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Old 4th January 2013, 10:00   #1
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Default The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Day 0:

I was looking for a get away from the usual and what could have been a better time than the New Year approaching. But I was not sure if would get a week’s leave as due to some issues earlier this year, I had utilized more than my allotted quota. But my boss was generous enough to grant me 8 days of leave!! This was 22nd December 2012. Time: 09:45 AM. Place: My workplace…of course.

Initially, I wanted to plan a trip to Gangotri, but realized that roads will be closed in this season. Gangtok was my Plan-B. I geared up myself to book tickets through IRCTC website in Tatkal quota. At 10.00 AM, when the tatkal quota was made available for booking, the website showed ‘5 Available’ in my desired train & class. The website became inaccessible for the next 40 minutes. I knew I had made a mistake by going the right way & not letting an agent do this herculean task. Exactly @ 10:40 AM, the website became accessible and the ‘5 Available’ had turned into ‘W/L 7’. I was highly disappointed as I could do nothing else than watching my holiday trip going down the drain via IRCTC wastepipe…err…website. After venting out some frustration with my colleagues, I started looking for alternate routes to Silliguri from Ranchi. I found one train from Patna to Silliguri & tickets in tatkal quota were available, don’t know how & why. I booked two in a flash. Return tickets from the same train on 31st December were available & I booked them too. So now, I had to catch a train from Patna, about 400 kms away tomorrow night.

After I was done with the celebration of booking a Tatkal ticket from IRCTC, a thought came to my mind – The Last Shangri-La. Yes, Bhutan…also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. I had read a lot about Bhutan and held a strong desire to visit this small but country with stunning natural landscapes. Somehow, was not thinking on these lines earlier. I began my express mini-research as I knew that this is a golden opportunity to visit this wonderful place. I told nothing about this Bhutan thing to my wifey as she would ungraciously term me as an ‘unorganized planner’, which of course I am not! After some research, I was almost sure that I could make this journey possible and as termed by Chevy_Lover, it will be ‘An incredible journey of a lifetime’. Thank you sir…I owe a huge part of inspiration for undertaking this wonderful journey to you too! Your Travelogue was wonderful.

After my Sikkim plans diverted to a travel to Bhutan, I printed a map of Bhutan for better understanding of locations and broke this news to wifey in the evening only when I was back home. She was thrilled, little nervous & anxious at the same time. Raising a hundred concerns in one breath, she tried to bog me down with queries like visa, permits, cold weather, food, budget and what not. But I was armed with all answers beforehand and I noticed that even she wanted to undertake this trip; it was just her curiosity that she asked so many questions just to make sure we are really doing it! I think she was also looking for a little re-assurance. I had never mentioned Bhutan while discussing destinations for our travel before. Packed luggage loaded with woolens, making sure we have our passports, voter-ID cards, we were ready to leave next morning at 0500 hrs to Ranchi Station where we would board a train to Patna which would reach by 1600 hrs. The train to Silliguri was @ 2250 hrs from Patna, so there was ample time in between.

Day 1:

We were not able to sleep well because packing out luggage and other chores kept up awake well past 12:00 in the night. We had to catch a train from Ranchi to Patna at 6 in the morning which meant we had to leave latest by 05:15 AM. So, we had to wake at about 04:00 AM. Got freshen up & made the last minute preparations. It’s amazing that how fast the last hour at home before a journey passes. It was sharp 05:00 AM & the auto-rickshaw driver gave me a call saying he was waiting down my apartment. I checked & double checked all water taps, switches & finally locked the doors. I switched off the mains, typical old habit of mine before leaving for long. We reached the station by 05:40 AM & had our tickets pre-booked. The train was standing on Platform no. 3 as it was the originating station. We had some problems spotting our seats since it was still dark and this is where cell phone torches come handy. We got our seats & till this time the coach was almost empty. Place our luggage suitably & safely & wifey captured the windows seat.

It was amazing that within 15 minutes the coach was filled to its maximum capacity. The train finally left right when the hands of clock made a 180 degree. Our journey had finally begun & we were excited that after 48 hours we will be in Bhutan! Felt amazed for a second that how these locomotives take us to such far off places…primitive man?

The journey to Patna was eventless almost except for engine failure which kept me worried, albeit for 30 minutes only. A new loco was now pulling the train which made sure we reached Patna at 1645 Hrs- A delay of about an hour. We had enough time to spare, roughly about 6 hours which we utilized to visit wife’s aunt’s place. The relatives were welcoming, warm & nice. I met them for the first time as it’s not too long since we got married. We spent the time chatting and having delicious snacks & dinner. They even dropped us to the station in the night. At Patna, it was a complete chaos that day…or better to say that night. It was 2245 hrs & there were no signs or announcement of our train which was scheduled to reach Patna by 2250 hrs. It was shrieking cold but still the platforms were crowded. I was getting restless by 2300 & finally the first announcement about our ‘Capital Express’ was made. The train arrived within a few minutes and we made our way to the coach through the crowded Patna platform.

Secured our luggage under the berth and had a huge sigh of relief. The train left after about 10 minutes of its scheduled stoppage. The only thing now I had to do was to extend my current ticket to a small place called ‘Hasimara’ which was about two & a half hours away from Siliguri. I will detail you about Hasimara later but for now, it was because it is the closest railway station to Bhutan border. Knowledge Courtesy: The Internet. We slept well that night.

Last edited by GTO : 4th January 2013 at 15:16. Reason: Adding paragraph spacing to make your post more readable
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Old 4th January 2013, 11:25   #2
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Day 2: 24th December 2012

We woke to Bihar Bengal border in the morning. The train was running late by about one & a half hours and the difference remained the same till we got off the train in the evening. We crossed the important Junction of New Jalpaiguri, also called NJP in short. This place is in close proximity to Siliguri and is an originating & terminating station for numerous trains. So, NJP is an important station for the people with interest in this region.

Dense forests, bountiful hill ranges and beautiful rivers started greeting us after we crossed Silliguri in North Bengal. Though rivers were not really deluging with water but the white stones and white sand were bestowing strange beauty. Tea-gardens in copiousness were adding to the ‘aroma’ of the place along with unmatched exquisiteness of the surroundings. It looked like our train was approaching the hills but we never reached one even after plenty of travelling and it felt like it would take an eternity to reach to them, but at just a sight, they looked close enough! I got my tickets extended to Hasimara and paid the differential fare.
Finally at about 1630 hrs, the train was standing for its brief halt at Hasimara station and this is where I had to get down. As expected, Hasimara was a small station as it is a small town in the Jalpaiguri district of WB.

The town itself has little significance of its own but is of great interest to travelers wishing to see Bhutan. This is because after the conversion to broad gauge in 2003 (Source: Wikipedia), this is the closest railway station to the border of Bhutan, the town of Phuentsholing to be precise. So, if you are looking to travel to Bhutan, Hasimara is the closest railway station and the most convenient option for reaching the border. Travelling to Hasimara by train hives up a lot of time and more importantly, saves you from a bone-shackling 4 hour road journey from Siliguri. However, if you want to travel by road (prefer only if travelling by own car as bus travel can lead to travel sickness to many, including me!), take the Hasimara- Alipur Dwar Route as it is better than the other option. I chose travelling by train.

Pleasant weather greeted us as we stepped out of our AC compartment. We walked on the length of the platform, towards the direction where the train would go and crossed the railway tracks (left side) to approach the auto-rickshaws waiting for the passengers. We enquired and were directed to the section of the small stand where auto-rickshaws were leaving for Jaigaon. We took an auto and it was roughly a half an hour ride mainly through the tea gardens and we were finally on the edge of Indian border. In the way, we saw milestones & way-markers reading the distances of Jaigaon/ Phuentsholing & even Thimphu; the Capital City of Bhutan. If anything it did, it added to the great feeling & enthusiasm, fore-sighting the wonderful trip that we would witness over the next few days. Me & wifey looked and smiled at each other every time we saw a signboard on road reading ‘Thimphu’, anticipating the exalting journey that we would undertake.

We reached Jaigaon by about 1715 hrs and being on the eastern side of the country, it was dark by then. Jaigaon is a small town situated in Jalpaiguri district at the foothills of the Himalayas. It is in close proximity to Hasimara railway station; just 18kms away. It is the Indian side of the border neighboring the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing separated by an elegant gate which forms the passageway to Bhutan from this border. The Bhutanese Immigration office is just across this gate and you can enter by foot to take a preview of this wonderful country. Jaigaon, apart from offering a nice sight of the hills on the Bhutanese side has not much to thrill the travelers. It is crowded by travelers & shops near the border and one can shop for all essentials like woolens, shoes, jackets & even some electronics before embarking for the journey. However, the prices have to be well-haggled before you buy anything to make any sense of their irrational first time pricing. Hotels & eateries are in abundance, as you would expect. I got a decent room for INR 750/- for one night at a good hotel close to the border gate. Took a nice bath and decided to negotiate this small place on foot for rest of the evening. We had veg- dumplings (momos) per plate @ Rs. 10…super cheap as evening snacks. After haggling at a few shops, bought a nice jacket for wifey for about INR 1700/-, quoted originally at INR 2500!

Then we dined at a small restaurant. On platter, it was mixed vegetables & chapattis as I thought that we would miss these over the next few days. Food was again super cheap and bill was about Rs. 90/- only!! What I noticed was that Bhutanese currency, Ngultrum was exchanged freely even at the Indian side of the border. But as most shops accepted these, I saw a few signboards on shops asking to pay its customers strictly in Indian rupees only. I had read about the fallibility and unavailability of Bhutanese ATMs, so I decided to withdraw bulk of the allocated budget at Jaigaon only. Out of the 3 ATMs in sight, 2 were working with long queues in place! I decided to lengthen the SBI ATM queue & finally was able to transact after about half an hour! Wifey gave me wicked looks waiting for me outside the queue as if I had made the mistake of my life by not carrying bulging bags of cash in the train from home. I had a sigh of relief after the transaction and you know, it was not about the money, honey!

As things cooled down with some time, we decided to follow some people going to the Bhutanese side of the border through a small gate with Bhutanese policemen, adjacent to the big main gate (left side) which was the passageway for the vehicles crossing the borders. We were not stopped for any check or anything and we were now walking in Bhutan! Cashing on the opportunity, I straightaway walked to check post close to the main gate and enquired about the process of obtaining our permit for the visit. A gentleman sitting in the national attire of Bhutan, friendly enough, told me about the process and required documents for obtaining the same.

Bhutan is among the most expensive countries to visit for nationals other than Indians & Bangladeshis. It has very good relations with India and hence visa/ permits for Indians are easier to obtain and most importantly Indians have the benefit of deciding their own budget for the trip. Foreign nationals other than Indians & Bangladeshis, have to deposit a minimum of USD250 per day to the tourism dept. and have to necessarily hire a Bhutanese authorized Travel agency, making an expensive ordeal altogether.

The gentleman asked me to go to the immigration office at 0630 hrs next morning. I took two application forms then & there only. I saw an ATM of Bank of Bhutan. To check the ATM reliability & to have a closer look at their currency, I decided to withdraw Nu. 400/-. But the ATM declined my request & my skepticism about ATMs in Bhutan increased. Walking back, I encountered a Druk PNB ATM. Druk PNB is a joint venture of our very own Punjab National Bank with Bhutan and it can be found all over Bhutan. I punched my ATM card & bingo! I was disbursed with brand new crisp 8 Nu. 50 notes. I immediately decided that one of these crisp notes go right away into my album as a souvenir.

After taking a small walk in the Bhutanese streets, we reached our hotel room and decided to sleep early as we had to be present in person at the immigration office @ 0630 hrs –BST. Bhutan Standard Time is half an hour ahead of India (GMT+6) which meant 0600 hrs India Time. So I decided to fill up the forms at the night only. It was just a one-page form & pretty simple to fill up. I attached photocopies of our Voter-ID cards which was all that was required. I plugged in my camera battery for charging & slept well for the night. In the joyfulness & delight anticipating the rewarding travel on cards, I even forgot that I would wake up to my birthday next morning, on Christmas Day!

Last edited by GTO : 4th January 2013 at 15:17. Reason: Adding paragraph spacing to make your post more readable
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Old 4th January 2013, 13:21   #3
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Default re: The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Amazing. Glued to the thread.

Pictures are really necessary now.

Cheers,
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Old 4th January 2013, 15:28   #4
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Default Re: The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Thank you so much Tapish for the encouragement. Along with the travelogue, beautiful pictures are coming your way!

Do keep posting about how you like it.

Thanks,
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Old 5th January 2013, 01:04   #5
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Default Re: The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Excellent stuff, Waiting for more to unfold. Please continue it but, with lot of pictures.

Cheers!

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Old 5th January 2013, 13:14   #6
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Default Re: The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Thanks a lot friends for the admiration, I will try my level best not to disappoint you on any account, be it pics or narration.

So, continuing from where I left...

Day 3: 25th December 2012


BEEP-BEEP! It was my cell phone alarm whom I asked last night to wake me up at 0430 hrs. We got freshen up, packed ourselves with woolens to brace up the cold morning & walked out of the hotel at about 0545 hrs IST. Just to remind, it would be 0615 Hrs in Bhutan & we had to apply for visit permit @0630 hrs. Hey, also to remind, it’s my birthday.

We walked across the pedestrian gate again and walked to the Customs & Revenue Office next to a petrol pump run by Bharat Petroleum. The first floor of this building houses the Bhutanese Immigration office and this is the place where every visitor must be present in person for obtaining a travel permit for Bhutan. But as I reached the gate to the first floor, I found it locked!! I enquired and came to know that the opening time is only 0900 hrs BST. I had no option but to wait. At first disappointed by this delay, I decided to make that wait count and chose to negotiate the small town of Phuentsholing on foot. Fortunately, I was carrying my camera.

We walked into the highway and saw marvelous architectures crafted in buildings. It was amazing how different this place was than Jaigaon which was separated only by a few hundred meters & an entrance gate!

It was a beautiful cold morning and there was a remarkable difference between the Indian side of the border & this end. There was immense peace and tranquility, stunning vistas of mountains far & near, beautiful bridges, buildings & Bhutanese establishments. There was an extra-ordinary serenity prevailing in the air which promised that I would leave all my stress & tension on the other side of the fence, albeit for the next few days. The start to this wonderful journey could not have been better. I would advise every traveler to take a morning walk in Phuentsholing before travelling into Bhutan…‘A Walk to Remember’. Sorry if that sounded like a Hollywood flick!


I clicked some beautiful opening snaps & felt blessed to be where I was. In our short to moderately long walk, we saw some beautiful prayer wheels - which the Bhutanese people rotate clockwise in a belief that their prayer will be heard, prayer flags - which are white and at times colorful with prayers written on them, planted on long bamboo sticks. We also saw beautiful temples, court of law, A Royal Bhutan Police establishment, a small but beautiful bridge on a mini-river of sorts, and vistas of exotic mountains, of course. We decided to have our breakfast in an open air small eatery which served us a platter of veg chowmein and a great cup of tea @ Nu. 30/- only. My cheapest birthday treat!

Many people in Bhutan can speak Hindi and any one on the street should be able to communicate in English. The lady serving us asked if this was our first time and asked how we liked ‘her’ country in her broken but humble Hindi. We expressed our joy & appreciated the beautiful country & people which brought a big smile on her face. Perfect day! Clicked a few more photographs and walked around.

Time flew & now it was 10 mins. to 0900 hrs BST & we were waiting at the gate of immigration office to open. A dynamic lady, dressed in Kira, a wrap-around skirt with a jacket as top & national attire of Bhutanese women, stepped out of a red saloon and walked straight into the office after being greeted by other office staff near the gate. The office opened sharp at 0900 hrs and I with my wife was the second person in the queue. I deposited the application forms that I had filled last night at a counter with the photocopies of Voter’s ID and one Passport sized color photograph. The person sitting at the counter called out our names & we sat on a chair so as to be photographed; which would later be printed on our permits. He then asked us to collect the permit after about half an hour. The process looked pretty simple & hassle free. There was no crowd at that time.

It is worth noting that even Children will require an ID proof issued by Govt. of India. In case they don’t have one, birth certificate will be mandatory. All visitors to Bhutan will be issued a 7 day permit to visit Thimphu & Paro only from this point. If you want to extend your stay or explore places other than these, you will need to contact the office at Thimphu. Again it’s free of cost for Indians & mostly hassle free.

We went back to the hotel and packed our luggage. I negotiated a Taxi for a complete Bhutan trip in the meanwhile. 4 Days For 8K, which included everything. He would pick me up from my hotel in India, take me to Thimphu & Paro, plus the usual sightseeing & then leave me at the hotel back in India. I had previously planned for taking Taxi on ‘as when needed’ basis like mainly while travelling long distances between cities. I would like the readers to know that this was the major chunk of money that I spent on the entire travel, just to give an idea about the overall expenses for comparison.

8k for about 500 kms looked expensive at first. However, I chose this deal because of certain reasons. First, the taxi was from Bhutan itself; hence the driver would be local to the place. That would be quite handy in case something goes off-ramp during the tour. Secondly, as the driver would be local, he will be better acquainted with local traditions, customs & history of the place and I will have a good guidance company during the entire tour. Last, but most importantly, I will be relieved of all stress of planning conveyance facilities. Also, Bhutan, no offence really meant to this wonderful country & great people, is an impoverished country and I did not really mind paying a little more than what I expected. The guy, Kul Bahadur, was too friendly and looked enthusiastic to show me his country…I named him KB is short for his initials.

It was about an hour or so when I walked to the immigration office again to collect our permits. I asked my wife to stay back in the hotel & pack up the luggage to save time. But things were not on our side this time. Firstly, there was a huge crowd now in the immigration which made it difficult even to reach the same counter where I was standing with my wife an hour ago comfortably with even place left to dance. Somehow, I made my way to the counter where completed permits were kept in a plastic tray. The problem was that the tray was empty. I asked the beautiful lady sitting there if the permits were ready, but she replied ‘Server Down…No internet connection Sir!’. I had read earlier about the temperamental internet connectivity across Bhutan but now I was on the receiving end of this mood. I decided to wait, the wait was indefinite, I knew.

About an hour of wait passed & it was 1100 hrs and I was still waiting in the crowded place. Periodical answering to wifey’s semi-barbarian calls from hotel became a custom. I don’t really know what faults the girls will discover in their men in circumstances which are genuinely out of our innocent realms. After answering a few calls, I really started to wonder if I really had a role in the net connection going kaput!!

I was in the middle of this intense introspection when I saw the pretty lady sitting at the counter window calling me. I geared up myself for some good news. Very politely and loaded with immense care…she asked me not to wait and come only after 1400 hrs!! I was dismayed; the pretty lady was not looking pretty anymore. Another classic case of how men perceive beauty with the replies they get! Many left to come only after 2 PM, but I decided to wait there only as I recalled wife’s horror calls...err…phone calls. I did not want to become the first ‘martyr’ on this friendly border!

I was contemplating these issues when suddenly I saw Google’s homepage on a computer. The connectivity had been restored. After 15-20 mins, the lady took a print of our approved permits and got it signed by the lady whom we saw stepping out the red car in the morning. She said smiling ‘Your Permit Sir!!’ She was looking pretty again. I thanked her and rushed back to my hotel without wasting a second. In the way, I appreciated myself for waiting for the connectivity unlike many others who left, as it was only 1145 hrs then.

Wifey had ‘also’ utilized the time for packing up the luggage besides making the fore-stated benevolent calls to me and the taxi was ready near my hotel parking. Almost in no time, we put our luggage in the red Wagon-R bearing a Bhutan Registration on Yellow background number plate and embarked for this incredible journey through the Himalayas. I had exchanged 10K INR to 10K Ngultrum in the hotel itself as I had read that people in Bhutan are reluctant to accept 500 Indian currency notes. I did not carry any 1000 rupee notes as it is not accepted in Bhutan.

For the travelers, I would suggest to convert 500 Indian notes to 500 Ngultrum notes so as to be on the safer side for payments to be made in Bhutan. However, your taxi driver will gladly accept & in fact, will prefer to be paid in Indian currency. All other Indian currency notes are freely exchanged throughout Bhutan.

Your cell phones will not work in Bhutan unless international roaming facility has been activated. I tried repeatedly but poor network coverage & equally bad customer care of my operator in the area kept me from enabling the facility & as a result my cell phone was reduced to a torch & a clock displaying IST for the next 4 days. I was little worried in the beginning as it was long since humans lived a life without a cell phone but we took it positively and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was away from the world, news, politics and pesky calls for all this time; Break-free & I enjoyed every bit of it!

However, a piece of warning to those who would like to connect back to your people often, a PCO is a rarity in Bhutan. Hence, only option you might have will be to borrow a cell phone from your driver, hotelier or other people. Do offer to pay them the call charges. One minute call to India from a local Bhutanese cell phone is about Rs. 4.40 per minute.

We started the 175 Kms journey to Thimphu from Phuentsholing with a lot of enthusiasm at exactly 1200 hrs IST/ 1230 BST. I switched my multi time zone wrist watch to GMT+6, to match with BST. Almost immediately after crossing the border gate to Phuentsholing, the roads started winding up-hill. This gave us a clue that Jaigaon is right on the foothill & the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan starts immediately with the climb on hills.

Up to Rinchending, 5 kms from Phuentsholing, one can travel without a permit. But Rinchending houses the first immigration check post where we had to present the permits to travel further into Bhutan, on which the Royal Bhutan Police officials stamped an ‘Entered’ seal. It was a hassle free process & did not take more than a couple of minutes. We started again. The climbs were steep, coupled with numerous hair pin bends & turns. There were local Bhutanese people selling oranges beside the narrow, but 2 lane roads. There were the mountains on one side of the road and the other side had open trenches which looked like extending as deep as eternity. After only 5-6 kms of uphill climb, Jaigaon was looking like a far distant city with buildings comparable to size of ants. The rivers in India looked long & splendid and were a fantastic site. After some more climbing, turning & bending through the road, everything that we could see was either mountains or trenches with no signs of civilization.

The mountains down the trenches were deep green due to dense forests & trees. However, on the other side we could see cuts through the rocks to make narrow roads through the mountains. The valley throughout was scenic with only man-made things either being roads or high-tension electric cables. It is worth mentioning here that all electricity produced in Bhutan is clean power & produced by Hydro electric power plants, mainly built by both technical & financial assistance by Govt. of India. The country experiences no power cuts! The electricity rating of Bhutan is 220V/ 50 Hz which is same as India, hence Indian electronics can be used in Bhutan without any special adapters.

Bhutan is a conservative country and has a unique concept of GNH- Gross National Happiness. This concept explains why they are not hurrying in the race for development. Bhutan has chosen not to develop on the cost of losing its culture, tradition & ecology, a tough decision but ecologically rewarding one. I was amazed by the big decision that the small country had clinched to…totally unconventional & unheard of in this modern world. The constitution of the country dictates at least 60% of forest coverage in the country at all times. Currently this percentage is little over 70% approximately; hence, this Eden is untouched, untapped and pure as the Himalayas. Current population of the country is only about 700,000, little more than half of the small city that we live in- Ranchi!

However, recent few years have witnessed slight surge in tourism in this abode but still it is largely unexplored destination & sadly unknown too (Again blessing in disguise may be!). The Govt. of Bhutan itself is not too keen to develop tourism a lot since it might corrode their own tightly held conservative culture.

Most of the highway infrastructure besides the hydro-electric power plants are made & maintained by Government of India and is a perfect testimonial of the friendliness between the two neighbors. We were appreciating & asking questions continuously to our Guide-cum- driver, KB, about almost everything that we came across and he was smart enough to answer most of them. He could speak English & Hindi apart from the Dzongkha, which is the national language of Bhutan. We were amazed by his knowledge about both Bhutan & India. The roads in Bhutan are well maintained but the hilly terrain restricts the average speed of travel. To cover a distance of 175 kms from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, it ideally takes at least 5 hours, but our travel turned out to be longer. After travelling about 80 kms on the backseat of the car, I was suffering from travel sickness. It was surprising for me as I have travelled & driven long distances in cars without any sickness but I knew I had a problem of sickness when travelling by buses. I think the swirling hill roads got me this time.

We stopped just before mid-way for lunch at Hotel Dam view. The restaurant location presents a view to the ‘Chukha Hydro Power Project’ dam, hence the name ‘Dam view’ and is almost mid-way to Thimphu. It was a self-service restaurant, slightly crowded by travelers. It served beef, pork, mutton, chowmein, Ema Datshi along with other Bhutanese dishes. Ema Datshi is a Bhutanese preparation with main ingredients as chilies & cheese. Ema means Chilies & Datshi…no prizes for guessing now – is cheese. This is recognized as the national dish of Bhutan. But apart from this, I was suffering from travel sickness pretty badly by now & my head was reeling. I gave lunch a miss but could not resist myself tasting a piece of mutton which my wife had ordered for herself. KB had some beef, mutton & rice. The food was great, promising enough that we would have good food over the next few days in Bhutan.

We started again after a halt of about 40-45 minutes @ about 1500 hrs BST. I utilized the time to take some rest but the thought of covering another 90 kms on the same terrain was a cause of concern for me deep down, though I never expressed that. I had shifted to the front seat now. But after some time, I was not enjoying the journey anymore. My head was reeling badly and I felt like throwing up. Later I threw up indeed! The drive through the terrain became almost torturous for me. KB was considerate enough to stop for 5-10 minutes whenever I requested to take some rest. The width of the road had now reduced to a single lane which made stopping difficult. I was counting kilometers to Thimphu and soon it became dark. I remember approaching Thimphu. It was a beautiful sight in the night but the only sight that I wanted to see was a bed.

After reaching Thimphu city @ 1900 hrs, we were lucky enough to negotiate a Hotel room for Rs. 1400/- with heater. The Hotel had a nice restaurant with bar on the ground floor. We were allotted our room in the first floor. Again KB was considerate enough to carry my luggage to my room. I completed the formalities, walked into the room & fell on the bed. When I woke up, I was feeling a lot fresher and it was 2130 hrs. Wifey was staring at me…looking puzzled that what had happened to me. I washed my face and ordered our dinner in the room itself. We had mixed vegetables, chapattis & chicken chilly for the dinner. Chicken was great, but mixed vegetables were lacking our usual Indian spices. We finished our dinner and walked to the restaurant to make calls to our people in India. The hotelier lent us her phone to call on the agreement to add the phone bill to our hotel bill.

The day was comfortable but our first night stay in Bhutan was chilly. The temperature fell drastically at night making it extremely chilly. My guess was beyond Zero! Thankfully we had the luxury of a heater which remained ‘on’ for all night making it possible for us to survive! Discussing my sickness, we contemplated the possibility of taking a flight from Paro to go back to India but that would have been an expensive affair. Also, I took it as a personal challenge to travel back by the same means. We slept well that night after a long & tiring journey. KB would come next morning by 1100 hrs for showing us Thimphu city. His own house was close to Thimphu.
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Old 6th January 2013, 05:11   #7
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Default Re: The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!

Truly amazing, waiting to read the entire journey log. I am sure you will follow up with some more pictures
How much did the trip cost you in total [travel, stay, food, permits if any etc] from Jaigaon to Bhutan and back?
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Old 7th January 2013, 14:53   #8
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Thanks Swapnil, Sameer & Tapish and to all other readers of my thread. Hope you guys liked the opening pics.

@ Swapnilup: The permit for Indians can be obtained free of cost. Only thing involved is the paperwork that I have detailed with in my posts. Food in most restaurants of Thimphu is almost priced the same that we would get in any bourgeoisie restaurant in India. Bhutanese people have realized that now more tourists are coming in, so at places like Paro, food is little expensive, esp. from Thimphu, but rest assured, still affordable.

I will post all the expenses in detail as the travelogue progresses chronologically. Travelling is the most expensive affair of all others, excluding shopping, which of course has no limits! I will post my total damages to the bank account at the close of the travelogue. For now, I would say, It was affordable for a middle class person like me

Proceeding from where I left:

Day 4: 26th December 2012

We woke next morning fresh & I pulled the curtains and looked out of the window. Beautiful houses & mountains were all that I could see. Yes, there was one road too which had vehicles plying scantily and disciplined; by Indian standards. The place was in all peace & tranquility.
The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-thimphu-streets-1.jpg
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The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-thimphu-streets-4.jpg
We decided to have breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and then see the place on foot until KB comes to pick us as it was only 0900 hrs. We ordered Aloo Parathas & were pleasantly surprised by the taste they had to offer. After munching 2 big parathas, cut like pizzas along with fantastic tea, we were ready to roam around on foot. The sun was bright but the morning was cold. As soon as we walked out of our hotel, we saw an 8-11 departmental store. We walked into it & purchased some chocolates & liquor.

I, being a non-drinker & non-smoker, made clear to wifey that the liquor bought was for relatives & friends, which settled down her astonishment. For those who take liquor, Bhutan is the place to be. Good & inexpensive liquor can be found almost everywhere. In fact, we found chocolates more expensive than liquor! But for smokers, it can be challenging as tobacco is not sold in entire Bhutan. Smoking in public is an offense and during our entire trip, we did not see anyone smoking or any store selling cigarettes or other tobacco products. Most of the products sold in Bhutan are imported from India & Thailand. So, it makes no sense to buy back the same items that we get here, at slightly higher prices there & carry them back to India! Travelers to Bhutan will really have to break their heads to think of a souvenir to be gifted to friends & relatives back home which will be authentic Bhutanese! Handicrafts are the best bet, but even many of them are made in Nepal & other bordering areas too and can be pretty expensive.

(CONTD...)
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Old 7th January 2013, 15:03   #9
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As soon as we came out of the store, we crossed a few streets to find ourselves in a main road sort of. As the city is itself situated in a narrow valley, crossing streets will mean ideally climbing up or stepping down. After stepping down a street, we found ourselves in front of the city center with a clock tower. This area is utilized mainly for holding open air functions in Thimphu. But for now, it presented us a great view to click some snaps with stunning Himalayan ranges in the background.

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We roamed around and engaged ourselves in some window shopping. We were so lost in our adventures that we forgot for a while that KB would be waiting at our Hotel. We rushed back to Hotel since it was 1130 hrs & KB was standing there enjoying the warmth of the sun. He wished us morning & we apologized for keeping him waiting. Then we started for sightseeing in & around Thimphu City. We fueled up the car and I noticed that petrol is marginally cheaper in Bhutan. It was priced at about Nu. 64 per liter against the 68 bucks that we have to shell out per liter in India. Indian Oil & Bharat Petroleum sell majority of the fuel dealt in Bhutan. Also, the vehicles bear registration numbers in a particular order. For vehicles registered in Bhutan, the private cars are registered as BP (Bhutan-Private) ; Taxis as BT (Bhutan-Taxi). RBP bearing registrations are for the Royal Bhutan Police & RBA is Royal Bhutan Army reserved registration format.
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Old 7th January 2013, 15:56   #10
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(contd.)

We visited The National Memorial Chorten, a stupa built in 1974 in memory of the third king. Just to pass on the information what I got from KB, the present & the fifth king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck was crowned in 2008 which marked a centenary of Monarchy in Bhutan. It’s highly unlikely that you would travel too much in Bhutan without seeing the picture of the King with his wife. The king is only 32 & often termed as charming & handsome!

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-king-queen.jpg

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Then we took the uphill road so as to have a ‘bird’s eye view’ of Thimphu city. If I say that the view was exhilarating & electrifying, it would be an understatement. The city looked beautiful located in the middle of the closing palms of narrow valleys. The houses & buildings crafted with typical ‘Dzong’ architecture added to the bedazzling sight. The stunning landscapes & vistas of mountains all around in the background was the last thing that the place needed to be compared to the Eden. A distant mountain was tenuously snow-capped.
Pics following shortly:

Last edited by saket77 : 7th January 2013 at 16:15. Reason: Adding spaces
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Old 7th January 2013, 16:39   #11
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The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-snow-cap.jpg

Slight Slow on one peak. Missed more probably by a narrow margin of time.

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Bird's eye view of Thimphu City
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Old 8th January 2013, 12:32   #12
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KB told me that people expect snow-fall in the first week of January; something amazing that we would miss by a narrow margin. I clicked a number of photographs.

We also saw some small water springs coming out of the mountain which had turned into ice!! I was cautioned by KB not to step on the ice which had made its way to the road. Just to check, I tried cautiously stepping on it but slipped and escaped an embarrassing fall narrowly. Later KB told me that a lot of accidents take place this way as drivers brake visualizing ice on road resulting in uncontrollable skids. Later we encountered several places where water had turned into ice.
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The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-ice.jpg
The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-holding-ice.jpg

We also visited The National Folk Heritage Museum, the Textile Museum and were fortunate to see Trashi Chhoe Dzong (houses the Govt. officials, district headquarters and other civil & political bodies), The central bank of the country - Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan , Hotel Taj, UN offices and handicrafts market. We were also shown a 15 minute video clip about the culture of Bhutan with special emphasis on the textile Industry in the Textile Museum. The Coronation Park in front of the Olympics stadium stunned us with the pristine river flowing by and the large Buddha Statue. The River at Thimphu is called Thimphu Chuu (Chuu meaning "river") or the Raidak River. However, I must admit that almost each & every building we saw in Thimphu was photogenic. We were taken to an old model traditional Bhutanese house during our visit to the museum. However, photography was prohibited inside. We then drove to the other side of the hill where the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (radio) is located. It gave another top-down view of the stunning city. The long prayer flags turned into nice photographs and memories through my camera lens.

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We returned to the Hotel by about 1530 hrs. My camera cell had been displaying ‘Low battery’ icon since long now. Batteries drain at an alarming rate in cold weather and I was witnessing it. So we decided to take some rest & in the meanwhile charge our camera and then negotiate the city again on foot in the evening. We were out on roads again in the evening and I urged wifey to have authentic Bhutanese food. We walked to Hotel Tandin on the main road which is called Norzin Lam, just past the first traffic circle with traffic police with white gloves on! Not out of context to quote that Thimphu is probably the only National Capital in the World with no traffic lights! One traffic light was installed a few years ago at this circle, but was later removed as it gave a sense of westernization to the city…such is the level of determination towards perseverance of culture!
Our bet to go to Hotel Tandin’s restaurant paid off and we had the most delicious food of the entire tour at this restaurant. We ordered a Pork chowmein, a non-veg soup & Jasha Maroo. Jasha in Dzongkha (National Bhutanese language) is chicken & Maroo is gravy. The food was the best we had till now on the tour and after the completion of the journey, I can term it No.1. We appreciated the food before walking off and were returned with a huge smile by the person-in-charge. I negotiated a good price for a Bhutanese handicraft known as Thankha in the market. It is basically a spiritual wall hanging made of colorful clothes and hand painting. Thankas can be spotted everywhere in Bhutan be it shops, restaurants, or even offices. Prices can be high, especially when quoted to a foreigner, which unfortunately we were in Bhutan. Prices quoted ranged from Nu1500 to Nu7500! However, I negotiated a Nu1200 Thankha for Nu 900. Later in the evening, our hotelier was kind enough to gift me a Bhutanese calendar hanging in her restaurant after I appreciated it during our dinner. We were tired to the core and the next day we had to leave for Paro at 1100 hrs. After viewing & appreciating all photographs in the TV in our room, we slept into another cold night.
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Old 8th January 2013, 15:41   #13
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Lord Buddha Statue at Coronation Park beside the Thimphu River.

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-tashi-chhoe-dzong.jpg
Tashi Chhoe Dzong: The administrative, Civil & Political Establishment at Thimphu. This building houses the King's Throne, Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (The Central Bank) & Other Govt. Ministries.
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Old 9th January 2013, 11:07   #14
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Day 5: 27th December 2012

We witnessed another cold but bright morning. KB came on time and was waiting for us while we were out for breakfast at some other restaurant. The poor guy had to wait again for about 40 minutes for us. I again apologized to him and we put our luggage in the car to set off to Paro, a one & a half hour drive from Thimphu.

Paro, very small but beautiful town and the older capital of Bhutan, is 52 kms away from Thimphu but almost equidistant from the border town of Phuentsholing because of diverted ways at the ‘Confluence’. Confluence is the point where the rivers flowing through Thimphu & Paro merge together to form a single river to form the Raidak river. Roads to both the cities divert at the same point and Thimphu is 31 while Paro town is 24 kms from the confluence. Hence, apart from the welcome gate to Thimphu, Confluence presents a visual treat to travelers where both roads & rivers merge/divert forming a ‘V’. This road is of high significance as the airport in Paro, about 18 kms from Confluence is the only international airport of Bhutan.

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-confluence.jpg
The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-paro-airport1.jpg
The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-paro-airport-2.jpg

We stopped near the confluence point and clicked some stunning photographs of the merging rivers and bridges on them. KB was adjuvant enough to click me & wifey together with the rivers & mountains in the background.

We then drove through the valley roads which were widened in 2007 from Paro airport to Thimphu in anticipation of International ministrants & personalities reaching for the coronation ceremony of the fifth (& present) King in year 2008.

Soon we climbed an uphill road which presented us with a bird’s eye view of the Paro airport. This is a great visual treat & interests the travelers as the Paro airport is totally different from all the airports that we had seen earlier. Not many in the world are surrounded by mountains as high as 15,000-18,000 feet! Due to the geographical terrain & the challenging location, Paro is counted as one of the most dangerous airports in the world and a few trained pilots are only certified to land an aircraft on its single runway. Druk Air, the National carrier of the country, is the only airline flying into Bhutan from International locations. The view of Paro River flowing parallel to the runway with beautiful terminal buildings seen from a height was exalting…A view that we had never seen before and it was thrilling to the core. We saw some Indian tourists waiting at this point for a plane to land; a sight we would have loved to see ourselves, but the problem was there was none in the sight! I sincerely hope that they saw one as they looked to wait till evening.
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Old 9th January 2013, 12:23   #15
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Pardon me please for not labeling the pics in the above post...

The first picture is of the confluence point. The road coming from the RHS is the main highway coming from the Phuentsholing going straight to Thimphu. The establishment seen with a distant hoarding of King & Queen is the gateway to Thimphu. The Photograph itself is taken from the road which diverts from near the hoarding leading to Paro.

The second photograph is self-explanatory.

The third pic in the above post is the closeup of Paro airport. The big green building is the main terminal serving the fliers. The picture shows about the 16,000 feet mountains which block all the air corridors to the airport. There is only one air corridor which the air-crafts can use; both for landing & taking-off.

Continuing the story...

By now, we were hungry and decided to drive to Paro town for finding an accommodation & some food, some 6 kms away from the airport. We found a room in a Hotel close to the office of Bhutan Telecom. The location of the Hotel was great and had the Paro River flowing on its back side with great vistas of mountains & views of the small town from the wooden windows.
The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-top-down-viewparo.jpg
Top Down View of Paro Town

We found the accommodation to be slightly cheaper than Thimphu, but we did not have the luxury of heater in this room. Paro is a very small town and apart from the visit to museum & the Tiger’s nest, most of the town can easily be seen on foot…for 2-3 times in a day! We had some authentic Bhutanese food at a restaurant soon after finding the accommodation and soon discovered that if the accommodation is cheaper in Paro, food is a lot more expensive than Thimphu. A moderate lunch for 3 of us made me poorer by Nu. 600/-, the most expensive single lunch bill during the whole tour. We also ordered some butter tea (Nu. 30/- each), which is tea without milk & sugar, made of butter and salt. Somehow the taste was not to our liking and we both could not finish even a single cup together. KB imbibed the beverage graciously being used to the taste.

We had red rice, which is red colored rice, a locally produced variety of rice, esp. in the country side locations and a local egg dish in lunch. Also, in Thimphu, I had pork for the first time in my life at Hotel Tandin as Pork Chowmein, which was good. Taking a cue from that encouragement, I ordered some pork here too, which ended in a total disaster. I could not even stand the smell of the meat and could not eat more than one small bite.

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-paro-chhu.jpg
Paro Chhu (River): Pic taken just before reaching Paro

National Museum of Bhutan located at Paro closes at 1600 hrs. So we decided to visit the museum first. The museum is located about 10-12 kms away from Paro town and is again an uphill climb. The main building of the museum was partially damaged due to the earthquake of 2011 and is being restored currently. So a makeshift building, built of stones, beautiful enough is serving as the current museum. Entry of Indians to most of the Bhutan govt. maintained heritage sites including those in Thimphu costs Nu. 25/- per head. Photography inside was prohibited so we could not capture the penetralia of this wonderful museum which had a lot to tell about Bhutanese culture, flora & fauna. While returning, we clicked pictures of Paro Dzong which serves as the administrative centre for Paro. We had to leave for India next morning so we did not have the time to visit Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest) but given some time in hands, it would have been a must visit. It’s an old monastery located on a steep uphill cliff & requires quite some time to visit as your vehicle would drop you to a place where either you have to battle the climb on foot or on a Pony.

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-paro-dzong.jpg

Paro Dzong: District Administrative Headquarters.

The Last Shangri-La…at the last minute - Bhutan!-paru-chhu-view.jpg

Scintillating View of Paro River with Stunning Landscape in Backdrop
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