Bhutanese elections

A little distant from where I am now, but following on from things that were happening when I visited last year. Bhutan has just begun its first set of democratic elections for the new constitutional monarchy. There seems to be a complete lack of mudslinging, a good attendance and effort being made by the government to ensure everyone gets good, unbiased information on how to vote.

You know, we could learn a lot from these people.


Actually, many roadblocks. But I’ll get to that.

Today we managed to be in three different countries. We set off from Bhutan at 7am with the help of our two guides, and entered India by bus. After three hours or so, we arrived in Siliguri where a very nice taxi driver helped us locate an ATM so we would have enough Indian Rupees for the drive to the Nepalese border.

Around an hour later we entered a queue. While we were sat in it, waiting to reach the Indian immigration, a random man walked up to our cab and punched our driver through the open window! He then stormed off, turned round, shouted and adjusted the belt on his trousers. While he was doing this, our driver and co-driver armed themselves with a wrench and screwdriver from the glove box.

Thankfully the madman wandered off and the weapons weren’t used. We never did find out what was going on.

Finally, we reached the immigration point and checked out of India for the last time. Then a quick jump back into the car for the half-mile or so drive to Nepalese immigration to check into our third country of the day. We paid our driver a total of 400 Rupees. He’d started at 350 Rupees for a car that should take seven passengers, but there was nobody else going to Nepal. We’d agreed to 350 between the two of us, but he dropped the price to 300 without us even asking. Given how long he sat in the queue and the fact that he got a faceful of fist, we thought a 100INR tip was fair.

At Nepalese immigration, we checked the visa options of which there are four:

  • Up to three days – free
  • First visit in calendar year for 60 days – $US30
  • Extension or second visit within a year for 30 days – $US30
  • Multi-entry – $US80

We were heading for the 60-day one when the guard asked us where we were going. “Kathmandu”, we replied. “Not by bus you’re not”, he told us.


It seems that there have been some “strikes” and a fair amount of civil unrest around the south east of the country. As a result, there are umpteen roads blocked between the border where we were and Kathmandu. Buses simply weren’t going that way, and a private car/taxi was just as impossible. The only option – by air.

Of course, this means that the price of the tickets had artificually risen with Nepalese even paying more than the usual tourist rate to travel within their own country.

I opted for the free 3-day visa on the understanding I could extend it to 30 days once in Kathmandu if I decided to stay long enough. Hans got the 60-day one.

An American woman popped in on her way out of Nepal into India, and recommended a travel agency she used a lot. Thanks to her, we walked to Sharman Travel around the corner and they sorted us out with two flights for the next day at $US128 apiece. This is around double the usual price, but that’s capitalism for you. Given that the only other option would be to exit back into India and get another bus all the way along the southern border, past Kathmandu and then NE into the capital (around 24 hours solid drive) there wasn’t a whole lot of choice.

He also agreed to accept cash for one ticket and to allow me to pay by Visa at the airport for the second. This wasn’t something I should have been able to do but we simply had no other option. There are no ATMs in Kakarbhitta and the local bank won’t advance cash against a Visa card. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get on any of today’s flights. Tomorrow was the soonest.

So as it turns out, it’s a good thing that Hans had a load of US Dollars on him and that I hadn’t used thirty of them to get myself a visa on entry! As it was, between them and the handful of Indian Rupees and Bhutanese Ngultrums we had left, we had just enough for: one plane ticket, one hotel room, two veg talis in the restaurant and the taxi to the airport in the morning.

Small blessing – the hotel room had a TV with cable so we could at least watch crap films and the footie to while away the time. Only as we settled in, the power failed. So we went for a walk instead.

As it happens, this was worthwhile. Kakarbhitta is tiny. Which is why it wasn’t too hard to find every other non-Nepalese/Indian in the place. Within fifteen minutes, we’d determined that the tourist population of the town was seven, including the two of us.

We stood like a UN meeting in the street: two Americans, a Canadian, a Brit, a Manx, a Pole and a guy from Switzerland. Everyone else had been in town for two to four days waiting for the buses to start again. Apparently a Dutch girl had flown out the day before after an amazing two weeks in this place. How she didn’t go stir crazy, I’ll never know.

The American girl – Hannah, I think – managed to find a shop which makes the Nepalese equivalent of a hacky-sack. Basically, it’s a bunch of elastic bands tied together by another elastic band. A small game of keepie-uppie was formed – Hans and I watched as the Americans tried to convince passing schoolkids to join in. They managed to get two of them interested at one point.

This, believe it or not, killed an hour. Yes, we were that bored. At 5:00, Hans and I realised we’d not eaten since 6am and went off to get that veg thali we could barely afford. Thankfully it was nice.

So, still an evening to kill before watching the live footie at around 9:30. In the meantime, NEO+ Sports are showing ManUre v Norwich from around twelve years ago!

A looooong drive

Just for a change (not), we had an early rise as today would be another long one. Breakfast was the usual eggs, toast and the like. The family’s little kitten was floating around, meowing and mooching bits of scrambled egg. While I was playing with him, he bit my nose. Chewed on, blood drawn and all I could think of was “aw, cute”.

With all our bags securely packed in the 4×4, we were driven outside of Thimpu to the Tango monastery. This was a moderately short trek uphill – around 45 minutes – and well worth the visit. Most of the monks were on holiday, so it was being run by a skeleton staff. It’s wonderful being able to view something like that without the bustle of tourists, as well. Seeing a Buddhist temple is certainly best when it’s as silent as can be.

We walked back down the hill and jumped into the car to be taken back to the city. Hans and I walked around the Saturday Vegetable Market while Jamyang kindly sent our postcards on their way for us. The market was interesting, though… marketty. The food looked delicious, and I can pretty much guarantee it was all organic and GM free!

Our next stop was for a quick lunch and then back into our chariot for the long drive to Phuentsholing, the border-town with India. We had a one-hour gap to reach a certain part of the main highway as it is shut most hours for roadworks. We made it dot on 12:30, just as it opened, and meandered along mountain roadways for another five hours.

It was a little hairy at times, especially when the cloud cover came right down, but Tshewang is a more than capable driver and we got to our destination in one piece.

Now, at this point, Hans and I expected to be dropped off to cross the border and make our way to a hotel in India for the night. Therefore, we were surprised when we were driven to a hotel, arrangements made for dinner and our bags taken up to a room. It seemed that, as it was late, we’d be spending the night in Bhutan and crossing the border in the morning. Result – this saves us a night’s accommodation as well as the hassle of actually finding somewhere.

One problem arose in that the bus to Siliguri leaves here at 7am, which is the same time that the immigration offices open. This would make it nigh on impossible to get through immigration and catch the bus.

But, this reckons without our exceptionally helpful hosts. Jamyang and Tshewang first of all checked out all the bus and taxi information for us. Then they walked us to the Indian immigration office (which meant crossing the border slightly illegally) and getting us stamped into India this evening. So we were, according to our passports, inside both India and Bhutan simultaneously.

While we were there, we spotted autorickshaws; mosquitoes flew around; and the power went. We were most definitely back in India.

Back on the Bhutanese side, we were stamped out before returning to our hotel. We are currently physically in Bhutan, but as far as all our paperwork is concerned we’re in India. This simply means that in the morning, we get on the bus and head off. Nice and easy.

So we’re now ensconsed in a comfy hotel room with a TV and it’s Saturday night. Yes, the TV has sports channels. Yes, I’m watching the footie.

A very impressive building

Yet another early rise, but it always helps when you know it’s going to be worthwhile. We had egg on toast for breakfast and then jumped into the car with Jamyang and Tshewang.

On the way to Punakha, we stopped at the Memorial Stupa. This was built by the fourth queen of the fourth king to commemorate victory over Tibet. It is an arrangement of 109 stupas – 108 small ones symbolising the 108 “beats” in a mantra, and one larger central one. The view from the Stupa is astounding, even though it was pretty cloudy today. On a good day, it’s possible to see the peaks of nine Himalayan mountains including the highest unclimbed ones.

The next section of the drive was to be the longest, taking us into another valley and towards the old capital city of Punakha. Here lies the Punakha Dzong, the largest and first fortress built in Bhutan. It is a simply magnificent building. Sat where two rivers join, it even manages to draw attention from the breathtaking mountain backdrop. We spent well over an hour being shown around the building as Jamyang gave us details of its history and function, and then stepped through the story of Buddha using the mural in the temple area for illustration.

It was after midday by the time we returned to the car, and Tshewang drove us to lunch a little under an hour away. As ever, the food was both plentiful and delicious.

Most of the day was to be driving, as we set off back to Thimpu after lunch. On the drive we saw the Temple of Fertility but didn’t have time to visit. As neither Hans or I are attached, let alone married, this is something we can leave for another trip!

Dusk was starting to fall when we got back to Thimpu, but it was light enough for a quick visit to the Takin reserve. The Takin is Bhutan’s national animal. It looks like a cross between a cow (body) and a moose (head). An ungainly-looking, but strong animal. They’re a protected species in Bhutan due to their low numbers, and efforts – so far successful – have been made to help the species recover in numbers.

We next drove into town where we dove online briefly, and I started thinking on plans for where to go after Nepal. More on this once I make my mind up!

Finally back to the house, where we settled in with tea and biscuits as dinner was prepared. I swear I’ll have put on a kilo by the time we get dropped off at the border tomorrow.

Our hosts gave us each a small gift to take home with us, for which Hans and I would like to thank them. We each received a wood carving depicting the elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird. Without going into detail, they’re the characters in a popular story, the moral of which is “even though we’re all from different places, we’re all the same”. When I next have a home, it will receive pride of place on a wall.

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Tak Shang Monastery and on to Thimpu

We rose for breakfast at 7:00 (surprise – it was lovely) where we chatted with Jamyang for a while. The hotel let us store our bags in the room while we were out, so we grabbed clothes and cameras and jumped into the 4×4 for the short drive out of Paro.

Less than thirty minutes later we pulled up in the first at the base of a mountain. Far up, built into the rocky side, was a monastery – Tak Shang. It looks utterly isolated with only a couple of other buildings visible at other points on the hillside. This was to be our target for the morning. Get all the way up there, and all the way back.

The trek started well with me being assaulted by a very friendly dog and two puppies. I didn’t want to leave them, but Bhutan seems tobe filled with the most friendly strays on earth so I consoled myself with the fact that I’d find some more later. So on we plodded. And upwards. And more upwards. Then up some more.

Bhutan is a wonderful country, but to make the most of it you definitely need to be able to walk a fair distance. A lot of the holidays available are treks, though I’m sure there are trips for the less energetic tourist.

After almost two hours, we arrived at a restaurant where we put up our feet and had a couple of cuppas with some biscuits while a water-powered prayer wheel span and rattled a bell every couple of seconds. All very Zen. Too soon, though, we had to set off again. Upwards.

The monastery is set to one side of a join between two cliff faces. To reach the side it’s on, you have to climb the “left” mountain, then drop down in towards where the two faces meet so that you can cross to the “right” and then climb again. In the direct sunshine we were sweltering, but in the corner where the faces met there was deep snow settled at the bottom of a waterfall.

A brave beast guarded the stairs to the monastery. Well. A soppy dog, to be honest. Obviously an old-timer and a complete softie. He followed us up the stairs where Jamyang went to find the caretaker so that we could get into the locked temples.

The view from up there was astounding. The views inside the temples were equally gorgeous, but in a totally different way. As usual, Jamyang was full of information about the paintings, decorations, ornaments and rituals. Simply, there is far too much to repeat here especially as I don’t have access to any notes or guidebooks to refresh my memory!

After maybe an hour up there, we began the long – though slightly easier – plod back down. At the foot, we encountered a lone female walker who we gave a lift to. The fact that she was by herself is unusual as visitors generally have to be part of a tour group, but she’d been invited by an organisation so managed to get around the regulations. It turned out that she lives barely 30 miles from my parents, although she’s originally from Hungary!

Lunch was served up at the Yak Herder Restaurant (complete with pair of adorable puppies for after-dinner entertainment) and it was another smorgasbord of deliciousness. Again, I am so happy that my stomach is back in working order and playing catch-up to make up for missing food over the last week. Hans had to roll me out to the car and I’m sure the suspension was lower than it had been earlier.

Driving back into Paro, we passed our female friend again. She’s just been to one of the temples, so we picked her up and dropped her in the town centre. The bank was open, so we changed some US dollars into Ngultrums so we could pay Jamyang back the money he’d kindly loaned us the previous day.

Next, we drove up to the hotel to retrieve our bags and then started the 2-hour drive to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital. The road there is currently undergoing a lot of work to widen it to two carriageways, so delays were inevitable. The work should be completed before 2008 when Bhutan celebrates it’s royal centenary, coronation of the 5th king and move to democracy. Quite a year coming up!

The drive was scenic, to say the least, and we arrived in Thimpu in good time despite the earthmovers blocking traffic at times. Once there, we walked round a very impressive stupa (four times – for luck and merit) and visited a nunnery where we watched some young nuns performing a ceremony for good fortune.

The day was wearing on by now, as we drove to our accommodation for the evening – the tour company manager’s house! They have several small apartment/chalets around their house and we were placed in number one. A small kitchen, lounge with telly, comfy bedroom and bathroom with hot water. Lovely. They even brought tea up to us, and we had dinner with the family in their front room.

The food was lovely, and included some local choices. The most unusual was a warm bowl of local spirit (similar to saki) with egg floating in it.

And I got to cuddle their tiny kitten, so that made my day as well.

I’m typing this up while Hans snuffles through a cold that’s re-introduced itself to his nasal cavities and we both watch Empire Strikes Back on Star Movies with a nice hot room heater blazing.

Another top-notch day. We’re pretty much expecting another tomorrow!