In March of last year, a night of drinking turned interesting when two people in Gurgaon booked flight tickets for five without their consent. I booked mine soon after. And thus, next month, six of us hired motorbikes to venture on a road trip to Bhutan.
The first part of the journey was a flight to Bagdogra. It is the nearest airport to Siliguri where we hired the bikes from. As I waited for my friends to pick me up from the airport, I started writing in my notebook.
Sidenote 1: Here’s a problem I have with travel writing – the real emotions and details of a noteworthy time can only be expressed if you capture them right then. Otherwise, the perfect words are lost, the true feeling is forgotten. But, if you do write them at that instant or soon after, it impacts your experience of the moment. Thus, I chose to just live the following days and not think about how I want to write those down.
We found our bikes at a tiny garage which was the size of a small tea-stall. As I took one out for a test ride, a massive hailstorm appeared out of nowhere. After much struggle, and in near darkness (the electricity had gone out) I found respite under a shop’s tin roof. Those few moments, I felt like a character out of a Bangla movie – rain dripping off my clothes, cigarette smoke and 20 people huddled together under one tin roof. All that was missing was someone reciting a Tagore poem.
Eventually, after rounds of adjusting the RPM, brakes, and such to our liking, we tied our luggage with the bungee cords on the bikes and proceeded to find a hotel for the night.
RIDE TO PHUENTSHOLING
The next morning, after a heavy breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes. This is mention-worthy because we had to tie them carefully otherwise we ran the risk of a wobbly ride.
As we made a move, wide-open roads lined with tea estates on either side greeted us. The traffic was sparse and it was bright and sunny. We raced along at a fairly quick speed, albeit with quite a few breaks in between and reached Jaigaon in about 4 hours. The roads were a dream, except for the last half an hour stretch. The scenery changed from tall trees to wide open fields through small villages. The geography is completely flat – no mountains yet.
Jaigaon is the border town of India and shares its boundary with Bhutan’s counterpart, Phuentsholing. We stopped there to withdraw money from the ATM. There, if you need to buy something, people return your change in Bhutanese currency. But if you want to pay in Bhutanese Ngultrum, it costs you 6% extra.
Two guards stood at a wide gate. It didn’t look anything like a country’s border – you would expect more security at one. We entered Bhutan through this gate, riding on our bikes, making heads turn. As soon as you enter, the roads climb up and mountains appear after the plains of India. It is as if they divided the countries based on where the mountains begin.
Phuentsholing gave us a preview of what to expect in Bhutan. A quiet, slow motion of people, vehicles, and life in general. From the cacophony of noises at Jaigaon, we arrived in the clean and noiseless world of Bhutan. It was like entering a cocoon, and the sounds from just across the border, a mere 100 meters behind us, seemed like coming from far away. The picture of their King stared at us from everywhere.
Sidenote 2: Every household, shop, bar, office, event has a picture of the Royal Couple or The King or both. Today, Bhutan is a democracy which was in fact brought in large parts by an earlier Monarch. The present King is well-loved among the masses.
You can enter Phuentsholing without anyone asking for identity proof. But, if you want to travel further, you need a permit. We had been told that the permit office is closed on Sunday so we went around looking for a hotel. We jumped a signal and a traffic cop immediately came to confront us. And man what a cop he was! Chatty, friendly, and apologetically nice. He informed me that the permit office was open that day because of the high tourist frequency. So, that’s where we headed first.
The permit process is painless. You fill a couple of forms, give proof of your identity (Passport, Voter Id, Driver’s License – anything works), get your picture clicked, fingerprints are taken and you are done. We noticed a pattern that was to become a constant theme in Bhutan. Everyone we met seemed to have all the time in the world. You became their complete focus of attention. The permit officer chatted with us and told us of stories of the celebrities who came to his office. We exchanged our Indian Rupee for Bhutanese Ngultrum even though most places accept INR too.
We had still not found a hotel. Guess who helped? The traffic cop. He left his spot and spoke to a couple of hotel owners to find a place for us. Who does that? I mean, really, who does that?
Anyway, we ended up going to a different hotel – Hotel Druk. All this while, we had left our bikes unattended with our luggage on them. And there was never a moment when we were scared of losing our stuff. And I think that’s mention-worthy too. Bhutan feels safe and welcoming.
In the evening, we roamed the streets and found a dance bar called Sonam Trophel. Dance bars are a common sight in Bhutan. And lot of them are run by women.
Sidenote 3: This is where I should point out that Bhutan is primarily a matriarchal society. Most shops, restaurants, hotels, bars that we came across were run by women.
At the bar, we had a few beers and constantly refused to entertain the girls who solicited our money in exchange for a dance. After these shenanigans, we came out, drank and chatted with the funniest locals.
Sidenote 4: Let me add one thing which would make the rest of this travelogue easy. Whenever I say ‘locals’, always add the adjectives funny, friendly, chatty, and helpful to it.
It was raining and we were hungry. So, we ran in the rain to find a place to eat. Unsuccessful, we returned to our hotel. And that’s when something awesome happened.
Beautiful Story 1
One of us was very hungry. Very, very hungry. So, like a bad-ass, he knocked on the next door and asked for something to eat. Anything. A biscuit, even. The man named Jimmy, who was a local (did you add the adjectives?) understood the gravity of the situation. He asked us to wait for a bit. A little later, we looked outside from our windows and saw a woman on the street walking towards our hotel under the shelter of an umbrella. It looked like she was carrying something under her arm. This was past midnight.
Her name was Kay and she was Jimmy’s friend. She had brought with her packets of Koka, Bhutanese version of Maggi but much better. The man had a stove and they freaking cooked for us. We spent the night hanging out together. And there we sat, eating Koka, sharing Old Monk with them (which they liked very much, who doesn’t?), and appreciating the kindness of this country’s beautiful people.
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel to get permits for our bikes. Meanwhile, some of us got local SIM cards and bought some stuff for the rest of the trip (Druk beer, Druk ketchup, Druk chips, Druk everything).
Once this was sorted, we headed towards our next destination – Paro. But, as luck would have it, one of the bikes broke down. It was an old Enfield model and we had been skeptical about it from the beginning. So, there we were stranded a few kilometers from Phuentsholing and wondering what to do next. Just then, we saw a mini-truck passing by. One of us made the smallest of gestures, and almost on cue, the truck stopped. The locals then helped us carry the bike down to Jaigaon (where they had no business to go to ) to get them repaired. They refused our offer of money for their troubles.
After this ordeal, we postponed our ride to Paro. We returned to Phuentsholing and found a cheaper, nicer hotel where the receptionist-cum-owner spoke in the dreamiest of voices. We called it an early night to catch up on sleep for an early start the next day.
Food to try: Emma Datshi, is a delicious spicy gravy made of chili and yak cheese. We tried this and variations of it with Rice. Second and third servings were required.
RIDE TO PARO
Except for the first few kilometers, the ride to Paro is bliss. Smooth tarmac, meandering across the mountains, no noise of horns (horns are banned in Bhutan) and few truck drivers posing mortal threat to your life.
You can click on each picture in the blog to view an enlarged version
We crossed a management college high up in the mountains. The students just sat outside chilling, doing nothing, enjoying the fine weather. A local came up to us and started chatting. He told us that ‘Yahan padhai nahin hota, bas bang bang hota hai!’ What did I tell you about the locals?
It got foggy really soon and all we could do stay on track was follow the taillight in front.