Solo Travel and Backpacking in Bhutan

In October 2002 I was fortunate enough to be invited to Bhutan and I accepted

I intended to rent myself a motorcycle in the capital, Thimpu and set off to explore the Kingdom on a two week road trip. Finding a bike in Bhutan was harder than I had expected and it took me a good two weeks of some serious drinking and snooker hustling in the capitals night spots to find a drunken youth willing to part with his prized Yamaha YBX125. For an extortionately steep fee he threw in his rather dilapidated old helmet and a verbal guarantee that it would not break down. Reassured but unconvinced I agreed and took delivery of a commuter bike far more at home on the streets of New Delhi than the Bhutanese highways.

As I am sure you are aware Bhutanese highways are definitely high but to call them a way is a touch optimistic. Their width and state allow for no margin of error. Sporadically the tarmac turns into spine rupturing dusty tracks littered with mini boulders.

The straightest stretch of road I chanced upon was 200 meters, resulting in a 200 kilometre journey taking anything up to 8 hours. The flow of oncoming traffic is not heavy but one must be careful of cows and their rather nervous calves(in one day alone 3 calves nearly took me out) aggressive troops of monkeys and stoned pigs wandering the roads haphazardly(the Bhutanese feed the copious amounts of cannabis growing in their country to their pigs to make them lazy and more hungry!!)

But the most dangerous aspect of riding a motorcycle through Bhutan in my opinion is you, the rider. Each bend you round, each valley you enter and each summit you pass, the view is so breathtaking and consuming that you forget the task at hand, namely, riding the bike. On too many occasions, mesmerized by the scenery, I came far to close to shooting straight off the road and into a raging river on the valley floor.

My first night on the road was spent in the small town of Khuntang nearby the spectacular Punakha dzong, comparable in beauty, I believe, to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. I then bumped my way into the Phobjika valley to the village of Gangte where I was fortunate enough to see the elusive black neck cranes before they headed off to Tibet for the winter months.

A long days riding took me to Bumtang with its gentle moor-like valleys and its trout-filled rivers. At the charming Kaila guest house I was wined and dined with the local dignitaries who were enjoying a post HIV workshop feast. The following morning I set off early along one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen towards the town of Mongar.

Descending into eastern Bhutan was like entering a new country. The architecture changed but most noticeable was the change in vegetation. It was lush and tropical and became jungle like. Following 3 days of resting my painful bottom I left my snooker playing buddies in Mongar and headed to the town of Trongsa where, to celebrate the Kings birthday the local children performed traditional dances and games to a delighted audience on the school playing-field.

The following morning, taking a wrong turn I found myself in the town of Semgang, but on inspection of my map I realised that I could continue on to Gelephue and round to the town of Wangdu-Phodrang which would lead me back to Thimpu.

I rounded a sharp bend at the same time as a steel tipped arrow came whistling past my ear. Unwittingly, I had ridden into the middle of an archery competition taking place across the road. Two teams of eleven, representing 2 villages have 2 shots at a wooden target situated roughly 150 metres away. The archers fire their arrows over playing children, farmers herding their yaks and unsuspecting tourists on motorcycles. Having fired their arrows the competitors then dash over to the target they have just shot at to watch and appreciate the other competitors efforts.

Standing around, in the firing line they leap around like men standing on hot coals, dodging the incoming missiles, shouting and screaming like little children. Should a arrow strike the target then the rest of the competitors turn their backs, jig around for 30 seconds before turning to face the victorious archer and salute him in an appropriate style.

All is presided over by an enthusiastic crowd and a smiling "health and safety officer". I was then treated as the guest of honor to a delicious, boozy lunch a top a hill next to a temple.

Gelephue was a dusty border town, more Indian than Bhutanese. I was receiving an unusual amount of stares and attention which soon became apparent. I had wandered into a area off limits to foreigners(due to Assamese rebels in the surrounding hills).

The local immigration officer cornered me and placed me under "hotel arrest" for my own safety. The following morning, seriously hung-over as I had partied the night away at the "christening" (or the Bhuddist equivalent) of the daughter of a Nepalese couple I had met, the immigration officer escorted me back to the outskirts of town and sent me back the way I had come, insisting as we parted company, that I should stop for absolutely nobody wearing uniform until I had left "this most dangerous area!"

I made it back to Thimpu without further incident.

The weather for my trip was heavenly, the people charming and the scenery unmatched. I was extremely fortunate to have experienced this extraordinary country as I did.

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