The Car And Bike Special 2017: The Royal Enfield Tour Of Bhutan
It’s unbelievable how a mere 365 days can leave you wanting more and feeling hysterical at the same time. As I leave the crowded pre-paid taxi counter at Bagdogra airport and walk towards the noisy exit, I immediately sense the unbridled joy of a motorcycle tour that is about to begin. But then, I did this exactly a year ago, with a feeling that I wouldn’t be returning for a long time. Why all this excitement, then? After all, its going to be the same thing all over again – early mornings, luggage loading, ride briefings, the mountains, the photo-stops, the water crossings, inexhaustible biker banter and memorable moonlit dinners. To get over my confused state, I pretended to be a novice who had never done this and instead let the mystery unfold itself.
I had scheduled my arrival for the mandatory safety training session, a day prior to the flag off. I must say, Royal Enfield (RE) takes this very seriously and spares no effort in the detailed instructions and training it puts its participants through. A professional consultant was hired for the task, and his insights were invaluable. RE also ensures there is always a medical crew on board a dedicated SUV. I was then handed the keys to a Royal Enfield Himalayan, a motorcycle that by now I was very familiar with.
The next day witnessed 15 motorcycles thundering out from Siliguri, with the backup vehicles following the convoy at a distance. We rode through the grand tea gardens around Chengmari and Banarhat, with forest check posts in between. The greenery kept the weather pleasant until we got onto the main highway, which became a little crowded and led us to the last Indian town of Jaigon. We had arrived at the entrance to Bhutan; the presence of white-gloved policemen was proof enough that we were entering a new country.
The chaos was thinning down, jaywalking was strictly absent and the honking from the Indian side was now overlapped by the tranquility of the streets that we rode into; we had arrived in Bhutan for our stopover in the quaint town of Phuentsholing. Being a new country, the entire group had to get done with permits and visa formalities for the duration of its stay, but that could happen only the following morning. For those on their first trip, their joy knew no bounds for having made it by road to an international destination.
Before proceeding to Paro the next morning, the group assembled at the visa office. Being a part of an organized tour like RE’s has the immense advantage of being taken around by an experienced guide, who helped with the formalities, which took less than an hour. We were soon on some of the best roads that Bhutan had to offer. Before we reached Paro, the group decided to have a longer lunch break at Gedu check post, managed by the Indian army. One of the biggest challenges of riding in a country like this is that pretty much every corner presents a view worthy of a photo shoot; you have to be an incredibly unskilled photographer to get bad pictures of Bhutan.
Our rooms in Paro were excellent, and the icing was the view we had from our restaurant the next morning. We enjoyed breakfast overlooking the lone air strip, that was barely a few hundred meters away. It wasn’t a rest day, but before we proceeded to our next destination, an awesome trek awaited all of us. When in Paro, a visit to one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist sites, Paro Taktsang, on a cliff, is a must. Almost all of us chose to do the 4-hour round trip trek. Post lunch, we rode to the second least populated district in Bhutan after Gasa, and our night was spent in the chilly hills of Haa.
Haa was the kind of place we wished we could have stayed longer, with the climate and landscape being the perfect settings for a rural homestay. Sadly, we had to proceed to the capital city, Thimpu. The climate thus far was anything but stressful on our bodies, and a day off during our stay there was more for exploring the city than remaining confined to our hotel rooms. The local motorcycle riding club had decided to host us for a city tour the next day. It all started with a visit to the RE showroom, and we then wound our way up to the Great Buddha Dordenma statue that, at 169 feet, towers over the town of Thimpu. The city tour concluded with a beautiful ride towards northern Thimpu, to the Phajoding monatery. It was our last night in Thimpu, and the group could not resist visiting some of the local restaurants that served authentic local cuisine and some mouthwatering desserts.
Entering the capital city of Thimpu
We were about halfway into the tour, and some offroad fun was yet to be experienced. My motorcycle performed in stellar fashion, and not once did I experience saddle soreness; the Himalayan’s suspension travel and handling were absolute bliss. With panniers on board, this motorcycle can pretty much handle most city and touring demands. Bhutan did not disappoint on that count, either. There is some serious planning and development happening to the country’s infrastructure, and that meant riding through patches that were still under construction. The convoy was now headed east, leaving most modern amenities behind, and glimpses of rural life dotted around the hills came our way. One of Bhutan’s longest rivers, the Punatsang Chhu, made intermittent appearances as we made our way up to a quiet hotel at Tsirang. Though at a higher altitude, the temperature here was moderate, and it also served as our re-fuelling stop. That night saw a few of us being attended to by our resident doctor for a general checkup, which we passed with flying colours, which was good motivation to cover a distance of 330 km to Trongsa, the longest part of this itinerary. This time, though, I was not lucky enough to complete the tour. As fate had it, I had to cut my ride short and attend to an emergency back home. I was told that the group had an arduous ride to Trongsa, and it took them a few hours beyond sunset to reach their hotels. They completed the tour as planned and rode back to Guwahati via Mongar, Tashigang and Samdrup Jonghkar. The celebrations continued at the hotel where the riders were awarded their completion certificates.
Now, while I pen this amazing experience, I am trying to convince myself silly that it will be a while before I embark on a motorcycle tour to Bhutan again. To be honest, that would be a big lie. Bhutan is a very peaceful country that sits landlocked amidst the Himalayan mountain ranges. It prioritises Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, the former being the only yardstick to measure its people’s well being. To me and everyone else with whom I rode, we experienced every bit of it. It is no surprise, then, that it has earned itself the moniker of the modern age Shangri-La. So, if you are still looking at your Royal Enfield, I suggest that you log on to RE’s official website, sign up and leave the planning to their expert team. All you then need to is to simply ride and enjoy the journey, and I’m sure your trip will be worth every last mile.