Tuesday 29 November 2011

Bhutan -The Last Shangri-La

Why Bhutan? Answer is 'luxury of time' that you will not experience in any other place. Embracing Gross National Happiness with higher priority than GDP, Bhutan is the one of the best international backpacking trip you can do without a deep hole in the pocket at Rs 1800 for two per day. Bhutan does not welcome backpacker style tourism and any foreign tourist need to pay a fixed $250 per day - includes your stay, transport and food-tour should be through an tour agent. Only Indian and Bangladeshi nationals are permitted to do self organized tour in Bhutan.
Read http://www.bhutannica.org/ to know more about Bhutan.

Day 1- Arrive at Phuentsholing from Siliguri and obtain the permit and stay overnight.
Day 2- Phuentsholing to Paro. Visit Dzong, Stroll around the town.
Day 3 - Taktshang Goemba and nearby monasteries.
Day 4- Paro to Thimphu. Walking tour of Thimphu and Takin Preserve
Day 5 - Pangri Zampa, Dechenphu Lhakhang, Tango and Cherri Goemba
Day 6 - Return to P/ling. 

Permit: Indian nationals don't need a visa, but need to obtain a permit at the border crossing point- Phuentsholing next to the Indian town Jaigaon, West Bengal. New Jalpaigudi (NJP) is the railway station nearest to Jaigaon which is 4hours by road. This permit is only for 7 days and Paro and Thimphu are accessible by this. Route permit for other restricted areas and route extension can be done only at Immigration Office at the capital city - Thimphu. To obtain a permit, you need a photocopy of Indian Govt. ID and address proof (Driving License, Passport, Voter's ID Card) and one passport size photograph. There are no fees for the permit and this will be ready in 30 minutes on a working day until 4pm. This permit will be asked at any hotel you stay and need to be stamped at immigration checkpoints on the way.

Currency: Bhutanese currency Ngultrum (Nu) is pegged at Indian Rupee. Rs is widely accepted in Bhutan except 500 and 1000 notes. Convert your 500/1000 notes at Phuentsholing or before to 100s. There is a Druk PNB (Punjab National Bank) ATM at P/ling and Thimphu. You can withdraw cash from this ATM in Nu from your Indian bank account without any foreign currency conversion charges. But be aware server outages can happen and carry cash enough from P/ling.

Food: Staple diet of Bhutan is beef and pork with rice and meatatarians will have no dilemma. Potato and beans are available at most of the hotels for vegetarians. But if you travel to Central Bhutan, you may be left with only the National food - Ema Datse- two dozen green chilies cooked in cheese. Yes, chilly is the one and only item in this dish.

Train & Bus: From any part of India, you can take a train to NJP in Siliguri city - the corridor to Assam. Direct Bhutan buses start from Burdwan road in Siliguri to Phuentsholing at 7am, 12noon, 2pm. You can also board a bus to Jaigaon or Hasimara from Siliguri bus stand (next to Silguri Railway Station). Take a shared auto from Jaigaon to Phuentsholing border crossing. Start by the first bus if possible so that you reach P/ling before 3pm to get your permit the same day.

Travel in Bhutan: Book your tickets one day in advance as the buses start in the morning. There are fixed bus routes inside Bhutan which are long distance Toyota Coaster buses. Comfortable for a day trip and make sure your backpack is secured on the top carrier of the bus and covered by silpaulin sheet to protect from rain and dust. The first row seat is not recommended as there will be lot of parcels around you. If you have motion sickness, Bhutan is not for you. AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) may hit you above 3000m, so keep yourself hydrated when you travel in Bhutan. The highest mountain pass Cheli La is at 3810m and you will cross many mountain passes at 3400m.

Things to remember: Batteries drain faster at temperatures lower than 15C. Remove the battery and keep close to your body in the night. AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) might hit you even at 3000m, keep hydrated and go slow when you are on the hiking trails. Grab a copy of Bhutan Lonely Planet from flipkart.com - knowing the history and traditions of this culturally sensitive country makes your trip more sensible. Carry a hat/sunglass and sunscreen lotion to ward off UV light and scorching sun.


Bangalore to Phuentsholing:
We started on a Friday night from Bangalore by Guwahati express and reached NJP after 48 hours. Relishing dosa at Chennai, biriyani at Vijayawada, rasgulla at Howrah, poori-sabji at Malda apart from the regular IRCTC meals, it was culinary cultural experience through eastern part of the sub-continent travelling 3000 km. Syed sent a box of sweets through his brother at Vijayawada, though he couldn't meet us. Many people consider train journey as a waste of time, but when we get 48 hours to spend reading, sleeping and eating - which is a break from regular routine life, it is utilized to the maximum.
At NJP, Sunday night was spent at Classic Lodge, NJP Main Road (Tel: 0353-2691673, Mob: 98323-15933) dbl Rs 600 after a shameless bargain for a basic but clean room and hot water shower- a cycle rickshaw will take you there for Rs 20. Next morning a shared auto for Rs 15 took us from NJP to the Siliguri Bus Stand. We took 9am bus to Hasimara as there was no bus to Jaigaon before 12noon. Kuttan hailing from my hometown Cherthala and running Madras Restaurant was so friendly that we forgot to pay for the breakfast! After a tough 4 hours and hoping on to a bus from Hasimara to Jaigaon (20minutes) and a shared auto Rs 20 per head, we reached the majestic border gate of Bhutan. Walked straight to the immigration office above the post office, submitted the simple application form with photocopy of the passport and photograph. 30min later, after lunch we collected the permits.

A few Rs 500 was converted from the fellow travelers on the way to Jaigaon and Akilesh at Anil Stores, Phuensum Lam, P/ling was kind enough to convert our Rs 500 notes to Nu 1000. I met him first in 2009 and he remembered me as well. He highly recommended Bumthang but warned that it might be snowing there. He gave me a copy of India Today with a report about King's wedding. After booking the tickets to Paro (Nu 198, 7 hours) at the bus station we checked in at Hotel Gongphyel (Tel: 05251660) dbl Nu650 with nice balconies and basic clean rooms. Relishing a plate of chowmein and local favorite Druk 11000 beer, we slotted into first gear for 10-day expedition of Bhutan.

Western Bhutan namely Paro and Thimphu can be visited in just 5 days. But if you want to explore the less visited Central Bhutan, count two weeks. From P/ling to Paro spending 7hours in the bus will take you altitude of 2800m. We started at 8:30am from P/ling after securing our backpacks on top of the top bus. Carry your essentials in a daypack inside the bus including a fleece jacket as the mercury might dip to single digits at Gedu. You would show your permit at the check post and get it stamped. The bus journey is the classic example of Bhutanese slow pace of life, they stop at vegetable/fruits vendors if you want to procure anything. Bus driver will stop and talk to every acquaintance with no sign of hurry. Lay back and relax, here is life with luxury of time. Peep through the window and enjoy the clouds at your feet, pine and cypress forests, tall electric towers from one mountain to another and many more… The average traffic speed is quite less and drivers don't honk perpetually, though the turns are precarious. We witnessed a truck falling from the ridge crashing the steel fence on the sides. Every vehicle on the way stopped and a few guys went down to help those in the truck.

The airport is in Paro -an idyllic town in the valley. You get a bird's eye view of the airport on the way 15min before the town. We reached Paro by 2pm after lunch stop at Karma Hotel, Bunakha. The roads are a lot better and perpetual landslide will slow down at a few places. Paro seemed crowded and it was cloudy with occasional light drizzle at a nippy 15C. After checking in at Hotel Dragon (Tel: 08272174, Nu800), not the best but available option , we walked along the Paro River enjoying this enchanting town lined up with wooden shops and restaurants at an elevation 2280m. Hotel Peljorling is the best bet for your taste buds but you will not meet many locals here. Paro Dzong which was made famous by the movie 'Little Buddha' should be the first destination if you reach before 5pm. Spending an hour at this exemplary Bhutanese architecture will make you think differently about wheel of life. You can shop for less in Paro compared to Thimphu if you are looking for a souvenir.

Next morning, pre-arranged taxi guy showed up at 7:30 am for obligator y visit to Taktshang Goemba (Tiger's Nest Monastery), named after the legend of Guru Rinpoche flying on the back of a tigress. Pack your lunch if you can and as there is no bus service in Paro, taxi is the only way to reach here, be ready to cough up Nu500 round trip. Precariously perched at rocky cliffs at an elevation of 3180m, this monastery is most famous and expect heavy tourist crowd on the muddy trail. A heavily worn-out gradual trail starts at 2600m from the parking lot will take 1hr 45min for a cardio-fit trekking enthusiast. You will find a exorbitantly priced café after 45min and some might retire at this location which provides a view of the monastery. Hike up through the blue pine forest and streams, at 3140m you will have a spectacular photo-stop of Taktshang. You need 30min to visit the monastery in detail. When we reached back the parking lot, we were surprised to see that our taxi driver did not show up at the stipulated time. After waiting for30min, we got another taxi to return to Paro town. Drukgyel Dzong is another oft-visited place close to Taktshang, but this is not so impressive, except the fact that you will reach the dead end of the road from Paro, you might be lucky to see the snow-capped Jhomolhari mountain.

You can rent bicycles from Paro town at a rate of Nu1500 for day or Nu750 for half-day. Nights can be chilly and mercury will be single digit, pull on your down jacket while strolling outdoors and thermals for sleeping. If you want to experience mountain biking in Bhutan, Paro is a better option than Thimphu when traffic and scenic routes are considered. Thimphu is two hour bus ride, but you don't get after morning service. Book your tickets on the previous day to ensure the availability and front seats. While visiting a local family run restaurant for roti and beans, we got strong recommendation to visit Bumthang. If you have your own vehicle, drive 35km to the highest mountain pass in Bhutan -Cheli La at 3810m.

A bus starting at 9am from Paro will reach Thimphu by 11am. After checking in at Hotel NT on Norzin Lam close to Clock Tower square ( Tel: 77247250- Shekhar) dbl Nu650 with room heater and hot shower. There are many options on Norzin Lam but make sure you check the room and toilets before you sign-up. If you need restricted area permit or route permit extension beyond 7 days, head to Immigration Office at the end of Norzin Lam road past Textile Museum and Duty Free shop with a copy of the permit and passport. After completing the paperwork, you can spend your time at Textile Museum, market, archery ground. A lot of eye-balls and lenses are attracted by the robotic traffic policeman at this capital - only one in the world without traffic lights. For a peaceful place at this busy city, you can head to the tranquil National Memorial Chorten and spin the prayer wheels. There are frequent buses to Motithang. Get down at Youth center and walk 4-5km to reach Takin Preserve - mini zoo which houses the National Animal of Bhuta - a combination of goat and a cow as per the legends. Frost can be found in the morning at Thimphu as early as November first week as the temperature drops to zero in the night.


Shared taxi to Tango and Cherri Goemba at 15km from Thimphu, will cost Nu50 for locals. Haggling with taxi drivers is a pain. Take a bus to Dechencholing and get down at the last stop. Pack your lunch, you will not see any place to eat. Next to the stop is Pangri Zampa. Walk up an hour past the huge tanks and you will reach Dechenphu Lhakhang. Come back to the junction and turn right to Tango and Cherri Goemba. Cross the bridge at Begana and turn left. It will take one hour to walk to the parking lot from D/ling. You might encounter lion tail macaque in this route. Majestic cones of snow at Jomolhari and other peaks are visible. Hiking to Tango and Cherri will take 45min each. Ride a taxi back if you don't have the luxury of time. While waiting for a taxi we talked to Dorji - a student from the monastic school. His friends were going to Pangri Zampa so they offered us a ride. Students spend 6 years at Tango then 3 years at Cherri. Then they spend in meditations for 3 years 3 months and 3days.

Back at Hotel NT, relish Saq datse/ tawa roti with Druk 11000 before returning to Phuentsholing.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Bhutan - Bumthang Valley

Want to smell the stimulative smell of pine forest and see the real Bhutan? Leave Thimphu and Paro and head to Central Bhutan. Power supply is erratic, transportation is bone-rattling. Bumthang is not for the average tourist. Best visited in summer and spring, Bumthang is colder than rest of the country and temperature can be freezing in early November; pack thermals and down jacket for Bumthang elevation at 2580m. Book your tickets to Jakar early as there is only one bus at 7am leaving Thimphu (Nu 312)

Getting up at 5am to board a bus to Jakar in Bumthang valley was more than exciting. At 6am, Thimphu bus station was crowded with travelers and vendors. I tried Thuppa which looked like rice porridge, the vendor was happy to see a 'tourist' trying out local food. Bus started at7am, switched back roads passing 108 chortens at Dochu La, Metshina, Punakha valley and Wangdue Phodrang. We reached Pele La at 3420m and there was snow all around! Phobjika Valley - legendary for black necked cranes, the glacial valley at Black Mountains slopes is a detour from PeleLa. You will see a few yaks gazing on the road side in this area. Bomilo is the only place where the bus will stop for lunch. Be ready to eat Bhutanese food- pork or ema datse for vegetarians. Ema datse here is more hot than the mild version that you get at Thimphu and Paro. Enjoying the mountain views of Black Mountains, we reached Trongsa by 3:30pm. Crossing Yotong La at 3425m, we reached Jakar after 12hours of tough ride at 7pm. Jakar was in pitch dark with no power supply.

Power supply is erratic in Central Bhutan and there might be no power for long hours, be prepared with flashlight and candles. Bhutan's export of 'excess' power to India is an overplayed slogan as half of the country is still not lucky to have electricity. This small town famous for Red Panda beer sleeps at 7pm and wakes up very late in the morning. Grab your dinner before 7pm if you are not eating at your hotel. There are a few cheapies in the town with shared bathrooms at Rs 300-500/-and mostly crowded by the Indian workers.

We checked in at Kaila Guest House(Tel:03-631219 std Nu 1500/- plus 10% tax) which is the nearest to the bus stop. This large hotel is a good place with cozy rooms and a restaurant with a bukhari-a stove made of metal with firewood as fuel. Request at the reception for the attendant who will come with a little kerosene to start the fire. Bukhari heats up the room pretty fast but don't stay for long, so get under the blanket if you are cold while the fire is up. Kuenzang at Kaila was delighted to see us from Bangalore as he spent 3 years in Bangalore doing his graduation in hotel management. Restaurant serves good though bland food catering to foreign taste buds, buffet dinner Nu 250. If you want to try out the local buckwheat noodles and Red Panda Weiss Beer with a tint of local conversations, explore any small restaurant in the town.

Squinting to the sunlight at 6am, we got ready to hike up the Pelseling Goemba. Crossing the bridge on the east side of the town climb up concrete steps to reach Namkhe Nyingpo Goemba. From here it is 3hours steep hiking up to Pelseling Goemba. There is a short cut used by cattle herds crossing two streams. Pack your lunch and spend enough time to catch up with breath on this rewarding hike through cypress and needle pine forests. After descending to Swiss Guest House, we stopped at Bumthang Brewery and met the Swiss Fritz Maurer who started this micro-brewery way back in 1980s. He introduced cheese-making, farming machinery, wood stoves apart from brewing. When you get a bottle from any shop in the town, be sure to check the expiry date of Red Panda beer as it doesn't contain any preservative and not filtered.

Next day, we moved to a cheaper accommodation -a family run guest house- Phuentsho Guest House (Nu 850 shared bathroom, Tel 03631432, mob 17670376/17578216) for a basic room with a bukhari. They have 8 rooms and another guest house is under construction. The daughter of the family did her hotel management course from Bangalore. We met Mr. Karma and Mr. Tandin who work in Ministry of Home and  Cultural Affairs. Both of them hail from Eastern Bhutan where the local language Sharchop is different from Dzongkha spoken at rest of the country. They were on duty visiting some of the Dzongs and monasteries.

We arranged a taxi to go around the western side of the Chokhor valley visiting Jampey Lakhang, Chakhar Lakhang, Khurjey Lakhang and Wangdi Choling Palace. Most of the religious places were thronged by Pundarika Pilgrimage group. Round trip cost was Nu 450. Back at Phuentsho Guest House we met with a few Americans hailing from Hawaii and working in Saudi Arabia. After lunch, Tandin and Karma offered us a ride to Tang Valley to visit the Burning Lake -known for Pema Lingpa's legend of jumping into the lake with a burning lamp. After 20km of rough ride from Jakar town, you will be at Membartsho where Burning Lake is a few minutes walk from the parking lot. Later in the evening Tandin and Karma conversed about cultural and historical aspects of Bhutan and acknowledged times are changing to modernization. Tandin offered a free call to Shekar to book a room at Hotel NT, Thimphu.

The bus back to Thimphu started at 7am and the snow capped peaks of Black Mountains were visible throughout the trip from Yotong La to Dochu La. The best views are between Trongsa to Wangdi. We reached Thimphu faster in 10hours. Next visit to Bhutan, we will concentrate on Central and Eastern Bhutan- Mongar and Trashigang. Exiting to India Samdrup Jongkhar is easier than going back all the way to Thimphu. Road less travelled always offer you more, if you are prepared!