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!


  1. You book bus tickets in advance at the same bus stand? Does that guarantee you a specific seat number also? Pelseling Goemba - do tell us more about this trek, does it showcase the Bumthang Valley? The guest house - is it accessible by car? And contacts?

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  3. HVK,
    Book the tickets at the main bus stand at Thimphu. At Bumthang, it is just a shop where you can book tickets. It gives you choice of seat and assured seat number. Pelseling trek doesn't provide views of the valley as it is through thick pine forest. Guest house is accessible by road. I will get the contact number from Tandin soon.

  4. Excellent post. Helps put things into perspective. We are going in June, 2013 5th to 13th - couple and 4 yr old. Since its a Pune - Bhutan - Pune 9 days 8 nights plan, we have finally decided to give Bhumthang a miss and only travel upto Phobjika. Our plan is to go upto Phobjika, spend some time and come back to stay in Punakha. If we were to book a bus ticket one way, do you think it will be possible to book a cab back from Phobjika or Punakha to Thimpu ?

    1. Sorry, our reply is really late. By this time, you must have done the trip. I guess you could do Phobjika and come back by a cab. Please share your experience. Thanks!