Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Drive to Thimphu and Paro in Bhutan

Almost exactly 2 years ago, in April 2010, I had driven from Jamshedpur to Bhutan but had to return from the border town of Phuentsholing as no tourists were allowed beyond this town in the plains in view of a SAARC meeting (which was scheduled more than a month later!) at Thimphu.

On the 2nd anniversary of the frustrating experience of 2010, the same four people (a cousin brother & his wife who live in Durgapur and my wife & I) decided to have another go at Bhutan in my Suzuki Swift Vdi. This time I had made sure that there were no restrictions on tourists entering Bhutan and we had an enjoyable trip to Thimphu and Paro. A brief account of our trip is given below.

Day 1 (14.04.12)

6 AM to 11 AM : Jaya and I drove from Jamshedpur to Durgapur (190 km) via Patamda, Katin, Banduan, Manbazar, Hathirampur and Bankura. I tried this route to Bankura for the first time – though it is about 40 km shorter as compared to the route via Chandil and Purulia, I found some stretches to be very bad. Bankura to Durgapur is excellent (though it is not a dual carriageway), with bright white lines in the middle as well as on both sides of the road.

11:30 AM to 7 PM : After picking up my cousin and his wife at Durgapur we drove to Malda (261 km) and put up at a hotel. The route was via Panagarh, Ilam Bazar, Siuri, Rampurhat and Nalhati to Moregram where the road joins NH34 (Kolkata-Siliguri highway). From Moregram we drove to Malda via Farakka.

The road from Durgapur to Malda has several bad stretches. Though 4-laning of NH-34 is going on, bad stretches far exceed good ones at present.

Day 2 (15.04.12)

06:30 AM to 5 PM : Drove from Malda to Jaigaon (411 km) via Dalkhola, Siliguri, Sevoke, Binnaguri and Hashimara. Road from Malda to Dalkhola is mostly unsatisfactory though 4-laning is going on in a big way. But after Dalkhola the road to Siliguri is excellent (4-lane dual carriageway). From Siliguri to Jaigaon too the road is quite good except for a 15 km stretch between Jaldapara and Hashimara which is terrible (badly broken).

We had an excellent lunch at the West Bengal Tourist Lodge at Mal Bazar (53 km from Siliguri).

Jaigaon is the border town on the Indian side. One can freely enter Phuentsholing through the ‘Bhutan Gate’. We spent the night at an Army Officers’ Mess at Jaigaon.

View of the Indian border town of Jaigaon

Day 2 (16.04.12)

9 AM to 11 AM (Bhutan time, which is 30 min ahead of IST) : The Immigration Office at Phuentsholing opens at 9 AM on working days. We were the first people in the queue, having reached at 8:30 AM. It took the four of us about 45 minutes to get our Permits to visit Thimphu and Paro. We submitted photocopies of our Voter ID cards and a colour photo each. There is no charge for the Permits for Indians.

After getting our individual Permits, we needed to get another Permit for the car. This is done at the RSTA (Road Safety and Transport Authority) office at P’sholing, about ½ km from the Immigration office. The car permit took more than an hour as it involves running around to several sub-depts of RSTA. There were queues everywhere. I had to submit photocopies of our individual tourist permits, car papers (registration, insurance, PUC, driving license) and make a written application on plain paper. A payment of Rs 190 (depends on size of vehicle) had to be made in the accounts dept – that alone took 30 mins.

11:15 AM to 5 PM : Drove from P’sholing to Thimphu (168 km). Almost the entire distance is hill roads with innumerable blind curves, hairpin bends and steep climbs / descents. This was my longest continuous driving on hill roads. The road surface is very good throughout – incidentally, all roads in Bhutan are built and maintained by our BRO (Border Roads Organisation). Around 60% of this road is quite wide and very comfortable to drive on. But 40% is narrow (like most hill roads in Darjeeling hills, Sikkim, etc.) and one has to drive very cautiously.

Hill roads in Bhutan

There were two Check Posts in this stretch where I had to park the car, show the individual permits and the car permit at two different counters and have them stamped. I noticed that these check-posts were computerized and networked, i.e., our whereabouts and that of the car were being constantly monitored.

At Thimphu we checked out several hotels and finally settled for Hotel Wangchuk. The official tariff was Rs 3,300 but after some hard bargaining we got it down to Rs 2,000 per night (inclusive of taxes). The hotel offered free parking and wi-fi and had a reasonably decent bar-cum-restaurant.

Day 3 (17.04.12)

Spent the entire day sightseeing at Thimphu. Having my own car was a boon. Visited the Memorial Chorten, Buddha Point, zoo (the only animal worth seeing in this mini-zoo is Bhutan’s national animal – Takin; apart from Takin there are only a few deer there) and Thimpu Dzong (Tashichhodzong). We landed up at the massive Thimphu Dzong around 1300 hrs and were told that tourists are allowed to see the Dzong only between 1700-1800 hrs because the Dzong houses many govt. offices and even the King attends office there everyday. So we went back to our hotel and returned in the evening.

Standing Buddha at Thimphu

IMHO, one full day is good enough to see Thimphu. It is a small city and it does not take much time to go around. Incidentally, Thimphu is the only capital city in the world which does not have a single traffic light!

Things I found most striking in Thimphu : (1) Most of the buildings and private residences are built in traditional Bhutanese architectural style. (2) Most people, including school children, wear Bhutanese National Dress when they are out of their homes. For govt. servants wearing national dress to work is mandatory.

Govt. officials coming out of Thimphu dzong

Bhutanese and Indian food are available everywhere and prices are reasonable.

It must be remembered that the Immigration Office at P’sholing issues permit for visiting Thimphu and Paro only. If one wants to visit other places in Bhutan, one has to get the permit suitably endorsed at the Immigration Office in Thimphu.

Day 4 (18.04.12)

Checked out of the hotel after breakfast and drove to Paro (50 km). To go to Paro from Thimphu, one has to return to Chuzom which is the junction point for roads to Haa, Paro, Thimphu and P’sholing. The road to Paro was quite nice with very sparse traffic.

When we were about 6 km from Paro town, we came across a BRO (Indian Border Roads Organisation) unit at Bondey. I contacted an Indian Army officer in that unit and he was kind enough to provide us with accommodation in their Officers’ Mess. The guest rooms there were quite nice and we had a comfortable stay there for two nights. We also got typical Indian food there.

After keeping our things in the Mess and freshening up, we drove to Paro town. It is a very small town, with a population of only 4,000 or so! The main industry of Paro seems to be tourism and the small city-centre comprises a large number of shops selling Bhutanese handicrafts and Chinese goods to tourists. We spent the day checking out the shops in Paro and visiting the Paro Dzong.

Jaya & DM near Paro Dzong

Both in Thimphu and Paro the days were warm / pleasant (20-23 deg C) and the nights were cool (9-11 deg C).

Day 5 (19.04.12)

While doing the homework (on the internet, primarily) before visiting Bhutan, I had learnt that many Western tourists visit Bhutan to enjoy trekking thro’ the pristine forests and hills of this Himalayan kingdom. And the one trek which is highly recommended as a ‘must-do’ is the trek to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest). Taktsang Monastery is located 10 kilometres to the north of Paro and hangs on a precipitous cliff at 3,120 metres (10,240 ft), about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above the Paro valley. Check out

I had read several accounts of the trek to Tiger’s Nest blogged by tourists and knew that it was a steep, long and arduous trek. Being fond of trekking personally, I was very keen to give it a shot. I also motivated my wife Jaya and the two relatives accompanying us (who are slightly older than us) to give it a try and at least make it to the cafeteria point (almost mid-way) which has a good view of the Tiger’s Nest.

After breakfast in the morning we set out for Drukgyal and Taktsang. First we drove up a hill (16 km beyond Paro town) to visit the ruins of Drukgyal Dzong. I had been told that from Drukgyal one could get a nice view of the snowcapped Mount Jomolhari. But we could not see any peaks due to clouds.

Thereafter, we returned about 7 km towards Paro (one doesn’t have to go to Drukgyal for the Taktsang trek) and then took the narrow branch road (about 5 km) to the ‘base camp’ or starting point of the Taktsang trek. This starting point has ample parking space for cars and lots of locals selling handicrafts, etc. We parked our car there and armed with rucksacks containing water and snacks we started our climb to the Tiger’s Nest on foot.

Parking space at the base camp

The dusty trek route (avoidable during rains)
The climb is indeed steep and my cousin and his wife gave up after 30 minutes and returned to the base camp. Jaya too was on the verge of giving up several times but mustered all her resources to climb to the cafeteria point with me which took an hour. She called it quits there and I carried on and reached the point where the stone steps start in another 45 minutes.

A prayer wheel near cafeteria point

View of Tiger's Nest from cafeteria point
Let me explain the stone steps. The last part of the trek to Tiger’s Nest involves crossing over from one hill to another – so one needs to descend to a waterfall and then ascend to the Tiger’s Nest on another hill. This last stretch comprising a steep descent followed an equally steep ascent is made up of stone steps with a metal railing. This stretch took me another 30 minutes. So after 2 hours and 15 minutes of trekking I reached the Tiger’s Nest.

Stone steps leading to Tiger's Nest

It was tough but the feeling after finally making it was exhilarating. At the Tiger’s Nest entrance one has to deposit one’s bags, camera and mobile phone and enter one’s name in a register after showing a proof of identity. Then one is frisked by Police before entering the monastery. I had a wonderful tour of Taktsang and I even saw the deep cave inside which Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. I had read about this cave and when I couldn’t find it I asked a Policeman and he was kind enough to escort me to the entrance to the cave, lift the hatch covering the entrance and show me the deep cave with his flashlight.

Frisking by Police at Tiger's Nest
After a very satisfying tour of Taktsang I started my trek back to base camp. Though one does not have to expend much energy during descent, the chances of slipping or stumbling are greater while trekking downhill and so one has to be very cautious. It took me about an hour to descend to the cafeteria point where Jaya was anxiously waiting for me (2 ½ hours had elapsed after we parted here). Thereafter we climbed down to the base camp together.

The entire trek took me 4 hours and 10 minutes (2 hrs 15 mins to climb up, 20 mins at Tiger’s Nest and 1 hr 35 mins to descend). This definitely was the high point of my visit to Bhutan, personally. I can compare this trek to the one I did to Hemkund Sahib from Ghangria a few years ago.

I was feeling quite elated that I could do this trek in good time (many people take 3 hours to climb up) at age 60+ till I met a 75 year old Australian gentleman who did this trek with equal ease. I introduced myself to him, congratulated him and told him that if I am lucky enough to live till 75 I would love to be like him – still climbing Tiger's Nests!

Close-up of Taktsang (Tiger's Nest)

I must state for information that ponies / mules are available for taking tourists to Taktsang from the base camp. But the ride is only up to the point where the stone steps start. Mules cannot move on the steep stone steps and so even if one hires a mule one needs to be fit enough to negotiate the stone steps on foot. Furthermore, mules are not allowed to carry tourists during descent as the chances of stumbling are high and there have been some accidents in the past. In short, one needs a certain degree of physical fitness to visit Tiger’s Nest even if one were to hire a mule.

Day 6 (20.04.12)

Left Paro at 8 AM and descended to P’sholing by 12:30 PM. Again, our permits were checked, stamped and data entered in the Police network at two checkpoints. At the last checkpoint (before P’sholing) we were required to surrender our permits.

I topped up my car’s fuel tank before leaving Bhutan as diesel costs about 10% less there. By 5 PM we were in Siliguri where we halted for the night. Drove 307 km today.

Day 7 (21.04.12)

Drove 526 km from Siliguri to Durgapur (6:30 AM to 9 PM) and spent the night at my cousin’s house. The average speed of 35 kmph, excellent 4-lane stretch from Siliguri to Dalkhola (125 km) notwithstanding, clearly indicates the general condition of the road between Dalkhola and Durgapur.

Day 8 (22.04.12)

Left Durgapur at 8 AM and reached Jamshedpur (229 km via Purulia and Chandil) at 1:30 PM.

My trusty Swift Vdi performed very well throughout. Bhutan involved lots and lots of hill driving and with a fully loaded car there were times when I wished there was more power on tap. Diesel engine clatter, normally not very audible in the Multijet engine, used to become quite loud and prominent during steep climbs. With 4 people on a holiday, the absence of adequate boot space was also felt.

Maybe it is high time I bought a SUV, with the kind of driving I do. 

Total distance covered during the trip was 2254 km.

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At 9:46 AM, Blogger Cdr Gopu said...

Good Job Debashis

Perhaps you could share the cost involved in total journey in private so that others are encouraged to make such trips




At 12:01 PM, Blogger Shailendra Gharse said...

A very well sequenced travelogue,
Your guts & fitness to complte the treck are to be admired. FABULOUS.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Ghumakkad said...

Very well documented Debashis. keep up your spirit of traveling! Our is a great country.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Tapan said...

Thanks Debashis for sending this excellent trip photographs along with your script.

Keep it up.


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