Day 2 – Thimphu to Punakha (Lobesa)


INFO ABOUT THIS ITINERARY

As per Bhutan government’s policy, citizens of all countries, except from India, Bangladesh and Maldives, have to book their tour through a registered travel agent and pay US$250 per person, per day to be able to secure a permit or visa. This is mandatory!

Having said that, all expenses in this itinerary are for individual travel and does not apply to the mandated travel agency’s or tour operator’s costs. However, you can get an idea of costs, along with tips and details of places you’d like to visit.

 

Permits

To be able to visit all the places around Bhutan, one needs permits to those places. As I mentioned in the planning section, you get permits to Paro, Thimphu and Phuentsholing by default upon arrival to Bhutan by air. Since I wanted to visit Punakha & Haa in this trip, I needed to visit the immigration office in Thimphu to secure permits to those places. This morning was the time to get those permits!

IMPORTANT NOTE on Permits

Bhutan PermitTravelers from India, Bangladesh and Maldives have to get permits to visit different parts of the country. Entering Bhutan from any port of entry (land or air) will grant permits to Paro and Thimphu by default. If you’re entering via the land border with India at Phuentsholing, then the permit will include that municipality as well.

For travel to outside of Paro or Thimphu, you must go to the immigration office in Thimphu and apply for permits to the municipalities you wish to visit – Punakha (Khuruthang & Lobesa are cities in the Punakha municipality), Haa, Gangtey, Bumthang, etc.

Documents that are required for those permits vary and depend on where you are visiting. For example, Punakha, Gangtey and Haa require confirmed hotel bookings (not asked mandatory!), whereas for Bumthang you need the taxi driver’s name and taxi number mentioned in the application form.

The procedure is quite, but not always, straightforward –

  • Go to the immigration office when it opens at 9am
  • Fill the application form. Mention all the places you will be visiting.
  • Stand in line for verification by the officer.
  • After submission, wait for about 20-40 minutes.
  • Pick up your permit.

That’s the most streamlined process anyone has to go through, except that there are hurdles. Here are some of them from my personal experience, but not exhaustive:

  • Process – You will need to fill the application form, keep one copy of your passport front page, and one copy of your visa page. The entire application is free of cost!

    There’s always a long line at the office. Everyone is pushing everyone else. The whole process is not streamlined at all! There is only one person at the application acceptance counter, whereas there are about 6 ‘officers’ actually creating the permits. This means you will be standing in line to hand over your application, so make sure everything is in order. Once accepted, the person will write the time you submitted on the top of your application, so make sure that is correct because that is what defines your number in line. The person will ask you to come back after 2 hours, but the permit will be ready within 20-30 minutes tops!

  • Destinations – You will receive one permit that will have all the destinations mentioned from the application form. I had asked for permits to Punakha, Gangtey, Haa and Bumthang. Since I mentioned Bumthang, I was asked to fill in the name of my taxi driver & the taxi licence plate number. I insisted that I had not booked a taxi yet and will be doing so when I was in Punakha. The lady at the counter asked me to go see a ranking officer inside, who asked me the same details saying it was required info. But if I remove Bumthang from the list, I don’t need to fill in the taxi details. So I scratched Bumthang from the list & re-submitted. My permit was approved!

    After checking with some other travelers, I was told that most areas east of Punakha requires travelers to mention the transport details. If you say public transport, you are bound to have a rejection of your entire application, so always mention ‘taxi’ as means of transportation. The government wants travelers to take taxis instead of public transport, and also have the taxis booked (with an exorbitant price) before heading east. This shows that individual travel to Bhutan comes with its restrictions!!

  • Solo travelers – For solo travelers like me, I was asked to sign an “undertaking” on a paper saying that I am responsible for my travel across Bhutan while traveling solo. This was an additional letter I was asked to submit along with my application. A few other solo travelers were asked the same.

    Another solo traveler was denied the permits citing his intentions of traveling solo did not match the culture of Bhutan!

 
After submitting my application for permits, I walked to the General Post Office to get a stamp in my Postal Stamp Travelogue book and send out postcards to family & friends. The GPO also houses the Bhutan Postal Museum.

Walking back to the immigration office, I stopped by a cafe to grab some coffee. The permit was ready in 30 mins and having grabbed that, I walked back to the hotel to pick up my bags. My taxi driver was supposed to pick me up at 11:30am to ride to Punakha. Since I wanted to visit Dochula Pass and Lobesa on way to Khuruthang, I decided to have my own private taxi, instead of the shared taxis.

Taxi from Thimphu to Punakha

Most taxi drivers from Thimphu will charge BTN 2800-3000 one way for a private taxi from Thimphu to Punakha, stopping at Dochula Pass, and if you can negotiate the price then stopping at Lobesa as well (usually charge BTN 3500 to stop as Lobesa).

Shared taxis are available for BTN 350 per person. The shared taxis leave when they are full, which means you have to wait for them and they do not stop anywhere, but take you directly to Khuruthang taxi stand.

I negotiated the price of BTN 2,000 one-way with the taxi driver that drove me from airport to Thimphu on first day. The original price was BTN 1,800 stopping at Dochula Pass, but when I added Lobesa, he insisted on BTN 2,000.

Tip: When you are in Thimphu and want to go to Punakha, try and search for a taxi that has ‘Punakha’ or ‘Khuruthang’ written on the door. These taxis are always looking for passengers going to Punakha and will charge less (BTN 1,800 compared to BTN 2,800-3,000). If you come across that taxi then negotiate the price in advance and get it booked for your day of travel.

 

Dochula Pass

We started from Thimphu at noon and were out of the city in no time. After a quick stop at the immigration check point of Punakha, we reached Dochula Pass. High on top of a mountain pass, overlooking the Himalayas at 3,100 feet, is a concentration of 108 chortens (stupas) built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against insurgents from India.


[Dochula Pass]


[Dochula Pass]
 

IMPORTANT NOTE on Immigration Checkpoints

There is an Immigration Check Post at Hongtsho village just before Dochula Pass and you will not be allowed entry without proper extension.

Please ensure to get your permit stamped both at entry and return. Failing this, you may be fined or your extension may be cancelled by immigration authorities. At times, taxi drivers do not stop for the stamp, so please take care to stop as soon as you see any Immigration Check Post.

 

Just opposite to chortens, is the temple Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. This temple was built in 2008 to celebrate the centenary of the king’s rule in Bhutan and is famous for its unique cartoon style modern murals.

 

Lobesa & Chimi Lhakhang

After about a drive of 2 hours through the Thimphu-Punakha highway, we took a detour over unpaved road to the tiny village of Lobesa to visit Chimi Lhakhang, also known as the ‘Temple of Fertility’. Walk to Chimi Lhakhang passes through Lobesa village and you get a beautiful glimpse of rural Bhutan as you come across the farms and houses with unique Bhutanese architecture (huge white walls with wood carving on doors, windows and roof).


[Lobesa & Punakha Valley]


[Path leading up to Chimi Lhakhang temple]


[Chimi Lhakhang temple]

 
Temple is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kunley, fondly known as ‘Divine Madman’ because of his non-conventional and ‘outrageous’ style of teaching. He was a social critic and openly challenged the hypocrisy of the established orders. Thus, the use of his Phallus (Penis) as a ‘flaming thunderbolt’ weapon symbolizes the discomfort that society experiences while facing the truth. Devotees take blessings from the wooden effigy of the lama’s thunderbolt, preserved in the lhakhang. Couples come to the temple before the birth of baby to select their names while newborns are brought by parents for blessings from Lama.


[Chimi Lhakhang temple]

 
Photography is not allowed inside the temple but it is equally dynamic with young monks reciting hymns and playing instruments in front of the statues of ‘Divine Madman’ and his dog Sachi. You will also be rewarded with blessings from the lama’s wooden and bone phallus.

Along the way through the village, you will see Phallus (penis) painted on almost every house of Lobesa.


[Penises drawn on houses in Lobesa]


[Penises drawn on houses in Lobesa]


[Penises drawn on houses in Lobesa]


[Penis souvenirs sold in Lobesa]
 

Driving back up north, it is a short drive to Khuruthang where I was staying at ‘Punakha Residency’ hotel for next few nights, to explore Punakha valley’s sights. Headed out for a walk in this tiny town of Khuruthang post dinner, before calling it a day!

 

Costs

Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate of USD 1 = BTN 71 at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult.
 

What Cost Notes
Postcards & stamps $5.50 BTN 390 for stamps for 12 postcards.
Coffee $0.56 BTN 40.
Lunch at roadside restaurant $2.53 BTN 180.
Taxi $28.17 BTN 2,000 one-way from Thimphu to Lobesa to Khuruthang.
Dinner $2.70 BTN 192 at Punakha Residency hotel.
Total Daily Costs $39.46 Per person
Overall Costs $600.29 Per person

 

« PREVIOUS – Day 1

Thimphu

Arriving in Thimphu & sights of Thimphu.

Day 2

Thimphu to Punakha (Lobesa)

Getting permits in Thimphu & visiting Lobesa.

« Eight days in Bhutan

Day 3 – NEXT »

Punakha (Khuruthang)

Sights of Punakha valley.

 


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