I wanted to make the most of my stay in Kolkata, India and seized any opportunity to travel with both hands. I can never let a long weekend go to waste and the weekend of 10th March 2006 was no exception. Kolkata is a hub for travel to far eastern places in India. Contrary to the chaotic city life of Kolkata, these places are some of the remotest locations in the world.
Un Magnifique Royaume (One Magnificent Kingdom) Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny gem hidden deep inside the giant valleys of the Himalayas. A tiny country landlocked by India and China. It has a rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural beauty largely preserved by not so friendly tourist policies. People from all countries except India and Bangladesh are charged $200 per day for their stay in Bhutan. All tourists are only given permit to visit just two cities in Bhutan (Thimpu & Paro). A separate permit is required to visit any other place in Bhutan. This is probably the reason for being crowned the happiest nation in Asia during 2006 by Business Week. (In reality it is because I had visited Bhutan in 2006 ;))
My journey started from Sealdah railway station in Kolkata. We (me and my flat mate) boarded the train to New Jalpaiguri after office hours on Friday, 10th March 2006. It was a long journey and I had made sure that we travel in a little bit of comfort (so AC 3 Tier it was). We reached New Jalpaiguri at around 8 A.M the next day. Overnight train journeys are generally tiring, no matter in what class you travel, but not this one. I had a sound sleep. Our next stop was Jaigaon, a small town on the Indian side of Indo-Bhutan border. Before leaving, I had read somewhere that the immigration office in Bhutan is open only till 1:00 P.M on Saturday. Somewhere it also said that the office is closed on Saturday!. No concrete information was available with us, but we decided to take the risk anyway. After a lot of bargaining we hired a taxi for Rs. 2000 from New Jalpaiguri to Jaigaon and reached Jaigaon at around 12:30 P.M. Fingers crossed, we rushed to the immigration office in Phuentsholing (town on the other side of the border) and trust me it was a big relief finding it open. 10 minutes later, we had the license to enter Bhutan. Another stamp in the passport, another country added to my list
The journey, however was far from complete. We hired another shared taxi from Phuentsholing to Thimpu. At Rs.300 per head, it was a bargain. A 6 hour ride, stopping at umpteen check-posts, witnessing a beautiful sunset and a hot bowl of tasty soup later, we arrived at Thimpu. It took us exactly 24 Hrs to reach our destination (no wonder people give Bhutan a miss). There are not many hotels in town, but luckily we found a decent place to stay for Rs. 500 per night. A tidy, twin bed room with attached bathroom. We decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant as we were too tired to explore the city at night. It was straight to bed after dinner and I slept like a log for 9 Hrs.
We woke up to a magnificent view in the morning (unfortunately the only camera I had with me was a cellphone – A Nokia 7710). The large glass windows of the room provided a panoramic view of the high mountains in distance, which were not at all visible at night. It was an extremely satisfying and refreshing experience. We freshened up, had breakfast and decided to have a day trip to Paro valley. Paro is the other town, where tourists are allowed to visit. It has a small airport as well (the only airport in Bhutan). We hired a full day taxi for a fixed price of Rs. 1500. There are a lot of taxis stationed alongside the main road in Thimpu and a considerable amount of bargaining is possible. We had chalked out a rough plan for the day but unfortunately it did not have Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as The Tiger’s Nest). Most people visit Bhutan only to trek to this amazing location (it still remains on my list of things to do).
Paro is an hour away from Thimpu by road. We headed straight to the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro. There was too much on display for such a small country! It was a unique museum, A round building with interiors entirely of wood. It gave the impression of being inside a comfy vault full of treasures. After spending an hour looking at the treasures of Bhutan, we headed towards a monastery. The taxi was giving some mechanical problems and so the driver left us in the Monastery only to return 1 hour later after getting it repaired. Actually, it was a blessing in disguise for us since we did not have to rush. I had never been to a monastery before and it turned out to be an overwhelming experience for me. As soon as we entered the main prayer room, we were engulfed in spirituality. Prayers were resonating from every corner. A few Monks were reading the Holy Scriptures and some others were playing the drums and horns. A majestic tall statue of Lord Buddha towered above us all. The whole interior was decorated in vibrant colors. We sat there for some time, prayed, paid our respects and came out of the prayer room. Soon a monk approached us and took us to another room inside the monastery. This room was equally impressive. He asked us to roll some kind of dice, based on which he would tell us about our future life! I am not going to disclose what he told, but it was good
Our taxi had arrived and we decided to head back to Thimpu as it was already 4 P.M. Thirty minutes into the drive and the tyre punctured. It was the second blessing in disguise for us. The road was running parallel to a pristine river, you must have guessed it; the location was amazing. We spent a good 20 minutes enjoying by the river, soaking the view. On our way back we saw a very old bridge over a stream. We did not have any time to stop, so I captured a picture from the moving car itself. It was later I realized that the view I had captured is actually printed on every Bhutanese currency note!! We reached Thimpu after sunset, explored the local market. The people are very down to earth and friendly. Most people regularly watch Bollywood movies and speak Hindi. Despite the strong Indian cultural influence, Bhutan has managed to maintain its unique identity, which is indeed very appealing.
Our journey was nearing its end and the next day, we only had until 12:00 P.M. We had booked a bus to get back to Phuentsholing. We decided to explore Thimpu on foot, but the only place we had time to explore was the post office. It was close to the bus station and was beautiful!. As a kid I used to collect stamps (I still do) and was always mesmerized by the stamps of Bhutan. They were very colorful, some had a holographic view and some were on cardboards! – seemed to be fake most of the times. They were not fake, I rejoiced seeing the very same stamps at the post office. I bought some more and headed to the bus station.
The same 24 hour journey had now started in reverse order.