Armed with a Tiger and a Bonnie, we attempt to ‘Triumph’ over the Thunder Dragon...
The young man with gelled hair looked like Cristiano Ronaldo, but he wore a traditional Gho and when I asked for directions to the immigration office at Phuntsholing, the Bhutanese border town, he took me there instead of simply giving me directions. Welcome to Bhutan, where people go out of their way to help strangers.
My friend Anuj and I decided to travel across Bhutan on a couple of Triumph motorcycles – the Triumph Tiger 800 and the Bonneville. I like the Triumph Tiger 800 – a go-anywhere bike that suites my style of riding to the T. Anuj was more than happy with the Bonneville – the silky smooth power delivery and the amazing handling had him hooked.
It’s been almost 25 years since I was last in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and this time I intended to travel much more than I did all those years back.
Jaigaon, in North Bengal, borders the Bhutanese town of Phuntsholing, and is a typical border town. Loud, crowded to the brim, and chaotic. After the long stretches of open road starting from Guwahati in Assam, the last 5 kilometres to Phuntsholing took us an eternity to cover. We shared the road with overloaded truck, buses, impossibly crowded mini buses with the handyman calling for more passengers and honking like crazy, carts pulled by huge oxen, autos, brightly coloured rickshaws, bicycles and people.
At the end of the town is the gate to enter Bhutan, and it’s a wonder how crossing a simple gate leads to a different world altogether – literally!
As soon as we crossed the Dragon gate, the cacophony ceased altogether. The traffic moved in an orderly manner, there were no three wheelers, no overloaded trucks or buses, and certainly no animals on the road. No one seemed to be in any tearing hurry to get anywhere. Cars stopped whenever people cross the street, and we never had to lift our hands to signal to cars to stop like we do in Delhi. And we were the only ones honking, as we tried to kill this deeply entrenched habit. After a couple of days in the kingdom, though, we also got used to riding without blowing the horn, and generally in a very disciplined manner. The threat of getting hauled up by the police in a foreign land had turned us into extremely decent riders virtually overnight.
It’s absolutely amazing that, even in this age of high- technology, Bhutan has, to a very large extent, managed to hold on to it tradition and customs. One is not allowed, for instance, into a government office without the traditional attire. People still greet you in the traditional manner – a handshake and a little bow, or with folded hands. People will hand over and take money with the left hand supporting the right hand. It’s a humbling experience.
For more than a millennium, this tiny Himalayan kingdom has lived in isolation. Set in between India and China, the country was given a miss by most travellers – both, due to its geographical position and its government policies. Although this has kept much-needed development away, it has also saved the country from the ravages that invariably come with development.
Very often, Bhutan is referred to as the last Shangri-La – and with very good reason too. Almost three quarters of Bhutan is still forested, and the government has designated about 25% of this as National Parks and other protected areas. The natural beauty is all encompassing – mist covered hills, ancient pagodas, and monasteries perched on high hills with sheer drops, sacred forests, crystal clear rivers, and snow covered high mountain passes.
After we finished our paperwork (non Bhutanese need permits to enter), we hit the road to Paro. The roads are wide and in very good condition, and so the Bonneville came into its element. Anuj hugged the corners and scraped the footpegs at will on the beautiful turns. The Bonnie moves ever so smoothly. I always felt a ting of jealously whenever Anuj overtook me. He seemed to simply glide past me. Overtaking on the highway is a breeze. Well, in our case anyway – just open the throttle slightly, and the bikes take off, even in 5th or 6th gear. The torque was always there when you needed it.
Paro is about 160 kilometres from Phuntsholing, but the journey took at least 2 hours more than it should have because we couldn’t help but stop every few kilometres to get the cameras out and capture some of the spectacular natural beauty. The mesmerizing landscapes got the better of us, and we decided to just succumb to this eventuality. As we descended to Paro, we saw wide stretches of yellow paddy fields with gushing streams dissecting them.
Paro has the only international airport in Bhutan, and hence has some good hotels too – some high-end ones, and some for budget conscious motorcycle travellers like us as well. Roads in Bhutan were not always this good. Till about the 1960’s, when the country started opening up to the outside world, there were no roads, no vehicles, no telephones and electricity. Poverty and illiteracy were very high. But that’s all in the past now.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the father of the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, worked hard after ascending the throne in 1972 to make the country prosperous. He coined a new and innovative phrase to measure the wealth of his country – ‘Gross National Happiness.’ To outsiders, it might seem like a marketing tool, but it isn’t. The man on the street swears by this phrase. Gross National Happiness is, after all, guided by a set of rules – sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance. And by the looks of it, the monarchy has been able to live up to its own guidelines.
We saw an example of excellent cultural preservation at Paro. The Drugyal Dzong, one the oldest Dzong in Bhutan was destroyed in a devastating fire many years ago and lay in ruins. It is now a protected monument, and the magnificent ruins stand silently atop a hill. The famed Tiger’s Nest perched high on the mountain above the Paro valley was also destroyed in a fire in 1998, and was rebuilt in 2008. One look at the Tiger’s Nest, and you can’t help but wonder how they managed to craft this huge structure right out of the cliff-face.
Construction is strictly monitored and isn’t haphazard by any stretch. The administrations in our hill stations would do well to learn the art of sustainable development from Bhutan. Logging and mining is at a very controlled rate, and the only the natural resource that Bhutan really seems to have exploited is water. There are a lot of hydropower projects, and they sell the power to India.
Tourism is also a big source of income. While Indians pay the normal rates, westerners have to shell out 250 US Dollars a day – which takes care of the accommodation, food, car rental, guide, and sightseeing. But this also keeps out the unwanted backpacking hordes. Just look at what the backpackers did to places like Manali.
Paro to Thimpu is another stretch of great road. As we entered Thimpu, we became very well behaved. I can’t recall the last time I rode at such a controlled speed for such long distances. With cameras along the highway and police on bikes, I didn’t want to take any chances. In the land of Happiness, I didn’t want to be the glum one behind bars.
Thimpu is just as clean, beautiful and disciplined. Somehow, I felt that life here moves as if on a conveyer belt – very orderly and in a straight line. But I was wrong to a large extent. The people are extremely fond of their King – enamoured is a better way to put it. In this 21st century, absolute monarchy doesn’t exist anywhere else. The monarchy is constitutional everywhere, as people want more freedom and democracy. But, in Bhutan, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated his throne in 2006 and bought in democracy, there were people who mourned. They mourned because they could not imagine a life without their beloved King as the absolute leader and also because they were sceptical of the new system of democracy.
We did a day trip to Punakha to see the amazing Punakha Dzong. Along the way, we had to cross the Dochula Pass, which has 99 stupas on it. On a clear day, the snow-capped mountains of the higher Himalayas can be seen from the Pass. Because of the hydel power projects coming up, there is a lot of road construction on-going. And so, after we crossed the Pass, the Tiger came into its element on the off-road sections.
The Triumph Tiger 800 is a heavy bike, and more so with the loaded panniers. It needs to be handled like an off-roader on turns, but it handled the slush and gravel with aplomb. On long stretches of gravel, I just had to stand on the footpegs with a little forward lean, and off I went. The tyres threw stones into the air as I opened the throttle wider in a higher gear. The ABS on the Tiger is also amazing. As I tailed the Bonnie on the downhill sections, the ABS came into play and it made braking so much safer. I just wish it had better dual-purpose tyres for proper off-road use.
I had seen a picture of the Punakha Dzong a long time ago, and have wanted to visit it since then. It stands in between two rivers, and it looks absolutely riveting. When the water rises, the reflection of the white, yellow and burgundy Dzong on the water is something that one can gape at for a very long time indeed.
The Dzong is huge, and houses some government departments, as well as religious sections. Exploring the Donzg with heavy boots, jackets and bags sure worked up an appetite and so we stopped at a lovely eatery afterwards for some red ride, dal, boiled vegetables, beef with cheese, and some really hot chilli curry. I forgot that tobacco products are banned in Bhutan, and went to a shop to buy cigarettes. A monk with burgundy-stained teeth that matched his burgundy robe, smiled and said that a smoke might be relaxing at that moment but it would get me into a lot of trouble if I got caught. One can legally import a limited number of smokes, but only for personal consumption and after paying a 100% tax. I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble and went smoke-free for 10 days.
The sun goes down rather early, and after dark there isn’t much that you can do – although there are some lovely restaurants and bars in the city centre. Every street corner has karaoke bars and snooker clubs.
For all the traditional lifestyle that is evident everywhere, I also saw a lot of western culture that’s prevalent as well – especially among the younger generation. The Kingdom allowed TV only in 1999 – and with half of the 700,000 population below the age of 25 years, they took to it like fish to water. MTV culture reigns. I visited a lot of the pagodas, and they were full of elderly people – going around in circles with their prayer wheels, as well as sitting and chanting. Let’s just say that there weren’t too many young people there.
It’s been 8 years or so of democracy now, and although the nation has, by and large, managed to hold on to King Wanchuck’s idea of Gross National Happiness, some evils of modernisation are bound to creep in – that’s inevitable.
For me, it’s been a very ‘Happy’ tour of Bhutan, and it converted me into a disciplined road user and a responsible citizen too. Riding a motorcycle in Bhutan in happiness indeed. And riding a duo of Triumphs makes it happier still – neither of these two incredible travel companions missed a beat throughout the entire journey.
Bhutan is an amazingly beautiful country. Travel with a sense of responsibility, and you’ll enjoy it immensely. But if you act in an irresponsible and rash manner, the Thunder Dragon will strike you down – beware!