Why do we travel? 🙂
The Bhutan trip was our attempt to get out and run away from a schedule, a routine, a time table. So when we heard BK’s ‘meet you at 8:00 am’, it was difficult not to chuckle within. Still, up at 7:30, we hurried to BK’s office. We walked to the Bhutan gate and crossed over to Jaigaon.
It’s impossible to miss how different either sides of the border are. Phuentsholing (the Bhutan side) is beautiful, with clean roads and a very distinctive architecture. (Throughout the country, you would notice a unity in their architectural style: white buildings, arched windows, multi-coloured sloping roofs). There is an order and calmness to the city, also reflected in its people.
When you cross over, you just know you’re back in India: the dirty streets, traffic and somehow, even the smell.
Once in Jaigaon, we had to walk past a few vendors to get to BK’s office. One of the vendors was fascinated with Madhuri’s instant camera, so we clicked a picture of him and left the copy behind.
We reached BK’s office around 8:45. Unimpressed with us and very frank about it, he asked us for our ID proofs. His assistants helped fill out our Immigration forms and then, we were asked to head back to the Bhutan Immigration office for the required passes.
After walking back to Bhutan, we met a couple of taxi drivers at the gate. We were to head to Thimphu that evening and had to figure out a way to get there. I might have shown a teeny bit of interest in Deepak, but I didn’t know he was gonna tag along from then. Anyway, we got his contact number and told him we’d get back to him, if required. We headed to the Immigration office. From the blogs we’d read online, the entire process was to be over in 30 minutes. We had no idea that a long, grueling 3.5 hours lay ahead for us. The office was crowded, considering it was a Friday (the immigration office remains closed on weekends). Also, we learnt then that the office would also remain shut on Jan 2nd, Monday as it was Bhutanese New Year.
If you land there without an agent (as we did), there are high chances you and your form would be sidelined in the presence of tens of other agents, trying to use their contacts to get their customers’ processes done before yours. While waiting impatiently for our permits, munching on ChocoPies, Deepak paid a visit to check if we’d bailed on him. We negotiated a bit and arrived at a comfortable rate.
For the entry permit, your personal details (from your Passport), photo and fingerprints are registered. Around 12:45, we received our Entry Permits with official seal and signature of the Immigration officer, which allowed us to travel in and around Thimphu and Paro for 7 days. To travel to other places as per our itinerary, we had to get a ‘Special Area Permit’ and to stay for over 7 days in Bhutan, an ‘Extension Permit’ from Thimphu. We went back to BK’s office, received details of hotels/homestays from him. He tried to pressurize us into booking cabs and a tour guide with him for the entire trip; he laughed away at our proposition of preferring to walk/take the bus/shared cab as and when we liked. But girl, we were no eggs to break under pressure! We believed we could manage (and just how well we did!).
We went back to Hotel Centenniel for our breakfast + lunch at around 13:30. We’d ordered for Jeera rice, mixed vegetable curry, peas pulao and Egg Datshi. (In a Bhutanese menu card, you’d find a number of dishes named Datshi: Egg Datshi, Kewa Datshi, Ema Datshi etc., Datshi is a curry prepared with homemade yak or mare milk cheese). While feasting on it, the owner accompanied us, giving us a brief on Bhutan, their political situation, growing usage of drugs and alcohol amongst youngsters. By the way, smoking is prohibited in Bhutan but alcohol is easily available at every nook and corner. Alcohol is, however, only served after 13:00 everyday and Tuesday is observed as a dry day (if you’re wondering why, no particular reason: the government tries to discourage drinking on one day of the week).
We checked out of the hotel, met Deepak, loaded our luggage onto his WagonR and started to Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. The concept of shared cabs is very prevalent in Bhutan, much like our Share Autos. You can head to the nearby taxi stand for one or just wait on the road, make yourself noticeable and hold out your hand, indicating the total number of passengers intending to travel. If a cab passing you by has the required number of seats, they’ll stop to pick you and your folks up. We tried to get another passenger onboard but couldn’t find any.
It would take over 5 hours to reach Thimphu, and we had to try to get there before dark (meaning, we were to keep the stops on the way to a minimum). We stopped at Karbandi monastery for a couple of pictures.
The drive to Thimphu was scenic with the sky continuously lined by mountains. Deepak drove us through his college life in Ajmer, Rajasthan and his life back in Bhutan. We also got an introduction to the strong devotion the people of Bhutan had for their King and the Royal Family. We would hear more of this in the coming days from various encounters.
We made three more stops on the way: first, for oranges, because it was their season;
Second, for Deepak’s betel nuts (random info: Bhutanese men seem to love betel nuts), when we entered a hotel nearby to find a family cuddling around a furnace to keep themselves warm.
They welcomed us warmly into their home cum hotel. There were around 4 kids, and the lady of the house had an infant on her lap. She was breastfeeding the baby, and quite openly at it. Well, why not, considering it one of the most natural and beautiful sights of this otherwise-fabricated-to-perfection world?
The third stop was a while later at a restaurant. We had Suja (Butter tea common in Bhutan, made from yak butter and salt) and Lemon tea.
Around 21:30, we entered the city of Thimphu. More than the charming gold-tinted gate at the entrance, it was the colossal Buddha statue, beautifully lit and floating up in the sky, that had welcomed us. Awed and completely blown away, we had our eyes transfixed on the statue until we reached our hotel. Once there, Deepak bid us goodbye. The next three days, we were going to be lodging at Hotel Home (otherwise called, Tashi Gatshel). The girls at the place tried in vain to persuade us to handover our bulky suitcases to them. This is a practice we found around hotels in Bhutan. It’s the women at the reception who carry the luggage around to your room. But here, these were girls, hardly half my size and age.
The hotel was run by the very warm and enthusiastic Drowa Lhatso and her family. We found ourselves around babies and kids in no time: baby Ugyen, Llama, the lil girls Karma and Sonam. After getting to know each other, Drowa drew up a list for us, of must-visit places in Thimphu in the most economical order. Though we had our research and plan intact, we held on to the list too. I ordered a Thukpa (more like soupy noodles, but with butter) for dinner and we headed to our room for the night. In spite of the heater, the room was unimaginably cold.
So we tucked ourselves next to it; but in addition to the unbearable temperature, when I heard snoring and started getting kicked around midnight (courtesy: my beloved roommates), I knew it was going to be a long and tough night.