Red Rackham on the roads of BhutanIt has been a lifelong passion and aspiration to drive through the Himalayas West to East. In the winter of 2013, driving in the mystical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan realized our dream partly. Indians are allowed to drive in their own vehicles into Bhutan with Indian Driving Licenses. We have returned time and again to Bhutan for her pristine forests and abundant bird life. I have shared our experience of driving in Bhutan in this post.
Our home town is Kolkata in Eastern India and very close to the border town of Phuentsholing in Bhutan. Our plan was to cover from Phuentsholing in the West to Trashigang in the East. Alas! We had to restrict our drive till the Bumthang valley (read leave from work) and planned to exit through Gelephu in Bhutan into India through Assam.
Preparing for the Road Trip
Our trusty steed Red Rackham was our vehicle for this self-drive trip to Bhutan (Red Rackham is our much loved Red & White Mitsubishi Pajero). My usual fixes from previous trips to Ladakh, Gangotri came in handy – lubes, spares like fuses, bulbs, alternator, AC belts, bolts, bushes, washers, tire inflator, wipers, toolbox . I added a sixth tire and additional fuel tanks also.
I have written a detailed post for the immigration details and vehicle permits. Along with sharing the experience of driving in Bhutan, have tried to provide the critical information that one will need to keep in mind.
Entry Exit points to Bhutan
Bhutan has 3 major entry and exit points at border locations with India. Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar are the towns in Bhutan. The respective Indian Towns are Jaigaon in West Bengal and Dadri (Kokrajhar) and Darranga in Assam.
I would recommend entry through Phuentsholing for self-drive excursions. This is a nice tidy town with modern facilities and takes less time to get permits for immigration and vehicles (RSTA).
Entry through Gelephu and Samdrup with your self-drive vehicle is not recommended. I did not see any RSTA office in Gelephu and Samdrup for issue of vehicle permits. On one of our birding trips (not self-drive), we were help up in Samdrup for 3 hours just for immigration permits. The immigration office demanded a letter from our tour operator although we were carrying all valid documents like passport and driving licenses. Although I did not try for car permits from RSTA (Road Safety & Transport Authority) in Gelephu and Samdrup, the process is bound to be difficult.
Exit through Gelephu or Samdrup is fine.
Hotels at Entry and Exit points to Bhutan
Phuentsholing is neat organized and well developed, thus there are several good hotels, lodges and restaurants. Jaigaon on the Indian side is a trading town and is chaotic at best. It is advisable to stay on the Bhutan side in Phuentsholing.
Gelephu is a quaint little town and can be covered on foot in a short time. There is a small unused airport. We stayed in Tshen Dhen Hotel for a night. It is a decent place well recommended for a family or couples’ stay. We chatted with the owner and got to know that her daughter lives in Kolkata and works at the renowned Park Hotel.
There are other decent lodges like Hotel K-Dee, Hotel Pelrithang and Twin Dragon Hotel.
Samdrup is a very small town but less friendly than Gelephu. There are few average hotels here.
We stayed in Menjong Hotel, supposedly the best rated hotel in town for one night. The rooms were very average, quite dusty despite being air-conditioned and peeling plaster in the bathrooms. The food is just above average and is more Indian than Bhutanese cuisine. It is situated bang within the town and you can walk to the market.
We also stayed in Tashi Gasel Lodge. This lodge is situated atop a hill outside the Samdrup town, a few kilometers uphill and an isolated location. The restaurant has a good view but I would not recommend a stay here. The facilities and the staff are below average. Eg: We were given a menu card and ordered Ala Carte. During checkout we were charged buffet rates for each individual and then told that the menu cards were only for locals.
The only benefit is that it attracts a lot of birdlife.
Checking of Permits on the way
The first immigration check-point is a few kms uphill from Phuentsholing town, all permits are stamped here. An important pointer – No one will stop you to stamp your papers at the check point. But, you may be questioned at the next check posts where you may be stopped. Better safe than sorry, stop at all check points and stamp both permits
There is one immigration check point 4kms before Dochu La where they did not want to check our vehicle permit.
Just before the mountains ended before Gelephu, there is one immigration check point to stamp all permits.
Finally just before you exit Bhutan, there is one immigration checkpoint.
Vehicles in Bhutan
Toyota is the king and master vehicle in this country as well. You will only see Land Cruiser and Prados and Toyota Pickups. The Indian counterpart, Mahindra is also making inroads in the goods carriage category.
The sedans and hatchbacks are all Maruti. Mitsubishi is a rare find in Bhutan (Spotted few LR200 pick-ups and old model Pajeros). A moment of pride for us since the Red Rackham stood out like a head turner.
Our Driving Route in Bhutan and Road Conditions
Finding roads in Bhutan is fairly simple. There is only one main road running through the middle of the country from East to West. BRO (Border Roads Organization) of the Indian army maintains a lot of the roads here. For e.g: The road from Paro to Chele La is maintained by BRO under project Dantak.
There is an Indian Oil storage facility on the left side of the highway with an adjoining Indian Oil petrol pump near Hasimara. The road turns left, winding through the tea gardens and goes for 12 kms to reach Jaigaon also crossing the ubiquitous Indian railway lines and the Hasimara railway station on the left. You will immediately notice the transformation between the chaotic unkempt town of Jaigaon(India) and the town of Phuentsholing (Bhutan) in a neat and tidy state with neat identical shop signs boards (in green and white) is stark.
Phuentsholing to Paro
Phuentsholing to Paro is 170 kms and takes approximately 6 hours. The roads are narrower towards Paro and then a little broken near about Chukha. The roads became better near about Chapcha. Crossing Chukha and Chapcha, we reached Chuzon. The road forks between Thimphu and Paro. The road to Paro crosses a bridge and goes to the left. The roads are almost straight with a smooth tarred finish as you enter the picturesque Paro valley.
Paro to Chele La
Bondey comes after the Paro airstrip. We crossed the bridge on Paro Chu to the right and then started our ascent to the Chele La pass, a distance of about 34 kms on a well maintained mountain road. Chele La is at an altitude of 3988 meters. The road to Chele La was fantastic even though it is a high altitude road and we breezed to the top in around an hour’s time.
Paro to Thimphu
An impeccable two laned black top connects the 60 kms distance Paro to Thimphu.
Thimphu to Punakha
This is not an expressway; the highway to Punakha is a mix of good and bad and cannot be called good road surface. We covered the distance of 75 kms in 2.5 – 3 hours.
Punakha to Bumthang
The road from Punakha starts out as good till Wangdu, but do not get your hopes up!
The road starts deteriorating and then the surface starts disappearing. We carried on after navigating through some really bad roads and crossed a number of stone quarries with no roads. Then the road improves slightly as you climb the Pele La pass. Soon you can see prayer flags. The road is peaceful and serene at the Pele La with a tranquil pleasant chorten. The road to Trongsa is good then descends down to the Phobjika valley.
Trongsa to Gelephu
I was prepared for bad potholed roads. But it does not stop at that! The roads slowly disappear absolutely. We were going downhill from Trongsa and it was just 30 kms of off-roading till the river. But the silver lining is after about 15 kms from there on, the roads just become too good to believe for roads in Himalayas.
All roads in Bhutan are currently getting widened , hence filled with road work . Every road seems to be like an off-road now. There are wait times for road work and road clearing. The road work is expected to be completed by 2018.
GPS and Navigation
It is prudent to buy a local connection in Bhutan with data connection for checking Google maps. The Google maps application is not updated in several areas; thus you stopped to ask locals for information and their suggestions. A pointer is to do check for road conditions before stepping out from your hotel or destination. Road conditions keep on changing continuously with several road closures for roadwork. There is no website yet like a ready reckoner so word of mouth information helps avoid long wait times on the road.
Is it safe to drive in Bhutan?
Absolutely. No second thoughts about that. It is the safest place in the World. You need to be well versed in driving on narrow mountain roads like Himalayan roads. Your vehicle has to be in perfect shape; you cannot afford to break down in the middle of nowhere, not because it’s unsafe but because there will be no nearby help. There are no mechanics or service centers other than well-established towns like Thimphu or Punakha. It will be wise to carry a compressor for your tires.
Apart from this, just leave behind all apprehensions and enjoy the pristine valleys and nature in Bhutan.
Roadside facilities, amenities in Bhutan
There are no roadside amenities in Bhutan.
There will be some cafés sometimes (e.g. on top of Dochu la). Trongsa has few good eating joints on the way. It is safe to have Instant noodles (Maggi), boiled or fried eggs and tea or coffee in most of these places. We stopped at the Oyster hotel in Trongsa and it felt heavenly. It is always sensible to carry some cookies or dates or almonds and always water in your vehicle.
On our part, we always started after a hearty breakfast. We also called up the next destination or resort and ordered for lunch before setting out. If not ordered earlier , you may have to wait a couple of hours for them to prepare lunch. Almost all locations east of Thimphu are remote and have limited food supplies. Even well-known places like Punakha might have limited options for food.
Petrol Pumps / Gas Stations
Petrol pumps / Gas stations are available in Bhutan from Bhutan Oil and Indian Oil. These are some of the fuel stops from my experience.
- No Petrol pumps / Gas stations between Phuentsholing and Paro.
- Paro has few petrol pumps. One is situated just as the road starts uphill to Chele La leading to Haa valley.
- Only one gas station in Haa valley, do not to plan your trip based on that one.
- No shortage of petrol pumps in Thimphu area.
- Presence of only one gas station is at Punakha , but none on the road from Thimphu to Punakha.
- A road goes from Punakha via Pajo towards Gelephu (Wangdu-Trirang Road). There are few petrol pumps on this road. In an emergency one can travel a couple of kms on this road to get hold of the first one.
- There are no petrol pumps at Gangtey and Phobjika valley, east of Punakha. I recommend carrying additional filled fuel tanks if you are planning to spot the rare black-necked cranes at Phobjika,
- The petrol pump in Trongsa is an Indian Oil outlet.
- The refueling station is before Bumthang at Chamkhar, east of Punakha and one pump at the Jakar town.
This is as far as we had driven and of course we exited the country from Gelephu. We took the Trongsa Gelephu road which does not have any petrol pumps till Gelephu which is little less than 200 kms from Trongsa.
Vistas and Wildlife on the way
We spoted some Rhesus Monkeys, Grey Langurs, Birds and a Pika and a weasel crossing the road from Phuentsholing to Paro.
Look out for Blood Pheasant, Kalij Pheasant Himalayan Monal and Spotted Nutcracker enroute to Chele La. The spotted nutcrackers keep the forest alive with their loud noise. This road is incredibly scenic with a lot of wildlife on the way. This top of the pass offers a great view of the snow covered Mount Jhomalhari and Haa Valley.
Rich birdlife populates the road to Pele La . The abandoned old road on the Pele La is an interesting area to explore for the rare parrotbills. Chumey valley after Yotong La is stunning picturesque landscape similar to European valleys.
The road from Trongsa to Gelephu went through some precarious rock-fall zones and then through some spectacular high altitude locations with near vertical falls. The road descends and crosses a hanging bridge to a forest wonderland filled with wildlife. We spotted a group of 7-8 rare Golden Langurs crossing the road.
Things to be cautious about
- Do positively check with your insurance provider if you are driving with your Indian Registered Vehicle. Most Indian vehicle Insurances do not cover Nepal & Bhutan. Then opt for car insurance in Bhutan.
- Many Indian credit cards are not valid for payment in foreign exchange in Nepal and Bhutan. Hence, carry enough cash to last your trip and do not solely rely on your credit card.
- Bhutan accepts Indian currency all across the country . Our experience showed Bhutanese were very open to Indian currencies of Rs 500 and Rs 1000/- (our Bhutan visit was in the Pre demonetization era). The changes is in Indian Rupees in large towns and border towns, while Interior parts of Bhutan like Bumthang return your change in Bhutanese Ngultrum BTN.
- Be very cautious in winter driving. Watch out for black ice and snow on the road. Traffic is non-existent on the roads however it is advisable to be cautious. Roads can turn curving suddenly and you will encounter broken roads in many sharp turns and hairpin bends.
- Finally the most important one. Do not honk without necessity. It is acceptable to honk in India with out reason, but bad manners in Bhutan.