Varun Abhiram

ARTIST, PHOTOGRAPHER & GRAPHIC DESIGNER

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  • Sep 17 / 2012
  • 19
Travel

A Budget Trip to Bhutan

A few weeks ago, I made a trip to the magical Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan! I say magical because this is a place with so much to offer - serene and scenic landscapes, art, religion, culture, and of course, because it happens to be one of the few countries in the world that is still ruled by a King and a Queen.I travelled with a friend to Bhutan for 6 days (from August 15-20, 2012), and we visited the two main cities of Thimphu and Paro. This post is a detailed account of our trip, and I have also included some useful travel/accommodation information for those of you who intend to plan a trip there yourself.

Route Plan

Bhutan Trip - Route PlanThe Drukair flights to Paro in Bhutan were very expensive by the time we finalised our travel plan, so we decided to take an alternative route: we travelled to Bagdogra (Siliguri) by flight, and then entered Bhutan by road via the border town of Phuentsholing. We lost two sightseeing days in the process, but we also reduced our flight costs by more than half!

Day 1: Hyderabad – Bagdogra – Siliguri – Phuentsholing

Local bus to Phuentsholing, from Siliguri

Our flight from Hyderabad departed early in the morning at 6:30 AM. It was a 2-hour journey to Bagdogra Airport, and we took a prepaid taxi from there to the Mittal Bus Stand in Siliguri.

As soon as we reached the bus stand, we found that there was a local bus that was ready to start to Phuentsholing: it was a rickety, run-down bus with torn seats, but we decided to take a chance anyway since there were only 4-5 people sitting inside apart from us. Little did we know that in the next few minutes, the entire bus would be stuffed to the brim with the local village people!

Local bus to Phuentsholing, from Siliguri

For the next 6 hours, we were stuck in a bus that literally had people falling on top of each other, and us. To make things worse, the weather was very sultry, and the condition of the roads was deplorable (especially the last 2-hour stretch!).

We heaved a sigh of relief when we finally reached Phuentsholing at around 8:45 PM. The entry to this border town is marked by a nondescript Tibetan-styled gate; one side of it is India and the other side is Bhutan. We checked into our rooms at Hotel Sinchula and rested for half an hour. When we headed out for dinner at around 9:30 PM, we realised that the restaurant in the hotel was closed, and in fact, the entire city had shut down!

One of the locals asked us to “Go have dinner in India” – it took me a moment to realise that he meant crossing the border gate. So we informed the security guard at the gate, crossed over to India for dinner, and then came back to Bhutan.

Day 2: Phuentsholing – Thimphu

We headed out from our hotel at around 8:30 in the morning – it was very sunny and humid, but we had a long To-Do list to complete by noon:

  1. Go to the local bus stand and find out the frequency and timings of the buses to Thimphu (we found that there are regular buses every 30 minutes, but we didn’t book in advance because we weren’t sure how long it would take to complete the immigration formalities).
  2. Head to the Immigrations office at 9:00 AM and submit an application form for the entry permits, along with 1 passport-size photograph and 1 photocopy of the passport. A visa is not required for Indian and Chinese nationals.
  3. Have breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
  4. Get a local Bhutan prepaid SIM card (we bought a Tashi Cell prepaid SIM from the Tashi Complex).
  5. Go back to the Immigrations office and collect our entry permits.
  6. Check out of the hotel, pick up our bags and head to the bus stand.

We managed to complete all the above activities just in time to catch the afternoon bus – it started as soon as we got in!

Bus to Thimphu

The bus was neat, comfortable, and most importantly, not crowded. And as we rapidly gained altitude, it started to get cooler, and we began to see dense clouds sweeping over the verdant hills. What a contrast to our earlier ride from Siliguri to Phuentsholing! We were quite ecstatic as it was apparent now that the trip was only going to get better!

We finally arrived in Thimphu late in the evening and checked into Hotel Tandin, located on the main city street, Norzin Lam. We freshened up, and headed out for a short stroll around the city.

Thimphu Art & Crafts

After checking out all the colorful local textile and handicraft stores, we were eager to try out some authentic Bhutanese cuisine for dinner! We spotted this tiny place called Shelse Restaurant diagonally opposite the Handicraft Emporium, and decided to give it a try.

Authentic Bhutanese Cuisine

Sonam (the manager of the restaurant) was very friendly, and patiently explained all the dishes listed on the menu to us. We had Bhutanese Red Rice with Ema Datshi (sliced green chillies in hot cheese), a bowl of soup, and vegetable salad. We tried out some of the beverages too - Suja (butter tea, tasted bad!), Daaw (a sour, over-fermented version of our Lassi) and Changkey (rice wine).

Day 3: Thimphu Sightseeing

We hired Kelden, a local taxi driver, to take us sightseeing around Thimphu city. Thanks to the heavy rains early in the morning, we enjoyed a beautiful, lush green, foggy landscape as we drove around all the sightseeing spots:

  1. Memorial Chorten - This is a prominent landmark in the city. It is a very peaceful place, and one can see people engaged in silent prayer as they circumambulate the central white structure, crowned with a golden spire. We also visited another old temple later in the day, but I forget its name.
  2. Buddha Point – This is a massive 169 ft statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha. It is still under construction, so we were only allowed to view it from a distance. Nevertheless, this is a great spot to shoot pictures of the Thimphu valley.
  3. BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Station) Tower – This is another great spot to get a view of the entire Thimphu valley.
  4. Motithang Takin Preserve – The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, having the head of a goat and the body of a cow. I have never quite seen an animal like this before – they’re big, lazy and quite ugly!
  5. Folk Heritage Museum – This is a place where one gets a glimpse of the traditional Bhutanese village life during the 16th and 17th century. There is also an attached restaurant that serves organic food.
  6. Zorig Chusum Art & Crafts School – The term ‘Zorig Chusum‘ refers to the 13 ancient art forms that continue to thrive in Bhutan today, including painting, sculpture, carving and embroidery. We had a nice time interacting with the students, and watching them at work.
Thimphu Sightseeing Spots
Ambient Cafe, Thimphu

Thimphu is a small city, so we were able to cover all the sightseeing spots by late afternoon. We headed back to our hotel for some well needed rest. Later in the evening, we stepped out again for a 2.5-hour walk around the city. We visited all the colorful art/craft and souvenir stalls, and finally had a light dinner at Ambient Cafe – this is one of the few upscale places we visited in Thimphu – the snack items were great, and so was the ambience!

Day 4: Thimphu – Paro and Trek to the Tiger’s Nest

Paro Airport - Bird's Eye View

We checked out of our hotel at Thimphu at 6:30 AM and started by taxi to Paro. The sun was already peeping out, and the landscape had changed completely from the previous day – it was as if we were visiting Bhutan in another season altogether! The drive was scenic, and we stopped at quite a few places to take pictures. The bird’s eye view of Paro International Airport in particular, was absolutely stunning! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay there long enough to watch a flight land/take-off.

We dropped off our bags at Hotel Phunsum, had a quick breakfast at a nearby restaurant and drove to the base of the Tiger’s Nest – this is a monastery that is perched on a cliff at an altitude of around 10,240 ft. A trek to this spot involves a climb of around 3,000 ft from the base of the Paro valley, and that was exactly what we planned to do!

There are 3 stages to this trek:

  1. There is a small cafeteria set up at the half-way point (the prices are exorbitant though – a cup of tea costs Rs. 80!), and you can get a clear view of the Tiger’s Nest from here. Most people stop after reaching this point.
  2. The more enthusiastic lot trek up another hour until they reach the highest point of the trek (10,629 ft), marked by a red flag.
  3. The last part of the trek is the steepest and most difficult – in order to traverse to the other rock face and reach the actual temple complex, you have walk down a long flight of stairs, cross a bridge and then climb up another long flight of stairs.
Trek to the Tiger's Nest, Paro

We happened to meet photojournalist Karl Grobl at the half-way point – he was scouting locations in Bhutan for his upcoming photography tour in October. We had a nice, long chat with him for around 40 mins and then continued on our upward climb.

We stopped at several places to take pictures (and to rest, of course), and after 4.5 hrs, we finally made it all the way to the top! We were welcomed by the friendly security personnel deputed there, and were even offered apples to eat. We deposited our belongings – camera, phone, backpack etc. – at the counter outside and entered the temple complex.

The view from the Tiger's Nest

After visiting all the small temples there, we sat for a while and enjoyed the serene landscape one last time before re-tracing our path to the base of the Paro valley. It took us around 2 hours to get back down, and by that time, all the Dzongs and other sightseeing spots were closed. We had no regrets though, because we had just completed one of the longest and most beautiful treks of our lives!

On the way back to the hotel, we had an engaging conversation with our taxi driver Kelden about his family, the Bhutanese education system, the wedding rituals and the Bhutanese way of life in general. When we reached the hotel, we surprised him with a teddy bear for his 4-year old daughter – it was her birthday the following day. He was very grateful for the gift, and wished us well for the rest of our trip.

We had dinner at Hotel Pejorling and returned to our hotel rooms for a good night’s rest. But sadly, I didn’t get much sleep that night because of mosquitoes and some dogs that were barking outside all through the night.

Day 5: Paro – Phuentsholing – Siliguri

Mr. Kesang, the owner of Hotel Phunsum cooked us breakfast in the morning and dropped us at the bus stand in his personal vehicle. We happened to be the only guests in the hotel, and hence the VIP treatment!

Having reached Phuentsholing by 3:00 PM, we decided that it was best to travel to Siliguri the same day. This way, we would avoid the tension of having to travel 6 hours from Phuentsholing to Bagdogra Airport early in the morning. Also, we didn’t want to experience the unpleasant local bus ride again (once was more than enough!), so we hired a comfortable A/C taxi instead.

By 9:00 PM we reached the Mittal Bus Stand in Siliguri and checked into Hotel Tourist Inn located just a few minutes away from the bus stand.

Day 6: Siliguri – Bagdogra – Hyderabad

It was a calm, lazy morning. We literally had nothing on the itinerary for the day, except reaching the airport by 1:30 PM. So after spending some time at a nearby cafe late in the morning, we packed up our bags and headed to the airport which was just half an hour away. And before we knew it, we were on our return flight to Hyderabad!

Below is a short video I put together with some glimpses from the trip – mind you, I shot it with my cell phone (LG Optimus P970), so it obviously does not do justice to the beauty of the place!

If you happen to be an Indian national planning a budget trip to Bhutan yourself, below are some travel and accommodation details that might help you. I have mentioned all rates in Indian Rupees, since the Indian currency is widely accepted in Bhutan and is equivalent to the Bhutanese Ngultrum (1 BTN = 1 INR).

Accommodation & Travel

PLACE HOTEL PHONE ROOM TYPE RATE (w/ Tax)
Siliguri Hotel Tourist Inn +91 9932031531/05450 Double Rs. 1,900
Phuentsholing Hotel Sinchula 00975-5252589/252772 Single Rs. 838
Thimphu Hotel Tandin 00975-2323380/81 Double Rs. 857
Paro Hotel Phunsum 00975-17626988/08272970 Double Rs. 1,000
TRAVEL FROM – TO MODE RATE
Bagdogra Airport to Siliguri (30 mins) Taxi Rs. 450
Siliguri Mittal Bus Stand to Phuentsholing (5.5 hrs) Bus Rs. 87
Bagdogra Airport to Phuentsholing (6 hrs) Taxi Rs. 2,000
Phuentsholing to Thimphu (6 hrs) Bus Rs. 200
Thimphu Sightseeing Taxi Rs. 1,500
Thimphu to Paro (1 hr) & Paro Sightseeing Taxi Rs. 2,500
Paro to Phuentsholing (6 hrs) Bus Rs. 193
Phuentsholing to Siliguri Mittal Bus Stand (5.5 hrs) Taxi Rs. 2,500
TAXI DRIVER PLACE(S) PHONE
Kelden Thimphu and Paro 00975-77777447
Amit Siliguri +91 9832361125
  • Jun 24 / 2012
  • 0
Artwork

Prometheus has Landed!

Edited together a short video of me working on my ‘Prometheus’ drawing:

Drawn on A4, using 6B and 0.5mm HB pencils. Footage filmed by Karthik and edited by me. The background track is “Endings” by Jacob Groth.

You can see the final image on my deviantART gallery.

  • Apr 15 / 2012
  • 0
Artwork, General, Video

Speaking at Pecha Kucha Night Hyderabad Vol. 8

I was recently invited as a speaker at Pecha Kucha Night Hyderabad Vol. 8, held at Lamakaan on March 31, 2012.

Pecha Kucha Nights are informal events organised in over 500 cities across the world, where creative people get together and share their ideas, works, thoughts, holiday snaps – just about anything really. Presentations are made in the PechaKucha 20×20 format – 20 images x 20 seconds.

In my presentation, ‘Know Tools, Create Better’, I used examples of my drawings, photos, digital art, animated shorts and Doom levels to highlight the role of software tools in my creative process, and why I think every artist should learn them.

This was my first talk ever at a public forum, and it was a lot of fun! The official video of my presentation is now up on YouTube:



Hope you like it!

On a related note, my brother Karthik spoke at PKN Hyderabad Vol. 6. You can watch his presentation here: ‘My Movie Fan Artwork’. And on an unrelated note, my Engineering college had its Decennial Day Celebrations on the same day as this event, 31-Mar-2012. Congratulations CVR!

  • Mar 25 / 2012
  • 1
Travel, Video

A Trip to Srisailam

Had been to Srisailam last month, on the eve of Shivaratri (18-19 February). Here are some glimpses from the trip:

For my friends outside of India, here are some video notes:

  • 0:23: Roadside Mirchi Bajji, a popular snack in Andhra Pradesh made out of chillies and gram/rice flour.
  • 0:59: Lakhs of devotees come to this small town for Shivaratri (we were there on the eve of Shivaratri). There aren’t enough hotels to accomodate them all, so they just sleep on the roads with their bags.
  • 1:22: Devotees dressed in traditional brown/orange attire.
  • 1:29: People who worship Lord Shiva usually have 3 horizontal stripes of vibhuti (ash) on their forehead, like the old woman here. Worshipers of Lord Vishnu wear 3 vertical stripes.
  • 1:50: People trying to balance coins on their sides. It is believed that if the coins stand erect without falling, your wish will be granted.
  • 2:14: There was something (not sure what) far away that people were trying to see from this spot. It is believed that people who are able to see it attain Moksha.
  • 2:42: At the right-most corner, a part of the Srisailam dam is visible.
  • 3:15: Local buses! Traveling in one of these in India is an experience in itself.

Our budget for this ‘really local’ trip was Rs. 1000/- per person, inclusive of travel, food, stay and sight-seeing for 2 days.

Oh and the background track in the video is Bent – Invisible Pedestrian. Heard it a long time ago in one of the CSI: Miami episodes; I think it fits quite nicely here.

  • Mar 11 / 2012
  • 1
Photography

Photos Exhibited at Darpan 2012

Infosys Hyderabad organised a photography exhibition, Darpan 2012, on March 6 and 7 at the Gachibowli campus. Entries were invited from all the 20,000+ employees based out of Hyderabad and the best 100 entries were selected for display.

Photos exhibited at Darpan 2012

The work of 30 photographers made the final cut, and I’m happy to announce that I was one of them! My selected entries are listed below:

My selected entries for Darpan 2012
  1. City by the Lake
  2. Jog Falls
  3. Steps
  4. War Times

The photos were also put up for sale, and the proceeds were donated to charity. Twenty two prints (12″x18″) of mine were sold over the two days, including six framed prints and sixteen non-framed ones. The large format prints looked so beautiful that I couldn’t help ordering 2 framed prints for myself too. Can’t wait for them to arrive!

  • Oct 14 / 2011
  • 16
Artwork

Designing Album Art for Swedish band ‘No Omega’

Swedish rock/hardcore band ‘No Omega’ stumbled across my site and artwork last month, and asked me if I could design the cover for their debut full-length record ‘Metropolis’. I said yes.

I had initially sent across some samples to help them decide the cover’s basic look and feel, and the typography that they wanted to use. A couple of mails went back and forth, some tweaks were made here and there, and this is the final outcome —

What do you think? The tracklist and credits will be added to the back cover once the content is finalised.

  • Jun 25 / 2011
  • 2
General

Making Brownies

Tried my hand at making brownies for the first time yesterday, with surprisingly awesome results! Beats the cakes and biscuits I’ve baked before hands down. Here are images of me at work —

What I learnt in the process —

  1. Preheating the microwave using Convection mode. The manual could use some better writing!
  2. You can’t melt chocolate in a microwave. They come out nicely burnt.

Below is the final result —

In the picture on the right, I put a few chopped walnuts on the brownie pieces and topped it with honey. Mouth wateringly delicious is what it was!

If you want to try making these yourself, here’s the recipe I used —

Ingredients:

  • 60gms chocolate (I used a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar)
  • 1/3 cup butter (unsalted is ideal, but I used the regular Amul butter)
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar (use 1 cup if you’re using unsweetened chocolate)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts (you can put more if you like!)

Method:
Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla essence. Beat in egg and add melted chocolate. Blend. Mix in flour and chopped walnuts. Pour into a greased pan and bake in a microwave preheated to 180° C for 20 minutes. That’s pretty much it!

  • May 07 / 2011
  • 1
General

RSS Feed Improvements

Got back to some PHP coding today (after more than two years!) and made some improvements to the RSS feed of VarunAbhiram.com. You’ll notice that the titles are much neater now, and the feed items now feature thumbnail images! All I had to do was to hook up the RSS code to my nifty PHP script that automatically picks up images from their respective locations, scales them down and feeds them to the browser.

Small change, but makes the feed look a lot richer, wouldn’t you say?