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. 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 you 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 metres 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 an 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 that the permit office was open that day because of high tourist frequency. So, that's where we headed first.
The permit process is painless. You fill a couple of forms, give a proof of your identity (Passport, Voter Id, Driver's License - anything works), get your picture clicked, finger prints 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.
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 kilometres 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 chilli 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 kilometres, 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.
Just before Paro, there is a small village where we took a short break. A friend of ours was flying into Paro and we enquired some taxi drivers if they had seen her around. The next moment, they thrust their cell phones in our faces to show a porny GIF. #facepalm. They laughed like maniacs. Who are these people man? Why are they so happy, so friendly (over-friendly?), so out there?
We left for the airport to check if our friend was still there waiting for us. It turned out that the Airport had closed for the day. Wow! Where does this happen? We came back to the village and after much banter between the cab drivers and us, we got news that our friend had hiked up to a monastery and would be back soon. So, we spent our time playing football with some kids. Archery is a big thing in Bhutan, so there were some people playing take-aim at a stone with some kind of arrows as well.
Our friend arrived and we spent time in the nearby Snooker Parlor. Boy, it was fun. Not in the least because of my love for the game. Beer flowed. Games ensued. Did I mention that you get liquor everywhere in Bhutan? Even the tiniest retail shop would have a table, 4 chairs and a big stock of beers.
At the parlor, we met a Dentist who looked anything but. His job was a 11 to 4 after which he was free to do anything. So, he played Snooker. They all told us of the crazy Wednesday parties in Paro. Yeah, Wednesdays. Bhutan is awesome.
Sidenote 5 : Education upto Grade 10 and Primary Healthcare is free in Bhutan. Even complex procedures are relatively cheap. Couple this with the relaxed work arrangements and you start to understand why people are happy here.
Beautiful Story 2
On the way to Paro, one of us got into a minor accident with another bike which got a little damaged in the process. The fault was completely our own. Now, if this was in India, it would have become a big scene. But, Bhutan being Bhutan, that guy took a chill pill and actually helped us in our search to find a Helmet (which were in short supply there).
In Paro, we went straight to Hotel Sonam Trophel. It is just across the river and has good rooms and great food. The waiter-cum-errands boy also asked us if were going to the Wednesday party, he definitely was. It seemed like the whole town goes to the same party.
Next day we trekked to Tiger's Nest Monastery. The monastery hangs on a steep cliff edge at 10,000 ft above the Paro Valley. The trek is about three hours of moderate climb. At the beginning of our climb, we saw a local coming down. We asked him of the route and he suggested that we should take the short-cut he was coming from. This was the gravest mistake we could have made. Seriously, don't ever take the short cut. It is steeper, and harder. At half way, there is a cafe which is exorbitantly priced, even for a bottle of water. So, I'd recommend carrying your own snacks and water.
The monastery is a picture of quiet and peace. A lot of tourists ply on the route. It was almost crowded at some points. But, inside the monastery, it doesn't feel like there are many people. It is noiseless, clean and windy. If you stay still at one spot and just breathe, profound moments emerge aplenty. You might pause and question the validity and importance of the decisions in your life, if not life itself, even if just for a few moments.
As we came down, we saw locals climbing up, even in the light rain, carrying supplies up. The knick-knack sellers near the base of the trek kept requesting our attention.
This was a Wednesday - the night of the hyped up party. As some of us got ready, a couple of us went down to the nearest Snooker parlor, played guitar, beat the owners at the game and got ourselves free beers.
The party was the bomb. It was in the basement of an ordinary building. Inside, it was one big dance floor in the center with some seats on a raised platform around it. We were a little early, arriving there at about 10.30 pm. We got chatting with a couple of girls who told us that they have studied in Bangalore and they miss the slow pace of Paro. As the night progressed, it got more crowded and we found interesting people to talk and dance with. The music, mainly EDM, was good. We came back with some locals who were kind enough to walk us to our hotel.
Next morning, we left for Thimpu.
It was a brilliant day for riding. Bright sunshine, cool breeze and the road hugging the mountains. We did not rush and drove at a leisurely pace of 50km/hr. The speed limit and speed detectors along the way was a big reason. Also, by now, we had a little bit of Bhutanese chill in our soul.
A great view welcomed us as we entered Thimpu, an organised village, as the locals call it. The Buddha statue high up on the mountain overlooked the city. It felt like we were in a video game - no randomness, everything moved slowly and in incremental steps. All the carslooked robotic, self-driven vehicles moving at a pedestrian speed of 25 km/hr. The roads were clean, and the areas to park bikes and cars were marked clearly. The feeling of having arrived in the Capital of the happiest country in the world was wonderful.
Sidenote 6 : Most of Bhutan till this point had great weather and clean air. Being a proper city, I expected Thimpu to be a more polluted. It wasn't, at least not enough to be bothersome.
After a great lunch, we looked for place to stay. Hotels in Thimpu can be cheap or expensive without being very different from each other in terms of comfort. Being the capital, things were a little pricey. Most hotels had a curfew time of 11 p.m. which we wanted to avoid. We asked a passerby for a hotel recommendation and he stopped doing what he was doing and almost took us to the hotel himself. Finally, we found a nice, cozy place run by women, young girls, a boy and a dog. They were the sweetest people who treated us like gods. The Bhutanese hospitality is amazing.
As the evening set in, we roamed around the streets, drinking soup from the roadside vendors, shopping for Bamboo pickles, Yak cheese, prayer flags and handmade bags. I stopped to get a recharge for my phone and found the girl listening to Honey Singh. Yeah, bollywood is popular in Bhutan. We spent some time watching a SAARC cultural festival. The Indian group told the story of Goddess Kali and her nemesis.
We spent that evening in a dance bar which was run by an Indian woman. The girls there soon figured that we were not the kinds to pay for a dance. So, they employed a different tactic. They sat next to us and said they were thirsty, and can we buy them juice? How can you no to that? So we did give them money, no idea if juice was bought and the thirst was quenched. We were the only customers at that time. The matron of the bar invited us to dance on stage and we joined her reluctantly. In all honesty, it felt a little weird though and she sensed that. So as we were leaving, she was kind enough to come out and apologise. People in Bhutan are amazing. Kind and polite.
Next morning, we drove to Dochula pass just before Punakha. We couldn't go all the way to Punakha because our bike troubles ate our days. At the pass, 108 stupas are built in three concentric circles. A cafe stands opposite it where we spent our time relaxing. It was a nice drive and the weather was perfect.
As we returned in the evening, we found refuge in a bakery. The girl at the bakery told us that the King likes to meet Indians. She insisted that we must try to meet him. And the fools that we were, we began our mission of meeting the King of Bhutan. We thought he might even invite us for dinner. After all, who doesn't love to break bread with mysterious travelers from an exotic land far away, who have seen a thousand suns and crossed a hundred seas?
The King keeps traveling so we asked people if he was in town. We looked for his palace but instead found the late Royal Grandmother's palace grounds. But, we did not lose hope. We were adventurers of an indefatigable spirit. Next place we looked was a Dzong which served as the administrative centre of Thimpu. A guard threw suspicious glances at us and looked angry when we asked him how we could meet the King. So, we decided to give up on our mission. The guard sensed that, and immediately he came into his avatar of a Bhutanese local with all the adjectives. He was interested in photography and showed us his pictures clicked on a VGA phone.
In the evening, we visited a pub called Mojo Park. A band was playing good covers and a few originals. The vibe was brilliant. We half-joked that it would be fun if we could play on the stage. So, one of our over-enthusiastic friends, ended up asking the manager if we could play. And he said Yes!
Shruti and I, both were going to play the guitar and sing. I think we were quite poor. There was a lot of passion and little coordination. But, our passion evoked a fire in the hearts of the audience, or so I would like to believe. They all sang along with us every step of the way. After our renditions of Wish You Were Here and BC Sutta, we heard cries of Encore! Then, Shruti did a solo of Zombie.
High on adrenaline, we went to a nightclub, danced the night away and roamed the streets drunk in spirit and happiness. It was a magical night.
It was past 2 a.m. when we returned to the hotel and the door was closed. So we shouted and banged the doors until the boy came down to open the door. That was embarrassing and we felt sorry to have woken up the poor chap in the middle of the night.
RIDE BACK TO INDIA
The next morning was our last in Bhutan. We took the bikes to the now routine task of getting them repaired. At the repair shop, we met the King's official rider. He drove a Desert Storm. Apparently the king was fond of bikes. Finally, we left around noon. On the way we met a couple of young boys - perhaps 13-14 years of age cycling their way from Thimpu to Paro, for no reason. We rode at a fairly decent speed trying to catch up on the lost time of our late start.
We stopped for food at Karma Hotel - the same place where we had lunch while coming from Paro. The girl at the hotel recognised us and enquired us of our trip. It is nice to make acquaintance with people on a trip and be able to meet them again.
Reluctantly, we bid adieu to Bhutan and entered Jaigaon. Just a week away from India, and the crowd, noise and dirt felt alienating. It was dark already and our bike troubles caught up with us soon. Some kilometres away from Jaigaon, one bike's battery died in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness. We parked our bikes in the compound of a villager's hut/farm. The two men were generous enough to offer us water and leave us in peace. The croaking frogs did not.
We called our bike guy, Noel, who was in Siliguri. It took him more than two hours to arrive with spares. It was past 1 am by the time the bike was repaired and we began for what would be the ride of a lifetime.
You see, Noel and his two biker friends were pro bikers. And we were not. They conveniently chose to ignore this fact and rode like the wind. It was completely dark - cloud cover in the sky and no streetlights. They drove at an insane speed and we followed the only thing we could see - their taillights.
Noel rode in front in the center with his halogen headlights switched off at times. The other two flanked him with lights switched on to show the way. The rest of us followed. It was wonderful. In the cold, dark night, 7 bikes went weaving on the roads, overtaking trucks, jumping over rail lines and logs of wood without slowing down a bit.
We lost our way a bit and found beautiful countryside roads. By this time, the cloud cover had lifted and there was a hint of moonlight shining upon us. The reflectors on the road were hypnotic. The adrenaline was pumping and fueling our exhausted bodies and minds.
Midway, we stopped to eat something at an all night dhaba and shared stories of our rides with each other. It was super. We got going again and went through an elephant populated area. So, we had to be careful of the ones who had strayed on the roads. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any.
We arrived in Siliguri at 5 in the morning. And after a couple of hours of sleep, we headed to the airport.
Every day, we had a few rituals that made the trip memorable.
- Tying/Untying the luggage on the bikes. This took upto 30 minutes daily.
- Switching bikes. Some bikes were great, some were not. So, it makes sense to give everyone a chance. We drove CBR 250, Enfield Electra 350, Enfield Thunderbolt 500, Enfield Classic Old model 350, and the humble CBZ 180.
- The new overtaking maneuver. Bhutan has smart drivers. If you want someone behind you to overtake, you switch on the left indicator. If instead you want to warn them of incoming traffic, you switch on right indicator. All of us followed it religiously and it made for a wonderful driving experience.
- Early morning laziness and screwed up plans. We are lazy people. We spent a lot of time at night discussing and agreeing to waking up early and making a move. It never happened.
- Stops for stretching the muscles and banter every hour.
- Hotel room chilling. We spent ample time drinking, chatting and goofing off together.
LEARNING THE ART OF CHILLING
A few days after returning from Bhutan, its effect had not worn off. We drove slower without honking, smiled more and had more time for everyone we met. We craved to go back often. There are some places which make you feel like you are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Bhutan is the opposite. It helps you appreciate the beauty in life's small details and human interactions.
Bhutan taught us to:
- chill, to slow down - in some cases, quite literally. It taught us to respect outsiders and treat them with the kindness and love you would expect in return.
- be simple-hearted and be without your guards-up all the time.
- not rush to go to some place when you are already where you need to be.
- leave the place and the heart you enter a little better than you found it.
- be sincere but not serious.
- be humble without being servile.
- enjoy our nights.
We've forgotten most of it. But, every once in a while, whenever a Bhutan memory resurfaces, a smiles finds its way on our faces. I hope you all get a chance to go. It's a wonderful place.