Bhutan Bike Ride “Every bike ride is also a journey in your unknown self. Let’s find out who we are”
Bhutan; The name has always evoked the image of a small peaceful Buddhist country that has made Universal Happiness as their calling card in this world rife with unhappiness.
Trip to Bhutan had been in the offing since we completed our Ladakh tour in 2017. In April this year, Venu ask me; if I would be willing to join. Venu is a member of Road Thrill which had set up this tour. I said yes instantly! Yogesh, my cousin, had also been wishing for a Bhutan trip so he signed up too. August was decided as a date where the monsoon ends and you will find good weather.
In the Final List, there were 10 bikers for the Bhutan Bike Ride. 5 of them; Ravindra, Venu, Vinu, Patkar, and Manish were from RT Hyderabad. Arun and his cousin Abhiraj were joining in from RT Bengaluru while Yogesh and Shailesh were coming from Ahmedabad. I was the only one from Nagpur.
We shipped our bikes to Siliguri in July end. Our trip was to start on the 14th of August and end on 23rd August’2019. Our riding was from Siliguri to Siliguri. However, on the 13th of August we came to know that in view of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impending visit to Bhutan, the country had stopped issuing bike permits.
Then someone received this nugget of information that if we reach before 3:00 p.m. on 14th, we would still get the bike permits to enter Bhutan. After a furious round of chats on the WhatsApp group “Road thrill Bhutan Odyssey,” we all decided in unison to prepone our program by a day. Accordingly, we all set out from our respective places on 13th night itself, congregated on Mumbai Airport and then took 14th-morning flight from Mumbai to Bagdogra.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 1- Siliguri to Phuentsholing
After landing at Bagdogra Airport, we refreshed ourselves in the airport restrooms and set out to reach Gati Office located at Phulbari, Siliguri which was 30 km away from the airport. We got our bikes unpacked, and thankfully they were undamaged.
We started from Siliguri at around 11:00 a.m. and we had to make it to Phuentsholing by 3:00 p.m., as per the permit deadline. As luck would have it, we ended up taking the road which was under repair so there were a lot of potholes and diversions. As soon as the good roads started, we raced our bikes to make time and we didn’t have time to have our breakfast or lunch. Mind you, we were awake the previous night too; so it was tough to ride. Shailesh’s bike slipped when a stone flung by a passing car hit his front tire. Yogesh’s bike battery fell down so he tied it with a piece of string to manage it somehow. It started raining as we reached Jaigaon. We were in a hurry while we started from Siliguri, so, none had put the rain cover on our saddlebags and all our stuff got wet.
As reached Phuentsholing, the group got separated. Indian mobile network wasn’t working there. So no chance to get in touch with anyone. We hailed each other on Phuentsholing roads helped by the Bhutanese Policemen. Finally, we reached the permit office at 3.20 pm, but the permit office was closed. Big Disappointment! All this rush and last-minute ticketing went in vain!! Later, we came to know that our information was false and Bhutan Authorities had stopped giving bike entry permits two days earlier.
One of the options offered to us was to take a car to Bhutan and let our bikes stay parked here. This option was rejected outright unanimously and then Plan B was made. Doing Sikkim bike ride was discussed. But, this was Bhutan trip so the idea of Sikkim was dropped and we decided to do a two day’s sojourn to Kalimpong and then come back to Phuentsholing on the 18th. Ravindra had also got us good zipper jackets made with logos and motifs related to our ride. To me, these zippers were the reason to say no to Sikkim when our Bhutan plan was in peril. How could we strut in Sikkim wearing Bhutan jackets?
Our stay was at Hotel Midpoint on all three visits to Phuentsholing.
The Route Map
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 2- Phuentsholing to Kalimpong
Today was the 15th of August, Indian Independence Day. We had a small ceremony in the hotel parking area. Lined up all the bikes and all the guys, unfurled the tricolor and sang the national anthem. From there, we started on our journey to Kalimpong. You just need to ride out of a gate to cross from Bhutan to India or vice-versa. No one stops or checks your credentials. The town of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon may be separated by just one Gate but as soon as you cross over to India, you are treated with the cacophony of noise and traffic. It is such a shocking contrast to life on this side of the wall.
On our way to Coronation bridge from where we would reach Kalimpong, we were stopped by Police. It turned out that female members of Police Volunteers were tying rakhi to all, it is Raksha Bandhan day too. It was an emotional moment for all of us as we were away from our real sisters.
Coronation Bridge was a beautiful photo op place but as we were getting late, we decided to click pics on our return journey. But, we took a different route while returning, so missed clicking pics at the bridge. Most of the route ran along Teesta river and each twist and turn of the road brought new vistas to gasp at. Our ride to Kalimpong was punctuated by a small avalanche due to which the group got separated again. We had to wait for an hour on the roadside until we were together again.
The hotel which was booked in Kalimpong turned out to be bang in the middle of the market. Nobody wanted to stay in such a crowded place. So two of us went out in search of another Decent Hotel and we finally checked in at Hotel Roopkatha; a newly constructed property which good rooms, hot water, and decent ambiance but there was a big flaw that we were to discover next morning!
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 3- Kalimpong to Darjeeling
The rooms at Hotel Roopkatha had large glass windows that were facing East. This being east part of the country, the sun was up by 5 am in the morning. A pain for bikers, as everyone knows; bikers are owls, not larks. Thankfully, the room had decent curtains so we could partially correct the design flaw.
Darjeeling is around 70 kilometers from Kalimpong. So it would be a good one-day excursion on our bikes. We started riding down the hill, we stopped at a shack on the side of River Teesta for breakfast. The lady at the stall served some hot momos accompanied by omelet, and a very wonderful concoction comprised of noodles potato chana and some Chilli paste. It was very filling and thus sated, we started the uphill ride to Darjeeling.
Few kilometers ahead, the mist started rolling in and soon we were covered by fog all around with visibility of only a few feet. It started drizzling so we all wore our raincoats and continued. It was a very picturesque route as we were constantly treated with breathtaking views of the valley as the mist shifted.
It was a long weekend and Darjeeling was crowded too. We couldn’t find a suitable place to park near the market. We clicked a few pics near Darjeeling station and the iconic train, then decided not to waste more time in Darjeeling and got back on the route to Kalimpong. On the way, we stopped at the roadside shack for lunch.
The descends were so steep that Yogesh’s bike’s rear brake started smoking! We took a break near one of the numerous tea gardens whilst the brakes got cooled. Funny thing was, in spite of so much tea grown in this part of the country, you can’t get a decent cup of masala tea here. We relied on pre-mix tea pouches to get our fix every morning.
Upon reaching Kalimpong, we stopped at a mechanic and everybody got their bikes tuned for the ride ahead.
Previous day’s dinner at the hotel wasn’t too good. So this time, two guys volunteered to get food parcelled. It was our second most expensive meal of the tour but yeah! it was good.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 3- Kalimpong local sightseeing
We had been riding 150+ KM for the last three days on twisty roads. So today was decided as a rest day and planned to explore Kalimpong as its very a charming town with the colonial hangover of the olden days.
In the morning, we went walking to the Marketplace and found a bakery selling freshly baked cakes and cookies and had coffee along. As we were coming back to the hotel, we met some more guys from our hotel walking to the market and we joined them for one more round.
The owner of the bakery had suggested a visit to Delo park near Kalimpong. This Park is around 10 kilometers away at the top of a hill and it offers a panoramic view of Kalimpong city and on a clear day maybe Gangtok also. The gardens were well maintained and multicolored flowers added to the charm of the place. There is a resort too at the top. Might make for a good stay for a day.
On our way back we stopped at a home-based restaurant and had a very delicious meal. Going back to the town, we got caught in a downpour and that ended our exploration of Kalimpong but not before we treated ourselves some Bengali sweets. we returned back to the hotel and prepared for our ride back to Phuentsholing.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 4 – Kalimpong to Phuentsholing
PM Modi was to return back from Thimpu today the 18th of Aug. Our guide had assured that the office will start issuing permits from 19th.
For our return to Phuentsholing, we tried a different route which goes via Lava. As soon as we started from Kalimpong, it started raining so everyone donned their rainwear. This route had less traffic compared to the route from Coronation Bridge. The reason; roads were under construction. So a lot of ditches and loose gravel. Also, it started raining and with mist all around, it was a fantastic off-road experience. After a much needed hot breakfast (omelet & Maggi) at a beautiful place called Rishop, we started again. After about 50km, the road turned better.
The village at the foothills was one of the most scenic places we came across. Imagine dark green tea gardens stretching in all directions punctuated by tall pine trees. Gurgling brooks and gushing waterfalls providing a piece of pleasant music. The scene is lit by warm sun rays passing through clouds and brightly colored homes scattered around. Picture Perfect!
We stopped for lunch in a restaurant at Malbazar. The owner called us in saying he’s got everything that we will order. And then proceeded to dispatch his shop boys to another restaurant to get us the ordered items! Anyways, the highlight was mishti dahi and juicy rossogolla, typical Bengali style. These were better tasting than ones we had in Kalimpong the day before.
Reached Phuentsholing by 7 but this time we were given rooms on the 3rd floor that were musty and just passable. In the night, sleep was punctuated by crashes of thunder that were loud enough to wake my roommate; Venu who otherwise sleeps soundly, but thankfully doesn’t snore.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 5- Phuentsholing to Thimpu
Everybody got up bright and early so that we could reach the permit office well in time. We were there by 8:45 a.m. and were the third in the queue to get the entry permit when the office opened at 9.00. They did our biometric and issued us personal entry permits.
After this, we were assured by our guide Kinga that he would be able to manage vehicle permissions by himself so we went back and waited in the hotel. After a while, Kinga came back citing certain document deficiencies and also a bomb! Apparently the boss at road permit office insisted that since we were a large group of 10 people on bikes, we would not be allowed to carry backpacks and saddle packs on the bike. This was a big blow because it increased our expenses as well as reduced the pleasure of solo bike ride.
But then we finally hired Sangay and his Wagon-R to carry our stuff and it turned out to be a good decision in hindsight. There was an issue with driving license of one of the rider. This took another hour to resolve so we could actually get off from Phuentsholing only at 2:00 p.m.
Here I would mention that Bhutan is a very strict country as for the road traffic rules were concerned. You would be always Riding in a single file, nobody can overtake without the car ahead of you gives permission, you are not allowed to honk and the speed limit is 40kph within city and 60 kph on the highways. Kinga was very insistent that we need to follow this strictly or pay fines. Fine! Since he was to lead us anyways, we would follow the rules.
Roads in Bhutan are much better compared to the Indian terrain that we have been riding so far. Most of the roads were well maintained and we found out later, the Border Road Organisation of India has a bigger role to play in maintaining them.
By the time we reached Hotel Kenny in Thimpu, it was quite late in the night and had our dinner. The rooms were the biggest and most spacious compared to any hotel we stayed throughout the trip.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 6- Thimpu to Punakha
Plan for today was we do half-day sightseeing in Thimpu and then leave for our next destination; Punakha. We started with a visit to a beautiful Pagoda situated within the city but since tickets were pricey, we didn’t go inside.
From there, we went outside the city to visit the statue of Golden Buddha situated up a hill. On the way, we clicked beautiful pictures of Thimpu City sprawling beneath us.
To reach the Buddha statue, we had to climb steep upstairs from the place we parked our bikes. There was a beautiful sense of isolation when we reached the top of the platform where the statue rose. The whole structure was covered with small Golden tiles and shimmered from the distance as if made of gold. The sheer rocky cliff behind the statue added to the beauty.
There is a large temple situated underneath the statue that we could visit but not click pics. It was quite impressively done up with reds and yellows donning the major color palettes. Lunch was scheduled back in Thimpu at a place called Simply Bhutan. In this place, they served us with authentic Bhutanese cuisine, which was a little insipid to our taste. We were also entertained with a few Bhutanese dances while having lunch. Later they took us to the tour of a typical Bhutan home and the significance of small rituals that Bhutanese follow. It was a very good snapshot of the lives of people here.
Departing from this place was delayed on account of Ravindra having misplaced his bike key which later turned up inside his helmet!
From Thimpu, we made a mandatory stop at the Gangkar Puensum pass which is the highest point on this road and also made a round of the Mausoleum made in memory of some slain soldiers.
It was dark by the time we reached Punakha. The hotel was pleasantly situated on the bend of the river but rooms were more like lodge and services were rudimentary. They didn’t even have 2 towels per room. Food was ok and we got chapati so good.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 7- Punakha to Paro
The weird Hotel Linger got weirder as the staff said that they will be serving only one omelet per person and that too single egg. At no other place of stay, we were made to pay extra for breakfast. But here, we had quite gluttonous people with us so ordered more and paid for them separately. Here, I must mention about Patkar’s unending appetite for omelets. I don’t think anyone else can eat that many. And that too everyday.. 🙂
Plan for today was to go to Punakha Dzong (Fortress) and then to a monastery which was a 45-minute climb. On our return, we would visit the temple of fertility and from there we would setoff to Paro.
Guide Kinga had a fever last night so he went to a local doctor and got medicines for himself. Because of his health now, he could not ride the bike. This is where hiring Sangay and his car helped us out. Sangay took over the bike riding in the lead and guiding us, while Kinga drove the car.
Only six of us agreed to go ahead. We stopped near the Punakha Dzong for pictures. It was beautifully maintained even after centuries and we took some good clicks. We started for the monastery but I found that my bike had suddenly developed some snag and wouldn’t pick power. Two guys went ahead to the monastery visit while 4 of us returned back to the hotel. Patkar said that the probable problem was that the battery had gone kaput. We went up 8 km to a town and I got a second-hand battery. Once that was installed my bike started running smoothly.
Funny discovery after this was because the engine and the exhaust were overheated when we were getting back to the hotel, mine and Shailesh’s polyester pants got burnt holes in them as they touched the hot exhaust! Had to throw away those pants.
After everything was settled, we went to the temple of fertility. It was a belief that you carry a wooden phallus in your hand and make three rounds of the temple. Once you do this, you’ll be blessed with abundant fertility and you would have a baby. It’s a common practice for the couples to visit this temple seeking blessing for good fertility and then coming back with the baby as a part of Thanksgiving. Shops were selling phalluses, small size ones that you can put around your neck to large ones than that can be used as a showpiece.
After having a quick lunch, we set off for Paro. It was a long ride that we did in a single stretch.
Paro is perhaps the most beautiful town in Bhutan. The road to the town passes with an airstrip on one side and a river on the other side. Paro air strip regularly features as one of the most difficult ones. The approach is through 2 mountains and with strong wind gusts, any pilot would need some superficial skills to land here. I believe only local airlines fly in and out of Bhutan.
We stopped at one of the gift shops to buy souvenirs. Funnily, most of the stuff we bought was Made in India. Bhutan has much of its supplies coming in from India, Bangladesh, and China.
Our stay tonight was at one of the Farm Houses instead of the usual hotels. There is a government-driven initiative to give tourists a taste of rural Bhutan lives. We were welcomed in the home of the farmer. We sprawled in their living room littering our stuff around like the much-reviled uncouth Indian traveler. They rewarded us with a very tasty dinner, so good that everyone had double helpings.
The farmhouse was situated right in the middle of paddy fields with a view of mountains all around. In Bhutan, even if you are on level ground, a mountain is just there in the vicinity. Our rooms were spread out on the first and second floor. Those sleeping on the first floor were rewarded by tandem snoring of Manish and Ravindra. We were lucky to be on the second floor.
The only problem with the double-storeyed farmhouse was, there were only two bathrooms to accommodate the visitors. But that didn’t create as much problem as anticipated because each one of us had slightly different body clocks so nobody had to wait for their turn.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 8- Tiger’s Nest trek
Tiger’s nest Trek has been featured as one of the must-do highlights of Bhutan and once you’ve been there, you realize why it holds such a high value in the imagination of people who visit this country.
The Trek to Tiger nest started early morning. We reach there, parked bikes and bought our tickets. From the entry point, the temple was barely visible up the cliff. Near the gate, some ladies were renting out walking sticks. Most of us got one for 50 rupees and it was really useful later. The initial part of the trek ascends slowly but half a kilometer inside the jungle, the trek starts ascending steeply.
There are two options, one is a slightly easier and winding path and another is a shorter, more steep one. We got on the more challenging path and soon, depending on the speed of each climber, everyone got separated in a group of ones and twos.
From the first stop, there was a spectacular viewpoint of the temple. Half of us regrouped here and after a rest, we started the ascent again. The path was a bit easier now till the next viewpoint. The second viewpoint also marked the end of the climb on the first hill. Now we had to climb down 450 steps and then ascend 250 steps on the next hill to reach the temple. The nadir was punctuated by a nice gushing waterfall.
The total distance of 5.5km took us about 2.5 hrs.
At the foot of the temple, we checked all our bags, camera and sticks in the locker room. A steep flight of stairs led us to the temple at the cave where Guru Padmasambhava had meditated. The second temple was dedicated to his close disciple and the third one showed 5 of 8 avatars of the guru in fully resplendent glory.
Our guide to Tiger nest temple was the wife of Kinga, our guide. She’s a finance graduate but is doing 1-year service at the temple. Seems like quite a common story with Bhutan youngsters.
The return journey was quite painful to the already sore thighs and knees as we had to use muscles to constantly brake ourselves. We were quite exhausted by the time we reached the bottom. I slipped a few times due to poor grip of my shoes.
We hadn’t had lunch yet so asked Sangay to take us to some fast food joint. The place he took us to was anything but fast but at least we filled our stomach. We also searched for a massage place but it turned out to be their weekly off.
In the evening, we went for a hot stone bath in lieu of massage. A regular wooden bathtub is divided into two sections. In the short one, stones heated on wood fire are put in while you sit in the longer section. Water is poured over the heated stones and it is supposed that whatever wood was used to heat the stones infuses the water with its medicinal properties. Half an hour soak in the hot stone bath helped to unknot the muscles and made us feel relaxed.
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 9- Paro to Phuentsholing
Today was going to be the last day of the Bhutan trip. There was a problem with Arun’s bike so he finally put his bike into a pickup truck to bring it back to India and he also went along with it. Yogesh, Shailesh and me decided to make it straight to Phuentsholing whereas rest of the guys decided to take a detour via Chele La Pass and then reach Phuentsholing. Our reason to miss CheleLa was to get more time at Phuentsholing. We touched Phuentsholing thrice but didn’t get time to explore it at any instance. It was to be the same this time too.
Everything was fine for around 40-50 km but then my bike started running low on engine oil and was overheating. We kept the bike at one place and went on another bike in search for engine oil which was 20 kilometers away and it took an hour’s time. While returning back with the engine oil, Yogesh’s bike started to face a spark plug issue so he went back to the same garage from where I had got an engine oil can. We had lunch near the garage while Yogesh’s bike was repaired and then continued our Bhutan Bike Ride.
After 20 kilometers, the spart plug troubled again. This time, we decided to replace the faulty spark plugs. But spare parts were in our backup car that was with other guys who were on CheleLa trip. So we waited an hour for them to catch up, changed the plugs and it was smooth running thereafter.
This was the third time that we were going to Phuentsholing and every time, we reached in torrential rains. This time, the manager strictly instructed us not to take our wet gear inside the room!
Bhutan Bike Ride Day 10- Phuentsholing to Siliguri
24th August was to our last day of this ride. I had my return flight at 4.30 pm. Rest of the guys stayed in Siliguri.
To avoid any unnecessary delays, Myself, Yogesh and Shailesh started at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. The route which we had taken the first time was a very bad one so this time, an alternate route was chosen.
It turned out to be a much better road and since we started quite early, we could make good time too. Bengal is a beautiful and bountiful place. Initially, we were flanked by tea gardens which later gave way to paddy fields. The backgrounds to this were black mountains tinted with mist crowns at top. The only colors in the palette were green earth, blue skies, and white clouds. We had breakfast at one such location.
Along the road, we came by Teesta barrage which stretched for about 2km. Few gates of the barrage were open to let out excess water and the roar was deafening. The road after this stretched along Teesta-Mahananda link canal and soon, it brought us to Gati office from where we had started our journey on 14th. This journey of 10 days finished in a flash!!
To finish the story, each one of us got back to our respective home town as per itinerary uneventfully and got back to routine life again.
Road Thrill Blogging Team
Also visit: Road Thrill Pune’s ride to the Statue of Unity
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