Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bhutan

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 drukair.com 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!

6 comments:

Suchandra Dutta said...

My parents were posted in the tea gardens near Phuentsholing for a couple of years. Been planning a trip back and want to visit Tiger's Nest this time round. Nice pics and love the detailed post.

srijith said...

Thanks Suchandra. Hope you get to make that trip pretty soon.

sukrit said...

Great post. the kind tourists are always hounding for:)......the pictures especially of the kid on a bike...who may aswell be the brand ambassador of happiness quotient..:p..are great.

I rem being offered dried beef one afternoon in a Tibetan tent house..even i turned it down by the mere look of it..:p.......

the zoo was a rip off for sure:p...and kudos to your kung fu panda feat

srijith said...

Thanks Suki.

I won't call the zoo a rip off. The main reason for that zoo was to showcase the Talkin. And it is quite an intriguing animal.

" Divisha - The Diadeb" said...

Always a pleasure seeing the detailed account of your visits. I am myself planning to visit the place is some time. And your comments will be well considered.

srijith said...

Thanks Divisha!