As the summer vacation was nearing, in the month of April,2019, my friend Mr. Bindhyachal Singh and I sat over a cup of tea to explore a cool place for our family outing.
Himachal Pradesh is still untouched by me and family and as such I wanted his opinion on that. He requested to check Bhutan. I was a bit apprehensive on road trip to Bhutan having heard about its permit system but finally decided to do the homework. The same evening, I talked to my daughter, Dipti (based at Bangalore) about it and she too showed her willingness to join us.
So I started my homework on our visit. Bhutan can be reached either through air with Paro its lone airport or by road. Our focus was on road trip. So it was essential to gather the road conditions upto Bhutan specially between Siliguri and Jaigaon (the last township of West Bengal, India and entry point of Pheuntsholing, Bhutan)as Patna to Siliguri route is on East — West Expressway and we knew it’s in good condition. Took help from the travel blogs and found that the road between Siliguri and Jaigaon is also perfect. The first stage of the homework was done.
Now the second challenge was to know about the permit system of Bhutan. Again, beside Google, You Tube threw light on the subject. After going through it, I found that:
a) a maximum of seven days permit is granted to visit the two cities of Thimpu or Paro by the Immigration Office situated at Phuentsholing;
b) for visiting any other city including Punakha (the earlier capital of Bhutan), one has to again visit the Immigration office at Thimpu alongwith the permit granted at Phuentsholing on which further extension is made;
c) once the travel permit is granted, we have to move to the Road Safety Transport Authority (RSTA) office for the car permit.
Although several theories were floating on Google, so far as the rule till Summer 2019 was concerned, to procure/ grant of the travel permit, the Phuentsholing Immigration office accepts only the :
1. Passport (with at least six months of validity on the date of presentation) or;
2. The Voter I. Card or
3. The Birth certificate* of the Municipal Corporation, (in case a person/minor is not having either the Passport or the Voter I. Card).
4. Passport size photograph;
5. Document showing hotel booking either at Thimpu or Paro with the hotel telephone number.
(* if the birth certificate is in Hindi or any other Indian regional language, the same has to be translated in English and stamped by the Indian Embassy situated nearby to the Immigration office and which is easily done. Carry a English translated copy of the birth certificate to save time.)
Most importantly, unlike the information available on web, the Indian ‘Aadhar’ card is not accepted as valid document by them.
It is also important to keep additional photocopies of the entire documents and photos to avoid last minute rush to a photocopy shop.
The Phuentsholing Immigration Office opens at 9 AM Bhutan time [8.30AM IST (it is half an hour ahead of us)] from Monday to Friday. It also has lunch break of 1 to 2 PM. So it is essential to reach the office at 9 AM to avoid post lunch session work and delay in onward travel.
For the grant of car permit, the requirements at RSTA , Pheuntsholing are:
Original as well as the photocopies of the :
1. Car registration paper*,
2. The Driving license,
3. Insurance paper,
4. The Pollution paper,
5. Copy of the permit granted and
6. Passport size photograph.
(*In case the owner of the car and the Driving license are of different persons, an authorization letter of the owner required showing his/her consent to drive the vehicle.)
Homework done, it was time to plan the trip with my friend and daughter. Must add, my colleague Mr. Rajnandan, who had been to Bhutan too chipped in with some useful tips. We decided to start our journey on Saturday, 8th June, 2019. The members of the trip included me, my wife, Madhu and daughter, Dipti beside Bindhyachal Singh, his wife, Neeta Bhabhi and son Aakash.
My daughter was to join us on Saturday at Bagdogra at 3 P.M. and as such the trip was re-scheduled. While I decided to leave a day earlier to pick my daughter in time, my friend was to start on 8th June.
The road route from Patna to Bhutan is — Patna — Muzaffarpur — Darbhanga — Araria — Siliguri — Jaigaon — Pheuntsholing. From Phuentsholing upto Chhuzom bridge( i.e upto 120 kms ), the highway for both Thimpu and Paro are same. Moving left and after crossing the Chhuzom bridge the road goes to Paro (23kms) while driving straight, one reaches Thimpu(27kms).
My first day visit to Siliguri was going to be on on the newly laid East West Expressway. I searched the toll plazas (to keep the amount in hand as there was no fastag then) on way to Siliguri and found five of them which include — Saidpur Patedha (near Hajipur), Maithi (near Muzaffarpur), Raje (near Darbhanga), Asanpur (near Kosi Bridge, Supaul) and Hariabara (near Araria).
It is often said that preparing for a trip gives more happiness than when it actually starts. To complete all documents, affix photos and also to pack umbrella, torch, woolen wear, the first aid kit, the medicines as also other important documents are the things which give pleasure.
We also stacked our vehicle with drinking water bottles as it was found that the water quality of Bhutan is not upto the mark. The second scary thing I noticed from every person visiting Bhutan was the presence of stray dogs everywhere and most visitors complained about the dog bite and hospitalization.
7th June, 2019 (Friday)
Finally, the day arrived when I left Patna with my better half at 5 AM. I prefer to leave early and ensure covering the destination by sunset. The movement during early morning is treat to eyes. Further, reaching a new town in the evening also gives an opportunity to explore it. Soon we were on the Digha bridge (also known as J.P. Setu) to cross the river ganges with the sun rising and the people jogging on the sand. Slowly, the car gained momentum and we were moving at 80 KMPH.
I had divided the day’s movement into three stages — Patna to Darbhanga (163 KMs) by 9 AM; than to Araria (316 KMs) by 1 PM and finally to Siliguri (455 KMs) by 5 PM with half an hour break at two places: Darbhanga and Araria.
We were on time and Vividh Bharti entertaining us with late Mukeshji s song : ‘Suhana safar aur ye mausam haseen’, I was really enjoying the drive. By 9AM, we were at Raje toll plaza (Darbhanga) on NH 27. A stopover of half an hour was made at a nearby ‘Dhaba’ where we had tea, snacks with home made food. By 9.30 AM, once again we were on the National Highway. Important to add that the East West Corridor is in perfect condition but the minus point being absence of good restaurants or rest houses. Even Petrol Pumps are scarce considering the important highway it is. So it is essential to have plenty of food, water as also full tank when moving on it.
Later in the day, got call from my friend that he too is leaving Patna with a request to move to Kishanganj instead of Siliguri so that he could also make it there. So, I changed my program and decided to move to Kishanganj after cancelling my Siliguri booking. My journey had now come down from 455 kms to around 400 kms.
For Siliguri, one has to take left route from Araria highway towards Thakurganj while for moving towards Kishanganj, you just have to continue on the East West corridor crossing Purnea, entering West Bengal for a while and again in Bihar i.e. Kishanganj.
As stated, there is no proper eatery on the highways and we had to settle at the available place near Araria outskirts for snacks and tea. It was 12.15 and we were ahead of time. Thereafter within no time, we reached Kishanganj at 2 PM. After lunch, had a good sleep. In the evening I did my favourite pastime i.e. dusting of the car including the mats while listening to the ‘ghazals’ with a cup of tea. I also affixed no honking sticker on the steering (as unlike in India where people love to blow horn, in Bhutan, there is fine for honking).
Later, went for evening walk around Kishanganj city, in between catching up with my friend who finally reached in time at 9PM. Post dinner, we chatted well after midnight as the next day, our only work was to pick my daughter from Bagdogra Airport (92 kms) at 3.20 PM and then to move to Siliguri town.
8th June, 2019 (Saturday)
Woke up early morning, strolled in the campus and with morning tea zeroed in on Barsana Hotel situated at the entry point in the town at Khaprail Road for the Siliguri stay.
We were ready by 9AM. Explored the possible places of stay at Bhutan @ Thimpu and Paro. Had our BRUNCH at around 11 AM and thereafter retired for a while in our rooms. Finally, at 12.30PM, it was time to leave Kishanganj. Must say, this city (Kishanganj) needs to be explored and is really cool. Soon we were on highway (NH 27) and by 3PM, we entered the Bagdogra Airport in time to pick Dipti and again were on road to Siliguri.
Siliguri, the Gateway to North East, Sikkim and Bhutan is a well developed town and in the evening hours, it just comes to life. Got our car tanks filled at a Indian Oil Corporation Company owned outlet which also having the facility of Nitrogen air pressure for the tyres. Later we visited the City Center Mall for Dinner. Returned to Hotel well past 12 AM.
Thereafter we(me, Dipti and Bindhyachalji) sat together to book our hotels in Thimpu and Paro(as confirmed booking papers are to be attached with the permit application before the Immigration office) . We booked Hotel Golden Roots at Thimpu for two nights and Rema Resorts at Paro for three nights. For the record, good hotels and resorts are available in the range of Rs 2500–5000/- (without complimentary breakfast). It was well past 1 AM and time to retire to our beds. My happiness had doubled with daughter having joined the trip.
9th June, 2019 (Sunday)
As stated above, the Immigration Office, Phuentsholing remains closed on Saturday and Sunday. So, our travel plan was only up to Jaigaon, the last township of West Bengal (India) bordering Phuentsholing, Bhutan which is just 155 kms. We had an easy morning, went to the rooftop of the Hotel to watch the mountains. Later, we relished the complimentary breakfast.
We checked out around 12 PM and after getting struck in the city chaos on Sevoke road, finally came out and took right turn to move to our next destination. In Siliguri, there is Coronation bridge (named to commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 and was completed in 1941). Teesta River flowing beneath the bridge mesmerizes the surrounding.
After brief photo session, we moved on. The road to Jaigaon is black carpeted with tea gardens all along. Although there are some bottlenecks when one come across a small village turned township, by and large the road is nice. Our next halt was at West Bengal Tourism Department Restaurant for lunch. Later, we continued our journey and after arriving at T -junction, we took the left road to move towards Hasimara,(the Railway Station where one has to alight in case of travelling by train and take cab/auto to Jaigaon). The distance from Hasimara to Jaigaon is around 17 kms.
At around 6 PM, as we entered Jaigaon, there was complete chaos in the only lane that takes you to the Bhutan gate. Bad road, potholes with dirty water and ever enthusiast locals ready to charge the moment a car stops even briefly in the garb of car parking. They are ready to fight despite the fact that the Police Station is at stone’s throwaway.
We wrongly decided to stay at one of the three Hotels of Jaigaon nearer to the Immigration Office, Phuentsholing as their sole motto is to mint money and hardly take care of guest. The Bhutan gate closes at 8 PM and no permit is required to visit or stay at Phuentsholing. So if there by 6 to 6.30 PM, it is better to enter Phuentsholing and have the pleasure of staying at clean green city in the night.
It being a chaotic town, there was no point going out to explore. After the Dinner, we gave last minute touch to our respective application forms as also the other required documents. The Hotels do not have any campus and the cars were parked on the street and with the kind of locals there, I almost had a sleepless night.
10th June, 2019 (Monday)
The first thing I did in the early morning was to go outside and check both the cars. Had a sigh of relief to find them in perfect condition.
Again, we were out on street in time and walked down the lane to enter the majestic Bhutan Gate on the neat and clean road with trees taking us to the Immigration Office. The Pedestrians must use only the Zebra crossing to cross the road. A point of appreciation for the Bhutanese drivers. The moment a person is on zebra crossing, the cars on both sides stop. Lots of discipline we can learn, if only we want to.
Exactly at 9AM Bhutan time (8.30 IST), we were in the Immigration office. It being Monday, there were lots of people and it took some time before our turn came and after checking of the papers, taking our photos and scanning our eyes, the lady on the counter put stamp on our permit. There was no fee for grant of permit in June, 2019. Probably they are contemplating on putting charges on the permit which till now was free for the Indians, Nepalese, Bangla Deshi and Sri Lankan people.
At around 12 PM, we got hold of our travel permits. Thereafter we took our cars to the RSTA office (for car permits), around 2–3 kms from the Immigration Office. We had to get photocopies of the our permits for attaching it with the vehicle application form. There is a shop on the first floor of the RSTA office which keeps all the forms required.
However, by the time we presented our papers, it was 1 PM and there was lunch recess. [For record, for any kind of vehicle the fee was Nu 100/- (Rs 100/-) per day per vehicle. (As we were entering Bhutan on Monday and leaving Saturday, in our case, it was Rs 600/ — per vehicle)]. So we sat on the chairs kept outside the office on the first floor waiting for 2 P.M.
Soon, a young native of Bhutan approached us for providing SIM card to be used in Bhutan. He took Rs 600/ for two SIMS and photocopies of permit and disappeared. At 2PM, the office started working and within 15 minutes, we had our vehicle permit. Soon, the boy too came and handed over the two SIMS.
It was 2.30PM. We rushed to Hotel at Jaigaon, family members were waiting, put the luggage in our respective cars and re entered Phunetsholing by 3.15 PM. The moment we entered the city, the chaos of Jaigaon gave way to silence and the clouds too came to greet us. The Car AC off, windows down, we were breathing clean air. The temperature dropped and soon we were at the first check post where the permits, vehicle passes were checked and entry made in register.
As we didn’t had our lunch, so immediately thereafter, we sat down at a nearby eatery. The owner cum worker cum cook were the mother and her two daughters who provided us one of the best preparation of Maggie with coffee. However, we also realized that till we are in Bhutan, with every order, one must specifically request, less salt and less spice as the country is famous for the red chillies and the Maggie which I had with chillies and salt will be remembered forever.
Another wrong fact floating on the web is that they do not accept high denomination notes of Rs 2000/ or 500/. Both my wife and friend insisted on checking this fact and upon offering Rs 500/- note, they readily accepted it. We didn’t had any problem thereafter at any place.
The black coated road, disciplined drivers and no honking makes the driving on the Bhutan highway a great pleasure. The clouds, the greenery all around, the water flowing down the mountains, the clean air, nature has offered so much to the Bhutanese people who have also taken great care in preserving it. One has to visit the country to feel the tiny paradise on earth.
We moved soon on the highway towards Thimpu, our first destination. 50 kms later, we made one more stopover at ‘Dantak’ canteen, manned by the Indian Army. In fact ‘Dantak’ canteens can be found on most of the Bhutan highways.
Another round of tea and snack plus the usual photo session at ‘DANTAK’ and we continued our journey. After second halt for permit verification and brief coffee session near ‘Chukha’, by late evening we crossed the majestic Thimpu Gate welcoming us inside the city.
We reached our Hotel which was very close to the main market situated on the lower road. As it was night, took help of the locals who were young Teachers and they just ran towards the Hotel asking us to follow. Lots of energy, helping attitude and smile on their face, no wonder the country has adopted Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of GDP.
After freshening up, we just walked towards the main market which also has Clock Tower Square and came back well past midnight after taking a cab.
11th June, 2019 (Tuesday)
It was drizzling right from the morning with cool air welcoming us. I sat in my car and cleaned it from inside. Had a cup of tea with the local newspaper KUENSEL. The Prime Minister of the country was proudly announcing in the Parliament that some of the Doctors are going to pass out soon and will be posted in the Hospitals immediately thereafter for the welfare of the people. So much respect for the Doctors there.
The day was relaxed one. In the evening, went to the National Memorial Chorten and the Buddha Dordenma from where the entire city can be viewed and vice versa i.e. you can see the Buddha statue anywhere from the city. Back to hotel and thereafter alongwith my daughter, Dipti took a walk around the Clock Tower where she wanted to purchase gift items for her friends. Had a nice sleep in the cool atmosphere of Thimpu.
My take : choose one or two place, (Buddha Dordenma included) and have some relaxed time there if the stay is of single day instead of moving here and there. Feeling the coolness of the city is more important than rushing to different destinations all through the day leading to a tired evening.( For the record, the Thimpu office, which provides extension of permit to Punakha and other cities is close to the main market and walking distance from our Hotel).
12th June, (Wednesday)
Time to say bye to Thimpu. As the distance between Thimpu and Paro is just 50 kms and the check in time at Paro is 2 PM, it was a casual morning. After the BRUNCH, the luggage was packed and around 12 PM, we checked out of Thimpu hotel. Drove towards Paro exiting the Thimpu Gate and soon reached the Chhuzom bridge, 28 kms from the capital city.
We made a brief stopover for the photo session on the bridge. It was followed by another stopover near a stream where the locals sell some good items. The route to Paro is so serene, moving at 40 KMPH, kept watching the wonderful natural flora and fauna. As we neared Paro, found another ‘Dantak’ canteen situated just along the Paro river [locals call it Paro Chu(means river)]. We had pastries and coffee seating outside the canteen on garden with sound of river flowing side by giving musical effect to the ears. It was a mesmerizing entry into the city with Paro river continuing with you altogether. Just few kms ahead is the only Airport of the country, the Paro International Airport.
Later, we crossed the Paro Dzong and local market and soon were in the Rema Resorts, located on mountain and providing panoramic view of the entire city. The sound of the river gives extreme pleasure. Checked in, had coffee session with ‘paneer’ cutlets. In the evening, just walked down and sat near the river for a while. Visited the local market in the night, 2 kms away and then back to pavilion. Less chillies and less salt had become hallmark of all our orders for meal.
13th June, 2019 (Thursday)
I am an early riser and love to see the sun coming out of clouds. Another favourite work of mine is the cleaning of my car. So with hot cup of tea and biscuits, I cleaned my car with the beautiful scenery all around and at times the plane hovering over the sky on way to Paro Airport.
It’s a cool place. So instead of taking meal package alongwith hotel booking, it is preferable to order according to need and have fresh and hot food which is also served in the rooms if you do not want to rub shoulders with too many people in the dining area. The hotel authority put the food items at one go for the complimentary breakfast and if late riser, you are forced to eat cold food. Also, worth remembering, the restaurants or for that matter, the entire city closes at 9 PM. So whether its breakfast, lunch or dinner, if in hotel or outside, it is important that the order for meal is placed in time.
Once ready, we drove towards Tiger’s Nest also known as Paro Taktsang, a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site located in the cliff side of the Upper Paro valley and built in 1692. The road route upto the ground level of the Tiger’s nest took us very close to the nature and once off the highway, the route goes through small villages with single road and continuous climbing. After reaching the parking area, one has either to to trek or take the horse ride for going up on the Tiger’s nest.
Frankly speaking, despite having heard a lot about the pleasure trekking followed by a good massage; as I also had to drive, chose not to take any risk and watched the cliff from the base camp. Had some good time there, with green surroundings and gentle breeze.
Finally, it was time to leave the Tiger’s Nest as we decided to drive back to Resort. The population of Paro being 12000, driving around the Paro city is pleasant with no traffic jam nor any honking, the only noise (or music one can say) is that of the sound of the flow of the water of the Paro river which runs parallel to the road.
In the evening, we walked down from the resort and sat near the river and remained with the nature till the sunset.
Late evening, we drove to the main market, had meal in the Sonam Trophel Restaurant, famous for Indian food. Don’t get mistaken the Restaurant from the Hotel which is away from the market. The restaurant is on the first floor and managed by the mother — daughter, as I guess. Cool place, silently, they place the menu, once you order the food, it is prepared and served. Food items are costly everywhere in Bhutan. Post Dinner, we strolled around the market, just 200 square metres in size, had ice cream and stacked the car again with the packed water bottles. In Paro, +975 (which is also the International dialing code of Bhutan) water bottles are available. The parking area is demarcated in the market, park inside it and pay Rs30/-(Nu 30/-) which is charged by the authority.
14th June, 2019 (Friday)
It was again an early rising for me followed by spending some time with the car. Later, after breakfast, we drove towards Paro Dzong, just 3 kms away from the Resort and through the market. In fact, the Dzong is on a height and as such, in the night, when its lights are on, can be witnessed anywhere from the Paro city.Revisited it during night.
During the daytime, had some local purchasing and thereafter drove towards Paro International Airport based in the midst of the mountains. While returning, got the tank filled, price of fuel was about Rs 6/- lesser than India. Finally after visiting the local Museum, we were back to the Resort for some rest. In the evening visited the market for the last time. The pleasure of walking around the market with an Ice cream has to be felt by visiting the city. Back to resort and after dinner we strolled for a while. Cleared the Bills, so that no last minute hassles are there next morning.
15th June, 2019 (Saturday)
It was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Paro with the hope of coming back again. Woke up at 4.30AM, it was drizzling all around. All of us were ready by 5.30AM and left the Resort amidst continuous rain. TIKI, the ever smiling lady at the Reception wished Happy journey and took an assurance from us of visiting again to her Resort.
There was some darkness still around, so had to move sometime with the headlights on. Slowly we crossed the Paro market (which we used to visit regularly for the last three days), the Dzong and finally the Paro Airport. Soon the car took the prescribed speed fixed by the Bhutan Government. We crossed the Chhuzom bridge and took right to move towards Phuentsholing.
The flora and faunas had come to life due to rain and watching them while driving on the highway was such a pleasure to the tunes of ‘Rim jhim gire sawan’ from film ‘Manzil’ courtesy ‘gaana.com’.
Took a break at Chhukha (about 65 kms from Paro) for breakfast. As it was raining heavily, slowly and carefully we crossed the first check post and got our departure entered there. Finally, around 10AM, we were at the second checkpost close to Phuentsholing. There, the office entered our departure and took the vehicle permit but not before allowing us to take a snap shot of the same. In fact the official took it in his hand straight and asked me to take the snap and inquired whether the shot is Okay. These are small gesture but leave a deep imprint.
Entered our country at 10.30 AM and encountered the crowd, the high temperature and the autos crisscrossing here and there. Moved out of Jaigaon and onto the highway. Had a small stopover on the highway for tea/snacks whereafter we again hit the road and by 1.30PM, we were in the Siliguri town. Straightaway went to the Indian Oil Corporation Petrol Pump for tank filling and tyre pressure checkup. Thereafter, had our lunch and finally we were off to Kishanganj. Reached there around 6 PM. After freshening up strolled for a while, talked to locals, had dinner and slept by 10PM.
16th June, 2019 (Sunday)
Left Kishanganj early at 6.30 AM. The same problem of scarce restaurant on either side of the highway encountered us. Finally four hours later, we had our breakfast around 10 AM near a line hotel at Jarang East on the East — West Expressway. Reached Muzaffarpur around 12 PM and made a brief stopover to purchase world famous ‘litchis’. Finally reached sweet little home at around 2 PM. Must add the song of late Raj Kapoorji to our entry in Patna: ‘lakh lubhayein mahal parayein, apna ghar, phir apna ghar hain’.
The trip was very pleasant and my car just cruised all along completing around 2000 kms hassle free. Finally, Bhutan was added to our travelling list and must add, whenever I get another chance, will love to make it again.