I had a wonderful vacation in the Magical Land of the Druk (Dragon) – Bhutan!! Thank you for your patience & wonderful comments in Instagram. I have no words to describe the Himalayas! The serene landscapes, the snow clad mountains, the simple living, the buddhist culture, the magical dzongs and the humble high-thinking people. I am in love with the country!
Too many people have been asking me for the detail travel plan & expense breakdown of the trip.My travel journal has bits & pieces of my travel & experience. So, I will be summarizing it all here for you guys. I absolutely am pushing you to take this trip.Bhutan has changed my view about a lot of things. I have blogged on that in a different post here.
Me & my partner planned on this bucket-list-trip for this year as it requires energy & no commitments (kids!!). I was the planning in-charge and I think I fared a good Brownie point for making the trip smooth as possible. We planned on a 10 day trip. The planning started 3 month in advance, as we were travelling by Indian Railways & were attending the Paro Tsechu (the local festival). I suggest you take a look at the festival lists updated in the Bhutan tourism website to plan your trip accordingly. October is the best one- to attend the Thimphu Tsechu. We were travelling first to Gangtok, Sikkim for 2 days. then travel over to Phuentsholling to get the permit and move to Thimphu & Paro.
I firmly believe in arranging your trips yourself (instead of having a tour guide) as it prompts you to read more and know more about the place before you experience it first hand. However, if you are not from India, you are required to book your trip through a tour guide and it is pretty expensive at $250 per day. I strongly suggest reading a lot & having a copy of Lonely Planet handy with you. The mythological characters and magical stories need to be explained to you.
Please bear with me for the very long post. I just wanted you guys to know all about it.
Day 1: Delhi Train
A grumpy packing session & 4 hr of sleep later, we were speeding to the Old Delhi Railway Station to catch our train – Mahanandha Express. Our original plan was to take the Rajdhani Express. This was our backup train and we absolutely hated that it was the slowest of them all. Alternatively, you can get the flight to Bagdora airport and take a taxi from there. You can also go for the Druk Air, that would get you to Paro airport direct. We did not take it, as it would disrupt our whole plan.
It was early morning and we tried getting sandwiches from the station- bad choice! Got into the train & settled down. For anybody who knows how to travel in Indian railways its pretty OK. If you don’t, book well in advance, carry a bag of tissue, hand sanitizer & wet wipes. The food in the train was horrible (except for the breakfast- which was buttered toast with Eggs). Scouting decent food was the agenda for the rest of the train journey. We spend our time reading magazines and playing book games. While my partner spend his time sleeping, I read my novel.The train was pretty late.
Words of Wisdom:
– Book Rajadhani Train. Cleaner, faster & Good food served all inclusive with the ticket!
– Use the Indian toilet. Get some tissues to use- much better option considering the sanitation conditions in Trains.
– Prepare to have noisy kids as neighbors. – Book only 3AC or Up.
Day 2: NJP to Gangtok
The train was to reach NJP station by noon. We End up reaching by 5.30PM, making it difficult to get Public transport (Bus/ Share Jeep) to Gangtok. We settled for a Sikkim registered taxi at INR 2000 to get us to our hotel in Gangtok. Super pissed at Mahanandha for spoiling our visit to Rumtek Monastery, we carry on with our long journey through West Bengal to Gangtok in Sikkim.
We had dinner on the way to Sikkim from a local restaurant. food was decent & clean. After all the travel, we did not feel hungry at all. Reached at Hotel by night 10. We stayed at Bamboo Grove Retreat and it was kind of difficult to find. The awesome host Mr.Pinto was up waiting for us. He was like a parent who got our passes done for Nathula Pass ready the next day and made our travel arrangements too. His hospitality is really commendable. Long day- well deserved rest.
Day 3: Gangtok You Beauty!
We had a quick breakfast and rushed to the Jeep Stand (Yes! they have a stand for share-jeeps that go to Nathula Pass). We had our SUV’s Number and we managed to scout it out from that polluted Den. I secured the front seat for better front view pictures!(How smart of me!!) We had a few more passengers in our SUV and we were off to the Nathula Pass behind schedule by half an hour. The mountains were amazing and the roads were pretty dangerous. I must say that, for a hill station, the place is polluted with diesel SUV’s that are poor maintained. Be prepared to breath in a lot of polluted air.
Guess who underestimated the snow clad mountains?? Thank god for the small shop before the pass, I secured myself a Jacket- which made me look like a puff-corn. It was pretty cold up in the Nathula Pass border and photography was strictly prohibited. It had started to snow slightly while we were up there too. Thank god for the hot soup they served at the shop where we rented the jacket. It kept us warm enough.
We moved to the Baba Mandir- the shrine of Capt. Harbhajan Singh. Legends say about the Ghost Captain of Punjab 23 Regiment who still watches over the Border. The army of India & China believe in his legend. You can read more here. From there, we went over to the elephant lake & the zero point. The place resembled Ireland in so many ways.
En-route back, we were taken to the Tsongmo Lake/ Changu Lake. The lake derives its water from the melting snows of the mountains surrounding the lake. Of legendary beauty, the lake looks different at different seasons. In winter the placid lake remains frozen with the area around it covered in snow while in late spring the profusion of flowers in bloom adds a riot of colors around the lake. The lake is related to a lot of festival celebrations & Myths of future prediction for the locals. Near around the lake, we find the locals offering you a ride on their Yak. We had some real good memories of lovely Yaks there.
Coming back, we headed to the famous MG Marg- supposed to be the cleanest with a litter free, smoke free zone. It is more like a long stretch of open mall or boulevard square where locals and tourists take leisure stroll or just sit and relax on one of the many benches laid along the middle and both sides of the road to soak in the ambiance. MG Marg is also the main market area of Gangtok. There are all sorts of shops here including souvenir & gift stores, clothing stores (for men & women), handicraft items, shoe shops and even Pharmacies and convenience stores. We strolled along, had dinner & got some gits for family. Got some Sikkim special alcohol too. Too little a time spend in Sikkim.
Day 4: Longest Travel Day
Mr.Pinto, being the awesome host he is, arranged our transport in a taxi driven by ex-Army man Mr.Dawa. He was a very friendly guy and told us stories of the time he was posted in Siachen. He told us how important health is and why we should take care of it. He was a 45 year old man, who looked not a day older than 25. He helped us find a taxi from Siliguri to Phuentsholling and even bargained for us to find a right price. At INR 1600 we got an Indica car that was driven by Mr. Giri. It took us about 3 hours to reach Phuentsholling. Mr.Giri shared with us his story of going from riches to rags. Every walk of the journey, we were learning a lot from people & their experience. I had told you guys about this in my earlier post here.
We reached Jaigaon (the India part of the border) by 1PM. Indian taxi has a permit till the border, beyond which, only few with permit are allowed. The moment we stepped out of the taxi, we were swamped by local Bhutan taxis that claimed to get us to the Immigration office for INR50. They convinced us that it was far enough to walk and took us into the taxi. Turns out it was a total rip off. The Immigration Office was a walk away from the border gate. Lesson learned!!
The Immigration Office had a lunch break till 2PM (Bhutan time is 30 minutes ahead of Indian time. Keep a note). We filled out the single-page Immigration form and got ready with passport size photos and ID proof. I decided to get the papers done while my partner sourced some lunch. We were through with Immigration in 45 minutes.
We took a taxi to the Bus station to catch the last bus leaving to Thimphu at 4PM. It takes about 6.5hrs to Thimphu. The buses are smaller and they generally don’t fill in more people than the number of seats. We made a good friend in the bus named Mr.Sonam- who works in the construction business in Bhutan. He helped us with getting to our Hotel, while it was raining. He arranged us a taxi driven by Mr.Tenzing for the day travel the next day. We stayed at Khamsum Inn . It was awesome. Friendly staff and excellent facilities.
Day 6 – Thimphu Day Tour
Mr.Tenzing was at our hotel, when we were ready to go out. The stay was wonderful and the staff were courteous enough to offer us extra umbrellas, in case we may need them. After a quick breakfast at a hotel in the city centre, we decided to go to Changankha Lakhang. It was pretty amazing. It was an old temple where the Bhutanese go with their children for blessings, and to name them. The prayer wheels all around the main temple was beautiful. It is said that, when you turn the prayer wheels, you send out prayers into the air. This helps towards your next birth. It was a peaceful & calm experience.
We travelled over to the BSS station view point to have a better view of the Thimphu valley. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The aerial view of the Dzong, the Buddha & small government offices were beautiful.
Mr.Tenzing gave us a lot of insight on the normal life, taxation, administration & government in Bhutan. On the way back to the valley, we visited the Takin Preserve. As I had told in my earlier post, the Takin is the National animal of Bhutan and has a very interesting story behind its origin.
We visited the Buddha Dordenma next which had a 180 degree breathtaking view. The Buddha statue was huge and amazing. It is made of gold neck-up. It was pretty windy up there and I was feeling cold. The Buddha Dordenma is definitely a place to reflect on life and connect to nature.
We moved to Semtokha Dzong, which was build in 16th century. It was beautiful inside. Sacred & Amazing. The Buddhist culture and tradition is awe-inspiring. Belonging to Hinduism, we could relate a lot to the beliefs.
After that refreshing experience, we moved to Chorten Memorial. The prayer wheel experience there was different. There were prayer groups there and the people were walking around the memorial with their prayer beads and prayer wheel. It was a spiritual experience.
We visited the Dzong after sunset to see the lighting. Dzongs are monasteries that work as administration offices. We only saw it from outside.
In the night we walked around the city center and found a few good restaurant. We tried the famous Ema Datshi. It had way too many chilli in it- still not too spicy. I was feeling a bit feverish by night. Popped a tablet & took rest.
Day 7- Thimphu On Foot
Fever Day .Boooo…
I had a bad fever today and we stayed in the room till it was noon. We decided to explore the city on foot today. We walked around the city centre. Got Masks & tantric paintings. Got a few prayer flags and prayer wheel. We hopped around from shop to shop. Explored the city. Walked around taking pictures & talking to locals. It was a refreshing change from the usual touristy feeling. Fell in love with Bhutan & the lovely people there. The dogs there are pretty fluffy & cute. They sleep all day, go eat at some butcher shop by evening and bark all night. Needless to say- my partner who is a light sleeper hated them!
We got some real good food this day. Spend the evening lazying around at Ambient Cafe. That place has free wifi and lot of yummy food. We loved sitting there and reading books on Bhutan & Buddhism. This was the most relaxing day of the trip I’d say!
Day 8- Paro
We checked out of Kamsum Inn and walked over to the city centre. Packing light was a blessing at this point. One can easily get a shared taxi from Thimphu to Paro at just INR200 per person. We walked over till the Over Bridge near the Bus Station and got a Cab. The journey was beautiful and took just 1.5hrs.
The Cab got us to the Taxi stand near Paro Dzong. We were eager to get to our hotel and get back to watch the Tsechu (The local festival that is hapenning at the Dzong). After much bargaining, we got ourself a taxi driver for two days who charged us INR2000 for it. Taxi expenses were mounting. Our Cab driver was Mr.Sonam. Apparently, the name sonam is quite popular in Bhutan!
He took us to 16th Century Old Drukgyel Dzong Ruins. Drukgyal Dzong was a fortress and Buddhist monastery, now in ruins. The dzong was built by Tenzin Drukdra in 1649 at the behest of Ngawang Namgyal, Zhabdrung Rinpoche, to commemorate victory over an invasion from Tibet. In the early 1950s Drukgyal Dzong was almost completely destroyed by fire.
From there we went to Kichu Lakhang.On your way you pass rice paddies which form a backdrop for breathtaking pictures. Once you enter the temple, tranquility sets in. The trees and flowers blooming only add to the quaint charm of the place.Kichu is one of the oldest temple of Bhutan. ‘Lakhang’ in Dzongkha language means Temple. It was the home of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for many years. It has amazing statues of Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara) the Buddha of Compassion. A must see in Paro for those with a spiritual interest.
We were lucky enough to get access to the Main Prayer hall of Guru Padmasambhava. The place really makes you believe in re-incarnation & concepts of Buddhism. In the courtyard of the main temple, there are two orange trees that bear fruit throughout the year. The experience was surreal.
Then came the most exciting part- the Tsechu at Paro Dzong! The Bhutanese wear their traditional clothes for important festivals and to the Monasteries. The Male costume is called Gho and the female outfit is Kira. I was so tempted to buy one. Did not get the time for it though.
After a 15 minute walk up to the Dzong, we entered the Dzong ground where the Festival dance was going on.
We watched the dance from a prime position sitting along with the person recording it for the National TV. It was an amazing experience.
After the dances, we got out and had some good time watching the pristine clear water of Paro Chuu (Chuu means river) near the Dzong. The place was out of the world beautiful!! I could sit by the banks and write poetry all my life.
Sonam took us to the National Museum nearby. It was almost closing but we got the entry. The entry is just
INR25 and photography is not allowed. I loved the sacred dances section. My partner loved the stuffed animal section more. He found the alligator and the stuffed buffalo heads fascinating. There was an exhibition on the flora & fauna of Bhutan. It was a great experience and it gave an insight to the wonderful culture. Bhutanese take great pride in their culture and the way they live. No wonder they have the Gross National Happiness Index so high. Just outside the museum there are few seats that face the cliff ahead.Watching sunset from here is an experience in itself. We soaked in all what Bhutan had to offer – promising to return soon enough.
The day ended too soon and we moved to our resort- the Dewachin Resort. We had made our bookings through Booking.com but the Hotel had not received any information about our stay. They somehow got us a villa and made us comfortable. The stay was somewhat OK- no wifi. a clogged bathtub & sloppy room service. We had a lovely view of the valley from our balcony though!
Day 9- Tiger Nest Trekking
The day we were most looking forward to, as I told you in my earlier post! Early in the morning we got ready to go the the base of the Taksang Monastery Trek. This is the most popular destination in Bhutan and one has to trek about 3-4 hours to get to the Monastery. Filled with history, mythology & excitement, there were innumerable tourists ready to trek to the mountain top.
Mr.Sonam dropped us there by morning 6AM. It takes about 3 hours to climb to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) but it’s worth the effort. A breathtaking view and a magical spot. This monastery, clinging precariously to the side of the mountain, 1000m above the valley floor, looks inaccessible, remote and surreal. But hiking up to this marvel of human engineering, is a must for every visitor who is in reasonably good physical condition.
I made a good friend- Martha from Canada on the way. She has been travelling all over the world- even North Korea. Her travel experiences & life stories made the trek pretty simple for us (read more on her stories here)
Coming back from the trek, Sonam dropped us off at the City center to have our lunch & a bit exploration on foot. We found an Indian restaurant. The food is pretty average in Paro, compared to Thimphu. We loved the local brew Ara though. It tastes a bit like white wine, with under-notes of rice fermented.
The people were really polite and friendly. We did not have a local mobile to call our driver and the policeman helped us call him. It started raining just then and the policeman saw us in the rain and called our driver again to ask him to come soon. Such nice people!! We were kind of having this romancing-in-the-rain moment. I see my retired life watching the beauty of Bhutan and cooking with the exotic cheese and asparagus they have!! Ahh…
Day 10 – The Adventure of Coming Back
I thought this was going to be the most boring day of our trip. One reason being, I did not want to leave this beautiful country. The other being, the long train journey. I was relieved that we had Rajhdhani tickets confirmed this time. Little was I aware of the adventure that lay ahead.
We set out fairly early enough, enjoying the last views of the beautiful mountains, passes and the beauty of Bhutan. Mr. Sonam was our driver and he kept telling us about the life in Bhutan, the culture, how much they love India & our TV shows. He seemed to love a lot of the Bollywood music too. Bhutan has checkpoints every few passes, that check your papers and stamp them for entry & exit. As we reached one of the last few check points, the immigration officer pointed out that our permit was one day over-due and they could not stamp our papers. We tried explaining it was a mistake in the part of Immigration Office, as we had clearly mentioned it in the form when we applied. They did not bother to reply- Doomed! After much trouble, we convinced them the issue at hand and they agreed to it. They gave us our exit. Now, we had a major issue to tackle- we were late for our train!
Got the very next taxi from there at INR 2500 till NJP Railways station. Driving at god-speed, we may catch the train!Just when we started the journey, I noticed the behavior of the driver was pretty odd. He was asking a lot of personal questions. Soon one of his friend hopped into the taxi and they told us, that this guy knew the route better. Things were getting pretty creepy. The friend was keeping on yapping about about his life and trying to ask us a lot of personal question. The route had empty roads and fields. Things were getting kind of creepy & my partner caught the guy contradicting a lot of his statements. We feared a kidnap!! We started hiding a little money & credit cards into our pockets. As we reached a junction, I spotted a policeman and insisted on stopping the car. We took photos of the taxi and driver on our phone. We asked the friend to get off the taxi as we did not appreciate it.
At last, the helper was gone and the driver kind of understood we can get him into trouble. We held on to his driving license too. After much traffic & trouble, we reached the station to know that our train left 10 minutes ago!! Devastated, tired, angry & frustrated, we went on to the platform only to find that good ol’ Mahananda Express was at the platform. We had a ticket for this train as well, we took as a back-up. Groaning and cribbing at the last experience, we got onto the train. Got some food to eat. We were dead tired and a sleep was all we wanted. We spend the day sleeping.
Day 11- Back to Delhi
We reached back to Delhi by 11PM the next day. Tired, exhausted, dirty. Thank you Ola Cab – for your excellent service, we reached home by midnight and snugged into our bed.
Expense Breakdown- 2 People
Transport (Excluding Train Tickets) – Approx 20k
Food & Drinks – Approx 9k INR
Gifts – Approx 6k INR
Stay – Approx 26k INR
Miscellaneous (Random pangs of hunger, medicines, entry fees, yak ride etc.) – Approx 10k INR
Approx trip expense – Approx 70k!! Super Budget Trip INR
Misconception People have about Bhutan
1. Bhutan Currency is not lower than Indian currency. They trade equal and Bhutan readily accepts Indian currency. Earlier, there were inhibitions against 500 & 1000 notes. That seems to have been sorted now.
2. There IS Taxation. There is approximately 20% tax when you eat out. That is quite comparable to Delhi. The price of food is also comparable.
3. Taxi is not the ONLY method of transport- it is the most convenient. Bus services are limited and there is not much public transport after 4PM. Get a good driver and you are sorted (I shall help you on this too). Share taxi is the best way to travel to Paro from Thimphu.
4. Enjoy your trek in Tigers Nest. Do not hire the mules to take you up. I have seen and befriended people as old as 80 trekking all the way up. You can do it. Push your limits
5. Try the local food. Indian food there is nothing like the original versions. So instead of being a critic, try enjoying the local food & drinks.
6. Do your gift shopping in Sikkim if you are going there. It seems like the stuff is pretty much the same- just cheaper! Buy masks from Bhutan though.
7. Invest in a guide as you may miss out on the Symbolic Tantric Buddhism Concepts(Though we did not hire any). You can also read well on the topics and carry along a latest copy of Lonely Planet Bhutan. We enjoyed doing this.
Mr.Dawa (Sikkim)- +91-7602599990
Mr.Tenzing (Thimphu) – +975-17311751
Mr. Sonam (Paro) – +975-17257675
I really hope you guys will make this trip. Shoot me a mail or comment below to get any information you want. I shall answer to the best of my knowledge.