Dancing festoons of prayer flags strung across mountains, grazing wild horses, gurgling streams, prayer wheels gently moving in the breeze, quaint bridges and villages out of a story book—the drive through Bhutan was a peep into another world, says Sumith David. The ‘wonderland’ Phuentsholing lay beyond a wall and a gate in Jaigaon.
And to think Sumith almost didn’t make it out of Kochi. The trip was planned for the Onam holidays, in August. Businessman David Ittycheria, her husband, was to drive up to Siliguri, West Bengal, from Kochi, where Sumith and their young son Isaiah would join him after school closed. David, with a friend, set out by road in his Toyota Innova Crysta on August 9 and reached Siliguri on August 13 unaware of the drama unfolding back home. He had for company another car from Kochi.
“We were to fly to Bagdogra and join David on August 15. I was at the airport when they announced that it was going to be closed,” Sumith says. Aluva, with the airport, was getting the worst of the rain and the Periyar’s water levels were rising. The next option was taking a bus to Bengaluru from Angamaly, and the next day Sumith and Isaiah were in Siliguri.
David’s drive from Kochi to Siliguri spanned close to 2,900 km, a journey that took him five days. The usual tourist trail in Bhutan comprises, besides Phuentsholing, Paro, Thimpu and ends with Punakha. The capital Thimpu is around 170 km from Phuentsholing, a journey that takes 6-7 hours, while the international airport is at Paro; rarely do tourists go beyond Punakha. David took the west to east route, wrapping up the Bhutan leg at Samdrup Jonghkar, entering India at Darrang (Assam) 150-odd km from Guwahati.
While in Bhutan, a tour guide is a must, “Though we Indians don’t have restrictions, a guide has to come along. From then on the tourist is his responsibility, any transgression and he could lose his license. They are strict—no honking, no photography, no littering…” David says. Most parts of the country seemed untouched by time and modernity.
Travelling from densely populated India into Bhutan came as a shock in terms of the sparsity of population. Known for its high Gross National Happiness index, Bhutanese are said to be among the happiest in the world.
The family experienced the modern and the rustic that Bhutan has to offer—if Thimpu was modern then Punakha and beyond, places such as Bumthang, Mongar and places along the way were at their rustic best. They stayed a day or two at these places, taking in the tourist attractions along the way.
And they were in for some surprises along the way such as Punakha which has a profusion of phallus imagery—painted and carved—on doors, walls and even as souvenirs. The origins of the iconography are more spiritual than bawdy; Punakha is the location of ‘Chime Lhakhang’—The Temple of Fertility.
Since travel blogger Ankita Kumar was travelling with them, it upped the fun quotient. She’d provide interesting nuggets of information. Like how a fading prayer flag indicates a prayer had been heard. The guide supplied the other legends, “It gets to a point where you can’t tell myth from reality,” says Sumith.
Although the drive through countryside was a visual treat, there was an aspect of adventure too. “When people saw the videos I posted on social media, I was asked if I went off-roading. We weren’t looking for adventure getting from point A to B itself was an adventure. The terrain would change in a blink. Suddenly there would be fog. They are in the process of widening roads.Plus there was the rain and slush, it was quite a drive!” says David. Often, the lack of traffic and people got intimidating considering that an emergency arose. That they were an informal convoy of two cars was comforting.
There were stretches on the road where the guide would ask David to reverse the car to make way for oncoming, local traffic. “He’d say ‘sir, they don’t know how to reverse. They’d probably drive themselves off the road!’”
There were hardly any eateries along the way, often homes had attached eateries and acted as home stays as well. In fact Sumith had some hands-on experience in the kitchen. Since it was harvest season, they got to sample a speciality rice porridge—thukpa. “Turns out it was very similar to kanji, only with ginger!” says David. Primarily rice eaters, most of the snacks too are rice-based.
Untouched mountain sides carpeted by pink, white and yellow flowers, challenging mountainous terrain or terraced rice fields…at the end of 11 days, it was time to return home from paradise.
Driving along the East Coast road, joining the Golden Quadrilateral which connects Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbar at Nellore. The six lane expressway passes through very few towns. The toll upto Siliguri came up to ₹3,000. They started the journey back on August 27, reaching Kochi on September 2. “The East Coast road was beautiful—for three days our drive was flanked by paddy fields. We realised rural India is so beautiful!” says the couple. David covered 8000-odd kms in this trip.