Bhutan – A kingdom sandwiched between India and China running an economy on agriculture, tourism and hydroelectric power and is one of the least visited countries in the world (which is slowly changing).
Although Bhutan was the country which tossed the term – “Gross National Happiness”, it ranks 97th out of 155 countries in the World Happiness report 2016. Countries like Saudi Arabia(37), Pakistan(85) and Nigeria(95) plagued with gender inequality, terrorism and communal tensions ranking much better than Bhutan. This simple observation inspired me to travel to Bhutan to see for myself if I would consider Bhutan a “Happy” country or not.
The number of tourists at any given time in the country are regulated by “High Value, Low Impact Tourism Policy”. Most of these visitors are either Indians or Bangladeshis who enjoy the benefit of not having to pay the infamous $250/day to visit this heavenly country. I guess, this is the only blessing of being an Indian passport holder. For now.
I spent 14 days in Spring 2017 making the most of my Indian citizenship; backpacking throughout the country and trying to understand the daily lives of the Bhutanese folks.
Here is my account:
The route I followed: Phuentsholing – Paro – Thimphu – Bumthang – Trashigang – Samdrup Jongkhar
Getting there: Train (Kanchankanya Express) from Kolkata(Sealdah) to Hasimara (15Km from Pheuntsholing). This particular train gets sold out 50 days prior to your journey date.
Scheduled arrival at Hasimara- 10:45AM, but hey, we are in India! Actual arrival- 12:20PM.
Entry gate at Phuenstholing – Jaigaon border. It’s funny how the environment & life on either side of the gate is completely opposite.
This is Jaigaon, India. Crowded, Loud, Mucky.
10 meters into the Bhutanese territory, Everything is opposite.
Follow rules. Try crossing the road from anywhere except the Zebra Crossing and you will hear a traffic policeman whistle & shout – “Hey! This is not India. We follow rules here!” and rightly so.
Expect to stand in queue for 4-5 hours. According to the new rules as on 10th April’17, it is mandatory for all tourists to provide hotel bookings throughout your planned stay in Bhutan. It will be a waste to head to the Immigration Office without these documents. A lot of people are being denied Permits at Phuentsholing.
Bhutan has made it extremely difficult for solo travellers to backpack through the country. It is an exhausting task to convince the government officials and it was not easy for me to get my permit.
The Immigration Office at Phuentsholing has a vintage design (Notice the loudspeaker on the right). Once inside, it will not take more than 15 minutes to process your application.
Bus stand at Phuentsholing. Transport system in Bhutan is not flexible. You will have to buy the bus ticket at least a day before your departure date in order to guarantee yourself a seat. Find the current Bus Schedule as of May’2017 here.
An open air gym! Glad to see the country invest in such infrastructure for the citizens. (Earns a ‘Happy’ point)
Zangtopelri Temple in Phuentsholing. A peaceful spot in the center of the city. I spent way too much time appreciating the beauty of this temple, not realizing that I have an entire Buddhist country to explore and I’ll be fascinated where ever I go.
Prayer wheels are common throughout the country. You’ll see them in the monasteries, footpaths, dzongs and outside houses.
Anyone and everyone passing through, rotates the wheels in clock-wise direction. It is said to be a form of prayer in itself and it helps purify the negative karmas & spread positive energy. Guess what was I doing all day on the streets?
Look at the size of those chillies! In Bhutan, chillies are not something you add to your dish to “spice things up”. They are the main dish! They are the vegetables in your dish! So, if you’re one of those who even find pepper too hot, better pack some protein bars or muesli with you.
This is Ema Datshi. The National dish of Bhutan, they call it. The dish is entirely made of Chillies (Red or green) and Cheese.
Pair it will Red rice & Dal and you have a complete meal for $2. After one week in Bhutan, I was addicted to it and was eating the same meal 3 times a day. Everyday.
Cinema Hall in Phuentsholing – old and worn out.
Since, I got my permit at 2PM (after a lot of struggle), I was stranded because there were no more buses to Paro on the same day and I didn’t want to waste another day in Phuentsholing. So, let’s hitch-hike! Aaaaaaaannndddd, here’s my ride!
This man agreed to take me to Paro for no charge at all! An ex-soldier in the Bhutanese army who had travelled through India during his service. Now, he drives this “Bolero”, transporting small shipments throughout the country earning almost 2-3 times to what he used to earn earlier.
Was really cold! Temperatures can be below 10degC even in the month of April.
10:30PM. Reached Paro. No place to stay. Shit. Can I stay there? What is that?
Bhutan is not backpacker friendly and unfortunately there are no hostels or shared accommodations throughout the country. Couchsurfing is also limited to Thimphu and hard to come across active users who are ready to host. Hence, I stayed in cheap hotels/guest houses. I could have camped. Something I would definitely do on my next visit.
Met a couple of taxi drivers and asked them for their help to find a place to stay. Conversation-
Resident: How much is your budget?
Mokhs: I cannot spend more than Nu.500 ($8) per day on accommodation.
R: (Laughing) This is peak season! You won’t get anything for less than Nu.1000.
M: This is my daily budget. My Debit Card and Credit Card don’t work in Bhutan. I have limited cash and have to stay in this country for 15 days! Please help me!
R: Oh! is it? Let me try and find out.
*He makes a couple of phone calls, discusses in Dzongkha*
R: Can you pay Nu.700? This room is actually worth Nu.1500 and the owner is not going below Nu.700.
M: Did you actually bargain for me? Are you serious? (It was 11PM and way too exhausted to let this option pass by) Thank you so much for doing this for me!
R: Come with me, I’ll take you to the house.
And, this is what I got for only Nu.700/day. A beautiful spacious room with hot shower, soft bed and a wonderful view of the valley. I am grateful to that person who bargained for me (a complete stranger) and gave me 3 nights of comfortable stay in Paro. Thankfully, this was not the only time I met such people.
Soaking up the sun with this feline.
A lovely sunny morning in the Paro valley with a spectacular view and a cool breeze to freshen you up. A walker’s paradise!
The beautiful building that I was admiring the night before is the Paro Dzong. What a massive and an elegant structure!
Dzongs are fortresses which serve as religious and administrative centers of a particular district (Dzongkhag). Bhutan does not have states/provinces but consists of 20 districts which make up the entire country.
Each Dzong is mainly split into 2 areas. One, that consists of all the administrative offices which houses the Governor and his working staff, and the other – Religious area which consists of temples and accommodation for the monks.
Dzongs are also the sites for the famous Tsechu festivals which are held throughout the year. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any festival during my visit. – (Image from Google)
Archery ground in Paro. A place I will recommend everyone to visit and spend some time witnessing the Bhutanese version of Archery (The national sport of Bhutan).
Surprisingly, the archery target at Olympics is at a distance of 70m from the archer but here in Bhutan, the target is 145m away! I could barely see the target! The archers are sometimes intoxicated while playing. So, stay away from the line of fire!
Every time, an arrow hits the target, both teams sing and dance engaging in a verbal battle trying to provoke each other. Due to complex scoring criteria, a match can go on for days or even weeks in some cases.
Lunch time. Both teams sit together and share conversations over lunch.
Traditional Bhutanese architecture. Most of the buildings in the country looks like this.
Next stop, the National Museum of Bhutan. Sadly, Cameras were not allowed inside. Must visit to learn about the meanings of various dances and masks during the Tsechu festival, the geography, culture and flora & fauna of Bhutan.
I would recommend ditching your van and trekking all the way to the museum. Just follow the walking path shown on Google Maps and you’ll be rewarded with an exquisite trail through the countryside & a spectacular view of the valley while climbing up.
On your way back from the museum, drop by at the Paro Dzong. A fascinating structure with huge retaining walls.
Had to cover up my legs before entering the Dzong. Dress code needs to be maintained at all administrative places.
The motive of my trip to Bhutan was to find peace & solitude. Dzongs throughout the country offered the desired levels I was looking for. Spent hours sitting alone, watching the monks/officers walk by.
Here are a few images of the Paro Dzong:
The interiors are entirely made of wood and hand painted.
View of the Paro valley from the Dzong
Paro Dzong at night. Impressive!
Time to climb the most iconic monastery in this country – Tiger’s Nest (the white spots on the mountain)
Starting the climb at 7:30AM with little to no tourists to trouble, but also, nobody to guide me towards the monastery.
The trail was too obvious with millions of people having climbed before me. No fun. Let’s find another way. And, probably get lost.
Yes, I was lost. Took the path less taken and got lost. I knew I would find a way sooner or later but the escape from the “civilisation” was relieving.
Few images from the trek:
Befriended these monks from Arunachal Pradesh, here for a pilgrimage
Almost there! YESSSSS!
Breathtaking view from the top! The 2 hour climb was definitely worth it.
A customary click for everyone visiting the monastery.
Without a travel guide it’s quite difficult to learn about the history of the various temples inside the monasteries. Each temple was made by a different Lama and for a different purpose. Everywhere I went, I blended in one of the groups and fortunately the guides always welcomed me. This is Sonam and his friend, my guides at the Taktsang. He also invited me to meet him in Trashigang later on.
Do not miss the cave inside the monastery. There is a burning lamp inside the narrow cave – the actual place where Padmasambhava (second most important Buddhist figure after Buddha) had landed on the back of a flying Tiger. Cameras not allowed and could not find any photos on Google as well.
The policemen guarding the monastery have their own accommodation and their work days range from a week to a month at the monastery.
Prayer Flags – Omnipresent throughout Bhutan. Prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. They are usually hung at high places so that the wind can carry all the good will & blessings depicted on the flags to all beings and bring benefit to all.
Sometimes, specific colours are hoisted on a long pole. This is done as a prayer for a specific wish. For example- Blue flag represents health and can be used as a prayer to improve someone’s health. Likewise, white flags are for the dead in order to cleanse their Karma.
The five colours of Prayer Flags symbolise the 5 Elements. Yellow Flag – symbolises Earth – used as a prayer for overcoming obstacles; Green Flag – symbolises Water – used as a prayer for protection from any harm or danger; Red Flag – symbolises Fire – used as a prayer to fulfill all your wishes; White Flag – symbolises Air – used as a prayer to purify Karma; Blue Flag – symbolises Space – used as a prayer for good health & longevity.
Marijuana grows abundantly along the roads in Paro but if caught smoking, you could be imprisoned for years and might have to pay a hefty fine. Bhutan is the only country in the world where cigarettes are also banned.
Thukpa(Noodles) and Suja(Tea made of pink tea leaves, butter, salt and water). The pink colour of the tea makes it distinct and appealing.
I was disappointed upon reaching Thimphu. All the lush green mountains of Paro were replaced by crowded streets and thousands of concrete structures.
But, Thimphu has it’s own advantages. Here, people are more advanced with technology and people know about Couchsurfing and other social media platforms. Had the pleasure to meet 2 Couchsurfers – Bhawana and Jasudha, over a cup of coffee and learn a few things about their country.
Do not miss the National Post Office Museum in Thimphu. It is located on the ground floor of the Thimphu Post Office. Entrance fee – Nu.150. This place has all the information about the history of Bhutan you would like to learn about.
The staff here is super friendly and they don’t mind becoming your guide and giving you a tour of the museum. This is Kamal. His hero/idol is the 4th King of Bhutan (who is pretty much loved by everyone). He hopes to go to Japan to study and then return with better skills and serve the country.
This is Mr. Jagar Dashi, who is said to have travelled 200Km by foot in a single day to deliver the second king’s personal messages. He was 2.2m tall and has been the tallest Bhutanese ever. Life size statue of the legend at the museum.
The Queens of Bhutan (excluding the present queen). Polygamy is legal and accepted in Bhutan and there have been 8 Queens to the previous 4 Kings with the fourth King marrying 4 times.
Looking for a good souvenir from Bhutan? Get your own valid personalised stamp made at the museum and send them to your friends back home!
Check out the Weekend Market in Thimphu which is quite near to the Post Office. Hundreds of vendors selling everything from vegetables to spices to fruits to dried fish.
The cleanliness amazed me with dustbins placed every 5 meters and constant mopping by the vendors. (India, you need to learn from them!)
Beef (Shakam) and Pork are the favorite meat in the country and are readily available throughout Bhutan.
1Kg of Chicken and Beef cost the same. ($3.5/Kg)
Machete seller near the meat market. Smart guy.
Thimphu Handicraft market is a great place to pick up souvenirs. Hand-knit scarves, bags, hats, badges, flags – can be found here. The prices can be negotiated and you can bring down the prices by 10-40%. (Image from footlooseforever.com)
Women run the households, they care for their children and they run the businesses – All at the same time. Bhutan has been termed as a conservative country but certainly women enjoy freedom and moreover, equality in the society.
The thing that startled me the most was that all the shops were run by women. Not a single man was behind the counter. Not just the handicraft market, all the shops, bars, restaurants in the entire country are run by women.
On the streets of Thimphu
Kids playing at the Clock Tower
People in Bhutan get married at a young age. A 30 year old could have 5-10 year old children.
Punjab is everywhere! Druk Punjab National Bank in Thimphu.
Bhutan is the only country in the world which does not have Traffic lights. Traffic policemen maintain the busy streets of Thimphu.
Marching through the streets. Loved their uniform.
The National dress of Bhutan for women is Kira (ankle-length dress), Tego (the jacket) and Wonju (notice the different colour of the sleeves and the collar – worn under the jacket). When visiting the Dzong, the women are required to wear the Rachu (a scarf) as well.
The men wear a dress called Gho (knee-length robe) and Kabney (a long scarf). The colour of the scarf differs according to the societal heirarchy. The King wears the yellow coloured Kabney whereas white coloured Kabney is worn by the ordinary citizens.
The monks are allowed to wear their red dress and do not have to conform to the national dress.
Buddha Dordenma Statue in Thimphu. Towering 52m, this is one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world. There are more than 100,000 small statues of Buddha inside this structure. Shame that photography was not allowed inside because the interior is downright royal.
My taxi driver offered to give me company inside (as a guide) but he knew absolutely nothing about this statue. Sigh! (Sometimes, you’re out of luck – A backpacker’s life)
A mural on the base wall of the Buddha statue.
Had the pleasure to meet Lama Shenphen who has helped several people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse in Bhutan. He has made sure that the needy get access to rehab facilities and a job to sustain themselves and start a new life.
And this is Mr. Pema Gyeltshen, an extraordinary artist from Thimphu. Check out his brilliant paintings on Instagram: @ divine_brushes
If you’re looking for a good cafe in Thimphu, I would recommend Ambient Cafe which is cozy and serves great coffee.
Had to visit the Department of Immigration to extend my permit by another 7 days and also obtain “Restricted Area Permit” in order to travel to Punakha, Bumthang, Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar. The tourists and travel guides I consulted in the queue were not optimistic of me getting the Permit. They all advised me to hire a guide and book my hotels in advance if I was to be granted the Permit.
However, inside the Department of Immigration, things were much simpler and straight-forward. Since, I was travelling alone and without a guide, they asked me to write a Letter of Undertaking stating, “I alone shall be responsible in case of any accident”. Wrote the letter, submitted my forms and within 45 minutes, Voila! The permit is here!
(Tip: Do not listen to other guides. You do not need hotel bookings or vouchers.)
Thanks to Ozzie(right) whom, I bumped into at the museum, I got to witness the nightlife in Thimphu and meet lots of people from all over the world who were either studying or working in Bhutan. That’s Patrick on the left. A musician and definitely a great company in the nightclub!
A lot of bars in Thimphu have live music during the weekends. The youth enjoy Rock music and the country has a lot of budding talents. One such band is “The Baby Boomers” who were playing at Mojopark Bar that day.
After downing a couple of drinks, I might be my happy self and intend to do stupid stuff. Getting hold of the Karaoke and making everyone sing “Take me home, country roads” at 2AM in a nightclub is one of many things I might do. These guys witnessed it.
Bus ride from Thimphu to Bumthang. The distance between these 2 cities is 250Km. but it takes about 12-14 hours one way. A road widening project is underway throughout Bhutan which is expected to be completed in 2019. These coaster buses might not be the most comfortable ride out there but certainly the cheapest mode of transport.
Out of my 14 days in the country, 3 of them were lost while travelling from one city to the other.
Came across this beautiful guest house (Tashi Yangkhel Guest House) which is about 500 meters away from the city center.
My cozy little room in Bumthang for 800Nu. fully equipped with a fireplace for the winters.
Bumthang, literally is the most beautiful place in Bhutan! Decide for yourselves:
Waking up to this view of the district!
Bumthang is called “Mini-Switzerland”
A great place for riding (either a bike or a horse!). If I revisit Bumthang in future, I’ll make sure I go horse riding. The countryside trails are incredible.
Hire a bike and explore Bumthang on your own. I cycled throughout the day, exploring the entire Jakar area.
Bhutan does not allow import of certain crops & vegetables from India. They focus on organic farming and want a healthier diet for their citizens.
Modern farming techniques are almost non-existent in the country. Although, with new cooperation agreements with India & Japan, the country hopes to import better farming equipment and technology.
Jambay Lhakhang – is said to be one of the 108 temples built in a single day in the 7th century by a Tibetan King in order to strap down a monster which was causing trouble to the people. All 108 temples were built on the body of the monster and are spread throughout Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim(India).
Kurjey Lhakhang – The resting place of the remains of the first 3 kings of Bhutan.
The Opening Act of Spring. Lone, brave Cherry blossom in full bloom.
Tamshing Lhakhang – A neglected monastery which receives no funding from the government and is facing troubles to sustain the monks that live there. It was made by Terton Pema Lingpa in the 16th century but the temple was gutted in a fire in 2010.
The best part of the Tamshing monastery is that there is this chain mail jacket which weighs 25 Kilograms and the legend says that if you wear this jacket and take 3 rounds of the monastery, it will bring good luck. I guess, I needed some good luck but wearing this jacket was a task in itself. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photography inside. – (Image from Alamy)
Cycling to Membartsho was an incredible experience. A bright sunny day cycling though the country side.
Riding on this suspension bridge was nerve wrecking.
Membartsho – Located 11Km from the city center, is a gorge where Terton(Discoverer) Pema Lingpa, who was not welcomed in Bumthang prophesied the presence of treasure in the gorge. Later, he jumped in the gorge with a burning lamp and came out with treasure with the lamp still burning. Since then, he has been worshiped in Bumthang.
Who has a better stack of beer bottles at home? Anyone?
All the construction workers I came across while travelling through Bhutan were either Indians or Bangladeshis. Bhutanese people are way too dignified to do labour jobs in their own country.
Hey, Patrick’s playing Banjo on National TV! Check out his band’s first album here.
Bichu Buti!! (Stinging Nettle) – The moment I saw this, I knew I should stay away from this plant. A single sting by the leaves will inject you with multiple acids which will initially be painful and then lead to constant itching and rashes on your skin. We had lots of “Bichu Buti” growing in school and one accidental touch used to make our days miserable.
Thankfully, I had also learned that where there is Bichu Buti, there is wild spinach. If stung, rub some spinach leaves on the affected area and it will help keep the itch away. Rubbing mud also helps.
Your hand could look like this after being stung. Do not worry. It is not lethal and the acid neutralises within 24-48 hours. – (Image from Google)
Importance of Phallus – As a symbol of prosperity and fertility, Phallus paintings are common outside houses, shops and monasteries. It is part of their everyday culture and is completely normal.
Lama Drukpa used penis as a tool of propaganda to spread Buddhism in the 15th and 16th century. He was called the “Mad Saint”. In central and eastern Bhutan, there are festivals and rituals in which phalluses are worshiped.
Souvenirs shops are filled with wooden, steel and ceramic phalluses. You might even find postcards of phalluses to send back to your friends.
Spirited kids in the streets of Bumthang who were fascinated by the idea of travelling alone in a different country.
Since, there were no buses from Bumthang to Trashigang, I had to wait for a bus coming from Thimphu and negotiate with the driver to take me further to Trashigang (depending upon the number of seats available). It was more like hitch-hiking in a bus. Thankfully, there was one seat available.
The scariest part of my journey – Since, road widening projects are under progress in Bhutan, landslides are bound to happen anytime and without any indicator.
I was sitting on the seat directly above the left rear wheel and suddenly, I saw a huge rock roll down the hill. The driver was unaware of it but I was pretty sure that it will hit the bus.
And, so it did. Thankfully, it did not hit the rear wheel as it could have toppled our bus and we would have fallen several hundred meters down on the other side of the hill. The bus chassis had absorbed the impact.
This was big and we were close to death! We had to wait 2 hours for the Police to come and register the accident so that insurance could be claimed by the bus company.
Maybe, her constant prayers throughout the journey saved us.
In the meantime, I befriended Yuiko from Japan, who was teaching in a school in Trashigang for the past 2 years. I guess, we both were the only ones who got out of the bus laughing about what had happened and how we both could have died had the bus rolled down the other side of the hill. Look at her smile!
Yuiko invited me to her school, next day. Students attending the School Assembly in the morning, quite similar to the way we have in India.
“Madam Yuiko!!” The kids shouted, when asked about their favourite teacher. The kids were allowed to run, jump, scream and play in her class. So, why not?
A quote by the King on one of the buildings in school. A progressive leader knows how to motivate and encourage his citizens in order to make his nation better.
Another quote by the King in the indoor hall. A framed picture of the present king alongside it.
Pictures of the present king and queen, former kings, queens are hung in shops, restaurants, houses, dzongs and streets. Here are a few instances:
The restaurants, hotels, shops, streets, monasteries would offer unanimous support to the King.
Here are all the 5 kings of Bhutan and the future king, the Prince of Bhutan. Everyone you meet loves the King! Makes me wonder how the Royal family has kept every single citizen happy over the past century. Societal Pressure could be prevalent in Bhutan, preventing any uproars against the ruling dynasty.
After 34 years of rule, the 4th King of Bhutan – Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in 2006 and was succeeded by his eldest son and the current King of Bhutan – Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The 4th King is seen as a father figure and an inspiration by the citizens.
You’ll come across many Stupas as well. They are said to preserve the powers and energies of Buddha.
The shapes vary sometimes.
While travelling through Bhutan you’ll also come across stones piled up to form a shape of Stupa and serve the same purpose.
The Trashigang Dzong is currently under renovation. The Dzong was partially damaged in an earthquake in 2009. But, reconstruction started in 2014 after receiving aid from the Indian government. The security guard was surprised to see a tourist walk by.
I never failed to find myself a tour guide. This is Mr.Cluck Norris, a 5-star guide at the Trashigang Dzong. You might have language problems with him but he is super friendly.
Renovation work in progress at the Dzong. Mr. Cluck Norris(back) and Mr. Bark Twain giving me a tour of the Dzong.
Bumped into a couple of fellow civil engineers and shared some stories about our work over lunch.
Thanks to Yuiko, I had an entertaining day with kids. We exercised, played ball, laughed and shared stories. It was fun.
Off to Samdrup Jongkar
Bros are everywhere! 😉
I had to return my permit to the government officials before entering Samdrup. I was way too exhausted to explore Samdrup. With just Nu.950 in my pocket, I found myself a room and dozed off. They have a vegetable market similar to that of Thimphu and a couple of Karaoke bars.
Exit gate at Samdrup Jongkar. Off to Guwahati in 6AM(IST) bus. Back to work on Monday.
So, this was my account of the 14 days I had spent in the Land of Dragons. None of this was planned. I didn’t know what I’ll eat or where I’ll sleep or how I’ll travel and if I’ll meet cool people like Bhawana, Ozzie, Yuiko and many more! I didn’t even know if the government officials would let me inside the country on Day-1. I spent about $10-$20 a day and experienced the life of the locals. I hope you enjoyed my travel adventure to Bhutan and let me know in case of any questions regarding my journey.
And yes, I found Bhutan to be a happy country! I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia or Nigeria or Pakistan and can’t speak for them but the people are dignified and grateful to the Wangchuck dynasty for all they’ve done for this country. The people love their culture & traditions and at the same time they are curious to learn about others. It is a safe country for solo travellers (men and women) and in no case would they create problems for any tourist but they also demand the respect they deserve. There are still many areas within this country which I would like to explore & learn about and I will be back here soon!