Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Prologue ~ Bhutan Diaries - 1

It did not took much time for us to decide the place for our next trip. A mystic happy country sharing borders with two economic giants, India and China, where 'Gross National Happiness' is a far more important measure than the 'Gross Domestic Product'. Yes the place is a beautiful country called Bhutan.

Flag of Bhutan

I tried to read and gather as much information I could on Bhutan- information on important things such as permits, necessary documents, currency, weather and also not so important things such as  'how difficult is it to trek Tiger's Nest','Do we need woolens in June' etc.

 During my information hunt, I found one TED Talk given by the honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay. What an amazing speech it was. I liked it as much I liked the speech when I first heard it almost a year back. I am sharing the link and insist anyone to listen to it. In the 19 minutes speech you will get a good idea about Bhutan 's culture,dress,values,constitution and carbon negativity.Yes Bhutan is a carbon negative, in fact a carbon sink. More than 70% of Bhutan is covered with trees that absorb a greater quantity of carbon dioxide than the country produces. We could actually feel the clean crisp air wherever we traveled.

Hanging Bridge and Monastery on the way to Paro from Thimpu

Previously obtaining a permit to travel to Bhutan was a cakewalk for Indians. But very recently due to the sudden influx of tourists in Bhutan rules have changed a little, so now its a little more difficult.
If you are planning to get a permit to Bhutan from the Bhutan Embassy in Kolkata then you have to apply two months before your travel date. But as per the lastest information I gathered they have stopped issue of permit from Kolkata Embassy. One now need to get the permits only at Phuentshoing if coming on road from West Bengal. For us, our plan was to obtain the permits at Phuentshoing. As per the new rules to obtain the default 7 day permit for Thimpu and Paro from Phuentshoing, you must have the following documents :

a) One Passport size photo
b) Photocopy of ID proof recognized by the Govt of India. Best to have photocopy of passport/voter       ID card/Driving Licence
c) Hotel booking/confirmation receipts for Thimpu and Paro
d) A copy of your itinerary

The permit issue does not take too long, for us it was less than an hour but it depends on the rush. Also bear in mind that on Saturday,Sunday and any other national holiday the permit office remains closed. So if someone arrives on a Saturday at Phuentshoing then that person cannot move ahead to Thimpu till Monday until his permits are issued. Also Bhutan has 22- 23 national holidays every year, so you need to take that in consideration while planning your trip. I will share the list of National Holidays in Bhutan for this year that is 2017 in a subsequent post, so that you can plan accordingly. I will give more details once I start my each day travel blog post.

All Indian currencies are accepted in Bhutan although tourists are advised not to bring any denomination note greater than 100 Rupees. We took all our money in 100 Rupee notes, except some 2000 and 500 notes. However 2000 and 500 notes were accepted everywhere. Bhutanese currency is Ngultrum (BTN) and the exchange value is same that of Indian Rupee. I think except one and five BTN notes rest have pictures of Bhutan's Kings on one side and Dzongs on the other side. Wait...did I say dzongs? Dzongs are beautiful buildings meant for district and religious administration. So they are basically administrative offices and what I learnt from our local Bhutanese driver is that there are 20 districts in Bhutan and each have a dzong. The three most beautiful dzongs that we saw are the Punakha Dzong, the Thimpu Dzong and the Paro Dzong. They were amazing.

Once we crossed the Bhutan Gate and entered Phuentshoing, the first two things we noticed were - the cacophony suddenly vanishes. Jaigaon the last town on the Indian side is so overfilled with cars, shops, people, sound whereas Phuentshoing is so quiet and orderly. Also shops and availability wise its less. The other thing is the structure of the buildings changes. The buildings start looking identical and each and every looks so pretty. All the buildings are structured in traditional Bhutanese architecture and every house has intricate wooden windows and doors. All the commercial and government buildings have pictures of the handsome King and extremely beautiful Queen of Bhutan at least inside the building if also not outside. Also by talking with locals you can understand they highly love and admire their royal family.

Almost 80% of the people wear the traditional dress. The men wear a knee length baggy suit called 'gho' that has traditional prints paired with black knee length socks and shoes. The women wear 'kira' which is basically a long piece of colorful and traditional print cloth wrapped as a skirt accompanied with full sleeve loose blouse. I do not know if its only my observation or not, but women in Bhutan have flawless, radiant and beautiful skin regardless of age. Also people in Bhutan are one of the kindest and sincere people I have ever seen. I am in love with the Bhutanese.

Bhutanese women in traditional attire

A monk watching archery

And lastly how can I miss talking about Bhutanese food. The people really know food. We have never been dissatisfied even for once for any single dish that we had in some many of the restaurants in Bhutan. Some of the restaurants were out of the world but the rest were also very good. I will post about the restaurant details in a separate blog post. The national dish of Bhutan is 'Ema Datsi'. Datsi means cheese and ema means chilli. So this dish has chilli and cheese. The dish is prepared with local yak cheese mixed with Amul cheese. However our favorite was 'Kewa Datsi' which is potato cheese. I will rate it 10 out of 10. Its so delicious. We also had 'Shamu Datsi' that is mushroom and cheese.
Pork is very popular followed by beef and chicken. We had really yummy pork ribs which tasted out of the world. We also had 'Jasha Maru' which is light chicken curry and also 'Jasha Paa' which is chicken cooked with spinach. My mouth is watering as I write, so I hope I do not need to provide any further details how great Bhutanese food tastes. Chicken momo is not very popular in Bhutan as it is in India. Instead fast food restaurants mostly keep vegetable or cheese momo. And by the way momo is considered a snack so not all restaurants will have it in their menu or offering. Also tea in Bhutan is very different from the tea in India. Bhutanese prefer butter tea or 'Suja' which tastes a little like creamy soup.

One of the tremendously good sizzlers
Ham wrapped in cheese with mushrooms

sticky rice and also jasmine tea

So I think thats a pretty good amount of information I managed to collect and share.Now some teasers before the next write-up.

Common people

Players in an archery tournament

Some posing on the way

Paro Dzong

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Bhutan Trip Preparation

This is such a long long awaited trip.... Finally Bhutan. We're coming.

This time around, we are going to bring you video footage from our trip; food, culture, people, and us enjoying in Bhutan.

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Darjeeling ~ Queen of Hills

A long pending post that I thought I must finish before we embark on my next trip to Bhutan this week. By the way before I start, let me split some secret beans. I have been planning for quite sometime to start with our vlog and we will do it this time with our Bhutan trip. I know vlogs are fun and we will be literally taking all of you to travel Bhutan with us. But for our readers who loves our blogs let me assure that there is nothing to worry, we will keep on writing as we do, vlogs will be an addition for all of you.

So now back to my short trip to Darjeeling. Whenever we visit Kolkata which is once a year we try to extend it by a little extra travel. As many of you know Kolkata is a magic city, so many places are just a short trip away from Kolkata - be it our neighbors Bangladesh or Bhutan or to some of the very beautiful and exotic places on earth such as the Sunderbans, NE India or the Himalayas.

Due to the lack of extra time we planned a very short yet eventful trip to the Queen of the Hills aka Darjeeling. The 3 day itinerary that we had was something given below:

Day 1: Get up on Darjeeling mail from Sealdah Jn

Day 2: Reach NJP in the morning. Take a cab for Darjeeling.
            Night Halt at Darjeeling

Day 3: Sightseeing at Darjeeling and nearby
            Night Halt at Darjeeling

Day 4: Train from NJP to Kolkata (SDAH)

The trip details were as follows:

Day 1:

I got confirmed tickets from Kolkata(SDAH) to New Jaipaiguri(NJP) some four months back on the very first day when the booking window opened for the dates from irctc. I had booked Darjeeling Mail since I found its time to be convenient. Since the train starts from 10:05 PM so we had a typical Bengali dinner of fish and rice at home and then took a cab for Sealdah Rly Station. It did not take much time to reach the station. We offloaded and proceeded towards the platform. My heart was pounding with happiness, I somehow love the railway announcements where they say something like this in 3 different languages...

"May I have your attention please....Train number 12343 Darjeeling Mail from Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri is expected to arrive at 10:05 PM at platform number 9"

I got a sample video from youtube while writing this blog, You may play it to hear the thrill yourself...the same beautiful voice and style which has not changed a bit for the last 30 years and I hope it stays this way.

There was nothing eventful for the rest of the day, we got up on the train, settled ourselves and at 10:05 PM the train gave a slight jerk signalling it has started moving. Oh, how much I love the beauty and thrill in these rail journeys.

Happy Us!

Happy Us!

Day 2:

Train was one hour late. It arrived at NJP at 10 AM, but we are least bothered. All we have to do is take a cab and go to Darjeeling, a place I have a lot of memories attached. Once we went disembarked from train some taxi drivers approached us. We started negotiating the rate from NJP to Darjeeling and booked a Esteem. There are various ways to reached Darjeeling from NJP. There are shared cabs, exclusive cabs as well as regular buses from Siliguri Bus terminus.

Very soon we crossed the mighty Mahananda river. There has been some recent erosion to the river banks maybe because of the rains. The road slowly started getting steeper and narrow. At many places it was so narrow that  only one car can move, the one from the opposite side has to stop. We started gaining elevation rapidly and within an hour we reached Kurseong, a little hill town famous for its residential schools. We had breakfast comprising of bread toast, omlette and tea. The small houses in Kurseong are very pretty. All have a small garden in front.

Mahananda River

Hilly Roads

From Kurseong it took another one hour or so to reach Darjeeling. We could have reached a little early but because of the traffic jam at the entry of Darjeeling town it took some time. Since Darjeeling is over packed with hotels, we did not go for any advance hotel booking. We asked our driver to show us some hotels which he did for some extra 50 bucks. As a travel tip, I think there is no requirement to do prior hotel booking in Darjeeling unless it is the peak season.

After freshening up quickly we went for lunch in the same hotel's restaurant. We took two fish thalis each was for 150 bucks. Since we have the whole of the second half of the day , we went to the local taxi stand to get a taxi which will take us to Mahakal Temple and Bhutia Basti Monastery.

We first went to Mahakal temple which is very close to Mall road. Infact it can be reached easily if someone is staying in some hotel on Mall Road. However there is a steep exhausting walk of 15-20 minutes to reach the temple. There are benches all along to take rest but there are mischievous monkeys too who will start staring at you and your belongings once you sit. There are a lot of very old trees, I think birch although not sure. They have prayer flags on them. The wind turned really bone-shivering once we reached the top. The views are rewarding and on a clear day the peaks are visible from here.

Mahakal Temple

Do not know what trees are these...each is a giant!

Next we went to Bokar Monastery, a very beautiful and pretty big monastery some kms away from Darjeeling. Here again we had to walk up a little to reach the monastery. My legs were paining and I regretted the fact that I should have practiced some inclined walking with the walker. The monastery is very peaceful and calm. Monks were carrying out their regular prayer session, we sat beside them for sometime, it was so soothing. The inside of the monastery has a paintings of Buddha and photos of  His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Outside we saw a young monk creating a huge mural painting on a big piece of cloth.

Bokar Monastery

Bokar Monastery

We told our driver to drop us at the Mall Road and not to the hotel. We walked pass the vibrant shops. They were selling everything a tourist could possibly want - clothes, wooden carvings, masks, jewelries, gifts and souvenirs,organic tea and incense sticks. We went to the nearby Bhutia market which is famous for woolens and jackets. When we were kids, we were told that the Bhutanese people have set up this market where they sell their stuffs and the stuffs sold are really good.

Day 3:

Last night we have booked a cab with our hotel since our plan was to see the sunrise from Tiger Hills. We told our driver to pick us up no later than 3:45 AM. We had our alarms set at 3:30 AM but we woke up before the alarm rang. Our driver was already there before 3:45 waiting for us at the hotel reception, so once we got a call from the reception we went down and got up in his car. It was pitch dark outside. I was feeling too cold and sleepy, not at all in a mood to start the day so early but as soon as we hit the roads, I was taken in for surprise. Already there are so many cars on the road. Few of them already has tourist who were also going to Tiger Hills to witness the sunrise and most cars were going to the various hotels to pick tourists up.

When we reached Tiger Hills it was still dark, there were no more than 10 people who came before us. Gradually the number went up to around 50. Since we were early birds we got ourselves a good place from where we can see the sunrise. Slowly the number of people increased to about 4 folds. Tea vendors started with their morning business. Everyone was eager for a warm cup of tea in the freezing cold.

Slowly the first ray of the Sun appeared. It illuminated the tip of Mt Kanchenjunga and the color of the sky started changing with every second. Clouds were also there to play the spoilsport. We witnessed one of the very beautiful sunrises over the Himalayas.

Dawn break at Tiger Hills

Tiger Hills

Tiger Hills

Next we went back to Darjeeling. We were in the Darjeeling Railway station to catch our toy train to Ghum and back. I had booked confirmed tickets of the same from itctc. The toy train was built by the British when they colonized India so that they can establish a smooth connectivity between the plains and the hills. I am not sure if the train is a UNESCO World Heritage site or not, but the toy train is must - do thing in Darjeeling. It is a two hour to and fro ride from Darjeeling - Ghum - Darjeeling. It halts for 30 minutes at Ghum so that tourists can get down and visit the railway museum. If you are wondering why is Ghum so special then let me tell you it is the highest railway station in India at 2258 metres. While on the way back the train takes the Batasia Loop from where excellent views of Mt Kanchenjunga and also Darjeeling town can be seen. There are some popular monasteries in Ghum but we preferred to skip them because of time constraint.

Ghum Station

Wild flowers at Ghum

On the way back we stopped at the Happy Tea Valley factory which is the most popular and also the oldest tea factory in Darjeeling. Majority of the tea manufactured at Happy Valley are exported and Harrods in UK is one of the major distributor of Darjeeling tea made at Happy Valley in UK. We bought a packet of freshly toasted Darjeeling tea from the factory outlet and I must say that the tea was marvelous. If I go to Darjeeling again, I will for sure buy the tea from here. We skipped the tea factory since we have seen so many tea factories in South India that we thought we can give it a skip and catch up with some sleep that we have missed today morning because we had to get ready for Tiger Hills.

Tea Garden

Tea Garden

Tea Garden

In the evening there was not much to do, so we went to the Mall Road once again. We walked till St Andrew's Church took some pictures, sat on the grass and came back. The evening lights were put on at the Mall Road and the entire place was so full of life bustling with tourists, shops, 'ghora- wallas'. A very short trip but worth it.

St Andrew's Church

Mirik Lake

Travel Info:
By Air ~ Nearest Airport is Bagdogra. From there there are regular taxis, shuttles that run to Darjeeling.
By Rail ~ Get down at New Jalpaiguri(NJP) from Kolkata(SDAH) . Plenty of options to reach Darjeeling- shared and exclusive cars/buses from Siliguri bus depot.
By Bus ~ There are over night bus services from Esplanade ( Kolkata )  that reaches Siliguri the next day. From there book another bus/taxi to reach Darjeeling.

Major  Attractions:
1. Toy Train from Darjeeling to Ghum and back covering Batasia loop.
2. Mahakal Temple and Observatory
3. Bokar Monastery
4. Sunrise from Tiger Hill
5. Happy Valley Tea Garden and Factory
6. Mall Road and Bhutia Market
7. St Andrew's Church
8. Darjeeling Zoo
9. Darjeeling Ropeway
10. Mirik Lake

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