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Honda Drive To Discover 8 – Explore Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Over the years, Honda Drive to Discover has organised drives across many wonderful places in India. We have driven Honda cars from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from the beaches of eastern coast to the western coast of India. One season saw us drive through jungles of Madhya Pradesh in search of tigers, while another season saw us explore national parks in south of India looking for elephants.

One time, we were driving Honda cars through the mystic white desert of Rann of Kutch at night, and at another occasion, we drove at night was to explore the haunted village of Kuldhara.

The idea of Honda Drive to Discover is to ensure a sense of exploration, to create journeys. Team Honda curates new routes, new experiences for participants to embark on. There is no map, no set time frame. All we have to do is keep discovering new roads using our Honda cars.

This time around, Honda decided to take us on a discovery outside of India. Yes. It is the first time ever that Honda’s Drive to Discover went international.

After months of planning and discussions, the day finally arrived. Day 1 saw respective participants from across India gather in Bagdogra, which was the start point of this road trip. Our fleet of Honda Cars was waiting for us at a nearby restaurant.

It was around 2 PM when the briefing concluded before we started out to explore the Land of the Thunder Dragon – Bhutan, also recognised as the happiest place on Earth. It takes an inherent belief system to explore the holistic, and the Bhutanese have been doing so for almost 4 decades now. Gross National Happiness was made constitutional a decade earlier in Bhutan. It functions as a yardstick of progress for the landlocked, and heavily forested nation.

We had arrived at Bagdogra Airport in Darjeeling, West Bengal on a balmy hot noon. For those who opt for the road as their second home, Bhutan is a place that would be on your list of places to visit. What better way than to drive through and chart your own routes.

Like every year, this year too Honda Cars India was celebrating yet another achievement – more than 3 lakh sales of the award-winning iDTEC 1.5 litre diesel engine. The Honda Drive To Discover 8 fleet also comprised of the petrol Honda Accord Hybrid and CR-V, and multiple City, Jazz, Amaze, BR-V, and WR-V – all powered by the i-DTEC mill.

For the first leg of our journey, we drove about 170 kms from Bagdogra to Phuentsholing, a border town in Bhutan. This stretch of the route is winding, partly uneven, narrow, and heavily used with busy two way traffic, which is only logical cause it’s the road links the border towns of Bhutan and West Bengal. The route from Darjeeling is picturesque with vast expanses of tea estate, which means there’s not too many people off the main road.

Enroute, one crosses the Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary with plenty of monkeys for company. As the day came to an end, we approached the border town of Jaigaon to enter Bhutan. There are systems in place that permit one to drive Indian vehicles in Bhutan. If you’re navigating in Phuentsholing itself, a permit isn’t required. Venturing into another city, requires necessary paperwork.

Vehicle permit requirement: Original paperwork (registration certificate, insurance, PUC certificate), and photocopies, and driving license. Immigration: Passport/voter identity card. Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) of Bhutan, and immigration office are located at the Phuentsholing entry point. The process is fairly straightforward, and could take an hour or longer for verification and stamping.

Bhutan Gate is an imposing structure that stands to mark the border between Jaigaon (India) and Phuentsholing (Bhutan). The change is immediate, and noticeable to all the moment you cross over. Cleaner, quieter, and organised. Driving to the hotel was enjoyable though we had lost sunlight by the time we reached the hotel. What we knew for certain was the roads felt less polluted, and though there’s not too many traffic signals to follow, folks follow traffic rules with a discipline that’s second nature.

The next morning, we spent a better half of the day completing immigration procedures before heading to Paro. The 150 km drive between Phuentsholing and Paro traverses mountain roads characterized by turns and twists, and hairpin bends.The greenery in the distance is all green.

Along the road, there are landslide warnings. While the distance isn’t too much, driving on these roads means your speed is naturally limited to below 50 kmph for the most part of the journey. Along the road, there weren’t too much vehicular traffic for company. No doubt, there’s less cars on Bhutan’s roads, and driving etiquette is proper. Folks stop for pedestrians. Every time. Driving speed is slow, in the range of 50 kmph-ish.

We follow the lead. And our Honda BR-V diesel SUV for this leg behaves. Driving down winding roads, and corners, the BR-V trip metre threw in a pleasant surprise at the end of day. We had driven with an average mileage of 20-kmpl. keeping in mind inherent road topography, the biggish BR-V does pepper in a fair bit of body roll.

Paro: Nestled in at 7,200 feet, the city is home to Bhutans international airport. This part, the city is a tourists delight. Taktsang cliff is home to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). No, there are no tigers here. It is revered greatly as legend has it, Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to the lair from Tibet on the back of a tigress to tame the Tiger demon. This was back in the 8th century, and the guru meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. We decided to climb. You have to leave your car in a designated parking area, and climb up.

It’s difficult. The arduous climb that prompts you to say I’m done a million times finally ends in what is a beautifyul scene to behold. With your back against the cliff, it’s a wide angle shot of deep woods, and mountains with plentiful green cover.

In the pursuit of ‘Gross National Happiness’, the nation is being developed holistically, and that requires 60% of Bhutan to always be under forest cover. they’ve outdone themselves, and that number stands at 72%. Bhutan also relies heavily on imports, which means manufacturing activity is low. The collective approach deems Bhutan a carbon-negative country.

The next morning, we drove to Thimphu, the capital city. The short 50 km drive from Paro, also meant we were almost done with our Bhutan city stops, and would soon be driving back to Phuentsholing before exiting the happy nation. Today, we drove the Honda City diesel sedan.

We could take baby steps and learn from the Bhutanese. The capital city is also important for government work, and houses plenty of offices. Everywhere you walk, people are walking along with a sense of purpose. All the while, there’s not a single piece of rubbish or paper, or anything at all on the roads. Again, cleanliness is second nature to Bhutan’s citizens.

There’s no way you can miss the gigantic Buddha Dordenma statue. The national costume (gho for men, kira for women) is important for folks. School kids too dress the same way. In fact there’s a distinct sense of sobriety and uniformity in the way people dress.

From school going kids to adults at work places. The gho is matched with black shoes and thigh socks, and is an expected workwear ethic. Today’s City drive under sober city limit driving etiquette ensured a fuel-efficiency of 23 kmpl on well paved roads.

From Thimphu, we start the 165 km long drive to Phuentsholing. This Time around in a Honda Amaze diesel sedan. Amaze was the first Honda car to be powered by the 1.5-litre i-DTEC engine in India. The engine was then fitted into the brand’s other cars available to us.

Amaze was given a makeover earlier in 2017. With a trusting engine, it did take on curves and bends enroute with no difficulty at all. keeping in mind slower speeds cause of the way the roads were, and the fact that we were now Bhutanese by driving etiquette, the Amaze rolled on as smooth as butter at a mileage of 22 kmpl.

On the last leg from Phuentsholing to Bagdogra, we drove the Honda Jazz diesel hatchback, which served us well. A small car on busy roads. Mitigating traffic on narrow roads bursting at the seams is a matter of drudgery, and careful overtakes to feel momentary relief before you begin trailing a slow car yet again. With it’s low end torque, and city driving mileage of 17 kmpl pushing forward in a sea of traffic, we did reach Bagdogra airport in good time.

And with that, we came to the end of a sobering experience. Since everyone won’t drive down, the country isn’t yet populated by tourists as are other formerly peaceful Himalayan abodes in India. I’m sure, if the influx of Indian tourists who drive by becomes unruly, the government of Bhutan would do what’s necessary to adhere to its Gross National Happiness protocols to maintain the peace, and sobriety, and remain largely detached and isolated.

For those visiting Bhutan, here’s what you need to be diligent about. If entering Bhutan via road, ensure to stop at Bhutan Gate (Phuentsholing), and acquire necessary permits. Speed limit may not be be visible on the road. This does not mean you can speed. Take cues from how the Bhutanese drive, and move along at a speed of about 50 kmph. Do not exceed. Do not honk.

Last year, the population density (people per sq. km) in Bhutan was reported at 20.93 sq. km. So, you won’t be stuck in traffic jams and people crossing roads at random. However, if you see people at a zebra crossing, it’s people first, cars second. Let pedestrians cross the road first at a zebra crossing. Do not litter, smoke, and drink and drive. These are punishable offenses. If you’re visiting from a non SAARC nation, tourists are required to adhere to a daily spend of $250.

To sum it up, the 1.5 liter iDTEC powered diesel cars from Honda gave us the perfect opportunity to not only explore Bhutan, but also to experience the updated Honda diesel cars. Compared to the first gen variants, the new diesel cars now come with improved NVH and even better fuel efficiency. Thanks to the new 1.5 liter diesel engine, Honda cars today are one of the must fuel efficient and powerful cars in the segment.