Bhutan Throwback #1 : The Thimpu Stopover

In my opinion, the festive season of December-January is the best time for vacations. The weather is usually bright and sunny. The Kingdom of Bhutan, being a hilly country records an average temperature of 7 to 9 C (-9 to -7 F) during this time of the year. Which is almost perfect for regular day tours and outdoor activities. (sightseeing, trekking, Et al.)

In my last post, I talked about my recent trips to Varanasi. Ganapati Guest House, where I stayed during my first Varanasi visit found a strong and significant mention in the article. The accommodation you choose for your vacation/trip plays a major role in making it a memorable one. This is a personal opinion though.

Thimpu Stopover

Our Bhutan trip was divided into two major stopovers – Thimpu (The national capital) and Paro. The Kingdom of Bhutan, a pristine country in the Eastern Himalayas shares a long border with Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal.

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DSCN0791 The internet offers you a plethora of Information on why Bhutan tops the global charts in “Happiness Index”. I personally felt that the lush greenery, picturesque mountains, pleasant climate, wonderful easy-going people are the key attributes that constitute this happy country. These people are still oblivious to a sense of fierce competition and the pressing need to out-perform each other every moment. No one is in a hurry. The cultural integrity and social upbringing have taught them to be fairly content and simplistic towards life. The people, in general, are considerate, humble and polite.

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The Land of Monasteries, Dzongs, Chortens and other Royal Palaces

Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan is amazingly serene with well-kept sparkling clean roads, a very moderate traffic, almost no honking and sparse population. Tourism is the key revenue generator for Bhutan. The main roads across the capital are flanked by large hotels, shopping centers some of them offering world-class stay. Most buildings here resemble the typical Bhutanese architecture of monasteries, dzongs, gateways, chortens and other royal palaces. Prayer flags, prayer wheel, and Mani walls are essential elements highlighting the urban architectural landscape of Bhutan.

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Hotel Norbuling, Thimpu

After months of research, I had zeroed down on a relatively new hotel named “Hotel Norbuling” on Changlam Street very near to the Clock Tower Square. This area, in particular, is surrounded by many shops and restaurants. While most tourists depend on travel agents and tour planners, we had planned the itineraries for our trip all by ourselves. This included dates, hotels, stopovers, transportation, and budgets. Norbuling had some great reviews online. Most of the visitors loved its location and overall hospitality. Hotel Norbuling, for example, overlooked the majestic National Olympic Stadium. We were willing to pay a near-premium room tariff. So we definitely expected the hotel to be of a certain standard.

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Hotel Norbuling – Surpassing Our Expectation

We had stepped into the reception area at 9:00 PM, after a long ten hours road trip (Siliguri – Phuentsholing – Thimphu). Well, the first five minutes and the hotel surpassed our expectation with absolute ease. The warm welcome reception, personalized attention, a certain homely vibe and a seamless check-in process. The reception area and adjoining lobby were one of the coziest I had ever experienced. A live band performing soft country music, those quaint scented candles all around, the overall décor portraying a rich Bhutanese art, culture and mystical beliefs. The lobby also had two laptops for the guests to use. I particularly liked the idea.

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A Free Upgrade to Business Class Deluxe Rooms

The hotel owner needs a special mention here. Elegant, classy and generous. She offered us a free upgrade to one of the business class deluxe rooms (with the most mesmerizing view) at the hotel. “Since this is your first visit to my country, allow me to help you with a free upgrade. Hope you have the most memorable stay.” Her particular emphasis on “my country” is worth a note. Even the most ordinary Bhutanese people love their country and nourish a strong sense of belongingness. The room was particularly large with floor-to-ceiling windows, a king-sized bed, a sitting area, closet, electronic safe, etc.

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Indian Credit/ Debit Cards wouldn’t work in Bhutan?

Food is generally expensive in Bhutan, especially if you look for Indian variants (Rice, Roti, etc.). A simple breakfast comprising of bread and scrambled eggs for two can cost up to INR 800 – INR 1000 at any Hotel/ Restaurant.  The Bhutanese brand of liquor (Whiskey, Rum, and Vodka) are dirt cheap, while imported brands are abnormally expensive. You are free to booze in open public places as long as you are not going hysteric and creating an utter nuisance.

I was worried that my Indian Credit/ Debit Cards wouldn’t work in Bhutan. Why? Flip your card and watch carefully. Almost all of them have an explicit mention – “Not valid for payment in Foreign Exchange in Nepal and Bhutan.” Food is expensive in Bhutan. And we had literally squandering our stock-cash on eating anything and everything. So it was very important that our Credit/ Debit Cards worked at the POS.

Luckily it worked. And we continued quenching our voracious appetite.

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The Smoke-Free Kingdom

Smoking in public places is an offense, however. Yes, you can smoke within the confinements of your hotel room. And purchasing cigarettes from local shops could be a sheer challenge. You need to sneak through dingy backdoors and pay double the price. Feels like illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S. Borders. But that okay. The residents want the city to be free of smoke and littered cigarette buds.

The Cabbie for Our Thimpu Trip

Our cabbie for the entire Thimpu stay was a polite gentleman in his mid-forties. The type and quality of spots you cover during the day outings largely depends on how enthusiastic and knowledgeable your cabbie is. This guy took us to some really wonderful places, that usually doesn’t feature in the regular sight-seeing itineraries (National Assembly and SAARC building, Tasichhoe Dzong, etc. The countryside presents a rich canvas of Buddhist temples, lush greenery, crystal clear rivers and tremendous biodiversity.

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I found Thimpu (and Paro) very safe for Tourists.

We went out for long walks at 11 P.M., which is really late by the Bhutanese standards.

Similar to most hill stations, even Thimpu city literally shuts down by 9 P.M. Back in India, I usually return home from the office at 11 P.M. And our metropolitan cities never sleep.

So 11 P.M. for us was still late-evening and we were out on the streets, exploring the city during its nighttime. We crossed groups of boys sitting by a fire, drinking, and singing. We never experienced any unusual stares. For most of them, we didn’t exist at the moment. While a few of them bowed and greeted us “Good Night Sir.” Courteous and polite people all around.

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Back to Our Hotel

The Hotel, I feel is an integral part of your vacation. Though I personally know travelers who compromise heavily on accommodation. A good hotel plays a crucial role in rejuvenating your batteries and preparing yourself for another long day ahead. A comfortable bed, a clean well-appointed washroom, proper closets and electronic safes for enhanced security and good food are essential elements of a good memorable vacation. Most of my blogs, therefore, has a distinct (and substantial) mention of the Hotel/ Guesthouse where we stayed during the visit.

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