01-Jun-2006

Bhutan - Day 3 - Thimphu - Punakha


The plan was to go to Punakha and Bhumthang located in Central Bhutan from here. Special entry permits are needed for both these places and you need to go to the office of Immigration on Norzin Lam for this. It is located in a small building close to the National Art Museum. This leg could only be done once permits for Paro and Thimpu have been obtained and since both are granted on arrival, the earliest you can get the permits for Punakha and Bhumthang are the first working day after arrival. S and W had got theirs done on Friday. Having arrived on a Saturday morning, P and self now stood in a queue for our permits. The gentle lady looking after the desk informed us we could get ours at 4 p.m. After some heavy duty groveling she told she will get it done by 1 p.m. This still meant that we would not have the early start we wanted and would have to skip river rafting near Punakha in the afternoon. At any rate, river rafting in Bhutan is more expensive and less interesting than in Rishikesh, so it was no big loss.

We killed time by wandering about the National Art Museum where the curator gave us insights into the Bhutanese history and culture. Bhutanese men and women can get married any number of times as long as they can afford it. A case in point – the king has four wives. Most surprising was the information that Bhutanese too have a caste system and typically people don’t marry between castes. Also Bhutanese getting married to other nationals lose citizenship and consequently other benefits. This of course was a bit of a dampener on any plans we may have made to marry a local and settle down in Bhutan after looking at the awesome scenery and friendly people.

We continued to wander around Norzin Lam buying a few stuff. W and S split with us and later we learnt that they had an instructive discussion with the ALM head of the Royal Bank of Bhutan. State Bank of India holds a 20 % stake in this bank and the country has a deficit with India. The sheer amount of dependence on India by Bhutan was becoming more obvious by the minute – the Indian army defends Bhutan on its Northern border with China, most of its trade is with India, Food Corporation of India supplies food grains, the list goes on. Little wonder that the people were quite nice to Indians.

P and self managed to grab a quick lunch at the Plum’s café and caught a taxi back to the Immigration office to make it on time. The passes were ready and without further ado all of us got into the jeep for the drive to Punakha.

As you enter the mail road to Punakha, there is a small checkpost where you need to submit your permits. By this time, everyone was ready to answer nature’s call again. The cold weather makes for frequent stops. P and self discovered what people in villages actually use. A small wooden hut jutting out over a stream/river/any water body with a hole on the floor. Simple and effective.

After an hour’s drive, we reached one of the prettiest places in Bhutan, the Do Chu La Pass. At roughly 3150 mts this is the highest point on the road to Punakha and one of the most picturesque. A small mound of Chortens has been built at this point in a manner that enhances the beauty of the place rather than mar it. By some stroke of luck our jeep developed a puncture at this point, or else we would have never walked from the Chortens to the Do Chu La café.
There is one awesome part in the movie, American Beauty that goes “there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain”. All right, possibly I am being a bit dramatic. There is something though about seeing the Himalayas in all its splendour that really makes you want to grab as much as you can in a minute. The walk was something like that till all of us just settled into our own paces and let the green gorges, the distant snow peaks, the sunlight flickering on and off just flow through us.

Do Chu La Café brought us back to reality. S and W had been agonizing over the price of a table runner ever since they passed up a good deal in Thimpu and had started a routine of checking the prices of table runners and then moaning over how they missed a good bargain. Cafés at such pristine points usually have the most expensive souvenirs and the price of the table runner scared us thoroughly. We checked the prices of the food before ordering anything.
We were on our way again. It was evening by the time we pulled into a garage, which fixed the puncture for us. By twilight we were in the Zangto Pelri Hotel in Punakha. It was too late to go out and see the dzongs, so we decided to chill out and have another round of tea. The room had no phones and the only way to avail of the room service was to walk down and order tea. W made some attempts at attracting the attention of a hotel assistant by gesturing from the balcony of the room. Possibly he came out looking too coy but the embarrassed lady did not turn up at all. All of us went down for dinner and used the clever trick of ordering food a la carte.

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