Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Seven Days Bhutan Trip - A Travelogue - Part II

Day 2 – 22 Nov 15 - Phuntsholing – Thimphu

     We reached Phuntsholing yesterday after the Permit office had closed. Having not been able to do anything on that issue, today was the day to get our permits and travel into Bhutan to Thimphu, the capital city. Phuntsholing is also in Bhutan but there is no permit required to enter this city. Indian citizens have to take permit and if they are travelling in their own cars then I understand permit for car also needs to be taken.

     Our travel management firm told us that their representative would reach us by 0900 (Bhutan Time, henceforth, in my narrative all timings would mean Bhutan time 30 min ahead of India time. After all we have reached a foreign country). They also asked us to be ready and we were quick to get up, get ready, have breakfast and we were ready at dot 0900. Then it was a wait for TTT person to arrive. Well he did finally arrive at 1015 hrs. Form filling, mostly done by him, for five of us took about 10 minutes and off we were to Permit office. The office seemed very effective and we got the permits in flat 15 min.

    He then asked us to return to hotel and get ready for the move. The vehicle came by about 1050 and post proper loading we started for Thimphu by 1100 hrs. This day being day of journey, only spectacular part of the journey was the changing landscape as we climbed up from Phuntsholing (1240 ft) to Thimphu (7600 ft). From usual semitropical greenery at Phuntsholing where even mangoes grow to conifers around Thimphu was the main thing to watch.

      The road from Phuntsholing to Thimphu is maintained by Project “Dhantak” of Border Road Orginasation (BRO) of Indian Ministry of Defence. Incidentally, Dhantak is the name of the Project under which this road is maintained by BRO. Road maintenance in these areas is a tedious task and we could see BRO teams working at various places.

Road to Thimphu - I

A Bridge with Prayer Flags
      The road is about three lanes (1.5 lanes per side) for most of the distance. It is free of potholes, has good surface and also good signage throughout the journey. The exception is when it is traversing steep hill sides to gain height where the road is as narrow as in any other hilly area.

Nice Quality of BRO Maintained Road

     We took total 2 stops in a total 5 hrs travel time. First stop was at hotel Shelgoen at Wangkha, very closed to a major Hydro electric power project in  the valley below. Next stop was very close to Thimphu at a place called Whatsa (easy to remember, very close to Whatsapp). 

Hotel Shelgoen signboard

Soon we were at a decorative gate announcing our arrival at the outskirts of Thimphu, capital city of Bhutan since 1955 when the capital shifted here.

Welcome gate of Thimphu
Glimpse of Thimphu - Outskirts

     Thimphu impressed us. The roads were wide. Traffic was not heavy (we were used to traffic in Indian cities). It was disciplined and people showed patience and courtesy to other drivers.  Hardly any Horn Honking was done, in fact we heard very little of the beast called horn, which in India one feels that the switch for horn is fused and horn keeps blaring.  Both sides of the road had five to six story houses constructed in Bhutanese style or at least maintaining a Bhutanese style façade. Most buildings had Photograph of present king (and in some cases the queen also) or last king or both prominently displayed on them.

       Soon we reached the Clock Tower area (city center)  where our hotel, Shantideva was located. Whne I tried to reach the reception, I was shocked that I had to climb two flights of stairs but then realized that only one flight of stairs need to be climbed if one comes from other side (Hotel was between two main roads). Hotel does have a lift but from their reception to upper floors of the hotel. Hotel 89 which is close by has a lift from ground floor (as its reception is situated on the ground floor unlike Shantideva). Once inside, we found the hotel to be neat and clean. The rooms were comfortable and the staff good.

       After check in, we decided to move out to the market. Let me remind the readers, Bhutan is another country having its own culture and way of life. There  is no point comparing things to things back home. Inadvertently, we all do this mistake at least on day one in the heart of Bhutan at places like Thimphu or Paro. Because of this habit of going by own experiences, we were shocked to see at 1900 many shops were on the verge of closing and most of them closed at 1930 hrs. 

Traffic Island in Clock Tower Area
       We had to zerox our permit issues at Phuntsholing (for applying next day for another permit to travel to Punakha) and at 1930 we could barely find only one shop in the clock tower area. Any way resigned to the fact that we are in a place having different way of life we returned to Hotel (whose restaurant closes at 2030 hrs). We finished our dinner by 2100 hrs.

      The best was yet to come. We all thought let us have ice cream. When we asked the reception staff about ice cream shop, they indicated that it is right opposite the hotel but it may be closing now. We rushed only to find out that it had closed a long time ago around 2000 hrs. That was eye opener. We never thereafter went by our standards and adopted local standards from the next day. That finished our day II in Bhutan.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seven Day Bhutan Trip - A Travelogue

Seven Days Trip to Bhutan – A Report

Day I – 21 Nov 15 – Mumbai – Kolkata – Bagdogra – Phuntsholing

At Mumbai Airport

This day was essentially a day of non stop travel. We left home in Mumbai about 0400 and reached airport terminal T2, the most beautiful airport terminal in India, in time to board 0610 AI flight to Kolkata. There was a big chaos on the airport at Ai check in counters. We had done web check in and had boarding passes but we had to sill give baggage at Baggage drop off point.
First airline staffer that we asked told us to join normal queue. One other person gave us a vague answer but finally one other staff of AI guided us correctly. After all the formalities we boarded the flight and reached Kolkata by 0920.

At  Kolkata Airport

New terminal at Kolkata was modern (reminds me that their old terminal was a contrast) building with lots of Aero bridges and counters for check in. As for infrastructure it is at par with any other airport. When we came to departure area for our spice jet flight which was post 1300 hrs we were greeted by a triangular display of masks of Bengal.This colourful display was attraction to all the people reaching Departure (at least from arrival hall where this display was right on the route).

Masks of Bengal - Photo I

Mask of Bengal - Photo II

Masks of Bengal - Photo III

We are a Company - In Company of Masks
Baul Singers - Cut Out
Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport now boasts of modern infrastructure, wide area, large no of baggage Belts and check in bays. Few things stuck me. Firstly, there are no (at least I did not see) rest rooms between aero-bridge and baggage belt though one has to cover great distance to reach baggage belt.

Secondly while the building was modern, the Kolkata work culture of being laid back remained intact among airport staff. Luggage from AI flight took long time to come the belt. The airport still does not have inline x ray facility (understand it is still Work in Progresses). The staff speed is relaxed one unlike other airport.
New Terminal - Baggage Belt Area

New Terminal - Check In Area
Since we had nothing much to do, we waited for two of our relatives to join (they came to Kolkata by train). Once they came it was just freshening up, eating something and thereafter a wait for our outbound flight.

We boarded the fight on time. Our flight took off on time but had to circle around Bagdogra airport for some reason. Finally we got out of Airport by 1500. Got into waiting Innova and left for Phuntsholing. The move was quick. With a small break for tea, we made it to Phuntsholing in just 4 hrs and 30 min at 1930.

On the Road to Phuntsholing

The road from Bagdogra till crossing Siliguri town was busy and took maximum time. Few kilometers from Siliguri road widening work was progressing for about 30 km. That stretch was full of dust. During this journey  the road generally has the tea gardens through out the journey.  Also beyond about 50 km from Bagdogra it has forests on both sides with wild elephants who roam around the country freely and are dangerous.

In our trip too, after it became dark (at 1700 hrs) we saw rear and tail of an elephant, the last one from the herd which had just crossed the road and our driver stopped. Soon we heard trumpeting sound of angry elephant. Our driver said it they return or some more elephants cross; it may become very dangerous to be caught on the road. He just turned back and drove half a km to create space. After a few minutes wait and probing for sounds of elephant, when he felt safe, he resumed the journey. It was first encounter with the elephants in the wild and it looked scary.

Reaching Phuntsholing

We reached Phuntsholing at 1930 IST. The permit office for Bhutan permit (which recognizes only two documents for identification proof of  Indian citizens ie either Passport or Voter Id Card) closes at 1930 hrs (IST). Our permits thus would have to be made tomorrow.
First Glimpse of Phuntsholing
We checked in into Hotel Park.
room of Park Hotel

 It is a small but good hotel not far from Bhutan gate and the Buddhist Temple in the market. The room was comfortable. Here we got first taste of hassle free and comfortable life style of Bhutan. All the staff working in Phuntsholing  hotels mostly stays at Jaigaon, the Indian side town which is 500 odd meters from this hotel (understand cost of living at jaigaon is cheaper than Phuntsholing). The hotel staff has to go to Jaigaon in stipulated time hence the restaurant closes at 2130 IST (2200 Bhutan Time).
Dinning Hall - Park Hotel
We placed dinner order and went out for a stroll towards Bhutan gate. The roads were well laid out and very clean.  Very few people were on the road.  We did cross to Jaigaon and the contrast was instantly known. Jaigaon was full of people and usual Indian small town signs were all there, dirt, litter, dust, crowd etc.
Bhutan Gate from Phuntsholing Side

Artwork on Bhutan Gate
King of Bhutan's Photo on Bhutan Gate

Soon we returned to hotel had our dinner including a Bhutanese dry chicken dish called “Bja Sha Paa” and Ema Datsey (Chilies and Cheese) . Post dinner we  slept after about 45 minutes (a precaution against stomach upset particularly in hills though Phuntsholing is just 300 m above MSL) post dinner. After all, our day had started at 0400 at Mumbai and we had covered miles through two flights and one road journey. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Finished A Long Trip - Travelogue Will Follow

We recently embarked up on a long trip from 21st Nov till 4 Dec 15. The trip took us to Bhutan for 7 days, Darjeeling for 3 day and Konark and Puri for a day each.

It was sheer coincidence that we could be part of International Sand Art festival at Chandrabhaga Beach @ Konark and also Konark Dance Festival across The Konark temple premise.

The trip has been long and thus the travelogue is also expected to be in many parts as also it  is going to take time. Will post it in parts ASAP. Kindly be stand by for it.