Bhutan Expedition: A Quest for Himalayan Beauty
This year, we chose to take a longer vacation, unlike our usual 3-4 day trips. We began to explore international destinations, but with only 7-10 days available for the trip and a mere two weeks to plan, an African safari or a visit to Australia seemed unfeasible. We considered checking nearby destinations, particularly Indonesia, Sri-Lanka, and Bhutan. Our initial research started with watching YouTube videos, and Bhutan's captivating video truly caught our attention.
As we delved deeper into learning about Bhutan, the country's Gross Happiness Index intrigued us further. We also contacted some friends who had previously visited Bhutan, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
Bhutan, often called the "Land of the Thunder Dragon," is a small Himalayan kingdom in South Asia. It is nestled in the eastern Himalayas and is bordered by China to the north and India to the south, east, and west.
Bhutan is a unique nation with a constitutional monarchy. His Majesty the King serves as the head of state, and alongside this monarchy, Bhutan has embraced democratic governance. The country held its first democratic elections in 2008, establishing a parliamentary democracy.
Bhutan's geography is characterized by rugged mountain terrain, deep valleys, and lush forests, with the towering peaks of the Himalayas dominating its northern border.
Tourism in Bhutan began in the early 1970s when the country opened its doors to foreign visitors. However, Bhutan has always had a unique approach to tourism. The government has actively promoted "high-value, low-impact" tourism to preserve the country's pristine environment and rich cultural heritage. This approach involves a daily tariff for tourists that covers accommodation, meals, and a guide, ensuring that visitors experience the country's natural beauty and vibrant culture while minimizing the impact on its environment. This approach has helped Bhutan maintain its distinct identity and preserve its stunning landscapes.
Only India, Bangladesh, and Maldives are exempted from the daily tariff. But while we were booking the trip, there were discussions that Bhutan may soon introduce a similar tariff for these countries.
Like our previous trips, we initially considered booking our hotel stay through a travel website and depending on local taxi services. However, we soon realized this might not be a practical option. Unlike some other destinations, Bhutan strongly recommends having a local guide accompany you throughout your trip and finding local taxis could be challenging. In fact, it's mandatory for all tourists, except those from India, Bangladesh, and Maldives, to book their tours through local tour operators.
At first, we were unsure about booking the trip through a local Bhutanese tour company. So, we began looking into well-known international and Indian tour operators. However, we weren't pleased with the responses and their approach. That's when we decided to explore local tour operators registered with The Tourism Council of Bhutan. I contacted several local tour operators, but I was genuinely impressed by the quick responses and the quote provided by Bhutan Best Inbound Tour.
I coordinated with Mr. Thinley to plan our trip. He kindly answered all my questions with great detail (which was very impressive!) and customized the entire tour to our liking. He also ensured all the hotels were booked according to our preferences. Although we booked our flight tickets directly, Bhutan Best Inbound can assist with ticket booking and handle all other necessary arrangements. You can certainly count on them for a smooth and stress-free tour from start to finish.
In a couple of days, we finalized our 7-night, 8-day Bhutan itinerary. We planned to spend two nights in Thimphu and then drive to Punakha for one night. Afterward, we would head to Phobjika Valley for one night and return to Paro, where we would spend three nights.
We had our flight to Paro from Kolkata. Since we hadn't been to Kolkata before, we decided to make a quick trip and arrived early on 14th December. You can read about our Kolkata experience here.
Dec 16th 2019. Day 1 – Land in Paro, drive to Thimphu and explore a few destinations.
As we had witnessed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) the previous evening, we decided to reach the airport early. Till we boarded the flight from Kolkata, we were worried as our first flight to Kolkata was cancelled. However, once we boarded the flight, we were relieved.
The journey to Bhutan was filled with spectacular scenery even before we landed at Paro Airport. The one-hour flight was filled with scenic moments as the plane flew over mountains, and the clear skies offered stunning views of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. I had read that left-side seats offer the best view of Mount Everest while flying to Paro from Kolkata, so we were lucky enough to secure those seats during check-in.
The last 20 minutes of the descent were particularly breathtaking, providing an awe-inspiring sight of snow-capped peaks. Paro Airport is the sole international gateway to Bhutan and is considered one of the world's most challenging and unique airports. Located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, only a few pilots are certified to land here. The approach to the runway involves a steep descent between peaks, making it a thrilling experience for passengers.
Upon deboarding, we were welcomed by clear blue skies and fresh, cool air. The temperature difference was quite evident and we were excited to explore the beautiful country.
The airport terminal features a grand portrait of the royal family, including the King, Queen, and Prince. We couldn't resist taking numerous photos of the airport and its surroundings, but we quickly realized that the entire country was equally as picturesque.
Once inside the terminal, we proceeded to complete the necessary formalities and then purchased two tourist SIM cards from Bhutan Telecom. We were pleasantly surprised by the speed with which the SIM cards were issued and activated, which was faster than our usual experience in India. Indian currency is accepted in Bhutan and Bhutanese Ngultrum is at par with Indian Rupees.
We were greeted outside the terminal by our guide, Mr. Phurba T, and driver, Mr. Jigme, who warmly welcomed us to Bhutan. Phurba mentioned that even he had brought us a SIM card. With our luggage loaded into the Hyundai Creta, we were ready to begin our 7N 8D Bhutan trip, which included a road journey of nearly 450 km, visits to four different cities/towns, a couple of hikes, and a trek to Tiger's Nest.
Our first stop on the way to Thimphu was at Tachog Lhakhang, also known as the Iron Chain Bridge. This Lhakhang is built alongside the Paro Chu (river) and can be accessed by crossing an iron chain bridge that was built in the 13th century by Drubchen Thangtong Gyalpo, a Buddhist master, blacksmith, and pioneering civil engineer. During his lifetime, he traveled extensively and built numerous stupas and 108 iron chain bridges in Bhutan and Tibet. Although the original bridge is now closed, we crossed a new bridge to reach the Lhakhang. Unfortunately, the Lhakhang itself was temporarily closed for renovation.
Our next stop was at Chhuzom Bridge, about 5 km away from Tachog Lhakhang, where we saw the confluence of two rivers: the Paro River and the Thimphu River. Chhuzom, which means "confluence of two rivers" in Dzongkha, is considered inauspicious due to the belief that it attracts evil spirits. To ward off such spirits, three stupas, or chortens in Bhutanese, Nepalese, and Tibetan styles, have been constructed at the confluence of the rivers.
On arriving at Thimphu, we decided to have lunch at Chh'a Bistro & Bar, which is a popular spot among tourists due to its great location and unique ambiance.
Our first stop in Thimphu was the Folk Heritage Museum. Established in 2001, this museum offers visitors a fascinating insight into Bhutanese material culture and way of life. It is housed in a traditional three-story 19th-century building, with the ground floor for cattle, the first floor for storing grains, and the second floor for living. The museum provides a glimpse into the traditional Bhutanese lifestyle and displays an impressive collection of household objects, tools, and equipment used in rural households. It was interesting to see how Bhutanese people traditionally lived. The modern houses are very different. Please note that photography and videography are not allowed inside the museum, but visitors are allowed to take pictures outside the museum premises.
At the museum, we can rent traditional Bhutanese clothing from different regions of Bhutan and click pictures.
Right next to the Folk Heritage Museum is the National Library and Archives of Bhutan, established in 1967 to preserve and promote ancient texts. One of the major attractions is a copy of the world's largest published book, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom. Published on December 15th, 2003, the book consists of 114 pages, weighs 130 pounds, and has dimensions of 5 feet by 7 feet. As photography wasn't allowed inside the library we couldn't click any pictures.
Our last stop for the day was the Central Post Office. While we skipped the Bhutan Postal Museum, we did take a look inside the post office to send postcards using customized stamps. The stamps could be personalized with our own photos, but we had to print a minimum of Rs. 500 worth of stamps. A Rs. 30 stamp was enough to send a postcard to any location around the world. We sent postcards to Mumbai, Akola, and the USA.
At 3:30 pm, we arrived at City Hotel, our accommodation in Thimphu. Situated at the heart of the city, the hotel room offered a beautiful view of Thimphu town and even the Buddha Dordenma Statue. In the evening, we took a walk around the hotel and visited some souvenir shops and a departmental store. A lot of Indian brands are easily available in Bhutan. Thanks to tourism and access to free education, nearly all Bhutanese are fluent in English. However, we were pleasantly surprised when the shopkeeper conversed with us in Hindi. When we asked her about it, she smiled and mentioned that many Bhutanese people can comprehend and speak Hindi as well. By 8 pm, we headed to the hotel restaurant and were delighted by the delicious spread of food served to us. It was the best meal we had on our entire trip.
After dinner, we stepped out onto the balcony but were taken aback by the freezing temperature of just 1 degree Celsius. We both were experiencing such a low temperature for the first time in our life. We quickly checked the weather forecast and were excited to see that the night temperature was forecast to be below 0 degree Celsius.
Once back in our room, out of curiosity, we checked the TV and were surprised to see almost all Indian channels on the local cable television. There were a couple of local channels, may be those were national channels, but others were regular Indian channels. This made us understand why many Bhutanese are well-versed in Hindi. I remembered seeing Indian channels during my Israel trip. A lot of store owners were aware of Hindi movies and they specifically knew Amitabh Bachhan, Rishi Kapoor, and Shammi Kapoor.
Dec 17th, 2019. Day 2 - National Day of Bhutan, explore major destinations in Thimphu.
December 17 is celebrated as National Day in Bhutan to commemorate the coronation of Druk Gyalpo Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary king of Bhutan on December 17, 1907. The coronation marked the beginning of the Wangchuck dynasty, which has ruled Bhutan ever since. The day is celebrated with colorful parades, traditional dances, and cultural performances, and it is a public holiday in Bhutan. All government offices and some tourist attractions are closed on this day.
The main celebrations take place in Thimphu at Changlimithang Stadium, which is located a few meters away from City Hotel, Thimphu. As soon as we woke up, we could hear the festivities. We switched on the television and looked out of our hotel window. We could see some celebrations and hear the address of His Majesty. The mobile network was down during the King’s address!
We were interested in attending the event, but we were informed that only locals are allowed to attend the morning address and celebrations. However, we were welcome to attend the evening celebrations.
Our first destination for the day was National Memorial Chorten. It is a prominent landmark and an iconic Buddhist stupa in Thimphu. It was built in 1974 to honor the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, known as the "father of modern Bhutan."
The chorten serves as a place of worship and meditation for locals and visitors alike. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens and walking paths. There is a dedicated prayer area that has large prayer wheels.
The architecture of the Chorten is influenced by traditional Bhutanese design elements, which are evident in its white-washed walls, golden spires, and colorful prayer flags. Inside the Chorten, there are numerous shrines and statues. The Chorten's interior walls are adorned with vibrant murals depicting various Buddhist teachings and stories.
After a fifteen minutes scenic drive from National Memorial Chorten we reached Buddha Dordenma. Buddha Dordenma is a massive statue of Buddha Shakyamuni located in the mountains of Thimphu. The statue is 169 feet (51.5 meters) tall, making it one of the largest Buddha statues in the world.
Construction of the Buddha Dordenma statue began in 2006 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It was completed in 2015 and was consecrated by the current king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
The statue is made of bronze and gilded in gold. It sits atop a meditation hall that contains 125,000 miniature Buddha statues, paintings, and murals depicting noteworthy events in the life of Buddha, as well as other important figures in Bhutanese Buddhist history.
In addition to its religious significance, the Buddha Dordenma statue is also a significant tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors each year. The statue's location, on a hill overlooking Thimphu, offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains. It's an excellent location for photography.
About 20 mins drive from Buddha Dordenma is Royal Takin Preserve. The takin, also called cattle chamois or gnu goat, is a rare mammal found in the eastern Himalayas. It includes four subspecies, and one species is found only in Bhutan. It has a unique appearance, with a head that looks like a goat and a body that resembles a cow.
In 1985, the Bhutan government declared takin as the national animal of Bhutan and later established the takin preserve to preserve and protect them. The takin preserve is a sanctuary where visitors can observe the takin and other animals like Himalayan Serow, Barking Deer, and Himalayan Goral in their natural habitat. The preserve is located on Thimphu's outskirts and surrounded by forested hillsides.
From the Takin preserve, we made our way to Tashichho Dzong, also known as Thimphu Dzong. A Dzong is a unique architectural structure found mainly in Bhutan and Tibet that serves as the administrative, religious, and social center of their respective districts and is an essential part of Bhutanese and Tibetan cultural heritage. Typically, these structures are massive, built with stone and wood, and are known for their fortress-like appearance with large walls, towers, and courtyards. The intricate woodwork, colorful murals, and ornate carvings that adorn the Dzongs reflect the country's rich artistic traditions.
These Dzongs house government offices, monastic communities, and serve as venues for important religious festivals and ceremonies. Additionally, they are popular tourist destinations, allowing visitors to explore the courtyards, temples, and museums within their walls to learn more about Bhutanese history and culture.
On the way to the Dzong from the preserve, we came across a vantage point that offered a great view of the Dzong. It was from there that we first caught sight of the Dzong. The Dzongs being massive structures, the view from the vantage point gave us a true sense of their immense size.
As Tashichho Dzong is located in the capital city of Thimphu, it holds greater significance and serves as the seat of Bhutan's government and religious affairs. Like all other Dzongs, it has dedicated divisions for administrative and religious and cultural purposes. Tourists have access to the religious and cultural division, while the administrative division remains off-limits.
The complex also features various gardens that bloom with colorful flowers during spring (March to May), creating a vibrant atmosphere. In the evenings, tourists can witness the flag ceremony conducted by monks who chant prayers and perform rituals as they slowly lower the flags with respect. The ceremony ends with a blessing. Unfortunately, we missed the ceremony as we arrived at 2 pm.
Thimphu Dzong was our final destination of the day. At around 2:30 pm, we headed to one of the famous cafes in Thimphu, The Ambient Cafe. Having read about it on Twitter, I was curious to explore the vegan options that the cafe offered. We decided to try the vegan and vegetarian thali. I also bought a local newspaper from the cafe. Surprisingly, the vegan and vegetarian thali turned out to be a staple Indian homemade food.
After our lunch, we returned to our hotel to rest for a while. In the evening, Thinley, the owner of Bhutan Best Inbound, visited our hotel to meet us and brought us lovely souvenirs. It was a pleasure to meet him in person, putting a face to the name. He mentioned that he had studied in Bangalore for a couple of years and had traveled in India.
After meeting him, I went to Changlimithang stadium to witness the evening celebrations. Although it was extremely cold, a huge crowd was enjoying the song and dance performances by popular Bhutanese artists. The youth were singing the popular songs along with the performers and having a great time.
I felt extremely fortunate to be in Bhutan during their National Day, an occasion of great importance to everyone in the country, where I could witness and participate in their festivities.
Dec 18th, 2019. Day 3 - Drive to Punakha.
After having a light breakfast, we set off for Punakha at around 10:30 am, our second destination of the Bhutan trip. The distance between Thimphu and Punakha is 75 km, and it takes almost two hours to reach Punakha. On our way to Punakha, we passed by the Buddha Dordenma. Throughout Bhutan, we saw a lot of flags on the mountains. There were two major types of flags - the well-known colorful Buddhist prayer flags and large white flags. On inquiry, Phurba explained to us the importance of both flags.
Bhutanese prayer flags, known as "lung ta" in the local language, are an essential part of Bhutanese culture and religion. These colorful rectangular flags are traditionally made of silk, cotton, or other natural materials and are inscribed with prayers, mantras, and auspicious symbols.
The flags are believed to spread good fortune, promote peace, and ward off evil spirits. They are usually found in places of worship, along mountain passes, and on high ridges, where the wind can carry the prayers and blessings to all beings.
The five colors of the flags represent the five elements of nature - blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.
Bhutanese prayer flags come in different sizes and designs, ranging from small flags that can be tied to trees or poles to large ones that can cover entire buildings. It is common for Bhutanese families to hang prayer flags outside their homes as a symbol of good luck and prosperity.
Manidhar are tall white prayer flags vertically attached to poles. They are raised after a person has died as a remembrance for the deceased. It is believed that there are blessings from hoisting 108 (auspicious number) of Manidhar prayer flags.
At around 11:15 am, we reached Dochula Pass, one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan. Dochula Pass is a high mountain pass located at an altitude of 3,100 meters (10,171 feet). It is situated on the way from Thimphu to Punakha and provides stunning panoramic views of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains.
The pass is also significant from a historical and cultural standpoint. In 2003, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, commissioned the construction of 108 chortens (stupas) on the pass to honor the soldiers who were killed in a battle against Assam separatist group ULFA. The chortens were built in a traditional Bhutanese style, and the pass has become a popular tourist destination since then.
We were surprised to see a significant number of guards overseeing the area, constantly reminding tourists to keep their distance from the stupas. We had never encountered such a strong presence of guards and volunteers at any other location during our trip. When we inquired about this, Phurba informed us about a recent incident where an Indian motorcyclist had climbed one of these stupas. This incident had caused a considerable outcry in Bhutan, and the biker was arrested by Bhutan Police. Since then, security had been heightened in this area.
We felt genuinely saddened by this news and couldn't help but wonder how one incident could have such a negative impact on the perception of Indian tourists. We conveyed our apologies to Phurba on behalf of our fellow Indian traveler. It served as a reminder of the importance of respecting local cultural sensitivities. It was truly astonishing to us that someone would climb these stupas, which hold immense religious significance and are deeply revered by the Bhutanese people.
On a clear day, the Himalayan Peaks are visible from Dochula Pass. When we reached Dochula Pass, we could see some residual snow, indicating that it must have snowed a couple of days back. Most of the stupas and neighboring peaks were covered with snow, and this was the first time we were witnessing snow in our lifetime. While trying to pull out some residual snow from the road, I even experienced a frostbite.
Despite the few clouds, we could see some of the peaks very clearly, and we even used our binoculars to get a better view. At the stop, there is a café, washroom, and souvenir shop. After spending an hour there, we proceeded towards Punakha. The road from Dochula Pass to Punakha is extremely curvy and rapid changes in altitude made us feel dizzy. But the beautiful landscape kept our minds distracted.
To our delight, Phurba had purchased prayer flags for us. We thanked him and hoisted the flags 5 km away from Dochula Pass at a windy spot. We wish the flags stay there forever.
After disembarking at Punakha, we felt a bit dizzy and decided to rest before visiting Chime Lhakhang, a Buddhist monastery.
This destination is famous for its historical and cultural significance. It is dedicated to the Buddhist saint Lam Drukpa Kuenley, also known as the Divine Madman, who is believed to have used his "magic thunderbolt of wisdom" to subdue demons and evil spirits. Visitors can receive a blessing from the resident monk, who lightly strikes them on the head with a wooden phallus, believed to bring good luck and fertility. The temple is surrounded by lush greenery and rice paddies, making it a serene and peaceful place to visit.
We hiked 1.5 km through red rice paddy fields, which were beautiful despite being empty, since the rice had already been harvested. At the end of the hike, we climbed a few steps to reach the temple. We spent approximately 20 minutes at the temple complex before walking back to our starting point. Punakha, is known for its fertile valley and agricultural production, and there were many locals selling souvenirs and fruits in the temple complex. While you can discover many typical souvenirs at the Paro market, there are also plenty of distinctive, small items that are exclusive to the little shops near the sightseeing spots. We purchased freshly plucked oranges and plums.
Afterward, we had lunch at Rinchenling Cafeteria. The cafeteria was situated facing the temple, so we had a clear view of the temple while enjoying our meal.
After enjoying a delicious lunch, we set off towards our next destination, Punakha Dzong. This grand palace, also known as the palace of great happiness or bliss, is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. It was built in 1637-38 by the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche, Ngawang Namgyal, and served as the administrative center and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955 when the capital was moved to Thimphu.
We drove for around 10 kilometers, from the starting point of Chimi Lakhang. The route to Dzongkhag was stunning. It runs parallel to a river, and we were captivated by the beautiful scenery along the way. Upon arrival, we purchased tickets and crossed a small bridge to enter the Dzong.
The Dzong is built on a relatively flat land surrounded by a river on three sides and a small hill on the fourth, making it easily defensible in times of war.
Due to its unique architecture and strategic location at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, we found Punakha Dzong to be the most stunning Dzong we visited.
It's no surprise that it was chosen as the wedding destination of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King of Bhutan, and Jetsun Pema, Queen of Bhutan.
After spending nearly half an hour exploring the Dzong, we proceeded to our final destination for the day.
A pleasant twenty-minute hike led us to the renowned Punakha Suspension Bridge. The trail followed alongside the river, offering a clear view of the crystal-clear water and the river basin.
The Punakha Suspension Bridge is a well-known pedestrian bridge situated in Punakha.
Stretching over the Pho Chhu river, it serves as a link between the town of Punakha and the Punakha Dzong. This impressive bridge, measuring approximately 160 meters in length, is among the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. Built in the traditional Bhutanese style using bamboo and steel cables, it is adorned with vibrant prayer flags. Crossing the bridge presents captivating vistas of the surrounding mountains and the flowing river below.
As we walked across the bridge, it swayed gently, granting us panoramic views of the river, lush greenery, and majestic mountains.
The bridge can be traversed in a matter of 2-3 minutes. Since we arrived in the evening, the wind was quite strong. It proved to be an excellent spot for capturing memorable photographs.
Upon reaching the middle of the bridge, we closed our eyes and embraced the tranquility of the surroundings.
The soothing sounds of the wind and the river surrounded us. We spent nearly half an hour at the suspension bridge, savoring each moment. After crossing the bridge, we intended to take a leisurely walk in Punakha town. However, we had to forgo this idea due to the advancing hour. Nevertheless, we anticipated the opportunity to explore the town during our planned hike in Punakha the next day.
We arrived at Zhinkham Resort around 5:30 pm, greeted by the darkness that had already settled in. We had chosen this resort specifically for its prime location directly opposite the majestic Punakha Dzong. Thanks to Phurba, we were fortunate enough to secure a room facing the Punakha Dzong at the resort. From our room, we enjoyed a clear view of the Dzong. As the Dzong is situated at the confluence of two rivers, we were treated to the sight of the rivers and the suspension bridge.
The resort complex itself was expansive, and we planned to explore it in detail the following morning. Compared to Thimphu and Paro, Punakha had a warmer climate. After a satisfying dinner, we retired to bed early, eagerly anticipating a small hike we had planned for the next morning. Little did we know the unexpected challenges that awaited us.
Dec 19th, 2019. Day 4 - Drive to Phobjikha Valley.
We were in for an unexpected surprise when we woke up that morning – there was no water in the bathroom. The hotel staff seemed clueless about the situation, and chaos ensued among the guests. Many of them were checking out without even having breakfast. Despite the inconvenience, we managed to complete our morning routine using the limited stored water available in our bathroom. Unfortunately, the breakfast menu was also extremely limited. While the location and room at Zhinkham were fantastic, our overall stay there turned out to be quite disappointing. As a result, we decided to cancel our planned hike at Punakha and instead made our way to the beautiful Phobjikha Valley.
The Phobjikha Valley, situated in the Wangdue Phodrang District of central Bhutan and approximately 80 km from Punakha, is a captivating destination. Located at an elevation of around 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level, this valley is nestled within the Black Mountains, a part of the majestic Himalayan range.
A notable highlight of the Phobjikha Valley is its role as a wintering ground for the endangered black-necked cranes. These elegant birds migrate from the Tibetan Plateau to the valley, adding a touch of natural wonder to the area. The conservation of these cranes and their habitat is a matter of great importance to the local communities, who have made efforts to preserve and protect their environment.
Beyond its natural beauty, the Phobjikha Valley is also renowned for its cultural heritage. It is home to the Gangtey Monastery, a significant Buddhist monastery that holds both religious and historical significance in Bhutan.
During our journey to Phobjikha, we encountered residual snow on some peaks, adding to the scenic charm. We stopped for lunch at Hotel Kuenphen Norbuding, an all-women café managed entirely by women. The café is located right next to a forest and a hill, offering a splendid view of the valley.
Along the way, we were fortunate to spot a few wild yaks peacefully grazing near the road. It was our first time seeing yaks, and I was tempted to capture some pictures. However, Phurba wisely cautioned me about keeping a safe distance and avoiding disturbing them with camera flashes, as yaks can be aggressive.
Our sole destination for the day was the Crane Observation Center, and we arrived at around 2 pm. The Crane Observation Center is a dedicated facility that offers a unique opportunity to observe and learn about the endangered black-necked cranes. As we entered the center, we saw an injured rescued crane.
Through informative displays, engaging exhibits, and knowledgeable staff, visitors can deepen their understanding of the significance of protecting these magnificent birds and their fragile ecosystem.
The black-necked crane, called as "Thrung Thrung Karm" by the locals is about 1.15 meters in height, has a wing span of 2 meters, and weighs 5 kg. It has a whitish-gray body, a black head with red crown patch, black upper neck and legs. They typically begin their arrival in the valley by the end of October or early November, and their return migration starts towards the end of February. Birds migrate in response to changes in food availability, habitat, or weather. The cranes hold great importance in the region. In fact, the local community celebrates the Crane Festival every year on November 11, highlighting the significant role of these birds in the valley. To ensure the preservation of the endangered black-necked cranes' habitat in the Phobjikha Valley, efforts have been made to even bury the electric cables underground, despite the inconvenience it may cause to the locals in case of cable faults.
After watching a captivating 15-minute documentary about the highly endangered black-necked cranes, we had the opportunity to observe a couple of cranes through the telescopes provided at the center.
Having spent 45 minutes at the Crane Observation Center, we proceeded to Dewachen Resort and Spa.
The road leading to the hotel took us through a quiet and typical remote village, where the absence of people made us wonder about the medical facilities available in such a secluded area. Phurba told us that every village has basic medical facilities, and in case of emergencies, Bhutan provides free helicopter services for its citizens. The Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service (RBHS) is a government program designed to ensure timely medical evacuation and transportation for individuals in need of urgent medical attention in remote regions. We were truly impressed.
Upon reaching the hotel, we were mesmerized by its location on a hillock on the outskirts of a forest, offering a serene and secluded atmosphere. Despite Thinely's caution about possible power cuts and simpler facilities compared to Thimphu, we were pleasantly surprised by the warm hospitality and the amenities provided in this remote setting.
Considering the chilly weather, our room was equipped with an electric heater and a cozy fireplace. The dimly lit room, devoid of a television and limited mobile network, let us fully embrace the peaceful surroundings. Thanks to Phurba's arrangements, we were fortunate to have a room with a breathtaking view of the valley. While the room may have lacked extravagant amenities, it was clean and tidy.
In the evening, I took a stroll around the hotel complex, braving the chilly winds, and checked on Phurba and Jigme to ensure their comfort. Later, we had dinner at the restaurant, which provided a stunning view of the valley. Dewachen, like Zinkham, was situated in a tranquil and secluded location, offering a remarkable contrast to the bustling City Hotel Thimphu.
Dewachen also offered traditional hot stone baths and massages, tempting us to indulge. However, we decided to save that experience for our final day in Paro.
Although we encountered a couple of power cuts during the night, we were unaffected thanks to the comforting warmth provided by the fireplace.
Dec 20th, 2019. Day 5 - Hike in the valley, and long drive to Paro.
I woke up early to take another stroll around our hotel and noticed that the valley looked remarkably different from the previous evening. The air was incredibly clear, free from any pollution or dust, which was a refreshing change compared to Mumbai. Although there was fog, it wasn't smog that we often encounter in large metros.
The dinner and breakfast options at the hotel were limited, but considering the valley's limited connectivity and the hotel's isolated location, it was completely acceptable.
After checking out, we set out for the most beautiful hike of our tour. It was a 3.5 km, one-hour hike along the edge of a dense pine forest. Phurba, mentioned that we might be lucky enough to spot a few black-necked cranes.
To our surprise, within just 10 minutes, we spotted a large flock, known as bachelor flock in the distance. Due to their size, they appeared like grazing cattle in the fields.
As we focused on observing the cranes through our binoculars, we heard their distinctive calls. A small flock of cranes flew by us, much to our excitement. Even Phurba was surprised and thrilled to see the cranes up close. We were fortunate to capture pictures and videos of them in flight.
During the hike, we had to cross a couple of small streams, where the water was remarkably clear.
At one point, we saw a cow drinking water from the stream. We noticed that the cows had thicker fur to cope with the cold weather. The entire hiking path offered spectacular scenery, with only a few tourists and no locals in sight. There was a long stretch where we passed through the forest, and although Phurba mentioned the presence of bears and wild boars, we were assured that we wouldn't encounter any wild animals during the day, not even deer, as tourists commonly use the path.
After the enchanting hike, we prepared ourselves for a five-hour drive covering approximately 180 km to Paro.
Phobjikha Valley turned out to be the most beautiful place on our itinerary. Initially, we had planned to skip it, but after visiting, we realized it was definitely worth extending our trip and enduring those extra hours of travel. It is an absolute must-visit place for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts.
On our journey to Paro, we made a stop at Punakha for a light lunch. We chose ST WiFi Tourist Lunch Place, where the service was impressively fast. Our order included red rice, cabbage curry, soup, and dal. Opting for red rice was both a choice and a necessity since rotis were priced at Rs. 300! It seemed that this restaurant was highly popular among guides, as it was the busiest one we encountered during our entire trip.
As we continued our journey to Paro, we once again crossed Dochula Pass. Passing through Dochula Pass, we immediately noticed the temperature change. Although we were tempted to take another break, we were too tired to stop and decided to keep going towards Paro.
Finally, at 5:00 pm, we arrived at Tiger's Nest Resort in Paro after a nearly 5-hour journey from Phobjikha. This resort is situated 9 km away from the main Paro market. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of the market and Paro Airport, where our amazing trip had commenced a few days earlier. A tinge of sadness enveloped us, realizing that Paro would be our final destination before heading back home from this airport.
Similar to Dewachen Resort, Tiger's Nest Resort is also nestled on the edge of a forest. Our room provided a clear view of the iconic Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest.
Despite its remote location, the resort was well-maintained and offered excellent amenities. Unlike other hotels, this particular hotel provided the convenience of an electric blanket and floor warmer in the bathroom. This unexpected amenity came as a pleasant surprise and a relief, especially considering our three-night stay. The occupancy was relatively low during our stay. The hospitable staff and delicious food further added to our pleasant experience. The resort had even adopted two playful kittens, and we were delighted to encounter them during our visit to the restaurant in the evening.
Since it was getting late, we decided to explore the resort complex the following day. Our plan for the next day was to embark on the trek to Tiger's Nest. It is advisable to save this trek for later in the trip, as it involves high altitude and cold weather. Spending a couple of days in Bhutan helped us acclimate to the altitude before undertaking the trek.
Dec 21st, 2019. Day 6 - Hiking to the Tiger's Nest.
Tiger's Nest, also known as Paro Taktsang, is a famous and revered monastery located in Paro. Perched on a cliffside at an elevation of about 3,120 meters (10,240 feet), it is an iconic landmark and a major tourist attraction in the country. The monastery holds great historical and religious significance in Bhutanese culture. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave at this site in the 8th century.
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to this location on the back of a tigress, hence the name "Tiger's Nest." The monastery complex consists of several temples and buildings, interconnected by walkways and staircases. It is a sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhists, who undertake the challenging trek to seek blessings and enlightenment.
The trek to Tiger's Nest is considered a highlight of visiting Bhutan. The trail winds through beautiful forests, offering stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Along the way, there are designated resting points where visitors can take a break and admire the scenery.
As Sheetal found the hike at Phobjhika challenging due to the high altitude, we decided that only Phurbha and I would hike to Tiger's Nest. Even though I lacked confidence in trekking, having only hiked on plains before, I decided to take on the challenge. I shared my concerns with Phurbha, but he assured me not to worry and promised to support me in pushing my boundaries. He suggested that we could rest and return midway if I couldn't complete the hike.
It is always advisable to start early, whether in summer or winter. Summers can get extremely hot after 11 am, while winters become cold and dark after 5 pm. We left the resort at 9 am and started our trek at 9:20 am after getting our entry tickets and renting a walking stick. To travel light, I chose not to carry my DSLR camera, and I must admit it was a wise decision. We encountered a large crowd at the base camp, likely the same Bangladeshi group we had seen the day before at ST WiFi Tourist Lunch Place. We swiftly passed them and soon found ourselves alone most of the way.
The path was uneven, with sections being rocky or plain, and at times, we encountered steep inclines that led to a rapid gain in altitude. Fortunately, there was no recent snow or rain, so the trail wasn't slippery. Initially, the hike seemed challenging, but I discovered that starting slowly, allowing the body to warm up, and gradually increasing the pace made it more manageable. After about 50 minutes, we reached a café that is typically considered a mid-point, marking the time as 10:10 am. We took a 20-minute break to use the washroom and enjoy a cup of coffee before continuing our journey.
Within half an hour, we arrived at the famous viewpoint. Although it was crowded, we captured a few pictures before moving on. I noticed some tourists carrying large bags and even bringing their small children along the way. I wondered if they could complete the hike, as it seemed quite challenging. It was surprising to see people carrying large trolleys, seemingly unaware of the challenges of the hike.
In 20 minutes, we reached our final destination. Considering our half-hour break, we completed the ascent in two hours—a gratifying achievement. As we neared the final destination, there was a descent that provided some relief, as it was comparatively easier than the uphill climb. Remarkably, I completed the hike without taking a single sip of water, perhaps benefiting from my acclimation to Mumbai's hot and humid climate.
At Tiger's Nest, we had to deposit our bags, phones, and cameras. Although the number of lockers was limited, we were fortunate to arrive quickly and secure one. The complex comprises eight temples, and it took us approximately 50 minutes to visit them all. The panoramic views from the top were absolutely jaw-dropping, allowing us to see the path we had taken to climb up.
We commenced our return journey at 12:10 pm. The temperature had started to rise, but the cloudy weather shielded us from direct sunlight and prevented sunburns.
I found the initial ascent during the return hike, especially the steps, the most challenging part. However, once we passed that phase, the rest of the descent was walking downhill. We could even pick up the pace, although it is not recommended as it can be hard on the knees. Due to dew or residual snow, the path can become quite slippery during the rainy season and early morning hours. Fortunately, the weather was dry, allowing us to walk briskly. The walking stick was helpful while descending as it reduced the pressure on our knees.
We reached the base camp precisely at 2:10 pm, much to my delight and surprise. I was thrilled to have completed the trek in under 5 hours. Even Phurba was astonished that someone like me, with no prior marathon experience or trekking background, could finish the hike that typically takes 6 to 6.5 hours within such a short time. The favorable weather conditions played a significant role in my accomplishment. The temperature was just right, not too warm or too cold, which allowed me to finish the trek without needing to eat anything. I only took a few sips of water throughout the journey, despite carrying 1.5 liters with me.
After the trek, I returned to the resort and later we visited the Paro market. We had lunch at National Thali and took a leisurely walk through the bustling market, browsing a few shops. After some shopping and window shopping, we headed back to our resort.
Dec 22ⁿᵈ, 2019. Day 7 - Visiting National Museum, Rinpung Dzong, and Paro Market.
Our first task was to find an internet café and check in for the return flight. Strangely, the Druk Air app and mobile website are buggy and don't allow check-in. After a quick visit to the cafe, we headed to Ta Dzong or the National Museum of Bhutan.
The National Museum of Bhutan, located in Paro, is a fascinating cultural institution that offers visitors a glimpse into Bhutan's rich heritage and history. Unfortunately, the original museum building, a beautiful Ta Dzong (watchtower), was damaged in an earthquake. However, the Bhutanese government quickly took action to preserve the country's cultural treasures. They built a new museum to house the collection and continue showcasing Bhutan's unique traditions. The museum displays various artifacts, artworks, and historical objects reflecting Bhutan's customs.
Before entering the museum, we had to deposit our cameras and mobile phones. Inside, we explored Bhutanese art, religious relics, traditional costumes, and weapons. The exhibits included ancient manuscripts, detailed thangka paintings, bronze statues, and traditional textiles. The museum also provided insights into Bhutan's monarchy, cultural practices, and religious beliefs. We watched a short documentary showcasing Bhutan's festivals.
Right beside the museum, an Airport View Point offered a panoramic view of Paro City. We were fortunate to witness a plane landing at the Airport.
Later we visited Rinpung Dzong, also known as Paro Dzong, a historic fortress-monastery with immense cultural and religious significance in Bhutan. Its name, "Fortress on a Heap of Jewels," reflects its magnificent and revered status. Situated by the Paro River, the Paro Dzong can be seen from the Museum complex and is a sight to behold. The interior of the Dzong is adorned with vibrant colors and intricate religious symbols, showcasing Buddhism's prominent deities and saints. As we entered the Dzong, we encountered pictures of the four directional Kings of Bhutan.
We took the opportunity to capture some photographs with the monks, although some were shy and quickly scurried away when we approached them. We spent a delightful 45 minutes exploring the Dzong.
Ever since we arrived in Bhutan, we had been eager to experience wearing traditional Bhutanese attire and capture some memorable pictures. Fortunately, we discovered a shop conveniently located in front of the Dzong. Crossing a small bridge, we rented Kira and Gho, the traditional dresses for women and men, respectively. Although I had envisioned a professional studio setting, we had to click pictures on the roadside, which was a letdown.
After concluding our day of sightseeing, we returned to the vibrant Paro market. For lunch, we decided to dine at Mountain Café. As a vegan, my food options were somewhat limited, and I again ended up ordering the Potato gravy. Interestingly, throughout our 7-day stay in Bhutan, we encountered various potato dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Local restaurants and hotels make ample use of locally grown potatoes.
While most shops and restaurants accepted cards, I was advised to carry cash. Therefore, we withdrew money from a nearby ATM and explored the shops lining the main street of Paro market. Although we purchased from a few different places, we discovered a charming little corner shop called "Bhutanese Authentic Souvenir," which offered reasonable prices. It was here that we bought the majority of our souvenirs.
However, we had to be mindful of our purchases due to concerns about luggage weight limits and the fact that we didn't have a direct international flight to Mumbai. Carrying plenty of warm clothes, we were already nearing the 15 kg limit.
By 4:30 pm, we had completed our shopping spree and returned to the resort. Upon arriving, we bid our final farewell to Phurbha. We had an early morning flight to Kolkata, so we requested Jigme to pick us up from our hotel.
We decided to pay a visit to the restaurant to see how the kittens were doing. Due to the chilly weather, they often sought warmth near the heater. As we enjoyed our snacks, we had a delightful time playing with the kittens using tissue paper balls. The hotel staff informed us that we were the sole guests for the night, lending an intimate and exclusive atmosphere to our stay, almost like having our own private resort.
Later, we strolled around the resort and returned to our room to pack our bags. While Sheetal eagerly awaited our journey back home, I felt sad, secretly wishing we could extend our stay. As we settled in for the night, we took a moment to recollect our experiences of the past seven days.
We had a great time in Bhutan, leaving us with an intense desire to visit again and explore the central and eastern regions. Amid our reflections, there was one regret - we didn't visit a local Bhutanese family to catch a glimpse of their homes and relish homemade delicacies. Perhaps, on our next visit, we'll have the opportunity to fulfill this longing.
Dec 23ʳᵈ, 2019. Day 7 - Return flight to Kolkata.
In the morning, Jigme arrived to pick us up. After bidding farewell to the hotel staff, we set off towards Paro Airport. En route, we passed by the market once again.
Since it was early, the roads were empty, and shops were closed. Jigme drove us to the Airport quickly. We presented him with dry fruits and expressed our hopes of crossing paths again.
At the airport, I purchased a couple more fridge magnets and a picture book. I had to squeeze them into my backpack since our trolleys were already full.
And so, our wonderful week-long Bhutan trip drew to a close. We were relieved that what began amidst chaos (due to the Mumbai - Kolkata flight cancellation) had ended so well.
I recommend contacting Bhutan Inbound Tour for anyone considering a trip to Bhutan. They offer a range of thoughtfully crafted tours and are open to tailoring itineraries to match specific preferences. I've established such a strong connection with Thinley that he even selected our photo for the 7-day tour on his website as the cover image. I am still in touch with Thinley and Phurba. I hope to see them again during our future Bhutan trips.