Bhutan, the only carbon negative country in the world.
Bhutan, the happiest country in the world. Did you know they measure their country’s progress by something they call the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index?
Bhutan, the only Himalayan country without a garbage problem.
Where tourists and foreigners are treated with kindness and warmth.
Where the kids are invariably squealing, friendly, and confident bubbles of joy and laughter.
Where the roads are good, the passes are high, and the views are amazing.
Where Indians can get in and get around without a visa!
Bhutan, Bhutan, Bhutan. The place so nice, I went twice.
My previous visit to Bhutan had been just a year ago, with friends. It had been fun, but we were forced to shorten our trip and stick to the tourist circuit of Thimphu (the capital) and Paro (the next big city) because the immigration office that deals with Indians entering by road was not open on weekends.
This time, I wanted to explore more of Bhutan. I would enter via Phuentsholing, Bhutan’s border town with India. I would meet my friend Hakim in Paro. Our plan was to start in Thimphu, and then ride through a bit of the Eastern side before exiting through Gelephu in Assam. It would be a grand start to our trip through the Northeast of India.
The difference between India and Bhutan is stark at the border. When you’re in Jaigaon, you’re in India. Drivers are honking with no purpose, there are tea stalls, poverty, great thalis and laddoos, and litter. Litter everywhere.
Then, you walk the tens of metres over into Bhutan. Suddenly, the streets are clean. People cross only on zebra crossings. I mean, vehicles stop for pedestrians!
I had reached Jaigaon on a Tuesday, just to make sure I had enough weekdays to get my permit. Early Wednesday morning, I made my way to the immigration office.
Getting the Permit
I was sitting in the waiting area for almost an hour after I applied because the director had said that my application warranted special attention.
“You are an engineer. You think Bhutan doesn’t need engineers?”, the director of the Phuentsholing office asked me.
“If you don’t know, who will know?”, he laughed and said when I shrugged.
“No funny business, okay?”
“You know. Three Indians just went last week on Tourist Permits into Bhutan and tried to business in our country. Are you going to do that?”
“You have a hotel reservation for only one day. You should have for at least the first three days.”
It took almost three hours and finally, my permit was ready. There was only one more step: get the permit for my motorcycle.
“We are going to close for lunch. You will have to come back after 2’o clock”, The official at the road permits place said.
“I’m handling twice the amount of applications because my junior is on leave. Why don’t you understand?”, he said when I protested.
The silver lining in spending almost a whole day jumping through all these hoops was that I got company for my ride. There was a rider from Bangalore and three from Calcutta. I had decided to tag along with them because they had a plan for the next few days.
Phuentsholing to Thimphu
The ride to Phuentsholing was pretty. We stopped often and soon it was dark. There were no lights anywhere, and our headlights didn’t inspire much confidence on the scary mountain roads. Soon, we following cars at uncomfortably close distances, using their illumination and path to guide us.
Once, the car in front of us swerved to the left to avoid an oncoming car, and Santosh (the Bangalorean) had a minor, but terrifying scrape.
We expected a fight when the car stopped and the driver got out. He ran towards us, and we waited sheepishly, preparing to be chastised.
However, this was Bhutan, not India. He had come over only to make sure we were okay. We talked cheerfully for a bit; he found it incredible that in India, there would have been a shouting match, and after shaking hands and some friendly advice to drive slow, we were on our way again.
With the dark of the night had arrived the cold. My woollen gloves and two thin layers were no match for the 80-90 kmph wind blowing in my face. We stopped to rest and warm up often.
When I finally reached my hotel, my head was spinning, my chest was aching worse than a teenager’s heartbreak in a coming-of-age movie, and the cold seemed to crushing my bones like they were in a vice.I was shivering even under the blanket as my body took its own sweet time to warm up.
So here’s a lesson for you kids: equipment is important. I know from experience. But, if you think about it, if I had all the equipment, this whole ride would have been a quick jaunt through pretty scenery and this section would have been much shorter!
Thimphu, Punakha, Chelela
The permit you get when you enter Bhutan only lets you go to Thimphu and Paro. If you want to do more, you need to get another set of permits (one for you, one for your motorcycle) from Thimphu. So, we spent walking around the down and dealing with bureaucracy and paperwork.
Our first stop was Dochu La, a pass that has viewpoints to the magnificent (and unclimbed!) Bhutanese Himalayan range. I had visited Dochu La on my first trip to Bhutan and spent many happy moments staring at the mountains. This time, however, it was cloudy and not a mountain was in sight.
There are other things at Dochu La: a nice restaurant, a temple, and 108 chortens (chortens are similar to or the same as the stupas in Indian Buddhist regions, as far as I can tell) built both to commemorate Bhutanese solders, and to offer tourists many spots to take good pictures from.
Next: Punakha, which was apparently the capital of Bhutan till Thimphu took over. The main attraction is the Punakha Dzong, a big, beautiful, and most importantly photogenic administrative building. I didn’t know it at the time because I’m not good at researching places before I go, but you can actually go into the Dzong and see some festivities.
I spent most of my time in Punakha relaxing in the luxurious guest house, talking to my gang of riders, giving them (solicited, I promise) advice on how to quit your job and travel, how even if it’s not really your dream, it’s still a lot of fun.
From Punakha and a slight deviation on the way to the Paro lay our next stop: Chele La, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. From the split in the road, it takes about an hour or two to ride the last 35 km to Chele La.
On the way I encountered, for the first time in my life, black ice. The name, as you might guess, comes from the colour of the hardened and compressed ice that forms it.
Cars have a relatively easy time on short stretches of black ice. There’s nothing that they need to do, except maybe not be afraid of small skids. Motorcycles, however, can do little to avoid slippage on black ice. You have to be really careful. Drive as slow as you can, don’t apply the brakes, don’t change gears, and don’t blink as you feel your hands grip the handlebars tightly out of fear.
My bike started slipping as soon the front tire touched the ice. The motorcycle probably moved about 2 centimetres before the bike started leaning dangerously to the left. I pulled with all my weight, but while the Royal Enfield Thunderbird has many strengths, lightness is not one of them.
It kept going toward its newfound goal of reaching the ground, and we fell down together on to the ice. The whole process, from Perezosa starting to lean to the left to both of us finally falling on the ground, seemed to take many minutes. In reality, it was probably just a few seconds.
I wasn’t hurt. Perezosa was okay too, except for a bent and dislocated crash guard which I promptly kicked into place. Now I could call myself a real motorcycle traveller.
That night, at Paro, we stayed at a hotel run by Indians. I don’t mean to imply anything, but that was the worst hotel of the whole trip 🤷🏽♂️.
The Hike to Tiger’s nest
There is no photo of Bhutan more iconic than that of the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Located a short, but steep hike close to Paro, the monastery is impossibly perched on the mountain, almost like a climbing anchor.
Inside the monastery are a bunch of temples, each an avatar of the second Buddha, Padmasambhava, who also built of this monastery. He flew here — when it was still just rock — on his consort who had taken the form of a flying tiger. After perching precariously on the mountainside, he fought and subdued a few evil spirits and gave them the job of protectors.
He then proceeded to meditate in different caves for different lengths of time, each of which became small temples or shrines inside the main temple.
Don’t quote me on any of this, because this is information collected by eavesdropping on multiple guides.
The hike itself is nice. There is the usual, wide spectrum of people who you find at a place that is important on both the tourist and religious circuits: kids, Indian families, locals in traditional wear, old people climbing with a smile of religious anticipation on their faces, young people in jeans sweating and complaining about how hard it is, and me.
I met Hakim at Tiger’s nest, who would be my companion (and guide, since he would be forced to do all the planning due to my laziness) for the next two months, and we rode back to Thimphu.
We spent a frustrating few days trying to get permits to exit from Eastern Bhutan. We were refused in many ways. There was a general air of frustration in our conversations (from both sides) with locals about the immigration process. Travel agents threw their hands in the air, saying that the rules and the convoluted red-tape in the immigration office have been intentionally formulated to discourage freewheeling backpackers. Hotel owners complained that they, and small homestay owners are losing their independence in a system has been carefully lobbied for by tour companies and bigger hotels.
One local told us of how citizens from most foreign countries pay a minimum of $250 per day for a guarantee of a guide, and 3-star hotels throughout their trip. However, if a foreigner chooses to (or is encouraged to) stay at a cheap homestay, it is the guide and the tour company that pocket the profits, not the owner of the homestay, charging next to nothing for the stay, while also farming potatoes for a living.
On the flip side, an officer in the immigration office explained to us that tourism has only recently started exploding in Bhutan, and the government is really worried about how it will affect the culture and environment of the country. He apologised to Hakim for our frustration, saying the rules in the country are still catching up to the numbers, and that’s the reason we had such a hard time.
If you’re thinking of visiting Bhutan, do it on a motorcycle or in a car that you’re driving, unless constraints or circumstances force to you go a more traditional route. The roads are great, the drivers have discipline, are polite, and no one honks at you unless you’ve actually done something bad.
The Himalayas surround you as you wind through pine forests, or valleys, or by rivers. Colourful Buddhist flags flutter in the wind. The roadside stops provide you with hot tea and excellent meals of cured meat (that makes American jerky seem silly in comparison), red rice, chillies, cheese, and leafy vegetables. There is little to no garbage on the road. Kids smile at you, and old people wave at you.
This is what I wrote in an Instagram post about Bhutan on my first trip here:
If I was an anthropologist visiting Bhutan for the first time for only a few days with very little prior knowledge of the country, I would say Bhutan is interesting. People are out and about in super traditional clothes and super modern clothes, sometimes on the same person. They respect and love their king, talking about him, his wife and their kid, with affection. There are no traffic signals, drivers don’t use the horn and pedestrians walk ten extra metres to cross at a zebra crossing. Everyone seems friendly and open to talking, sometimes even going out of their way to show you their Bhutan. There are a lot of people from Nepal, Bangladesh and India. College kids fight in clubs, and their fists and feet move really fast!
It’s all true, even the part about the fight that we were lucky enough to catch in Thimphu.
I have hardly ever made any strong recommendations on this blog, but here are two:
- Stay at the lovely Nivvana Lodge in Paro. The places themselves are very good, but more important are the hosts. Karma, and her rockstar husband, are incredibly fun and helpful. Their food is great, and recently they’ve opened an Indian restaurant as well in Thimphu! I would go back to Bhutan again just to chill with these dudes!
- Stay at Hotel Ghasel in Thimphu. This is a budget hotel in the heart of Thimphu. Again, more than the hotel, it’s the host. Sonam is the star of the show. He’s friendly, helpful, and extremely witty.
Originally, I had finished the blogpost right up above. But, there are a few more things I’ve been thinking about. Bhutan continually ranks as one of the happiest countries (when it’s not right at the top of the list) in the world according to random surveys. The people are wonderful. Bhutanese culture is everywhere. People everywhere are wearing beautiful, traditional Bhutanese clothes, cooking tasty Bhutanese dishes.
But, but, but, but; what tourists usually see is only a small part of the country. On this trip, while traveling and talking to locals and taxi drivers, I heard a few things that left me a little uneasy. We were told that nomadic tribes have been forced to adapt to the majority culture, and their own cultures are now slowly fading away, one example being the imposition of the admittedly impressive looking Ghos and Kiras as dresses throughout Bhutan.
More famously, immigrants, who were instrumental in building the infrastructure of the country and had settled down in Bhutan,were expelled in large numbers over the years. Most of these immigrants were from Nepal and India. An especially big exodus (more than a 1,00,000 refugees came to India and Nepal – about 1/6th the population of Bhutan at the time!) happened in the 90s, when there was a huge crackdown on anything that seemed like a threat to what the monarchy considered “Bhutanese culture”. More than a hundred thousand people were forced to flee the happiest country in the world.
Okay. I feel like I’m already out of my depth here and am going to start making poorly researched claims, so I’ll stop. Also, everything I’ve written above I learned on the trip, mostly thanks to conversations with cooler biker-dude Hakim, who spent much more time in the country traveling and talking to locals. We did not conduct any deep studies, so you can take all this with as much salt as you prefer. It is funny, though, that I don’t feel the need to give these disclaimers when I’m saying nice things about the place.
Instead, I will leave you with this op-ed (that admittedly, I just googled) from 2003, published in the New York Times about a family that was expelled from Bhutan in the 90s. Like me, you can use it as a starting point for your own Bhutan rabbit-hole exploration. and you can form your own opinion on whether the happiness of a country comes at a price.