Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Tuesday 31st Jan – Tuesday 7th Feb: Bhutan

with 6 comments

After a very average night at an airport hotel in Delhi, on 31st January we arrived in Darjeeling/Bagdogra by plane from Delhi and had a 6 hour drive to the Bhutanese land border at Phuentsoling. Immigration on the Indian side was interesting; we arrived at the office and signed in with the armed sentry only to enter a deserted office. Eventually after sending said armed sentry to retrieve the immigration officer from his chai across the road we filled in the relevant paperwork and drove another 10 minutes into Bhutan to the very average Wild Orchid (retro Mickey Rourke, anyone?) hotel where our fantastic guide Kemey met us to sort out our Bhutan-side immigration forms.

The next morning we started the long drive on winding roads up to the capital Thimpu at 2300m. Lunch was at a roadside restaurant – possibly our best food of the whole trip as it included my favourite – momos:


On arrival at Thimpu we did some minor sightseeing – the Memorial Stupa and a visit to a sanctuary for the national animal the Takin:

and a short visit to the town itself with the beautiful clocktower in the square:

and our first real experience of the traditional architecture:

The traditional architecture is protected by the king and government – all new buildings must conform so even new office buildings, car showrooms etc as well as homes have the beautiful carved and painted woodwork. As well as ensuring that the landscape and cityscapes are not spoilt by inappropriate architecture and development this also ensures that the traditional skills of woodwork, carving, painting etc are maintained, and ensures employment for the artisans trained in these skills. We later learned that vocational education is available for anyone who does not progress to further academic education, and this vocational education includes these skills, so that this one mandate covers a multitude of benefits; employment, cultural preservation and of course maintaining the uniqueness that draws in tourists. Very smart, and part of the now famous Gross National Happiness initiative. We highly recommend looking into the above link on GNH and following the references – it’s the kind af alternate measure of success that the Acampada movements in Spain and the subsequent Occupy movements all over the world have been trying to promote.

Finally we checked into the charming Peaceful Resort for the night:

Cosy heated room

Huge comfy bed

Chilly but lovely view from the balcony!

After breakfast the next morning Randall had a bit of a runaround on our transport for the next few days:

The classic Royal Enfield Bullet.


Quality model name.

Given that I have always been terrified of motorbikes and don’t even like going on the back of people’s scooters I was a bit nervous – this was definitely a ‘for Randall’ bit of the holiday. However it turned out that I LOVED being on the bike (as a pillion) as the two things that scare me about bikes – speed and traffic – just weren’t issues; there is hardly any traffic and you can’t go above about 25mph on most of the roads because of the conditions, so it was just great!

Amazing moment, cresting the Dorchula Pass at 3100m to be presented with snowcapped mountains and the 108 stupas built there.

The stupas at the top of the Dorchula pass:

From the Dorchula pass it was a couple of hours drive with our support vehicle, the tour mini-bus with driver and guide plus luggage, alternately following and leading, to the fertility temple on the way to Punakha where we had our lunch stop:

After lunch we called in at the Fortress at Punakha where we learned about the traditional structure of these fortresses – half administrative and half religious, to reflect the structure of the country.

Finally, exhausted, we arrived at our stop for the night, the Punatsangchhu cottages where after an early dinner we crashed out (we blame the altitude!).

The next morning it was back on the bike and off to another fortress, this one under construction, which was actually really interesting as we got to see some of the techniques used to build in the traditional style.

Huge posts being carved by artisans

Details of carvings


Careful carving

Painting the wood.

Carpentry workshops set up for the renovations.

Traditional building without nails, just well put together wooden joints.

Scary bandsaw with a large plank about to be pushed through.

On the way to lunch we had an unscheduled stop because of a rock fall blocking the road. We had to wait for the digger to clear it!


After about 20 minutes we were able to pass (presumably the queue of about 20 vehicles on the other side had been waiting longer) and have lunch before driving on to Gangtey:

Gateway to Gangtey town

where we visited the monastery before heading off on a short nature hike across the Phobjika Valley to see the rare and endangered Black Necked Cranes whose habitat is being preserved in Bhutan to the extent that the electricity supply to the local villages was delayed until the cables could be buried instead of going overhead. Lessons to be learned by certain parties in Mid Wales.

At our hotel that night we were the only guests. We were charmed by the wood burner heater in our room, and even more so by the hot water bottles they provided us with!

The next day was a long bike back to Thimpu in the sunshine:

then a short drive to Paro where we lodged for the next 3 nights at Khangkhu Resort.

The next day was a slow and careful snow and ice laden drive up to the Chelela Pass, the highest motorable road in Bhutan at 3988m:

From here we hiked for 45 mins or so up a ridge amongst windblown prayer-flags for stunning 360 degree views of the valleys to either side.

Jomolhari mountain

On top of the world!

Stream crossing the road – solid ice!

Randall has to check that it really *is* frozen…

After lunch in Paro we called in at a ruined monastery, Drukgyal Dzong:

Before an early night for an early start on the Tiger’s Nest hike:

It’s a LONG way up!

Tea stop half way.

The hike isn’t as scary as it looks although it is tough because of the altitude (up to 3200m). The path winds steeply up the mountainside across from the monastery, then there is a steep staircase down into the gap between the two mountains and up again to the monastery itself.

The path goes down and around the mountainside on the left and then climbs steeply up the mountainside up to the back of the monastery.

Looking across from one mountainside to the other.

Nearly there!

Waterfall dropping onto snow, spraying us with mini snowballs as we crossed the bridge between the two mountainsides.

About to start the ascent to the monastery.

Pleased with self – halfway back down tea break.

After a final fortress visit, we relaxed with cake and wine on the balcony of our hotel room before dinner in town with our fabulous guide Kemey then an early night for our 5.30am start flight to Kolkata. Bye bye Bhutan! We’ll be back!

Rest of photos are here.


6 Responses

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  1. I’m not brave enough to take on such an adventure myself but I’m enjoying it vicariously.


    February 7, 2012 at 10:16 pm

  2. I can see you sending that armed soldier across the road in my minds eye, shoo- ing him with your hands as his AKA 47 bounces up and down on his back as he trots away from the scary Memsahib. Glorious stuff. Gutted I can’t see it person soon but these updates are wonderful. x


    February 8, 2012 at 6:57 am

    • @Charlie -ha ha yes poor chap, but nothing to the telling off that our taxi driver got yesterday…you would have been proud!


      February 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm

  3. I had no idea that Bhutan was so accessible and comfortable for travellers. I want to go, right now. I especially want a ride on the Machismo motorbike, over the mountain passes and up to those incredible temples. Amazing. It seems like you are getting close to the action as always. Thanks for sharing. Hxxxx


    February 21, 2012 at 2:48 am

    • It’s only accessible if you book with a Bhutan Govt licensed tour company, are accompanied by their guide at all times, and pay a minimum of $200 pppn. They are very consciously keeping the riff raff (ie us at 18 years old spending tuppence hap’ney a day and making the place look untidy) out. I suspect they may be on to something though.


      February 21, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      • As someone who has been tlnveriag to Bhutan for more than 20 years, I too have concerns about the move to democracy facing Bhutan. If there was ever a benevolent monarchy I think Bhutan would be a good candidate. The average Bhutanese has benefitted greatly for the past 32 years from the foward thinking King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who recently abdicated in favor of his son. Carefully balancing the need for westernization and development with the equally important need to preserve the striking traditional culture of Bhutan, King Wangchuck has done a remarkable job overall. Of course, no political system is perfect and the monarchy in Bhutan has its detractors, but from my perspective, it has allowed the country to slowly open it’s doors to the outside world while balancing the needs of the average Bhutanese. With the coming of democracy, I think there will be an emormous opportunity for a wide range of problems from increased cronyism and corruption to political party strife and policymaking based on greed and ego rather than for the needs of the common people. If you want to see what can go wrong with democracy, take a look at the U.S.A. at present .when faced with our tyrannical King George , I’d take Bhutan’s style of monarchy any day.


        April 14, 2012 at 5:52 pm

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