Thursday 7 May 2015

Druk Diaries: Day 5 - Arriving in Bhutan, Siliguri to Thimphu

Some key words
As you enter Bhutan, you start hearing some words which are unknown to you. It is a good idea to understand what they mean.
Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan. The word ‘Dzongkha’ means the language (kha) spoken in Dzong.
  • Lam - Road
  • Dzong - Fortress
  • Chorten - Stupa
  • Lhakhang - Monastery 
Not availability of navigation requires one to be prepared with directions beforehand. Have printouts of all the directions handy otherwise lots of time gets wasted in trying to find your way.
I had heard that a portion of the road is bad, but we took a combination of NH31/NH31D and did not find any bad road anywhere.
We had planned on reaching in 4 hours,
Metal piece responsible for puncture
we were all set to reach well before the targeted time of 8:30AM IST. Around 50 kilometers before Phuentsholing, a sharp metal piece went through the rear tyre and we had to stop for a puncture. The metal piece was broad but fortunately the repair held up and we were able to proceed.
There are many segments on the road between Siliguri and Phuentsholling where the bridges and culverts have metal pieces coming out. I think I was not careful at one of these places and ended up puncturing the tyre.
We entered Phuentsholing at 8:00 AM IST. When we enter Bhutan, we need to keep in mind that Bhutan is 30 minutes ahead of India. So even though offices open at 9:00 AM, for people coming from India that is effectively 8:30AM.
We had forms ready and filled before the offices opened. If you are carrying passports then the process is fairly simple. Just go to first floor of Immigration office, which is a yellow building on the right side as you enter from India. In the first floor, deposit the application form with a photograph and copy of passport. Interestingly they never even looked at the original passport.

 It is a good idea to carry few copies of all the important documents. Xeroxing in Bhutan a hassle that one can live without and it is extremely expensive as well. It costs INR 5/- or Nu. 5/- for each copy. It is also a good idea to withdraw cash from the last ATM at Jaigaon. Money withdrawal in Bhutan usually has a surcharge and all bank's ATMs don't dispense cash with Indian cards.
Entry gate to Phuentsholling
Decorative gates are common in Bhutan. At the entrance of every town/city you will find a fabulously decorated gate.
Building in market

Roads, Parking
Most public roads have paid parking in Bhutan. The rates are between Nu. 10 to Nu 20 per hour. In most places parking is free in night from 9 PM to 9 AM.

Tashi building, Tashi Cell outlet is here
You will see the photograph of king and queen everywhere.

The immigration process took less than half an hour for us. There is a Tashi Cell (one of the two cellular provider in Bhutan) office in the market just opposite the immigration office. If you are interested, you can buy a local pre-paid cellular SIM from them. Please keep in mind that Bhutan uses 3G in 850 MHz band and your phone should support that band for 3G if you wish to use 3G there. Of course 2G/GPRS would work just fine. Apple phones and ipads support that band and I used a SIM for my iPad. Even though google navigation is not available in Bhutan and maps are pretty sparse and inaccurate, still it was extremely useful during our trip. Please see the map below for location.
 Once immigration permit was in our hand, we got few copies made and then we were off to get permit for car. The maps above shows the location of RSTA office. Following video also shows driving directions for the office.

I must say car permit process is slightly dis-organized. I will try to explain it here as many travellers have done it before me. There is a detailed post for all the processes here.
  1. It is a good idea to have an application on plain paper addressed to RSTA requesting a permit for your car with the car registration number and name of driver mentioned in the application.
  2. Keep few empty pages, you may need then and it is difficult to get then there
  3. Carry a copy each of following documents
    1. RC book of car
    2. Drivers license
    3. Copy of emission check certificate
    4. Copy of car insurance
    5. Copy of the immigration entry that you got from immigration office. It is a good idea to get the immigration certificate xeroxed as soon as you get it because immigration office is just opposite a market and there are many xerox shops there. In any case if one forgets, one can get a copy from booth number 1 on ground floor in RSTA office where one gets  bus tickets
  4. Once you have all the documents ready, go in following order
    1. Visit room number 4 on second floor, as of now it is titled ARTO. Show him all the documents and he will make a remark on the documents.
    2. Once it is signed by ARTO, need to visit Room 7 on second floor and the officer there would make another remark
    3. Once both the officers have signed on the document, visit the fee counter, opposite room 4.
    4. Once the fee is paid and you have the receipt, you need to visit ground floor where an officer will prepare the permit. He will keep all your documents and give you permit and fee receipt.
    5. Once you have permit and receipt, you need to go to Room 4 on floor 2 and get it signed from ARTO. This completes the process.
  5. As you are driving towards Thimphu/Paro, keep an eye out for checkpoints. Sometime nobody may stop you and not having entered at the checkpoint is not a good idea. We found two checkpoints between Phuentsholling and Thimphu. The map above also marks the check-post location. Following video show the position of check-post. You will need to show both the immigration permit and vehicle permit at the check-post.
Project DANTAK of the Border Roads Organisation, a sub-division of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, has been operating in Bhutan since May 1961. Since then Project DANTAK has been responsible for the construction and maintenance of over 1,500 km of roads and bridges, Paro Airport and a disused airfield at Yangphula, heliports, and other infrastructure. While these serve India's strategic defence needs, they are also an obvious economic benefit for the people of Bhutan.
Once you are through the checkpost, you are free to continue driving. We all were hungry, but we decided to wait till the Dantak Canteen. In Bhutan you will see Dantak presence at many places.
As you enter Bhutan, don't rush. As a rule, don't rush anywhere in Bhutan. People are considerate. If you are faster and behind somebody, they will give you side and let you overtake. The road in Bhutan are all hilly roads and can be extremely dangerous if you are not used to. Also if you are carrying passengers, take care in driving, otherwise too many jerky movements and motion sickness would set in and spoil the trip.
The roads at places are too narrow and the right of way is of climbing vehicle. You will have to come to absolute standstill at many place to cross. It is not at all a bright idea to rush the driving particularly when you see big vehicles like buses and trucks approach. These people are used to these roads and at times drive almost rashly.

11:40 AM Was enroute to Thimphu
11:49 AM Crossed the first checkpost.

12:42 PM Crossed Gedu

1:23 PM Reached Dantak Canteen. There are clean toilets and decent food there.
Me at Dantak Canteen
Somehow it is always great to see fellow Indians in a foreign land, even if the foreign land is Bhutan. The job that is Dantak is doing is phenomenal.
2:10 PM Finished from the canteen and now we were all set for drive till the Thimphu.
2:25 PM We crossed Chhukha
3:26 PM Stopped at the second checkpost. Check the map for location
3:40 PM Crossed Chapcha

4:15 PM Reached the Chuzom from where you can either go to Thimphu or Paro. As you reach closer to Thimphu, the road quality gets better. Once you enter the Thimphu gate, it is a nice 2-laned marked road till Thimphu.

5:06 PM 7 kilometers before Thimphu city, you will see a signage welcoming you to capital city and the road turns a nice 4-laned road with divider from here.

5:22 PM We enter the Norzin Lam which seems like the main street of Thimphu city. Since google maps just becomes useless at this time, we decide to park the car in market and walk around to find our hotel. Luckily our hotel is on Chang Lam which is the road parallel to Norzin Lam. We stayed at Hotel Norbuling. Here is my review of the hotel.
As soon as I entered, I felt that Bhutan is a place to experience. You have to slow yourself down. Look around at things. There are subtle changes when you compare it to India. That's what makes it special.
We also felt that the weather was significantly chilly at this time of the year and we pretty much had to carry jacket if we are walking around town.
There was nothing special planned for the evening. We had a leisurely dinner and called it a night. 

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