The Land of Happiness – Part I

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 😊

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Like all civilizations, all the major cities & towns of Bhutan are situated alongside rivers

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.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

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:

  1. Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
  2. Lhakhang – A temple
  3. Chhu – A river
  4. Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple
authentic, Bhutanese meal, Spinach, Pork, Rice
Our first authentic Bhutanese meal – Dry Fried Spinach, Kewa Datshi, Mixed Veg, Pork Ribs, Seekam Paa, Spinach Soup, and Sticky Rice. Delish is an understatement!

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.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

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.

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We notice, with sadness, that urbanization doesn’t spare anyone…

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.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

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.

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In January, shades of brown & green dominate.

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.

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There’s also a Crane Festival at the Gangtey Gompa, where performers imitate the graceful movements of the cranes.

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.

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Karma broke a wing & had to be rescued lest it be attacked & eaten by feral dogs. It is yet to recover fully, spending its days seeing its friends scattered around the valley.

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?

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The architecture, the colors… Uff!

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.

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Evening scenes

2.    Bumthang

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.

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As we ascend towards Bumthang, the drop in temperature becomes all too obvious!

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!

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Jambay Lhakhang – one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goenpo in 659 AD in a single day to pin down an ogress to earth forever. #WeLoveLegend

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.

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When your hotel looks like it’s popped out of an old movie!

Back with Part II soon!

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Beauty in Barrenness

There is such an emphasis on adornment. Cakes are expected to be decorated. Clothes are required to be embellished. Girls are supposed to be ornamented. Presentations are expected to be beautified.

Amidst all these trimmings, we forget about the innate beauty of people, of places, and of things. We do not, for a second, imagine there can be attractiveness in simplicity. In our estimation, a plain Jane cannot be beautiful.

Unless we garnish our dishes and make them look pretty, we are dissatisfied. We purchase knick – knacks to be kept around the house; these will, presumably, make our dwellings worthier.

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Emu in such an unlikely place…

When we are conditioned thus, it was exciting to find beauty in barrenness. We had had our eyes set on the Rann of Kutch for quite a while. The white salt desert was enticing. We found the miles of nothingness inviting.

But, going to the Rann of Kutch needed time, and we were not getting any holiday which was of more than three days. So, patiently, we waited. October threw up an opportunity and we found ourselves on the path to Gujarat.

Rail journeys have caught our fancy as we realize it is quite convenient to undertake them as long as we can book in advance. And, well, our travel planning is in ADVANCE! So we booked ourselves onto the Ahmedabad – New Delhi Rajdhani and sat back for a comfortable ride.

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This beautiful thing wanted a ride.

From Ahmedabad, it took us about four hours to reach Dasada, a hamlet on the edge of the Rann of Kutch. We had booked ourselves at Rann Riders, which turned out to be one of the best places we have stayed at. But, more on that later.

We cannot even begin to describe the beauty of the Rann. And, mind you, we were at the Little Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is supposed to be grander and prettier. We went to the Little Rann for a sunset safari; everything they show in photographs and movies is cent per cent real.

For miles and kilometers and a few more miles, there was nothing except the parched land of the Rann, crusted white due to the salt deposits. This was immediately after the monsoon. We cannot imagine what the land would be like during summer.

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A Black-Shouldered Kite

At the far end was a lake, on which the Sun was slowly setting. A flight of flamingos brooded on the lake, wondering surely what we humans found so interesting in them. Or, perhaps, they wondered, how after destroying their natural habitats, humans create sanctuaries to ‘protect’ them.

No matter what the flamingos thought, they were a sight to behold. The curved beaks, the pink bodies, the slender legs- all proving, yet again, what a great artist the One above is.

Coming back to the Rann, the precise barrenness was what we found beautiful and calming. We are so used to chaos around us, and the need we feel to be constantly doing something, that these moments, and these spots, where time stands still, are rare.

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An international sales conference in progress

We felt at peace with ourselves. We felt one with nature. For our eyes, there was the Sun, mellowing down to a soothing yellow. There was the lake, shimmering against the rays of the Sun. There was the earth, cracked and white, and yet moist underneath.

There were shrubs, providing a splash of green in the somber setting. The only sound around us was the patter of the hooves of the wild asses running around. (The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary.) And, once in a while, when the flamingos took flight, their wings flapped to create a symphony.

The only smell we had was of the dry, salty earth. The only taste we had was the salt on our lips. And the only sensation we had was of pesky insects trying to bite us. But we felt complete. All our happy memories rushed back to us to make us smile.

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This one we know. We made friends with one in Jammu and Kashmir.

All our pain disappeared for that moment. And yet, we neither felt great joy nor great sorrow. We just felt peaceful.

The Rann wildlife was another aspect that caught our fancy. We could not imagine a landscape as arid as that supporting any kind of flora and fauna. But, surprise! God must have thought- let me make a few patches of earth unfit for human survival, but let me create a few gorgeous animals who will thrive in the same ecology. Good move God!

Among mammals, you can see the most gorgeous wild asses, nimble desert foxes, shy rabbits, and even more shy nilgais. We are not great at identifying birds but we had some help from our safari guide.

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The gorgeous Wild Ass. Not an iota of fear from the hoomans… It knew this was its turf!

You can easily spot ducks, flamingos, and francolins among many others. Of course, they are all wary of human beings, and will fly away the instant you step closer to them.

Lastly, our resort- Rann Riders- was a delight to stay at. We were in the midst of a lush green setting, making us wonder how such verdure could survive the harsh weather condition.

Acres of plants and trees, the names of which we would take a lifetime to find out, surrounded us. Playing hide and seek in these trees were a plethora of animals – dogs, cats, horses, ducks, peacocks, emus, monitor lizards- all living in harmony with each other and with us human beings.

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Flying flamingos… Ooh! Alliteration!!

Our dwelling was a little mud hut called ‘kooba’, a typical village house but with modern amenities. We woke up to the sounds of the animals and slept to the gentle hum of the air conditioner. Truly a step in the Eco-tourism direction!

We are all the more determined now to visit the Great Rann of Kutch, but it will have to wait, and also for the winter months. Even October smoldered here…

 

We suggest a four days, three nights itinerary to the Rann of Kutch and surrounding areas:

Day 1: Arrive in the morning at Ahmedabad. Take a cab to Dasada; you will arrive here by afternoon. Time permitting, take an evening safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Overnight at the Rann Riders.

Day 2: Take a morning safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Come back, refresh & head to Modhera & Patan. You can spend the day gaping at the Sun Temple in Modhera and the Rani Ki Vav in Patan. If your pocket allows, indulge in a Patola sari at Patan. Overnight at Rann Riders.

Day 3: After breakfast, checkout & head to Ahmedabad. Try to get to Agashiye for a typical Gujarati Thali. Spend the evening sightseeing through the Sabarmati Ashram & the Sabarmati Riverfront. Overnight at Four Points by Sheraton.

Day 4: Morning will be a great time to check out the Sarkhej Roja. By afternoon/ evening, prepare to leave Ahmedabad.