Travelling Solo in Bhutan

In Bhutan, Travel Guides
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I travelled to Bhutan in October 2014.

I decided to travel to Bhutan when I was in a dire need for a break. The quiet valleys, gorgeous mountains and the endless notes about ‘how nice’ the Bhutanese people were made me finalize on Bhutan as my destination.

Travelling solo is not celebrated or welcomed much in Bhutan. From what I heard, travelling solo is discouraged because of the high risk involved in travelling to some parts of the country. The genuine concern, apparently, is that if one falls of a cliff or goes missing or something – there should be atleast another to report the accident/absence. Despite the seemingly genuine concern, if you’re a borderline safe traveller, I would suggest Bhutan as one of the most ideal locations to travel solo. It offers you the perfect ambience for alone time and solitude and when you feel the need for some conversation, you can safely fall back on the beautiful Bhutanese people for their charming company.

I went to Bhutan via Phuntsholing, travelled to Thimphu, Paro, Punakha (via Dochula) and Haa (via Chelela). I started my travel to Bhutan sometime during the third week of October 2014, from Bongaigaon, Assam. I took a train from New Bongaigaon to New Alipurduar station (2 .5 hours journey, frequency – average) and then a bus to Jaigaon. Jaigaon is the town on the Indian side that borders Phuntsholing, Bhutan. Frankly, the bus journey from Alipurduar to Jaigaon was excruciating. Being tall and big built, I had to squeeze in with another person on a seat made for two small built people. While the leg space was most unimpressive (my legs had turned numb by the end of the journey), the price of the ticket was most impressive. It was Rs. 45 only. It takes two and a half hours to travel from Alipurduar to Jaigaon by bus.

Other alternative modes of travel are cabs and auto-rickshaws. The former cost Rs. 1200 and the latter around Rs. 600. There are also shared cabs I think. I’m not sure of the prices of which.

Having left Bongaigaon at 7.30, I reached Jaigaon at 1 pm IST.

Phuntsholing

The immigration office, which is some 50 meters away from the main gate is where one must go to get the tourist permit. What is required is either your election ID card or Passport, one photocopy of either, plus one passport size photograph (for Indians). Office is closed from 1 pm to 2 pm every day. Bhutan time is 30 mins ahead of IST. I had heard and read that solo travellers get asked extra questions and it takes longer for them to get the permit granted. I was prepared for the questions and everything, but I was lucky enough to quickly get the permit without many questions asked. I had applied for a permit for 9 days, but was given permit for only 7 days. This is quite common. I had to go to Thimphu to get an extension on the permit as well as for special permits to go to Punakha and Haa.

Thimphu

On the same evening, I took a shared cab from Phuntsholing to Thimphu. I think it was a Santro, the driver takes 4 people on a shared basis, charges Rs. 650 per person. It takes 4.5 hours to drive 165 kms to Thimphu from Phuntsholing. The cab driver who took me to Thimphu was extremely kind and helpful. A real sweet chap. His name is Tanden a.k.a Bab. For people looking to hire a cab in Thimphu, his contact is +97577346393. An honest and reliable guy.

Having heard that all shops shut by 9 in Thimphu, I was anxious to book a hotel before I reached. Tanden helped with this. He booked a decent hotel in the centre of town for a reasonable price.

Hotel Zey Zang
Mr. Kin Gyeltshen & Mrs. Peldon Norzin Lam,
Thimphu, Bhutan Mobile: +97502334011, +97517601658

Single occupancy was Rs. 700 per night. Clean rooms with hot water, TV. No view. Breakfast not included.

The next morning I went to the immigration office headquarters in Thimphu. It was a 15 minute walk from hotel Zee Zang. It was pretty simple to get both the extension as well as the special permits for Punakha and Haa. Took around 40 mins in all. Lunch break is from 1 to 2, this is pretty standard across Bhutan I think.

The next thing on my agenda was to get a local SIM card, since international roaming gets awfully expensive on Indian SIM cards. I got a B mobile SIM card from Telecom, the official tele office in Thimphu (like a BSNL office in India). Telecom is quite close to the immigration office. Some 6-7 mins walk. The SIM card costs 100 rupees/ngultrum (I’m just going to say rupees from now, equals in value) and you get some 95 rupees talk time with the card. Tell them specifically if you want data browsing on your SIM card. My phone worked fine, except the internet stopped working after a few hours – especially after I moved to Paro.

Paro

I left for Paro the same evening. Thimphu to Paro is some 55 kms. Takes an hour/and a half to reach. There are many private cabs available on sharing basis that run between the two towns. Costs Rs. 200 per seat in cab. I did not explore bus options.

For the rest of my trip (except for in Punakha) I stayed with hosts who I found (directly or indirectly) on couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org). I highly recommend couchsurfing: an innovative forum that supports travellers to live with the locals. You can host people in your homes too.

When you’re travelling and couch surf, it not only saves you money, but also allows you to enjoy and learn by living in close quarters with the people of that particular village, town, and country. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My very kind host in Paro also gave me a lot of insider’s tips and suggestions about travelling within Bhutan, which one would never find in any website or travel book. I wholeheartedly relished the late night conversations on politics, geography, media, the diversity and culture of Bhutan over smokes and chai with my host and his family. I also learnt how to cook a Bhutanese dish (kewa datse) and sing a Dzongha (Bhutanese) song! I was accompanied to many sites by my hosts, which made the experience much richer. I wouldn’t have been able to do these things had I stayed in a hotel.

Both Paro and Thimphu in October are cold. I needed two layers of clothing, plus a sweatshirt and a fur lined jacket to keep me warm and going at night.

Punakha and Dochula

I left for Punakha the next morning. You have to go via Thimphu from Paro to go to Punakha. So if Punakha is on your list, you can go there from Thimphu itself before moving to Paro.

After an hour or two of driving from Thimphu, you reach the Dochula Pass. The place is breath-taking. There’s a Dzong (monastery) with a 360 degree view of snow clad mountains at the pass. It’s frikking gorgeous. I was in a bit of hurry and had to leave soon. I ideally wish I had spent atleast an hour just mountain gazing at Dochula.

It takes some 3.5 hours to reach Punakha from Thimphu. I stayed in Hotel Shivling for the night. It was ok. Had many baby cockroaches running around in the most random of places in the room. Like inside the door latches and at the corners of the mirror, and such. Isn’t that slightly strange cockroach behaviour? Anyways, I’m sorry for grossing you out. Basically, try looking out for other places, there are a few hotels in town. I paid Rs. 800 for a night in Shivling, and didn’t think it was worth it.

I went to visit the Punakha monastery early evening. Left at 3, walked from town to the Dzong alongside the Punashanshu River and paddy fields which were at various stages of harvest. Beautiful hues of yellow, red and orange. It is 4 kms from town to the Dzong. Took me about an hour to walk to the Dzong and another hour to walk back. The roads are good and gradient is low. Pretty easy to walk up. No idea about buses/cabs, I’m sure there are some though. The Dzong is pretty. Worth spending an hour. Beautiful location: the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers. It closes at 5. Best to reach atleast by 4,else in the morning.

Punakha is warmer than Paro. Late nights and early mornings is when you will need some warm clothes. One layer of clothing plus a fur lined jacket sufficed for me.

I left Punakha to Thimphu at 8.30 the next morning on a bus. The government bus was to leave at 7.30 but it reached late. It costs Rs. 80 for a ride upto Thimphu. The bus seats some 35 people I think and is mainly used by the locals. The tourists prefer cabs (shared/hired). The bus had good leg space and pretty comfortable seats.

I was on two long (3-7 hours) journey bus rides in Bhutan. On both I observed that the locals, most of who have met for the first time or recognize each other through some kinship ties, are cracking each other up with jokes and teases and are in splits almost throughout the journey. It’s a lovely ambience to travel in. Maybe it was a coincidence that both my journeys were like that, but I can’t help but think very fondly about bus journeys in Bhutan. Two of those times when I earnestly wished that I knew Dzongha.

Haa and Chelela

I travelled to Haa from Paro. The buses from Paro to Haa run only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The office for booking tickets (that has to be done atleast a day in advance) is further up from the K.K Hotel on the right hand side. Lunch break for this office is from 2 to 3 pm. Bus leaves at 9am on all three days.

From Paro, there are two routes to Haa. One is the longer route through the confluence (the route to go to Thimphu from Paro) and the short cut is through the Chelela Pass. The buses only take the longer route as it travels through villages which means more passengers. The route is picturesque. I don’t remember the name of the place, but this one village had houses on the slopes of the mountains and each roof was strewn with bright red chillies to dry in the sun before the winters. It was out of a painting. Stark red, chilli textured roof houses, against a multitude of shades of green. Ufff! Despite all the beauty, the bus took 6 hours to cover a distance of 75 kilometres, which I thought was a super waste of time. They stopped for lunch twice, and travelled at a speed of 8-10 km/hr, and no, I’m not exaggerating. The roads are pretty good, but narrow. Maybe the driver was exercising caution because of that? Not sure. But I had heard that it was a 2 hour journey so the 6 hours was a shocker and seemed unnecessary.

Haa, is a small town. Smaller than Paro, that is. The reason I decided to visit Haa was because I had heard that it is least visited by tourists. I stayed again with someone who my host in Paro put me in touch with. A family, who ran a general provision store in the main town. Again, the experience was amazinglicious.

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I was introduced to the tradition of chewing Doma in this household. Doma is betel leaf smeared with lime and wrapped around a piece of raw betel nut. Haa is much colder than Paro. So apart from the various layers of clothing and jackets, the key to keeping warm in Haa is Doma! When you chew on doma, the warmth starts from your face and slowly spreads across your body till the tip of your toes and fingers. I think Haa is one of the best places to have your first go at Doma – which in itself is quite popular across Bhutan.

There are a few hotels in downtown Haa. They looked decent and clean from the outside. The next day, I hiked up to a monastery with my host and a guide who we hired. It was a half a day hike to a monastery on the top of a hill. It costs me Rs. 400 (guide plus taxi till starting point), totally worth it and more. The hike was through a fir forest, uphill and of medium difficulty. We were back in time for lunch.

Haa is famous for Ara. It’s a liquor distilled out wheat. You can buy it from one of the houses in the village for around Rs. 50 per litre. Later in Paro, my host prepared a sort of egg based delicacy out of Ara. It smelled and tasted like a slice of liquor heaven.

There’s this Indian army establishment and Canteen sort of thing in downtown Haa. It’s famous for Pani Puri and aloo tikka! The locals told me it’s a must do thing out here, to visit the canteen and eat Indian food. It’s a 40 minute walk from main town Haa, and totally not worth it. The walk itself is beautiful (as most walks in Bhutan are) but the pani puri was terrible. Except for the record that I had Pani Puri in Haa (I love Pani Puri and try to eat atleast one plate of it anywhere I go), and that the place itself gives you a sense of the peaceful indo-Bhutanese ties, I would say avoid. Take a walk elsewhere instead.

Sunday mornings in Haa is bustling with energy and activity. It’s the weekly market day where the local villagers bring in fresh cow cheese and butter to sell, and buy vegetables and other essential commodities in return from the shops in Haa. The market starts as early as 7 and starts shutting shop at around 11.

I returned from Haa via Chelela. The journey was simply too gorgeous. It’s the short cut to and from Paro, takes some 1.5 hours to reach and the road takes you through some lovely pine jungles, a very sparsely inhabited route. Some 30 kms from Haa towards Paro is Chelela. It’s the highest point on the Dantak road, the highest point on a road between any two towns in Bhutan apparently. The place is surreal. With a million Buddhist flags and mountains on all sides. And what more? It started snowing when I reached. It was pretty damn gorgeous. An ideal place to chew on the left over Doma from Haa.

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Paro, again.

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I came back to Paro to visit the Tigers Nest before heading back to India. I left at around 9.30 in the morning, took a cab for Rs. 300 one way to reach the start of the trail. After a 15 min drive, you start the hike up.Tigers Nest is a monastery built on the rocky slopes of a very steep mountain. The monastery building itself is a sight to behold. The story is that there used to live a very vicious tiger up on the hill at the spot. The tiger used to trouble the villagers a lot by hunting their cattle and children. A monk hiked up to the place and with his powers subdued the tiger from attacking the villages. And then built a monastery up there. Well, I am going to save my opinions about this story for another time. There are walking canes available at the start of the trail. If you’re a seasonal hiker/trekker you don’t need the canes. The climb is moderately steep (ranges between 10-30 degrees) and throughout the route you can see the tigers nest. It gave me a super kick to see myself inching closer and closer by the stride. Took me 2.5 hours to reach the monastery and 40 mins to run down (literally).

Entry not allowed during lunch time, i.e., 1-2 pm. So make sure you reach by atleast 12 – 12.20. Finding a cab to go back to town was an issue. All cabs there were hired in advance by the tourists. A tip would be to ask the cab driver who drove you to the start of the trail to return 3-4 hours later to pick you up. Phones usually have network throughout the trail (I think), you could take his number and co-ordinate with him on when you need to be picked up.

We mostly walked our way back and then hitchhiked for some distance to get back to town. Had a Druk 11000 strong beer along with a sumptuous lunch. A really gratifying end to a day of hard work.

Other things I saw in Paro was the Paro Dzong (Rinthum) and the national museum. The view of the valley from the Dzong is to die for. The museum is in a temporary building which was put together after the original building got destroyed in the earthquake in 2011. It is a nice place with some beautiful artefacts, display of masks, and facts about Bhutan’s flora and fauna.

Annnnd, back to Phuntsholing

Sharing a SUV (Tata sumo, Mahindra) costs lesser than sharing a car like santro to travel from Paro/Thimphu to Phuntsholing. The former costs Rs. 500.

Atleast on your way in or on your way out, I suggest you travel to/back to Phuntsholing during the day. The journey is breath taking, one gets to spot many water falls in the mountains and the greens are refreshing either to begin or wind up with.

Things I wish to do on my next trip to Bhutan:

1. Treks: Bhutan seems to be the place to trek. However, it is really expensive to get a trek organized by the by tour operators. From what I researched, it costs atleast 110-130 dollars a day. So the plan is to take my own tent, sleeping bag and basic ready to eat food and hire a guide for the route and stuff. The Druk path trek sounds lovely.

2. East Bhutan: I’ve heard and read that Bum hang and Gasa are worth visiting. Bike rides to both these places is on the to-do list, next time in Bhutan.

3. Rural Bhutan: explore opportunities for homestays in rural Bhutan. Sweat it out with agriculture and poetry farming and indulge in fresh farm produce in return 🙂 sources like couchsurfing will have less leads on this. Leads from existing contacts is what will help in this case.

With that ends my monologue about Bhutan. You can write to me at arundathiv31@gmail.com for dialogues. I’ll try to help as much as I can. All the very best! Happy travels!

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