DRIVING TO BHUTAN THE LAND OF GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS

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One can reach Bhutan in two ways, fly into Paro or drive into Bhutan as we did.

 

We flew in from Bangalore to Bagdogra (near Siliguri in West Bengal) from where a Toyota Innova took us to Hotel Druk in the border town of Phuentsholing. Taxi hire charges from Bagdogra airport to this border town was Rs 3,500. Note that Hotel Druk have an arrangement to pick up / drop its guests from / to Bagdogra airport. We spent the night here.

 

Note that neither India Registered vehicles nor Indian citizens require any permit to visit or stay at Phuentsholing. However, entry permit / visa is required the moment you cross Phuentsholing to go to other parts of Bhutan. These permits can be obtained at the Bhutan emigration office which was adjacent to Hotel Druk. If one were to apply early morning you will get the permit in a couple of hours. No fees are payable for entry permits for Indian citizens, but hotel bookings have to be done in advance. Indian registered vehicles have to pay daily charges to drive inside Bhutan.

 

Enroute to Thimpu there is a check post on the outskirts of Puentsholing where we submitted citizen and vehicle permits. The same needs to be surrendered on our way back to India. You can also exit from 2 other points on the India-Bhutan border.

 

We hired a Bhutan registered SanteFe SUV for 8 days. It picked us up from Hotel Druk. The route was Thimphu, Punakha, Paro and then back to Phuentsholing. The vehicle was in very good condition and had an excellent English speaking local Driver. We paid Rs 3,500 per day. The manager of Hotel Druk arranged the pickup and local sightseeing vehicles. Both the vehicles were new and well maintained.

 

Note that Indian Rupees is also a preferred currency in Bhutan.

 

I am sharing day wise program along with distance and time taken so it helps in case you are planning a similar trip.

 

Day 1 27th May Drive from Bagdogra Airport to Puentsholing, 170 kms, 4.5 hours 

 

Pickup up from India Bhutan border in the afternoon. Stopped enroute for lunch at Oodlabari.

You cross the River Teesta through the Sevoke Coronation Bridge. One can see beautiful Dooars tea plantations enroute. Reached Phuentsholing in the evening. Stayed at Hotel Druk. We walked around the market in the evening. Had dinner at Zen restaurant.

 

Day 2 28th May Morning drive to Thimphu, 165 kms, 4.5 hours

 

Enroute see and enjoy Kharbandi Gompa Monestry. Lunch Break at Bunakha Cafeteria  (try their speciality Pork Momo, Sekam Pa (Pork dish), Ema Datshi (the national dish of Bhutan) with Red Rice and Butter Tea (made of  Bhutan tea leaves, butter and salt – tastes more like porridge liquid). Also see Chuzom which is the confluence of Thimphu, Wang Chhu, Paro and Pa Chhu rivers. Drive past Gedu University and Gedu Waterfall. If time permits see Dam View point. Reached Thimphu in the afternoon.

 

Post a short siesta in the hotel we visited Centenery farmer's market (to see what all Bhutanese eat), Norzim Lam Street for shopping (shops close by 7 pm) and Clock tower square. The square has many handicrafts shops. For curios visit Tiger’s Nest in road side shopping area.

 

Day 3 29th May Local sight-seeing at Thimpu All places listed below are a must visit.

  • Simply Bhutan where craftsman make & sell their creations. Entrance fee Rs 150/. 
  • National Library (10 minutes tour). Make sure one see the largest book in the world.  
  • Handicraft Centre/Institute of Zorig Chusum (30 minutes tour). Entry free.
  • National Musuem of Textiles (10 minutes). Entry fee Rs 50/.  
  • The National Government at the Taschico Dzong (15 minute drive, one hour tour). Entry fee Rs 300/.  
  • National Memorial Chorten. Entry fee Rs 300.
  • Buddha Statue is 170 feet and made of gold/bronze statue. Entry free.
  • Takin Zoo can be skipped, as we did not see any animals, but it houses the rare National Animal Takin.
  • Folk Heritage Museum (Phelchey Toenkhyim is Bhutanese name) i.e. a 20 minutes tour and paid an entrance fee of Rs 30/. Buy fried rice grains & local alcohol and also see how they make it.

 

Day 4 30 May Drove from Thimphu to Punakha 86 kms 2.5 hours 

Punakha is the old capital of Bhutan, and has one of the most revered of monasteries.

  • Enroute must see Dochu La Pass, which has a 108-Chorten memorial atop & affords great landscape views when weather is clear. It is 45 minutes from Goemba. Take woollens as temperature may fall suddenly at the Pass. Enjoy hot snacks and beverages at the cafeteria at the Pass. There is also a nice temple/monastery.
  • Punaka Dzong at the old capital of Bhutan, one of the most beautiful of monuments of Bhutan, on the banks of the River Po Chu. Like all Dzongs, it is the traditional headquarters of the local administration, besides being the religious centre too. Entry fee Rs 300/. Indian currency of only Rs 100/ denomination are accepted. It is a must visit. Use the services of a guide is suggested. Cost Rs 500/. Keep 1.5 hours.
  • The confluence of rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu can be seen while driving to Dzong Punakha Suspension Bridge. Do visit the tea shop at the end of the bridge.
  • Chimilakhang Monastery.
  • Cheri Goemba monastery (30 minutes) - 15 minutes from Thimpu.   

 

Day 5 31st May Drove from Punakha to Paro, 127 kms 3.5 hours 

Paro Valley is regarded as one of the prettiest of valleys in the Himalayan region. You can also sight Mt Chomolhari, the highest mountain in the country.

  • Sangchen Dorji Lhendrub Choling Nunnery. Entry fee Rs 100/, must see.
  • Drukgyel Dzong. Entry fee Rs 300/. Guide is free but tips accepted.
  • Rinpung Dzong.
  • Ta Dzong National Museum is a must see. Entry fee Rs 100/.
  •        Kyichu Lakhang. Entry fee Rs 50/. Guide is free but tips accepted.
  • Kumsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten Temple. It is a 45 minutes trek. Worth it. Entry free.  

Day 6 June 1 Taktshang Monastrey / Tiger’s Nest 11 kms 

A monastery clinging off the steep cliff

 

The visit took the whole day. It is close to the hotel but the climb takes time. It is a 4 kms trek, a total of 910 steps one way at the end (480 steps down, 250 steps up, 180 steps inside the temple/monastery).

 

As climb is steep, don’t carry any warm clothes. Buy supporting sticks for Rs 50 at the base. Do not miss the small cave at the top inside one of the eight temples. Inside this cave a lamp burns for 24 hours. Entry and exit to the cave is a bit risky but it was well worth it. 

 

Buy beautiful curios, souvenirs and brass items - all at very attractive prices. Bargain hard at the road side shops near the ticketing counter at the base. Whilst trekking be light so suggest do shopping at the end. This is a must visit. Trek up to the top. Am saying this because many go up to cafeteria or view point (ie mid-way) and drop out or wait there for others to go to the top and come back.

 

Day 7 June 2 Drive to Chele La Pass, 37 kms 1.25 hours

High pass – Gateway to the Haa Valley

 

We spent the whole day at this high pass. It was very cold at 8 degrees so need warm clothes and covered shoes. Have noodle, snacks and tea/coffee at the top. Very enjoyable. Note this pass closes down during the winter due to snowfall.

 

If you are short of time and have visited Ladakh, then skip this because the terrain is similar to Ladakh. It too has the highest motorable road in Bhutan and a view point.

       

Day 8 June 3 Drive from Paro to Puentsholing, 160 kms 4.5 hours 

 

Drive on day 8 and 9 were tiring as we had six days of travel before that. Whilst going we took great interest in the terrain, ambience, landscape etc. Whilst returning we were tired.

 

Day 9 June 4 Drive from Phuentsholing to Bagdogra, 170 kms 4.5 hours

 

Instead of taking a conducted tour we chose to make our own itinerary and transport/accommodation to go around. We were three in the car - myself, wife and daughter (20 years) besides the driver.

 

Our daughter and I took turns in swapping seats. All of us are interested in nature and we found it in abundance in Bhutan. The water streams enroute along with pitch green trees were quite soothing to the eyes. Since we have travelled extensively worldwide we were looking for something new hence decided upon Bhutan. While driving the virgin landscapes made us halt at many places and just enjoy nature. In western countries and Japan such freedom is not there as one can't get down the highways or freeways there. 

 

That way Bhutan was different. Men & women typically wear the national costume and most buildings are designed to traditional unique architecture. English and Hindi is generally understood. In Bhutan, rules are strictly followed, especially on the road.

 

We visited in end May. Till end March it is cold and post May it is foggy with rains. Hence we could not see some of the mountain ranges clearly. This apart, visibility was an issue in some places especially while driving from Phuentsholing to Thimphu as we crossed a small rain forest. The suggested ideal time is Oct/Nov when the sky is clear and ambient temperature is around 15 to 20 degree.

 

Nevertheless we had a great time in Bhutan. If you are planning a trip and have any questions do drop a mail.

 

To see pictures of

1 Bhutan Vignettes

2 Thimpu

3 Paro

4 Punakha