Bhutan By natasha chanda acharya

We were in Bhutan for three nights and four days. A fact which will not allow this post to be anything more than a passing observation. I did some amount of reading on Bhutan before I went on the trip and I was enchanted with the idea of a place like Bhutan being in existence not just in the modern, but actually, incredibly, in an incurably post-modern world.

A kingdom! A place tucked away in the folds of the Himalayas, where GDP is measured in happiness, where cable TV and mobile phone had not made their inroads, where tourists were discouraged, where the people were encouraged not to build tall houses, not to buy anything they didn’t really need or already have, where everyone wore their traditional clothes with pride, where people left whatever they are doing to get together for the weekend Bazar and sit around and chat for hours… It did seem like an idyllic world.

But most of the information on Bhutan that is available on the net talks about a Bhutan that existed before roads were built to the outside world, before cable TV came in, before the youth started getting restless to be a part of the mass herd called the rest-of-the-world. It’s is not all bad now, we still saw enough to be completely charmed by it, but it has definitely made the transition to the beginning of the end of Shangri-La. 

Now women don’t sit out in the sun knitting woollens. I’ve grown up buying woollens from Bhutanese flee markets across India. There wasn’t a single handmade woollen garments shop in all of Thimphu. Everything now comes from Hong Kong / China. The women find watching soaps on TV much more entertaining now, not to mention that mass produced and consequently cheap Chinese goods have robbed them of their own market. Same is the fate of shoes and silks.

Having said all of that, let me get on with my account of the trip itself and share with you the little insights that I got in those few days.

 We entered The Kingdom of Bhutan through Phunsholing. We stopped by the immigration office to get our permits. I spied a beautiful lady in a sparkling white, perfectly ironed silk jacket in the immigration office and thought of how nice she looked. The permits took a long time since they lost server connection with Thimphu. Other than the fact that the official was typing the entire form with one finger / 5 seconds / keystroke. I always maintain, technology never helps. 

Myth no. 1: You don’t get any food (meaning food to our taste) in Bhutan. I gathered this information from the net where this blogger said, all you get is curries made of chillies! And then my travel agent said, we have to pack food and gas stove and everything in the vehicle because you do not get any food there so we have to cook ourselves. Well, thankfully, in spite of being Bengalis, we decided to take our chances and live on bread and butter if need be. Turns out you get everything there. There are wonderful bakeries, and you get the standard Indian fare – roti, daal, sabzi, chicken, rice, the works. The Chinese fare in fact was a little difficult to stomach since it is very different from what we get in India, and I suspect even different from how the Chinese have it. So, any future travellers please do not worry about food.

From Phunsholing we drove up to Thimphu. Since I have travelled widely in North East India, the terrain was not new to me. They were after all the same Himalayan ranges vast and tall and green, and magestic. Very beautiful indeed. By the time we reached Thimphu, it was dark, so all we could make out was this one main street lined with tourist shops and hotels. Every building is a hotel on this street. It was beautifully lit, neat and clean, and peaceful.

So Myth no. 2: All accommodation in Bhutan is very expensive and you have to book in advance to get reservations. Well, you do have to make the reservation because you have to mention where you are staying in your immigration formalities, but for the matter of accommodation not being available, it is not true. There are plenty of hotels and you have hotels in all price ranges. And even in peak season, considering the few no. of tourists, you are sure to find accommodation somewhere.

 We were booked in this hotel called TanDin. Double rooms were for 800 Rs. / ngultrum. We climbed up the stairs to find an empty reception. Much hollering resulted in one pretty little girl appearing on the scene and exclaiming over our entry. Hindi is widely understood by everyone. She took us to show the rooms and while she opened the lock and stepped into the room, she continued singing “la la la, la la la.” My jaw dropped open and I started laughing, best welcome I could imagine after a long and weary journey. And I suddenly became aware of the fact that everyone around us actually seemed to be very happy. They were all very simple, very content people, constantly smiling amongst themselves. Our rooms were really nice. Everything in Bhutan is always made of pine wood. So the panelling and the beds were all in pine wood, and lovely traditional upholstery. It had huge windows overlooking the main street. Bathrooms with all the modern fittings and hot water. And room heaters in the room. I thought it was a very decent deal for 800 Rs. The restaurant was on the same floor, where we had a relaxed dinner after we freshened up. The local liquor is nothing to write home about, but as I mentioned the food was perfectly decent. There were a bunch of youngsters sitting at the table near us. The girls in jeans and stilettos drinking wine, and the boys in bling chains and the works with their beers. I overheard them talking about Hollywood, and Nicole Kidman… and smiled to myself.

We realized the next morning that there was no way we could get permits for Punakha and Wangdeu since all offices were closed for the next few days. We had a little mishap with out timing. We were in the middle of the first elections in the history of Bhutan. So we had to be content visiting Thimphu and Paro.

By day, Thimphu was bright and beautiful, neat and clean, and orderly, and blue skies, prayer flags everywhere. All the houses, buildings are built in the traditional pattern, white walls and painted wood fixtures. The place is beautiful and the people are happy. It does look and feel idyllic. I bought some postcards and posted one to my friends at the office. That was on 30 Dec. It has still not reached them, and I’ve already been back for two weeks. We just went around the town and went up to the view point. Saw the Thimphu River, the Indian embassy, the Thimphu Dzong, the King’s office, and the Legislative Assembly. Saw the King pass us by in his car. When he did that, we were instructed to stand to the side and bow our heads.

 Went on to see the famous weekend Bazar. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it turned out to be our standard vegetable market. It is situated at a picturesque spot, though. It is by the side of the Thimphu River and the town laid out like postcard houses on the valley opposite. We ate basket full of oranges, of course. Went on to see another Dzong further up. It is in ruins now and is being restored with help from India. We were in luck, because then we saw one of the Queens who had come over to survey the progress. A very beautiful young woman. Well, we were supposed to bow our heads, but if the queen was standing barely 10 feet from you, wouldn’t you look at her? And yes, the king has four queens. Do not know for sure but the story goes that he went to meet his prospective wife and fell in love with all the four sisters. So he married all four of them. Did I not tell you, it’s a fairy tale land?

 By night, Thimphu is beautifully lit up, a twinkling town floating in the middle of the valley from the view point. The town square looks like it’s just stepped out of a novel. We noticed an amazing number of swanky cars which costs in the vicinity of 35 -40 laks. And we kept wondering where all the money comes from. What does the economy work on? I mean, the country cannot possibly run on Druk Orange Squash. So, we just accepted out ignorance of the subject and just concentrated on soaking up the beauty of the place.

 Compared to Thimphu, Paro is more quaint. You will find older houses, some is disrepair. Compared to Paro, we suddenly realised that the infrastructure in Thimphu was all brand new. The one thing that made the entire trip worth it in my book were the willow trees. Avenues lined with willow trees. Since it was winter, there were no leaves on them and it stood in stark contract to the spotless blue skies. I can be quite a Dogmatix about trees. We saw the deserted town square (since it was the day of the election) Paro river, the Paro Dzong, the Paro airport and airstrip, the Druk Aircraft, the horses, the pretty birds, men practicing archery (which is their national sport), entire villages queued up to cast their votes in front of the polling booths. Everything is so picturesque, and quiet, and peaceful and we wondered how long peace will reign… In our hotel room at night, we watched Bhutan TV and sat through the election results. We realised we were witnessing history first hand, a history which might not even make it to the world news but which was going to change the lives of these sweet, simple, earth bound people forever.

 I wanted to sample at least one local Bhutanese dish before we went back. So I ordered something that was described as potato and cheese. Well, you can’t go very wrong with that, I thought. When it arrived, I saw that it had one potato sliced up in a cheesy sauce which incidentally had about 200 gms of green chillies. Just like that! And then I realised that their staple food was actually green chillies. Not capsicum or fancy peppers, but good old green chillies! I did put the green chillies aside, but to its credit, it was very tasty. Just as I was coming out of my room, I saw one of the waiters come out of the restaurant, whistling loudly. When I started laughing, he explained he had chillies for dinner; his mouth was burning up so he couldn’t help but whistle!

To begin with, the road from Phunsholig to Thimphu and Paro was in good repair. They are however in the middle of making the entire length a two lane road. Some parts are done and they are as good as any other zipping expressways. Some parts are still single lane, and some parts are completely dug up where the work is in progress. These parts make the journey arduous and long. But I imagine that they will probably try and finish all of this work before the ‘08 rains. And then it will be a dream to drive on that road. 

We were there in the last week of December / first week of January. Myth number 3: It will be intolerably cold. Well, just a regular lightweight sweater sufficed for us during the day when temperatures were around 6 degrees. Early mornings and late nights are a little colder but nothing one cannot cope with. Nights dropped below freezing but by then we were nicely toasting in our rooms with the blessed room heaters. I saw frost for the first time in my life. Early mornings on the window panes, and the grass on the road side all covered with a thin film that starts melting as the sun becomes warmer. Puddles on the road wore thin ice sheets tat cracked as the car went over them. We bid Bhutan goodbye as we kept stuffing our face with oranges.

My only regret is that I couldn’t go further up to Punakha and Wangdue. That would perhaps have given us some insight into the rural life, since Thimphu and Paro are mostly urban. It is a beautiful fairy land place which will soon be lost to the world, no thanks to the progressive onslaught of modern civilization.

Bhutan Traveler Information

 Bhutan Distances:

(Since we hired the car from Cooch Bihar. One can also hire from Siliguri or any place near the border in Jalpaiguri) Cooch Bihar to Phunsholing: 80 Phunsholing to Thimphu: 180 Thimphu to Paro: 54

 Bhutan Car Hire charges:

(This can vary from agency to agency, I guess) Rs 1000 per day + diesel / petrol in actuals We hired a Sumo from Amitabh Sarkar in Cooch Bihar. His no. is 09434126625. The car was not in the best of conditions and the driver was just plain dumb but we did not face any problems during the trip or during payments.

The travel agency deal that we did not take up: For one car, four days, Rs 24000 which will include transport, accommodation, and food. (Remember they wanted to pack the gas stove and stuff!) This agency is run by one Ranjan Deb. His no. is 9932204884.

It is possible to reach Phunsholing by whatever means and then hire Bhutan Taxis from there. I am not aware of the rates.

Hotel TanDin is where we stayed and were very happy with the place and the service. You can contact them directly for reservations and avail some discount as opposed to doing it through agents who will hike the price to get their commissions. The hotel no.s are: 00975-2323381 / 2323380

Bhutan Visa and Permit Information

For the permit formalities, for Indians only, you will need either your voter’s id or your passport. Make several Xeroxes of the same. And you will need two / three passport size pictures also. The vehicle permit will requite Rs 150. Try and reach Phunsholing early in the morning, since formalities will take time, and the office for both the people permit and the vehicle permit closes at 2:00 pm.

Of course, Indian Rupee is highly recognised in Bhutan. I had read that 500 RS notes were discoraged but I carried lots of change, but I think that is not applicable anymore as everyone was very happy to get Indian money including 500 Rs notes. Don’t forget to bring back some "gultrum" and buy some Bhutan stamps.