“Beautiful valleys and mountains,
Streams flowing across the forests
With birds chirping here and there
Sun playing hide and seek amongst the clouds
Soothing to eyes and bringing in joy and peace“
Visiting Bhutan was a dream to me after hearing from a friend about it four years back. As soon as Geetanjali (IT Nature Club) announced the trip to Bhutan, I did not think much and went ahead and booked my tickets. Savita, Geeta, and Deepa were my companions with Geeta being the organizer of the trip. It was a complete ladies gang and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
Here I am making an attempt to capture my experience in Bhutan. Though this trip was meant for birding, I have tried to capture all aspects of life in Bhutan. Before getting into the details of our trip, I will give a brief of some interesting aspects I observed in Bhutan.
Bhutan, the very name brings in front of my eyes beautiful valleys, mountains, breathtaking views, streams , and beautiful farms with tiny little houses. I am trying to explain everything in a sentence but believe me, it is much more beautiful than I can explain in words. Every turning and every side had a beautiful view. Each place we visited had its own beauty and the photos I am posting here is an evidence of what I mean. I forgot to mention CLEAN. Yes, there is a reason for me to stress on that word. Every place starting from a tiny village house to a city like Thimpu it is clean. We visited some houses in the village and small restaurants and we were surprised to see the cleanliness there.
Bhutanese people are very sweet, honest, and hardworking people. They are very pretty as well, especially women and babies. It was interesting to hear about their culture, how marriages happen there and the changes that are creeping in due to democracy in the recent years. I saw a huge concern with locals about how youngsters are getting spoiled in the name of freedom due to democracy. Just hope that their culture and identity is retained for long.
The next interesting thing in Bhutan was the structures. When I say structures, I mean houses, shops, and government offices. As per the government policy, they are supposed to build houses, shops, and offices in a particular way that highlights their culture. They are all alike except for the size. You can see beautiful paintings in some places. There is modernization hitting Bhutan as well especially in cities. Another interesting aspect of Bhutan is Dzongs, which is an architecture masterpiece. Dzongs are not just places of religious duty and interest. The administrative bodies of a district would be housed within the Dzongs, as would monks. And the Dzongs were also places of trade and an area where people would congregate to share in celebration with their fellow man, especially during the annual tshechu (mask dance festival).
Food in Bhutan reminds me of chilies and cheese . Bhutanese food is rich with cheese and chilies. The surprising fact was that I couldn’t find any sweet that was specific to Bhutan. Our guide Karma took some time to understand what sweet means. Their staple food is red rice. They love to eat rice with curries made out of chilies. They eat non-veg as well but as Buddhist they do not kill animals. They eat non-veg when someone else kills it. Coming back to cheese and chilies (2 C’s), I haven’t eaten so much spice in my life till now. Chili cheese is one of the curries and it used to taste awesome when had with red rice. One of the authentic dishes of Bhutan is Thupka. It is flat noodles in soup. Deepa used to always say “Bhutan is Chilly(ie) land”
Day 1: Kolkata to Paro
The journey from Kolkata to Paro is unforgettable. We saw the peak of Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga during flight. As the plane started to decent, the view became even more beautiful with all the valleys and rivers beneath it. It was just amazing and I think each one of us should experience this. Savitha and Geeta were waiting for us (Deepa and me) in the Paro airport and our trip began from the airport itself. The airport itself is unique as it is surrounded by mountains on all the sides.
From Paro airport, we headed towards Chele La Pass. This place is around 3,900 mts above the sea level and was very cold. We did birding on the way and saw some tits, thrushes, and warblers. Top of Chele La Pass was filled with hundreds of flags flying in the air signifying the culture and belief of Bhutanese. According to them these flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck, and merit and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings. You can read more about Bhutanese prayer flags here. The place in and around Chele La Pass was freezing. We could see streams frozen all over and also had our first sighting of Yak while coming down.
We reached Paro by 4 pm, took some rest and decided to go for night walk. Savitha and I started doing some night photography as well and it was fun.
Day 2: Paro to Punakha via Thimpu
Destination for next day was Punakha. On the way, we had to visit Thimpu, capital city of Bhutan, to get permit to visit other places in Bhutan as tourist. We all decided to get SIM in Paro from Bhutan Telecom Office before proceeding to Thimpu. To our surprise, they had 3G SIM available and also cutter to fit the SIM to my iPhone. I was thrilled and realized the kind of importance tourism has in Bhutan. I took a recharge voucher for Rs. 200 and it lasted me for the whole trip. We reached Thimpu by around 11:30 am and submitted our documents to get the permit. We had tough time getting permit to Zhemgang as tourists were not allowed there. With great difficult Geeta managed to get the permit. However, we had to wait in Thimpu till around 3 pm to get our permits. So, we decided to have lunch there and go around the city. After having lunch in a small restaurant, we started walking down the street in Thimpu. Got to see a good glimpse of the city and shops around there. By the time we got our permit it was 3:30 pm and we headed towards Punakha. To reach Punakha, we had to pass through Dochula pass that has 108 Chortens. The 108 chortens were built by Queen mother to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed fighting the Indian rebels in 2003. Since we reached Dochula pass around 6 pm, light was too bad for me to get even one good shot of the chortens L. We reached Punakha by dinner time. Had good dinner and called it a day.
Day 3: Punaka to Trongsa
Next day we got up early morning and decided to go for birding around the Punakha resort we were staying. At 5:30 am, it was still dark and light started showing up only by 6 am. Though, lighting wasn’t good for photography, we decided to go around looking for birds. We got to see Grey-hood Warbler and Yellow-browed Warblers. They were everywhere, jumping from one bush to other. We could see the movements, but it was very difficult to trace and shoot them. Finally, I managed to get one good shot of them after spending more than half an hour in front of the bushes. We also got to meet some school kids and locals on our way back to the resort.
After morning birding, we had sumptuous breakfast, freshened up and headed towards Punakha Dzong. On the way, we saw a river and decided to stop as the view of Dzong on the other side of the river was really good. As we got down to the river, we saw there were Ruddy Shelducks in small colonies and also White-capped Redstart was jumping around. Got a shot of both along with the beautiful Dzong.
We headed towards Punakha Dzong next. Till I entered the Dzong, I wasn’t aware of what a Dzong was. I was stupid not to do research on all this before going to Bhutan. I always had in mind that Dzong is similar to a monastery. When I entered the Dzong, I had a surprise looking at the gigantic structure of the Dzong and got to know that it not only has a monastery with monks but also acts as administrative unit for the district. The pictures below will give you more insight into the Dzong and around it.
After spending sufficient time in the Dzong, we headed towards Trongsa which was around 142+ kms and roughly 6 hours of journey. We did not stop much during this journey but did stop occasionally near streams and for our usual breaks. Below is what I captured during our journey to Trongsa.
Day 4: Trongsa to Zhemgang
As usual, our day started with early morning birding in Trongsa. Sun was not fully out and light wasn’t sufficient for any sort of photography. But the sighting was beautiful. The view of Trongsa Dzong with mist rising up was mystical. It was surprising to see such a gigantic structure in between the mountains and made me wonder how could have they constructed this Dzong.
As we moved ahead till the end of the road where there was a huge rock boulder and a small stream flowing beneath, we could hear lot of birds. The lighting was too bad, but we were lucky to see Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Laughing Thrush, Sibias, flower peckers, warblers and Green-tailed sunbird. Since lighting was too bad, I couldn’t get good photos. However, I was thrilled to see so many birds at the same time. Below are some of the photos I captured during our morning trail in Trongsa.
After having breakfast, we decided to start off to our next destination Zhemgang. Zhemgang was around 118 kms but the journey time was more due to the valleys. I think we almost took 5-6 hours to reach Zhemgang. As per Kezang (driver), the road leading to Zhemgang would be closed for two hours or so and we had to cross that area before they closed the roads. Though we decided not to stop much, we found few interesting streams and stopped by to check if there were any birds. Savitha and I started trying out long exposure shots of the streams. The valley from Trongsa to Zhemgang was breathtaking and there was no way we could resist stopping in those places. With all these stop overs, we reached Zhemgang around 8 pm in the night just in time for dinner.
Day 5: Zhemgang to Trongsa
We had good sleep in our tiny rooms in Zhemgang with heaters on. It was very cold and there was no way we could sleep without the heater. We got up at 6 and headed for birding as usual. I was stunned looking at the surroundings in which the Dhankar Village Lodge was located. It was serene and we couldn’t observe this in the previous night as we arrived very late. Sun was just rising up and created magic with sunlight falling on the mountains. I tried to capture those moments below but it is something to be seen and enjoyed. For birding, we had to pass through the village and got to see village houses and meet very interesting and friendly people in that village. Below is a set of photos that captures the village, people and surroundings of the lodge we were staying in.
Coming back to our birding in Zhemgang, we were asked to get down a steep valley to watch the birds. I had sprained my leg a month back and was wondering if I will be able to climb back that valley and was really worried. As we started climbing down, we witnessed one of the best moments of our life seeing so many birds. There were yellow napped woodpeckers flying all over and oh man! it was such a beauty to watch those colors in flight. We had a glimpse of Sultan Tit, but couldn’t get a shot of it. We saw Moutain Bulbuls, Long-tailed Broadbill, Red-tailed Minlas, Minivets, Yunihas and many more. I could capture only few of these birds as they were too far or very fast After seeing so many birds, I forgot that I had sprained my leg and was all geared up to climb the valley back to watch more of those pretty birds.
We had heavy breakfast in the resort. By now we had learnt that we should have heavy breakfast as we weren’t sure where we would get our next food . We left Zhemgang around 11 am and headed towards Trongsa. Again we did not stop much except for a place where there was plenty of activity. Here we got to see Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Rusty-fronted Barwings, Mountain Bulbuls, Thrushes, Warblers and many more.
Day 6: Trongsa to Phobjika
With our earlier experience in Trongsa, we exactly knew where to go and look for birds. We had decided to get up early and go for birding as usual before heading to Phobjika valley. I was the first one to get out of my room and had a pleasant surprise with three Yellow-billed Magpie Robin in front of the room and least bothered about my presence. But as usual, light was bad at 6 am in the morning. However, I managed to get two decent shots of them.
We headed towards our usual path and we were not disappointed at all. We got to see huge flock of Bar-throated Minlas or Chestnut-tailed Minlas. While we were shooting Minlas, Green-tailed Sunbird suddenly appeared from nowhere. We were attracted by its splendid colors. Just imagine this bird in the midst of pink flowers. It is very difficult to get a decent shot of this bird as it is a hyper active bird, constantly moving and jumping from one flower to another. I can never forget the experience of seeing this bird.
After breakfast, we headed towards Phobjika valley. On the way we saw this beautiful chorten just next to a river and how could we not stop and shoot it . Beauty of Phobjika is something to be experienced. It is beautiful and very different from what you see in other parts of Bhutan. I have made an attempt to capture some of the places here.
We also got to see this flock of monkeys which were fun to watch. We did not dare open the car doors and had to shoot within the car. The female monkeys were really unique to see with bright pink color around their eyes.
As we started nearing Phobjika valley, the entire landscape started changing and became even more scenic. Phobjika valley is a U shaped glacial valley and well known for Black-necked Cranes and rich in faunal biodiversity. It was almost late in the evening when we reached Phobjika valley and went to bed after dinner eagerly waiting for the sunrise.
Day 7: Phobjika to Paro
Phobjika is an open glacial valley famous for its wetlands. This place is world famous because of the small endangered population of black-necked cranes who spend their winter here. Within the ambit of the valley, an area of about 163 square kilometres (63 sq mi) has been declared as protected area, which is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), for the protection of nature, authorized to manage, on lease basis, by the Ministry of Agriculture. Villagers do not disturb these birds and people do not enter the area where these birds are. Because of these birds, there are no overhead cables are wires in the village and everything is underground. Isn’t it very impressive!
Of course it was a challenge to photograph these birds from a distance. You need really good telephoto lens to capture them. After a long walk we found these three birds close to the border of the wetland and this is the best shot I could get using 100-400 mm lens :).
On our way back after shooting Black-necked Cranes, we got to see other birds as well. Below are some of the photos I captured.
Beauty of Phobjika is something to be experienced. It is beautiful and very different from what you see in other parts of Bhutan. I have made an attempt to capture some of the places here.
It was our last day of the trip and we were heading back to Paro to catch our flights back to Kolkata next day. It was time to have some photos of ourselves as well .
On our way back to Paro, we stopped over whenever we heard birds chirping or thought the place was beautiful.