Travel in Bhutan is almost always a road trip with very few exceptions. Having made my way from east to west and back along the trunk road several times over the years, I had the feeling I knew Bhutan pretty well. However the recent road trip through Tsirang, Sarpang and Gelephu showed me that that was a great misconception. There is so much more to Bhutan than the trunk road and this trip has whetted my appetite for more adventurous trips in the coming year.
To be honest I had trepidations about travelling with a friend and not knowing exactly where we would stay or how it would pan out. I am a planner, an organizer and a lover of independent travel, but I grasped this opportunity solely because it was Anjana who invited us and I have never met a more caring, socially aware or gregarious individual anywhere in the world. She exudes confidence and amicability and with those traits how could travelling with her be anything but fun.
Staying with family members and visiting less touristed areas with someone, who has a plethora of family members at every turn and a deep love of the environment, was sheer joy. The journey started from the freezing climes of Thimphu and progressed though the familiar territory of Wangdi :our stomping ground in 2014. It was a delight to see the progress made on reconstructing the dzong and be able to point out sights that Anjana had not seen before but it soon gave way the new vistas and an adventure with local knowledge and sheer enthusiasm adding to our experience.
As we passed through ever more tropical scenery the familiar cry of “this is my ………..’s village” or “my uncle / aunt lives there” became ever more frequent. Cups of tea delicious lunches and hospitality of the kind only rural folk know how to offer, persisted throughout out the trip.
The first overnight halt in Tsholingkha village in Tsirang was like stepping back a few decades and then adding the best of modern development to the mix. The smokless stove was an instant draw card and perfect place to gather and warm up, though as for that the temperatures were already much higher than in Thimphu. However there is ample electricity and water in the village and access to services is also readily available.
The two separate families residing in this village were more than happy to share their life experiences and family history in the area and not for the first time, I thought about the wealth of oral history, which resides in so many elderly and even middle-aged Bhutanese rural residents. It must somehow be recorded before it is lost or forgotten. It seems to me the perfect history assignment for urban youth is awaiting the clever and innovative teacher, who makes that happen.
After receiving an overwhelming welcome, incredible hospitality spanning 2 households and about twice as much food as we would normally consume we left Tsirang, making a brief stop in the lovely main town of the district Damphu. There we were blessed to be able to meet our neighbours from Rangjung days in a brief roadside gathering. Just as I exited the vehicle another car flew by and the driving shouted, “Hello Madam Vicky!” Only in Bhutan in a relatively remote and completely new surrounding would that seem totally normal.
Soon after entering Sarpang the scenery turns remarkably tropical. Palms and huge ferns line the road and the heat was a delight. At some points the road ventures so close to India that it is possible to have one’s body in the car and still put one’s arms in India through the window- not that we actually tried that little gambit. With that comes increased security and more immigration check posts, but our journey was hassle free, due to the road permits we had previously acquired.
The jolly family of 3 generations, with whom we spent our second night in Ranibagan in Sarpang, were even more determined to overfeed us and it seemed that we had in fact spent the greater part of the first 2 days drinking tea and eating. Is it possible to have eaten 6 meals in one day!! The evening was much cooler than the tropical daytime and we enjoyed our second bonfire in the expansive front yard of this lovely, rambling, renovated family home. The views on all sides made me think that I was in Thailand and as soon as we set off walking we had the distinct feeling we were enroute to the beach. Even though knowledge of local geography told us that that was impossible.
After a leisurely start to the third day of road travel, the morning began with a tea stop at the home of grandparents of a dear friend in Thimphu and yet again a precious oral history, which needs to be recorded, revealed itself. Without a single word of common language we were able to enjoy each other’s company and with the assistance of both Anjana and her relative, cousin-brother- our driver Indra, we heard many an incredible tale of bygone eras.
Just down the road, the compulsory purchase of oranges from insistent roadside vendors, was transacted while Indra negotiated our easy passage through the immigration check point. In no time we were all happily basking in the winter warmth again.
After a special lunch provided by the driver’s family in another small village along the road, we reached our next night stopover. Not surprisingly at the lunch stop we again ran into relatives and even one of our friends from the Bhutan Canada Foundation Office in Thimphu. This prosperous area produces an abundance of food and groves of fruit trees abound. No wonder it is becoming the preferred retirement area of Bhutan. Self-sufficiency and glorious weather are definitely an instant draw card for the ever-resourceful Bhutanese.
Feeling warm, content and relaxed we again set off for Gelephu. This border town has all the hustle and bustle of a frontier trading post and it seems that everybody is engaged in some kind of business activity. Anjana was more that thrilled to be reunited with her husband, who is overseeing a family construction in the centre of town and we were happy to be staying in an apartment for the next 2 night so there was time to explore on foot and wander at large to get a feel for this decidedly different town. Her father-in-law was another wealth of local and family history and the town abounds with cheap, fast eateries churning out delicious fresh food. It was instantly apparent that Ashok Hotel was the popular favourite. We did our best to consume as many of its offerings as possible and even left town with a packed lunch to eat on the roadside when it came time for our departure.
It was a rare treat to be able to travel with a dear friend and colleague, meet her extended family and old acquaintances of our own and gain much more intimate knowledge of the locals on this trip. All those initial fears and concerns I had, gave way to gratitude and appreciation by the time we began our homeward journey to Thimphu on day 5.
We even got to make a brief stop at our former-neighbour's house for tea and a catch up with all the family members on our return through Damphu. It is these family and friends moments that make travelling so much more enjoyable. In addition we stopped for an open air lunch at the very place I wished I had asked to stop on our way in, gave me the opportunity I missed to photograph my all-time favourite subject in Bhutan: prayer flags flapping in the wind! Perfect final journey.
It was surprisingly uneventful in terms of road conditions with only one brief stop at a roadblock due to the road widening in that familiar homeward stretch just before Dochula and within sight of Thimphu. The vehicle, the companionship and the spectacular scenery and totally different lifestyle of these regions has now initiated a real need to explore more in Bhutan in the coming year.
For now we are in freezing Thimphu, having arrived just in time to celebrate Xmas and are making the most of the warm sunny conditions in the middle of the day while rugging up and cocooning ourselves in the early evening and morning.
There is nothing quiet like a holiday to renew your energy levels and make you appreciative for all that you have.
Thanks go to Anjana and all her extended family for their hospitality.