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Bhutan – A Journey to the Land of Happiness – Brewing Itineraries

Bhutan – A Journey to the Land of Happiness

Bhutan–Where fluttering prayer flags adorn every landscape, where spinning prayer wheels create music with the wind, where monks in red robes chant om mani padme hum, where phallus is worshipped, where red chillies aren’t just a seasoning but a main dish, and where success is not measured in terms of wealth, but happiness!

It all started over a video call with my college friends on a lazy weekend, where we realized that it had been almost a year to our last trip to Gujarat and, that we should be planning something real soon! Well, the call ended with a plan, a week after which we were done with our flight bookings and another week after that our stays were finalized! And this meant we were going to BHUTAN!

Honestly it was unbelievable how quickly things panned out in the right direction! We have never been this efficient in planning our group trips before. 😀

Overall Expense

We were a group of five and this trip to Bhutan during its peak season costed us approximately Rs. 20,000 per head, excluding the flight expenses. The cost can vary depending on the time you travel, accommodations you choose and the size of your group.

Best Time to Visit
There are two peak seasons – March to May (Spring) and September to November (Autumn). This is when the weather is pleasant, and not so surprisingly it also overlaps with a lot of colorful local festivals. December to February is the shoulder season and probably is a good time to save money and see some pretty snowfall. June to August brings heavy downpour which makes it difficult to venture out for the treks. We went in the first week of May, when the lilac Jacaranda trees were in full bloom, adding to the beauty of its already picturesque landscape.
Visa

All tourists must obtain a visa before arriving except for those hailing from India, Bangladesh and Maldives. Although, Indian nationals need to get a permit for a week to visit Thimphu and Paro from the Phuentsholing Immigration office. You would need to carry your Passport/Voter ID, passport size photographs and hotel booking vouchers for the permit. If Punakha is also on your itinerary, then you would need a separate permit from the Thimphu Immigration office. While, this may sound tedious, the process is fairly smooth.

Getting Into Bhutan

By Road – Phuensoling in Bhutan is connected to Jaigaon in West Bangal, India by road. The nearest airport is Bagdogra and nearest railway station is Hasimara.
By Air – Paro is the only international airport in Bhutan. You can book your flights from Druk Airways, which is the National Airline in Bhutan. If you don’t mind spending some extra money, then this is the most convenient way given it will save you a lot of time and the hassle of getting permit from Phuensholing.

Currency
Bhutanese Ngultrum/ Nu (BTN) is the local currency of Bhutan and 1 Nu is equal to 1 Rs.(INR). And the good news is that the Indian currency (only 100 and 500 denominations) is accepted throughout Bhutan.
Getting Around
As there isn’t a lot of public transport available for tourists, booking a cab for the entire trip is the best way to explore the country.
Overview

Day 1 : Arrival in Bagdogra and Transfer to Phuentsholing

Day 2 : Get Permit and Transfer to Thimphu

Day 3 : Explore Thimphu

Day 4 : Transfer to Punakha via Dochula Pass

Day 5 : Explore Punakha and Transfer to Paro

Day 6 : Trek to Tiger’s Nest

Day 7 : Transfer to Phuentsholing

Day 8 : Transfer to Bagdogra and Flight Back Home

Bhutan Map 0.2
Day Level Itinerary
Day 1 : Arrival in Bagdogra and Transfer to Phuentsholing

We flew to Bagdogra airport, where the cab that we pre-booked for our entire trip was already waiting. After 6 hours of journey with a ‘tea and momo’ break in between, we reached Phuentsholing. The moment you cross Bhutan Gate, everything from clean and not-so-crowded roads to welcoming faces, from unique architecture of the buildings to the people in colorful robes tells you, that you are in Bhutan. We checked into our hotel, had dinner and retired to our beds to start the next day afresh.

Day 2 : Get Permit and Transfer to Thimphu

The Immigration Office opens at 8:30 AM, so we got up early and reached on time to avoid long queue. Next thing that we did, soon after we were done with the immigration process, was buy a local SIM card. We bought Tashicell and it worked great throughout the trip. And before we left for Thimphu, we went to Kizom Café which had caught my eye while we were looking for a SIM store. And boy, oh boy! It was simply amazing. We enjoyed some really good desserts, coffee, pizzas and sandwiches while looking at this slow-paced city out of the large glass windows of the café. After eating to our heart’s content, we started on our journey to Thimphu. After 5 hours of scenic drive through the mountains, we reached the Capital. As one would expect, it is the most developed region of the country. After checking into our hotel, we went straight ahead to explore our neighborhood which turned out to be the most happening area of the city. It was entwined with some really good restaurants and cafes. I would highly recommend trying out authentic Bhutanese food with some of their local beer at Zombala 2 restaurant – their ema datshi is lip smacking!

Day 3 : Explore Thimphu
After breakfast, we left for the immigration office to get our permits for Punakha. Given their processing would take time, we dropped our passports and collected them later in the afternoon. There is a lot to see in Thimphu and pretty much everything can be covered in a day if you start early.
Below is the list of top places to visit in Thimphu –

·        Memorial Chorten

·        Buddha Dordenma

·        Changangkha Lhakhang

·        Changlimithang Stadium

·        Tashichho Dzong

·        National Library of Bhutan

·        National Institute of Zorig Chusu

Day 3 : Transfer to Punakha via Dochula Pass

It was time to leave for our next destination, but not before having breakfast at one of the best cafes of Thimphu, the Ambient Café – try their delicious yoghurt smoothies and pizzas and, thank me later 🙂

The road from Thimphu to Punakha boasts of one of the prettiest passes – Dochula Pass, which is a concentration of 108 chortens (stupas) built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against insurgents from India and offers gorgeous panoramic view of the Himalayan range. After 3 hours of drive through the snaky roads, we finally descended into the Punakha Valley. After lunch, we headed to one of the most iconic places of Bhutan – The Punakha Dzong and it was love at first sight. With its magnificent architecture and postcard location between the two rivers, this architectural marvel does put all other dzongs in Bhutan to shame and trust me when I say no picture can do justice to the grandeur of this place. The next on our list was the Punakha Suspension Bridge – draped in prayer flags, the bridge offers beautiful view of the valley and is perfect for a quick adrenaline shot.

 

Recommendation: If you are a fan of off-beat stays, just like I am, then Chimi Lakhang Homestay has to be the place for you! Tucked in the middle of a village, surrounded by paddy fields and mountains, staying in this authentic Bhutanese homestay is an extremely enriching experience in itself.

Day 5 : Explore Punakha and Transfer to Paro

Other than the magnificent Dzong and the jaw-dropping views, what make this quaint town of Punakha such a unique destination are the giant phallus paintings at the entrance of numerous houses and shops. Drukpa Kunley, who is beloved as Bhutan’s patron saint, is said to have subdued a demoness using his ‘divine thunderbolt of wisdom’. Chimi Lakhang is the temple dedicated to him which is visited by many locals and tourists even today to seek fertility and/or good health for their children. After our early morning visit to Chimi Lakhang, we left for our last destination in Bhutan – Paro. After reaching Paro, we decided to pay a visit to National Museum of Bhutan before checking-into our homestay. In the evening, we headed to see the beautifully lit-up Rinpung Dzong which is a must-visit in Paro. After this, we explored the market area, a perfect place to buy those Bhutanese souvenirs for your family and friends.

Recommendation: We got lucky with our stay at Paro as well! You guessed it! Another breathtaking Bhutanese homestay – Ama’s Village Lodge. We could blame the unexpected rain in Paro for sudden cravings and our impromptu decision to cook some delicious aloo parathas 🙂 (you can also access their kitchen and cook your own food for a very minimal price). Sitting in their large and cozy kitchen and gobbling aloo parathas over conversations with our hosts while it was still raining outside is what I’m reminded of when I think of this place.

Day 6 : Trek to Tiger’s Nest

And here comes the most awaited part of the trip – Trek to Paro Taktsang. The picture of this iconic landmark on Instagram is what made me want to visit Bhutan in the first place. The monastery was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Bhutan to Buddhism, is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. According to the legends, Guru Padmasambhava flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress and hence this place came to be known as ‘Tiger’s Nest’.

The trail to the Tiger’s Nest is laced with colorful prayer flags and offers an absolutely gorgeous view that keeps getting better with altitude. After 2.5 hours of climb, comes the view that I’d been waiting for – the majestic monastery, so effortlessly sitting on the edge of the cliff making it even hard to imagine the quantum of effort it would have taken to build it at such a location.

TIP – Make sure you carry enough water, some light snacks and a hiking stick with you. Also, make a note of buying tickets to enter Paro Taktsang at the base of the trek itself as there is no counter on the top. You would not want to be denied entry to the monastery after that long a hike!

Post the trek, we decided to go for a much needed hot-stone bath to relax ourselves. To prepare the bath, riverside rocks are heated till red hot and gradually dropped into a wooden tub filled with water and Artemisia leaves (which is believed to have medicinal properties). The burning rocks heat the water gradually and thus release minerals into the water. While our bath was being prepared, we decided to pick up a bow and some arrows to try our hands at Archery, the national sport of Bhutan wearing the national dress of Bhutan. After having an hour-long relaxing bath, we headed to our homestay, had dinner and retired to our beds.  

Day 7 : Transfer to Phuentsholing
With heavy hearts, we packed our bags, had breakfast for one last time at our comforting homestay and left for Phuentsholing. After a couple of stops to watch tea plantations and have lunch, we reached the town where it all started for us. All I wanted to do was soak myself into the calmness and beauty of this country one last time. We spent the last few hours strolling through the streets, eating our last visit’s favourites at Kizom Cafe, spinning some prayer wheels at Zangto Pelri Lhakhang and buying some more souvenirs. 🙂
Day 8 : Transfer to Bagdogra and Flight Back Home

It was time to bid adieu to the happiest place on the earth. We left early morning to reach airport well in time to catch our afternoon flight.

While staring out of the window of the car, I was wondering how gracefully Bhutan has defied the western ways and stuck to its roots, how meticulously it has implemented the concept of sustainable tourism and most importantly how easily it has ingrained the idea of happiness over wealth. O Bhutan, the world has so much to learn from you!

Things To Know Before You Visit Bhutan :

·        Check the national holidays in Bhutan while planning your trip because Immigration Office as well as all tourist attractions are closed on these days

·        Dress appropriately if you are visiting temples, dzongs or any administrative building like Immigration office or libraries. Shorts, skirts, sleeveless t-shirts/tops are not acceptable for both men and women

·        Making hotel reservations on your own is not appreciated so make sure you coordinate with your travel agency to have a smooth immigration process

·        Alcohol is widely consumed in Bhutan. It is served at most of the restaurants (except for Tuesdays) and is also easily available in grocery stores

·        Producing or selling tobacco is banned in Bhutan, and smoking in public areas is strictly prohibited

·        Don’t disrespect the Royals – They are believed to be incarnations of God and are treated with great respect in the country

Here is a rough breakdown of our expenses that might help you to come up with the budget of your next trip to Bhutan –

Return flights from Pune to Bagdogra : Rs. 10,000
Cab for 8 days (Bagdogra to Bagdogra) : Rs. 5800 (Rs.29,000 in total)
Accomodation : Rs. 6400 (Rs. 32000 in total for 6 days for a group of 5)
Meals : Rs 700 per day
SIM Card : Rs. 400
Ticket to Memorial Chorten : Rs. 200 per head
Punakha Dzong Entry Fee : Rs. 300
Tiger’s Nest Entry Fee : Rs. 500
Hot Stone Water Bath + Bhutanese Dress + Archery Combo: Rs. 1000 (Our host at Ama’s Lodge got us this amazing deal)

Tip – We booked our cab through RS Travels and I would NOT recommend it to anyone.

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