6 Days in Bhutan – Thimphu, Punakha, Paro, Haa Trip Report
My wife and I visited Bhutan in late November 2015. Being from Bangladesh, we did not require to hire a local guide, which was mandatory for all the other tourists except Bangladesh, India & Maldives. Bangladeshis are also eligible for a walk-in visa. So after much research – checking out itineraries online, talking to friends, reading discussions on tripadvisor, we decided to try out an independent tour to the country of thunder dragon or Druk Yul. We enjoyed every moment of the trip more than we ever thought we would.
6 Days in Bhutan – Trip Report
The flight to Bhutan with Drukair took around one and a half hour. We were fortunate as it was a clear sunny day with a magnificent view of the Himalayas, including the Everest throughout the bottom half of the journey. The flight also offered us a good idea about the landscape of Bhutan – hundreds of green hills & narrow rocky rivers. The towns are very interesting – duplex or triplex with traditional roofing and colorful walls. It seems like Bhutanese people have found the perfect way to live amongst nature – it’s hard to tell where the towns end and the hills begin. Raw & beautiful.
When you go to a new country, you only talk to a handful of people – drivers, shop keepers, hotel managers and maybe some locals. I know that it’s not the right thing to do, but you judge the whole country based on your interaction with those people. These small interactions have the ability to leave a happy memory of the whole trip or leave a bad taste in your mouth even long after the trip is over. We were lucky enough to meet a fantastic person, our taxi driver Mr Chen Cho, who would accompany us for the length of the tour and help us make this tour one of the most memorable ones we had so far. We were a little hesitant to get on the first taxi that approached us – but later it turned out to be the best decision we made. The deal was that he will take us to Thimphu, Punakha, Paro, Haa (including all the sites) and drop us back at the airport.
Day one: Thimphu
The airport in Paro is small and quiet. It took us less than 20 minutes to convert currency, clear immigration & claim our luggage. There were handful of taxis outside the airport, so getting a ride was not a problem. The airport is situated a little outside the town, and our plan was to visit Thimphu first. So Cho took us on a one and a half hour ride to Thimphu. We had already started admiring the beauty of the country. I wish I could explain the beauty of a simple car ride in Bhutan. The scenery, even the most simplest ones are so very beautiful – words or photos can not do justice to them.
At around 1:30 pm We checked-in at Hotel Shantideva in Thimphu. We read about this hotel online and our driver also recommended it. Due to the off season, we got a good bargain for the room and it had a good view of the Clock Tower Square. We didn’t want to waste any time, and frankly, we weren’t tired at all. So we decided to head out for lunch followed by some sightseeing straightaway. We thought that Thimphu was a really neat and clean city surrounded by hills and yet felt like a proper capital. The city was laid out in layers. It was lovely how all the buildings had a traditional roof and almost all the adults wore traditional clothes (Gho & Kira). There were some fancy restaurants along with many local ones. Interestingly, small restaurants and shops are built like normal houses with small front doors and they do not look like restaurants from the outside.
Cho was waiting for us in front of our hotel. He pointed out some missing places in our itinerary and made a proper schedule of how we can visit all the places – we are so thankful that he took the time to do this. The plan was to visit Memorial Chorten Stupa, Buddha Point, Tashichcho Dzong & the Takin Zoo that day.
Memorial Chorten is situated in the middle of the town, with hundreds of Buddhists praying. We decided not to spend too much time there. The 169 feet Buddha statue at Buddha Point sits on top of a hill overlooking the whole valley of Thimphu. You have to drive through pine forest to reach the place. Buddha Point is still under construction but still very beautiful none the less.
On the way down we stopped at Tashiccho Dzong viewpoint. From the viewpoint the parliament and the King’s palace can be seen. It was very humbling to see the modest 2-storied palace of the King. We were beginning to understand why the people of Bhutan love & respect their King so much. It is very interesting how Bhutanese people have preserved these Dzongs or fortresses and they are still used by monks & government officials. There are Dzongs for each of the 20+ Dzongkhags (districts) in Bhutan. Cho suggested that during winter, there aren’t many monks available in this Dzong as most of them move to Punakha. Plus, we will be visiting Punakha Dzong which is much bigger. So we decided to skip going inside this Dzong.
The crisscrossing road to the Takin Zoo leads through the sub-urban areas of Thimphu. It’s a 10-15 minutes car ride from the city center. Unfortunately, the zoo was closed due to renovation. Cho promised that he would bring us back here the next day without hampering the schedule. On the way back we spent some time at the hadicraft market. We thought that the souvenirs there were unjustifiably expensive and not worth buying. Feeling a little dissapointed, we came back to our hotel and bid farewell to Cho for the day.
Starting from the evening, shops start to shut down and streets become empty. Thankfully there was a cultural event going on in the clock tower square. After dinner, we walked around through the sleeping city for a while before going back to our hotel and calling it a night.
Day two: Thimphu – Punakha
We needed to get permits for going beyond Paro & Thimphu. We checked out from the hotel after breakfast and headed towards the department of immigration. After you submit the form it takes around 30 minutes to get the permit. But Cho suggested that we can come and collect it on the way back from the Zoo, so that we dont waste any time.
I have to say, this was the most natural zoo I have ever seen. It was actually a small portion of the hill surrounded by a fence. One can walk around the whole zoo in a circular path and see the animals in almost their natural habitat. The walk was very interesting as there were no other person inside and you get to walk in the jungle and hear a waterfall nearby. I would be lying if I say that I was not scared during the walk.
On the way back we stopped at the Thimphu Traditional Arts School. It is easy to spend hours there watching the students practice painting, sculpting, wood curving, weaving etc. It felt like a magical place where students sang together while they created art.
After collecting our permits, the last stop in Thimphu was the handmade paper factory. Workers there use their hands and local machines to make paper from the skin of a tree. This factory is on the way to Punakha.
We started towards Punakha at around noon. As the clock ticked away we could feel that we were leaving the city behind and heading more into rural parts of the country. This cross-country highway goes through thick forest and sometimes you can see villages or monasteries on the horizon sitting on top of a hill, adding to the beauty and mystery of the country.
After around one and a half hours of driving we were at Dochu La. This high pass offered a fantastic view of the snow caped Eastern Himalayan range. Cho told us that it is normally foggy in this time of the year and we were lucky to get a clear sky. Fog or no fog – we felt lucky to be able to be there. We had lunch at the restaurant there before continuing our journey towards Punakha.
We reached Punakha at around 4 pm and went straight to the Dzong. It was indeed a magnificent building sitting between two rivers and surrounded by hills. There was a suspended bridge nearby. Some say that it is probably the longest bridge of its kind. We tried crossing the bridge but at the halfway mark my acrophobic brain started to think of excuses, and won. It was getting dark, the moon was up, the bridge was rocking a little, we could hear the roar of the stony river below and we were the only people there. We decided to head back (I wish we had crossed the bridge).
It was already very dark when we checked in a hotel (Hotel Kuenga) in Punakha. There were not too many hotels there and we did not have an earlier booking. Thanks to Cho we found a budget hotel which suited us perfectly. Punakha is a very small town. Probably one can walk the whole length of the town in less than 10 minutes. It seemed like all the restaurants were closed and the only restaurant serving food was our hotel. We strolled through the streets for a bit and sat by the riverbed to enjoy the full moon. It felt like we were the only tourists in this town.
Day three: To Paro
Last night we couldn’t “see” Punakha properly and were feeling a little restless. So we woke up a little early and went for a morning walk by the river. We enjoyed walking in the town, seeing the fog clearing slowly. There were bunch of kids coming down from the hills and going to a school nearby. We went inside the school (I hope they didn’t mind) and watched the morning assembly where they sang their national anthem and prayed, before running off to their classes. It was a beautiful experience.
Cho was right on time and we started for Paro. The first stop was Chime Lhakhang (monastery). We saw this temple on the way to Punakha. The temple can be reached by a 30-40 minute hike through paddy fields followed by a steady climb. Being from flatlands, these uphill climbs really started to take a toll on us and we were not sure if we would be able to make the big hike planned in Paro.
It was around 3 pm when we reached Paro. Again Cho helped us in finding a hotel. We tried couple of hotels before renting a room in Hotel Sonam (on the last day, we switched to Hotel City). The town of Paro is not as clean as Thimphu and it is certainly busier than Punakha. There are lots of hotels, restaurants and shops everywhere. Unlike Thimphu and Punakha, Paro is built on a relatively flat area, surrounded by hills obviously. Paro had only three lanes and it would take around 30 minutes to circle the whole town on foot. Rinpung Dzong (Paro Dzong) and Ta Dzong (National Museum) can be seen from anywhere in Paro as they are built on a hill outside the town.
After having lunch at a local restaurant we spent our evening at the archery ground where a friendly match was going on. None of us had seen archery before, so we appreciated this random opportunity very much. We were amazed at the skills of those archers – I couldn’t even see the target and they were hitting it.
We tried to do some souvenir shopping at night, but it was super expensive.
Day four: Haa
Haa is about 4 hours west from Paro. The drive from Paro to Haa was most spectacular. Not only that the road leads through Chele La (highest motorable road in Bhutan & spectacular view), we got to see herds of yak and some interesting birds. The forest on the both sides of the road was much quieter, thicker than on the road to Punakha.
Haa is a tiny village, with very clean streets and houses. Cho’s wife, Thinley had joined us that day. We all walked around in the village for a while, bought some cheese, had lunch together and started back for Paro in the afternoon.
Day five: Taktsang Monastery
Like many other tourists who visit Bhutan, the hike was the highlight of the trip for us too. The monastery is built on a cliff which can be reached by a 3+ hour uphill hike through pine and oak forest. We started the hike at around 9:30am. One can hire horses to go upto the viewpoint/cafeteria (half way mark) but we chose to walk. Neither of us are at our best physical condition and frankly we are not very used to walking or running, let alone on a hill. 10 minutes down the trek we started to feel the pain! We started seriously doubting whether we will be able to make to the top, or even the halfway viewpoint. But somehow we did – thanks to the encouragements from the people coming down or passing us and the walking sticks that Cho had provided us proactively. Now that I think of it, the walk was a very rewarding experience. The moments of isolation, the view and the calmness – it was all very divine. Also we made a few friends along the way which is always nice.
We came back down at around half past two. Cho and Thinley were waiting for us in the parking lot. We decided to postpone lunch and head to Drukgyal Dzong, followed by Ta Dzong. The museum was about to close (4pm) and they were not letting anyone in at this late hour. Thanks to Cho’s request they let us through. We enjoyed a great view of whole of Paro valley and sunset from the museum compound.
Day six: Departure
The flight was at 9am. Though the airport is only 10 minutes away from the town, we decided to leave with two hours in hand. Thinley had come long to bid us farewell. It was a nice surprise when she gifted us two packs of special chili used to cook Ema Dhatsi. To us, Cho and Thinley are the faces of Bhutan, and they are the perfect example of how magnificent, helpful and honest the Bhutanese people really are.
We will always remember Bhutan and the happy memories it provided us. Thank you Bhutan!