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Trip Report Bhutan in 8 days

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A friend and I (both in our 60's, active, well-traveled) spent 4 days in Kolkata, 8 days in Bhutan, and 12 days in Sri Lanka. We are not trekkers, enjoy good food and wine, want to see the major sights, experience the culture, and not kill ourselves seeing everything. I'll cover Kolkata and Bhutan in this report and add another trip report for Sri Lanka.

KOLKATA
We spent 4 nights at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata to get over jet lag from the US. We opted to arrange prior for the hotel transport from the airport (expensive at $50) as we knew we would be too tired to try to deal with it when we arrived at 7:00pm from the US.

It was 42C/105F during the day and so humid that our activities were limited. I've never sweated so much in my life!

We had arranged for two walking tours prior to our trip with Manjit, calcuttaphototours.com - he picked us up at our hotel. The first morning tour was the European Calcutta which was interesting. The second morning was the Cultural Kaleidoscope tour which was great as we walked thru various neighborhoods with a lot of daily life activity - highly recommend + great photos. We also visited the Victoria Memorial via taxi - recommend. Other than that, the heat killed any other activities except hanging out at the pool.

The Grand Hotel is very nice, good food, nice pool, rooms a bit dated, good wifi, great service, good security - inexpensive for a 5 star hotel. We ate at the hotel. We opted for a taxi back to the airport for our morning flight to Bhutan - 1500 rps, half cost of hotel transport.

BHUTAN
It is a one hour flight from Kolkata to Paro, Bhutan on DrukAir which left Kolkata ½ hour early. We arrived at the airport 3 hours early – probably could have done it in two, but there are a lot of security lines + you have to show ID and ticket just to get into the terminal.

We arranged the Bhutan portion of our trip with Windhorse Tours, windhorsetours.com – highly recommend. Windhorse has an office in the US, but we dealt with Kinga at their office in Thimphu, Bhutan because he was a friend of a friend. We did opt to pay thru the US office as they accepted credit cards whereas the office in Bhutan did not - there was a 5% fee but our credit cards included travel insurance so it was worth it for us to do it this way. Windhorse was easy to deal with: Kinga responded within 24 hours on every e-mail, our guide and driver were excellent (Sonam and Thukten), the car was comfortable (Hyundai Santa Fe SUV), they were accommodating of our hotel recommendations and meal changes during the trip. We did a lot of research on our own regarding hotels and food. The tour was all inclusive and cost $2,200pp including $50 visa fee and 5% cc fee, but excluding airfares (we booked all of our flights separately) , drinks , and guide tips.

Our itinerary: 1 night in Thimphu, 1 night in Punakha, 3 nights in Jakar, 2 nights in Thimphu, 1 night in Paro. If I had to cut a day, I would skip the first night in Thimphu and drive directly to Punakha for the first night as we didn’t do much that first day in Thimphu and we had only come a short way from Kolkata. I would also spend one night in Trongsa and 2 nights in Jakar – I’ll explain later.

My impressions of Bhutan: monotonous buffets, torturous under-construction windy main road, mountainous, safe, gho and kiera national dress, wild dogs sleep all day & bark at night, Buddhist living, quiet people, Paro airport mountainous landing, zdongs, singular conforming architecture, spectacular village scenery, Punakha phalluses, Myanmar earthquake in Punakha pizzeria, national everything, beloved king and queen first thru sixth king just born, night hunting, fnb leech, naming of babies by spiritual leader including last name not same as parents, takin, WillKat, Tiger's Nest hike, 160ft Buddha in Thimphu, Drukair flight schedule changes, zinc sheet or shake wood roofs with rocks to hold down, gross national happiness, no traffic signals- traffic police, chief abbott and 8,000 monks, huge hotel rooms with minimal amenities, dry Tuesdays except hotels, Hyundais, Indian karaoke, Himalayas Bumthang to Paro flight, archery competition, dependent on India for trade, dislike and distrust of China, new constitutional democracy but King has final say, good relations and ancestry with Nepal and Tibet.

HOTELS
Thimphu: Hotel Norbuling
Punakha: Hotel Lobesa, room 110
Jakar: Mountain Lodge
Paro: Tashi Namgay Resort

We had a two bed requirement that was met at all the hotels. They were all fine, large rooms, good bathrooms, quiet, average 3-4* - we researched on Trip Advisor. The staff at Hotel Norbuling was wonderful. Our room at Hotel Lobesa had a huge deck with a great view of the valley. Mountain Lodge was my least favorite – newer, large rooms were not very functional, cold dining area, wifi in lobby. Tashi Namgay was 10 minutes from the airport so very convenient for our last night before early morning flight. All beds and foam pillows were hard and somewhat uncomfortable, but we managed. Wifi was available at all hotels, some better than others.

FOOD
Based on research we knew the Bhutan buffets would be lousy so we opted out whenever we could. We told our guide that we didn’t want the usual buffets and he was able to accommodate us most of the time. We came prepared with the names of restaurants in Thimphu and Punakha. I am not a foodie and a very picky eater. The hotel breakfasts were usually good as you could order off a menu. Hotel Lobesa had a breakfast buffet which was average.

Thimphu – we ate at The Zone, Seasons, and Cloud 9 Gourmet Burger (excellent). All had Italian or western food choices which were good.

Punakha: We had lunch at the Divine Cafeteria, Bhutanese food which was good and not a cafeteria. Dinner at 10Zin Pizzeria was a short walk from Hotel Lobesa and very good pizza.

Jakar: The hotel dinner buffet was lousy with the standard lukewarm rice, potatoes, noodles, chicken, and veggies. We ate one night at a small restaurant across the street and close to the hotel that was very good – on the second floor owned by family, but sorry I didn’t get the name of it. We ate lunch at a pizzeria on the main street in Jakar that was decent.

SIGHTS
We are not hikers, but there was one morning walk outside of Jakar that was wonderful with the farms, dzongs, and bridge of prayer flags. We planned our trip around the Domkhar festival – I’d recommend seeing one for a few hours – very colorful. There are larger ones in Thimphu and Paro, but we wanted a small one and weren’t disappointed.

I hiked all the way up and down Taktstang – took 5 hours total with minimal rest stop at the half way restaurant. It was very difficult, we took our time, and you need a walking stick coming down as it is so steep. They have put up railings and stairs from the top view point to the monastery so it is very safe now compared to the past. It was worth the hike as the views are spectacular. I opted to go all the way to the monastery although it is another hike down and up. I found it interesting inside, but no photos allowed. My friend rode a horse to the halfway area and waited there – this is a good way to go and the horses only go to this point. Our guide told us they are making another path just for the horses – don’t know when that will be done.

Other highlights for me: Buddha Dordenma in Thimphu, Thimphu Dzong, Punakha Dzong, Punakha phalluses, Domkhar festival, archery competition, Bumthang countryside walk with stop at a temple with an amazing two story Buddhist wood carving donated by one of the queens. Most of the other sights are worthwhile and probably on every itinerary so I won’t go into more detail here. We did tell our guide at the beginning of the trip that we did not want to be Dzonged out and to take us to only the important ones.

GENERAL
The weather was very good – we were there April 12 – 20, 2016. It was hazy in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha at the beginning of our trip, but very clear once in Bumthang. It was cold and rainy the day of the Domkhar festival – that was the only bad day we had. Our day climbing Taktstang was very good and clear weather.

You’ve probably read about the horrible roads so we were thankful for our excellent driver. The road from Thimphu to Punakha, while under construction in some parts, was not that bad. We could not enjoy the views of Dochula Pass as it was too cloudy/hazy. However, the road from Punakha to Jakar was horrible. We averaged about 15 mph and there was not a straight portion – all very windy and mostly dirt/rocks. This was a very long 10 hour drive. We stopped at the Trongsa Dzong and if I had it to do over again, I’d stop for the night in Trongsa and finish the last 3 hours to Jakar the following day. I’m glad we decided to fly back to Paro on Drukair– the flight back had spectacular views of the Himalayas and was a highlight of the trip – sit on the right hand side of the plane (as you face the cockpit). We kept our fingers crossed that the flight would take off as we could not stomach the road trip back. Luckily the weather was perfect.

Note that the road is supposed to be done in 2018. Although it will significantly improve travelling to the outer provinces, it will also dramatically change the country. More people will travel further afield and there will be more accidents with the faster speeds. Of course the internet is changing Bhutan also – young people prefer video games vs. archery.

Although there are a lot of dogs sleeping during the day all over, there was minimal barking at night and did not disturb my sleep at all.

Drukair changed our return flight schedule from Paro to Kolkata two days prior to departure. This was caused by bad weather somewhere that impacted flights for days. We originally only had a two hour layover in Kolkata on our way to Colombo, Sri Lanka so this change would cut our layover to one hour. We knew we would have to go through customs and immigration in Kolkata even tho we were in transit. Our guide tried to take us to the Drukair office in Paro to complain, but they were closed. We then went to the airport in Paro and spoke to personnel there. To make a long story short, Drukair went above and beyond: gave us front row seats so we were first off the plane, met us at Kolkata airport and personally escorted us through immigration, customs, security, picked up our luggage and checked us in with Sir Lanka Air – it was a memorable experience and we made our connection with time to spare!

We enjoy our glass of wine each night after touring. From prior experience we knew wine in Inida is very expensive. Dry Tuesdays in Bhutan and numerous holidays in Sri Lanka where you can’t buy wine made us decide to bring some with us. We each brought 3 liters of boxed wine with us from the states and managed to drink it during the 4 week trip. We did not declare or pay duty on the wine in India, Bhutan, or Sri Lanka. There was no customs inspection when landing in any of these countries.

My friend smokes which can be a problem in Bhutan. She purchased a few packs in Kolkata and paid 100% duty when she landed in Bhutan so she would have a receipt if questioned by the police. This was never an issue although she had to smoke outdoors and be somewhat discrete. I was surprised at how many natives do smoke – they buy their cigarettes at some sort of black market.

Electrical type D adaptors worked in Bhutan, although most hotels have outlets with built in adaptors or they are available from the hotel.

We exchanged $200 for Bhutan NG in a t-shirt shop that our guide told us gets the best exchange rate. Research showed ATM’s were not prevalent so we didn’t even try. As our trip was all inclusive, this proved to be more than enough for drinks, souvenirs (we are not big shoppers) and tips. Indian rupees are accepted everywhere.

We tipped our guide approx. $10/day pp and $9/day pp for the driver.

The country limits the number of tourists to 100,000/year, but the most they have seen is 70,000. People we met in other countries said they wanted to go to Bhutan but could not get flights. We had no trouble changing our Bhutan Air to DrukAir a month prior to traveling, so I don’t think flights are an issue if you plan in advance.

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