Nancy B. Varghese
I have been told way too many times that the world can be unkind to women. More so, to women who set off alone on adventures. ‘Take a friend’, ‘go with a group’, ‘go with family’ were the all too-common phrases I heard from people. But when I came across the opportunity to take off to the ‘happiest country in the world’, I didn’t hesitate, even for a second. One full day of research and several online travel itineraries later, I was booking tickets for my trip to Bhutan.
What followed was a week-long love affair with the ‘Land Of The Thunder Dragon’ - one that I would remember for the rest of my life.
All that I knew about Bhutan, initially, was that it was very close to India, their currency (Bhutanese Ngultrum) was equivalent to the Indian rupee, and that the fourth king created the concept of Gross National Happiness - an index to measure the collective happiness of the country. I was already pumped to escape the mundane life of a metropolis and immerse myself in experiences of uninhibited joy. ‘Bring it, Bhutan!’, I thought.
And boy, did Bhutan bring it!
Since I didn’t want to do a crash course for solo travel and wanted to make this trip the ‘Eat Pray Love’ phase of my life, I figured it seemed fitting to enter the happiest country in the world after strolling through the City of Joy (Kolkata). After hoarding books on a quick trip to College Street and capturing the sunset near Howrah Bridge, I boarded a train from Sealdah to Hasimara station, which is situated on the border of West Bengal. Then, one rickshaw ride later, I was standing at the humongous entry gates to Bhutan at the Indo-Bhutan border town of Phuentsholing.
As an Indian citizen, you need passport sized photographs, valid ID proofs (PAN, voter’s id), and your pre-confirmed hotel booking to be submitted to the immigration office at the time of arrival, for them to issue a permit to you, free of cost. While people opting for tour packages and big family groups have a much easier time with the immigration officers, I realised that they need a little more coaxing when it comes to a solo traveller (especially a woman), who only intends to have a peaceful time in their country and is capable of taking care of her own safety. Ten minutes of kind persuasion, warm smiles, and honest explanations later, I was granted my 7-day permit to the gorgeous kingdom.
Pro tip: The standard permit for all visitors to Bhutan is 7 days; you will need to return to the immigration office, if you wish to stay in the country for more than a week, and extend your permit for the same
Most inter-city buses function from 9AM to 2PM on most days of the week, but you need to be an early bird when it comes to booking a seat because during peak tourist season, the buses are full even upto a whole day in advance. Since this was news to me, I missed my opportunity and had to settle for a 5-hour shared taxi ride to the capital city, Thimphu. Little did I know that this was going to be one of the most magical car rides I was going to take, ever.
As the car slithered it’s way up the winding roads of the lush green mountains, the air got colder and the sky got greyer. Halfway up, I could touch the low lying clouds and the ice cold rain made it’s way down from heavens above. I didn’t think I was on earth anymore. And that made me so incredibly happy.
The wonderful little Inn at Thimphu was so newly built, that it still smelled of fresh paint and it seemed like I was the first guest in the room they gave me. The view from the window took my breath away and all I did was snuggle into my triple-blanketed-extra-comfy bed and watched the sun go down until sleep took me into its arms.
I was up and moving at the crack of dawn the next day. With my backpack filled with trek essentials (water, electrolytes, dry fruits and snacks, safety kit, camera and windcheater), I made my way to the Great Buddha Dordenma - an enormous 51.5 meter bronze and gold buddha statue dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
A two hour steady hike later, I was in the presence of one of the most beautiful man-made structures I had ever seen. Sitting amidst approximately 943.4 acres of forest area, it’s the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world. I felt incredibly blessed to merely be standing at the base of this beauty.
The next day was devoted to exploring the quaint city of Paro which looked like it had popped right out of all my fairy tales. With small establishments set close together on little streets and one cafe every ten steps you take, I knew I had stepped right into my kind of paradise.
Evening in Paro brought forth soft yellow lights in coffee shops, and conversation flowed amongst tourists and Bhutanese alike. Time stood still and a picture-perfect sunset announced its presence with a burst of reds and oranges seeping into the violets and blues of the sky. I sat outside Mountain Cafe (one of the quieter cafes in town) sipping on my perfect cup of coffee, and wishing I could freeze time forever.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) was the Holy Grail of my Bhutan trip, from the very beginning. The monastery is located 10 kilometres to the north of Paro and hangs on a precarious cliff at 3000 feet above the Paro Valley. According to Bhutanese legend, Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon.
I had easily seen over thirty images of the Nest before my trip and not one of them did justice to actually viewing it for the first time as I came to the end of my physically exhilarating 2.5 hour trek to the top of the mountain. I had to sit down and take it all in - the wonder, the beauty, the peace, and the absolute enlightenment. My entire journey seemed to have been building up to this moment and I felt myself welling up with pure joy. ‘So this is what unadulterated happiness feels like’, I thought.
Bhutan is probably not everyone’s first choice of destination to travel to, but for me, there couldn’t have been a better checkpoint to begin my solo travels. The people treat you like their own, their food is a welcome change to your palate, their smiles are contagious, the weather is to die for, and there are women dominating nearly all spheres of employment and service. I came back rejuvenated, refreshed, and most importantly, so full of life!
If you’re looking to take the first step to creating your own #SoloTravelGoals, I urge you to start today. Don’t hesitate, believe in yourself, and you’ll be surprised at what you discover. Travelling alone helps you find yourself in unexpected ways.
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