Bhutan – My First Experience As A Solo Female Traveller

It was strange to find how many people expressed shock, surprise, dismay and discouragement at the idea of a female solo traveller, when I shared the idea of visiting Bhutan by myself. Despite the discouragement all around, I was not ready to lose the opportunity to experience the thrill of travelling by myself for the first time. I had made up my mind, packed my bags, and looked forward to boarding that jet plane. So, on January 29, I headed to Kolkata from Ho Chi Minh City, hopped onto a Druk Air flight to the lovely town of Paro. 

The Joy

I had a window seat on the right side of the aircraft. To my dismay, the people on the left kept shouting with joy as they saw the Mt. Kanchenjunga from the airplane. I felt restless; it had been a year devoid without the sight of a snow-capped mountain and there I was, losing my hair over not asking for a window seat to the left! The landing looked challenging, but the challenge was overcome with practiced ease of seasoned pilots, so much so that an elderly international traveler clapped as the aircraft touched the runway. The temperature outside was announced to be 5 degrees and my heart leapt with ecstasy; winter is my favorite season and one of the reasons of choosing Bhutan was definitely the blistering cold which I was looking forward to experience after the dull heat of Ho Chi Minh City. I got out of the airport, after surprising the immigration lady for not having booked any hotel or any agent for my trip. After all that was the aim precisely, to come and figure things out as I keep moving. So I got onto a cab, and asked the driver to take me to a hotel with a nice view of the mountains.

Kuenphen Lodge was a nice hotel near the river, about 4 km away from the main town of Paro, with facilities like swimming pool, steam bath and sauna. I got a room for two nights, and Chencho (my cabbie) was prodding me to start for Chele La already, as he kept saying in Hindi, ‘aj upar chale jao, achcha view milega’ (Go to the top today, you’ll get a great view). So I merely got time to change off we went.

View from my room at the Kuenphen Lodge

The Snow

When we reached the base, there was a strong wind blowing. After about 1000 metres or so on our way up, the road started disappearing under layers of snow. Many tourist cars were parked and tourists were frolicking in the snow, but we decided to carry on, and I was so glad we did. We reached the top of the Chele La Pass after a thrilling experience of driving through the snow and the biting cold, which at more than thirteen thousand feet is the highest point of Bhutan’s roads. Here’s how the view was:

Mount Jomolhari from the Chele La Top

The Tiger

The Tiger’s Nest

My plan for the next day was the hike upto the Taktsang Palphug Monastery on the upper side of the valley. On reaching the starting point, my heart sank when I looked up at the famed Taktsan (Tiger’s nest), almost hanging from a steep cliff. I didn’t believe I would make it to the complex, till I actually did. I started walking and after few steep turns, I start wondering if I should give up. Trekking alone can be demotivating, especially if one has always trekked with friends, and I wonder if the discouragement that came my way while planning this trip, was something I should have paid a little more attention to.

On My Way…

And then I met two lovely women, one from
Germany, the other from Croatia, both working in Korea resting at one of the turns. We smiled at each other, shared pleasantries, ate chocolates and sipped water together, and resumed walking. I meet a couple of more girls from the same group and we keep walking together. After a while, the walk doesn’t seem as stressful as before and I feel like I had found my rhythm. Travelling solo and being lonely are not the same,  I smiled to myself as I made a mental note.

Local myth has it that the Karmapa who chose this site for building the monastery hitched a ride on the back of a flying tiger to land here. How I wish I could have done the same!

The Bookstore

I get to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, and rush get to the immigration office to collect my route permit to Punakha and Wangdue. I give the local sightseeing a pass and end up finding a quaint bookstore called The Junction during my evening stroll around town. What captivates me immediately as I enter the store is the music. Three people manning the store, each playing an instrument and strumming and humming and I tell myself, “ah! this is where I’d rather be than anywhere else”.

I start surfing the books, my ears following the music through out, and it takes me way longer than it should to select a book to buy. As I pay for my book and get ready to leave, one of the boys invite me to their evening jam session at a local neighborhood bar. I eagerly accept and end up jamming with some of the coolest musicians in the city. Travelling solo is not being lonely at all.

The Junction Bookstore, Thimpu

The Dzong

I leave for Punakha the next morning. We stop at Dochu La but the famed panoramic view of mountains from this place, eluded us. The horizon was shrouded by thick clouds, and all I could see were the tops of a few peaks. Not to be disheartened, I leave for my next destination, the Punakha Dzong – an impressive structure is situated at the confluence of two rivers, one male and one female. It goes without saying that the male river is the more aggressive of the two – patriarchy never throws out an opportunity to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

The Punakha Dzong

What impressed me the most about the Dzong is its sheer vastness and display of wealth. It’s spread across at different levels and no one stops you from walking all around; photography is prohibited in some parts of the building though, and rightly so, because of the golden columns et al. All the walls are filled with paintings of mythical stories and they can’t but mesmerize you. Here’s what one of the walls look like:

A wall at the Punakha Dzong

The Black-Necked Crane

From the Dzong I get to Damchen Resort by the river; and retire for the rest of the evening. Next morning, I leave early for Phobjikha Valley. Post the dusty road journey, we passed through a lovely pinewood just before we entered Phobjikha. The smell of the pure, cool air and as I step out of the car, and strange new sounds of birds chirping I hear tell me that I would love to spend much more time here than I can afford. Wikipedia will tell you that Phobjikha is a glacial valley, but when you see it, you know it’s a piece of sleepy heaven, dotted by gracefully poised Black-Necked Cranes which visit the valley between November and February. My phone camera was not good enough to capture their poise, but thankfully my eyes were. Shivering in the biting cold, we knock on the doors of a momo joint, to be greeted by its lady owner, her nephew, a puppy and a cat. The smiling welcome, followed by the steaming veg momo and a bowl of egg noodles was better than anything one could have asked for. The owner Kinley used to work as a hairdresser in Delhi India, but had to come back to the valley to take care of her parents. I didn’t feel like leaving Phobjikha so soon, but it’s a long journey back to Thimpu, so we start, grudgingly.

The sleepy valley of Phobjikha

The End

Back in Thimpu, I revisit The Junction in the evening, followed by the bar on the top floor of Etho Metro Plaza, where the musicians are joined by more friends and we spend the evening making merry and music. Next morning, I leave for Paro as my flight to Kolkata is early next day. As I reflect on the trip while sipping on K5 whiskey (a premium Bhutanese whiskey), Bhutan in its entirety seems to resemble Phobjikha a lot; a calm and peaceful country dotted by warm hearted, graceful and helpful people. The gorgeous trip comes to a fitting end with a majestic view of Mt. Kanchenjunga from the right side of the airplane, for about 10 minutes at a stretch or so.  So long, mountains! Your girl will see you again, sooner than you expect!

– Text and images by Ankita Ghosh

The majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga from the flight

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