Bhutan: Around Thimpu, the serene capital city of Bhutan

After a tiring journey, we were glad to check into this beautiful heritage hotel. The beautiful aesthetics, typical of the Bhutanese paintings and artwork reminded me of the ones in Bali. We fell in love with our rooms: a mini-living area with low seating sofas, cushions and curtains all carrying the country's trademark patterns and colours. The adjoining bedroom was warm, inviting and spacious too. We joked that a hotel room of this size could well be someone's house in Mumbai's suburbs.

Early next morning we left to see the sights around the city but not before we stopped at yet another immigration office to get our permits done for Punakha. However, this was nothing compared to the elaborate one at Phuentsholing. Our driver got it done for us while we clicked pics of the adjoining beautiful lanes. 

The warm sun reflected off the bright blue skies that peeked out in turns from behind the spongy curtain of clouds that hung over the green, densely vegetated mountains.

The immigration office

That's the traditional dress worn by the Bhutanese. All of them, old and young, men and women, little boys and girls, school going children and working adults wear only their traditional clothing. For the women, it's something like a wrap around skirt with a formal blouse, called Kira. For the men, it's like a long colorful bathrobe folded under the waist to resemble a dress, called Gho, that falls just a little below the knees. The rest of the legs is covered with long stockings and shoes. Personally, I thought the Kira looked far better and smarter to wear than the Gho

Clicked outside our Hotel with a couple of high-school-goers

The sister and I immediately made plans to get our snaps clicked in those outfits. The husbands, not surprisingly, weren't too excited at the prospect but they did not have much choice in this matter!

Things to see and do in Thimpu

Thimpu is not a large city geographically and for a capital city, one might expect it to bustle with energy and activities. However, there's just a general calm prevailing amongst the people and life's rather slow and predictable. In fact, we found Phuentsholing far more brisk and prompt in pace and attitude.

1.The Thimpu Chorten

Built in the memory of the third king, this place is a revered and sacred place for the Buddhists. You can see several people circumambulating the structure and chanting outside the Chorten with the prayer wheel. The chant goes, "Om Mani Padme Hoon". It's a standard and universal mantra here that's found written over many structures, over colourful cloth buntings that flutter at strategic locations across the city and country.

Huge prayer wheels that you rotate with your hands as you go around

An old lady with the prayer wheel made for a serene picture composition

Designated areas to prostrate. They have a typical way of bowing down, quite similar to our Sashtang namaskars

Policemen smartly dressed outside the Chorten

2. The Buddha Dordenma Statue

This 51 meters tall giant Buddha statue made of bronze sits overlooking the city of Thimpu and lends a calming atmosphere as soon as one steps in here. The statue sits above a two-storeyed elevated structure, one of which is a prayer hall dedicated to the Buddha. 

The prayer hall on the first floor has the Buddha seated in the middle with standing figurines encircling the Buddha. (Photography within temples and Dzongs is prohibited)

The legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche as he is popularly known prophesied in the 8th century that a large statue of Buddha would be built in the twentieth century that would bestow peace and happiness to people all over. Guru Rinpoche is considered as the second Buddha by Buddhists as he was instrumental in reaching the Buddha's teachings to the common people. 

Temples all over Bhutan worship the trio of the Guru, the Buddha himself, and the Lama Zhabdrung who unified all the kingdoms under one peaceful nation. This also forms the core of the mythology and folklore of Bhutan's culture and traditions.

One of the golden Dakinis or celestial beings that surround the temple as though guarding it

View of the building across the Buddha Dordenma

A panoramic view of the surrounding structure and area from the Budda statue elevation.

3. Mothithang Takin Preserve

Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. It looks like a hybrid of a goat and a cow. We went to visit this unique creature at the reserve. The Preservatory is a small zoo where these rare species are housed. You need to walk around a bit to spot these animals in their natural habitat but unfortunately, a steady downpour caught us off guard. Although we went armed with umbrellas and jackets, they were all within the safety of our vehicle. So, we decided to make do with the first view of the creature from a rather long distance and hastened back.

This photo of Motithang Takin Preserve is courtesy of TripAdvisor 

4. National Folk and Heritage Museum

This museum is an insight to how the ancestors lived in Bhutan. One can see the iron cast vessels to the various tools used for hunting and cooking, the horse saddles, the food used for traditional cooking. The museum itself is housed in an ancient house with 2-3 storeys. Narrow, wooden steps lead you to each floor and then to the attic. 

A couple of cloth weavers sat outside the house spinning lovely designs on silk and cotton yarn to weave colorful stoles and jackets. (the cost of these can be anywhere between INR 1200- INR 6000 depending on the fabric and intricacy of the weave)

We do not have any snaps of these weavers from the museum but clicked a few at the in-house store of our Hotel.

A few points to know:

1. The Indian currency is largely accepted across Bhutan except for the new 2000 rupee notes and in some places the new 500 rupee notes.
2. Cards are accepted at prominent Hotels but for the smaller stores, it's advisable to carry change in Bhutan currency (ngultrum which is equivalent in value to INR). We got some cash exchanged at our Hotel in Phuentsholing itself.
3. We observed a lot of working women around Bhutan at the Hotels we stayed or around the city in general (as you can also observe from the weaving pics above), and we found that Bhutan is a matriarchal society with about 60% of businesses run by women. 
4. If you're interested in viewing the cultural dance, you can inform your travel agent or the Hotel you're staying at well in advance since that needs to be specially arranged for (during the non-festival period).
5. Most travel operators offer just a day's sight seeing in Thimpu and we thought it was sufficient. But, if you're looking for more sights, we hear that one can visit the National Library and a couple of Dzongs. 
6. At the Dordenma, we realized the need for a local guide who can explain the history and background in detail. However, as we inquired with our driver, we understood that usually tourists come armed beforehand with guides arranged by their tour operator and a separate guide at selected sights is hard to find. Having said that, as we progressed on our trip, we found a guide at the Punakha Dzong and one again for Tiger's Nest, Paro. So, the right approach will be to ask your tour operator first and then at the Hotels you are put up at. It is also not required to have a guide at all locations. 

We stayed only for a day in Thimpu. We stopped by at the local handicraft market before retiring to the Hotel for the day. The handmade curios are no doubt attractive but unless you're really keen the price is a deterrent to casual shopping lovers. Even a small metal keychain starts at around INR 250, so it's not really a shopper's paradise.

Our next stop is Punakha. Stay tuned!

Have you been to Thimpu? Do share your views and thoughts.

Bhutan: Immigration and then en route to Thimpu

Our first day of the trip included procuring the permits and then proceeding to Thimpu, the capital city. The drive to Thimpu was slated to take about 5-6 hrs. It was therefore vital that our permits got processed in decent time so that we could commence our journey at least post lunch. To the question, "how long can it take for the permits to be processed?" we were given a similar response from everyone to whom we posed the query.

It really depends on the number of people for the given day. It could take as less as 2 hours or sometimes even the entire day, we were told. Our travel operator from Mumbai had forewarned us that we adjust our trip schedule to let this crucial step fall somewhere mid-week. The office is closed on weekends and hence Fridays and Mondays see a maximum footfall, so it's best to plan for the remaining days of the week, we were told.

So, we chose the first suitable day, Tuesday and planned our itinerary around it. The immigration office opens around nine in the morning but we were advised to queue up outside the office as early as 8 or 8:30 at the max. Now, the days begin very early in Bhutan. They are also officially half hour ahead of India time. It being summer, the dawn breaks as early as 4:30 am, while the sunrise happens around 5:45 am or so, even 6 am seems like 8 am in the morning. Breakfast at the hotels is served between 7-9 am. Yes, that early!

We had no trouble aligning our bodies to the new clock time. Also, perhaps to the clean surrounding and fresh air, throughout the trip and despite our active schedule, we were neither troubled by fatigue or lethargy nor had the urge to sleep in late. So, we were up and smiling at dawn, showered, dressed, at the breakfast counter by 7:30 and out of the hotel by 8 am.

Documents required to process permits:

  • Copies of valid passports or voter IDs 
  • Students are allowed to submit their school ID as proofs in lieu of passport
  • One passport sized photograph for adults and two photographs for kids

These were duly passed on to the said agent who's supposed to fill the required forms and submit these at the office the previous evening supposedly for a faster process the next day. However, by the time we checked in on Monday evening, the office was closed, so it remained to be seen how we were to be impacted.

We were really hoping for a smooth and quick process and were a bit shocked to see a fair amount of crowd already present at 8 am. Big groups of Indian tourists travelling with package tours were milling about, their group head carrying the tour flag and the members all wearing identical caps. That was when we realized that Bhutan is no longer a rare choice. We were later informed that this year alone saw about 2 lakh Indian tourists on Bhutan soils. We could only shudder to imagine the crowd at the popular hill stations if this was the state of a supposedly low-profile country. It seems some entry tax for Indians was recently waived off and hence the huge influx. On a side note, I really don't think this is a good idea, given how pristine the country is and what a lot of tourists can do to a place like that.

All permits are processed through agents who queue up on behalf of their customers. The customers, mostly Indians like us, group themselves at various points in the backyard and front yard of the office curious about the whole process and butting in every now and then to enquire with the respective agent about the length and manner of the procedure involved. In short, the place outside this office resembled a chaotic meeting place. We killed time clicking bad pictures of each other, walking up to the agent, checking to see if the queue was really moving, stopping the kids (and failing) from being a nuisance, entertaining them in turns, going back to the agent who quipped back a bit annoyed that it might another 1-2 hours ( we were already waiting there for a good one hour).

Since our hotel (Hotel Druk) was literally a jump away from the office, the sister and I decided to cool off our heels there (and more importantly give the kids a downtime because they were really all over the place). As luck would have it, as soon as our asses touched the cool beds of the hotel room, we were summoned to come right away to the office as our turn was just a few minutes away. So much for the 1-2 hour estimate by the agent. Surely, he was taking his revenge! But, of course, the bigger picture was that the work was to get over quickly, so we rushed out like mature adults, kids in tow.

This and the pic right below are of Hotel Druk

A temple we visited the previous evening

We were to get our biometrics done inside the office. It seems once your fingerprints are logged in, you can enter Bhutan anytime in future without any further official procedures. The process was over fairly quickly and smoothly. Although we were told to carry our original proofs, these were not demanded by the officers.

We were told that the permit papers will take yet another 2 hours to be processed and would be handed over to the agent/ tour driver who will in return deliver them to us at our hotel. We felt a bit out of control here as there were two people with whom we interacted, one of them waited in the queue and the other furnishing general information. And, this driver with whom we were to travel for the rest of the trip was still unknown to us at that point. It seemed too laissez-faire to just wait at the hotel not knowing who will get us the documents and whom to contact if something went wrong. We felt we were given only need-based information. A few worried calls to our operator in Mumbai later, we were reassured that one of the agents we met at the office will positively reach out to us with the necessary permits and that our tour driver would meet us later.

Bhutan, we were to later learn and experience first-hand, is a very trust-based society and citizens abide by the law and do not cheat.

It was nearly noon and by the time we finished with our lunch (Indian food and quite tasty, I must add), our permits were at the door, soon followed by our very sweet driver for the rest of our trip. The extremely beautiful sights (and a dip in temperature as we ascended higher altitudes) all along our journey up and down the hilly, winding lanes made up for the rather longish (and thankfully the only one amongst all) drive time.


Hope you're enjoying reading the travelogue as much as I'm enjoying writing it. If you want specific queries to be answered, feel free to reach out. Next on the blog is Thimpu. Stay tuned!

Bhutan: stepping into the neighbourhood paradise

I have always wanted to travel far and wide within India and, of course, outside. Well, who does not want to travel to picturesque foreign locales? Destinations like Europe or the US are probably on every traveller's wishlist but how many of us lust after Sri Lanka or Bhutan, our immediate neighbours? To be honest, even after covering the former five years ago and returning with a delightful experience, I never revised my bucket list to push Bhutan towards the top. How sad, yes! I'm, however, extremely glad that providence brought up this underrated destination in our conversation early this year and the sister and I decided to club our summer holiday plans to this beautiful country.

By the time our plans firmed up, we were short of two months from our travel dates and that's when we realized it was too late to opt for direct flights into Bhutan. There are only two airlines-Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air- that operate out of India and that too only from Kolkatta or Delhi. The tickets get booked well in advance and we ran out of luck in this area, so we travelled by the next best option- by road. Also, cheaper and more popular.

Two flights took us to Bagdogra in West Bengal, the nearest airport to reach the likes of Bhutan, Sikkim or Darjeeling. Our van soon left behind the dusty town roads leading from the airport to cruise along the flat plains of lush green tea plantations of Jalpaiguri and Siliguri districts towards Phuentsholing, the border town of Bhutan. It took us nearly 5 hours that included a lunch break in between.

The pleasants sights ended at Jaigaon, a village town that marked the end of the Indian territory. After driving down a few chaotic lanes of Jaigaon, the vehicle abruptly turned to cross a huge, beautifully painted arch -the entry point to Bhutan. It was as though a page from a fantasy novel got turned to transport the readers into a whole new world. The arch literally separated the noisy and chaotic from the calm and organized.

On this side, we saw buildings that were similarly embellished with traditional paintings on the window frames and doorways, good roads with well-etched out zebra crossings where vehicles dutifully slowed down to allow pedestrians to cross, uniformly dressed men and women in their traditional clothing, smiling faces and in general a calming and pleasant environment. It seemed surreal to enter a different country by simply turning at the curve of a road.

Over the next eight days to Thimpu, Punakha and Paro (the three valleys we covered), we were to experience a culture that bloomed on our soil but soon left our shores to grow roots in the backdrop of an untouched, beautiful and bountiful Nature. While the modern day trappings of a developed country are yet to see light here, one cannot help but notice the Bhutanese's unmatched and collective effort to upkeep the environment and cultural background while trying to assimilate modernism and development.

Our hotel at Phuentsholing was right next to the immigration office where our permits into the country were to be processed the next morning. Different cities require different permits within Bhutan. So, while one permit sufficed for Thimpu and Paro, a separate one was required for Punakha. The immigration office itself is a smallish structure suggesting that the country has never experienced huge footfalls of tourist population in the past. However, going by the crowd we encountered outside the office and at all the sights within Bhutan, this might change very soon.

So, what to expect on a trip to Bhutan and how do you plan or what to pack and carry? Keep reading the travelogue and I will do my best to put it all down here.


Have you been to this mesmerizing place? Do share your thoughts.

Moments that make me a mother

I've always maintained that I'm not a motherly person. By that what I mean is I'm not overly mushy about this whole parenting gig nor do I love being around kids. Shocking to hear a mother say that? Well, I love my son to bits but put me in a crowded room of boisterous kids and I'm going to run miles away. I used to feel embarrassed to admit this but I've realized that as long as my child feels loved, cared for and safe in my company, I'm doing OK.

It's been a good seven years of motherhood but parenting still baffles me and I have my days of insecurity, worrying if I'm doing enough for my son. Despite all this, I've had beautiful moments that define me as a mother on this parenting journey and as I sit today to reminisce a few of them, my heart is full.

The initial months of handling a newborn were the toughest. I was not prepared to handle an infant who fed constantly but barely slept during the day making me antsy, sleep-deprived and very worried for my own future. I'd tip-toe around R as he slept, praying hard that I get some downtime for myself. I'd fear to play with him because he had little patience for niceties and only demanded milk when I was around.

Yet, I also remember holding him close to my bosom, letting the sweet smell of the baby skin waft through my nostrils, making a place inside my heart. I loved giving him a nice oil massage followed by a warm bath for that was our special time when he'd respond to my incessant chatter. I'd sing all the nursery rhymes I knew and he'd stare at me spellbound, making sweet baby sounds at times or gurgle with laughter and as months passed respond with baby talk. How his eyes would sparkle as I'd call out his name!

I recall keeping the camera within reach for I did not want to miss recording any of the special moments. I have pictures and videos for each of the milestone reached during the first year. Even today as I look at those snaps or view those videos, I'm filled with a sense of love and gratitude.

As a first time mother, it's natural to want everything perfect and I was no different. I'd spent a copious amount of time scouring the net for solutions every time R suffered from a little ailment or to gather more information when I failed to understand his cues. I remember being petrified when I accidentally clipped off a small part of his skin along with the nails when he was merely two months old. I cried more than he did and couldn't bring myself to eat food that day!

Little did I know that I was to encounter many such distressing moments as he'd injure himself regularly as an active toddler, a frisky young preschooler and even today. Although, I've learned to take these in my stride, each day I send out a prayer to the Universe to keep him safe as he leaves my cocooned arms and goes out into the world.

I might not always make a fuss about all that I feel as a mother and only pour it out here occasionally. If anything, I've realized that Mothers come in all forms, shapes, and sizes but they all have a heart that holds immense love for their kids. And, I'm no different. So, for all my idiosyncrasies and a strict demeanor, I hope R remembers my love behind it all.

As I stumble along this difficult parenting journey, I also realize how much my own parents have given me. I believe there's no particular day to express love and gratitude. My feelings as a mother or as a daughter go beyond the conventional trappings of celebrations. Yet, symbolically, this is a reminder to cherish these moments. Hence, in the spirit of Mother's day, I want to thank my own mother (and father. Or do I have to wait for Father's day to do that?) whose love and value I've realized even more after I became a parent myself.


Of boosting the morale and coping with failure

The niece and the son, both always looking for something new and exciting, were elated to discover a new game to play. It was a word-game I loved to play as a child and even today. After teaching them the basic guidelines and rules, I sat down to work, satisfied to listen to happy, animated chatter from the sibling duo in the adjacent room. They seemed to like the game too, I thought satisfactorily.

A few minutes later, silence had descended in the room and my niece emerged out. A clear winner writ on her face, she complained of R not taking it all well. I wasn't really surprised. It was routine. In the few times that I had played board or card games with R, each time he lost a round of the game, I had to double up as a counselor to make him see beyond the win and loss in a game.

I went in to find him sullen-faced, disturbed and about to burst into tears. A slight nudge was all it took for the dam to burst. What overflowed were a set of complicated feelings that threw me off guard.

"I always lose in every game. I'm such a loser. I'm no good. I don't like myself. There's no point in pursuing anything."

The meltdown was by the far the worst I had seen. I tried empathizing, I tried reasoning out. I thought reminding him about his accolades would cheer him up but for each reminder, he came up with self-critical responses such as:

"So what? That was no big deal"

"Oh, that was just a school-level prize"

"But, I won just a couple of races"

I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere. For R, his recent loss seemed bigger than all of those previous wins. After a long pep talk, the tears dried up. Dinner was a quiet affair. By the time it was bedtime, R was in a far better mood and had seemed to put the storm (now stirred up in my heart) behind him.

Although a kid, R was only human to experience the emotions of despondency because he couldn't see beyond the situation. It was a natural reaction. Or was it? While there was nothing unusual about dealing with an upset R because he lost a game, this was the first time he made sweeping statements about how that made him feel so bad about himself. Could it then be a sign of a low self-esteem or was I reading too much into this? R has been a happy and confident kid and I've had no reason so far to believe otherwise. Yet, I struggled to view the incident objectively and not link it to my own nature because the similarities were too stark for me to ignore.

Even today, I find it difficult to accept accolades and praises that come my way. I look for excuses and go out of the way to explain how the feat was nothing extraordinary and that I probably got lucky considering how there are so many others who are far more talented. I readily believe anyone who points out my weaknesses but I do not celebrate enough the strengths I might possess.

If protecting the child from failure is disastrous, not praising the child enough can be equally damaging. While I had been waxing eloquent to R about losing gracefully, I realized perhaps I wasn't pumping up his ego enough. In the age of extra smart kids who talk and think ahead of their ages, I have been overzealous to throw in the lessons of modesty.

Interestingly, as I pondered over this, my thoughts went to those parents who do not shy away from showcasing their kids' achievements over social media platforms nor hesitate to bring it up in a face-to-face conversation. I wonder if some amount (just the right amount) of publicly bragging about your child's achievements in the child's presence is one way of boosting his/her confidence.

I'm proud of my son's many strengths and I've been vocal about it even when there are no medals to show. Perhaps, I need to spell it out, make a fuss about it between us and also in front of others at times. Knowing myself, the former will be easier than the latter but I can surely start with family and close friends.


Have you dealt with something similar? What has been your mantra? 

Linking this post to Nabanita's #MommyTalks

Cross over- Micro-prose in 50 words

Tread on gently.

It's tough to say goodbye. Even when you know it's desirable. Explain, if you must, but keep it short. Do not mock the tears that might flow out. Don't utter words that you'd regret.

A schism has been formed, but there's no need to burn the bridge.