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 😊

civilization, city, town, bhutan, river
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.

Bhutan--2
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.

Bhutan--4
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.

notice, sad, urban, spare
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.

January, shade, brown, green, dominate
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.

crane, gangtey, perform, imitate, grace, move
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.

karma, break, wing, rescue, dog, recover, friend, valley
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?

architecture, colour
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.

evening, scene
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.

ascend, bumthang, drop, temperature, obvious
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!

jambay lhakhang, 108, temple, tibet, songtsen goenpo, day, ogress, earth, forever, love, legend
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.

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

Back with Part II soon!

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When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

gorgeous
Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

poem, Kashmir, memory
Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

prettiness
Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

cottage, Pahalgam, River Lidder
The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

wisp, leaf
Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

Chashmashahi, purity, water
At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

beauty, houseboat
We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

kashmir, shikara
The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal