This was back in 2004 when we were posted in Gangtok, Sikkim. One of the most beautiful places I have had the privilege of living for 2.5 years ! Stories of Sikkim are for another post, today I will share my story of the impromptu 8 day road trip we took from Gangtok to Bhutan alongwith a guide to plan your own road trip.
DAY 1 – GANGTOK TO JAIGAON – This was somewhere in Nov 2004, my brother in law was visiting from the USA and we were having breakfast in the sunroom of my house and deciding what to do for the rest of the day.
“Let’s go watch a movie”
“Nah, let’s go to the market, shop around and have lunch ”
“Or….let’s drive down to Bhutan, it can’t be very far, right ?”
“Hell yeah, let’s do it !!”
And that is how we decided to go on a road trip to Bhutan !! Zero planning, zero research, that was the time of no GPS on phones / cars, I didn’t even have an internet connection at home, so no question of finding out anything online. We just relied on my husband to find somebody we knew posted in the Indian Army Base in Bhutan to arrange for some accommodation for us and yes, he was not even going with us. He needs to get Ministry of Defence permission before he can travel out of India, so any impromptu foreign trips, he is automatically disqualified 🙁 .
We packed our bags for roughly 1 week stay, filled up the tank of our chotu Maruti Zen, strapped in my 1 year old son in his car seat and went to my husband’s office. I still remember his bewildered face when we entered his office and asked him to tell us how to go to Bhutan 🙂 . He made a few calls and within half an hour we had out route chalked out.
- Drive from Gangtok to Sevoke (West Bengal) a distance of approx 95 km.
- Head to Jaigaon which is around 130 kms ahead of Sevoke, a town on the Indian side and something would be arranged for us for the night by the time we would reach Jaigaon.
- Cross over to Phuntsholing in Bhutan the next morning and after getting the necessary permits, drive over to Thimpu.
With this rough itinerary and complete trust in my husband to arrange something for his wife, child and brother we took off at around 1 pm.
Not all those who wander are lost – J.R.R Tolkien
I had driven on the road from Gangtok to Siliguri frequently and knew the road, it is impossible to get lost as there is one single clearly marked road snaking alongside the mighty Teesta. The river gushes powerfully, stumbling across the rocks with an abandon that fills you with the feeling that you have wings and can fly !
I was familiar with the roads till Sevoke and my son even at the age of 1 was used to long road trips and was not cranky or fussy at all . Besides it was really easy to find the well marked roads by Border Roads Organisation with clear directions.One of the most memorable sights on this drive is the Coronation bridge, or baghpul (tiger bridge) as the locals call it because of the impressive lion statues at the beginning of the bridge.
After we crossed the bridge, we were out of the mountains of Sikkim and were on comparatively flatter roads of West Bengal.The drive was equally picturesque with tea gardens on the hills but it got dark real fast and we had to concentrate on the road and could not make out much of the surroundings other than we were passing through villages !
We reached Jaigaon military station at around 9 pm and true to my husband’s words,two rooms were waiting for us to our relief.The drive from Gangtok to Jaigaon took around 8 hours considering we had a toddler with us and we had to take frequent breaks to change and feed him.
DAY 2 – PHUNTSHOLING – After a night of rest and a full breakfast the next morning we started rather leisurely. Phuntsholing is around 4-5 kms from Jaigaon and we reached there in minutes.We entered without any ceremony, there was no checking of papers or identity .We just drove in through the ornate gate, easy peasy !
We immediately headed to Regional Immigration Office, which is barely a few hundred meters from the main gate. They asked us to fill a form, furnish identity proof, some pics and asked to come back after an hour or so.There was no finger printing back then but I believe now they are scanned.
We decided to do what I love doing the most, walking around local market, observing the people, poking in shops. I loved their supermarkets with fancy looking grocery stuff which I had never seen in India .Most of the stuff was from China (nothing new there !!) or Druk brand. I remember buying different types of noodles and soup mix. We had time to explore the interiors of the market mostly used by the locals, bought some beautiful yarn, wraparound skirts, a gorgeous hand painted cup and small knick knacks
We went back in a couple of hours and got our permits. Ideally you can immediately head to Thimpu but we decided to stay in Phuntsholing for the day as we had friends we wanted to meet up with and I wanted my son to enjoy a day of not being strapped in his car seat. Rest of the day was spent catching up with our friends, more shopping and enjoying local food joints.
GUIDE TO PLAN YOUR JOURNEY BY ROAD
- If you plan to do a road trip to Bhutan from India,the nearest railway station is Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri. If you are flying in, the nearest airport is Bagdogra, roughly half an hour from Siliguri. Or if you want to drive from your place directly, you have to reach Siliguri .
- Once you are in Siliguri, you can hire prepaid taxis/bus to Jaigaon or if you are in your own car you have to take the road to Sevoke heading further to Jaigaon.It takes around 4-6 hours to cover the 150 kms depending on the condition of the roads and time of the year to drive from Siliguri to Jaigaon. Roads are clearly marked and with the ever helpful Indians on the road, it’s very easy to find your way around.
- There are decent hotels in Jaigaon where you can stay for the night or you can cross over to Phuntsholing and stay in any of the hotels, you do not need any permit to enter Phuntsholing.
- You have to apply for your entry permit to enter Thimpu and Paro in Regional Immigration Office, Royal Government of Bhutan, Phuntsholing. It opens from Monday- Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.So plan your trip accordingly, you don’t want to be stuck in Phuntsholing for the weekend !
- You need to carry either (a) Passport having validity of minimum 6 months; or (b) Voter Identity Card, issued by the Election Commission of India.The permit is free of cost.If you are not carrying either a valid passport or voter ID cards, you have to contact Consulate General of India, Phuntsholing and apply for an Identification Slip. You have to give this Identification Slip to Regional Immigration Office, to obtain the entry permit.
- If you want to go beyond Thimphu and Paro, you need to acquire a ‘special area permit’ from the Royal Govt. of Bhutan Immigration Office at Thimphu on any of the working days (Monday to Friday).
- You can either hire a taxi to take you to Thimpu, or take a bus. Prices are more or less fixed, not much of scope for negotiations. If you are in your own vehicle you need a vehicle permit which can be obtained from RSTA ( Road Safety and Transport Authority).RSTA is located on the second floor of the bus stand. You will need a cover letter mentioning your itinerary alongwith Insurance copy, RC book copy,PUC copy, Indian Drivers License copy. I do not remember the fees for vehicle permit but it’s pretty nominal.
- There are plenty of good hotels in Thimpu. Trip Advisor and Bookings.com are great resources to zero in on a hotel.
- There is a time difference of half an hour between Bhutan and India, so remember that while making your day to day itinerary.
- Bhutan has a strict “NO SMOKING” policy, so please give your lungs a spa-cation in the mountains 😛 .
Will continue rest of my journey alongwith tips to plan your own trip in the next part……..stay tuned 🙂
Read Road Trip from Sikkim to Bhutan-Part 2 HERE
Read Road Trip from Sikkim to Bhutan – Part 3 HERE
Subscribe to the posts to get the tales delivered right to your mailbox !