Honda Drive to Discover 8: To the land of Thunder Dragon – Bhutan

Patience, it is something that you can learn over the years. Or is it? A 4 day drive through Bhutan can teach you a lot about patience, and rules. And definitely, you will feel happier than you were while entering Bhutan (because it is chaos and more on it later)! Honda Drive to Discover entered its eighth edition this year and coincidently, Honda also celebrated the sale of 3 lakh diesel-powered cars in India since the brand introduced the diesel engines in India in the form of Amaze!

Bhutan looks like a minuscule landform when compared the humongous size of India and China that surrounds the country. The GDP of the country is one of the slowest in the world, but they do not care about and measure their success rate on Gross National Happiness (GNP). A drive through the country reveals something unexpected, something you wished that never ended. Honda Drive to Discover crossed international borders and even though it is an enormous task to recreate the magic of Bhutan through pictures and words, anything close to would be a success.

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Honda Car India had their complete fleet at the drive, except the Brio. We had an option to choose from Amaze, Jazz, City, BR-V, WR-V, CR-V and the Accord. Because Honda was celebrating the sale of 3 lakh units of the diesel engine options, all the vehicles present at the drive were diesel powered. Of course, the CR-V and the Accord came with the gasoline engine. Just because the Accord was in such high-demand and there was only one of its kind, we missed driving it! Nonetheless, we drove the Amaze, WR-V, City and the CR-V during the whole trip.

Where did it all start?

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The drive started from the southern part of West Bengal from a city called Bagdogra. The first vehicle that marked our beginning was the best-seller of Honda India, the iconic City. The drive route passed through beautiful Nagrakata which is also house to a lot of tea gardens. West Bengal is one of the largest exporters of the tea gardens and the this the area where all the tea gardens are concentrated.

The route is a two-lane and well laid out tarmac. There are also bridges that cross the mighty Teesta river at places. Except for a few potholes here and there, the surface was butter smooth. We also managed to enter a few tea gardens on the way and see the well-cultivated tree plantations on the way. Even though the last generation Honda City was infamous of its ground clearance and used to get dragged even on a few speed breakers, the new Honda City solves that problem. The routes to tea gardens are not exactly well-paved and are made of dirt. However, the City’s underbody was well above the surface.

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Coming back on the road, the Honda City diesel managed to gulp the miles with ease. It is powered by the 1.5-litre i-DTEC engine that allows it to cruise the empty roads without much effort. The route also throws a patch of mountain roads. As were in the Himalayan foothills, we did not see anything grand.

We were in the eastern part of the country, which means the sun goes early to bed around here. At around 5:30 PM the dusk had set in, and by 6 PM, we were dependent on out own lights. The new City offers all-LED headlamps that helped to illuminate the way ahead. The India-Bhutan border crosses a city called Alipurdwar. The last 40 km on the Indian side was not as well paved as we would have liked. Going through the broken surfaces, the Honda City again proved its worthy ground clearance.

We entered Bhutan through a small gate meant for LMVs as truck traffic was spending time at the main gate. At night we stayed at a border town of Phuentsoling.

Bhutan, the way ahead

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We entered the Phuentsoling at around 8 PM, but the secluded streets gave us a feeling that it was already extremely late in the night. We did walk through the streets of the city and found it cleaner than all the metro cities of India. The stark difference between India and Bhutan was evident. Bhutan only has a population density of 20 people per 100 sq. km. However, in the cities, there are a lot of pedestrians. In Bhutan, the pedestrians get the right of way. Whenever the pedestrians are crossing the road, the cars are supposed to stop, and the rules are extremely strict about it.

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We enjoyed our night stroll through the city and stopped a few cars on the way to cross the road putting the right way to pedestrian rule to test. And every time the test was a success. Bhutan is the land of “Druk”, which is roughly translated as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. Every other hotel, beverage or restaurant will have Druk in their name without any copyright issue. A fact, you cannot advertise your products in Bhutan. So no big bad hoardings of someone trying to get your money.

Bhutan’s airport town – Paro

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The early morning drive started from Phuentsoling to Bhutan’s only airport city – Paro. Because of the thin population, the villages are located at a distance from each other. Connecting them is a beautiful road made and maintained by our friendly roadmakers from North India – BRO (Border Roads Organisation). If you have been to the Ladakh region or the North-East states, you will find murky signs put by the BRO.

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Our vehicle for the day was WR-V. I had recently taken the same vehicle to the lower parts of the Himalayas recently and loved the way it behaved. The diesel-powered WR-V took us through the twisties of Bhutan. But on a few sections, we were more than happy to be caged by the WR-V. Even though the roads were fantastic, they are quite narrow and when the trucks come from the opposite side, you do have to make way for them. The tarmac edges are quite deep and steep and the WR-V allowed us to take on those situations without much pain.

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We savoured the local Bhutanese food made of ingredients which are currently banned in many of the Indian states. There were three checkpoints in total on the route to Paro and every foreign national has to stop and get their passports checked at the points. While the night fell quickly again, we enjoyed the bright night sky lit up by billion of stars through the roof of WR-V. Too bad that my photographs do not match the memories, so I will not share the pictures here.

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Soon, we got carried away with the beautiful landscapes and forgot to take a left towards Paro. We shot up on the empty stretches to almost reach Thimpu when we realised that we are on the wrong way. No sir, we did not complain at all. Taking the U-turn and heading back to Paro gave us some of the best experiences of night driving through Bhutan. And the drive function of Google Maps is banned in Bhutan, so we went back to our good old map reading techniques to reach our stay for the night in Paro.

Thimpu – the capital city

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We were back in the Honda City again to explore the Buddhist Kingdom. The morning started by admiring the cleanliness of the Paro city. We went to the local market and were amazed by the discipline of the cars that were parked in the locality. Also, in Bhutan, the local drivers give you the way instantly if they feel that you want to overtake them. No ego muscle here.

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We spent some time looking at the Paro airport, which is deemed as one of the most dangerous airports in the world because of its location. We even saw a flight taking off from the airport and stood there frozen (not because of the climate but because of the skills of the pilot).

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Later in the day, we started our journey to the capital city, Thimpu. While the roads were empty, they test your patience, and you learn to have patience quite quickly. Why? The Bhutanese police are quite adamant about the speed limits, and they often hold a speed gun to give you huge challans. Luckily, patience had taken over us by the time we spotted a few Bhutanese cops.

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While few people were testing their trekking skills by visiting the Tiger’s nest, we had put the Honda City to yet another test. We put our destination as Buddha Dordenma statue, one of the world’s largest Buddha sculpture that took nine years to complete. The climb to the statue is quite steep. The City did struggle on a few bits, but a fair play with the clutch pedal took us to the top. We saw thousands of monks chanting and got blessings from the Lord Buddha himself.

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The city was quite empty for any national capital at 11 AM. However, we did spot some huge trucks in the form of Toyota Hilux and Nissan Navaras on the way.

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As intimidating as they may look, you can bet that they were doing below 50 km/h on such magnificently laid tarmac. We tried out a local restaurant and enlightened our taste buds with continental dishes.

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The way back

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The next day, we were to reach the Phuentsoling again. On the first half, we were awarded the Honda Jazz. The premium hatchback is quite quick in the turns, thanks to its superb handling capabilities. The Jazz has remained one of the favourite vehicles from the segment but it now looks in its mid-life and needs minor updates to keep it fresh in the market.

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Later that day, we took over the most comfortable car from the fleet – the CR-V. The CR-V is a lounge on wheels, but it is not supposed to be driven enthusiastically on the mountain roads. Why? Because it is extremely heavy and takes time to change directions quickly. However, the CR-V in the sports mode brings back the memories of old “no diesel Honda fleet”. The powerful petrol engine with the smoothest gearbox gives you the peace of mind but only if you’re driving it within its limits.

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Comeback to India

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We started our journey back to India, leaving the negative carbon country and heading back to the chaos. This time, the first diesel vehicle of Honda in India, the Amaze ferried us. Crossing over the Bhutan border on the road during the day serves as perfect example of maintenance of a country. As soon as we crossed the international boundary, the chaos, the fuming autos, rickshaw, tea stall and potholes attacked us from everywhere.

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The curiosity to know the road condition between Alipurdwar and Bagdogra through Siliguri took us to a menace. There were no roads for hours, and this was the main highway used by the truck traffic. However, the Amaze took the blunt pretty nicely. The roads crossed broken bridges, river beds and what not. To take a breather, we took a detour towards a tea plantation and spent some moments there. The Amaze feels more apt for the 100 Bhp diesel engine. It is lightweight and has the perfect size to compliment the i-DTEC driving force. The only thing that I missed in the vehicle is a second charging port.

The day ended with us bidding adieu to the Honda fleet, and soon we went to the gas chambers to miss Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness!