As soon as I was done with the immigration formalities at the Bhutan/India border (Phuentsholing-Jaigaon), I wanted to be on my way to Paro to make the most of it. Paro is a major tourist destination in Bhutan, which lies in South-east Asia. The city is one of the few places open to foreigners in touristy-Bhutan.
I was told that buses ply after every few hours from Phuentsholing to Paro, (and vice versa) but there was none when I needed. Shared taxi was the next best option.
Just as I reached the taxi stand and inquired for taxis to Paro, a bunch of taxi drivers/middlemen surrounded me, each quoting Nu.700 (1 Nu roughly equals Rs.1) for Phuentsholing-Paro. “Nu 500, no more” I replied firmly, like a seasoned backpacker that I am not. One driver from the group agreed and escorted me to his taxi, which was in the want of just one more passenger before it could be on its way, and therefore I was welcomed like a celebrity by the rest of my co-passengers.
It was all fun and gaiety until I started to settle my hand-luggage in the front row of the SUV. The driver protested saying that for Nu.500, I could get only the last seat. After some
batting-of-eyelashes negotiations and showing him my camera to explain the reason for me taking the front row (taking pictures), he gave in.
Without wasting time, we started for Paro; the journey takes about 6-7 hours.
As soon as I settled into the car, I felt a cumulative exhaustion of last 30-ish hours, and snored even before we hit the first check-post. The cool breeze from the mountains counterbalanced a balmy sun, lulling me deeper in to sleep.
At the two check-posts, I along with everyone else, sleep-tumbled out of the car to get the permit stamped. Each time, like robots, all of us went back dozing even before the car’s ignition was turned on.
After nearly two hours of driving, we stopped at a small-time restaurant. It is here, and with this incident, it hit me that I am no longer on the Indian soil.
It happened thus, that when the waitress came to take my order, I scanned the menu for vegetarian options. The ones in the menu did not appeal to me and I mumbled, “just get me Maggi, will you please? And some chai.”
The lady went to the kitchen and returned with a pen and paper, requesting me to write down what I needed. I was MIGHTILY impressed with ‘the system‘, until I fathomed out that she is not able to understand my order. She took that piece of paper to the kitchen, and returned exasperated a couple of minutes later, with the cook in tow.
By now, I was fully awake! In that moment, I wondered if it is going to be like that for the next seven days.
She: “Ma’am, will you please explain your order to him?”
Me (to the cook): “I have requested for Maggi.”
Cook: *stares blankly at me*
With this, we managed to catch the owner’s attention, and he asked me what I wanted. In a very small and unsure voice I replied, “Maggi”.
“Get her Koka”, he instructed his staff.
So, Maggi is Koka in Bhutan.
Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the road with our tummies full.
The scenic beauty of the mountain drive was getting better with every bend; just like my sleepiness. It was only with the various qualities of breeze (cool, crisp air, mist, clouds) hitting my face that I gauged that we were passing through some of the most beautiful places I will ever see sleep through.
It was all good with the fabulous mountainous drive, until my bladder threatened to burst, and Paro was still two hours away. After some deliberation, I pleaded the driver and he hurriedly stopped near the densest bush for me to relieve myself. As I walked down the slope to find a perfect spot, he shouted out that I ought to be careful as I might fall into the gorge. Probably he had never met anyone who is a mountain goat when it comes to peeing, when out in the hills.
The taxi dropped us at Paro at 4:30pm, and there began my search for a hotel-room which didn’t come easy. Most of the places do not entertain solo travelers, not even when you offer to pay for the double room. Around 10 hotels later, I finally found one that was open to solo traveller of any sort.
[Traveller’s tip: If you are the kind of person who is about organized travel, please work out your stay before you reach the city, more so if you are visiting in the touristy months.]
As I hit the streets in the evening to take a stroll, I realized that Bhutan government is a grandmother of yore; it had fascination with preaching about the tenets of ‘safe sex’ in the ways only grandmoms can. Here is one such example (one of the mildest that crossed my way), but this is nothing compared to the ones at the monasteries, dzongs, memorial grounds (of all the places!) with a cluster of white flags fluttering atop the mountains, and middle-of-nowhere. After a while, it started to feel less like a friendly advice and more like, ‘you are under CCTV surveillance’.
Keeping the Bhutanese ‘culture’ in mind, this is ironic in many ways; one of which is its celebration of the ‘phallus’, or the penis.
It happened thus that after roaming around the street-shops wide-eyed for three evenings and wondering “the internet couldn’t have ruined me THIS bad that everything looks so twisted (or erect, if you please)”, I realized that those souvenirs really WERE phallic in design, and it wasn’t my pervert brain at play. Here are some of them:
Like I said, I was baffled until I chanced upon this book in one of the shops.
Flipping through it explained the relevance of the phallic form in the Bhutanese cultural lattice, and helped me sleep better there on.
Traveller’s tip: If you want to buy souvenir/s, do so from Paro; I did not see as mind-baffling assortment of those in Thimphu.
During my stay in Paro, my day-plans were made on-the-go, largely because I didn’t want to engage an entire taxi for myself when I knew I could hitch-hike, or split the ride at a fraction of the cost. This, however, comes with great planning because Paro isn’t a town which has street/s abuzz with tourists all the time.
On day 2, while having my breakfast, I heard three friends from Bangladesh planning their day and the conversation intermittently brought up Chele La. My ears perked up every time, but I feigned disinterest, because I wasn’t sure of how they would perceive a lady’s request for splitting the cab-share for the day-trip, and if it would put them in a tight spot that I could not foresee. After assessing that I COULD share the cab with them safely, came the next question: if they would like to?
Instead of asking them directly (you can ask directly too; looking back, I think I must have been too much of a pompous soul), this is what I did. After I finished my breakfast, I waited for them to finish, and timed my exit with theirs. On the way out, I asked the hotel-manager, “what are one’s option to go to Chele La?”, loud and clear for them to hear. The manager, who must have known this group’s plan, looked at them sneakily, pretending to mull over my query. Just then, the oldest gentleman (who must have been around 55 years of age), came forward and said, “Madam, would you like to come with us? We are three people, and our taxi can accommodate one more person.”
Did I need anything more at that moment?
And that, my friends, is how Chale La (the highest motorable pass in Bhutan) happened in Nu 500, when an entire taxi costs Nu.2000.
Here are a few things that you need to keep in mind for Chale La:
- The drive takes around two hours one way. It is a hilly terrain, with winding roads.
- Chale La is absolutely the last point that is allowed if you have permit for Thimphu and Paro. Beyond this point, it is Haa valley, and it calls for a special permit. In case you are confused about the geographical limit of your permit, here is a rule of thumb: if you have got your permit from Phuentsholing-Jaigaon border, it is applicable for Paro and Thimphu ONLY. For anywhere beyond, you need to apply again at Thimphu.
- It is quite windy atop the hill. You might need a jacket with you.
- Avoid going if it is a rainy day.
- It is situated at a height of 3988meters, which 13,084ft. It is likely to leave you struggling for breath, and it is not advisable that you stay for more than 20 mins, if you are not used to this kind of altitude. I have done way higher than this in Spiti, still I could feel slight A.M.S. (Acute Mountain Sickness). In the video above, you can hear me panting, almost!
- On a clear day, you can see Jomolhari peaks from here.
- DO NOT hitch-hike without a sure mode of transport for return.
- Chale La Pass is very beautiful, and I am still not able to figure out how do men yank out their pee-pee and nourish the grounds without a trace of remorse! I saw two people doing that, and was flabbergasted. Ditto for tea-cups and chips packets. I must say that most of the littering comes from people from countries that have free permit for Bhutan (India and Bangladesh to be specific). People are generally respectful towards things/experiences they have to pay for.
- Chale La is also where you might find snow, if you go in the nippy months.
- Please carry back any litter you have with you.
- Don’t miss this view on your way back.
Takhtsang Monastery/ Tiger’s Nest Trek
Takhtsang Monastery trek warrants a day reserved for itself, if you are not an avid trekker. Since this merited a post unto itself, here are details on how to go about it.
I took it up as one of the last activities in Paro, because as advised, I wanted to take it easy after the trek.
In case you aren’t flying in or out of Paro, keep this in your itinerary because it is the world’s one of the top 10 toughest airstrips to land on, with only 8 pilots certified to land here.
In case it interests you, read this post.
Why is the Paro Airport (Bhutan) One Of The Toughest To Land On?
It is important that when it comes to Bhutan, I talk about the food too. The city of Paro is about the local fare, as opposed to Thimphu, which is a way wilder cousin of Paro. While there is easy availability of other cuisines, Paro is best experienced with Bhutanese food.
Non-vegetarian food figures out high in a Bhutanese person’s everyday life. As far as I know, Bhutan has no slaughter-house of its own, and it imports 100% of its raw meats from India and Nepal.
Because Buddhism allows the consumption of non-veg food, but does not allow killing of animals for the same. That said, a vegetarian or a vegan will have ample of food items to chooses from, while travelling in the country.
Cheese is one of the major components of the food. Anything with a ‘Dhatsi/dhatshi/datshi’ attached to it, is with a cheese gravy. The quantity of the gravy varies from place to place; please clarify this with the server. Anything that is deemed to be ‘mildly chilly’ is still very chilly for a person with low tolerance to chillies.
Red rice and buckwheat also form major components of the food here. Red rice is an acquired taste, if you aren’t used to it. So is buckwheat for pancake.
Bhutan is a country that seems to know its liquor well. I am NOT a beer-drinker, yet on local folk’s insistence, I tried the famed Druk 11000 at hotel Peljorling and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another friend recommends Takin highly, a wine named after the national animal of Bhutan.
Also, Paro has very easy availability of home-made wines from various fruits and they taste simply out of this world!
Liquor and solo woman traveler
A bottle of beer had me beautifully tipsy after a hard day of a trek to Taktsang monastery. While I was half-way through my bottle of beer, the restaurant (I think Peljorling it was) announced that it was due to close in 10 minutes. I glugged the rest of it down, but it is only after I stood up to leave that I realized that walking 250 meters back to the hotel was going to take much, much longer that night.
It was 10:15pm, and totally dead silent streets with cops all around. While I staggered on my way back with one step at a time, not ONCE did I feel unsafe. It was just the cops and me, both looking at each other with a “yes?”.
The center of the town is best explored on the foot because it is just two streets running parallel to each other. Other than this, for local transport, you can hire taxis for approximately Nu.2000/day.
If you are travelling solo, then I suggest that you hitchhike, like I did. Bhutan is one of the most hitchhike-friendly countries in this world. For other places, you can try to book taxis by sharing expense with other tourists who might be travelling solo or in groups of two/three. A Bhutanese taxi driver will not entertain even single person more than four people in the car, as it is not permitted by law.
Hotels, Late Nights and Locked Gates:
I learnt this on my third night (because until then, I must have returned well in time), after a trip to Takstsang monastery (trek distance 11 kilometers), and that famed bottle of beer with dinner, mentioned earlier. By the time I reached my hotel, most of the shops were closed, and the hotel entrances were locked, including my own. The streets were deserted. Semi-tipsy, I stood there wondering what to do, because this was new for me. Never had I been to a place where hotels locked gates and doors like homes. Understandably so, because they do not expect tourists during the night time, so they do not need a reception-desk running during the same; well, most of them.
After a bit of looking around, I found a shop which was open at that time, behind my hotel and they had the phone number for the contact person at my hotel. They immediately called them, requesting to open the main gate, to let me in.
Pro-tip: Take the contact person’s phone number down on a paper (smart-phones die), and use it if you are late.
The Curious Case Of Street Dogs In The Night-Time in Paro
This was very close to becoming the title of this post, when I decided otherwise at the last minute. For some reason, the street dogs in the valley hold a competition for barking every night, and it is a group event. The ones under your window will bark in continuity for three minutes, and then some other group will reply from another corner of the valley. This goes on until the daybreak. I don’t know what the award for this is, but it left me sleepless and baffled for initial two nights, and then I fished out my ear-plugs from the bottom of the luggage.
People And The Streets
People are great and cheerful like they are high on something potent, but then, this is a nation where ‘happiness’ is a priority. If you ask me, Paro is a very ‘zen’ town. I wish I could break down that word for you, but it is an experience and no word can do justice to it.
Pro tip: Paro is a quaint town with lovely people, and it sleeps early. If you are someone who finds happiness in staying out till late, limit your number of days here and spend more time in Thimphu instead.
For Bhutan, I had no structured itinerary and I took one day at a time, depending on how I felt on a particular morning. One morning, I woke up to this, and I felt that this is how I would like to remember Paro every time I look back, and that day was a day of satiety for me when it came to Paro, and I took off for Thimphu.
- Most of the people are well-versed with English language, and some understand Hindi too.
- Bhutanese food COULD BE high on saturated fat; so people with prior case of heart surgery/ies need to be careful while planning their meals.
- Travel in the dry months; peak on the monsoon season is fiery.
- Bollywood has a major influence here. Cabbies still play songs from the 90’s, and that kind of gels with the whole experience of travelling in Bhutan.
- Get a Bhutanese contact number. How to get one is explained in this post.
- Take permission from your subject in case it is a human being you are trying to take a picture of. AVOID taking picture of the members of the royal family.
Have a safe trip!
In case you are unsure, you can book through Booking.com, and cancel later, like I do if I find a better deal. The site does not charge any cancellation fee.
Read This If You Are Solo Indian Traveller To Bhutan