Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Trip to Bhutan

We got the rare opportunity of visiting Bhutan, the Himalayan Kingdom, and the friendly neighbour of India. It was an exhilarating and relaxing trip up and down the mountains and valleys, along the banks of rivers and greeneries as far as eyes could see. Often times we were literally on cloud nine, with the clouds enveloping us completely for miles together.

To reach Bhutan, one can fly from either Calcutta or New Delhi by Royal Bhutan airways to Paro, the only airport in this Himalayan Kingdom. Or one can travel by land through winding mountain roads, from the border town of Jai Gaon on the Indian side and Phuentsholing on the Bhutan side. The towns appear to be part one town just separated by an arch with Royal Bhutan security personnel guarding and regulating the traffic. The people in both the towns are allowed free access to the towns on either side. I was told that this was to allow free trade. While we could not see any check post and immigration control on the Indian side there is immigration control on the Bhutanese side 4-5 kms along the road inside. The roads from this border town winds up and down the mountains, courtesy Border Road Organisation of India, Dantak.

To reach Phuentsholing, again one can fly to Bagdogra and travel by road, or fly to Calcutta, Guwahati or New Delhi and travel by rail/road. This is the entry point in the Western Bhutan.

We decided to travel by air to Delhi and by train to New Aliporeduar, in West Bengal on the North East Rly., the nearest point to Phuentsholing, about 60 kms away. We travelled by North east express, leaving New Delhi at 6.30 am on the 5th of June. The train passes through UP, Bihar and West Bengal. The fun starts from the morning of 6th, when the train enters the picturesque West Bengal towns. The scenario changes to one of greenery all around with rivers and mist clad landscapes. The New Jaipalguri station, where one alights to go to Darjeeling is only 2 hrs away from New Aliporeduar. The train reached New Aliporeduar station at 12.15 pm and a friend of our son Manoj had come to receive us there. New Aliporeduar is a small place, from where we had to drive for an hour and a half to reach the friend's, place. His family was on vacation. After freshening up, his neighbours (an old couple from Kerala) treated us for a typical Kerala lunch and entertained us till the evening. The couple were so happy to see Malayalam speaking people that they took a promise from us to visit them on our return journey also.

Around 6 pm we left for the border town of Phuentsholing, which is on the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. India and Bhutan have an open border there with only an arch separating the two countries. The Indian part of this town is known as Jaigaon. As soon as you enter this town you can feel the difference between the crowded Jaigaon and the quiet Phuentsholing. We rested in Phuentsholing that night. Phuentsholing was warm and humid, just like any other Indian city in summer.

The next morning on the 7th of June, we started at 8.30am by a Maruti van up the mountains of Bhutan, a distance of 170 kms, to the capital town of Thimphu. The weather starts getting colder as we climb the mountains. We travelled the distance in about 7 hours. Around 10.30 am we had a stop at Dantak Coffee shop for some refreshments. The refreshments here are very reasonably priced. The masala dosa and vada were cheaper than in Delhi. The next stop was for lunch, about midway, around 12.30 pm. It was at a place on a hill top with a nice view. The lunch was a simple affair. Here we were told that due to road widening work en route, a certain section of the road to Thimphu would be closed from 2 pm to 5 pm. The point was just about 25 kms from Thimphu. Despite the best efforts of the driver we could reach this point only after they closed it. It was quite warm at that time there. The kind officer let us pass, along with a member of the royal family, after we had waited for about an hour. We reached Thimphu around 4.30pm and we had a good cottage to stay with A/c and heater. After relaxing for a while, we set out to see some of the town but it started raining. As it was getting dark and we had no knowledge of the Bhutanese weather we thought it wise to cancel our programme. We had not carried an umbrella either. It starts pouring at will in Bhutan.

One nice aspect of the trip was that at all the places many Indian TV channels could be viewed including Asianet and Sun.

The next morning, after breakfast, we went out to the town, which is something like the M.G.Road of Bangalore of the '70s. New shops are coming up. Most of the merchandise is from India. After lunch we set out to see more of Thimphu. We went up the highest point in Thimpu, from where one can have a bird's eye view of Thimphu, the palace, the Thimphuchu (Thimphu river) and all the small stupas. It was quite a climb to the top of the hill. On our way back, we stopped at the Takin reserve. Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. Here again we were drenched to our skin.

From the Takin reserve, we went down to see the palace. We were told we could get permission to go in, but we had to be satisfied by seeing it from the outside. The Palace complex has all the Govt. offices in it. The king and family live at a different place away from this palace. The Thimpu Chu flows by the side of the palace.

After the palace, we drove through the town, and did some window shopping. Most of the merchandise on sale were made in India. The shop keepers were quite cool and really could not be bothered by a bunch of shoppers. If the shoppers wanted something, they better show some initiative in making the shopkeeper show the merchandise. Since we couldn't find anything originally Bhutanese, we returned to our cottage. After freshening up we went to see the Chorten which is sort of a temple (which is actually a memorial). We found many people, young and old doing the perambulations in the temple, (we could not find any deity) fervently chanting their prayers on their rosaries. Here we could also find the prayer wheels, on which many prayers are written. By rotating the prayer wheels, one is supposed to have said all the prayers written in them. I remembered my school days, when I had learnt about these prayer wheels and how we wished we had wheels like these, so that we did not have to sit and say all the prayers.

Throughout Bhutan, Chortens or Stupas line the roadside, and prayer flags dot the hills, fluttering in the wind. They allow the people to maintain constant communication with the heavens.

The first day in Bhutan sight seeing came to an end with the visit to the chorten. We went back and had our dinner and went to bed early as we had to leave very early the next morning to another place called Haa.