Bhutan Travel Experience with Bhutan Travel Gate

Bhutan Travel Experience with Bhutan Travel Gate

My Bhutan Travel Experience with Bhutan Travel Gate was just fantastic. To be brutally honest, I was quite apprehensive about the tour of Bhutan at first and had many questions put onto myself by myself! The indifferent place, the natives, the language barrier, the kind of available food and the environment of all sorts, the answers sure weren’t quite there for me. But everything  kind of slowly started to change and fall into place for the better during the course of the tour.

The supporting staff, guide, driver and car were fabulous. I found that Bhutanese culture and tradition has been preserved and kept as it were for centuries. All those amazing things about this mythical land, very rightly proclaimed by the world as the Last Shangri La, the mythical Himalayan Utopia on earth today.

Bhutan today is one of the top 10 diversity hotspots in the entire world. It’s 70% of the land is under green vegetation as per the constitution of the country. The Buddha Dharma has been preserved and kept intact as Guru Rinpoche had preached and predicted way back in the 8th century at the Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang.

I found out that Bhutanese food which was intriguing my mind at the beginning to be extraordinarily good, and I assure it can actually compete very well with other southeastern and Chinese varieties or it’s familiar cousins. If you happen to be a jalapeno and cottage cheese lover,  then you can safely say you are in ultimate paradise.

According to Mark Wiens, a world famous Bangkok based Travel and Food Blogger : Bhutanese Food: 25 Best Dishes To Eat When You’re In Bhutan! or  why  Vikas Khanna,  an award-winning chef likes Thimphu : 5 reasons why Chef Vikas Khanna loves Thimphu. (Vikas Khanna is the owner of New York’s Michelin star restaurant, “Junoon”).  In other words the Bhutan Travel Gate guys were just as fantastic as they have always been to every client of theirs.

Date: 14/Feb/2017: Phuntsholing to Thimphu.

After clearing immigration procedures at Phuentsholing (293 m) at the foohills, it took about 5 hrs to reach the capital city of Thimphu (2320 m), 179 km away up through hairpin winding roads onto an sprawling Thimphu valley with the Thimphu river flowing on one side of the valley. (I now hear it takes about 4 hrs these days because of the new shortened highway). So the vegetation and  weather changed after every bend on the up.

Conifers replaced the deciduous trees. Semi alpine vegetation slowly began to appear instead of the subtropical ones and then the chill factor slowly began to arrive. The nose and the ears kind of sensed it with every climbing altitude.

The Thimphu valley spreads from north to south spread over an area of 26.1 km². The ride was indeed smooth in a car provided by them, a SUV with a very conversant guide , Sonam. Guide spoke excellent English and a superfine driver, Yeshe, who took driving to a very different level and I really did enjoy the drive up in the mountains. Having been born and raised in the High Mountains of Darjeeling in India myself, I of course didn’t have any symptoms of High Altitude Sickness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq514ay7Ryg

Date: 15/Feb/2017: Thimphu to Paro.

After a good night’s rest in cold Thimphu, we set out with Suraj Chhetri, owner of Bhutan Travel Gate, to Paro city (2280 m), 65 km away that takes 1.3 hrs. That’s actually driving by the river, reaching the confluence of the Paro and Thimphu rivers and then following the Paro river into the Paro valley that broadens along the ride. Just 5 km beyond the confluence is the monastery dedicated to Thang Thong Gyalpo, who used to build “iron bridges” in ancient times. He built 8 in Bhutan and the rest of the 108 bridges in Tibet. So it’s worth a visit.

Bhutan-Travel-Experience-with-Bhutan-Travel-Gate-Iron-Bridge

Iron Bridge at Paro

Driving northwards the valley starts to broaden and lush rice fields can be seen with the river right in the middle of the valley. The Paro valley is also known as the rice bowl of Bhutan. Once reaching Paro city, we drive further north to the ramparts of Drugyel Dzong that is in ruins now. This was where the Bhutanese won several battles and the invading Tibetans were driven back to Tibet.

Returning back we went to the base of the Tiger’s Nest 900 m, above the valley and the climb that took about 2 hrs, which was indeed the experience of a lifetime. After that we went to the famous Rinpung Dzong, Ta Dzong and had a nice Bhutanese lunch in town.

Rimpung and Ta Dzong View

Rimpung and Ta Dzong View

We then proceeded from near Bonday in Paro towards Chelela Pass (4000 m), 36 km uphill to Bhutan’s highest motorable Pass.The chill factor and the icy winds after you reach the high Chelela Pass make it so exciting. And then further down (about 26 km) to Haa valley (2670 m), where there are three similar hillocks right in the valley and the two famous lhakhangs, Lhakhang Karpo and Lhakhang Nagpo are very popular.

We then drive further southeast towards the confluence 96 km, and then back to Thimphu city (51.7 km) for the night.

Date: 16/Feb/2017: Paro to Punakha.

Next day up was the fabulous journey to Punakha valley (1242 m), 77 km away. On the way towards Punakha but still in the Thimphu valley, one can visit the Simtokha Dzong built to kill evil forces who tried to capture Thimphu in ancient times. Simtokha Dzong is one of the oldest in Bhutan. It was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.

Further up 30 km is Dochula Pass (3110 m), from where one can see almost the whole range of western Bhutan Himalayan peaks on a clear day. You could miss out on the scenes when it’s not sunny though.

Dochula Pass (3110m)

Dochula Pass (3110m)

Further down on the other side of the Dochula Pass is The Royal Botanical Gardens (2100 to 3700m) at Lampelri (47km²) which has about 26 species of rhododendrons and a host of other Himalayan flora and fauna.

Still down the valley at Lobesa is Chimmi Lhakhang, on a small hilltop, ” The Temple of Fertility” in memory of Lama Drukpa Kuenley, The Divine Madman.

Chimi Lhakhang-The Temple of Fertility

Chimi Lhakhang-The Temple of Fertility

Punakha valley (1242m) is 24.7km up north along the valley. It’s comparatively warmer than the rest of the valleys along with Wangduephodrang down south in the same valley and produces a lot of rice because of the right altitude and climate. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan till the 1955 when it was shifted to Thimphu. The Dzong sits at the confluence of two rivers, the male and the female rivers, “Pho Chhu” and “Mo Chhu”. It’s a magnificent and large Dzong, the second largest. The actual meaning of Punakha Dzong is “The Palace of Great Happiness and Bliss”. The royal wedding of the present King was conducted at this Dzong.

Punakha-Dzong

Punakha-Dzong

We finally came back to Lobesa from Punakha and stayed at Hotel Lobesa for the night.

Date: 17/Feb/2017: Punakha to Phobjikha.

Next morning after breakfast we headed to Phobjikha valley (3000m), Wangduephodrang and Nobding on the way, 72.9km and 2hrs 20 min away, and checked in at Hotel Dewachen. The magnificent Gangtey monastery was fabulous and we were lucky enough to watch the Blacked Necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) singing and flying in flocks in the mornings and evenings.

Locals say the cranes circumambulate the Gangte Monastery that sits at the spur of the valley, three times when they come from the severe cold Tibetan Highlands come November into the cup shaped glacial valley of Phobjikha and do the same actual ritual when they go back home at the end of February. Over 300 of the estimated 500 cranes that migrate to Bhutan spend the winter at Phobjikha and the rest at Bomdeling in eastern Bhutan. We even went for a trip to Gogona valley that was just mesmerizing with yaks and sheep.

Phobjikha-valley-Himalayas-Bhutan

Phobjikha valley, Bhutan

Date: 18/Feb/2017: Phobjikha to Trongsa

Up next morning, after breakfast we headed towards Trongsa, 83.4 km, had lunch there and then proceeded to the valley of Bumthang. Having being a Bhutanese food lover, every meal was like heaven. Before reaching Trongsa we passed the Pelela Pass(3390 m) and descended down to Trongsa (2316 m).

The built of the Dzong is at such a strategic place, it used to be the gates for the east and west of Bhutan and capturing the fortress was simply impossible in those times. When you are in Trongsa and Bumthang you seem to feel the pulse of the nation… it’s the spiritual heartland of the nation. When in Central Bhutan you seem to get a fair idea of the true essence of Bhutan as a thriving nation.

The strategic Trongsa Dzong

The strategic Trongsa Dzong

We continue from Trongsa(2316 m) to Bumthang(2800 m), 79.1 km passing Yotongla Pass (3425 m), Domkhar Palace, Chhumey, Kikila Pass (2950 m) and the finally to Bumthang and checked in at the Swiss Resort. Next morning we visited the massive Jakar Dzong “Castle of the White Bird”, Jambay Lhakhang, built in 659 AD and has an exquisite image of Maitreya Buddha and Kurje Lhakhang built around a rock where Guru Rinpoche meditated in the 8th century and has his foot-marks still in place. Kur means “body” and jey means “print”.

We also saw the ruins of Sindhu Raja’s Palace (8th century) which is still maintained. The Buddha Dharma actually started to be preached by Guru Rinnpoche, which then practiced the Bon religion. It then spread to the whole country later on. Bumthang proper has a domestic airport but is a very windy place specially in the afternoons. You get various types of good yak cheese here, the wheels, the blocks, the cones and the small round ones, etc. We were dead beat at the fag end of the day so we had to call it a day.

Jambay Lhakhang (659 AD)

Jambay Lhakhang (659 AD)

Kurjey Lhakhang (8th century)

Kurjey Lhakhang (8th century)

A part of the massive Jakar Dzong, "the Castle of the White Bird"

A part of the massive Jakar Dzong, “the Castle of the White Bird”

A part of Sindhu Raja's Old Iron Palace today

A part of Sindhu Raja’s Old Iron Palace today

Date: 19/Feb/2017: Trongsa to Bumthang.

After a good night’s rest, we actually slept like logs, we set out to Ura valley (3000 m) after crossing another pass, the SheytangLa Pass (3596 m) and then descended down to Ura valley below, 49 km from Bumthang proper. Ura village is a cluster of about 40 houses with cobblestone pathways and the Ura Monastery right in the middle. Ura Monastery dominates the town, giving it a medieval atmosphere. In cold weather Ura women wear sheepskin shawl that serves as both a blanket and a cushion.

The world famous “Yathra” and “Mathra” garments made of yak hair and sheep wool are indeed woven in the Bumthang valleys. Bumthang actually consists of the four valleys of Bumthang proper (Choekor), Chummey, Ura and Tang.

Ura Village with the Monastery in the middle

Ura Village with the Monastery in the middle

Rice cannot be cultivated here because of the high altitude. Potatoes, turnips, millet and buckwheat are largely grown in these regions. The regional cuisine of Bumthang is buckwheat pancakes called “Khooli” and buckwheat noodles “Puta”. Another specialty is “chugo”, the hardened cheese cubes made from yak milk. The town is famous for the Matsutake Mushroom Festival that is organized every August. The festival celebrates the mushroom season every year.

Returning back from Ura and taking a detour north 10km before reaching Bumthang. we visit the Membar Tsho “Burning Lake”, and then the magnificent Tang valley (3100 m) 17 km further northeast. The valley is so serene with a crystal white river and is very thinly populated. By evening we were back at Bumthang valley proper and called it a day.

Date: 20/Feb/2017: Bumthang Local Sightseeing.

Next morning after a quick breakfast, we leave Bumthang back to Trongsa, 79.1 km away. After reaching Trongsa and lunch, we head to the old Kuenga Rabten Palace 20 km south. We then headed back to Trongsa and checked in  at the Yangkhil resort. We had an Indian dinner for a change.

Date: 21/Feb/2017: Bumthang to Thimphu.

Early next morning after breakfast, we head back to Thimphu City 191.5 km away. We had a Bhutanese lunch at a fantastic restaurant at Lobesa, 131.3 km away which took 4 hrs and then came back to Thimphu City feeling completely exhausted and hit the bed immediately to wake up for dinner later.

Date: 22/Feb/2017: Rest Day.

Rest day.

Date: 23/Feb/2017: Thimphu Sightseeing.

Thimphu City sightseeing for the entire day.  https://youtu.be/yq514ay7Ryg

Thimphu-Map

The major draws are Trashichhoe Dzong, National Memorial Chorten, Buddha Dordenma Statue, National Library, Changangkha Temple, Takin Preserve, The Bustling Clock Tower Square, National Textile Museum, Folk Heritage School, Indigenous Paper Factory, View Point near BBS Tower, Crafts Bazaar, Centenary Farmers’ Market, Cheri and Tango Monasteries up north in the valley.

Cheri-Monastery-at-Thimphu

Cheri Monastery at Thimphu

Date: 24/Feb/2017: Depart from Paro.

My Bhutan travel plan ended back from Paro Airport and then to Delhi by Druk Air. Fairly and truly satisfied with the services of Bhutan Travel Gate for my expedition and having truly understood the country, its culture and tradition and the people on my excursion to Bhutan. I really feel like a different person altogether. Bhutan Travel Gate’s services and their endeavor was just exceptional and excellent. Their top of the draw efforts for providing their best services, the wonderful guides and drivers, the powerful cars needed at such elevations and roads and on top of it, a fantastic and wonderful owner, Suraj Chhetri, who believes his life is tourism.

I am a really satisfied man now and hope to come back to Bhutan soon for trekking!! And I really do want to recommend this company to the spirited traveler in you. Travel to Bhutan with Bhutan Travel Gate and make your Bhutan Tour a wonderful takeaway experience back home.

Travel tips to note when traveling from Singapore to Bhutan:

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