How to Enjoy Hitchhiking in Bhutan, with Monks and Truckers

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Some of the most memorable moments while travelling are unplanned, spontaneous, and random – many would agree with this statement. I love hitchhiking and thanks to that I often end up meeting exciting and interesting people on the way. So far it has been great! Here are stories from some of the lovely people I met in Bhutan when I travelled to this Himalayan kingdom few years ago.

Buttering up a taxi driver, from Thimphu to Sopsokha

↑ 108 shrines at Dochu La pass

Haggling the fare for a taxi ride is a mandatory ritual any seasoned traveller ought to engage in, especially on long distance trips. After checking with my hotel for the approximate fares I should be paying for a 1.5 hour journey across the mountains from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I made a successful deal with a jolly ethnic Nepali taxi driver.

“Okay, 20 rupees more if I get the front window.”

I was with my buddy, 3 ladies (grandmother, daughter, grand daughter) and a high school student in the taxi with us. I think the driver was slightly unhappy about my bargaining (since I paid only slightly above local price that the hotel recommended) so I carefully buttered him up by sharing my food and praising his dressing style. I also complimented his horrible singing hoping that he would stop, but it had the opposite effect. I have no answer to the mystery of why taxi drivers invariably start singing as soon as the car starts rolling…

I wanted to stop at this place called Dochu La with 108 shrines on the way, and after initial refusal he ultimately agreed (mostly thanks to my positive reinforcement about his singing) to take a brief stop at this point. I didn’t want to delay the other passengers but hey, it’s Bhutan, not New York City, so they all appreciated the stop. After some very satisfactory peeing and picture taking, we proceeded on our journey. He was so happy for having met a foreign tourist, that he asked me to stop by his place if I ever made it back to that part of the world.

Tour of the Punakha monastery from a resident monk

↑ Punakha dzong

Punakha is a massive fort monastery that is located at the confluence of two rivers surrounded by tall mountains on all sides. By the time I reached the monastery, it was almost 15:30 and the dzong was going to close in another 1 hour or so. Hurriedly, I rushed in to show our papers at the security office where they check your Bhutan travel permit and Special Area permits.

“Oh, you are from Mumbai?” (big pause, shaking his head in disapproval)
“We all deeply regret what happened in Mumbai, everyone is talking about it. Why did they attack and kill innocent people?” he said as his peers, including a young monk, looked at us.
I was saddened by the terrorist attack on Mumbai that had struck the day before; it was November 2008.
“Let me come in and show you. You don’t have a guide” the monk said.

It was almost 16:30 and they had already closed the main temple but Bhutanese hospitality is not just lip service. The lama, seeing our predicament, fetched someone that had keys to the temple. He gave us a full tour of the place and let us hang out well beyond the visiting hours and followed it up with an invitation to visit the next morning for prayers. It was a very humbling experience and the monastery’s secure monastic quarters had the most mesmerizing statue of Buddha I had ever seen.

A very enthusiastic Indian army truck driver

↑ Prayer flags at Cheli La

When I was trying to go to this place called Cheli La pass, I hitchhiked and got a bunch of small rides to the final destination. I travelled the last 13 km in a huge Indian Army truck that was carrying some supplies to an army post in a town called Haa. The driver was overjoyed to see us. I think it was my first time I was travelling in the Himalayas in a large truck and it was scarrry!

The road was narrow, the bends were sharp and the valley was steep. If you have been to the Himalayas, you know how it feels like. Trucks require higher turning radius so the guy went almost to the edge of the road before making a turn. And while doing that he was chatting non-stop with me, singing latest bollywood songs and asking me lots of questions while I mostly sat there terrified and holding my breath. Each time the truck went near the edge of the road on a sharp curve and I looked down into the valley, I remembered all the gods I could, thinking to myself,

Why the hell is he not turning.. turn! turn! stop talking! turn!

Finally the “Cheli La: 0km″ milestone came into view and I jumped off the truck visibly shaken from the adventurous ride but thoroughly excited nevertheless. The driver looked like he just had a mug of caffeine and he decided it was lunch time so we sat down to eat under a canopy of prayer flags and snow capped Himalayas in the background.

↑ Bhutan flag

One day before my permit expires and I have no money to return to India

On my last day, I started walking on THE road to India (sounds funny, but there is only highway from Thimphu to India), raising the thumb of my outstretched hand in a classic hitchhiking gesture. Several vehicles passed, but nobody stopped for me. I stood at an intersection for 30 minutes, unable to decide what to do. Then I saw some girls walking in the opposite direction, so I greeted them…

“Kuzuzangbo la”, I said.
“Kuzuzangbo la!!”, they sounded surprised and very curious.

I told them that I was looking for a ride and chatted with them for a bit, showing off my glorious knowledge of the Dzongkha language – hello, yes, no, thankyou, where is the toilet, etc. They agreed to help me out and guess what, within minutes a pickup truck stopped and the young driver agreed to drive me to India, confessing later that the only reason he agreed to take me was to please the girls.

The guy was going back to India after delivering chicken meat. He stopped at a couple of places on the way, introducing me to his “girlfriends” and a few trucker buddies. I felt like a trophy that he was showing off, taking a picture with me everywhere possible. 😛

There was a landslide on the highway so it took about 9 hours to get to India. Once we got to the border town I found an ATM, bought my newest friend a very generous dinner, got drunk on ‘Druk 11000′ (Bhutan’s beer) and quietly crossed the border (minutes before it closed at 23:00) to the familiar smells, sounds and chaos of India.

↑ Stuck in traffic on the road to India

Hitchhiking exposes you to a ton of adventures and interesting people on the way. Hope you enjoyed reading about some of my stories from Bhutan. Checkout my Bhutan travelogue for more.

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