Belated Travelogues: Bhutan (Part 1)

Belated and how…I went there in like 2017. Every time I travel I make myself solemnly swear I’ll do a proper travelogue and 9 times out of 10 I’ll make a very confusing draft and then forget all about it. Yesterday, I was talking to the friends with whom I’d gone for this trip and that made me finally give myself the ultimatum to do this. I travel a lot, sometimes for work, most often just for fun. My favourite mode of travel is shoe-string budget backpacking which not a lot of people are adventurous enough to join me in so I end up doing a fair mix of properly-planned group trips and my own figure-out-as-I-go solo backpacking. The latter is meditative for me and I’ve always ended up meeting the most amazing people along the way, many of whom are still friends. Some I’ve lost touch with but we’ve got the memories.

Bhutan was a group trip though so there was a proper tour package, hotels, transport, and a tour guide. It was adventurous in its own way though because I’d just dislocated my knee a month before I went (doc gave me a go-ahead as long as I didn’t trek Tiger’s Nest so it’s on him). I decided to break this into two parts because there is a lot to cover honestly and there are some stories which I also want to note down. I’m trying to locate the drive where I saved all my photos so for now will just use utterly random images which are there on my laptop or images from the net whose source I am linking.

What is Bhutan?

Bhutan is a primarily-Buddhist kingdom situated between India and China. It’s a very small country ruled by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (I like people with short, easy to pronounce names). The people of Bhutan LOVE him and the queen and I’m saying that from experience. Pretty much everyone I met had a lot of respect for the monarch because apparently he has a very people-centric approach. More on him later. Bhutan’s land area is only 38,394 Sq. Km. with its capital at Thimpu. It’s population is a very small with only around 7.8 Lakhs people (that’s like two Mumbai neighbourhoods). It’s mostly just mountainous terrain and is very, very, very beautiful.

The Bhutanese Visa

Well, this is fun. It’s like all or zero. So if you are an Indian citizen, you don’t need a Visa and can pretty much just show your passport or voter ID to go. For Bangladeshi, Indian, and Maldivian citizens there is no visa requirement. For everyone else, it is extremely regulated. Not only is there a visa requirement but you need to have your stay pre-booked through a government-approved travel agency and there is a mandatory per day charge which varies from $200-$250 depending on when you go. This is a country which has tourism as its top industry but they practice a lot of discretion in terms of who they let in. You don’t just show up to Bhutan so if you are not from those three countries and going, please do your research on the current regulations very well before you go.

How to get there

If you are going from India, then you can drive down from Bagdogra, take the train, or take a flight. If you are going from China, there is a border dispute so as far as I know you can’t go directly. There are no direct flights from China (no offence but why does China keep fighting with absolutely everyone?) so you need to get to another airport like Singapore or Kathmandu and then fly to Paro.

Flying to Bhutan is quite the experience and that’s what we had done. You get to see Mt. Everest from the flight and land at one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Because there is such a dearth of space and the terrain is hilly, the airport is in the city of Paro rather than the capital Thimpu. You can only travel through Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines since only a handful of pilots in the world are equipped to land on that airstrip. When I had gone, this number was 16 and I don’t think it would have gone up much from that.

It’s quite the experience because as you are landing, trees and hilly slopes are very close to your craft and you can understand the kind of precision training anyone flying a plane through that would have gone through. This video gives a view on it and if you want to know more on the reasons for the difficult, you can read this article. They are extremely skilled though and on the return flight we had clicked a photo with our pilot. Keep in mind though that weather dictates flights a lot and that’s why a lot of people prefer to drive down, including many who do biking trips.

Why you should go there

Many reasons really. For starters, it is the only place where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced so if you are into spirituality, it is a good place to be. As a tourist also, Bhutan offers quite a lot in terms of beauty and experiences. If you enjoy hikes or treks, you can go to the Fertility Temple or to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. If you like history, it has bucketfuls of it. Food is ok-Bhutan has some of its own dishes and some mashups of its neighbours. People are very nice. It has gorgeous scenery and architecture and honestly you can cover the country across its major destinations in a week or so if you are doing a normal visitor trip. It’s not too modern and I liked that about it but some may not. It’s also fairly economical if you hold a passport from the three countries I mentioned above but if not, then it’s a daily spend of $250 which is kind of steep. I’ve got a lot of stories from that trip so maybe I’ll write another one on those.