BACK TO MUMBAI

BACK TO MUMBAI

After spending five nights in Bhutan, we left Paro for Mumbai, a journey of 211 km by road and 2681 km by rail. The transformation from Bhutan to India is clearly visible. A peaceful, honk-free zone turns out into an area of hustling-bustling crowd and noise at Jaigaon.

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The journey through West Bengal, though, was smooth enough. The entire road is covered with tea gardens and a part of it passes through the Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary.

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The tea gardens of West Bengal
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A home in a village near Alipurduar, West Bengal

Alipurduar city has two railway stations – Alipirduar Jn. (APDJ) And New Alipurduar (NOQ). Our train – 22512 Karmabhoomi SF Express was to arrive at APDJ at 10:25 pm, whereas it arrived there at 12:30 am. The station is grand, magnificent and has all modern amenities including Railwire wifi.

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The railway station at night
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Next morning: a boat in river Hooghly on the downstream side of the Farakka dam
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Playing cricket in the fields: Somewhere near Pakur, West Bengal

The train has a rake reversal at Howrah and hence halts there for 25 minutes. It was still 2 hrs late. While we alighted there to buy Bengali sweets, we reached just in time to board the train as it had already started departing.

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Howrah station

I would never recommend this train in any direction. This train isn’t just late, but also has a non-functional pantry car. The only way to get food is through e-catering, which is also unreliable because of ridiculous delays. However, I still adore the railways and would prefer them over flights for they allow us to see the actual countryside.

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The non-functional pantry car

Next morning, the train was 5-6 hrs late and kept halting at every ordinary station as an unscheduled halt, it was maximum in Chhattisgarh and Vidarbha.

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The diamond crossing at Nagpur

Finally, after spending three nights in the train, the final nail in the wall was the train being short terminated at Thane, already 5 hrs late. It was supposed to reach Lokmanya Tilak Terminus at 11:15 pm but reached Thane at 4 am in the morning. Added to this, Ola and Uber observed a strike in Mumbai, so I don’t think I need to explain the situation in which we reached Mumbai. This was the maximum time I’ve ever spent in a train.

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Titwala, near Mumbai at 2:30 am

All in all, the trip was excellent. Bhutan is cool and is a good holiday destination for honeymooners too. To conclude, I wish to thank a few people – my parents for sending me on this trip, Mr. Saket Karve for meticulously arranging everything with our tour operator and last but not the least – our driver Shri Munna Ray from Siliguri, West Bengal. I ought to respect this person, for his masterclass driving skills to negotiate the curvy roads perfectly! He was the driver who took us all the way from Bagdogra to Phuentsholing, Thimphu, Punakha, Paro and back to Alipurduar in a Bolero. Our entire trip was well within our budget and we spent approximately only INR 18,000 per person including everything – airfare, train fare, package fees, entry fees, etc.

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At Paro Airport view point: from L to R: Bhavya Kenia, Saket Karve, our driver Shri Munna Ray, Tushar Kamble and me

A special thanks to everyone who have liked my posts too. I have received a flood of notifications for likes on my previous pages while the entire collection was not even complete!

जय हिंद!

འབྲུག་རྒྱལ་པོ་མངའ་བདག་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་།།

སྐུ་འགྱུར་མེད་བརྟན་ཅིང་ཆབ་སྲིད་འཕེལ་།།

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BHUTANESE FOOD

BHUTANESE FOOD

I could have merged this with my ‘About Bhutan’ article, but it was too long and hence deserved this special place! I will let images speak more than my words, over here.

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Veg Hakka noodles at Hotel Shelgoen, Phuentsholing
Momos (The Spruce): Note that chicken momos are not easily available in Bhutan although other variants such as veg, beef or pork are.

Ema datshi is a dish made up of chilli and cheese. In Dzongkha, ’ema’ stands for chilli and ‘datshi’ stands for cheese. It is the national dish of Bhutan.

Ema datshi: a recipe of chillies with yak cheese (196flavors.com)

Kewa datshi is a dish made up of potatoes, chilli and cheese. In Dzongkha, ‘kewa’ stands for potato.

Kewa datshi: a recipe of potatoes, chillies and cheese (nameysamey.talktalk.net)
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A traditional chutney of chillies (तोंडी लावण्याकरिता)
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Vegetable batu: a soup of vegetables and dumplings made up of refined flour (maida)

Chicken fried rice is made in a particularly different way in Bhutan. They consider it not as chicken fried rice but as ‘fried chicken’ rice. Chicken need not be boneless and is fried completely to give it a brown colour. It is then mixed with rice which they call chicken fried rice.

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Chicken fried rice at SNS restaurant in Thimphu
Jasha maroo: A spicy chicken stew. This again, need not use boneless chicken. (squarespace.com)
Thukpa: a soup of rice noodles with vegetables or fish (hungryforever.com)
Bhutanese red rice: it is grown widely in Punakha district

Such use of boned chicken is what surprised me the most. In India, most restaurants either assume chicken dishes to be boneless by default or specify ‘boneless’ if the default is not.

The Bhutanese have their own special kind of tea. It is called as ‘suja’. It is tea boiled with lots of butter and salt, yet it looks the same as Indian tea. I did not like its taste at all. For me, it tasted like a soup with a crazy amount of butter without even a pinch of the taste of tea. Frankly speaking, I am comfortable with Indian (British) tea only.

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Bhutanese salty tea (suja)

Apart from the dishes mentioned above, Indian food is widely available in Bhutan. I also tried the Bengali sweet water fish – rui for the first time and found it more delicious than the traditional sea water fishes we are used to eat in Mumbai. South Indian items like dosa and idlis are not extensively available. You’ll find them at a couple of South Indian restaurants in Thimphu, or at DANTAK canteens, such as the one on Phuentsholing – Thimphu highway.

Raw rui fish (roysfarm.com)
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BRO’s DANTAK canteen (PC: Tushar Kamble)

Indian candies and chocolates such as Pulse, Eclairs, etc. are available with every store, paan wala or restaurant. They usually charge Nu 5 for 4 candies, i.e. Nu 1.25 per candy while you get the same in India for INR 1.

 

PARO

PARO

Paro is the only city in Bhutan to have an international airport. It is comparatively much smaller than Thimphu. All westerners who usually arrive in Bhutan directly at Paro observe it as a first stop for their itinerary. Paro is located at the confluence of rivers Paro Chu and Wang Chu.

The Paro airport was built by the Border Roads Organisation of India as a military landing strip in 1968. Bhutan’s first civil airline, Drukair was established in 1981. The first civil aircraft, am 18 seat Dornier first departed Paro on 11th February, 1983 for Kolkata. Bhutan Airlines was later established as Bhutan’s first and only private air carrier in 2011. As recently as 4th March 2018, the famously disgraced Airbus A320neo of Air Asia Malaysia landed at Paro for the first time.

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Paro International Airport
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A Bhutan Airlines flight at Paro: Bhutan Airlines is a private airlines owned by Tashi Air (PC: Saket Karve)

Paro is home to the national museum of Bhutan, the Ta Dhzong. It has 4-5 exhibition halls showing the traditional masks, paintings, sculptures and flora and fauna of Bhutan. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed inside and are supposed to be kept in a locker without any extra charges. The entry fees for SAARC visitors, to the best of my memory was Nu 100. It houses some unique artefacts such as a horse’s egg!

National Museum of Bhutan, Paro (Wikipedia)

If you are fond of trekking, you ought to visit the Paro Taktsang. ‘Taktsang’ in Dzongkha means ‘Tiger’s nest’. The legend says that this monastery was built in 1692 at the place where Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava) meditated for three years. Guru Rinpoche flew to this place from Tibet on the back of his wife, who incarnated herself as a tiger; and thus, its literal meaning – the ‘Tiger’s nest’. He is also known to have introduced Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan. This form of Guru Rinpoche is referred to as ‘Dorji Drolo’. The cave where he meditated is also located inside the monastery and is opened once in a year on a particular day, in the period of June-July, as per the lunar calendar. The monastery has temples of both – Guru Dorji Drolo as well as Guru Rinpoche. When a fire broke out here in 1998 due to an overturned lamp in the butter lamp room, everything except the idol of Guru Rinpoche was destroyed. The damage costed the Bhutanese government 13.5 crore ngultrums for reconstruction.

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Taktsang Monastery (Tigers’ Nest)
Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) (volusion.com)
Taktsang Monastery destroyed by fire, 1998 (Flickr)

The monastery is located on a 1000 metre cliff, about 10kms from Paro. The total trekking distance from the parking lot to the actual monastery is about 3 km. It involves three phases – a steep ascent which gradually turns gentle, a descent by stairs and yet another ascent to reach the monastery by stairs.

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Map of the trek
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Horses for those who cannot climb

The entry fees for the Taktsang for Indians is Nu 500, while for students, it is Nu 250. As bags, cameras, phones, etc. are not allowed inside, these fees include a free locker and a guide.

It is really difficult for transporting goods to the monastery as the only means is through horses. Daily essential things required in the monastery, such as raw materials for preparing food for the monks, vanaspathi ghee for the butter lamps, incense sticks, as well as food items sold at the cafeteria in the midway of the trek, need to be transported frequently through such means. This is also the reason that food items at the cafeteria are charged excessively high. A tetrapak of packaged fruit juice priced at Nu 99 is sold at Nu 300. Unlimited buffet lunch is also available at around Nu 400-500 per person.

The central downtown of Paro city is dotted with handicraft shops, which as mentioned, are expensive to buy from compared to their counterparts in Thimphu. You will also find many general stores, garment stores and hardware stores in this area. I bought two bottles of cold drinks – Fanta and Sprite costing Nu 20 each, manufactured at Tashi Beverages, Pasakha, near Phuentsholing. However, after returning to Mumbai, I realised that both of these had expired 3-4 months ago, which means that the shops had stocked upon expired products. These bottles now lie permanently in my showcase as souvenirs from Bhutan. Hence, beware before buying anything from these shops!

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‘Made in Bhutan’ Fanta and Sprite

The administrative centre of the Paro dzongkhag is the Rinpung Dzong. We did not venture inside this building, though. It is located at the banks of the merged river of Paro Chu. The dzong looks especially beautiful at night and was clearly visible from our hotel’s room. Here’s a video of my friend Tushar Kamble singing a song in the backdrop of the dzong.

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The Rinpung Dzong at night (PC: Saket Karve)

The other dzong at Paro is the Drukgyal Dzong, now in ruins. The dzong was probably built by Tenzin Drukdra in 1649 at the behest of Ngawang Namgyal, Zhabdrung Rinpoche, to commemorate victory over an invasion from Tibet. It was completely destroyed by fire in the early 1950s. It seems Bhutanese monuments are not fire compliant due to the large amount of wood used in construction. First it was this dzong, next was Taktsang and as recently as 2012, the dzong at Wangduephodrang was also gutted in fire. The Shaniwarwada at Pune was also destroyed by a fire, but it seems that the Bhutanese list is too long.

Ruins of Drukgyal Dzong
Ruins of the Drukgyal Dzong (Wikipedia)

 

PUNAKHA

PUNAKHA

Punakha was the former capital of Bhutan, and hence is one of the most important cultural places in Bhutan. The most famous building here is the Punakha dzong. In 1907, Punakha Dzong was the site of the coronation of Ugyen Wangchuck as the first King of Bhutan. Three years later, a treaty was signed at Punakha whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs.

The dzong is situated on the banks of the river ‘Mo Chu’, and at its confluence with ‘Pho Chu’. The word ‘Chu’ means river in Dzongkha. Mo Chu is said to be the male river and Po Chu is said to be the female. Rafting is carried out on both of these rivers, but we did not undertake this activity. The river has crystal clear water and one can easily access the river bed.

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The confluence of rivers Mo Chu and Po Chu

The Punakha dzong is the winter residence of the Dratshang Lhentshog, the Central Monastic body of Bhutan. The dzong was also the site for the royal wedding of the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck with Queen Jetsun Pema. A memorial has also been erected at the gate to commemorate the same.

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The Punakha dzong and river Mo Chu

The dzong has three courtyards – the first has the administrative offices, and the other two are for religious use. The entry fees for foreigners is Nu 500, while for students, it is Nu 250.

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The monastery in the third courtyard of the dzong: These monasteries show that the Bhutanese are serious with their religion, unlike some Hindu temples in India.

The monasteries here are accompanied with dharamshalas. Students learning Buddhist teachings live and serve here.

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A student monk talking over a cell phone in the monastery at Punakha dzong (PC: Tushar Kamble)

The Chime Lakhang, situated at about 8km from Punakha is another worthy monastery for a visit. In Dzongkha, a monastery is known as ‘Lakhang’. The myth says that, Lam Drukpa Kuenley, a crazy divine Buddhist master killed demon Dochula and buried her at this site, where the monastery has been built. The monastery was built by his cousin brother, Lam Ngawang Choejey in 1499.

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The Chime Lakhang

Lam Drukpa Kuenley was famous for the use of a phallus to show the discomfort of the society when facing the truth. In his honour, the monastery houses his statue and a wooden phallus. People from all over the world come here to take his blessings and to pray for the health of their children. It is also said that women unable to conceive a child can do so once they take his blessings and circumvent the monastery by carrying the wooden phallus. There are much more crazy things about Lam Drukpa Kuenley, which I won’t be able to write down in this article because of their erotic nature.

Lam Drukpa Kuenley (badassoftheweek.com)

As a token of respect to Lam Drukpa Kuenley, the houses around this monastery have also painted pictures of phalli on their walls.

A phallus painting on a house wall (Ira Block Photography)

DOCHULA

DOCHULA

Dochula is not a city, but a mountain pass in Thimphu district, en route to Punakha from Thimphu, about 25 km from Thimphu city. It includes a monastery and a complex of 108 stupas built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the wife of Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the former Druk Gyalpo. The monastery was built in 2008 to commemorate 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan.

It was at this place that I experienced the minimum temperature. While I did not measure it, I suppose it was below 5C. I also heard from local people that it snows here in the early morning as temperatures drop below zero.

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Fog on the way to Dochula
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The main monastery, Dochula
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The 108 stupas, Dochula

THIMPHU

THIMPHU

Thimphu is the capital and largest city in Bhutan. It is said to be the world’s only capital city without a traffic signal. The city is located in a valley. The following article covers the places we covered during our visit.

The Buddha Dordenma statue, built on a hill overlooking the city of Thimphu, was completed in 2015. The statue is built in bronze and is glided with gold. Since the construction of the surrounding area has not completed fully, currently there are no entry fees for the site. The Kuenselphodrang National Park is located adjacent to this statue.

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The Buddha Dordenma statue (PC: Tushar Kamble)

The Changangkha Lhakhang is a monastery located in the Western part of Thimphu. Just like a typical monastery, it is located atop a small hill, and is beautifully adorned by a number of prayer wheels, each inscribed with a Buddhist prayer chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. There is a larger prayer wheel inside the main building, attached to a prayer bell. The bell rings when the wheel is turned. Visitors are required to take off their footwear before entering this main building, which houses the statue of Lord Buddha. The temple is perfumed with agarbatthis, several butter lamps are used before the main idol, prasad is offered to the deity as chocolates, biscuits, etc. and water (teertha) is offered to devotees who seek blessings from the Lord, much like any Hindu temple.

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Buddhist prayer wheels at the Changangkha Lhakhang
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The Buddhist chant (PC: Tushar Kamble)

The takin is the national animal of Bhutan and a few of these are located in a zoo-like preserve, known as the Takin preserve at Thimphu. It also houses a few other animals. Do not buy any handicrafts at this reserve as they are priced higher than those selling it at Thimphu’s main market.

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The takin at the Takin Reserve

The seat of the Royal Government of Bhutan is the Taschicho Dzong, also known as the Thimphu Dzong. Visitors are not permitted inside; it can only be seen from a viewpoint, i.e. from a nearby hill. The residence of the royal family is the Dechencholing palace, outside of the main city of Thimphu.

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The Taschicho Dzong (PC: Tushar Kamble)

Thimphu’s main market is located in downtown Thimphu, near the Taj Tashi Hotel. The SAARC Development Fund building is also located in the same area, Samten Lam. All kinds of handicrafts, such as purses, bags, wallets, embroidered flags, printed flags, fridge magnets, dishes, etc. are available here. It is recommended to purchase all such handicrafts here itself, as they are charged extravagantly high at Paro, for Westeners who directly fly to Paro airport.

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The SAARC Development Fund and Bhutan Development Bank, downtown Thimphu
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I got this purse for Nu/INR 300 in one of the handicraft shops. It is embroidered and made up of silk.
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The handicraft market (PC: Tushar Kamble)

The National Memorial Chorten (stupa) is another Buddhist temple in Thimphu, built to honour the former Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, in 1974. Jigme Dorji is known to have modernized Bhutan and opened it to the outside world. This was the only monument in Thimphu where we did not venture inside, as we didn’t find it worthy of the imposed entry fees.

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The National Memorial Chhorten

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. It is also easy to find villagers playing archery or darts near the roadside. The national tournaments for archery and football are conducted at the Changlimithang Stadium at Thimphu. It serves as a home ground for the Bhutanese football team. I had a great honour to step on the ground of any stadium for the first time, since Indian stadiums do not allow you to do so. The stadium is also famously known for hosting a FIFA sanctioned match between Bhutan and Montserrat, the then two least ranked teams at FIFA. The match coincided with the final of the 2002 World Cup and was hence known as the ‘Other Final’. Bhutan won the game 4-0 and rose from the bottom two rankings keeping Montserrat at the last place.

The headquarters of the Royal Bhutanese Army is located near the helipad, in the same area as our hotel – Dechen. The army was formed by the support from India in 1950s in response to the Chinese invasion of Tibet and is trained by the Indian army as well. Bhutan does not have its own air force and neither a navy since it is a landlocked state.

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Headquarters of the Royal Bhutan Army
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Changlimithang Stadium, Thimphu (PC: Tushar Kamble)

Thimphu’s main arterial road is the Babesa – Thimpu Expressway. The city’s council operates bus services on this route and major bus stops are provided with the map of the route and an indicator for expected waiting time for the next bus. BEST must learn something from them!

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Bus route map

Few other heritage buildings deserving honourable mentions are shown below:

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General Post Office, Thimphu
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Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre (PC: Tushar Kamble)
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A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru inside the centre

After spending two nights in Thimphu, we headed towards Punakha via Dochu La, which has been described in the further pages.

PHUENTSHOLING

PHUENTSHOLING

Phuentsholing is one of the largest cities in Bhutan. It is the administrative headquarters of the Chukha dzongkhag, located at the border of Chukha and Samtse, along the banks of the river Torsa. It is heavily corrupted by Indian influence. When we arrived at Phuentsholing, we were already late for dinner. All shops here close at sharp 10 pm and open at around 6:30 am in the morning. 10 pm in the night at Phuentsholing would feel like 2 am in Mumbai – no pedestrians walking, no cars, no open shops, etc. Fortunately, we were served dinner at our own hotel – Shelgoen. Some people in Bhutan, and this applies specially for our Phuentsholing hotel receptionists, are heavily fond of Indian Hindi daily TV serials, such as those aired on Star Plus and Zee TV. Among the many unique noticeable things about Bhutan is that most hotels are owned and managed only by women.

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Veg Hakka noodles, at Hotel Shelgoen, Phuentsholing

Next morning, we left our hotel for the immigration office in order to obtain our permits. The process doesn’t take much time. As said earlier, all you require is your Passport/ Voter ID card. Local SIM cards can also be bought at Phuentsholing. We bought two BT Mobile SIM cards at Nu 180 each, which offered a Nu 100 talktime, with 0.25c per minute for local calls and Nu 4 per minute for calls to India. This pack does not include any data, which has to bought separately. The ISD code for Bhutan is +975. Tashi Cell and BT Mobile are the major service providers in Bhutan.

Phuentsholing also has a central garden with a Buddhist prayer wheel. Senior citizens spend their morning chatting with each other here. Because of its proximity to Jaigaon, Indians freely work in Phuentsholing. All road workers throughout Bhutan and kaamwaalis in Phuentsholing were mostly Indians, perhaps Bengalis. All Indians wishing to work in Bhutan also need permits from the immigration office. We could see a long line of eager workers at the office, for the same.

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Senior citizens at Phuentsholing’s central garden (PC: Tushar Kamble)

At Phuentsholing, we also encountered a theatre screening a Dzongkha film ‘Nge Tsawailama’. The Dzongkha film industry is known as ‘Drukwood’.

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A theatre in Phuentsholing (I know that the pic is not clear)

We then proceeded towards Thimphu, by road. The road is entirely composed of ghat and is built by India’s Border Roads Organisation. BRO also maintains a canteen 70km from Phuentsholing, on this road, where we had our lunch.

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BRO’s DANTAK canteen on the highway (PC: Tushar Kamble)