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The Land of The Thunder Dragon, popularly known as Bhutan (Drukyul- called locally), is a tiny land locked Himalayan Shangri-La in between two other ancient giants, India and China. Bhutan, with a sparse population of around 7,00,00 and nearly 70% forest reserve, is governed in a constitutional monarchy by the King and the Queen who are worshiped as almighty in their Kingdom of Happiness.
Being Indian, my family members and me had the liberty of travelling to this pristine country without the need of visa or passport and a mandatory tourist guide as required by other foreigners. Though some prior permissions are required on paper, it is not that difficult a task. It was a short trip of hardly a week. Being a Bengali, we had the perfect gateway planned in for the holidays during Durga Puja. One might be wondering which Bengali on earth would abstain from the once in a year majestic celebration of the Durga Pujas? Well you have the answer now. I hail from a small town, called Chandannagore, some 40 odd kms from Kolkata. We have our own majestic celebration of the Jagadhatri Puja, much similar in way of celebration to the Durga Puja but restricted only to certain places in Bengal.
So in the month of October 2015, we set out for our journey to Bhutan from the Howrah station. An overnight travel in the Kanchankanya express brought us through the forested landscapes of Dooars in West Bengal, to Hasimara. This station Hasimara, serves as the starting point for tourists from Bengal and other states of India to travel to Phuntsholing, the entrance to Bhutan from its southern borders with India. As the train stopped, our driver and guide was waiting with a red Travera for our 8 member family. Packing up the luggage, we set off for the pristine journey only to be welcomed by the rain gods before we could enter Bhutan. Well, the road up to Bhutan is not a very comfortable journey, and to add more to the dismal start, we got stuck in a traffic jam owing to a marriage celebration that took to roads. Running out of options and empty stomach forced us to break off for a lunch in a hotel just outside the entry gate to Bhutan. While the food ordered by us was being prepared we got an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a wedding celebration in the Hills. Unfortunately, the cameras were still packed and we missed out on framing the celebration.
By the time we reached Thimpu, the sun went into hiding behind the mountains. The chilling winds zoomed by our ears, greeting us with the pleasant weather of the mountains as we stepped out of our car, giving goose bumps. Our hotel though not very expensive, but offered a scenic view even at night of the hills and the establishments below in the valley.
The next day was for local site seeing. Our first attraction for the day was the Buddha point, located just a few miles from Thimpu in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. The place had a massive statue of Lord Buddha. The Buddha Dordenma Statue made of bronze, gilded with gold stands at 51.5 metres being one of the largest in the world. It sits on a throne that houses a mediation hall with 1,25,000 such small structures of Lord Buddha built similarly with bronze and gilded with gold. The area has a massive opening space around it providing panoramic view of Thimpu.
While descending from the Buddha point, our driver acquainted us with the view of the dwelling pace of the King and the Queen. The area is well restricted and can be seen from a view point downhill from Buddha point. The area also has some of the essential government buildings of the nation. Next, in list was the handicraft museum. Not stunning but might suit to the taste of some people.
We headed out for lunch, in one of the restaurants; the driver thought would suit our taste buds being Indians and prone to spicy flavors. Food is costly and the less one talks about the better it is. Indians for sure would be disappointed with the flavors, no matter from which part of India you belong. The cost of food items were really shocking. Hailing from an average middle class Bengali family accustomed to foods, cheap beyond imagination and taste beyond perfection, the cost was unacceptable to start with. Just to give a glimpse, a plain chapati, with the size of a puri, could range from about INR 15 to INR 25, a piece of omelet at INR 50 to INR 60 which is actually 3 to 5 times the normal rate in West Bengal. Well, one shouldn’t compare as the land is in difficult terrains. So we sunk in the shock and let ourselves get overwhelmed by the beauty of the land.
As the evening dawned on us, we head out for the market. Unlike other bustling market places, here it seemed much more organized and peaceful, clean. The traffic guards take control, who look lovely in their black uniforms. The splendid thing about Bhutan is that every piece of material reflects their willingness to retain their culture and tradition, while embracing modernity. Even the police posts and designed in the traditional Bhutanese architecture. The evening light feels warm and beautiful on the skin. The gradual warmth of the setting sun and the cool breeze of the approaching night could provoke one to stroll through the ascent and descent of the roads for long enough as one feels like.
The following morning we set forth for Punakha. A short distance of a few hours’ drive turned a nightmare as we saw a long line of cars queued up. It was Sunday, official workers were on leave and there was no one to remove the boulders from the early morning landslide. However, I should appreciate the quick service, within no time police and respective personnel for the job were on site and started clearing the road. Unfortunately, the matter was more complex than it seemed initially and we got stranded for over an hour.
Once the traffic resumed normalcy, we reached the Dochu La Pass, where there are 108 Chortens (Buddhist Shrines). The area is quite picturesque and provides a panoramic view of the mountains around. As fate would have it, the delay in the journey made sure the clouds covered the surrounding mountains which played hide and seek as the clouds hovered over them. Afternoons are not always sunny and clear in mountains like in plains, it was around 12 noon and covered with blankets of clouds. It was the peak point in our journey to Punakha from Thimpu , after which the roads gradually descended into the Punakha valley.
The Punakha valley is beautiful and simplistic to look at from a distance across the Puna Tsang Chu river. Its nearly a 3 hour drive of 72 kms from Thimpu that once used to be the capital of Bhutan. Not much of a civilization exists in Punakha, the building and hotels are similar in structure, evenly arranged in blocks. While crossing the Puna Tsang Chu River, the burned ruins of the old Punkha Dzong atop the hill is visible in warm orange hue of the setting sun.
The arrangement of the buildings in neat planned blocks with the traditional architecture gives a sense of amalgamation of the western and the eastern civilization. The road in and out of Punakha runs along the river side. The place is quiet enough to let the sound of the waters of the flowing river reach your senses. Even with enough light of the establishments around, the night sky is prominent with stars. A walk down the empty lanes, with children playing around gives a sense of a childhood lost in technology and mundane life taking over in adulthood.
Our tour was bit weird as we first went to Thimpu, then Punkaha and then to Paro crossing over Thimpu in the way to Paro from Punakha again. On way next day, we went to The Punakha Dzong. It stands at the confluence of the rivers Pho(father) Chu and Mo(Mother) Chu. The Dzong is better experienced than explained, as words fall short. I will leave it to one’s own understanding that could be made out with the pictures below.
As the path from Punakha to Thimpu was similar as we had come, we thought may be luck would give us a chance to see the Dochu La Pass without the cloud cover, but no. So without a halt we were on route to Paro. The scenic beauty by the roads to Paro did seem better than that to Thimpu from Phuntsoling.
The entire road stretch throughout the country seems well maintained, though at the entry to Paro, the road running by the only international airport base in Paro was rough. It was early evening by the time we reached Paro. Our hotel was located on the outskirts of the city in the lap of nature, which for me was perfect.
Next morning I woke up to a blissful sunrise in a comfy bed. The view of sun kissed glass of the windows, cold from the overnight chilling weather outside, gathering droplets of water running down its skin shining with the sparks of a precious stone were disturbed by my father yelling at me to get ready for the day. A short trip doesn’t allow the flexibility to rest always as there is a lot on the platter than that could be touched upon. We started at about 8 in the morning towards Chele La Pass. It is at an elevation of 13000 ft, considered to be one of the highest motorable passes in Bhutan. About an hour and half drive from Paro, the road up to the pass leads through lush valleys, rice paddies, bucolic villages, pine and rhododendron forest. The pass provides stunning views of the sacred mountain Jomolhari and Jichu Drake.
Descending from the Chelela Pass there comes a point from where the total stretch of the Paro Airport , the only national airport of Bhutan can be seen.
There is lot of tourist attractions in Paro but being a Buddhist Country, the obvious attractions are its Dzongs. Rinpung Dzong was out next stop from Chele La Pass.
From the balcony of the Dzong, the valley of Paro and the only international airport of Bhutan with its runway could be seen. One needs to be extremely lucky as there are only two flights to Bhutan operated only by their national carrier, Druke airways, twice a day.
Descending from the Paro Dzong, we went to one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, Kyichu Lhakhang, (also known as Kyerchu Temple or Lho Kyerchu) situated in Lango Gewog.
Our final destination was the Tiger’s Nest, which we had to observe from a distance unfortunately due to shortage of time and having aged members in the family, unable to trek .
The day could not have ended without a visit to the Paro market, where the women in the family went on to collect gifts and souvenirs. To my surprise, I came across a road side event performed by school kids on some occasion.
The following day we bid adieu to Bhutan and headed back home from Paro.
The greatest thing about Bhutan is that you come back with a sense of tranquility. The slow paced life style , the serene beauty untouched by human encroachments, the amalgamation of human culture civilization with a sense of respect to nature, the wind that set sails through your veins a sensation of composure from the daily hustle of a modern day city life culminates into a sense of unity of the the mind and the soul of an individual.
for more images of Bhutan refer to this link Bhutan