A slogan at Thimphu’s School of Traditional Arts says, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” by HM, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan. This concept of GNH (Gross National Happiness) was designed to measure the quality of life or social progress than only the economic indicator of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
After driving in a Tata Safari for almost 4 days from Tamenglong, three members of the Adventure Club of Tamenglong (ACT) and a friend, Raimi, we picked up from Eastern Theological College, reached Gelephu a border town in Bhutan adjacent to Dadgiri in Chirang District of Assam. It was already 8 pm and the border gate had been closed for vehicles except for a few pedestrians crossing the borders at the last moment. Initially we were refused entry into Gelephu but after much request we were permitted to spend the night in a hotel in Gelephu as Dadgiri has no hotels. As we drove from the border gate to the hotel, escorted by a kind officer, we felt like we were driving through a military cantonment area, neat and well organized. We checked into Hotel Khamsang which was filled with the aroma
of fried pork and beef from the kitchen in the first floor. After dinner we rested for the night in our AC double rooms. I found the rooms very reasonable at Rs. 1000/- a night.
Next morning we went to the Regional Immigration Office for the permit to drive to Thimphu. But we were denied since tourists are not permitted to enter Thimphu via Gelephu. However, the officials were kind enough to let us visit various spots in their district. But since our priority was Thimphu, we drove out of Gelephu back into Assam and headed for Phuentsholing, the main entry point to Bhutan. The ride on NH 31C in the hot April heat was eased only by the thoughts of being able to “walk on the streets of Thimphu” as put by Raimi. Phuentsholing is a border town adjacent to Jaigaon the last frontier town. To reach Phuentsholing from Guwahati one doesn’t has to go to Siliguri but can take a right before reaching Hasimaru train junction in West Bengal.
As we crossed the gate and entered Phuentsholing around 3 pm it was a different world. There was order in the traffic and no blowing of horns.
The Immigration Office of Phuentsholing is about 200 meters from the gate on your right side beyond the oil pump and we had just about enough time to get tourist permits to enter Thimphu and Paro (the only city in Bhutan that has an airport). For Indians a Voter ID card is enough to get permit. As the immigration officers checked our forms they knew from our surnames that we are Christians and were a little hesitant in giving the permit to us. Bhutan has banned any new religious activity except the pre-existing Buddhism and Hinduism. We persuaded them that our objective was only tourism based and finally all four of us got our permits, duly stamped and signed. All this process took us about an hour and by this time the RSTA (Road Safety and Transport Authority) Office had closed so we had to spend the night at Phuentsoling. Next morning at 9:00 am Bhutan time and 8:30 am Indian time the RSTA office opened and it took us an hour to get the permit for the vehicle, we also had to pay Nu. 210/- as vehicle tax for seven days. Bhutanese currency is called Ngultrum and it is
at par with the Indian Rupee. Indian currency is widely accepted in Bhutan. We were told that Rs500 and Rs 1000 denomination is not accepted but we found out later that it was not so. Be sure to carry enough cash, preferably in small denominations, as credit card payment is nonexistent and the odds of your ATM card working are very low.
Once the all the permits were done we finally started our drive to Thimphu at around 11 am. It is a good idea to make several photo copies of your permit as you have to surrender the original copy on your way out. It will also come in handy if you want to get a tourist SIM card in Thimphu. After a steep climb that led us to 1300 ft MSL and 5 km from Phuentsholing there is a check post where all the permits are signed and stamped by the police. Here again when we mentioned that we are from Manipur our vehicle was thoroughly checked for any Christian literature. But the police were very polite in carrying out there duty. After all the formalities we drove on to Gedu, 60 km from Phuentsholing and had
lunch of Thukpa. Hence on the road offers spectacular view of waterfalls, rivers and the tropical forest all the way to Thimphu. The traffic was moderate with SUVs mostly Toyota Prado, Land Cruisers and Hilux, and the Tata lorries carrying essentials, also the Toyota mini buses carrying passengers. We moved along the highway which twisted and turned, ascended and descended through various sparsely populated hamlets like Bunakha and Chapcha. We passed the highest point on the highway which had sudden and short burst of unpredictable rain.
The highway slowly led us to the suburbs of Thimphu where we could see new upcoming constructions. We reached Thimphu proper at around 5 pm, Phuentsholing to Thimphu is about 182 km. As we drove through Thimphu we saw a well discipline traffic unlike Guwahati and Jorhat that we had passed a few days back.
We parked our car and decided to walk a bit before finding a hotel. Parking is Nu. 30 an hour. We walked into a nice looking cozy restaurant on the first floor of a building where some Buddhist monks were enjoying beef porridge. We ordered some snacks and tea and we got a taste of Ema Datshi,
the national dish of Bhutan. It is vegetables with green chilly and radish cooked in cheese. After some enquiry we found our abode in Central Lodge, a comfy reasonable hotel with running hot water. The maximum temperature in Thimphu was 16° C and at night it would dip to 1°C. After checking into the hotel we decided to walk the streets of Thimphu and settled for dinner around 9:30pm comprising of Shakam Datshi (Beef) and Shikam Datshi (Pork), datshi is cottage cheese. We also tried the Shakam paa, dried beef in radish and dried chilly. After dinner still excited to discover the bustling night life we walked “in safe water” near our hotel. Finally we decided to called it a night by midnight.
The main sources of Bhutan’s economy is tourism and Hydel power which it sells to India. Agriculture is the main livelihood of the Bhutanese. Weaving is also a big source of income. So, most of the women are seen in their kira
, the traditional wrap-around and the gho
is the national dress for men. Education in Bhutan is sponsored by the government. In 1950s Secondary education was available only in India. Bhutan’s education program got a
great boost in 1990 when Asian Development Bank granted a loan of US$ 7 million.
With most women in kira
and men in gho
, we didn’t see any branded apparel showrooms. TV was not allowed only until recently. Most of the channels we saw on the cable TV in our hotel rooms were Indian. We also got a chance to see a live Rock n Roll band playing in a pub.
After three nights and two absolutely eventful days we packed our bags back to India.
With fewer desires, the rate of contentment is high. I think this is how the King wants to keep it. And really, the world did seem a happier place on the on the other side of the fence.
ACT members were in Thimphu from 16 - 19 April 2014
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