I backpacked across West and Central Bhutan for 3 weeks and during this time, I noticed a lot of interesting things about this beautiful Himalayan country. During these 3 weeks, I visited Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdi Phodrang, Trongsa and Bumthang. In these 3 weeks, I walked, took public transport, took share taxis and interacted with a lot of Bhutanese people. I have listed down some of those random things to help you get a high level overview of this pristine mountain country and also make for a very interesting read about this heaven on earth.
1) The Land of the Peaceful Dragon, the Last Shangri-La, the Kingdom of Happiness are all popular names used to refer to Bhutan.
2) Their national currency ngultrum is on par with the Indian rupee, which means 1 ngultrum equals 1 Indian national rupee.
3) Ema Datshi (Chillies in Cheese paste) is the national dish of Bhutan. This is generally served with rice (white or red).
4) The people of Bhutan are passionate about 2 sports. One is Archery, their national sport and the other being soccer.
5) Both men and women love to chew betel nut, locally called as ‘Doma’. What I hate is that they spit is anywhere. Thankfully, the menace is lesser than in India and Myanmar.
6) The entire country of Bhutan is located in the Himalayas.
7) There is only one highway in the whole of Bhutan to handle road transport.
8) Most of the people of Bhutan know to speak Hindi (India’s national language) owing to their dependence on Indian TV.
9) Marijuana grows wild in a lot of places across Bhutan during certain times of the year. But, drugs are banned in Bhutan.
10) Because of the cold weather, the citizens of Bhutan love to drink alcohol right after breakfast. This is why, the government has a rule that states that alcohol be served only after 1 PM.
11) Cigarettes and cigarette smoking is banned in the whole country of Bhutan. However, smokers can be seen in pockets across Bhutan.
12) A lot of Bhutan’s food provisions come from India and to a certain extent from Thailand.
13) Indian food is very easily accessible and available in Bhutan. This Indian food is primarily East Indian or West Bengal/Bihar food.
14) More than 65% of the country is covered with forests, making it one of the greenest countries in the world.
15) The main industry here in Bhutan is hydroelectric power plants. Due to this, they have surplus power and end up selling it to India, its friendly neighbor.
16) There are 2 airlines in Bhutan. One is Druk Air, its national carrier (and the only one that flies into India) and Tashi Air, which flies to Thailand and in the domestic circuit (to Bumthang).
17) Indian oil companies sell petrol and diesel in Bhutan, but their prices are cheaper in Bhutan than in India.
18) Visa and mastercards are accepted at most ATMs across Bhutan (especially Bank of Bhutan and Druk PNB).
19) The weekly vegetable market in Thimphu is so clean that they can even beat the cleanliness standards of an urban shopping mall from India.
20) There are some insects available in the higher mountain reaches of Bhutan that go for as much as USD 25,000 per kilogram in the international medical market. This has led to a lot of people in Central Bhutan becoming very rich in a short time.
21) The main crops of Bhutan are rice (white and red), potatoes (white and red), buckwheat and radishes.
22) The people of Bhutan love their cheese and red meat.
23) A photograph of the king and his wife can almost be seen everywhere.
24) The people of Bhutan are very devout and believe in offering daily prayers to the Buddha.
25) There are a lot of forms of Buddhism prevalent in Bhutan, but Tantric Buddhism is the one that is most commonly followed.
26) The whole country of Bhutan doesn’t have a bus service. Instead, they run Toyota Coaster vans for public commute. The tickets on these vans are real cheap, though the journey time is a bit more.
27) The people of Bhutan hardly cheat and follow prescribed fares and guidelines implemented by the government.
28) B Mobile and Tashi Cell are the two mobile operators of Bhutan.
29) In a game of archery, the entire team dances and celebrates when their team member’s arrow has hit the target.
30) The people of Bhutan are very helpful to the tourist and always come forward to indulge in a conversation, helping with local tips and more.
31) Most of the year, this Himalayan country faces 2 seasons in a single day. It is cold in the mornings and night, warm and to certain extent hot during the day and the sun is especially bright during the day.
31) Both the men and women of Bhutan wear their national dress daily. The men wear a dress called the ‘gho’, while the women wear a kira.
32) Goods manufactured in Bhutan is slightly more expensive than similar ones manufactured in China, Bhutan or India due to higher minimum pay rates in Bhutan.
33) The Indian army patrols some of Bhutan’s borders with China.
34) The Border roads organization (Bro-Dantak) of India are responsible for building and maintaining the roads of Bhutan.
35) The whole country of Bhutan has less population than most of the Indian cities.
36) Liquor is very cheap in Bhutan. A bottle of wine costs 200 ngultrum, a big bottle of beer 50 ngultrums and their best whiskey (similar to bourbon) about 750 ngultrums.
37) Tourism is very restricted in Bhutan and except for India, Bangladesh and Maldives, the other countries need to pay $250 per day per person.
38) Most of the monasteries in Bhutan are situated on top of mountains or at cliff edges. It is believed that the arduous journey to the temple is supposed to act as a sin cleanser.
39) Bhutan and its forests are perfect for bird watching. The numbers and variety is mind boggling.
40) Like most of the mountain people of the world, Bhutanese mothers and fathers carry their babies tied behind them on their backs.
41) The cantilever bridges of Bhutan are quite a sight and so are its singing bridges, which offer great adventure.
42) The Bhutanese chai (tea) is very milky and sweet. However, their true local tea is suja or butter tea.
43) The Dzongs or the fortresses are where all the government activities take place. You can see departments like judicial, education, engineering and more.
44) All the kings of Bhutan hail from the Trongsa area.
45) The buildings of Bhutan do not have any nails in them and that’s why you will lots of round and large stones placed on their roofs. Their windows are also designed in such a way as to maximize sunshine.
46) As a country, Bhutan is laidback and hence things happen at a slower pace when compared to the world around it. This trait makes it ideal for those wishing for a relaxed holiday.
47) Bhutan has a lot of fast flowing rivers. While these offer great avenues for adventure sports, they are the bane of north east India and more so Bangladesh as they cause serious flooding downstream.
48) Except the inner sanctum of a temple, footwear is allowed in most other areas.
49) There is hardly any bureaucracy in Bhutan’s government. Things have been kept simple and transparent.
50) A lot of Bhutan’s fortresses and temples have caught fire in the past.
51) Momos are one of the most popular snacks across the country. Yak cheese comes a close second especially in the winter months.
52) The stamps of Bhutan are world famous and make for excellent souvenirs along with their woolen work (yatra), raw silk garments, bamboo work and antiques.
53) Most of the people of Bhutan send their kids to India and Thailand for higher education, but invariably all of them end going back to their home country to eke out a living.
Krathinchai and Tashi Deley!!
Friday, December 06, 2013
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Bhutan is one of those few places in the world where the Indian passport doesn’t need a visa. In fact, an Indian doesn’t even need a passport to get inside this Himalayan kingdom. Such, is the good relationship between India and Bhutan. All one needs is a permit to visit Bhutan that is provided free of cost at the immigration borders.
Flying into Bhutan
If you are flying in, you will need your passport as an identification document and the permit will be provided at Paro airport’s immigration office for the duration that you wish for. You will get an exit stamp on your passport while getting out of India. And hence you will need to remember to get an entry stamp if you are entering into India overland.
Overland into Bhutan
If you are doing an overland crossing from Phuntsoling, you can either carry your passport or voters identity card. In case, you have neither of these identification cards, you can walk over to the Indian immigration office at Jaigaon (on the India side), show your PAN Card, driving license, ration card, etc. and get a special ID made for you by the Indian immigration.
While doing the overland crossing, there is no need to get an exit stamp on your passport. You can simply walk into the Bhutan immigration office with two passport size photographs and a copy of your identification (passport or voters identity card). You will be given a entry form to fill and upon doing so, your photograph will be taken and your necessary permits will be given to you in about 30 minutes. These permits will be valid for 7 days and can be extended at the immigration office in Thimphu. These permits allow you to visit the Thimphu and Paro area only. For other areas, special route permits need to be taken.
If you are just visiting only Phuntsoling, no permits are required. It is a porous border here. But, permits are required for beyond Phuntsoling.
Extension of Permits at Thimphu
If you are planning to stay in Bhutan for more than one week, you will need to get your permits extended at the immigration office in Thimphu. This office is situated in the middle of Thimphu on Norzin Lam and is open on weekdays between 9 AM and 4 PM. It is best to walk in to the office first thing in the morning for a shorter turnaround. Once you are armed with copies of your identification documents and your initial permits, you will be given a form to fill for the extension and once the needful has been done, your extension will be ready in less than 30 minutes. And there is no cost to getting this done.
Special Route Permits, Trekking Permits and Temple Permits
The standard permits for all tourists to Bhutan include visits to Thimphu and Paro only. If you wish to visit other areas like Punakha, Haa, Wangdi, Trongsa, Bumthang or East Bhutan, then you need to apply for special route permits. The process is again simple as above and can be done at the Thimphu immigration office. A simple form needs to be filled along with the dates required for these destinations. If you are traveling independently, you will easily get permits till Bumthang in Central Bhutan. To travel further east from Bumthang to Mongar, Trashigang, Lhuntse, Trashi Yangtze and/or Samdrup Jongkhar, either a local Bhutanese friend or a local travel agent needs to vouch for your safety. Again, such permits take less than 30 minutes and is free of cost.
Similar process can be followed for temple permits and trekking permits.
All these permits are routinely checked and stamped at each check point across Bhutan and finally on your return, these permits are collected at your last check point.
P.S. If you are a foreign national (Not from India, Bangladesh or Maldives), then you need to go through an authorized travel agent and get all this done prior to arriving in Bhutan.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
The cabayugan river arises at Mount St Paul at an altitude of 100m and flows underground for almost its entire length to an outflow in St. Paul’s bay. This river is 8.2 kilometers long and is said to be the longest navigable river in the world. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and of the new 7 wonders of nature.
The main features of this subterranean river national park are its spectacular limestone karsts and its rich bio diversity. But, as a tourist, you will find any things interesting. First, the ride into the dark river on tiny rafts and seeing the limestone formations inside the cave using searchlights will be very interesting.
Second, you will realize just how wide the cave is and the sheer magnitude of it will impress your imagination. Out of these 8.3 kms, about 4.5 is navigable, but only 2 kms are allowed for the typical tourist. For the full navigable distance, one needs a research permit.
The other interesting things are the innumerable number of swiftlets inside the river cave and the thousands of fruit bats inside. You will be cautioned not to open your mouth while staring up at the bats, but that is part of the fun.
Only people with necessary permits are allowed into this national park that allows a fixed number of visitors per day. These permits can either be pre-arranged through a travel agent or you can go to Puerto Princesa city and get it on your own. The next step is to get to Sabang, the small beach hamlet from where the boat rides begin to the national park. Sabang is about 76 kms or roughly 2 hours from Puerto Princesa city. There are 3 ways to get to Sabang from Puerto – private vehicle, public bus and public van service. The public van service is air conditioned and fairly comfortable.
You can either explore the underground river as a day trip from Puerto or decide to halt at Sabang, explore its beautiful beaches and go for hikes amidst its mangrove forests. For the underground river ride, you will have to present your permits and ID proof at the checking counter near the boat jetty (anyone can guide you here) and they will help you with the boarding. You will have to pay for the boat charges here. It is then a 15 minute ride across open ocean to the Puerto Princesa Underground river national park.
At the national park, you can read a lot of material about the various flora and fauna living in this park as you walk through the dense thicket of tall tropical trees to the place where you get your life jacket and helmet. Once you all fitted with the protective gear, a tiny raft takes you inside the river. An oarman and a forest guide accompany each raft. The forest guide handles the search light and educates you on all the interesting stuff about and in the cave. So, please pay close attention to what he is saying even if some of them speak with a slight accent. The underground river ride will be over in 45 minutes, but you will marvel at its beautiful formations, the fact that the river upstream has fresh water and at the entrance is more brackish and the eerie like natural setting.
If you wish to photograph inside the cave, do carry a separate flash unit that will work over and above the search light as even the light from the search light will not be enough for even high ISO photographs. And watch out for the rowdy monkeys who are known to steal belongings of the tourist.
This natural wonder might not come across as truly WOW if you just do the underground river trip as we get to see only a bit of it (as the government is trying to preserve the natural setting and the wildlife), but if you explore the forests, try and understand the flora and fauna, I am sure, you will find the place truly a wonder!
Sunday, November 24, 2013
The churches in South East Asia are nowhere as good as they are in the Philippines. And in my opinion, the St. Agustin’s church takes the icing on the cake. The oldest church in the Philippines has got a lot of class in it. Be its intricately carved altars, classic furniture designs, life-like paintings, heavily worked up on ceilings or its beautiful wooden doors, everything about the church makes you look at it and say ‘WOW’.
Even its colorful windows cast a special glow that decorates the already beautiful church with its colorful light. For some reason, I found these windows really special and ended up clicking some of their effects on the church.
I am sure you will understand what I am saying when you see the pictures and even better if you get to visit this church in the Intramuros area of Manila.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Penang is Malaysia’s food capital and Georgetown is its colonial hub. Together, they make a combination that very few in the world can match. They allow you to soak in Georgetown’s colonialism and rich history while wetting your palate with some yummylicious Penang food.
Penang is an island located on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and Georgetown is its capital and located on one corner of it. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was founded in 1786 as one of the three straits settlements under the British rule. This British influence can be seen almost everywhere in the old town that exists as a UNESCO heritage site today.
Be it Fort Cornwallis, the cobbled paths so reminiscent of Europe, the Queen Victoria clock tower, St. George’s Church, Church of the Assumption, Penang City Hall, Penang Town Hall and many others, one can feel and see the colonialism effect everywhere.
But, this is just one side of Penang. Its cosmopolitan population that includes Chinese, Malaysians and Indians make for one interesting mix. And then add Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism into the mix to form a combo that has the potential to amaze the whole world.
Whether, you are at Jalan Pelang, Lebuah Chulia, Lorong Chulia, Lebuh Pasar, Campbell St, Jalan Muntri, Love Lane or any of the small streets in the heritage zone, you are bound to come across sights that will keep your mind bedazzled for a long while. For starters, you will see many heritage houses and the one that tops the list is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which is popularly known as the Rockefeller of the East and JP Morgan of China.
There are many interesting museums too, like the Penang State Museum, but the one that really interested the photographer in me was the Camera Museum that showcased cameras, related accessories and photographs from the yester years.
Then, there is Little India with its loudspeakers, spices, colours and vibrant smells. The Hindu temples, its interesting culture and spicy food are there to appeal to all. The Kapitan Keling Mosque, one of the most prominent mosques of Penang also falls under this zone. Then, there are these beautiful Buddhist temples – Wat Chaiyamangalaram and Dhammikarma Burmese Buddhist temples and the Chinese temples – Hainanese temples and Kuan Yin Teng. It is such an interesting experience to see the culture that is an integral part of these various religions and temples and it is even better if you get to participate in it.
Georgetown is all about its food (especially the street food and the night markets), its easy walks around the heritage zone, its religious sites, its colorful markets, especially on Campbell Street and Little India. In my mind, it is perfect for a 3 to 4 day detour from Langkawi, the Thai border, Kuala Lumpur or the Cameron Highlands.
To get here, you can either fly straight into Penang, take the ferry from Langkawi, take the train from KL and take the efficient road network of Peninsular Malaysia.