Land of The Thunder Dragon: Road Trip
"There are amazing places around the world and then there is Bhutan"
The kingdom of Bhutan is a land lock country at the eastern end of Himalayas. A Buddhist nation, Bhutan boasts dramatic landscapes embellished with monasteries and Dzongs (Fortresses).The preserved beauty of this Himalayan Kingdom will blow any wanderlust mind.If you plan to look for serene place with unparalleled beauty and history, wrapped up and preserved in time, then Bhutan is the place to be and of course the privilege of being one of the only two country on whom Bhutan doesn’t pose heavy tourist tax (making Bhutan one of the most expensive destinations in the world: excluding India and Japan).
It took me 2000km, two and a half days and a ride through 43 degrees of temperature to reach the borders of Bhutan. I have done many rides to Leh, but passing through three states: U.P., Bihar and West Bengal with extreme summer conditions of June made it one of the most challenging rides (especially when you try to do it in less than 3 days). Two other friends accompanied me along; one rode along from Delhi and other took a train to the border of Bhutan.
Considering the short time frame of thirteen days, our trip was divided majorly into 3 phases: Thimphu, Punakha and Paro. After spending a night on the border town of Bhutan, Phuentsholing, we headed towards the capital city Thimphu.
Though June is considered as one of the tourist season, but changes in climatic conditions have made monsoons unpredictable and that’s what happened with us too. Our journey was hit by series of heavy and light showers.
Considering the short time frame of thirteen days, we divided the trip into 3 phases: Thimphu, Punakha and Paro. After spending a night on the border town of Bhutan, Phuentsholing, we headed towards the capital city Thimphu.
With unpredictable climatic changes, Our journey was hit by series of heavy and light showers.
Phuentsholing is the border town and entrance into the “Lost Shangri-La”. It shares its border with Indian town of Jaigon. If you are looking for a cheaper stay for the night then consider Jaigon as your pit stop. I was too eager to experience Bhutanese hospitality and stayed in a hotel in Phuentsholing.
Bhutan tourism industry is regulated and controlled by the Royal Government of Bhutan and it is mandatory for all hotel and tour operators to follow the same. This is done to control unwanted effects of tourism. Bhutan has definitely learned from ill effects of the tourism industry in India and Nepal. To create a greater influx of tourist, hotel owners come out with all kinds of tariff plan creating a price war, which in return affect the average quality of hotels in the country along with heavy toll on Mother Nature.By controlling the tourism industry the Government ensures that the quality and standards of the hotels within the same category are at par with government norms and that in return helps in providing quality tourism and a control over the flow of excessive tourists.
If you are non-Indian or Non- Japanese then be ready to pay steep tourist tax, you might have to shell out Over USD 290 per day per person ( no kidding !!!) for hotel and a private taxi ( and this is a must, not an option J ). You can find more information about tourism tax for Non – Indian and Non – Japanese on various sites. Check the link below
Taking a private vehicle anywhere beyond Phuentsholing needs permit. You can apply for one in the Government office in Phuentsholing. The government process and employees are quite effective. For Paro and Thimphu, one can get a simple permit but to go further you need to apply again in Thimphu office.
After getting all the paperwork done and a hearty breakfast, we cruised over our Royal Enfield’s toward Thimphu. The distance between Phuentsholing and Thimphu is merely 170 km, but with winding roads, scattered rainfall and long breaks over a cup of tea and photography made our journey into good seven hours.
Known as Thimbu, and one of Bhutan’s Dzongkhags(administrative seat), it is the capital city in the western central part of the country. Thimphu is the most modern city in the country with an abundance of internet café, restaurants, nightclubs and ATM’s. Its infrastructure is between modern countries and ancient Bhutan and helps in an easy transition for tourists. Amenities like ATM’s and internet will become a luxury or mere illusion once you leave Thimphu and venture deep into Bhutanese territory. One of the most interesting facts about Thimphu is that it does not use traffic lights, and yes!! People follow rules. Few major intersections have Policemen controlling the traffic.
The city has more than enough to keep you busy for three to four days. There are a number of places to visit in the town and few of them are mentioned below
Changlimithang Stadium: One can visit Changlimithang stadium to catch a game of football. It is a national stadium that host A-team football games. I and my friends were lucky enough to catch a game in progress and got great shots.
Clock Tower Square: If you are looking for a place to relax, eat and do window shopping, clock square is the place to be. A giant clock tower with clocks on all four sides is a major landmark and heart of the city. Restaurants, cafe and shops surround the tower, to satisfy your cravings and daily needs.
Tashichho Dzong: It is the seat of government since 1952 and holds the throne room and offices of the king of Bhutan, the secretariat and the ministries of home affair and finance. The structure is on the western bank of Wang Chu(Raidak River). One thing you won’t fail to realise is that every structure in Bhutan is represented in a traditional form. If they remove all the signs, I assure you it will be next to impossible to differentiate between a hotel, hospital and a shop J. This holds true for Tashichho too. The building is well maintained in its original form and is definitely the crowned jewel of the city.
National Memorial Chorten: Chorten means “seat of faith”. It is a large white monument with intricate structures and astonishing paintings. The structure is located in the center of the city and is visited by elders for prayer.
To go beyond Thimphu one has to apply for inner permits in Thimphu office (I will recommend you to apply on the first day of the visit so that by the time you are done with Thimphu your permits are ready)
My sole reason for visiting Punakha was to visit the famous palace where the royal wedding took place. Punakha is 100 km from Thimphu, but again the road conditions, bends, rainfall and dropping temperature makes it feel like 300 J. The road to Punakha passes through a barrier where the officials check your permit and then it winds through Dochula pass at an elevation of 3050 meters. The pass is one of the major tourist spot providing a 360-degree view of the valley. If the weather is clear one can see the complete northern Himalayan range from this spot.
The pass, marked with 108 stupas, provides a great photography opportunity.Known as Druk Wangyal Chortens – They were commissioned by the eldest queen of Bhutan, her majesty AshiDorjiWangmoWangchuk. For those who wish to seep in the fresh air and enjoy the view of dochula can stay at dochula resort at the top of the pass.
Punkha uses to be the capital seat until 1955 when the government moved it to Thimphu. Unlike latter, Punakha is a much-relaxed town, spread within few kms with a calm and serene atmosphere. The place is cut off from any kind of modern facilities like ATMs and internet (a pure bliss!!). Himalayan range surrounds the whole valley with Pho and Mo Chu rivers flowing through it.
Punakha is famous for its white and brown rice farming. The town is home to Punakha Dzong along Mo chu. The famous wedding of Druk Gyalpo (The 5th Dragon king) and his fiancée, JetsunPematook place in this Dzong. Punakha is where you feel lost in time. A true Bhutan!
If you ever plan a trip to Bhutan, you shall keep at least four days for Paro. The place is absolutely mesmerizing and holds one of the best destinations of Bhutan “The tiger’s nest”.
Being close to the Indian border and having its own airport, Paro has the highest flow of Indian tourists. The airport is considered as “the most difficult commercial airport in the world”. On approaching, the planes have to cross by 5500 meter high Himalayan peak and land on a 2000 meter runway. Only a handful of pilots (the number stands at 8) are certified to do so. The town is bustling with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops and homes Rinpung Dzong: a fortress-monastery and a major attraction.
If you want to enjoy the real Paro, then grab your vehicles and drive away from the town to places mentioned below
TaktsangPalphug (Tigers Nest): On the outskirts of Paro, The tiger’s nest is a Buddhist monastery positioned along a straight cliff, giving a feel of a hanging structure. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche, the founding father of Buddhism in Bhutan, flew on a back of a tigress to this site and then meditated here for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. The monastery is a must-see for any visitor, not only for its sheer location but for its five-hour trek all the way to the top (making it all worth J )
Chelela : Chele is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan ( 13000 feet). The pass is at a distance of 37 km from the town of Paro. On a clear day, one can view the sacred mountain Jhomolhari.
Haavalley : Rather than turning back from chele la, one can continue to ride through haa valley and circle around their way back to Paro. The valley is home to a small Haa town that is covered with Bhutanese military camps and Indian military camps. Have a quick stop at local monastery and grab local delicacies before heading back to Paro.
Culture and etiquettes: "They take it seriously, so shall you"
If I have to differentiate Bhutan from the rest of Asia, in own word, it will be – civility.
People of Bhutan are polite and respectful and they expect the same from you. As a traditional society, the Bhutanese follow a refined system of etiquettes known as “driglamnamzha”. It defines and governs how people behave in public, respect for authority and devotion towards civic duty. Honking is considered rude so please refrain yourself from doing so.
. As previously stated, people in cities follow rules, so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic because of some dumb head trying to overtake from the wrong side.Despite being labelled “traditional” women in Bhutan have more civil rights than its neighbouring nations. Men and Woman mix and converse, without any restrictions, unlike many other Asian nations.
They don’t just talk about deforestation they make sure it doesn’t happen in Bhutan! 50% of the country is under wildlife reserve. Bhutanese government measures its countries happiness using GNH (gross national happiness), which is one of its kind.
People in Bhutan are way more contended and happier than most of the other countries, that I have ever visited. They don’t care about the latest TV or i-phone. They are happy to have a stress free life with 8 hours of proper sleep and food on their table for their family (A plain and simple life). If there’s ever a nation to make an example for happy life – look at Bhutan. It justifies the quote “Money doesn’t buy happiness”
My Travel Itinerary
Day 1… delhi to Varanasi ( 856 km in 16 hours ride)
Day 2 .. Varanasi to begusarai ( 408km in 10 hours)
Day 3..begusarai to phuentsholing ( via sevoke ) ( 550 kms in 10 hours)
Day 4 ..phuentsholing to thimphu ( 170 km in 7 hours)
Day 5 ..inthimphu
Day 6 ..thimphu to punakha (90 kms in 5 hours)
Day 7 ..punakha to paro ( 130 kms in 8 hours)
Day 8 punakha
Day 9 punakha
Day 10 punakha to phuentsholing (160 kms in 10 hours)
Day 11 phuentsholing to darbangha( 490kms in 11 hours)
Day 12 darbangha to lucknow (585 kms in 13 hours)
Day 13 lucknow to delhi( 550kms in 9 hours)