Landing in Thimphu Instead of Paro: The First Chapter | Bhutan
My Bhutan trip happened suddenly and I took on the roads rather than flying to Paro. Though I missed the one-of-a-kind mighty glimpses of the Himalayas up from the sky, the rendezvous with the land wasn’t any less fulfilling.
Given the fact that I enjoy long drives and road trips, the idea of driving up to Thimphu seemed to be a pleasant one since I had no prior plan. This is going to be my first Bhutan trip. Without wasting any more time, I quickly figured out what has to be done and got in touch with an agency to get started.
The previous day I reached the border city of Jaigaon located in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal, India. Adjoining this Indian city is the prospering Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing which is the administrative seat of the Chukha district of Bhutan. It’s amazing to see how the two countries are marked and separated by the beautiful Bhutan Gate that serves as the main overland entrance to the other country!
All the immigration formalities were completed on the same day by visiting the Regional Immigration Office in Phuentsholing. The office is located just a little distance away from the Gate and operates between 9.00 AM – 5.00 PM IST (that is, 9.30 AM-5.30 PM Bhutanese Standard Time). After the formalities were done, I had enough time to unwind, rest, and get charged up to start my journey the next morning.
Finally, Get Set Go!
Having my breakfast done in the Jaigaon hotel, that moment finally arrives. I am so excited that within a couple of minutes I’ll be officially travelling to the Land of Happiness for which I had been nurturing my love for more than a decade. My eyes shine as I look at the number plate of my vehicle parked right outside the hotel. The “BP” followed by the number in white on a red background suddenly makes my heart beat faster. It might sound silly but that’s how it is for me 😀 There are five types of vehicle registration plates in Bhutan. “BP” is used for private vehicles.
Settling down with the luggage and seat, the wheels start rolling around 10.30 AM from Jaigaon towards Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. As we cross the Gate, Chang sets the tone for the tour with his cordial, courteous expressions which are soon followed by a clear and beautiful introduction of the country. I come to know that this land with no states but 20 districts and a total population of only 7,00,000 is one of the greenest regions in the world. In 2008, the Kingdom of Bhutan became a democratic constitutional monarchy after the coronation of their fifth King, His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
Both education and healthcare are free in this mountain nation. I was already aware of the unique economic metrics of this country – Gross National Happiness (GNH). It was implemented when the fourth King, His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck issued a royal decree in 1986. It’s absolutely delightful to listen and understand this fact from a happy and proud citizen!
The interaction soon becomes more endearing with the way Chang repeats “Thik hai?” in Hindi (“Okay?”) after every couple of lines to confirm if he is clear and understandable. Fluent in both English and Hindi, he owns an adorable voice and an effective voice modulation skill.
The First Stopover
The first immigration check point is in Rinchending, located about less than 10 km from Phuentsholing. Chang goes ahead with the travel documents and arrival forms for verification at the counter while we sit back and peep out of the window to get the best glimpses of the surroundings. I see a queue of bikes on the other side of the road. The bikers group arrives soon, puts on their helmets fitted with GoPro cameras and rides away towards Phuentsholing. We start off in another ten minutes towards our destination in the opposite direction.
The Second Stopover
About 20 minutes later, we stop for tea and refreshment at Townview Bar and Restaurant. The location offers a dramatic view of the green hills and adjoining plains. However, a partially cloudy sky offers a misty view and leaves me a little disappointed. I click some pictures quickly while contemplating the weather during my trip.
And suddenly this little boy appears and instantly uplifts my mood! He busily searches for some bottles while I go up to him and interact. At first, he shares a doubtful glance and gets busy with his stuff again. But I continue my chit-chatting and ask for his permission to have a photograph. Soon I am successful in winning his beautiful smile and he starts responding with gestures and more smiles. He becomes playful and gives me some random charming poses! Seeing the two of us giggling, some other people approach him too but he runs away out of shyness. Lucky me! 😀
Passing by Gedu
After half an hour, we start our journey again. The weather begins to get cloudier and mistier. At certain points, it’s so foggy that nothing is visible on the other side of the road.
We reach the town of Gedu about 40 minutes later. It hosts the Gedu College of Business Studies, one of the colleges under Royal University of Bhutan. This one is a graceful location!
The Third Stopover
We stop at Hotel Dam View Restaurant & Bar for lunch. From here, a hydroelectric power plant is visible nestled in the wooded hills by the river. The restaurant is full and loaded with tourists. We wait a while outside enjoying the views and lovable street dogs.
Once inside, we find a table and settle ourselves in the inner hall. It’s a buffet, managed and served by four staff members. Dressed in their traditional attire ‘Kira’, the ladies are quite welcoming and amicable.
Chang waits at the buffet counter to serve rice to his guests. Food has always been connected with the higher purpose of bringing people together – sharing and serving food is often related to sharing a culture. It not only stands for elementary hospitality but also for creating and nurturing social relationships. I think it’s a wonderful gesture on his part to make his guests feel comfortable and connected at once.
I walk up to the counter with my plate and he fills it with a generous helping. When I say, “I don’t eat this much”, he grins and replies (with a commanding voice) that young people should eat. He sounded exactly like my parents 😀
And well, I ate it all.
Straight Drive to Thimphu
A little more than 2 hours is left to reach Thimphu from this point. I am pretty excited. Until now, the road and the views offer a striking similarity with those of the Darjeeling and Alipurduar districts of West Bengal, Sikkim, and the north-eastern states of India. As you move up along the ridge from here on, the topography changes and you can spot the differences slowly. It actually reminded me of my road trip to Lava in West Bengal, India sans the tea gardens.
The green hills and the landscape become more enticing with every turn! While my vehicle glides on the road, it gives a feeling like it’s taking me straight into the arms of Mother Nature. I recall what Chang mentioned during the introduction – “Bhutan is carbon-negative”. The purity of the air and the greenery engulf my senses gradually.
The mist reappears, grows denser and casts a magical spell on the road. The chill in the air suddenly elevates and makes it difficult to keep the windows open. I try my best to capture some shots but soon give in and close the window as the biting wind almost freezes my fingers.
After a while, the mist clears although it’s still partially cloudy. We speed up for it’ll start getting dark by 4:30 PM. About half an hour drive from the Dam View Restaurant, we take a single halt to see an alluring waterfall.
It takes about 5-6 hours to reach Thimphu from Jaigaon. When we arrive at our hotel in Thimphu around 5.30 PM, it’s dark already. It’s cold and after having a cup of piping hot tea I check into my room on the third floor. Taking a brief rest, I quickly freshen up and unpack. At 8 PM, I go down to have my dinner while confirming the details of sightseeing for the next day.
It’s been a smooth ride since the beginning as the roads are really great over here. I retire to my room and spend a few minutes in the balcony to take a quick glance at the outdoors. The moon shines bright and the clusters of light on the land present an ornate canvas. The soft murmur of the river, the calls of the insects and the chilly wind slowly infuse their essence and calm me from within.
I come inside and jot down some observations in my notebook while warming up by the room heater. I’ve been constantly fighting a personal crisis but on this day I receive a hint from my heart that a process has begun – something has touched the knots of my mind and soul, probably to untie them.
I got to wake up early, get ready and have my breakfast done by 8.30 AM. We’ll be starting off at 9.00 AM for sightseeing. I go off to sleep in my soft, pearl white bed hoping and praying for a clear blue sky tomorrow.