The end of 2017 was incredible for me in two ways – one, my decision to go full time, and two, the surprise that arrived in my inbox saying I’d be traveling to Bhutan for Christmas and New Year on a road trip with Mahindra Adventure. Bhutan, the Land of Happiness, has been on my mind for a while now to visit, after my mom told me about how beautiful it is. So after jumping on my bed for a good five minutes in sheer excitement, I started packing and made the announcement on my Insta stories. Well now that I’ve been back for a while and got all the pics and everything edited, read on to know all about my experience!
So, with a suitcase full of warm clothes, a heart full of excitement and a head full of ideas about what’s to come, I flew from Delhi to Bagdogra and then drove to Chalsa from there with Team Mahindra.
We flagged off Authentic Bhutan ’17 with Mahindra Adventure from Chalsa. The air was cold, crisp and slightly foggy as the convoy got ready to start the long drive to Thimphu via Phuentsholing.
Bhutan is a small but beautiful country, nestled in gorgeous mountains. Its culture derives from India and dates back to hundreds of years even before Buddhism came into being. Flying to Bhutan would have been easier, but driving to Bhutan was much more exciting.
Chalsa – Phuentsholing
The drive from Chalsa to Phuentsholing takes about 2-3 hours. Our convoy drove through winding, empty roads with just the beauty of nature and the infectious energy of each of our cars’ passengers for company. We were in a bright blue TUV 300 and most of the time we rolled down the windows to take in the fresh, clear air in these parts.
Phuentsholing is right at the India-Bhutan border and so it was fascinating to see where India ended and Bhutan started. We could see the men and women in their beautiful traditional ghos and the women in their kiras, going about their day.
This was the prettiest immigration office I’ve seen so far! The process was rather quick and easy, I’ll explain it to you in another post. I also got a Tashi Cell SIM card for use throughout the trip, which comes with about 2GB data as well. The wifi at hotels in Bhutan isn’t very reliable so it proved really useful.
Phuentsholing – Thimphu
After a quick lunch at Hotel Druk, we started our long drive to Thimphu. Thimphu is about 4-5 hours drive from Phuentsholing. Of course, driving in a convoy is much more different so it took us a little longer. It was fun communicating on the radio and staying in formation throughout. There were some steering issues in our TUV300 and the audio system had some trouble but overall it was a smooth drive. We stopped at a pretty little cafe as it got colder and colder, for some hot tea and snacks. Our guide, Karma, told us to stock up on the warm clothes because we were in for a freezing first night in Thimphu.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan is a beautiful place with neat, clean streets and architecture done up the traditional way. It’s super peaceful because unlike back home, you can be fined for honking on the road! Buildings here are also not supposed to be more than 5 floors tall. When the convoy arrived at Hotel Phuntsho Pelri, it was about 2 degrees outside. We were so relieved to see hot food waiting for us, and a real, pretty Christmas tree greeted us in the lobby!
Bhutanese food is usually spicy, as they like using red chillies a lot. Non-veggies will have a blast here, but vegetarians won’t exactly suffer for want of good food either. My favourite Bhutanese dish was kewa datshi, which is one of the most common dishes you’ll get to eat here. It’s basically potatoes cooked in a local cheese gravy with red chillies. In that cold, it warms you up like nothing else.
Our rooms were HEAVEN because they were heated and so warm as toast. Like the second you entered it was like being given a giant hug. So it’s plain to say we slept like logs on our first night in Bhutan.
Our first day in Thimphu started with a pleasant drive to the Folk Heritage Museum. Something I’ll always carry in my heart is the fondness and pride the Bhutanese have for their ancient culture, and how they’ve adapted to modern times without losing its essence.
This museum showcased every aspect from their traditional handicrafts like weaving, religious beliefs relating to Buddhism, their daily life from hunting to folk dances and costumes.
We also discovered that erm, the Bhutanese have the symbol of the phallus nearly everywhere, especially at the entrances to people’s houses.
But there’s nothing inherently pervy about it and in fact there’s a very interesting story behind it. I’ll tell you in the coming series. The museum itself was styled to look like a traditional Bhutanese house. We also watched as women worked on handicrafts and cooking.
Lunch at the museum was the best part because we had the chance to see what a Bhutanese meal looks like! Food is usually served in wooden bowls and drinks are had in porcelain bowls.
There was of course, kewa datshi, red rice, and khur-le, which are pancakes made of buckwheat or barley flour, a type of Bhutanese salad as an accompaniment and other dishes like dried beef and pork as well as chicken curry. This was my lunch bowl!
Ara is Bhutanese wine, and while it looks like water, dayum it’s potent. I tried it in a bowl – they don’t normally serve it in glasses and it instantly warmed me up.
I also tried Druk beer which is pretty good – my second time trying a local beer brand from another country, the first being Bintang in Bali.
We spent the afternoon checking out the local Thimphu markets for some pretty local buys, and walking through the city. We stumbled across a really fun, cosy little cafe where we had some pretty decent coffee and hot chocolate. When in Bhutan’s winter, you’ll never tire of drinking – it’s how they stay warm.
Thimphu – Punakha
On Day 2, after exploring Thimphu a little more, we began our drive to Punakha. We stopped by the Dochula Pass along the way, which for me was one of the most beautiful places we drove to. It was a pleasant drive with the convoy, and we got to take in the raw beauty of the landscape in this area. We stopped for coffee which is hard to get here – Bhutanese mostly drink tea. Though I liked their butter tea I was DYING for caffeine. The skies here are bluer than I’ve ever see before, with the clouds creating pretty patterns that are just begging to be photographed. The snow-capped peaks in the distance formed the perfect backdrop.
There’s a gorgeous temple here as well, Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. I wish I could tell you how awestruck I was when we went inside by the splendour of this place. No photos permitted but I did get a few great glimpses of the spot.
Dochula is also known for its 108 chortens (stupas) commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother of Bhutan.
We took in the warm sunshine and stunning scenic views of this place before heading farther with Mahindra Adventure on our journey to Paro. This time, we drove in the new Mahindra Scorpio. The ultra smooth steering got us through so many exciting twists and turns on the road, even while keeping up with the convoy. If you do choose to, driving in Bhutan is a pleasure because of their excellent roads. Plus the no honking rule turns your anger and swearing to a minimum 😛 Choosing an SUV either like the Scorpio or the TUV would take you through your trip without way too many refueling stops.
We reached Punakha, only to be greeted by a bridge over a river with the clearest waters. No sounds but the fluttering prayer flags in the wind. We took a moment to get out of our cars and breathe in the pure air, and listen to the river flow. Our hotel was right beside the bridge. The first night was pretty cold since we were close to the river, but it was nothing that some crazy dancing by the bonfire couldn’t cure.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to explore Chime Lhakhang, or the Temple of Fertility – it’s a bit of a steep climb to get there.
Dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kunley and also connected to the phallus symbolism. You know what they say about great people – there’s always a bit of craziness where they come from.
He was known as the Divine Madman for his rather eccentric yet honest way of life as a Lama. It’s said that infertile couples who get blessed by well, his weapons so to speak (literal weapons as well as a huge wooden phallus) at the temple would be able to conceive, or you’ll just get lucky a lot more 😛 the temple inside had a lot of colourful decorations and tributes and symbols of the Lama as well as a statue of him.
The temple courtyard had rows of prayer wheels that you rotate as you pass by. I’m not religious, but there was something just so peaceful about the place. At the entrance to the temple, I saw a little grey cat and a dog curled up next to each other, perfectly content. I naturally went nuts being the crazy animal lady that I am.
We had lunch by the riverside, which was one of my favourite experiences. Traditional Bhutanese buffet, while we looked out at the crystal-clear water flowing just across.
I also met this little guy in a Harley Davidson jacket!
We then headed to the majestic Punakha dzong by the riverside which dates back to 1637. All of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned here, and apparently His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck had come to the dzong earlier that morning. It can easily take you about two to three hours just exploring it, so make sure you’re prepared.
Punakha – Paro
The next leg of our journey began after the dzong visit – we were heading to Paro. The mercury was to dip even further to almost -7 to -11 during the night so we had to bundle up and be prepared. The drive to Paro was nothing short of magical, with smooth yet curving roads, and breathtaking views of sunset over the mountains.
We stopped by Dochula once again – the stupas looked so majestic against the painted sky at dusk.
As we entered Paro, we caught a glimpse of the Paro dzong, completely lit up – looked so stunning in the darkness.
Paro is freezing cold, with temperatures dipping to the sub-zeros, so if you visit in December, make sure you’re wearing enough layers. Our hotel was a very pretty place with individual cottages and a lovely living room and dining area with a fireplace. On the first night we were pretty much tired out, so we went exploring the very next day.
The Tiger’s Nest trek is a must-do when you’re in Paro, though I didn’t get to experience it. We did, however, go to the base of Tiger’s Nest which is basically a beautiful monastery carved right into the mountains. We also visited a local shop where I learned more about the traditional clothing of the Bhutanese people. We then went exploring the local markets. Neat little streets with lovely shop windows showcasing the best of Bhutanese crafts, art and souvenirs. My favourite moment was when we found an actual cat curled up among the souvenirs at a shop window. Such good catmouflage 😀 We also saw artists painting dragons on the door frame of a shop.
My favourite meal was the Bhutanese buckwheat noodles I had at a cafe – served with fried egg. It was so filling and delicious.
New Year’s Eve in Paro was nothing short of unforgettable. We had the chance to experience a fun bonfire party, and a whole lot of enchanting cultural dance performances related to local folklore.
Some of my favourite memories include dancing like crazy with the new friends I made, popping a bottle of champagne with them by the freezing riverside and talking and laughing together well after midnight.
Paro – Phuentsholing
Time passes by so slowly in Bhutan because everyone’s always so relaxed there. We began our drive back to Phuentsholing to complete all the formalities before heading back to India. I could easily get used to life in Bhutan – I mean, what’s not to like? The wonderful people, the scenery that’s the perfect setting for a writer like me and most of all the amazing roads that ensure you can just get away anytime you like to explore.
I really enjoyed our drive back with Mahindra Adventure to Phuentsholing in our Mahindra TUV 300. We watched an airplane take off from Bhutan’s only international airport in Paro which has a really small runway right in the middle of the mountains.
We also passed by another convoy, the royal one with His Majesty the king of Bhutan travelling in it! We took in as much of the natural beauty, the clean air and the peace of Bhutan throughout our trip back.
Roadtripping through Bhutan with Mahindra Adventure is definitely one of the highlights of my year and possibly one of the best parts of 2017. You could either give one of their experiences a try, or even take your own Mahindra SUV with you on a trip you plan. It’s amazing how people are growing to be more open about doing longer, more challenging road trips than the regular weekend destinations and I think that’s set to grow more this year!
Stay tuned for lots more posted around Bhutan coming up very soon! What’s been your most memorable roadtrip for you? Let me know in the comments below. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter for the latest from the world of fashion, luxury, travel and beauty.
Photography credits: Suresh Narayanan
Edits: Arya Photography Official