“This summer can we do Bhutan?”
An innocuous question from Madhuri started a journey of excitement, ecstasy, some disappointments & much learning about travel, immigration laws, the little known states in our North East and a start-up trying to make a mark in the travel & tourism space. All from a short 7-day vacation to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan also known as ‘The Last Shangri La’.
Googling my way through the maze of search engine optimised outputs and promoted ads when I started looking for Bhutan holidays took me to Offbeat Tracks, a Hyderabad based startup founded by a young army daughter and former Facebook employee. I am not averse to startups but the stats that 9 out of 10 startups usually fail niggled my brain. We went for it, always ready to support startups especially when it’s from the armed forces cradle.
I like neat, short and quick responses and OBT was prompt, courteous and to the point with answers to all our queries. Their quote was one of the most competitive with an added flavour of local culture through homestays – something we try to avail on all our tours.
True to the old adage ‘for want of a nail, the battle was lost’ small things can sometimes turn the tables on you. Our noon arrival at Bagdogra followed by a five hour drive to the Bhutanese border town of Pheuntsholing (landward embarkation point for entry into Bhutan) ensured that we arrived here a little after the immigration office had closed for the weekend. Now, in a country known for gross domestic happiness who would work over weekends? Immigration is done only from Monday to Friday within the office hours. OBT threw everything they could at the situation, including tapping the enterprise of army officials in India and Bhutan but to no avail. This is a peculiar situation where you cannot enter a country over weekend which is when most folks travel but then Bhutan doesn’t have a ‘you are welcome 24/7, 365-days’ policy for their guests. In hindsight, perhaps this little rumbler was required to prevent tourists trampling all over the pristine Himalayan nation at their free will. We cooled our ‘hills’ in Pheuntsholing for a day exploring local eateries and the local marketplace. Arun, our Indian driver was quick to point out how soon after entering the gates into Bhutan, no horns were allowed and pedestrians took priority over vehicles, something Bhutan’s big neighbour would do well to learn from them. Meanwhile, OBT quickly fell back on Plan B by arranging an unplanned but ‘offbeat’ retreat to a neighbouring hill station to soothe our nerves. We thus chanced upon Kalimpong serendipitously and relished our stay in the beautiful Elgin Silver Oak resort, laughing at our peculiar situation “chale Bhutan pahunche Kalimpong!”
Another day, another long drive back to Pheuntsholing, a place unknown to us a few days ago but now becoming increasingly familiar for not all good reasons! Bhim Bahadur Chettri, our driver for the Kalimpong trip, impressed us with his safe driving (43 years behind the wheel per his testimony) as also his knowledge about West Bengal politics, a Left bastion till Mamta didi evicted them from the seat of power. Bhim Bahadur got his three daughters married into respectable families after taking out a loan to buy his vehicle to financial freedom – a Toyota Innova in which he slept at Kalimpong while we enjoyed the plush comforts of The Elgin Silver Oaks. That is the life of Indian taxi & truck drivers whom we blame for all the woes on our highways. How little we think of their working conditions and comforts while we are quick to castigate them for the slightest transgression. We made up in our own way by engaging ‘Chettriji’ in some delightful conversation and frequent pit stops for tea and daab (tender coconut).
After a safe return to Pheuntsholing, Bhim Bahadur was gracious enough to take out our heavy bags and deliver them to the hotel reception. He earned a tip of ₹150 from me for a 2-day trip undertaken with the utmost courtesy. Madhuri reminded me of the ₹100 we tipped the smooth talking steward at KGA, Bengaluru during our last visit when all that he had done was fetch us two pints of beer while fawning around us meaninglessly. How we get fooled into tipping the scales in favour of those who do little to deserve our attention or money.
More uncertainty as we prepare for tomorrow when the deluge of weekend arrivals at Pheuntsholing start to beat down the gates of immigration office.
No queue, no prior appointment, no system, it was a pure melee outside the immigration office with a thousand tourists and their agents forming arbitrary queuing systems. Permit forms are available either at the immigration office or in shops outside the gates. Although we carried original passports, only the copies were required alongwith hotel or homestay reservation vouchers and travel itinerary. Indian Voter ID also can be used in lieu of passport. Those who have neither need to go to the Indian Consulate in Pheuntsholing and obtain an ‘identification slip’. Travellers would do well to check on local holidays and avoid arrival on Friday afternoons and prior holidays. Immigration cannot be processed and you will likely be stranded at Pheuntsholing.
After much pushing & shoving and a quick document check, the rest of the procedure including biometrics and printing of permits took less than one hour. A lack of queuing or token system is a big weakness and senior citizens or families traveling without agent support may face difficulties. Although the website requires one to produce either a passport with more than 6 months validity, or Indian Voter ID or identification slip, perusal of documents was perfunctory and people were getting through with other forms of identification. To be sure, please carry one of the authorised documents. Also, be aware of their holidays as sudden announcement of public holidays are nothing unusual in Bhutan.
The drive from Pheuntsholing to Thimpu is very picturesque albeit a bit bumpy at places. Six hours is a good estimate for fair weather. An SUV is recommended for those who have that choice.
While at Thimpu, we stayed with Damchoe’s Homestay, a wonderful 35-year old mansion nestled in the hills outside Thimpu. Finished in rich pinewood, the house is as cosy and warm as the host Aum Damchoe, the lady of the house who speaks impeccable English and cooks authentic Bhutanese cuisine. If I have to describe our experience with Aum Damchoe, it would be ‘warmth’. Their disciplined and friendly Great Dane ‘Tiny’ signifies the contradictions that this small nation faces while living sandwiched between two heavyweights India and China who have staked claims to be the next global superpower. How about looking inside your kitchen?
Processes. That’s what I carry back from here. Tomorrow, somebody will make their millions setting this madhouse in order when already it is paradise.
Visited Punakha, Dochula Pass enroute. Stopped for lunch at Lobesa where the famous fertility temple Chimi Lekhang is located. A place which abounds with drawings, miniatures, memorabilia and graffiti all of the male phallus. Don’t believe me? Have a look. Even the restaurant where we had lunch had small wooden penises on sale (not on the menu though!). My slightly embarassed teenage son observed “not the best place to bring up a child :)”. Didn’t visit the temple as we already have God’s blessings in this department 😉
Rafted down the Punakha river to the 400-year old Punakha Dzhong, a magnificent temple of Buddhism on the banks of the river. All ceremonies of national importance are first celebrated at this Dzhong before anywhere else. View of the Punakha valley from the road is breathtaking.
No trip to Bhutan is complete without a visit to the 8th Century seat of Buddhist spiritual leader Rimpoche, the Takshang Gompa or Tiger’s Nest. About 30 mins out of Paro, the trek to Tiger’s Nest is arguably hard, covering about 3km and 3000 feet through thick jungles. The climb is quite steep and not for the faint hearted. Horse ride is available upto the Taksang Restaurant, about halfway mark. Two to three hours is a good estimate for a family trek (one way) but remember to carry water, a walking stick and some light snacks like biscuits etc. Sunscreen and a hat will help prevent sunburn. The final climb is very steep and terminates in a spectacular and breathtaking view of the Taksang Monastery. Inside the monastery one will find five temples where the great 8th century sage Guru Padmasambhava arrived on a tigress’s back and meditated for four months sending his tigress into one of the caves which came to be known as Tiger’s Nest. Three of those temples embodies mind, speech and body of the sage. The main structure dates back to the 17th century (1692). The entire temple was burnt down twice in two fire accidents (1927 & 1990) and was rebuilt by the Bhutanese Government. All trekkers will be well advised to exercise due caution as there are very steep drops down to the valley down below and carelessness can have serious consequences. I found the trek steeper than the climb to hill shrine Vaishno Devi, although that trek is way longer. Frequent sights of young Buddhist monks not older than 10 years scurrying up the mountain with heavy sacks & bags on their back is enough to make you blush. The sheer size of the monolithic cliff, precarious location of the monastery and the difficult trek all make for a lifetime memory, not to speak of breathtaking photo opportunities for the shutterbugs (do take care while taking those snaps).
The trek sapped most of our energy which was duly replenished on the return leg by a scrumptuous vegetarian buffet at the Taksang Restaurant (INR 475 per plate).
We returned to Thimpu, back to the warm comfort of Aum Damchoe’s – our home away from home. Celebrated the eve of our 20th wedding anniversary with a bottle of Peach wine from Aum Damchoe’s cellar.
Last day of our stay in Thimpu was spent in a windshield tour of local tourist spots. Made brief halts at the bronze statue of Buddha which overlooks the entire city of Thimpu and the wildlife reserve that houses Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin. Aum Damchoe gave us a guided tour of her farm where she grows walnuts, peach, apple, lettuce, parsley, garlic and strawberries along with a rich collection of Bhutanese flowering plants. She also makes her own brand of Tofu to select clientele through a local supermarket. The water from an underground spring in her farm was the sweetest water we have had in a long while. We returned to Pheuntsholing with a heavy heart, a camera full of photographs and a lifetime of memories.
Travelers make note that all restaurants and eateries in Pheuntsholing close by 9:30PM. We discovered this the hard way and had to make do with Wai Wai noodles for dinner. One of the restaurants staff casually suggested that we can go across the border to Jaigaon in India if we wanted to eat at that hour!
Woke up the next morning to another holiday in Bhutan – the death anniversary of Thangruk Rimpoche. Another bunch of Indian tourists will face the disappointment of getting stranded at Pheuntsholing, this time for a long weekend Friday to Sunday. We sighed with relief and set course for Bagdogra on our home stretch.