Bhutan Road Trip: Following the Mountain Echoes

My love for the mountains began long ago, as kids when my parents took us to the wadis somewhere in the border of United Arab Emirates and Oman. Like the good old books teach us, back then I knew I had to conquer the mountains someday – I somehow felt it was a way to gauge my success. But, today, as I spend more intimate hours with the mighty gods, I finally realise that my nomadic life begin and end at my recently discovered home – the unspoilt wilderness. And now I would rather allow them to conquer me.

“Dreams do come true” we mumbled to ourselves, during our last pit stop in a tiny village called Ura.

Few days ago, Vishnu and I started our epic motorcycle trip from Siliguri in West Bengal (India) with a motive to hit the border between two countries. There is something very satisfying about touring in a motorcycle, it’s mainly the freedom. As an experienced rider, Vishnu knew his works around the bike, so the fear of riding with just the two of us hadn’t been a concern.

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Our motorcycle ride across Bhutan was about 1,500 km starting from Siliguri, Jaigaon to Ura in the Northeastern part of Bhutan and back to India, passing by a stretch of narrow side roads carved through mountains on one side and lush deep valleys on the other. For the Shangri-La Bhutan is known for; it begins right from Phuentsholing, the border city that prepares you for a warm up before climbing up the mountains.

1. Pheuntsholing - Paro

While applying for permits at the immigration office, we had an interesting chat with the officials who were keen to hear about our itinerary and ensured we’d be safe. Non-Indian tourists can visit Bhutan only through tour packages. However, the best part is that tours can be customized, even for those who prefer a chilled out vacation.

The 160 km ride from Phuentsholing to Paro can be easily done in a day, with Chukha as the first town. This little town is home to the oldest power project that harnesses the waters of river Wangchu, producing 1,500 megawatts of power. Through a mutual consent, the surplus electricity is exported to India in exchange for technical support in developing hydropower facilities in Bhutan.

The road passes by hydroelectric transmitters, Chukha Dzong, Wang Chhu valley onto the next ridge that houses the Dantak Canteen, run by Border Road Organisation, serving Indian food at reasonable rates. As you reach Paro, you begin to see patches of green paddy fields ringed by rugged mountains. At this point, you feel a sense of relief – motivated to continue the journey. The crowning glory in the picturesque landscape is Paro Chhu (river) that flows through Paro Valley.

If visiting Bhutan in March or April, be sure to witness the Tsechu Festival featuring religious performances and mask dances to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rinpoche.

We reached Paro a little after dusk, but the day had just begun. Our gem of a hotel Nak-Sel Boutique, nestled on the Chelela ranges, was yet another surprise to the day. With fabulous views of Mt. Jomolhari from our room, we couldn’t ask for more.

2.Paro - Thimphu

“You riding all the way from India?” the curious Bhutanese locals asked. The number plates on our Enfield screamed the origin of our road trip – KA for Karnataka.

As one of the most historic valleys in Bhutan, Paro is home to some richly decorated houses that boast traditional architecture. Plenty of shops and local restaurants line the main streets of Paro. Quite distinct from other countries, Bhutan preserves a cultural identity of it’s own, reflected through glorious architecture, archery, traditional dress called Kira and Gho, religious ceremonies and just about everyday life. These can be prominently seen in sites like Taksang Monastery, Rinpung Dzong, and Kyichu Lakhang.

bhutan phobjik

The route towards the South, open up to Pachu River all the way to the river confluence of Chuzom, juncture of Wang Chu (Thimphu river) and Pa Chhu (Paro river).

You’ll pass by villages of Bondey, Shaba, and Isuna onto a road that crosses the bridge over the river. Chuzom is also a major junction with roads leading to Haa, Phuentsholing, and Thimphu. From here, Thimphu is about 30 km, passing by villages like Kharbije, Khasadrapchhu that houses Hydro plant, and Namseling known for its extensive rice paddies; and suburbs like Lungtenphu.

Bhutan_paro

Thimphu requires a day, as you’d have to apply for special entry permits to the restricted areas of Bhutan. The immigration office is at the end of Norzin Lam.

After a bit of sightseeing, we spent a few hours at Ambient Café, planning the rest of our trip to rural Bhutan. The feeling was overwhelming, as we were headed to regions that received access to electricity only few years ago. I was also excited to meet the Bhutanese locals to understand their way of life and daily chores in villages that does not yet have access to computers and televisions.

We stayed at Hotel Galingka, with our balcony facing the main traffic signal in Norzin Lam. Thimphu is the only capital in the world that has non-automated traffic signals – these are manned signals that help avoid major traffic jams.

Bhutan_Thimpu

3.Thimphu - Punakha - Wangdue - Gangtey

Due to construction for road renewal, we had to hurry up before the closing time. We were extremely stressed about reaching on time, turns out we had company – a group of bikers from one of the motorcycle tours were exiting East Bhutan to India via Assam. Though their itinerary tempted us to head their similar direction, our limited permits didn’t give us a choice than to return to India via Phuentsholing.

About an hour from Thimphu, the steep and twisty turn climbs to Dochu La Pass at 3,050 meters. On a clear day, the pass offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Eastern Himalayan Mountains. The 108 Chortens, built to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who fought the Indian rebels, is set within the landscape of snow-capped mountains. The restaurant calls for a cup of coffee and hot omelet.

Bhutan_Dochula_Pass

Encircling the Chortens, the road down from Dochu La Pass onto Punakha Valley and to Wangdi descends to about 1,700 meters to the valley.

Punakha Dzong is strategically situated at the confluence of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. The royal wedding was held at this beautiful Dzong. A 20-minute ride from Punakha is the Wangdu Phodrang, famous for its stone carvings, and bamboo works. The highlight is the Wangdu Dzong, sitting above the juncture of Punakha Chu and Tang Chu rivers.

Bhutan_punakha

You can either ride back to Punakha for an overnight stay or head to Phobjika directly. The route to Phobjika valley passes through Pele La Pass at 11,000 ft. leading to Gangtey Gompa located on a hill overlooking the valley. As the winter spot for black-necked cranes, Phobjika is an important wildlife preserve in Bhutan.

Bhutan_travel_Phobjika

It was half past 5 when we began descending towards Phobjika’s valley floor. As we rode down, the view opens up to the  floor dotted with Bhutanese houses amid perfectly manicured paddy fields and the dusky sky complimenting the sun-kissed golden grasses against hills of fern trees. Since we did not book a room in advance, we asked the locals for homestay recommendations in the area. We were directed to Gakiling guesthouse, a newly opened property of concrete block of 16 rooms lining the balcony, located on the western slopes of Black Mountains.

Bhutan_phobjika

4.Gangtey - Trongsa – Bumthang – Ura – Haa
After some warm breakfast served in the dinning room in a table beside the Bukhari (heater), we were prepared to exit Central Bhutan.

Follow the same road to climb onto Lawa La pass, onto east-west highway crossing Pele La pass to the Eastern region of Bhutan. Trongsa is about 48 Kms from Pele La and the road passes by lush pasturelands, forests and hillsides of dwarf bamboos.

bhutan_Trongsa

Further down, there is Sephu village followed by Chendebji village, where you’ll see a large chorten built like Swayambunath in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Bhutan_trongsa_Dzong

After passing through numerous farms and villages, the road opens to the gorgeous Trongsa Dzong blissfully sitting on a narrow ridge overlooking the Mangde Chu– but you’ll see a clearer view of the Dzong when you cross to the other side of the road.

We stopped by the Dzong but weren’t allowed inside, as we did not have specific permits for entry. We spent a few minutes exploring the little bridge wrapped in pink frangipanis.

Riding past Trongsa Dzong, we hit Yutong La, marked by a chorten and prayer flags. About an hour from here is the Chume village. Just as distinctly pretty as Phobjika, the valley floor laden with bright lilac and wild flowers. Riding at leisurely pace, I noticed that the locals live in such perfect harmony with nature and no expectation over materialistic things.

Bhutan_Chumevillage

We reached Swiss guesthouse in Karsumphe, Bumthang recommended by our friends at Nak-Sel. Run by Swiss cheese-maker, the guesthouse exudes a cozy ambiance supplemented by many apple orchards.

Bhutan_roadtrip_travel_Bumthang

The next day we discovered Ura. With large acres of yellow and golden terrains, Ura is considered home to one of the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan.

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5.The Return: Ura – Trongsa – Thimphu – Haa Valley

 

Bhutan_ura (1 of 1)

From Ura, we headed back to Haa Valley in the same direction via Thimphu. Sometimes unplanned journeys are the best – our stay at Hotel Rincheng Ling Trongsa was one of our favorites - obviously because of the views facing Trongsa Dzong and the deep gorge.

There are two roads that head to Haa Valley. The most adventurous is the one through Chele La Pass, the highest point on Dantak roads. This was the highlight of our trip.

Bhutan_Haa_valley (1 of 1)

The road ascends to 3,700 meters with parts of hills covered in snow and frozen waterfalls. During winters, the roads are blocked to avoid any serious accidents due to snow. The mountain pass, marked by a bright yellow board, and fluttering prayer flags out of extreme winds, refreshed our memory about our motorcycle ride to Ladakh.

Bhutan_ChelelaPass

We were in our favorite place - land of extreme weather, snow-capped mountains, and prayer flags – it was easily where our souls belonged.

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After a descend from Chele La Pass, the valley opens to Meri Puensum, the three brother hills, standing tall amid streaks of fog.

three brother hills_haa_valley_bhutan

Our main reason to visit Haa was to stay at the Haa Valley homestay, run by Ugyen and his family, where we experienced a typical Bhutanese way of life including a dip in the hot stone bath in an outdoor wooden tub.

The next day, we bid adieus to Bhutan. What’s special about this 3-week road trip you ask? We soaked in an unrivalled experience spending long days on road conversing with the locals, blending in with a rich culture, and unearthing the mystic aura, this trip wasn’t about ticking the list of ‘thing-to-see’ – it was more than that – it was about following the echoes of the mighty Himalayas.

We continued the ride to Sikkim (India) via Phuentsholing/Jaigon. A post on Sikkim is coming soon.

Bhutan_roadtrip

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Are you a road junkie? What's your most memorable experience with the mountains? Share them in the comments below.

 

11 Comments

  1. This has been a destination on my list for some time but as yet have not made it. What can you tell us about the per costs for non-Indian travellers. I hear there is a minimum amount to be spent per day on the tours?
    Tim recently posted…Everyone Loves Falling Water

    • Shilpa Balakrishnan

      Tim, Non-Indian travelers have to pay about USD 250 per day and can travel only through a tour package. This is mainly because Bhutan limits the number of tourists. The $250 includes accommodation, visa, transportation, food, and guide. So I think its really worth it as you’d be spending around that much even if you’d be travelling by yourselves.

    • Shilpa Balakrishnan

      Anda, Bhutan is not in India – it’s India’s neighbouring country. Bhutan is so neat that it limits the number of tourists every year to preserve its environment.
      As for India, I lived in India for about 2 years, and I believe it depends on the city you visit. One of the biggest problem with tourists is that they first visit places near Taj Mahal which is not so modern and then judge the entire country based on that particular area. If you go to the South, India has forests, beaches and the north of course has the Himalayan mountains – the country’s metropolitan cities are working a great deal and have come a long way in terms of traffic and cleanliness. Some places will definitely change the way you think about India:)

  2. Shilpa, that’s quite a journey you guys covered. Stunning captures of the locales with an apt narrative. I’m sure the trip would have come with its fair share of perils. I’m not the best with mountain roads. But it’s a wonderful way to get over my fear. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful trip experience. Bhutan has been on our list for a while now. 🙂

    • Shilpa Balakrishnan

      Thanks Cheryl. I hope you work towards your goal on visiting Bhutan someday :).

  3. What are the rules for permit?
    If I want to stay more than 7 days, which is the budget hotel?
    Any Indian restaurant with good food, Only Rotis and Vegetables are enough.

  4. Avinash Venkatesan

    Hello Shilpa, We a group of 5 are planning on a road trip to either Bhutan or Tawang. Your article gives a lot of interest to Bhutan. We are planning a trip for 10 days from Silluguri in september. Can you give us places which are must visit in Bhutan.

    Avinash

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