Words: Aniruddha Rangnekar
It’s about half past five in the evening. The sun has set a while ago and we’re stuck in a traffic jam going through the narrow streets of Jaigaon, the last Indian town before we cross the border and enter Bhutan. I’ve heard wonderful things about the country and begin to wonder what it would be like to get away from the chaos of our daily lives and settle down in a peaceful place like that. The honking rickshaws on either side of the Honda BR-V I’m driving, along with those in front of and behind me, remind me that they require my full immediate attention. Ten odd minutes later, we turn off towards Bhutan gate and just like that, everything goes quiet. There’s nobody honking, no people yelling at each other from across the road or no one trying to cut across the path of my car. We were in the land of the Thunder Dragon!
The entire drive from the time we landed at Bagdogra till the point we entered the Bhutanese border at Phuentsholing, had been nothing short of chaotic. And now, barely few meters into this beautiful land, things have completely calmed down. It is a culture shock, especially if you’ve just driven through the parts of West Bengal we crossed on the route, nothing short of the wild, wild west. What a contrast! With the not-so-good roads driving out of our country, it’s a good thing we were given the BR-V for this leg of the journey, the generous ground clearance and comfortable ride allowed us to comfortably cruise and the punchy i-DTEC proved handy, especially while overtaking. It’s no surprise then that there are already over 3,00,000 cars running with this Honda diesel power plant, since its launch back in 2013. It’s a versatile engine, powering almost all the cars on this trip with us – the Amaze, Jazz, WR-V, BR-V and City (other than the Accord Hybrid and CR-V).
Back to our drive then. A noteworthy point about Bhutan is that Indian citizens do not need a passport to get in. A voter’s ID card serves the purpose just fine. With an overnight halt at the border town, immigration formalities and vehicle permits sorted, we set off for Paro, some 160 odd kilometers away in the fleet on Honda cars we have at our disposal. I opted for the Amaze for this leg of the journey, knowing that the roads would be nice and twisty, giving me a chance to exploit the car’s handling potential.
Driving in Bhutan is an absolute pleasure, chief reason being the silence. Honking is considered taboo here and to be honest, you never really need to use the horn here because everyone driving on the roads here are always watching their mirrors and also have more than enough common sense. Driving round roundabouts and intersections with no signal or cop in sight, yet no traffic jams. Who would have thought this remote little country could offer some seriously good driving roads and such sensible people to not only surprise you, but make you simply fall in love with the country! I was really enjoying my drive in the Amaze, the powertrain making for an easy-going driving experience, allowing me to enjoy the beautiful views the mountains had to offer. The 14-inch wheels with tyres that are designed for fuel efficiency rather than outright grip, don’t exactly encourage the rally driver in me on these roads which have a beautiful blend of fast sweeping corners and short straights. Instead they allowed me to take in the surrounding beauty, which really didn’t get boring at any point. After checking into the hotel at Paro, we were informed that the next day would be a free one, which meant those wanting to go explore, may do so. Others who were up to it, could attempt to trek up the famous path that lead to the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) monastery. Being the adventurous sort, I chose to do the latter.
Now, stories in our magazine typically stick to reviewing cars and the roads we drive them on, since ultimately that’s our focus. However, I really enjoyed my trek up to the Tiger’s Nest and that’s the highlight of this drive for me. I have little or no knowledge about hiking, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Tiger’s Nest. I had heard some people say it’s really tough, while others said it was super easy. It’s a mix of both. You can either hike the entire way, like we did, or rent a horse. However, the horse will only take you one way and even then only half way up. After that the path gets too narrow plus there are also lots of stairs involved. So even if you choose to take a horse, you’re still stuck walking over three quarters of the way. Soon after we started, we realised that the path was challenging. The first half of the walk there was horse crap everywhere, which made this the less pleasant part of the walk. I’d say a fair few people started their hike ahead of us, but by the time we were halfway there, we were past most of them and even encountered some people who were walking back in the opposite direction, having given up. There were more than a few points on the trek where I’d just collapse and feel like I was about to get a heart attack, but we had formed a nice group between and kept motivating each other to keep going.
At one point, we were on a similar level as the monastery and thought we can’t be too far now. Unfortunately what we didn’t realise at the time is that the Tiger’s Nest was on a different mountain, so we basically had to walk all the way down and then all the way up again. The higher up we got, the tougher it got. At this point we all envied one of our colleagues who had smartly picked up a walking stick at the base, while the rest of us were just about managing to get through with our simple sneakers. The best view of the Tiger’s Nest is from the other mountain (or whatever you’d like to call it), before you descend down the stairs and then up again. We made it to the Tiger’s Nest at just a little after 1pm having started at 11 and were pretty damn proud of ourselves, the unfit bunch that we were.
Once at the monastery, you can’t use your phone or camera inside the Tiger’s Nest. As a matter of fact, they hold onto them at the entrance. There are a bunch of temples in the Tiger’s Nest and we spent about 30 minutes there. That might not seem like a long time, but really there are just a few temples there and that’s all the time you would need to see them. You soak in the wonderful view from all the way up there and then you realise why the Tiger’s Nest is probably Bhutan’s most famous landmark. The difficult trek up was definitely worth it and so I’m happy we had the chance to hike to it. We did the trip back down in an hour, using the shortcuts that the monks use when they walk up and down.
Bhutan has some beautiful temples and sculptures, though perhaps what’s most special about this country is how remote and challenging a place it is to stay in and yet the people here are the warmest you’ll come across anywhere. There aren’t many tourists around and it wasn’t overcrowded compared to what you’d find in any other country. The food was great and so was the local culture. The Honda Drive to Discover really gave all those involved a very good opportunity to explore the Bhutan, without being bound by any timelines or fixed schedules.
On the drive back towards Bagdogra, I switched between the Jazz, WR-V and the City and all three cars proved smooth riders on the mountain roads and hardly caused any fatigue, despite the tough trek the previous day. The diesel engine was super frugal and the well-matched gear ratios made the driving experience an absolute breeze, making these cars great to travel long distances in. The i-DTEC powered Honda cars were so pleasant to drive in that it’s only when we reached the end of the drive at Bagdogra, where we were scheduled to take our flights out from, did I realise that I haven’t had a go in the two petrol cars on the journey – the Accord Hybrid and the CR-V. May be the good folks at Honda would so kind allow me a quick dash to back Bhutan and allow me to experience these cars I missed out on. If only!
After getting back home, I’ve had many questions from my curious friends who haven’t been there – whether Bhutan is really the happiest country on earth, whether this Gross Happiness Index actually works. Which got me thinking, and I have to conclude that they really are happy. I did not see sad eyes on the entire trip. Like our local guide Dorji said, the nature of people in Bhutan is warm and caring. They lead simple lives and are content. They exude a sense of peace and happiness from their hearts which is impossible to impose. They exchange greetings with each other on the road and are happy to meet fellow human beings. Perhaps this is the effect of being brought up in small tight-knit communities. The Bhutanese spare no attention for their guests and are ever welcoming. During our short stay we had the good fortune of being on the receiving end of Bhutanese hospitality, and that’s second to none.