Bhutan on a budget of $500
The stunning Paro valley will leave you awestruck. Image Courtesy Tourism Council of Bhutan
Does relaxing in a land of beauty and serenity sound good to you? Or do you prefer adventure? You`ll find equal proportions of both in Bhutan, according to marketing director and avid traveller Satish Iyer.
After seven years of travelling to Bhutan, I can confidently say that the air-route from Kolkata is the quickest way to enter Bhutan, but the land-journey to Phuentsholing offers both adventure and scenic beauty. No matter which route you choose, Bhutan has a way of imbuing you with its own peaceful aura, the minute you set foot here. Fresh scents intoxicate our olfactory nerves and the greenery boosts our energy to seemingly inexhaustible levels. The serenity of this place is so all encompassing, the Prime Minister could pass us by, without causing a stir.
Being Indian, we could purchase a permit on arrival, either at Phuentsholing or at the Paro Airport. The permit provided at Phuentsholing can be used only to visit Thimphu and Paro. For other destinations in Bhutan such as Haa valley, Punakha or Bumthang, you will need to renew your permit in Thimphu. Maps and brochures are available in plenty at the airport and at the border in Phuentsholong.
Though it seems far from the maddening crowd, we did not find Bhutan lacking comforts, typical of more developed countries. The most striking feature of this nation, is that even as it embraces technology it still preserves its culture. Walking on the streets, we always saw citizens proudly wearing their traditional garments, Gho for men and Kira for women. Fluttering prayer flags are a common sight. Everywhere we looked, there were sloping roofs, a typical architectural feature of snow-prone regions. We weren`t quite certain what to make of the phallic artwork that adorned the walls of many homes, until someone explained to us that this was the local way of warding of evil.
The warm, friendly and peace-loving children of Bhutan- Image Courtesy- Jason Craig D`Souza
Picturesque hills and mountains, dense forests, apple trees lining both sides of the road and stunning natural waterfalls... I can`t find the words to do justice to Bhutan`s natural beauty. If you thought travelling through India`s ghats was adventurous, Bhutan`s mountainous routes are in a league of their own. Trekking through Bhutan is unlike anywhere else in the Himalayas. While the undulating terrain makes the routes long and strenuous, the clear air and spectacular views make the effort worth it. Alternatively, you could just unwind, relax and enjoy the weather on your holiday.
Bhutan measures its prosperity by the happiness levels of its citizens and not its GDP. No wonder we found the people are warm, polite, peace-loving and exceedingly friendly. Everyone, from hotel receptionists to truck loaders was willing to help, making our journey extremely easy. Moreso, most locals speak English and Hindi. We Mumbaikars enjoyed some long conversations with them on Bollywood film-stars, Indian cinema, and music.
We discovered that a $500* (excluding airfare) budget and a week`s vacation was sufficient to explore Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Phuentsholing. Inexpensive accommodation costs between $20-60 per night. We found the Indian food a bit expensive. Luckily, the tasty local and Tibetan food was more affordable. If you like spicy food, you simply must try Inadachi (Ina-chilly; dachi-cheese) and Kewadachi (Kewa-potato)
The Bhutan Gate which divides India and Bhutan- Image Courtesy- Linda De Volder
At the southernmost edge of Bhutan, on the other side of the fence that marks India`s border, Phuentsholing is the centre for trade between India and Bhutan. This industrial town, is accessible to Indians via road and rail. Trains run from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri station in Siliguri. From here, it takes approximately four hours by road to Jaigaon, the last Indian town before you cross over into Bhutan. Alternatively, you can take a train to Hashimara. From here, it`s just an hour by road to Jaigaon.
Visit: One day is adequate to visit the limited tourist spots of Phuentsholing including the monastery, Kharbandi Goemba. The monastery garden offers a fascinating view of Phuentsholing town and the surrounding plains. Other tourist lures include the Crocodile Breeding Centre; Bhutan Gate, a popular photo spot; and Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang, a small temple which represents Guru Rinpoche`s heaven.
Hotels: Sinchula Hotel, Hotel Lhaki Yangchak, Druk Hotel, Hotel Bhutan
Eat at: Zen Restaurant
A Buddhist monastery and fortress on the western bank of the Wang Chu, the Trashi Chhoe Dzong hosts many colourful tsechu festivit- Image Courtesy Tourism Council of Bhutan
The approximately six-hour bus journey from Phuensholing to Thimphu, is like driving through a painting. Nature lovers may find themselves speechless, while photographers will be shutter happy all the way. Thimphu is a unique city with a mix of modern development alongside ancient traditions. Thimphu's development as Bhutan's capital; with small malls, freeways and construction work in progress does not hinder the preservation of the local culture in which the Bhutanese take great pride.
Visit: Home to some of the main political buildings and the official residence of the King, popular tourist sites in Thimphu include the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the western bank of the Wang Chu; the statue of Buddha Dordenma, a 51.5mt bronze statue at the top of Kuensel Phodrang hill; the School of Traditional Arts; Changangkha Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in the Thimphu Valley; Simtokha Dzong; The National Folk Heritage Museum; Memorial Chorten and the Upper Motithang Zoo
Shopping: Many shops in Thimphu sell typical Bhutanese handicrafts, but masks, carpets, jewellery, stamps, religious paintings and Bhutanese wooden products are also widely available at the tourist emporium on Thimphu’s main road. A good place to buy religious paintings is the Thanka Painting School in Thimphu, where young students spend their days learning the craft. You can also pick up traditional Bhutanese clothes Gho (for men) and Kira (for women).
Hotels: Bhutan Peaceful Resort, Phuntsho Pelri Hotel, Hotel Pedling, Penjor Lodge at Norzin Lam
Eat at: Rice Bowl (local and international cuisine), Bhutan Kitchen (Tibetan, Bhutanese local food), Chop Stick (Chinese)
Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, can be seen at the Upper Motithang Zoo in Thimphu. Image Courtesy Jason Craig D'Souza
Paro, home to Bhutan’s only international airport is approximately two hours by road from Thimphu and is 50 minutes from Kolkata, via plane. On arrival, you can get a visa for the duration of your stay. A historic town, Paro has many sacred sites and historical buildings and the Paro Valley is recognized as one of the most picturesque in all of Bhutan. Heading to Paro is a good idea for those who love nature and want to enjoy a quiet and peaceful time.
Visit: Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest), a Buddhist sacred site and temple complex at about 1,200 meters is one of Bhutan's most notable tourist attractions. Drukgyel Dzong, an old ruined fortress and Paro Rinpung Dzong, a monastery and fortress; Kyichu Lhakhang, constructed by King Songten Gampo, believed to be one of the temples built to subdue a demoness residing in the Himalayas and The National Museum of Bhutan are other significant sites.
Hotels: Silver Pine Hotel, Bhutan Metta Resort, Hotel Jigmeling
Eat at: Red Rice (Chinese) Charo and Doro (local flavour), YueLing
Hiking or horse riding are the only two ways to reach the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest). Image Courtesy Jason Craig D'Souza
Located in western Bhutan, Punakha was the old capital of the country. With favourable climatic conditions and fertile soil, the Punakha valley produces abundant crops and fruits. Give river rafting a shot at Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers.
Visit: Stop by the well-known Punakha Dzong, an ancient fort built on the banks of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. The Chimi Lhakhang, temple of the fertility king Drukpa Kuenley and Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, built to remove negative forces and promote peace, stability and harmony in the changing world, are other attractions.
Hotels: Dochula Resort, Damchen Resort, Meri Punesum Resort
Eat at: Lobesa Village Restaurant, Chimi Lakhang Cafeteria
Other places to visit: Haa valley, Punakha or Bumthang, Wangdue, Phobjikha, Trongsa
Punakha Dzong, situated on the banks of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. Image Courtesy Tan Yilmaz
*All values specified are in U. S dollars
Travelling to different towns and cities is possible by bus (affordable and comfortable). Share taxis are also available to quicken your journey.
Avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone. While this seems unlikely, unconsciously it could happen while laying down or sitting with your feet up.
Many of the houses will have phallic symbols painted on the sides or hanging from eves or in shops. The Bhutanese consider these a talisman against evil.
Bhutan follows a traditional form of Buddhism and animals are not killed or put down, even for humane reasons. As a result, you may spot dogs and other animals in a condition where in another culture they would have been put down or operated on.
While the Indian Rupee is also accepted as currency, notes only below Rs.100 are permitted. When paying in Indian rupees, change returned will be in Ngultrum (BTN)