Indians can enter Phuentsholing freely, but to go anywhere else in Bhutan, we need a permit. Like a lot of others, we were worried about permits (due to the scary delay stories floating around online), but thankfully, it worked out fast and fine for us because we had some resourceful people with us :). Both on our onward and return journeys we stayed at Midpoint Hotel in Phuentsholing, run by the affable Sonam Penjor, who's FB occupation status says "dishwasher at Midpoint". He kept the hotel and its kitchen alive for us long after closing hours, sang a couple of good numbers, and even crossed over to India to get us nicotine sticks.
The song presented below is his own composition.
It was here that we learned the first few words in Dzongkha. Kuzuzangpola is the only one which I remember - it means hello. Later, I read that the concept of different greetings for different times of the day is alien to Bhutanese culture. Kuzuzangpola it is whether it's morning, noon, or night.
Here's the permit documentation season for 22 people.
After the permits were done by around 10 O Clock, we drove for around 7 hours straight to Paro. The ride was beautiful, and we stopped occasionally on the permit check points and for refreshments.
We stayed at the spic and span Olathang.
Paro's main attraction is the Taktsang Monastery (the Tiger's Nest), planted right on edge of a steep rocky cliff. There's no point writing about the monastery. You have to see it to appreciate its magnificence, and while you're at it, think that it was first made while Newton was toying with the ideas of gravity. The hike up to Taksang is extremely beautiful, and not so difficult. It took the slowest of us about 5 hours to reach the top.
If you're spiritual, it's a pilgrimage of sorts. If you're a traveler, it gives you a sense of accomplishment. Well, the accomplishment would last for just a few minutes, because just after reaching and depositing your camera and other belongings in the office at the front, all you need to do is look up, and see another maze of stairs leading all the way up into the monastery.
The people around, and I mean not just the Lama or the residents of the monastery, are extremely helpful and willing to answer your questions. You air a doubt about something to your travel-mate, chances are that some stranger will politely explain to you what you were wondering about. I asked a lady about a strange ritual that was going on and she explained that all you need to do to get something in life is - pray for it, look at the black spot on the big rock in front, close your eyes, walk with your hand forward, and touch the spot on the rock. It was one of those side-games, while the big show happens inside in this sprawling complex with its multiple places of worship. It seemed simple enough, and was worth a shot - what the hell, big deal, if you lose. I prayed for job satisfaction, marked the black spot out, closed my eyes, walked, and banged right against the pillar next to the rock.
The proof of le pudding:
While waiting for the rest of us to come down from the monastery, I chatted up with one of the security personnel of the monastery. I asked him about lunch options for 22 people. While talking about it, he laughed about his lunch. There are only two guards, and because of the rush of visitors, they never have time to prepare lunch. They usually skip it. I kept cribbing about the 22 hungry stomachs that we have, and he rushed up to his cabin and came back with an apple. Thanking profusely, I bit into the apple, and told him this was not going to help us in a big way. And that's when he told me he had just one apple. And I'm like, this man has had no lunch and he's parting with the only food item that he has. It's like one of those moments, when you start thinking - now what? He sensed it, and told me a simple thing - you said you were hungry, and that's why I gave it to you. I'm sure he would have parted with 22 apples, if he had them. The mystery of Gross National Happiness was solved that day - he was happy, because he was evolved, so to speak. He could have been the Good Samaritan in the Bible, the Buddha himself, or the Karna in the Mahabharata. God bless you Bhutan.
To Sonam Penjor, the lovely Pema Dolma and another Sonam at Olathang, and this security guard without a name - Kuzuzangpola from India to all of you.
PS: To all Indians out there. It costs $250 every day for a foreigner to be in Bhutan, an amount that has to be paid to the Bhutanese government. Except, if you're an Indian. Go visit this marvelous country before the rules change.
PS2: We came up with a few words to describe trip:
Phuentsholification - The Phuentsholing experience.
Thukpaed - The feeling you get after your tummy is full of Thukpas.
Parofied - The manner in which Paro mesmerizes you.
Beer Puri - Packed puri that loses its hardness after treating with beer (we only discussed that possibility).