By now I guess everyone knows what does the land of happiness refers to. A lot of material has been written on the gross happiness index, how the country is self-sustainingly happy and of course the serenity found in Bhutan. So what is better than just visiting this country ? Of course, it is riding through the country!
This was an undecided trip owing to the quarter to quarter life that we all live. I' am not talking about the whisky. It is the quarter’s balance sheets that keeps us techies on the toes I guess. Finally, I was able to confirm the trip a week before eventually end up paying little more for the air tickets. What that also meant was that we had to buy quite a last minute accessories and the packing for our trip started 2 hours before our airport taxi arrival. Special thanks to my wife who always manages all the bagging at the last minute so nicely.
In total we were 7 families travelling and 5 kids below 7 years. This meant that after a lot of yelling, running around and running behind them at the airport and in plane, we reached Bagdogra which is close to Pheuntsholing Border town of Bhutan. Drive from Bagdogra to Pheuntsholing was good. We had 2 Innova Cars and we reached Pheuntsholing in the evening after stopping for all kinds of stops. The first thing we realised is that what is evening for us is night in Bhutan. Most of the shops close by 8pm and not many people would be on road beyond 8pm. This was not usual for us folks from Bangalore who are used to the pub culture and the search for the booze did not yield much. All of us retired to the rooms after a good meal at the same hotel where we were staying.
We woke up next day with a lot of expectations. Since we had already got e-permit, we were quite content that we do not have to wait for a long time in the queue for getting the visa. But things did not go as we planned. Even if we take e-permit, the border visa control wants the guide whose name is in the permit, to be present in the office before the visa was stamped. We had to wait and finally after 4~5 hours, we managed to get back into our van with everyone's passport stamped.
This is one thing to take care that e-permit mechanism in Bhutan is still rudimentary and it may be better to stand in the queue and get the visa. If you are indeed going with e-permit, make sure the same guide is present at the border visa control, so that you do not have to wait for a long time.
Anyways, we were off to Paro. The drive to Paro took us almost rest of the day. The fort lights were 'on' in Paro as there was a festival and it looked magnificent.
However, we could not stop for a longtime as the closing time was 8 pm. we reached the hotel by 9pm and the rooms were quite comfortable.
Next day started with us waiting for our motorcycles. The person who we were renting from was in Thimpu. We waited with our kids running around with Football. Finally by 11 am in the morning, we received the bikes. We had 2 bikes for us to ride and 1 Toyota Coaster bus for the family. The bus left earlier and the plan was to meet up at Chele-la Pass. We started riding from Paro and 4 kms later we had a breakdown of the bike. The thunderbird gear lever broke. Search for the mechanic did not yield anything and we decided to keep the bike back in Hotel and left on the other classic-500.
Ride to Chelela pass was great. The cool breeze and the view of the Paro fort and the Airport was amazing. One of the things that we had prepared for this time was to ensure that we had proper gloves and jackets for the ride. Our earlier ride in Spiti valley and Rohtang was terrible since the hands were freezing and our finger tips were in pain all along. Definitely not good for techies. Any how the ride till mid of pass was very beautiful. However what we were unprepared was for the snowfall!!. Middle of the route it started snowing and the visibility went really bad.
We did stop and changed over the riders but with the visibility being so low, amount of time it took to reach the peak was quite long. We learnt another lesson that day. Never travel to himalayas without the proper gear and not looking at weather forecast.
Once we reached the pass, the view was breath taking, with all the-prayer flags, the view becomes even more majestic.
Finally, the kids had their share of fun with snow balls and hot Maggie. The Maggies did cost quite a lot of money. I did not mind giving it considering the ambience. Ride back was equally good. It had stopped snowing and we did stroll for a while at the Paro market. Day was eventful and we were lucky that the weather was nice on the pass.
We started the next day with the ride to Tiger monastery. The other name for the same is Paro Taktsang. This is the monastery which everyone would have seen in internet and thought of visiting at least once. The monastery was built in 16 th century on the edge of a cliff. It was built over a cave in which Guru Padmasambava meditated. The ride to the foot hill was very nice with breathtaking himalayan views. One has to climb or take a pony till halfway from the foothill and climb to the temple. The kids and wife mostly took the pony and we started on foot . The hike is definitely tiring for the techies who do not do anything but sitting around. Cafe in the mid-way definitely helps in rejuvenating. The view of the temple at every hiking point is fantastic. Nothing would come close to the beauty of this monastery.
One of the important thing to do is to start early in the morning . Though it is cold at the foothill, it becomes quite hot as you climb up. Make sure to take a guide in the monastery. Without getting a good guide the charm of the place is lost. Advice is to take your time to trek. The water powered prayer wheels as well as the sound of waterfalls will keep you on the toes. The paintings on the wall of the monastery are very intricate and each of the painting have a lot of stories behind them. The water falls before the monastery soaks away the hiking pain.
After spending a good 2 hours inside the monastery, returned back to our rides. Had a good get together in a different homestay as 2 families were leaving from our group the next day. The next day we visited the fort and the museum in Paro. The roads towards the museum was a paradise. The view of the himalayas, river flowing next to the road and the cold breeze on your face while riding the bike is something that word do not give any justice.
We then rode toward Pobhjika valley. The road towards Pobhjika , is through Thimpu, Dochula Pass and Punaka. One of the main difference between himalayan roads in India and Bhutan is the quality that is maintained. Apart from last 25 kms, rest of the traveling was very smooth. BRO has done a fantastic job in terms of creating the roads here.
The scenic beauty phobjika can never be forgotten. Pobhjika is a glacial marshland valley and this is where you realise why Bhutan is the happiest country. The place is tranquil and the rustic lifestyle suddenly becomes a appealing.
This valley as also called as Gangtey valley based on the monastery that is present there. The valley is so calm and is well known for blade necked cranes. The nights are quite cold and the time we visited was a full moon day.
The next day in the morning, took my wife and the kid on 15 km ride with the ice on one ride of the fields and horse / cows grazing on the other ride of the valley. Indeed the road to happiness can be found in pobjikha.
After having breakfast in the home stay, we left to Gangtey monastery. This is a beautiful monastery with young monks undergoing their training . The Gangtey valley also has a lot of trekking routes and we felt that we should have spent more time here. I am sure to come look here next time.
The ride back to punakha was very scenic and we could reach Punakha earlier than we expected since the weather was good as well.
In Punakha, we rode towards the Fort. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan before monarchy was established. This was the fort in which the first king of Bhutan was coronated. The fort is situated between 2 rivers with a moat leading towards the fort. This fort has a lot of religious significance as well since this is where the Sacred scripts of buddhism is kept. After a lot of photoshoot, we left for the evening towards the hotel. I did come back again in the night for more photo shoots. The lightings on the fort is magnanimous.
The next day we rode towards the fertility temple, terrace farming as well as to nunnery. Day ended with a lot of shopping and bargaining for the handicraft works. We realised the next day that the shopping and bargaining was not really required if we had waited till we reach Thimpu.
Next day morning we rode towards Thimpu. One of the fascinating thing that I saw was a Himalayan Black Bear which was crossing the highway. Before I could take my camera out, it disappeared among bushes.
We reached Dochula pass mid-way and the place has 108 Stupas constructed in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers who were fighting against the insurgents. It is a lovely place and one can see Himalayan Range from there. After spending some time there, we reached Thimpu and stood outside the visa office for extending our e-permit. This took us another 4 hours and we finally were left with no time to go anywhere. Well what do we do when there is not much time but have to kill the remaining time. Left to us guys, we would have found a good watering hole. But our wives had a different plan of shopping. Thimpu has a big handicraft government market and we spent the remaining time here.
The next friday we visited the biggest Buddha Statue which is getting built in Thimpu and the temple. The statue is a bronze statue and is masterpiece of the buddha. After good hours of photo pps, we moved on to see the library and the local temple. In the evening, since shopping was already finished we visited the Thimpu Fort. This also serves as government office building and hence we could see it only from outside.
We had a nice walk back to hotel. Gave away our rented bikes. In the night we visited couple of pubs to check out the nightlife in Bhutan.It was fun listening to the band and also meeting folks who were knowing our language. Next day we started our journey back to Phuentsholing and Bagdogra. Lot of memories to cherish and hoping to go back once again, we boarded our flight to Bangalore. Special thanks also goes to Naga from rovingturtle.com who was responsible for arranging the trip.