Bhutan Reflections: My Ramblings

Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong

Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan – the happiest country in Asia. Bhutan – the country with 70% green cover. Bhutan this and Bhutan that. So many vivid images were dancing in front of my eyes while I was planning my Bhutan tour. The colors of these images were borrowed from various web based sites, blogs and photos. The images made me so damn excited that I could not wait for the tour to begin.

The excitement was based on my previous tours which offer similar vista in various parts of India, like Jammu-Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Nainital, Munnar etc. And Ladakh which lies in the same Himalayan region but offers a completely different vista.

As a photographer, all these places did turn out to be sumptuous feasts to my eyes albeit one was always glued to my camera. And so did Bhutan. However, my overall tour-happiness index of Bhutan turned out to be lower than the other tours. Why? I am still confused. And my confusion is inconsequential. Therefore I have decided to call this blog – “My Ramblings” – dictionary meaning of rambling being “lengthy and confused or inconsequential writing or speech“.

As a photographer I got some amazing photographs that I will be presenting through this series of blogs on Bhutan. Enjoy the photographs and leave behind the inconsequential confusion with me.

Enter the Land of Thunder Dragon:
Indians are not required to obtain a visa to enter Bhutan. An entry permit is issued at the city of entry on production of either passport or voter id card. The two popular entry points are Paro (if entry is by air) or Phuentsholing (if entry is by road). We were going by road. It involved reaching Bagdogra by air. From there begins the road travel.

We reached Bagdogra at noon and proceeded to Siligudi. It was May 2016. The summer of unprecedented heat. Siligudi was hot, humid and roads were crowded and full of traffic jams. The road journey from Siligudi to Phuentsholing via Jalpaiguri took about 4-5 hours. The journey was boring. The road widening and construction work was in progress through out and air was filled with cement dust. The only relief came in the form of tea estates of Jalpaiguri later during the journey as we were nearing Phuentsholing.

Tea plantation in Jalpaiguri
Tea plantation in Jalpaiguri
Sunset seen thru tea plantation
Sunset seen thru tea plantation

Jaigaon is the last Indian town on the way and it shares its border with Phuentsholing. You are driving through a typical Indian highway town and then you pass through an archway and your driver tells, we are in Bhutan now. The archway called Bhutan Gate marks the border line between India and Bhutan. Yes, your eyes have noticed the change. The place looks more disciplined, looks cleaner and far more organized. But you also notice the shadow of Jaigaon cast over Phuentsholing. Later you realize this was just the beginning. The shadow of India disappears once you move further away into Bhutan. Phuentsholing is a trading town and villagers can freely roam within 5 km area of the gate for the purpose of trading. Bhutan beyond this town is impeccably clean, disciplined and quiet.

Jaigaon
Jaigaon
Phuentsholing
Phuentsholing

Next program – An overnight stay in Phuentsholing. Waiting in the queue next day at the Regional Immigration Office for biometrics and to get an entry permit and then another 5-6 hours’ drive to Thimpu.

Getting entry permit:
Morning 8 am and we are standing in front of Regional Immigration Office near Bhutan Gate. Biometrics is necessary before permits are issued. The office will open at 9 am. There is already a huge queue of 100-150 people. No place to sit. Everyone is standing under the bright sun in hot summer weather.

The gate opens promptly at 9 am and it provides space for only one person to enter and one to leave. The officers sit on the first floor where biometrics take place. Suddenly a huge stampede ensues. All 100-150 people standing in the queue start pushing ahead to enter the office. The only two Bhutanese security personnel posted there to manage the queue get swamped in the melee. Whether you wish or not you are forced into the scuffle. In next one hour, till I reached the officers and came out in open air, I experienced all the motions and emotions that a sugarcane experiences when pushed inside the crusher. Phew! The unique experience, rather the “sugarcane-crusher-test”, which I never took in my earlier life nor do I wish to take it again.

My other friends who entered Bhutan via Phuentsholing, few days before or after me, confirmed that they too underwent the sugarcane-crusher-test at the time of entry. It is thus confirmed to be an everyday phenomenon and that Bhutan govt. has done nothing to ease the life of Indian visitors. Are Indian visitors responsible for this? Yes 100%. We and only we are responsible for this stampede. Why can’t we just have the patience to wait for our turn to come? Having said that, I fail to understand why Bhutan govt. cannot make better security arrangements to manage the crowd? Why cannot Bhutan govt. issue a visa or permit in advance in India?

Whatever be the reasons, the sugarcane-crusher-test crushed my Bhutan dreams as well. I am still unable to re-construct them.

We receive our entry permits by 10:30 am and begin our journey to Thimpu. This entire journey is uphill via twisting and turning ghat roads. Though the roads are good, the journey is tiring. The surrounding mountain ranges wear thick green cover. But nothing specific to note (from photographer’s perspective). Pretty average scenery when compared with my pervious ghat journeys through other parts of India. This remains my opinion after travelling by road via Phuentsholing-Thimpu-Punakha-Paro-Phuentsholing.

Lush green mountains
Lush green mountains
Chorten along the highway
Chorten along the highway

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DSC_6411

The ghat road
The ghat road

DSC_6424

DSC_6440

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The other entry-point to Bhutan is via Paro. That requires flying in.

Paro Airport is the sole international airport in Bhutan. The airport is 6 km from Paro town in a deep valley on the bank of the river Paro Chhu. With surrounding peaks as high as 5,500 m, it is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports, so challenging that only 8 pilots are qualified to land there.

Paro airport
Paro airport

I, now, strongly believe that better strategy to enter Bhutan is via Paro albeit at some additional cost of air travel. First, the entry permit procedure would be far more orderly at airport. Second, saving of four days of road journey (Bagdogra-Thimpu-Bagdogra). The same four days spent inside Bhutan would provide far more quality experience than the infertile road journey to/from Bagdogra provides.

The Food:
Being vegetarian put severe constraints on my food options. The variety of available vegetables is limited plus Bhutanese eat meat more than vegetables, we were told. At few eating places the smell of non-vegetarian cooking was so dominant, it almost killed my hunger. Bhutanese cuisine contains rice but it is a different variety (with a nutty taste) that grows at high altitudes. Curd, buttermilk and sweets (for desert) are rarity. The oil used for cooking is (I suspect) mustard oil. Either you like it or you can’t stand the smell. It is certainly not the one normally used in homes in western India. Bhutanese eat very hot food especially chilies. I tried eating chutney and it burned my tongue.

Bhutanese food has its own distinct taste. But I could not adjust with it in my short duration. Bhutanese cooks are yet learning to cook the desi way. I did not starve in Bhutan but did not relish either.

Net-net:
As said in the beginning, my overall tour-happiness index of Bhutan turned out to be lower than the other tours. Why? Is it due to the wrong choice of season to go there, or the sugarcane-crusher-test that needed to be undertaken, or my non-agreement with local food, or the vistas turning out to be different than dreamt earlier or all of this? I still don’t know.

I am still confused. And my confusion is inconsequential. But it is time to stop my ramblings.

My next blogs in Bhutan series will focus on distinct positive impressions and images of Bhutan – The magnificent dzongs and chortens, unique architecture,  lovely landscapes and caring people!

Stay tuned, enjoy the photographs and leave behind the inconsequential confusion with me.

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