Honda's popular journey series ‘Drive to Discover’ this year took us from Bagdogra, West Bengal to the land of Thunder Dragon - Bhutan. The theme this time was ‘3 lakh i-DTEC Journeys’ to celebrate the sales milestone of three lakh 1.5-litre i-DTEC diesel engine models in India.
I had much about Bhutan’s natural beauty with its grassy hillsides, bubbling rivers and serene little picture post card towns. Its cities are filled with tourists, but all the same, the atmosphere has a certain calm to it. There were monks pottering around, and unbelievably locals who smiled and welcomed us everywhere we went. As a Mumbaikar who has seen fights break out in the local trains over elbow space, this friendliness frankly felt a little incredulous.
Besides that Bhutan was every bit like the pictures I had seen on the internet, with beautiful mountains towering majestically over their towns. And Honda made that long-time travel dream come true - visiting the land of happiness. The icing on the cake was not only did I get to explore Bhutan, but I also drove across the border in some of Honda’s best vehicles.
Crossing borders in a Jazz
Right from the moment our flight landed in Bagdogra, I was itching to begin our road trip. After lunch at Citi Dhaba, my colleague Omkar and I were handed the keys of the Jazz. Without pausing to think if the bags would fit in, we dumped all our luggage in the spacious boot. Our drive was flagged off and we settled back to enjoy the sights and sounds of the town. The road to Siliguri had a fair bit of traffic. However, thanks to the light controls of the Jazz and easy maneuverability, we drove out of the city limits effortlessly. It was a comfortable ride and the torquey engine helped us zoom past the tea plantations between Siliguri and Nagrakata.
It was dark by the time we reached Jaigaon, the last town on the Indian side. Now, I'm used to driving in chaotic traffic and on uneven roads in my Jazz back in Mumbai. So negotiating all this on the road near the border was easy peasy for me. Amidst all the chaos, we went through a gate manned by a few military men. 'Oh DL registered cars. You guys from Honda? Please go, there are guys waiting for you.' It actually was a different country just across the border! This was not merely a political delineation. We were greeted by well-paved roads, fewer vehicles and still fewer people.
Heading up the hills in an Accord
We had reached Phuntsholing in Bhutan and stayed at Druk hotel close to the immigration office. Thanks to Honda's support team's arrangements, it just took five minutes for each one of us to get our immigration formalities done the next day. We were in the parking lot early morning. Even though the drive was supposed to cherish Honda's diesel engine, there were also two unique petrol models. Yes, the CR-V and the Accord. While every auto journalist was eyeing the gorgeous sedan, as luck would have it, we were allocated the Accord.
The Accord turned out to be a head-turner everywhere we drove it around the Phuntsholing market. I noticed there were no traffic signals. May be they didn't need them at all. The reason being, car drivers and pedestrians, all were much disciplined. Those on foot always used the zebra-crossing before which every vehicle stopped for any individual crossing the street. No vehicles were seen moving above 50kmph. We too followed this and only got to use the sedan's sharper throttle response on the city outskirts. The low-end and mid-range torque helped us climb the ghats till Gedu effortlessly. Of course, these came with its own challenges like landslide affected areas and broken roads, but the Accord managed to overcome all of this. Lhamu was where we had our lunch break. We spent a great time indulging in some local delicacies that we were craving for.
Reaching Paro in a CR-V
On the next leg, we drove the CR-V and fell at home within just 15 minutes of the drive. The huge SUV is so much easy to drive. The automatic gearbox added to the convenience. We didn't have to worry much (as much as in the Accord) about the rough patches of roads. Chukha, then Bunakha, and then from Chapcha to Chokha. I fell in love with the lush green and lovely surroundings. By late evening we were in Paro.
Paro is beautiful valley town nestled in the mountains, and it is just the right amount of tourist and local. I was told we could live at a homestay and experience the Bhutanese culture there, or we could live in a hotel and admire the beauty of the valley in comfort. We did the latter enjoying the sound of water gushing in the stream next to the Le Meridien Riverfront hotel.
Up to the Tiger's Nest base in the WR-V
Paro is one of those places in Bhutan where there is never a dearth of things to do. One can trek up to the Tiger's Nest if you feel restless, or you can enjoy some local delicacies in town. We decided to do both. After all we had the WR-V at our disposal. We packed all the necessary things and drove off in the peppy compact SUV. First we headed to the base of the Tiger's Nest or Taktsang, which is a popular trek about 12 km away from Paro. It is situated at a great height and provides a mesmerising view of the Paro valley. On the way we got a bird's eye view of the only international airport in Bhutan too. The trek is very hard and many people find it challenging. We too took more than 6 hours to complete it. But the pain is worth it.
Set amidst lush green hills, pristine environment and magical scenery, this monastery has a mythical feel. Of course the breathtaking beauty of the cliffs just cannot be missed while in the area. The way up is very tiring for those who hate to exercise. However, once you are up there, you will forget all the pain. We got a chance to meditate with the monks in the sacred place. These are the ones who help preserve the monastery's ancient rituals, artistic skills and traditions. People from all around the world come here. Now I knew why and how it felt to achieve serenity.
Exploring Thimpu city in the City
We were short on time as we had to head back to Phuntsholing for the exit formalities. The Honda City was our companion for the day to explore Thimpu and sprint back towards the border. While we drove in the narrow lanes of Thimpu, I realised the city is buzzing with activity. Very unlike Paro. One can also get anything, from pastries to jewelry. There are a lot of eateries here. Additionally, there are many small shops that line the street, while municipal buildings are the only biggest structures around.
I was wrong till I saw the huge Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains overlooking the city. We drove up to this hill to get a closer view. My god, it’s beautiful. Except for the King's palace, every other part of Thimpu is open for tourists. Unfortunately, we had to head back. The Honda City had given us a short and quick tour of the city.
Entering West Bengal in the Amaze
We were back in Phuntsholing by evening that day. Completing the exit formalities was again an easy task leaving us a lot of time for some souvenir shopping. This is where we realised that buying mementos near the border was cheaper than in the capital of Bhutan. And just like the quick shopping we also had a quick exit from Bhutan.
This time we were in the Amaze. Since I also drive an Amaze back home, I was quickly comfortable in this compact sedan. However, the chaos back in India after crossing the border made us forgot what route we had to take. We took the Jalpaiguri road instead of taking the Nagrakata road. Quite apprehensive then, we continued on the route only to be amazed. Sure, the Amaze was one reason but it was more of the paths we undertook. Many of them were either being constructed or freshly laid. The smooth ride ensured we could enjoy the pretty villages alongside. It was something I had only watched in movies. Electric auto-rickshaws ferrying around people. Couples riding bicycles with an umbrella protecting them from the harsh sun. Sure we had the car's climate control to keep us calm along the flat highways. However, I wished I could have had better company to enjoy this lush countryside and such exotic destinations.
So here I am back only with a promise to my wife that we will be going to this place soon. The 700kms of long distance driving was more than liberating and rejuvenating. Bhutan is a brilliant place to head to! Thanks to Honda for ensuring us a great time and smooth drive.
Pictures by Ninad Ambre