Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.
Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:
Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊
Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.
Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.
Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.
Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.
F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!
If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.
Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.
Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:
- Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
- Lhakhang – A temple
- Chhu – A river
- Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple
Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.
Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.
The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.
You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.
With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?
Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.
We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.
Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.
The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.
The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.
Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.
Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.
For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!
1. Phobjikha Valley
Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.
The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.
Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.
If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.
Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.
The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.
The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!
Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.
Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.
To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.
The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?
Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.
The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.
You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.
Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.
Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.
Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.
We love Bhutanese legends!
Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.
You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.
The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!
Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.
The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!
Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!
The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.
You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.
Back with Part II soon!