“Druk Yul” meaning “The Land of Thunder Dragon” is how Bhutan is popularly known. Mythology has it that large thunderstorms that whip down from the Himalayas are red fire of a dragon, hence ancient people of Bhutan called it the land of Thunder Dragon. Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan country that adjoins northeast part of India and sparsely with China. Environmental protection and cultural preservation make Bhutan a pristine beauty with hardly any factories causing pollution. Being in the Himalayan Mountains, it has long rivers full of water throughout the year. Hence, the biggest industry of Bhutan is hydropower.
If you are interested in visiting Bhutan then I presume you are a nature lover. The best mode of travel to Bhutan is by road. The drive comprises tough terrain and varying landscape and is a fantastic experience. There are few border crossing points while traveling by road, the most popular being Phuntsholing town that is bordering with Jaigaon of West Bengal, India. For the less adventurous, there are flights to Bhutan. The only entry point by air is Paro Valley. Druk air of Bhutan and other international airlines fly to Paro a few times a week. The highest frequency is between Indian towns (mostly from the eastern states) and Paro.
We flew to the nearby airport of Bagdogra (Siliguri) in West Bengal and then drove to Phuntsholing, which is about a 4-hour drive lined with tea gardens on either side of the road. One does not need visa/permit to visit Phuntsholing. Phuntsholing and Jaigaon are like twin towns so you can choose to stay at either place. However, Phuntsholing has better hotels and options. The border gate to Phuntsholing remains closed between 10 pm to 6 am. These times vary so check timings and plan your entry and exit accordingly. Bhutan government has an office at Phuntsholing to issue the tourist permit to Indian citizens. There is a substantial rush at the permit office especially during peak season and you may end up spending the whole day in Phuntsholing. Please be aware of national holidays during which the permit office remains closed. The best way to optimize your time and reduce your stay at Phuntsholing is to be ready with filled-up forms and documents when the office opens in the morning. You are likely to get your permit delivered in the afternoon or may be earlier. Alternately, you can arrive the previous day evening and submit the application and obtain the permit the next morning. Please keep in mind that the permit issued at Phuntsholing is valid only for Paro, Thimphu and Punakha and for a period of 7 days. If you plan to travel beyond Punakha and/or stay for more than 7 days, then you must obtain an added permit from Thimphu. We got a renewed permit from Thimphu to visit beyond Punakha but forgot to apply for the extension of our stay and were fined Nu 500 per person for each additional day of our stay. Keep yourself updated with the latest policy of the Government of Bhutan prior to traveling.
Phuntsholing to Thimphu
After obtaining a permit at about 11 am we checked out from our hotel and set out on our exciting road trip in Bhutan for the next 10 days. We traveled in the month of October, immediately after the monsoon. We were literally speechless during the first hour of our road trip seeing nature in all its grandeur. We silently soaked in this enchanting land; natures undisputed paradise on earth. Before we knew it, we had reached a high altitude. This being the main highway connecting Bhutan and India, there was some traffic en route but at no time did we feel insecure on the road. Traveling through narrow and curvy roads, beautiful landscape and thick clouds around us got us utterly excited. It took us almost 5 hours to reach Thimphu with numerous stops on our way to take pictures and enjoy this pristine land.
The beginning of a beautiful journey through varied landscapes, a culture of happiness and serene nature.
Thimphu is the capital city of Bhutan and is also the largest city in Bhutan, located at an altitude of about 8,000 feet. I am not a big fan of spending a lot of time in the capital cities because they are crowded with tourists and offer very little to off-the-track tourists. However, there are a few interesting places to visit in Thimphu. There is a 50-meter tall statue of Buddha Dordenma on a hilltop of Kuensel Phodrang made of gold plated steel. There is an invisible museum inside the statue.
Beautiful view of Thimphu city from the top of Kuensel Phodrang. The only capital city in the world without a traffic light.
Bhutan, a tiny and undiscovered Himalayan country till the 1960s, suddenly made headlines across the world for the famous innovation in postage stamps during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They made postage stamps out of plastic with 3-dimensional effect and from other non-paper material like steel, silk, plastic mould, vinyl gramophone records, aluminum foil, gold foil, etc. Not only was it a sensation in the world of philately but also helped Bhutan in fundraising for its infrastructure development program. Thimphu hosts one of the most interesting Philatelic Museums in the world, telling a hidden story of how its stamps program evolved. I, being a longtime philatelist, was quite fascinated with this place but I am sure you will cherish this experience even if you are not a philatelist. You can easily spend 2-3 hours here and discover something truly amazing that put Bhutan on the world map.
Bhutan postal runner statue with its traditional attire at the postal museum in Thimphu.
Takin is a national animal of Bhutan, which is in the IUCN Red List (vulnerable). Motithang Takin Preserve hosts the Takin and many animals and birds native to Himalayan mountain range.
The tall statue of Buddha on a hilltop of Thimphu.
Holding our extended permit from Thimphu we journeyed towards Punakha, an old capital city of Bhutan till 1955. On the way to Punakha you will pass through Dochula Pass. It is a mesmerizing place that hosts 108 memorial Chortens (also called stupas) known as Druk Wangyal Chortens for each soldiers life lost in the war. It also offers a stunning panoramic view of Himalayan mountain peaks like Masaganang (7,200 meters), Kangphunang (7,170 meters), Tsendagang (6,960 meters), Jejegangphugang (7,158 meters) and Terigang (7,060 meters). You would need a clear day to see these peaks from Dochula Pass, but we were not lucky enough on both our visits to Dochula pass in a span of 7 days.
108 Chortens at Dochula Pass at an altitude of 10,000 feet are mostly covered in clouds round the year.
This is another stunning drive in Bhutan. You will drive almost parallel to the crystal-clear river Puna Tsang Chu (also known as Po Chhu) that is surrounded by lush green paddy fields. You can also do river rafting here which is a seasonal activity. Punakha is very famous for its beautiful Dzong, also known as Pungthang Dewa Chhenbi Phodrang. It is an administrative center of Punakha district and is the second oldest and second largest Dzong of Bhutan. It is built at the confluence of two rivers, Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu and has a spellbinding view. The Dzong is equally beautiful from inside and is still functional. It closes at 5 pm (check the latest timing) so make sure you plan your visit accordingly.
Punakha Dzong at the confluence of two rivers is the winter residence of the King.
Another must visit in Punakha is the Suspension Bridge. I can't believe that not many tourists are aware about the Suspension bridge. It is a modern marvel of construction in a country like Bhutan, which has preserved most of the old architecture. It is 160 meters long connecting the two ends between Po Chhu river. Walking across this shaking bridge is nerve-racking but thrilling! Brace up and do it and you will have no regrets. The view of the river is spectacular and keeps you distracted. When we reached the other end of the bridge it started raining heavily so we had to take shelter at a small coffee shop until the rain stopped. Almost 45 minutes later, we headed back across the bridge with the daylight quickly disappearing and this was a different experience.
This is the reason Punakha is the winter capital of the country.
Bumthang (translated beautiful field) is a district in the central part of Bhutan. The capital city of Jakar has a small airport with daily flight connectivity to Paro. Bumthang district is quite big and you will enjoy staying in some of the hotels slightly away from Jakar as they offer you a picture-book landscape and tranquil environment. The places of interest in Bumthang would be Jakar Dzong and Mebar Tsho (the Burning Lake). We also went for a long drive towards Ura valley and that was a memorable experience. The actual beauty of Bumthang can be experienced while driving around the diverse landscape.
Ura Valley: Gods Canvas Painting
It is famous for the migration of black-necked cranes from Tibet during the winter. Usually, the migration starts late October to Early November and then they return to Tibet from mid February onwards. However, our visit was a tad early and we could not catch a glimpse of this precious bird. Phobjikha is a large plateau, which was a welcome change for us. The temperature was relatively normal compared to sub-zero in Bumthang at 13,000 feet.
The landscape and local culture at Phobjikha Valley
We decided to stay with a local family instead of booking a hotel. Local organizations help facilitate this arrangement so tourists learn more about Bhutanese culture and lifestyle. We were warmly welcomed by a local family whose main business was potato framing. Their home was tucked away in the valley and our local driver had to make a couple of phone calls to them to locate the house. It was a small but well maintained house. We were treated to a delicious local vegetarian dinner by our generous and kind hosts. Surprisingly, they did not speak Hindi, but our driver played the role of an Interpreter. It was a heartwarming experience.
Our sleeping arrangements at the local homestay with near zero degree Centigrade temperature.
Wondering if we ever went to Paro? Yes, we did but intentionally kept it as the last destination of our trip for two reasons. Firstly, we wanted to climb all the way to Taktsang (Tigers Nest) which is tough so we saved it for the end of our trip. Secondly, we had to return to Phuntsholing previous day of our return flight from Bagdodgra and the distance from Paro to Phuntsholing is ideal compared to driving down from a far away place.
Tigers Nest, built in 1692, is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries at high altitude in the world, where Guru Rinpoche first meditated. We started from our hotel at 7 am and it took 20 min to reach the starting point of the climb. Tigers Nest is located at about 10,000 feet altitude and Paro is at 7,000 feet so one needs to climb 3,000 feet. It is tough but worth the effort. I have seen many elderly people making it to the top so I believe it truly spiritual. During the trek, you will come across many shortcuts that are steep. Avoid them unless you are an athlete and want to have a different experience. There are some sections of the hike, which are quite challenging with very narrow passages and a deep valley beneath you, so be cautious. The hike until cafeteria (almost half way) is tough compared to the second half but usually you are fresh so you can easily make it up. But when you are coming down you will realize the difficulty. There is a ONE-WAY horse ride available only till the cafeteria for those who cannot trek. After the cafeteria, the hike is a little less stressful but the last 700 steps are steep and tough. Going down is relatively easier to climbing up. You are not allowed to enter the monastery with camera, mobile, etc. so there is a locker facility available to store your belongings. Best to carry your own lock as all the lockers do not have locks. Dress modestly when you visit the monastery. The interior of the monastery is stunning. Overall, the journey takes between 6-7 hours to complete; roughly 3.5 hours to climb, 2 hours to come down and about 1 hour inside the monastery. Start early in the morning, before 7 am to take advantage of weather and beat the group or horses as they start after 8 am.
A stunning view of an ancient Buddhist Monastery: Taktsang (Tigers Nest)
Your trip to Bhutan is incomplete if you haven't visited Tiger's Nest.