Into the Land of Thunder Dragon : Bhutan Travelogue - Phuentsholing

It was in October last year when we had initially planned our Bhutan trip. But then it got cancelled and later I comprehended the significance of the proverbial reason that is just waiting to be found behind every little incident in our life. Then the same topic resurfaced again in January (with someone else) but I later cancelled it rather brutally as I wasn’t happy with the whole situation. Again, it happened for a reason. Then finally I called up S and told him that this time we were going to make this trip happen no matter what and booked the tickets one week prior to the trip and packed our bags the night before the flight. And guess what. We were off to Bhutan. The trip did not go as smoothly as our previous trips. There were numerous glitches, some of them being totally out of our hands. For example, we couldn’t acquire the permit from the Bhutan Consulate Office in Calcutta as the particular staff who issued the permits was on leave. We were quite surprised and wondered how come an entire office depended on the presence of one person only. We couldn’t fully grasp the implication of the situation at that moment but later realised it after getting to know the country and their customs better.

We started our journey on Saturday and since the immigration office remained closed on the weekends we were forced to spend two nights in Phuentsholing only. Phuentsholing is the border town of Bhutan with India where one can enter without having to furnish visa or permit. But in order to proceed further one must get the permit.

Technically speaking, there is really nothing to see in Phuentsholing. But ‘seeing’ is a phenomenon that often depends solely on whether one has got the eyes for it. Phuentsholing has plenty little gems scattered all over it only if you have the knack to find them. From the Buddhist temple in the park to the taxi stand from where one can see the road has found its way up towards the mountains, Phuentsholing is a very beautiful little town. On the other side of the border is, however, hell. Jaigaon is one of the filthiest, congested and most awful places I have ever seen in my life. The stark contrast between two towns divided by a mere wall astonished me. This is probably symbolic and holds true for the two nations as a whole. One is the embodiment of tranquillity and peace; while the other has got nothing but a lot of chaos and confusion within her that couldn’t be resolved even after 69 years of much sought after independence.

The temperature of Phuentsholing seemed to be a little weird during our short visit. During the daytime it was quite hot and the scorching sun felt pretty harsh against our skin. However the air would start to cool down quickly after the sunset and I actually had to wrap around a light jacket to dinner. On our first night we made the mistake of having dinner at a fancy restaurant. We ordered rice, chicken and Kewa Ema Datsy, the go to food of Bhutan, made of Chilly, potato and Cheese. Food was so so. However the serene ambience was ruined by an ugly Bengali group sitting next to us, conversing very loudly.

Breakfast wasn't so bad though
Can you spot the double standard and hypocrisy here?

What we liked most about Phuentsholing was the little restaurants cum bars in every nooks and corners of the town. In order to redeem our sin of wasting money at the fancy restaurant last night we decided to try these comparatively cheaper and dingier places that looked more like our Indian version of country liquor dens. They are not like our typical restaurants where the waiter would come to ask you whether you would like to have mineral water or normal water. These restaurants have more of a homely feel where you can sit in a plastic chair just outside the kitchen and the lady of the house would serve you freshly cooked food along with 11000 Druk Beer; all of them being 100% genuinely Bhutanese. And these dens are a great place to meet and make friends with the locals. By the way, in Bhutan, the Druk Beer 11000 comes in old Kingfisher beer bottles. Everywhere.

Lunch a la Bhutan

Bhutanese people drink alcohol like the British drink tea. Drinking is a socially accepted normal phenomenon there. Needless to say, we followed their suit. We had alcohol with lunch, with evening snack, with dinner. We drank in between meals or even before going to bed. When in Rome etc. And honestly, when you get wine bottle at 100 bucks it is a sin to disregard the welcome gesture every single liquor shop would make at your direction from the very moment you entered the country of the Druk Gyalpo His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

On Sunday we had nothing to do besides roaming aimlessly and shopping. Rice is the staple food of Bhutan and we saw rice cookers of various sizes were being sold in almost every shop. Also a kind of plastic basket is apparently very popular among the women and children there. For the rest of the week we saw those baskets everywhere. We went to the taxi stand to enquire about the taxi rates to Thimphu for the next day. On our way back we stopped for a while and sat at the bench near the giant Mani wheel at the crossroad. A monk was having a sound sleep at the next bench. Flies were buzzing all over his body. A little dog was peeking at us from the balcony overhead while its master was busy hanging a washed bed sheet. I told S that I was having the same feeling while watching trailer of a much waited movie. Phuentsholing was indeed beautiful, but it was the beginning only.

If I were superman... Sans the red underwear of course

Time flies very quickly when you are having fun and very soon we spotted the sun over our head. When the heat became unbearable we decided to visit one of those little restaurants to have a little afternoon sip. S took beer as usual and I ordered gin and tonic for myself. There we met a young guy named Ugyen who was having lunch at the next table. S and I were discussing our possible itinerary and very soon Ugyen joined the conversation. He happened to be one of those tour guides that foreigners (other than Indians and Bangladeshis) must hire during their trip to Bhutan. During our conversation we saw one monk entered our little shop, gulped down one large peg of neat whisky, paid the shopkeeper and left. And people wonder why I want to convert into Tibetan Buddhism so much.

That time we had no idea what was waiting for us the next morning.

If you could spot the wildfire in 5 seconds.. well, you would get no prize

To be continued