Bhutan On A Motorcycle

I had been wanting to travel to Bhutan for the longest time. So, when a random phone call from an old friend pitched the idea of going to Bhutan on a motorcycle, I took it as a sign the universe was conspiring to help me achieve my dream. The planning began in earnest as we finalised the itinerary, logistics, permits, budget, etc. With all preps in place, the excitement of doing a motorcycle ride through the world’s happiest country started to build up and before we knew it D-day had arrived.

Day 1 – Bagdogra to Phuntsholing

It was a fine March morning when the four of us on three motorcycles kick-started the journey at Bagdogra. After lunch at Binnaguri, we reached Phuentsholing, which is known as the gateway to Bhutan. Though the original plan had been to reach Haa (name of a place, not an expression of happiness) on the same day, we realised it had been a tad bit ambitious, so we decided to stop for the night.

Later in the evening, as we explored the town and its eateries, we wondered about the ineptness of most tourists in wanting to try out local cuisines. Deciding to be the exception, we walked into a deli for some Bhutanese fare. It was all going well till the first morsel of the Bhutanese dish reached the oesophagus and began burning its way down, its effect lasting till the next morning. Clearly, there’s more than one reason why Bhutan is known as the “Druk Yul”, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, we realised.

Day 2 – Phuntsholing to Haa

In the morning, after completing the immigration formalities, we left for Haa. It was a beautiful ride with winding roads and almost negligible traffic. The children waved at us, the people smiled, their faces reflecting joy and innocence as we rode past. This was our first glance at the happiness that pervades the Bhutanese people and we loved it.

We reached Haa and went to meet the friends who had been instrumental in making our trip happen. The night was spent partying and discussing the difference in scotch prices as the Bhutan adventure began.

Chele La Pass

Day 3 – Haa to Paro via Chele La

For our next destination Paro (the name of a place and not a lass from Devdas), we took the shorter route through Chele La (altitude 3988 m), which is the highest point on the road in Bhutan. While it doesn’t boast of the glamour of Khardung La or Tanglang La in Ladakh, it is a daunting sight in its own right. After a photo session at the Pass, we reached Paro by noon.

Paro, home to a number of monasteries and Dzongs (medieval forts usually the seat of the lama), has the only international airport in Bhutan. We visited the 7th-century Kyichu Lakhang monastery, which is one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan. We also saw the two orange trees in the monastery that are believed to bear fruit throughout the year. It is said that if an orange falls on a person while praying, the person is blessed with good luck. Well, it didn’t happen to any of us, so we decided to take comfort in the saying, “Soldiers make their own luck”.

Taktshang Goemba

Day 4 – Paro to Thimpu

In the morning, we trekked up to the Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Blessed and sanctified as one of Bhutan’s most sacred religious sites, it hangs on a cliff and stands above a beautiful forest of blue pine and rhododendrons. At the monastery, an old lama offered a wonderful sermon on Guru Rinpoche’s teachings. He said that man must overcome the three sins of ignorance, anger, and desire to achieve true happiness. And that really resonated. 

With a swift descent from the Tiger’s Nest and a splendid lunch behind us, we rode on to the nation’s capital. Thimphu has all but shrugged off the friendly village tag. The city buzzes with commercial exuberance and vehicular traffic courses through the ever-growing road network nourishing a construction boom. Through it all, it is appreciable to see the traffic discipline of the commuters and the civic sense of the pedestrians.

Thimphu’s charm is made up of a fine balance of the old and new. Crimson-robed monks, Indian labourers, government ministers clad in ghos and kiras (traditional dress), and` camera-wielding tourists’ share the pavements. In addition to its traditional Buddhist sights and attractions, Thimpu offers cafes, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Since it was the weekend, we decided to check out the nightlife and walked into the nearest watering hole, “TJs”, followed by a nightclub called “Cloud 34”. It had come highly recommended, and rightly so with its amazing crowd and awesome music making it an unforgettable experience.

Day 5 – Thimpu

The entire day was for doing touristy things, souvenir hunting and sampling authentic Bhutanese chow. We went to the royal zoo to admire the national animal “Takin”, then visited the enormous Golden Buddha statue overlooking Thimpu city. It was quite the Bhutanese take on the “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio de Janeiro.

Souvenir hunting came next. Since we had been warned that most of the exotic-looking artifacts were actually made in India, we decided to look for something bona fide Bhutanese and settled on postcards, trinkets, fridge magnets, and miniature Bhutanese flags. For all the happiness that the country creates, there are few real manufacturing units.

Food, however, is a completely different tale. We went to a restaurant called ‘Bhutan Kitchen’ that serves a fixed menu of multiple Bhutanese dishes. Being the holy month, there was no meat on the menu and we were treated to some vegetarian delicacies, such as Imadachi, Kiwadachi, Butter Tea, Red Rice, and Yellow Rice. Before long, we discovered that the common ingredient in everything were the chillies. In my view, the abundance of chillies and the lack of any other spice might just be the reason for Bhutan not being colonised by the Europeans.

Punakha Dzong

Day 6 – Thimpu to Phobjika via Punakha

Next morning, we got delayed by the immigration formalities required to travel East of Thimpu. Despite the delay, we stuck to our plan and started for Punakha. The Punakha Dzong (constructed in 1637-38) was the seat of Bhutan’s government until Thimphu was established as the new capital in 1955. It stands at the confluence of two rivers – the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and the Pho Chhu (Father River). Arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country, especially in spring when the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees bring colour to the Dzong’s characteristically towering whitewashed walls, it is elaborately painted gold, with red and black carved wood adding to the artistic touch. It makes for an incredible sight and we were grateful to have witnessed it.

From Punakha, we headed to Phobjika to see the rare black neck cranes. Phobjika is a bowl-shaped glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains. With its hilltops covered with lush green foliage, the valley itself appears almost barren. Because of the large flock of black-necked cranes that winter there, it is one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country.

It was dark and cold by the time we reached Phobjika and took shelter in a quaint hotel named “Yo Lo Koe”. It’s here that I learned the golden rule of cohabitating with a friend in cold climes – “The one who gets in the shower first, gets the hot water”. Suffice to say, it took extra blankets and heady scotch to get my blood circulation going. When we were informed that the cranes had flown back to Siberia and would not be back before winter, we were more than a little relieved to leave for Bumthang the next morning.


Day 7 – Phobjika to Bumthang

On the way to Bumthang, one of the bikes had a problem with a dead battery. So, we left it at a police station temporarily and the rider piled onto the other friend’s motorcycle. At Bumthang, we were met by our friend JJ who was on his bike. He took us on a cross-country ride through the Bhutanese countryside to a water body called the “Burning Lake”. While there were no fires around the lake, it was the most incredible experience to see nature in its most pristine form. Truly a heaven on earth, Burning Lake was magical.

Bumthang (altitude 2600 m – 4500 m) is the religious heartland of the nation and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. We stayed the night at a plush hotel courtesy JJ and were invited for breakfast to his home. Throughout our travels, we witnessed the generous spirit of the Bhutanese and it was the same with JJ and his wife. We were treated to the most amazing breakfast fare and got to see a traditional Bhutanese home in all its splendor. JJ’s prayer room looked like a medieval Buddhist temple and included a lama chanting hymns. It was a surreal experience.

Day 8 – Bumthang to Wangdue

Back on the road with plans to negotiate Pele La (3351 m) and Dochu La (3140 m) and reach Thimpu by nightfall, we retrieved the third bike and got it fixed. By the time we left, we could see the storm clouds gathering. As we proceeded to cross Pele La, we were riding through rain, sleet, snow, and an occasional sharp gust of wind that threatened to topple the bike. To top it all nightfall was fast approaching.

We crossed Pele La just as the sun set and immediately there was a sharp drop in temperature. We rode in darkness, completely drenched in the cold rain till Wangdue. With Thimpu still three hours away, we had to decide whether to push on to Thimpu the same night (it would save us time the next day), or stay the night at Wangdue and do a longer ride the next day. It was decided that we stay the night.

Day 9 – Wangdue to Bagdogra

It was the last day of our leave, so we had to get back at all costs. With 400 km left to cover (250 of which were in the hills), we started early at 5.30 AM. As we climbed towards Dochu La, the temperature was sub-zero. Halfway up it started snowing heavily and keeping the bike steady was a challenge. Despite the heavy-duty gloves, the fingers started going numb, and operating the clutch became very difficult. It was tempting to halt but that would only prolong the agony, so we kept moving up.

Finally, we reached Dochula Pass and headed straight to the Druk Wangyel Café located right on top of the Pass. Very popular with tourists as it offers a stunning 3600 panoramic view of the Himalayas, it was a godsend for our numb limbs. We stayed there for almost two hours unmindful of the long journey ahead, relieved to have our body warmth back.

The ride ahead of Dochu La was long but thankfully, uneventful. Back at Phuentsoling, we clicked a few pics before riding on through the darkness to get home. We were dead tired but within us lay a great sense of accomplishment and exhilaration. The road trip was over but the journey would remain with us through life.

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The biggest takeaway for me was the attitude of the Bhutanese people. Though most aren’t rich, they seem to be more alive and happy than the average person here. Its government’s policy to market itself as a niche tourist destination, thus reducing the number of tourist footfalls, helps Bhutan to preserve its unique but fragile environment.

When I look back on the journey through Bhutan on a Motorcycle, Gael Garcia Berna’s words resonate, “You know, Motorcycle Diaries has no incredible stories, no sudden plot twists. It doesn’t play that way. It’s about recognising the instance of change and embracing it.” As I recall the moments of peace and the anxiety, the joy and the pain, all that we shared and endured – I know this treasure trove of memories will stay with me forever.

Amol Gill
Amol Gill

Amol is an avid reader, a keen sportsman, and a passionate traveller. A proud army brat, he loves to explore the world around him and counts Spiti as one of his most memorable rides. His retirement plans include travelling through the country on two wheels.

49 thoughts on “Bhutan On A Motorcycle”

  1. Wow what a trip and ride this must have been.l was travelling virtually as l went about reading this travelogue.Loved the day by day experience.Its been in my bucket list to travel to Bhutan and now l know who can make it happen.

    It’s not about an experience alone but embracing what comes along

    1. Thank you so much Ma’am. Your enthusiasm is infectious as always. Look forward to seeing you in this side of the country and then we will curate a trip for you to Bhutan.

      They are reopening their doors shortly.

  2. Amazing read! It will put the Lonely Planet edition on Bhutan to shame. A riveting read so creatively expressed that you feel a part of the trip.

      1. Wuhooo…Did I just finish my Ride to Bhutan on a Motorcycle??Amol ,your eye for detail n perfection can be read through your words in this article .A Virtual journey penned to perfection .

        1. Thanks a million Ma’am. We need to do an article on our Spiti and Leh bike trip as also plan another bike trip.

  3. Beautiful rendition of a true traveller who submerged himself in this journey to live each moment….Very alluring indeed

    1. Thx a million Bhaskar. Am looking forward to you writing something soon too. Maybe something about Kota and water sports !!

  4. Awesome Amol ! Indeed an expression of happiness experienced by you…and yes universe has the knack of iden and fulfilling passionate dreams 😊….thanx for sharing..many more happy rides to you 🥂🥂

  5. Great writeup sir..
    Could imagine the trip just like a fellow traveler riding next to you..
    Will add this to the bucket list..

  6. For me, 2 of the best things about travelling, would be – being able to travel of course and being able to weave it in a story for others.. both achieved here splendidly..!!! 🥂

    1. Grateful for the lovely words Ma’am. I think you travel a lot and now with the girls off to school, I am sure we can look forward to a piece coming from you soon too. We look forward to reading about all your travels too.

  7. A great and a knowledgeable read Amol.
    The gist of those 10 days resonated perfectly.

    You should write more 🤩
    P.s. what was the total distance covered by you in those 10 days?

  8. A trip to be definitely jealous of. Especially the view of the taktsham goemba, it’s like it’s from a movie taking you to a forbidden land of dragons 😋. Actually i was told by a Bhutanese once that the actual name of Bhutan is something else which translates to “the land of thunder dragons”. Druk Yul

    1. Thx a ton Suyash. Yes you got the name of Bhutan right.

      Am sure am going to see Su and you there soon.

  9. Thx a ton Ritika for the lovely words of encouragement and also for providing this wonderful platform.

    We did close to 2,000 km in those ten days.

  10. What a read! Enjoyed the article to the very end, an amazing blend of humour and facts. And now, I want to visit Bhutan more than ever. Looking forward to reading more such amazing articles by Amol.

    1. Thx a ton Urvashi. I think Nicki and you need to write something on all your amazing travels.

      And include me in your next travel plans too.

  11. What a delightful read. I have a mix of appreciation and envy on this write up. But thanks for such a detailed itinerary and sharing your experiences. Hopefully we too can plan such a trip and remain envious of you no more.

  12. This is an amazing read sir. Honestly, I felt like I experienced the ride and felt the chill too. Looking forward for the trip soon and making more memories. Cheers

  13. Beautifully penned down sir . I think I almost travelled through Bhutan while reading . The place has been on my bucket list since long and your write up has motivated me enuf to try it out . Thankyou for such a wonderful read .

    1. Thank you ever so much Gayatri.

      You must visit Bhutan soon provided the route goes through Gangtok !!!!

  14. This article has ignited an urge to embark on a biking trip, something I didn’t realise I would be ever drawn to until I read this article. Its descriptive, pictorial, crisp and totally enthralling! The wit so carefully placed and terms so well researched.Thank you for this wonderful narration and building the best Bhutan itinerary !

    1. Tani thank you ever so much. You make
      my article sound like it could go for a Bookers Prize !!

      I hope our Bangalore rendezvous is going to generate an interesting article !!

  15. A well documented insight about everything. Now, after feeling Bhutan 🇧🇹 so closely from your article, I am even more inclined to visit soon. I could imagine the splendid beauty through your words. It’s reminds me of the lines from the poem by William Wordsworth- The Solitary Reaper.
    I listened motionless and still
    And as I mounted up the hill..

    Well Done 👍 brother
    All the best
    Rab Rakha

  16. Heyyyy.. through this article of yours i guess I have already experienced bhutan with u…hehehe…but then surely u r motivating us to take the trip. Do keep taking more such trips .. happy biking…loads of love

  17. Loved the sharp and witty travelogue.
    Makes one want to visit the country again since it seems like a lot of to-dos were missed.

    Definitely look forward to more such accounts from the writer. A must read for anyone wanting to visit Bhutan!

    1. Thanks a million Neha. Anything coming from an accomplished author is really motivating.

      To many adventures and holidays in the future 👍🏽

  18. This vivid description has inspired me to plan a trip myself. Thanks to the writer for penning down such a detailed blog. I am sure it will help a lot of people like me who are planning.
    Safe Rides

  19. Quite an adventure & experience.. anyone planning to visit Bhutan should bookmark this detailed travelogue. Thankyou for sharing.
    Tigers nest looks magestic! Craving for more pictures from the trip.
    Ps- didn’t know you are such a bike enthusiast.

  20. Thanks a million Shruti. I love any and everything to do with the outdoors.

    We need to plan a bike trip together – all the Rockstars on bikes.

  21. What a lovely experience! So beautifully penned down ! I could already feel like being part of the trip.Loved the way u have put a pinch of humour blended with facts and such detailed itinerary.Keep travelling and keep writing. It’s an amazing read

  22. Given a choice of visiting friendly neighbouring countries while on a year long course, I opted for Bhutan without hesitation. I had served on staff in a formation facing China and Bhutan and knew a bit about it…was driven to see its reality.
    It is better than the theory.
    Bhutan is a friendly small country that gave the world its Index of Happiness…On that world scale Bhutan is fairly happy. That besides its citizens are among the most ecologically aware people in the world. They are also visibly aware of their culture.
    The roads are well maintained…the small villages and towns clean. The standard of living is better than in India and touristy places well maintained.
    Paro takes ones breath away while landing; it is such a narrow valley. Thimphu is much like Gangtok but formal which is how capital cities are worldwide. Bhutan needs deep pockets as budget tourism is discouraged as much as littering is.
    The only real thing it offers besides unsullied ecology and clean air are smiles…archery…unspoilt countrysides…huge Buddhist religosity and culture…and Black Mountain views that remain with you.
    Bhutanese children like Sikkimese kids have the most pullable cheeks in the world for which privelege carry eclairs and take selfies.
    We were escorted and shown areas and places not part of touristy exchanges but one feels proud that we and Bhutan are on a quality wicket….IMTRAT…BRO and more besides friendship over centuries make a visit there a necessary milestone in ones visit calender.
    For this Gill travelouge, it has enough in it to reinforce the travel bug in you…by land…air…or telepathic travel to be reinforced by a well planned deep pockets visit in reality.
    For the writer my warm regards.

    1. Sir,

      Heartfelt gratitude for your wonderful insights. Learnt a lot from you in one brief interaction at Mamun in 2006.

      You continue to inspire.

      1. You are a gifted raconteur Amol…Bikes and travel are made for each other so keep doing both travel and its recording in biko kilometers.
        Perhaps you can take out a book somewhat like Lonely Planet…only better.
        Thank you for the Mamun recall.

        Raj Mehta

  23. An exhilarating narration with minute details is a motivating factor for many. I knew he had gone on this trip but through his article got to know all about his adventure……even though 9 years later enjoyed reading all about it. Very nice son, keep the writing bug in you going. Muah, love you and loved your experience.

  24. What an amazing read. It was almost like experiencing the trip firsthand. Definitely makes one want to book tickets to Bhutan right away.

    Looking forward to more such travel logs from you.

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