15 March 2024

We reboard our van for another road trip. Today is a “box lunch” day. It’s also a day for multiple ginger pills to calm my stomach. Highway 12 is two-lane and twisty, twisty, twisty. Reaching Highway 10, we turn southeast.

It will be a long day of driving south along the Teesta River, past countless hazy View Points, between endless forests and mountains. The surroundings are magical. Mists cling to the peaks; countless bridges pass over rivers and flood plains. Signs of October’s flash flood are everywhere.

From Highway 10, we turn east onto a straighter Highway 17 through flatter valleys and innumerable tea plantations. Drawn road lanes actually exist even though it matters little to Indian drivers. Wide river beds tell of the potential for massive floods washing through the valleys.

The tea plantations are vast expanses of bright green bushes. We stop for a photo shoot where hundreds of women are picking. Like ants they scurry to the road carrying their packs with the use of a trumpline. This strap crosses their forehead and helps to support their heavy load on their back. The packs weigh about 50 pounds! They hurry across road, dodging traffic, and through another field to prese t their packs for weighing. And for this backbreaking day and several packs, they earn 250 rupees. About 3$ U.S. a day!

The land is fertile and tropical with banana trees and the skinny tall betel palms, tea and vegetable farming. Occasionally, I spot a “Save the elephant” sign. Small villages, tin-roofed houses, roadside kiosks and shrines, open markets, countless motorbikes, trucks and bicycles share the road. The occasional cows cross our path.

Lane Driving is Sane Driving

Our drive provides a true taste of India’s highways and driving. We discover during our harrowing five-hour trip that 1) the horn is our friend, 2) “Lane Driving is Sane Driving” makes no difference when there are no lanes, 3) Indian drivers cram three buses, a tuk tuk, two motorbikes, several men on foot and a cow or goat onto a two-lane highway with a small dirt shoulder, 4) the biggest and most powerful has the right of way, unless it is a cow, and 5) bus drivers are the best in the world, and 6) Indian drivers be crazy.

While the drive to Bhutan’s border is about 115 miles, timewise it takes over 5 hours. Traveling by van may not be as quick or as efficient as flying, but it sure is an eye-opening experience.

In what looks like a scene out of a James Bond movie, we stop to leave our local guide, Surya, along the side of the road. He is to catch a bus south to Kolkata; we continue across a bridge and continue on. Around Jaldapara National Park, we slowly motor H317 north toward Bhutan and the border town of Phuntsholing.

Welcome to Bhutan!

Walk to Indian Immigration.

We arrive at a large, ornate archway which separates India from Bhutan. As is typical of remote border crossings – the approach is congested with people, a multitudes of trucks, and us. Our new local guide, Sungay, meets us and begins to smooth our way. Our first request is to walk through what appears an alley littered with smells and cow dung ti the Indian Immigration. Lots of checking papers, hand entering our information. We leave India behind.

Now we enter the clean, placid hallways of Bhutan Immigration. Our required daily Sustainable Development Fee of $100 a day is paid and our new Bhutan Visa is registered. He makes the crossing as painless and fast as possible.

Gross National Happiness

Historically, Bhutan has been one of the more remote, mysterious countries of the world. Since 2008, the government has been a constitutional monarchy with the beloved King of Bhutan or “Dragon King” as the head of state. Although this part of the Himalayas has been inhabited for over 4000 years, Bhutan did not open its borders to outsiders until 1974, some 3 years after joining the United Nations. 

Dragon King and Queen

The country’s economic strategy has been “high value, low volume” tourism. Less than 12,000 US citizens visited Bhutan in 2019. The Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $400 per day limited tourism; thankfully it has been temporarily reduced in order to encourage a return of tourists after the Covid shut-down. Though Bhutan says their Gross National Happiness ranks in higher importance than the Gross National Product, their economy suffered severe harm by the Covid closure. They hope the reduction of the SDF to $100 will encourage foreign visitors. 

Funds from the SDF contribute to environmental, social and infrastructure projects. These include free healthcare and education for the Bhutanese, conservation projects, youth development programs, and infrastructure projects across the country. One can hardly argue paying this fee if indeed that is where the money is directed.

Crossing the Bhutan Gate

From Jaigaon, the ornate Bhutan Gate marks our entry into Bhutan. There’s a notable contrast between the two sides in terms of infrastructure and ambiance, noise, confusion and cleanliness. Just past the gate is Phuntsholing. Its backdrop is the Himalayas and the very wide and flat Torsa River. With a population of over 28,000, town appears prosperous (population of Bhutan is about 730k). Remarkable since it wasn’t until 1958 when the first official shop and concrete houses were built. The climate is surprisingly tropical, a warm 80 degrees!

Because a majority of trade enters Bhutan thru this gate, Phuentsholing is a busy commercial center with vibrant markets and shops offering a variety of goods. (The border with China remains closed. There are no direct flights from China.) I habitually look to see how many tags indicate “Made in China.” Cars all seem relatively new, washed and undented. 

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in India anymore

Quickly, I begin to note the differences between India and Bhutan. Phuentsholing is mostly urban, quieter and more orderly than its boisterous Indian neighbor of Jaigaon. It is a border town and still has some bustle of India but for the first time in several days, my senses are not on total overload.

Not Toto but a beloved pet off the streets

While there may be some overlap and shared influences between Bhutanese and Indian architecture and culture, especially at the border, each has its own unique characteristics shaped by history, religion, geography, and societal values. Building projects exhibit a planned Bhutanese style.

Missing are the British colonial influences. One sees a blend of Bhutanese and Indian cultures, as in the food, clothing and music. Traditional Bhutanese architecture features intricate woodwork, colorful paintings, and sloping roofs. Dzongs (fortresses), monasteries, and traditional houses called “dzongsar” are prominent. Bhutanese architecture often incorporates elements of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism. 

Bhutan is 85% Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist, heavily influencing the culture. Bhutan’s Buddhist heritage emphasizes principles of compassion, mindfulness, and non-violence. Traditional Bhutanese dress is commonly seen on the streets and traditional festivals like Tshechu and Paro Taktsang are celebrated with masked dances and religious rituals.

Bhutan overlooking the maze and haze of Indian border town

Finally, perhaps the biggest difference between Bhutan and its neighbors is Bhutan’s mountainous terrain and pristine natural environment which shape its architecture, culture, and way of life. The country’s commitment to environmental conservation, as reflected in its policy of Gross National Happiness, positively influences its culture and development. 

Bhutan’s largest export is hydroelectricity, no surprise when viewing the mountains and wide river beds and the annual monsoons. The country’s mineral deposits remain untapped, as it prefers to conserve the environment. Apples and oranges abound. Bhutan’s goal is to become 100% organic.  

The Amazing Zangto Pelri Temple

Just steps across the border in the heart of Phuentsholing is the small Buddhist temple of Zangto Pelri. Unique and stunning, its interior is a diorama of walls of adorned with the pictures and murals depicting the life of Buddha. Why so unique? The stories are 3-dimensionally carved in plaster. On the ground floor, are statues of the 8 manifestations of Guru Rinpoche which depict different points in his life. Much more exists on the two upper floors but they were closed to visitors.

Built-in 1990 under the commandment of Dasho Aku Tongmi, Zangto Pelri Lhakhang is a private chapel which represents the celestial abode of Guru Padmasambhava. The garden and square are filled with prayer wheels both big and small.

What a welcome, calming and spectacular pause upon leaving the chaos of India!

Not all is perfect in paradise.

Bhutan is not without controversy. There were accusations of ethnic cleansing involving the minority population of Lhotshampa (Nepali speakers) in the 1990s. Legislation passed enforcing uniformity in dress, culture, tradition, language and literature in order to create a national identity thus aligning with the majority “first converted people”  who, according to belief, were the original Tibetans who migrated to Bhutan. 

Flag of Bhutan

A forceful expulsion of Nepali ethnic minority citizens occurred, spurred by a fear that the Gorkhaland Movement for independence in West Bengal would spill over into Bhutan as it did into the Kingdom of Sikkim. There the immigrant Nepalis population had overwhelmed the smaller native population of Sikkim leading to its demise as an independent nation.

Isolation seems to have preserved the heavily Buddhist-influenced culture of this exotic country. I relax in the gateway to exciting natural and cultural wonders.

From where I sit, Bhutan’s archaeological treasures, ornate temples and monasteries, and numerous dzong fortresses represent a welcome change. 


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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