Sunday, April 5, 2015

Bhutan : Old Path White Clouds


21/Mar/2015 0430 hrs – mumbai – BAGDOGRA – PHUENTSHOLING

Having wrapped up all office work on the previous night, it was indeed a challenge to pack our bags and then leave for the airport, well before sunrise, on a 9-day long trip. The things that were already in place were return flight tickets(inside India), tourist permits and hotel bookings at 4 cities. The rest of the logistics were to be managed at the world’s happiest nation itself. We had obtained permits from the Royal Bhutan Consulate, well before reaching Bhutan.


Indian tourists do enjoy some kind of luxury when it comes to a Bhutan visit. You can get a tourist permit either at Paro Airport or Phuensholing Immigration Office (We found the office open till 07:00 PM on a Saturday) or the Royal Bhutan Consulate in India (Kolkata/Delhi). Documents that need to be submitted along with the form, at the Consulate/Phuentsholing Immigration Office constitutes of: 1) Passport Copy/ Voter ID Copy 2) 2-Passport Sized Photographs (keep 4 handy) 3) Completed Bhutan Permit Application Form, along with original documents, for proof.

Secondly, a vehicle permit along with a driver permit can be made with the tourist permits, while you are travelling inside Bhutan. You can rent either an Indian or a Bhutanese Cab. If you wish to visit places beyond Thimpu or Paro, there might be additional permits required from the Immigration Office at Thimpu (Working hours: Mon-Fri), for which usually the cab drivers will coordinate.


Indian currency is widely accepted across Bhutan along with currency notes of Rs 500/1000 denominations, now. The Bhutanese Ngultrum remains pegged to the rupee with a 1:1 conversion ratio. For credit card transactions, an additional fee of 3.5-4.5% is generally levied by the hotels. Additionally, be mindful of the fact that there is a government tax of 20% levied on hotel bills, over and above the final amount. So you might prefer to carry enough cash with you. (There is a limit on carrying cash - Rs 25000 per person)

After making the lazy ladies get up including my sister and my wife, we could finally manage to leave for Mumbai airport at 05:30 AM, to catch a 07:00 AM flight to Bagdogra (IXB) via Guwahati. It was one of my longest domestic flights (around 5 hrs), and we would be meeting my friend and his wife who were flying from Kolkata.

It was around 1 pm, when we finally landed at Bagdogra, Siliguri (West Bengal, India) and we booked an Innova to take us to the border town of Phuentsholing, Bhutan. We had a delicious lunch at Sinclairs Siliguri on the way, thanks to the couple’s suggestion. I am not entirely sure if it was due to extreme starvation or awesome food preparation, but the chicken manchow soup tasted like heavens there. The drop to Phuentsholing from Siliguri Airport will cost you around Rs 3500-4000. Please keep note of Bhutanese time which 30 min ahead of India, if you are planning to get your permit from Phuentsholing Immigration Office itself. It should take 4-5 hours (180-200 kms) to reach there with some tea-breaks, traffic-jams or an odd stroll in the tea gardens of Siliguri.

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We had some tea with veg-momos at a restaurant nearby (dhaba actually).

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After overcoming the initial traffic blocks at Siliguri which consisted of endless lines of trucks (sometimes landslides block traffic for hours), we indeed had a pleasant journey through the picturesque landscape of North-East India. It was late around 06:30 PM (07:00 PM Bhutan Time) when we reached a gate welcoming us to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, at Phuentsholing.

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Getting a local simcard (Tashi Cell) to manage the local logistics part of it was easy, after checking into our pre-booked hotel. Refreshing ourselves with some Bhutanese cuisines for dinner like Shamu/Ema Datsi (Mushroom/Chilli cooked in Cheese gravy), a Bhutanese chicken curry (soup-like) along with some chappatis, we dozed off to a deep sleep. Ema (Chilli) Datsi's side effects were not observed by most of us, until next morning when we sat down on the burning pot. Note that, in all over Bhutan we went, Chilli is an absolute package. Devil

We had done our hotel bookings two months prior to our travel dates. Most of the owners/managers are quite responsive on emails and they would typically ask for a 20-50% advance via bank transfer to an Indian bank account. Tripadvisor did help a lot in our search. One thing to note is that, there is a 20% tax on the total bill (food + accommodation + services), as mandated by the Government of Bhutan.

22/Mar/2015 1030 hrs – PHUENTSHOLING – PARO

Next morning, after having some Indian breakfast (Puri/Bhaji), we booked an Indian cab (from the other side of the border town Jaigon (WB), Ertiga/Innova) for the next 7 days. The rent varies from Rs. 2500-2700 per day for a 6-seater vehicle and we made a part advance payment for the same. While the driver went to get permits for the vehicle from the Transport Office at Phuentsholing, we strolled inside a nearby crocodile reserve, where the Government has been feeding these lazily dangerous animals since 1976, through a special Gharial Conservation Programme.

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Another Yawn…

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Turning some Buddhist Drums clockwise for good luck, we started our Paro journey by 12:30 AM.

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The trip to Paro was accompanied by a much chillier breeze and the clouds obscured the Sun. We passed through some majestic waterfalls with graffiti of Gods & Goddesses on the big rocks.

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After two hours, the visibility deteriorated and we were passing right though cloud tails. It was scenic, somewhat chilly and an enjoyable experience.

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It took us around 5 hours to reach our resort at Paro through these mountain roads along with two or three breaks in between to have lunch and then tea at  roadside restaurants. We had a tyre problem and it took around an hour to set it right. In one of those restaurants, we found this cute little dog barking at another, incessantly.

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With some tea, we went on to reach our destination. We had dinner and pre-ordered some Puri-Bhaji for next days breakfast. Taking a stroll afterwards, let us discover an amazingly lit Paro in the evening.

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23/Mar/2015 0830 hrs – PARO – TIGER’s NEST TREK

Early morning, we did meet some American, German and French tourists, on the breakfast table and it seemed that each group had one or two Bhutanese guides with them. Most of them were headed to the Paro Taktsang Monastery. We took some snaps around the resort which had already unfolded a scenic Paro valley at dawn.

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After getting water, chocolates and some light weight edibles for five of us on the way, we reached the basecamp in half and hour time. From the basecamp shops, we picked up two walking sticks for 100 bucks. The Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest is encircled with a red circle in the below picture, and it’s situated at an altitude of 3120 m.

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We took our own sweet time climbing up the terrain, taking frequent water & chocolate breaks and enjoying the peaceful sight of mountains among mountains. Legend has it, that the great Buddhist Master, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) flew to this location on the back of a tigress and meditated ceaselessly to manifest himself in eight incarnated forms, sometime in the 8th century. The monastery was constructed later in the 17th century.

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One funny thing was that, whenever we asked returning monks and trekkers about the trek that was still left, we never got an answer which amounted to less than two-thirds Smile with tongue out.

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After two hours, we reached the Taktsang Cafe where you can have some tea/coffee along with biscuits. We spent some time at the cafe, which was surrounded by trees at either side, with birds chirping happily.

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Once we came near the monastery, we had a plain easy terrain which later transformed into a series of stony stairs and it started going down, before going up all the way. The sight of the fall and rise was quite demotivating after we had covered all the distanceSteaming mad.

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Within an hour and a half we reached the Tiger’s Nest through the valley of steps. We had to deposit cameras, bags and other things at a safe-deposit locker, with the security. It is mandated to go in full sleeves inside the monastery, so we put on our jackets. Removing our shoes we visited the various prayer rooms where either Buddha or Guru Rinpoche were worshipped. And then we visited the famed tiger’s nest (Guru Rinpoche’s meditation chamber) which has now been made navigable to an extent by multiple steeply placed wooden ladders.

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Climbing down took us around one and half hours and it was relatively easy. IMG_3210The total trek involved walking of around 12 kms but as you can see from the data snap. However, the most difficult part of the trek was the steepness of the mountains. And then we had to take another tea-break at the Taktsang cafe, while descending. We reached our cab and went on to have lunch at a restaurant in the city. It was around 5 pm when our over starved stomachs could receive some hot chappatis with curry.

We went on to visit a famous temple at Paro known by the name of Kyichu Lhakhang which is adorned with cherry blossoms. It was again visited by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, which means more mystery to the place.



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We went back to our hotel rooms and after having a light dinner we fell asleep with peace.

24/Mar/2015 0930 hrs – PARO – THIMPU

Next morning, before we diverted towards Thimpu, we visited a few more locations at Paro: Rinpung Dzong, National Museum of Bhutan and a monastery beside Paro Chhu (Chhu means water in Bhutanese) known as Tamchhog Lhakhang, on our way.

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The Tamchhog Lhakhang Monastery is located on a hill encapsulating the chilly waters of Paro Chhu. There are two wire bridges to help you cross to the other side of the river and reach the monastery.

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By lunchtime, we had arrived at Thimpu. After a sumptuous lunch at the checked-in hotel, we started with a few visits to nearby places later in the afternoon. The weather had gradually transformed into an overcast sky by the time we had reached the Buddha Point. One of the largest Buddha rupas in the world, the statue is made of bronze gilded with gold, measuring a whopping 52 meters. And, the clouds enclosed within the Himalayan ranges with distant snowcaps, reflecting on the statue, give Buddha a rather majestic look.

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In a few minutes, it started raining, and we were soon greeted with a light hailstorm. We took a break at a higher mountain which revealed a partly lit Tashichho Dzong and it warmed our hearts in this cold chilly rains of ice.

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With ice melting on our jackets, we returned to our hotel rooms to warm ourselves up, with a silent enthusiasm to take on the next day’s trek.

25/Mar/2015 1000 hrs – THIMPU – CHERIE MONASTERY

A 20 km drive to the north of Thimpu valley, took us beyond some charming snow-caps and black mountains, towards the base of Cherie Monastery. Along with Tango monastery on the other mountain, this serves as a monastic school for study of mathematics, philosophy and sciences for Buddhist students. As one of the monks told us, a student after 9 years of study at Tango monastery graduates to Cheri Monastery, for 3 more years of specialization. Till then he is allowed to come in social contact with other people. Then post specialization from Cherie, he goes to a higher mountain, devoid of social contact, to concentrate solely on the spiritual realms of existence. There is a temple at the base of the Cheri mountain, from where we started the short trek, after crossing a small foot-bridge.

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The trek took us about an hour though the exquisite overlapping of Himalayan mountain ranges.

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Cheri Monastery is said to have visited by Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century itself, long before its construction in 1620. And the mountains and the skies do possess a mystic equilibrium for the human mind.

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We were greeted by some mountain goats grazing lazily on the greener grass. There was a giant pet dog of the monastery who greeted us by showing us the door to the monastery.Bhutan 236

We took some drinking water from the monastery, IMG_3221after paying our respects to Guru Rinpoche. The return journey did not take much time and we reached the base, after a short while. There is a small river flowing at the base of both the mountains which house Tango and Cherie monasteries. Effectively, it was a two and half hour short trek, which was made to last three hours due to our frequent breaks. The steepness of Tiger’s nest was missing, as our feet had some comfortable plains to cover here.

Then onwards we went to visit the Takin Reserve, which preserves the national animal of Bhutan. Legend has it that a Tibetian saint conjured the first Takin from the head of a goat and the skeleton of a cow, and then onwards it was seen grazing among the Himalayan mountains. Though nothing spectacular in itself, we did get an opportunity to cover some of the beautiful landscapes enclosed by the snowcaps.

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In the evening, we went on to visit the flag hoisting ceremony at Tashichho Dzong. The Dzong opens to public after official hours. There are various administrative offices, temples and staff quarters inside the campus. One of the temples is open to public as you can see below.

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26/Mar/2015 0930 hrs – THIMPU – PUNAKHA – DOCHULA PASS TREK

We checked out of our hotel at Thimpu with loads of happy experiences of lovely Indian food along with Bhutanese delicacies. Enroute to Punakha (the old capital of Bhutan) we had to go via Dochula Pass. This memorial of 108 chortens were built in 2003 by the Queen Mother to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed fighting Indian rebels.

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There is a temple on the opposite hill, which faces the memorial. The temple does stand tall upon a hill, with pillars placed on its circumference.

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At around 11:15 AM, we started one of the long treks which went up to Lungchu Tsey Monastery. Navigating through dense forests, steep slopes, slippery terrain and colourful flower beds, it took us around 3 hours to reach the highest point housing Lungchu Tsey monastery, at 3556 m altitude. With an overcast sky, this was one of the steepest treks we undertook, and then we had to to get down at the other side of the mountain which was situated at a distance of 5 kms by road.

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Once we saw the monastery we were dazed by its coolness and serenity. A kind monk came down to greet us along with three pet dogs of the monastery, who escorted us further towards the prayer room on the top. We could notice some beautiful flowers in the vicinity and we met some other monks who spoke in Bhutanese, of which we could understand none.

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Then paying my respect to Guru Padmasambhava, I placed a small petal picked up earlier during the trek, on the altar. Innately we all had the feeling of completing the trek, due to his blessings. Then the divine calling for tea with some biscuits were heard and transmitted by this kind monk. We then could muster enough energy to start our journey towards the other end of the mountain.


When we started trekking down, a slow hailstorm IMG_3240began its course and our jackets, bags were drenched with melting ice. Palms and feet had gone numb and some of us heard cries of wild animals. Someone had earlier warned us against testing our luck against these wild animals. Walking through darkness of clouds and muddy slippery terrain, we tried to hurry through the rest of the journey but our feet would not allow us to do so. We covered a total of 16.28 kms before we could spot our car waiting for us. We went downhill via Tashigang Gumba and walked almost continuously for two and half hours with limited breaks. The last of our chocolates were finished on our way back.

Finally we could see a muddy road connecting to the main road and we could see a cab from this side of the hill. And it was indeed a mirage, it took us another 20-25 minutes around the mountains, before we could reach the main road.

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With almost immobile feet we boarded the cab, when we started towards Punakha. In two and half hours we reached Punakha as the road blocks were removed after 05:30 PM, in the evening. We had a forgettable dinner at a restaurant before reaching our hotel. It is located in Wangdue (pronounced Wangdee) which is again at a upslope distance of 45 minutes from the main town.

27/Mar/2015 1030 hrs –  PUNAKHA

This day was our penultimate day in Bhutanese soil, for we had a long journey till Siliguri the next day. We visited the Punakha Dzong which was the administrative center of the nation till 1955. The Dzong is located at the confluence of two rivers – Po Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother). Inside the Dzong are administrative settlements and it’s home to one of the royal bloodlines. We found this Buddhist Wheel of Life again, (bhavacakra) painted on one of the outside temple walls.

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We took a small walk toward the other end of the Dzong to have a look at the longest suspension bridge of Bhutan, which should measure around 200 meters. It was fun crossing the bridge, to have some locally manufactured mango drink at the other side.

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It turns out to be quite an amazing view when you look at the meanderings of the river against these mountains.

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On returning to our hotel in the afternoon, we did some local scouting to get the sim recharged. With some refreshing tea, we rested our legs on the rocks surrounding Dangchu river. At around 10 pm in the night, we came to know of the absence of credit card facility of the resort and had to take the hotel car to get cash from an atm in the town.

28/Mar/2015 0630 hrs –  PUNAKHA – PHUENTSHOLING – SILIGURI

Next morning, we had to bid goodbye to Bhutan and start our journey back home. We left quite early in the morning as there were several blocks in Punakha, owing to road work. We had to stay at a block for 1.5 hours before, going through the clouds. A late breakfast at Thimpu rejuvenated us and we managed to reach Phuentsholing at around 04:30 PM. Paying rest of the bill for the cab, we took another cab leaving the Himalayan Kingdom, to reach Siliguri at around 08:30 PM.

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We all had next morning flights back home from Bagdogra airport. All I could recall during sleep, was an old path with white clouds.


  1. Very elaborated written and hopefully it will help others who are planning to visit Bhutan in future, I guess ema datshi should have been there in the blog .Bhutan Trekking Companion.

  2. Thank you. You are right..Ema datsi made the fire gods go crazy after all. Modified the datsi phenomenon :P

  3. Awesomely complied .. it can be used a Bible for Bhutan Travelers .. :) Cheers Bro

  4. Thank you Deepak for your generous comments. I guess you are the more bit of traveler :)

  5. Exactly. What detailing. Hats off to that.