The air is crisp and unpolluted, and there are the unending Himalayas stretching out before you. The Shillong-Guwahati-Phuentsholing-Thimphu drive is an unforgettable one
No littering on the roads, vehicles stopping for pedestrians walking across zebra crossings, no honking—crossing over the international border from Jaigaon in West Bengal to Phuentsholing in Bhutan really does make you feel you are in another country. There are shops hawking handicraft materials, Chinese down jackets, souvenir t-shirts, and export reject fleeces from Bangladesh, a few of which are run by Indians—on trading licences last issued to Indians in the 1970s or 1980s.
There are also wholesale agents dealing in everything from hardware equipment to appliances (from India), and foreign packaged items (especially tom-yum cup noodles and peach ice tea from Thailand) which are so popular in the country—these come from Kolkata or Kathmandu. Small restaurant-cum-bars are everywhere, some a little shady, and a couple of discreet spa joints and cheap hotels near the border crossing—the whole place has the air of a commercial border town though (a clean one at that), and is nothing like the sordid den of vice some newspaper reports from Thimphu make it out to be.
Phuentsholing, the First Leg of the Journey
Phuentsholing is where vehicle and immigration passes are done if you’re entering by road from India. The Road Safety and Transport Authority issues vehicle permits (it closes at 3 pm Bhutan time, which is 30 minutes ahead of India time), while immigration permits have to be done from the immigration office (if you have a prior e-permit then you need to have a Bhutan-registered vehicle and guide with you).
A Tibetan lady whose restaurant/bar we visited more than once for the food told us there were more permits and payments nowadays while travelling compared to before. In Thimphu we heard there was a proposal to introduce a 500 rupee per day daily levy for Indian tourists, just like foreign tourists have to pay a US 250 dollar daily fee (which includes visa, 3-star accommodation, meals, transport, and a guide) for a chance to experience the country’s famed gross national happiness. Most of the restaurant/bars seemed to be run by Tibetans—just as in Shillong in the 1980s and 1990s.
The drive from Guwahati to Phuentsholing (we had come down from Shillong the previous day) took 8 hours. We passed golden fields with villagers harvesting paddy under blue skies, crossing Assamese, Muslim, Bodo, and Adivasi villages along the way, with the mountains of Bhutan hazily visible in the distance. The 4-lane highway is wide and good, apart from a very rough stretch in Kokrajhar district before the inter-state border at Srirampur Gate. The new GST has largely brought down the number of trucks which used to be stuck at the Gate for clearance. After lunch at a highway dhaba, we got to the turnoff at Hasimara in the midst of tea gardens in the afternoon; past the crowded and dusty Old Hasimara and Jaigaon stretch was the border gate.
From the Kharbandi gompa a few kilometres past the border there is a nice view of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon lying cheek by jowl at the foot of the mountains beside the much reduced Torsa river. We covered the 160 km to Paro in 5 hours, which is apparently the local driving time as well. The highway is smooth and well-maintained, and the drivers disciplined. It was a surprise to learn that the Border Roads Organisation looks after the roads—what a difference from the roads of Arunachal Pradesh, where the same organisation is operating! Besides roads, the Indian Army assists in Bhutan’s defence through the IMTRAT or Indian Military Training Team headquartered in the Haa valley.
The middle section of the Phuentsholing–Paro highway is a winding single lane road, with the rivers and valleys far down below. The restaurant where we stopped for lunch overlooked the 336 MW Chuka hydro project’s power house at the bottom of a mountain, Bhutan’s first major hydro project. Currently 3 large projects (Punatsangchu I & II and Mangdechu) are being developed in cooperation with Indian companies, to supply power to India.
Food, Abundant with Cheese and Chilli
We entered the Paro valley at sunset and drove past the airport. The dry, brown hues and stone walls and poplar trees by the river seemed just like Ladakh. The food is distinctive: weak tea and a lot of butter and cheese and chillies. At the farmhouse where we were staying they served us butter tea after we arrived, while in the courtyard there was a traditional dance performance around a fire for some foreign tourists. Their jersey cows give them good milk for butter and cheese. At dinner there was invariably ema datshi, the famous Bhutanese cheese and chilli dish. Variations are made with potato, radish, and dried pork and beef.
As in most houses and shops in Bhutan, the farmhouse had a photo of K5, as he is sometimes known—the fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk—along with Queen Jetsun Pema and the young prince, or K6. Incidentally K5 is also a well-known Scotch whisky bottled in the country from 2/3rd Scotch from Scotland and 1/3rd locally produced whisky, a smooth brew which costs only 800 rupees/ngultrum a bottle (the Bhutanese currency is on par with the Indian rupee). It was first produced at the coronation of the fifth king.
Thimphu, Modernizing Swiftly
In the morning we went for a walk in the dry harvested fields around the farmhouse. The air was crisp and cold as the sun rose on the mountains ringing the valley. All houses and buildings have a uniform look, as they are supposed to have certain common features, even if RCC constructions. We went to the impressive Paro dzong before we drove on to Thimphu, and the lawyers and their clients at the royal courts of justice inside the dzong in their traditional wear made me feel as if we had gone back in time.
Thimphu is just about an hour from Paro, and driving into it felt like driving into a Tibetan city: the space and orderliness, the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the stylish youth. There are new cafes and hotels coming up, but the labour and staff are largely from Bengal or Assam and southern Bhutan. Large buildings are sprouting up all over the city, and only a few old wooden constructions are left. The city has been gentrified with the arrival of tourists, and the boom has benefitted locals. While foreigners (including the Chinese) have to pay an all-inclusive per day fee just to be in the country, Indians have so far been exempt from this.
However with growing affluence, problems like alcoholism, drugs (mostly the pharmaceutical type smuggled from India), and divorce are growing, especially in urban areas. The Kuensel on 29 November in a front-page story quoted the health minister as telling the National Assembly: ‘Alcohol abuse is a major public health issue and alcohol liver disease leads the top 10 causes of death in the country’.
At the Thimphu immigration office we were informed that if we wished to exit the country from Gelephu—240 km to the south-east from Thimphu—we couldn’t spend the night there, but as there are no hotels on the Indian side, and the 45 km stretch down to the national highway in Chirang district is still not considered safe after dark, we had to drop that plan and return via Phuentsholing. No one told us why we couldn’t stay in Gelephu, but I felt it could be because of the Indian hydropower companies’ offices there, the sensitiveness regarding the lhotsampa issue in southern Bhutan, or even the stray kidnapping cases in those areas by rebel outfits from across the border.
A friend of a friend took us around at night and showed us the giant Buddha high above the city (from where the lights of the Simtokha dzong could be seen as well—reportedly the first dzong in the country, built by the great unifier Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the early 17th century), and also the Tashichho dzong, the seat of the administration. This person worked with the government, and he said, ‘Democracy came to us late, and we are better off for it. We observed others and learnt from their mistakes’. Of course, there was already a country in place, even before the current line of kings from 1907, helped by the efforts of the Shabdrung from Tibet.
We drove up to Dochu la, with its 108 chortens in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers killed in 2003’s Operation All Clear, where the Royal Bhutan Army had attacked insurgent camps near the Assam border, driving them down towards the Indian Army waiting below. The tourists with their guides walked around taking photos as a sharp, cold wind blew from the nearby snow-capped mountain peaks.
Bhutan, Maintaining a Delicate Balance
In the countryside the high, wooden houses are scattered about, with neighbouring houses usually at a distance from one another. Most people are Drukpa Buddhists of the Kagyu order and hunting isn’t allowed in the forests. The next day we drove back to Phuentsholing (crossing a long government convoy of gleaming black Land Cruisers outside Thimphu), and the day after that to Shillong—a 9 hour drive where my wife and I took turns driving. After a week of Bhutanese food, on the way back we fell upon the rice, dal and pork at Bajwi hotel in Bongaigaon.
In some ways, Bhutan felt like a Northeastern hill state: part Arunachal or Nagaland (in terms of the funds coming in from Delhi) and part Mizoram (in terms of the cohesion and control exercised by the dominant community, in this case the people of the western region). Whatever criticism we heard about India (being too pushy, controlling too many things) from the local people seemed good-natured and friendly. I later wondered if it was really a criticism of the monarchy, which still maintains close ties with India. There is a general sense of resentment at being so dependent upon India; on the other hand Chinese goods such as room heaters, flasks, blankets, and jackets are everywhere.
The Doklam episode seemed to be a continuation of China’s effort at pressuring Bhutan to open up diplomatic relations. Though some Bhutanese say the Doklam area has no value for them, allowing the Chinese access to it would mean bringing the Haa and Paro valleys, and the crucial road from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, within closer reach of the PLA.
2018 will be the year Bhutan elects a National Assembly for the third time, a decade since democracy was introduced in 2008. Corruption—in terms of cash payments—is still rare (also, the Election Commission of Bhutan funds political parties). More widespread is the use of influence in social terms. After decades of being a closed and controlled society, there remain some who question the need for elections. The monarchy still exercises considerable influence in both administration and politics. Regardless of whom the little more than 4 lakh electorate votes to power, this small Himalayan country will have to continue playing a very careful balancing game between its two large neighbours.
PHOTOS- Ankush Saikia
The writer is the author of the Detective Arjun Arora series published by Penguin Random House India.