We visited Bhutan for our wedding anniversary and I thought that entitled us to a more relaxed pace and also exceed our budget to more than usual (overview of our trip here). With the exception of a hike to the Tatksang monastery (Tiger’s nest) we rarely did anything strenuous. We walked around the cities quite a bit, but it all really came down to soaking in the tiny, gorgeous Himalayan Kingdom’s culture and ambience.
Phuentsholing to Thimphu – shared taxi from the border
Due to our slow pace, we were only able to visit Western Bhutan and we highly recommend the same to other travelers who can only spare a week. We began our Bhutanese journey in the busy border town of Phuentsholing and worked our way inland using local public transport. A brisk 15 minute walk after our entry permits were issued to us in the morning led us to the bus station where we found out there were no buses going to Thimphu anymore that day. Plenty of taxes were available, but prices were steep. So we hopped on to a shared taxi (a Tata Sumo type of vehicle) and set out to Thimphu. In retrospect, I would have liked to go by private taxi as the backseat was uncomfortable and unbeknownst to me, I was newly pregnant with our daughter. The trip was about 4-5 hours long and includes a stop for lunch at a restaurant with very scenic views. I was excited about our first foray into Bhutanese cuisine and enjoyed a hearty fare of Bhutanese red rice, dal, mixed vegetables and a spicy chili condiment!
Dusk rolled in as Thimphu’s outskirts came into view and we were soon dropped off near our hotel. We checked into the Namgay Heritage Hotel in Thimphu, where rooms were beautifully appointed and the old style elevator delighted me.
Thimphu is a quaint city with no traffic lights – that’s right, the only capital city in the world to have that distinction. Narrow streets and alleys join the main street, which is busy and serene at the same time. Temples, tiny and large dot the landscape and are always bustling with people coming to offer their prayers. All around us, Bhutanese people went about their day looking very comfortable in their national dress. We walked around for hours and when tired, we’d duck into a traditional momo shop, a quiet restaurant or a more modern cafe.
One night during our evening walk, we saw a very crowded restaurant. Momos are steamed dumplings filled with veggies or meat that abound all over the northeast subcontinent (India, Nepal, Bhutan). We were having a hard time finding momos as none of the touristy restaurants had them! Thinking this tiny hole-in-the-wall which the locals favored might be the ticket, we stepped in and stood awkwardly trying to find a table. A group of Bhutanese noticed our discomfort and beckoned us over. From that day on until the day we left the country, they wowed us with their hospitality and kind heart. They gave us a mini tour of the city, took us to another tucked away restaurant, gave us hotel recommendations for Paro and Phuentsholing and made our stay a lot more memorable than we could have imagined. Unfortunately, we lost touch with them, but I do not remember Bhutan without thinking of them!
We found public transport in Bhutan not as effortless as in South America, but were still able to hop on a bus from Thimphu to Paro. We had to hire taxis for day trips as needed, but found that to be a far cheaper option than simply hiring a car for the entire trip. We made two day trips, one outside Thimphu and one to Punakha (from Paro). We also hired a taxi to go to Tiger’s nest monastery.
We highly recommend the surreal Dochula pass which is just outside Thimphu and a short taxi ride away. The sight of 108 stupas just as you turn the corner with the Himalayas in the background is awe-inspiring. You can climb up the path on the center to the temple on the far right, its lovely!
Paro and Bhutan’s crown jewel – the Tiger’s nest monastery
Bhutan’s only international airport is located in Paro and connects to several Indian cities, Bangkok, Dhaka and Singapore. There are tiny airports elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Bhumthang valley, but its noteworthy that the capital doesn’t have an airport to its name. This might be due to its hilly nature and all the more reason to like Thimphu. Paro is much flatter and lies in the middle of a verdant valley (the entire country is verdant). Paro is the base to visit the Tiger’s nest monastery. The tiger’s nest monastery is a day trip from Paro and the highlight of our trip. It is the monastery that is precariously perched on high cliffs and the image of Bhutan to the outside world. If one were to conjure the picture of young, smiling monks making their way up a steep, hilly path to a rustic and peaceful monastery, they would not be far from the truth. Time seemed to stand still for us here and the peace of the surroundings finds its way deep within you, regardless of your spiritual inclination. The fluttering prayer flags strung throughout the mountain only adds to the ambience.
Back in Paro’s main street, we stumbled upon a newly opened nearly empty restaurant. The proprietress, a Bhutanese woman, did not have a menu and simply cooked us dishes using what she had in her kitchen. The food was so tasty and simple that we ate the rest of the our meals in Paro at her kitchen. The walk from our hotel to the stunning Paro Dzong wound its way through Paro University and was just the type of a vacation needs. Not quite a walk, but more a peaceful stroll through a greenbelt.
We also included a day trip to Punakha and Ha valley. While Punakha has the administrative dzong – the main office of which only permits the chief lama of the country and the king! Ha valley was not a major point for us and we would give it a pass next time.
We barely scratched the surface of what Bhutan has to offer. We’d definitely want to go back again and spend 2-3 weeks in Bhutan. The famed Bhumthang valley is on the list for a future visit. See this post for more tips surrounding the logistics. Bhutan is incredibly easy for the Indian citizen to travel spontaneously. It was safe and the people were courteous. The country is truly gorgeous. While citizens of other countries have to shell out big bucks to get to Bhutan, its worth exploring if you are traveling in the region.