour or so. He added in his condescending tone that being young we should go all the way.

And continue we did. Except we kept taking more breaks and let them go ahead of us. As we kept hiking, we came across many more interesting people. A family from Sikkim including 3 generations was also hiking the hill. They were pretty warm and affable. And most surprisingly the oldest member of the family, the grandfather was the fastest of them.

After a hike of one and a half hours, we reached a cafeteria that is said to be mid way. We were exhausted but we never took a break longer than 5 minutes, even at the cafeteria. Our hike from the cafeteria was actually less tiring, though we were starting to run out of patience. We started asking every retreating visitor how far we were from the Tiger’s Nest and we got different answers. One American tourist gave the best possible advice. He said ‘Take your own time, it’s not a race’. The only thing however that scared us or me, to be specific was the slippery terrain and its effect on our descent.

After a hike of another one hour, we reached what is called the view point. From there we could see the unofficial symbol of Bhutan. A majestic monastery perched on the edge of the cliff. Clouds came in the way of a clear view of the Tiger’s Nest but it was like this magical structure straight out of Kung Fu Panda. Clouds though obstructing, added to the mystique of the Monastery.

From the view point, there is a fleet of stairs that goes down, leading to a bridge over a stream facing a waterfall. At the other end of the bridge, a fleet of stairs takes us to the Monastery. The bridge was magical. As we crossed the bridge, we came across spray of droplets from the waterfall. It was as though all visitors were being cleansed before entering the monastery.

After our 3 hour long trek and climbing the final fleet of stairs, we reached the temple at 1 PM. Hard luck, it was lunch time and we could only enter after 2 PM unlike all the other people we had met on our way up. We waited there for one hour. The Bhutanese guide who we met at the beginning of the trek was there. He was pleased to see us. He told us that we had done a good thing by making it to the Monastery.
We asked him more about the monastery. He told us about Guru Rinpoche, one of the main Gurus to spread Buddhism in Bhutan. According to the legend Guru Rinpoche arrived on that peak on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery, hence the name Tiger’s Nest.

We spent a good hour amidst rain clouds waiting for the monastery to open. Meanwhile another couple from Kolkata reached the peak at around 130. So that gave us company till the Monastery opened. And we were lucky that they had brought some snacks along.

 Finally at 2 we and the other couple went inside the monastery which houses a number of temples and idols of Rinpoche and Lord Buddha. After 15 minutes in the monastery, it was time to go back. We did not have much time in hand because 3 hours from there would mean we would reach down by 5:15. But on the flipside, the lunch break at the monastery had given us a very much needed break.
We began our descent with the initial fleet of stairs till the bridge past the waterfall and then we had to climb the stairs to the view point. This was the most tiring part of the entire trip. Every stair up was pulling out energy out of us. We kept taking breaks after every few steps. The thought of sleeping on the steps also crossed my mind. But the pain was short-lived. In another 20 minutes we were at the view point. And from there it was all downhill.

We were hoping to get a good view of the Tiger Hill while returning but clouds had other plans. The view of the Tiger Hill from the view point was even less clear while returning.

The slippery terrain was a bit of a challenge but we took slow steps, one at a time. Before we knew it, we were at the cafeteria that is the half point. We took a very small break there. And funnily, the clouds started vanishing and the sun was shining bright, taking care of the slippery terrain ahead. If only we had waited at the view point for a little longer, we could have got a better glimpse of the Monastery. But still no regrets. The sun at least came out to make our descent trouble-free.

At the half point, we met the Sikkimese family again. And later we met the Chinese couple with Bhutanese guides again. While we took an hour to enter the monastery, they all took a long lunch break. The Bhutanese guide who was condescending at the beginning of the trek was all praises for us both. He again told us that we had done a good thing.

In one and a half hours flat, we reached the base camp. From there we could see the Tiger’s Nest way up high really tiny. We knew that if we had seen it in the morning, we would have dropped the idea of the trek. After the trek of close to 3000 ft high, we retired for the day. The next morning, we would leave the tiny Himalayan kingdom.


The next morning, we had an early morning flight at 720. As the flight entered clouds, we felt like we were in familiar territory, again.

Tashi Delek!

Thursday, January 3, 2013


I reached Diu on 31st Dec morning at 10 and headed straight to the hotel I had booked via But when I reached the hotel, Vinayak Guest House, the owner denied me the room. He told me that all rooms were booked for New Year. I told him I had booked a good 20 days in advance, but he just would not listen. So I called makemytrip and told them the situation. After a few rounds of phone calls from me to the company and the company to the hotel, I was finally given a hotel room in a better hotel named Alishan. I must mention that makemytrip did a good job there.

As the ride to Diu had been quite a boneshaker, I took a nap before going out and discovering the city. The autofellow who took me from the bus stand to the hotels showed me a ratecard for a trip all around the main tourist attractions of Diu for Rs. 350. It sounded like a good deal, so I got onto his Auto. Our first stop was Diu fort. A sturdy 16th century Portuguese fort by the sea. It consists of three bastions overlooking the sea with bronze cannons. The fort had a couple of well laid out gardens and a light house at one end. But one of the best spectacles form the fort was a sea turtle that rose from the sea for a second and went back in. The second best spectacle was a structure in the middle of water, known as the Pani Kotha.

After spending a good amount of time at the Fort, the autofellow, Anand took me to the next destination, the church of St. Paul. A big imposing white European structure. It was good to see a Gothic structure unlike many others from that era, well maintained. Once out of the church, Anand took me to Chakratirth beach. We then got chatting and as we were out of the church, religion was a starting point. He said he was a muslim and people were surprised that he was a muslim after hearing his name. He then told me that the muslims in Diu were different from those in Ahmedabad and Mumbai. On asking him to clarify if it was a difference in faith or custom, he told me they had a different way of celebrating their festivals.

He told me that on Eid, they prepared large quantities of food and everyone gathered together. That did not seem one bit different to me. But then came the big difference, a bit of a shock in fact. Once the food is ready, everyone starts popping beer bottles, he said. I had a long laugh as Anand added that muslims elsewhere get shocked on learning about the custom. They call it 'najayaz'. Anand also told me that in Diu it's hard to say what faith a person belonged to. Hindus, muslims and christians lived next to each other, unlike say Ahmedabad where there is a clear demarcation of the muslim side of the town.

Anand's autorickshaw was also covered by stoles with Portugal written on them. He had put them up during the Euro cup 2012 in support of the nation that once ruled the island. He told that people in Diu could go to Portugal and live there, but the economy was low. To put it in his words, there were no jobs there, as everything was made in China. He pointed to the stoles and said, these stoles say Portugal but they are also made in China, so obviously all the jobs will also go to China. Pretty impressive statement, I must say.

By the end of the conversation, we were by a hillock. I climbed a few steps to see a round flat surface overlooking the sea. The area is known as the sunset point for obvious reasons. In addition, there is a memorial erected there for INS Khukri with a long list of sailors who had sacrificed their life while the naval vessel sank during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. On one side of the hillock was a small stretch, known as the Chakrateerth beach. It is one of the less crowded beaches.

From Chakrateerth, Anand next took me to the Gangaoshree temple, a cave temple by the sea. Anand told me that 5 shivlings were discovered there washed by the tidal waves. The temple had an interesting structure to it. It was located by the sea. You had to walk a few steps down to reach the shrine where the idols are partly submerged in the sea.

Our next stop was the Nagoa beach, one of Diu's most famous beaches, via a seashell museum. The museum was started by a retired naval officer with sea shells brought from all over the world. It also had interesting aquatic species in formaldehyde solutions. They were kept in jars and on the lid of the jar was a huge lens so one could see the marine beings in detail. Photography was not allowed inside, but the museum sure has some interesting specimen on display.

Next was the Nagoa beach. It was filled with people. Anand told me that 'Gujjus' from all over the state come during holidays. The beaches and cheap alcohol, or for that matter, alcohol are a big draw for people from the dry state. The beach is quite big, very crowded though. There's also a lot of water sports one can enjoy at the beach. Watersports did not seem so appealing as I was alone so I've saved it for another time.

From the beach, I went to this small resort called Hoka resort. Hoka, another interesting and unique Diu feature is a palm that branches out from one main trunk, like mythological monsters with many heads. It bears a fruit known by the same name. Hoka was brought to the island from Africa by the Portuguese. In India, the tree is only found in Diu and the neighbouring Kathiawad region of Gujarat. I bought a couple of hokas from the Nagoa beach and I still have no idea how to eat them. They are hard as wood. I was probably sold bad ones, but then, Anand told me that they never go bad. So i can try different ways to have the Hokas. 

Back to the resort, my friend, Shraddha told me about it. She told me the interiors are well done and that the place serves good food. And she was right to the t. Resort is too big a word for the quaint little place. With a very European look to it and the shade of trees, the small hotel made for a relaxing atmosphere. The food too was praiseworthy. I had grilled fish with rice for Rs. 350. Even though it was not very filling, it did justice to the price. Highly recommended.

Being 31st Dec, I asked them if the place would be open at night. The waiter told me that there would be a small bonfire and music. And so at night, I made my way back to the resort. With some good food, I welcomed the new year, chatting with random tourists at the quaint place. I was glad I had chosen the place for New Year, because the rest of the town was bustling with Himesh Reshammiya and people drinking and driving all over the city painting the town red.

The next morning, I caught my train back from Veraval, the nearest station to Diu which was actually farther than I thought. It took a good 4 hours by a share auto to the neighbouring town of Una and a bus to Veraval.

All in all, it was fun discovering the town of Diu. The town though very similar to Goa and Pondicherry has its own charm. It's not a great party place and is frequented more by Indian tourists. But then, there's sun, sand and many interesting monuments, besides of course cheaper alcohol, which to be honest, is not all that cheap too. Would highly recommend the place also as it has many things unique to it, Hoka to begin with. There's also a good bird sanctuary which i could not visit for lack of time, but I did see pelicans and flamingoes on my way.

Kutch Part 2

After an year of visiting kutch and returning without seeing the Rann, I decided to go again. So I booked my tickets on a weekend closest to a full moon day for me and a friend Prasad. We left Mumbai by friday night's Bhuj Express and reached Bhuj 3 hours ahead of scheduled time, at 4PM. We were clueless about how to reach Dhordo, the entrance to the Rann or about our accomodation there. We were all ready to try our luck.

So once we stepped out of the railway station, we enquired with autorickshaws and jeeps about how to reach Dhordo. They told us we could hire a car from the bus stop which was 3 kms away from the Railway station. But just as we were heading to catch an autorickshaw for the bus stop, we thought of trying our luck with a bus right outside the railway station. We asked the conductor if the bus goes to Dhordo. He in return asked us if we had a booking. When we said no, he asked us to stand at the turning ahead of us and to hop on to the bus from there.

So we both were on a bus that was actually part of a package tour. But instead of sitting with the passengers, we sat along with the driver and conductor. We would plan the rest of the trip en route Dhordo. The driver and conductor told us that all the tents in Dhordo had been booked. They were booked to an extent that tents meant for drivers and conductors were also full and that they had to sleep in the bus. We asked them if they could accomodate us too in the bus. They were more than happy. As the group from Mumbai, which we toured with, was already 3 hours late, we would be taken to the Rann straight away, after which everyone would be taken to their tents at Dhordo.

Being part of a government package,  the bus did not have to stop at the Bhendiari checkpost before turning to Dhordo. There where there was a long queue waiting for their pass to the Rann. As the area is sensitive, one is supposed to get a pass from the checkpost on showing identity proof and paying a nominal fee of Rs. 100 or so

The bus reached the white Rann at 630. We had half an hour to see the Rann before we left to Dhordo. As we drove into the open white space, we saw the sun set behind us. The sun was long gone when we entered the Rann but it was still bright. The play of colours that adorn the western side of the sky as the sun sets, was spread all the way to the east. The vast white expanse that lay before us was surreal. It was not plain white, it was a mix of white and brown. At most places, it was just a layer of salt on brown sand.

The vast expanse of nothingness was not completely flat. There were cracks, crevices and tiny shrubs intermittently on the ground. The only animals in the Kutch are Wild Asses and birds, but none were in sight. The white expanse resembled the surface of planets we see in pictures. It was like another planet. The sky appeared like a dome.

It was very windy. Me and Prasad had plans of staying back on the Rann at night. But we could not because the area is a sensitive area, it leads to the Indo-Pak border. Even though that is a good 170 kms away, there were Border Security Forces deployed there with security infra red cameras. Another factor that deterred us was the wind and cold.

We slowly saw it get dark and a couple of stars had come out. The moon we had been waiting for and planned the trip for, still did not show up. But nonetheless the white sands had a silver shine to it. It probably reflected lights from buses around, or any other light in the vicinity.

Our next stop was Dhordo, a village put up by Gujarat Tourism for tourism. Once we reached there, we saw the moon come out. Bad luck, but still no complaints. Our driver at Dhordo told us that the entire Rann festival was started by the tourism department of the state and suddenly saw an influx of tourists to the white deserts in the past 3 years. Earlier hardly anyone knew about the place. At Dhordo, an entire village resort had been spread out with an area for performing artists, special areas for indoor games, volleyball court, tribike tracks, stalls for shopping and tents for guests.

Once at Dhordo, we sat and ate food with the bus drivers and conductors. They were the jolliest bunch of people I have ever come across. I'm sure Prasad would agree. They might not have the best sense of humour, but they had an incredible attitude towards life. They were happy with whatever they had and it was all about sharing and being happy, for them. Once we were done with our dinner, they gave us their Rann Festival Staff Cards so we could go around the area.

We saw a couple of Kutchi song and dance performances and spent the rest of the time walking around the entire resort. The tents were very elegantly done and lit. The tents opened up to a vast empty space. Me and Prasad walked out and spent a good time in the cold desert sand talking, till the cold had the better of us. At night, we retired to the bus where everyone was watching Dabangg part 2. We reached there towards the last 10 minutes. And then everyone went to crash in their respective buses.

We were told the next day we would go to the Indo-Pak border as early as 730. And after that, we could head to Bhuj from where we would plan our way back, most probably via Ahmedabad. So we retired for the day as early as 1030. We stretched across the bus from one window to the other and slept a good sleep.  Only to wake up time and again to add another layer of clothing or bedsheet as it got colder with time.

We were up by 6. We walked around the Dhordo resort in anticipation, waiting for the rest to join us. But to no avail. They did not show up till 1030 or probably even after that. We spent the 4 hours whiling time around the resort, setting up a bonfire with the drivers and indulging in small talk with people everywhere. We were then seated in a bus till the Bhendiari checkpost from where we would catch a bus till Bhuj. We gave the driver and conductor who showed us around the Rann and who let us sleep in his bus a thousand rupees, which he reluctantly accepted. It seemed as if they would've been fine with it if we even did not pay them. But that was the least we could do for the priceless experience and amazing time they gave us.

We reached the railway station at 12:27 and were right on time for the 12:30 train via Ahmedabad. From there, Prasad headed back to Mumbai while I caught a bus to Diu.