The young boy at the reception, the owner’s son, had told me last night that the border is just a short distance away. Even then I was not assured. I woke up early and decided to check out the condition of the car first. When I came down the stairs I found that the entrance to the hotel was locked. I trudged back up again and found a room attendant getting ready for the morning chores. He unlocked the latticed steel door and told me to ring the bell in case I wanted him to open the door after I had done with the inspection of the car.
The car had been well cared for as it was in much the same condition in which I had left it, save the light rain that had fallen through the night. I cleaned the car and made sure that the headlights and fog lamps were not muddied. The luggage in the car needed some minor rearrangement. I was prepared for the drive through the Himalayan Kingdom, where I had never been before.
During the planning phase of the expedition I had tried to gather some estimates of time to drive through Bhutan from Phuntsholling to Samdrup Jonghkar. For one, Google Maps did not show any route through the country connecting the two points. A friend in Assam, after speaking to a few Bhutanese taxi drivers told me that it would take at least six days to navigate the route. That had had me worried, for I had factored in three days!
It was just a kilometer from the hotel to the Bhutan border town of Phutsholling. I was not prepared for such nearness! I stopped at a police outpost to check where I could get the entry permit. The said office was not too far away. I found a free parking slot and walked to the regional immigration office with documents I had with me. The entrance to the office building was crowded and I wondered how long I would have to wait to secure the necessary permits. I was directed to an office on the first floor of the building where I enquired at a counter what I had to do. A smiling young girl handed over a form and asked me to fill that and await my turn. In a short while my name was announced and I went to the counter my name was announced from. The friendly counter clerk asked the purpose of my visit and the number of people traveling with me. When I told her that I propose to drive through the country alone for tourism and adventure she told me politely that Bhutan does not permit individual persons to travel in the car unaccompanied. I reiterated the purpose of the journey and requested her to find a way out. She asked if I could indemnify the government in the event of any mishap during the trip. I gladly wrote out the indemnity letter on a sheet of paper she graciously offered. She told me that she would not be able to issue a permit to travel east of Thimphu. She told me that the travel permit she issued would have to be revalidated in Thimphu. In less than 30 minutes my work was done in that office and I was ready for the drive to the Bhutan capital city.
I was keen to get a mobile SIM with data that would work in the country so that route through the country could be navigated without hassle. That too did not take long and the SIM was activated as I was sitting in the office. I immediately left for Thimphu and just out of the town the roads started winding through small mountain faces. Soon I reached the first check post and was told to get back to Phuntsholling and get document for car from the Road Safety Transport Authority. I tried to reason with the personnel at the check post, to no avail. I sought out the RSTA office and secured the car permit without much hassle but with a loss of over an hour. Finally, I left for Thimphu by 11.30 IST. Winding roads, some reckless drivers, heavy mist and rain were encountered on the way to Thimphu. However, the road condition was fair and it was a beautifully scenic drive.
My first task was to get the necessary endorsements to travel beyond Thimphu. But I did not know where to go. As I approached the city I spotted a taxi and decided to seek his assistance. Before I could complete mentioning what I wanted the driver, who was in conversation with a friend, started giving me directions. I requested the driver to pilot me to the office as I did not know the city at all. Without a demur he got into his car and asked me to follow. At the RSTA office the official said that they could endorse the car permit only after the immigration office had completed their formalities. The taxi driver agreed to pilot me to that office too. The work in the immigration office was done in quick time amid smiles and friendly banter. Armed with that I returned to the RSTA and got the car permit stamped. The next task was to find a place to stay, as I had not made any prior reservations. The taxi driver took me to a couple of hotels in the mid range and found them all sold out. At that point he told me that he would like to leave as he has to pick up his kids from school. I pleaded with him for the final indulgence and he agreed to try out a hotel down the road. I was in luck at Hotel Taktsang and found reasonably good accommodation. The staff of the hotel were amused by the branding on the car. The young owner of the hotel gave me a special discount after posing with me and the car!
Thimphu is an amazing city. However I couldn't see around due to rain. But could appreciate the fact that the landscape of the city looked like a large, ornate painting with smiling faces all around. The city is on the banks of the River Raidak. Since Thimphu became the capital of the country in 1961 it has developed without becoming a concrete jungle.