In response to my solo trip to Turkey, my parents decided to ditch me and go do a stint of Bhutan. When I got back from Uni, I was livid! They couldn’t just go ahead and do that! So, as a countermove, I decided to squeeze in a two week trip to Bhutan myself after my internship that summer.
I need to go into Bhutan’s tourism industry a bit first. The Bhutanese are extremely protective of their traditions. They try their best to not let their citizens be influenced by the wave of Westernisation that has recently swept South Asia. Therefore, they limit the amount of tourism in the country by making it EXTREMELY expensive for foreigners. Also, only licensed Bhutanese tour operators are allowed to book tours for foreigners and no one else. They aren’t allowed to make their own plans either. A travel plan and a registered tour agency must be provided while applying for a Bhutanese visa. This ensures that the money coming in from the industry goes straight back into the system for development.
However, I had a loophole. Being an Indian, I had the liberty of simply showing up in Bhutan and getting a permit to enter Bhutan by showing them my election card or passport. It also meant that I wasn’t distinctly classified under their term for “foreigner”. I was operating in a very grey area. The route I had planned was a pretty basic tourist approach to Bhutan. Enter via Phuntsholing, go up to Thimphu, see Paro, Punakha and make my way back the same way I’d come, thus completing a loop. But on the morning of the day I was supposed to leave I found this blog that charted out a route where I would enter Bhutan from the Indian state of West Bengal and exit through the East into the state of Assam, thus travelling along the whole length of Bhutan! I had zero bookings inside Bhutan so it wasn’t really hard to completely change my plans. More on that ahead.
So I set out from Kolkata by train to Jalpaiguri where I arrived early in the morning. I then stuffed myself into a shared auto-rickshaw to the interstate bus station. After waiting nearly 4 hours I found a bus with an extra free seat (everything was overbooked) to take me to Hasimara the nearest bus station to the Bhutan border at Phuntsholing. From there, another shared auto to the border town of Jaigaon. From there I crossed the border gates on foot into Bhutan and headed to the Immigration Office nearby. (Point to note: The India-Bhutan border literally lies on the points where the Himalayas meet the plains. Therefore Phuntsholing is all on a hill while Jaigaon, few hundred metres away across the border, lies on flat land.)
I’d read online that the permit process was very messy and took a really long period of time. But to be honest I was in and out in less than 20 minutes. The only difficulty I faced was explaining to them that:
1. Yes, I am a tourist.
2. No, I don’t have an agency organising my trip.
3. Yes, I’m alone. (In response to “Don’t you have friends?”. That hurt.)
Turns out people don’t do what I was planning to do, much, which was basically backpack across Bhutan. So I had to write a letter to the Head Immigration Officer there, saying that I was responsible for the journey I was about to undertake and Bhutan was in no way to blame should anything happen to me. A bit drastic I felt, but I guess they take pride in their safety standards.
And that was it! They granted me a permit till Thimphu and Paro. There, I would have to apply for a second “Restricted Areas” permit which would let me go past police checkpoints into the heart of the country. I was staying in Phuntsholing that night. I found myself a dinghy hotel room for Rs. 600 and set out to explore. I got myself a Bhutanese sim card and headed to the bus station to buy a ticket to Thimphu. Turns out everything was booked. Not a single seat left! My only other option was a shared taxi but that was expensive. I really didn’t have a choice so the next morning I headed out there early. Turned out that I had to wait nearly six hours until 3 other passengers turned up.
The drive to Thimphu was promised to be absolutely stunning according to every blog-post online, but one thing they failed to mention was that you couldn’t see this great view in July. The monsoon clouds reduce visibility to almost 5 metres. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was precariously located on the edge of a cliff. One of the sides looked out over nothingness. A light cold wind blew through constantly. I sat right next to the window on the cliff-side and had some of the best chicken curry and rice I have ever tasted. It was really something.
We reached Thimphu late that afternoon, where I asked my taxi guy to drop me off right at the Immigration Office. They were just about to close up shop so I made it just in time (4:40 pm). Again, it was very difficult for them to understand how or why I was travelling alone, and without a guide or a tour company. I had to write another letter after which they gave me my “Restricted Areas” permit. Again, 20 minutes in and out. Next order of business: finding a cheap place to stay. My budget was approximately Rs.500-700 per night for accommodation. After being turned away nearly eight times I found this one guy that actually agreed. 500 bucks. Finally!
So he takes me to this horrible little room with barely enough place to stand inside. It had a single plastic chair, a cot like bed with a flimsy little blanket that smelled of things I really didn’t want to think about. It had an attached bathroom with a squatting toilet and a tap. No sink, nothing. My first real hurdle in the trip. It was actually a real learning experience. I couldn’t expect better places on my budget. It was small but it was sufficient (this level of mature thinking didn’t come to me at the time). I took a tap bath, changed and headed out into Thimphu on foot. I headed to the royal palace that was a bit of a way outside the city.
There are several large structures called Dzongs all over Bhutan. Their purpose is threefold. These are the government headquarters of the province, the seat of the local monastery, as well as the Royal Residence, when the King came to visit. Therefore, the one in the capital city of Thimphu was the biggest and the most intimidating. It was built in the traditional Bhutanese architectural style, but was extremely modern inside the offices I could see. More importantly, it was HUGE. I even got slightly lost following a random staircase and was chased away by a royal guard.
I’d walked 5km from the city to get to the Dzong. By the time I was ready to get out and start my walk back it had started to rain. Not only that, it was starting to get dark. I was pretty miserable at this point because it hadn’t really been the best of beginnings for my trip. I was cold, hungry and now wet. While I waited for the rain to subside, a very old man came up to me and started chatting me up. He worked at the Dzong as a cleaner. When he asked me where I was headed and I pointed towards the city, he immediately pulled out his umbrella and offered to share it with me. It wasn’t really big enough but I decided what the heck. We walked almost the whole way back together, mostly in silence but occasionally speaking about something random. We parted ways just outside the city where he had to turn off and head home. I never even asked him his name.
I ran to the nearest shelter I could find from the rain. It was an incomplete building on top of a hill overlooking the whole of central Thimphu. It was pouring so the lights from the city formed a sort of hazy light show above it. Everything seemed to be reflecting off something else. It hadn’t been an ideal first day. The last 24 hours had been punishing. I missed out on something everyone had said to look out for, the weather threatened my entire trip going ahead and I was already kinda missing home. But as I sat there shivering slightly and looking over the city, I forgot all that. I thought about that old man and remember smiling slightly. The trip might not end up so bad after all.
Roadmap Till This Point
TO WATCH A SHORT VIDEO OF MY TRIP CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW: