Bhutan is our quiet neighbour, landlocked in the east. If you don’t know much about it, you may think that it is a country just like India. Well, you couldn’t be further from the truth if that’s what you believe. We share borders with Bhutan, but it’s an entirely different world. Cleanliness, peace and calm are only a few of the positives that set Bhutan apart from us. On my visit to the land of the thunder dragon, I fell in love with the country. I had no idea that a precious gem was hidden so close to India, waiting just there for us to explore!
If Bhutan’s beauty, culture and people weren’t enough reasons for you to visit the country, you must know that it is also an extremely affordable destination to travel to! Bhutan’s currency, Ngultrum, is equal to the Indian Rupee. You can even use the lower denominations of India Rupee while buying something in Bhutan. Bhutan also offers the ease of visa on arrival for Indian nationals, so visiting a foreign destination couldn’t become more convenient!
If you’re looking for a budget international trip, don’t look further. Here’s the itinerary you must follow:
There are numerous ways to reach Bhutan. You can choose one depending on the number of days you can spare and your budget, of course.
Road: Take a flight or train to Bagdogra in West Bengal, from where you can take a bus or cab to Phuentsholing. This is the gateway to Bhutan that is located 164km (5 hours) away from Bagdogra. You can leave early from Bagdogra, collect your permit to visit Bhutan and head further to Paro, located 150km away (4 hours).
Air: Bhutan is well connected to India by flights. The country’s only airport is located in Paro and finds itself in the list of the most stunning airports in the world. Airlines like Druk Air have regular flights to and fro New Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra (among other cities) and Paro.
Once in Bhutan, you will instantly be surprised by the sudden change in landscape and culture. If you’re coming by road, there a massive difference between this side of the border and that. Bhutan’s side welcomes you with its beauty and cleanliness as you leave India’s chaos behind. If you’re reaching by flight, you will be left speechless at how gorgeous the airport is! Renowned for being one of the most difficult landing strips in the world, there are only a few pilots that are licensed to land and take-off from Paro Airport. The airport and the view that it offers are a marvel in itself!
You need at least five days to immerse into the best destinations of Bhutan. Of course, if you have more time at your disposal, you can explore Bhutan in more depth and detail.
This is the itinerary that you can follow: Paro — Thimphu — Punakha — Paro.
Day 1 : Paro
The beautiful valley of Paro. © Wikimedia Commons
Head out early and begin the exploration of Paro! Paro, like every other town in Bhutan, is a valley, right in the middle of which flows the pristine Paro Chhu or Paro River. Here are the places you must visit:
- Rinpung Dzong
Bhutan is a Buddhist country whose culture and religion dates back to centuries. Hence, every town that you visit will be lined with monasteries, temples and dzongs that you must visit. Rinpung Dzong stands tall, enveloped in the mountains of Paro — it is the very exemplum of Buddhist art and architecture. The fort has temples, chapels as well as murals and paintings, some even dating back to the 17th century.
Tip: If you’re visiting in March or April, you must attend the Tshechu festival where you will witness traditional celebrations, mask dance and music!
- Paro Bazaar
This is where you can delve into Bhutanese culture through the medium of shopping! The market is a beautiful one that is lined with stores that sell Bhutanese art and handicrafts. If you want to take back mementos and souvenirs from Bhutan, this is where you will find it all! You can browse through a wide selection of pure silk, Pashmina and yak wool textiles — you are sure to be left spoilt for choice!
- National Museum of Bhutan
If you’re a history enthusiast or are interested in knowing about the culture of Bhutan, you must head to the National Museum. The museum is home to Bhutan’s cultural heritage, comprising of paintings, art and statues. Travel across 3,000 years while at this museum!
Apart from these significant places, do take time out to relax by the river. Take a walk through the valley, interact with the locals to have a truly meaningful experience.
Where to eat: Brioche Cafe and Mountain cafe are places you can visit to satiate the foodie in you. Don’t forget to try Bhutanese dishes such an ema datshi and thukpa.
Where to stay: While there are numerous hotels where you can stay, I’d suggest you book an Airbnb for your visit. Some options that you can look at are Paro Village View Homestay, Riverside Cottage and Namkhar Apartment.
Day 2: Taktsang monastery trek
The Tiger’s Nest. © Adil Wahid
Your trip to Bhutan is incomplete without a visit to the elusive Taktsang Monastery or Tiger’s Nest. Perched on a cliff, the only way to reach the monastery is by taking a 3-4 hours’ trek. The trek trail is absolutely untouched, will take you through forests, about a staircase of 900 steps and a waterfall!
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to this spot from Tibet on the back of a Tigress and meditated here for more than three years. Guru Rinpoche subsequently spread Buddhism in Bhutan.
It will take about 5 hours to complete the trek.
Tip: Do not wear shorts to the trek since your legs need to be fully covered to be able to enter into the monastery.
After one full day of trekking, you would like to rest and relax, so spend the night in your hotel, rewinding from the stressful day!
Day 3 and 4: Paro – Thimphu
Panoramic view of Thimphu. © Max Pixel
Today, you head to the country’s capital — Thimphu! A two hour’s journey from Paro will get you here. Thimphu, being the capital is entirely different from Paro. Home to the royal family, the country’s administrative heads, fabulous restaurants, monasteries and temple, Thimphu is genuinely effervescent.
Buddha Dordenma Statue:
This is a massive 177 ft. Buddha statue that overlooks the beautiful town of Thimphu. It commemorates 100 years of the Bhutanese monarchy, and at the same time, fulfils a prophecy made by Guru Padmasambhava.
Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park:
Located on the way to Buddha statue is a beautiful nature park where you must go. The nature park has numerous marked hikes that you can take. The hikes also come with spots that offer panoramic views of Thimphu. This is an ideal place to catch the sunset.
Clock Tower Square:
Located right in the middle of the town, the Clock Tower Square is decorated in Buddhism architecture. You can simply take a walk around the square! If you’re visiting in summer, you may be lucky to attend an event taking place here.
Tashi Chho Dzong:
This is one of the most important landmarks of Thimphu as Tashi Dzong has been the seat of the government since 1907. It is a magnificent fortress that comprises of over 30 temples and shrines. If you’re visiting during a festival, you might even spot the King and Queen of Bhutan.
Another important landmark of Thimphu, this is a memorial that is visited by hundreds every day to meditate. It is home to mandalas, prayer wheels and merals. Most importantly, it is tucked amid rolling, verdant hills that make the experience of visiting the Chorten even more magical.
The market of Thimphu is fun and colorful. Head to any shop to buy Tibetan style crockery and handicrafts. You can even get a tailor-made Bhutanese attire here. Do try the local beer of brands such as Druk Beer and the different types of chips and munchies that are available. The weekend market offers a variety of cheap local handicrafts that are ideal for souvenir shopping! Buy mufflers, scarves, diaries and a lot more here!
Where to eat:
Thimphu has some fantastic cafe and restaurants where you can enjoy all kinds of meals. Head to Ambient Cafe, Karma’s Cafe, Coffee Culture and Thija Cafe to try Bhutanese, continental and Tibetan food!
Where to stay:
You can stay at Le Meridien, Druk Hotel or Hotel Norbuling.
Day 5: Thimphu – Punakha
The Punakha Dzong. © Wikimedia Commons
Today, you take a day trip to Punakha. Punakha is another valley town. This is one of the most famous places in Bhutan for a day trip from Thimphu, so you must not miss it. The drive from Thimphu to Punakha is absolutely stunning and will take you through the scenic Dochula Pass that is famous for its 108 chortens.
Once at Punakha, here are things that you must do and see:
River rafting in Punakha Chhu:
Adventure seekers can jump right in and opt for rafting in the waters of Punakha river. This is a must-have experience.
This majestic fortress serves as the administrative center of Punakha and is located right between two rivers. It is a photographer’s delight for its unique location and is visited by people from around the world. Take a walk around the dzong, talk to monks and priests to get more insight!
Punakha Suspension Bridge:
This is the longest suspension bridge in all of Bhutan! The bridge swings over the Punakha Chhu and makes for a most wonderful hike! The bridge is decorated in prayer flags and is totally safe! So take a walk over it and enjoy the views!
Where to eat:
Bukhari, Lobesa Village Restaurant and Tenzin Pizzeria are ideal places to grab a bite and then head back to Thimphu!
Day 6: Thimphu – Paro – India
Today you return to India! Head from Thimphu to Paro in a cab and then fly out to India. If you’ve come by road, then drive to Phuentsholing and cross over to India!
I guarantee that more than just a trip where you check off places from your list, you will return from Bhutan having an experience of a lifetime. You are sure to feel inspired by the kindness of the Bhutanese people, the simplicity of their culture and the absolute peace that the country reverberates with. This will be an experience you will never forget.