Every country has its quirks, Bhutan more so. During the 1970s, the then Bhutanese king said, “We do not believe in Gross National Product.
Every country has its quirks, Bhutan more so. During the 1970s, the then Bhutanese king said, “We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.” Since then, the country takes pride in its happiness quotient. We drive from Bagdogra in India to Thimphu in Bhutan, in a few Honda diesel cars, to discover how the tiny country has managed to stay ‘happy’.
The Bhutanese entry point is a town called Phuentsholing. Indians don’t need a passport or visa, but need to carry a government identity proof – driving licence or Aadhaar card will do. If you’re driving, secure your vehicle permit.
As we drive from Phuentsholing to Paro, 160-km away, we realise there are no traffic lights, cars are few and local drivers are well behaved – they always stop for pedestrians, drive slowly (speed limit is 50-kph) and give way to other vehicles. We also drive like the Bhutanese do, and the trip computer throws a surprise – we’re driving Honda BR-V diesel SUV and it returns an amazing mileage of 20-kpl. (Honda is celebrating the 3 lakh sales milestone of the 1.5L i-DTEC diesel engine models in India.)
Paro, at a height of 7,200 feet, is home to Bhutan’s only international airport. On a cliff nearby is Taktsang – Tiger’s Nest Monastery – where the Second Buddha Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. The climb is tough, but at the top one is greeted to a 180-degree view of dark green mountains – by law, 60% of Bhutan must always be under forest cover. Today, the cover stands at 72%. The result is Bhutan is a carbon-negative country. Respect!
Thimphu, the capital city, is 50-km from Paro. We get into Honda City diesel sedan and, driving like the Bhutanese, get a fuel-efficiency of 23-kpl. Overlooking the city is a must-visit place – the giant Buddha Dordenma statue.
On a weekday, Thimphu feels like a school campus. Almost everyone moves around in national costume (gho for men; kira for women). Men also wear black shoes and neat socks. People in civil services and formal jobs are expected to wear the national dress at work.
From Thimphu, we drive back to Phuentsholing, 165-km away, in Honda Amaze diesel sedan. Because we’re still driving like the Bhutanese, we get a mileage of 22-kpl. Onwards to Bagdogra we get into Honda Jazz diesel hatchback. In India, people drive practically anywhere and at any speed; to stay safe, we go with the flow. The most fuel-efficient Honda diesel car, we’re surprised, gives us a mileage of a mere 17-kpl. The lesson: Good fuel-efficiency is more a function of driving habits than the engine.
Shangri-La is a word synonymous with a mythical Himalayan paradise, and Bhutan is the closest one can get to Shangri-La – it is still isolated (non-SAARC country tourists must spend $250 per day, so only serious ones come), people are proud of their heritage, and population density is a mere 20 persons per sq km, so there is enough space and resources for everybody.
It is not often that Bhutan features high on one’s travel bucket list. But if you love natural beauty, mountains, trekking, silence and the company of happy people, few places can rival Bhutan. Thankfully, Indians don’t need to spend the minimum $250 per day. The best months to visit are March-April and September-October.