“Panda, please could you stop the car?”
So many times this sentence was repeated on our road-trip in Eastern Bhutan. Our road pilot, affectionately nicknamed Panda (his actual name’s Nidup Dorji), always checked that it’s safe before stopping. After all, we’re driving on the rather treacherous mountain roads of Bhutan, where fog sometimes toys with your vision, and often, a one-lane road caters to two directions.
The reason to stop wasn’t that someone was about to throw up from feeling car-sick, but that, the views we were seeing were too gorgeous to miss. There’s no way we could just pass by without stopping for photos! Or at least, inhale the incredible sights before us. This was one reason our group eventually got used to Bhutan Stretchable Time.
A journey to the far east of Bhutan would prove to be soul-cleansing, mood-lifting, spirit-purifying.
Welcome to Eastern Bhutan –
One of the least-explored regions in the country
Instead of taking the usual Bhutan-visitor route of heading to the western part (Paro, Thimphu, Punakha) of Bhutan, our mission this time was to explore Eastern Bhutan. From Samdrup Jongkhar, we’ll start a 10-day road trip covering the districts of Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, and Mongar, before heading into Bumthang (central Bhutan), and then leaving Bhutan from Paro (western Bhutan).
In this post:
- Welcome to Eastern Bhutan –One of the least-explored regions in the country
- Arriving in Bhutan’s oldest town: Samdrup Jongkhar
- Hello Trashigang – “Jewel of the East”
- Day trip to Merak Highlands
- Today we’ll be leaving Trashigang
Perhaps it’s the wild & rugged ways of the far east of Bhutan, that will actually make you feel very much at peace.
Birds soared freely above pine forests and high up into the sky, before swerving sharply into deep valleys. Colorful flags flapped violently in the highlands’ wind. If you would be quiet for a moment and listen, you might just hear the therapeutic, distant rhythmic clanging of prayer wheels over the mountains. Eastern Bhutan takes your heart silently, yet ferociously.
Arriving in Bhutan’s oldest town: Samdrup Jongkhar
Bhutan’s oldest town – Samdrup Jongkhar (south-eastern Bhutan), is home to a border checkpoint between Guwahati (India) and Bhutan. (Indian nationals are prohibited from using this border to enter Bhutan.) Our group crossed the borders from India into Bhutan with no hassle.
In the easy peace of typical evenings in eastern Bhutan, we chatted with Bhutanese schoolgirls heading home with their cute bamboo baskets (the baskets hold their lunchboxes, so cute!), spun prayer wheels at a temple, watched locals play at a dam, and took a walk at the locals’ market.
We’re driving 180km to Trashigang
On our second morning in Bhutan, the very first leg of our road-trip involved an estimated 7 hours of driving, to get to Trashigang. This drive was our first preview of misty mountain views, and the most scenic of pit-stops that one gets from visiting eastern Bhutan.
(To give you perspective, the road distance from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is about 355km and takes approximately 4~5.5 hours. Read on to find out how long we took to cover this 180km of mountain roads in Bhutan.)
Khaling and its handloom weavers
At a town called Khaling, sitting for hours on end, artisans at National Khaling National Handloom Weaving Centre deftly weaved intricate patterns onto textiles, through the usage of primitive-looking contraptions. These textiles were to be produced as the most exquisite of kiras – the elegant long dress of a traditional costume donned by a Bhutanese lady.
We spent way too much time here, mainly due to taking countless photos, and observing their weaving.
As we were to find out eventually, it would prove to be difficult to leave many spots on our Eastern Bhutan road trip.
Roadtripping through Bhutan means pit-stops and afternoon tea
By late afternoon, the setting sun was threatening the last of daylight, temperature dipping fast. Panda stopped along the road. Testament to Bhutanese hospitality, our thoughtful tour-guide (Ugyen Tshewang) and Panda whipped out a large bamboo tote, filled with snacks and everything ready to make hot cups of tea for us. We’ll pause for a little picnic break!
How fitting to be drinking piping hot Earl Grey Buddha tea in Bhutan!
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Hello Trashigang – “Jewel of the East”
Twelve hours since setting off, finally, we reached the incredibly picturesque town of Trashigang District. This place totally resembles a movie setup. Colorful, traditional buildings in the heart of town greeted our sight.
Our curious group, ready to spend some time walking and exploring, had fun mingling with the locals including the kids (yes they can speak English). If my childhood neighborhood looked and felt this carefree, I’m not sure if I’ll ever move away.
Getting off the beaten track in Trashigang
What’s A Road-Trip without Impromptu Plans?
We had a planned itinerary as a guide, but on this trip, decided to mostly go off the beaten track. After all, the whole idea is to explore and discover Eastern Bhutan. Someone mentioned that Merak seems like a magical place. Our new plan thus switched to Radhi Village, and from there, we’ll head to the highlands of Merak.
Radhi Village happens to be where Ugyen’s sister stays, so he got her to prepare breakfast for us. And just like that, we had a home-made breakfast with the cheerful locals!
Day trip to Merak Highlands
Home to the Brokpas and.. Yetis?
Even though the road from Radhi Village to reach over 3500m of the highlands of Merak was finished in recent years, it was still rough road most of the journey. Our butts withstood a minimum of 4+3 hours (four hours up then three hours down!) of non-stop, bumpy bouncing in a 4WD Bolero vehicle. (You can always opt for a multi-day trekking trip to both Merak & Sakteng with Druk Asia, if you’re fit enough.)
The views to Merak made all the discomfort getting there – worthwhile.
The Brokpa tribe originated from Tibet, and have largely lived in isolation in the far eastern region of Bhutan, settling in valleys such as Merak or Sakteng. Semi-nomadic and living in harsh climates with high altitude, this tribe largely depends on their livestock of yak for survival. Brokpas live a simple life in their houses made of stone and wood. Ancient traditions and cultures still dominate their social lives.
Brokpa men wear a thick, red wool coat called Tshokan Chuba, while the women wear a red striped dress called Shingkha. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of their traditional outfit would be the strange-looking, disc-shaped hat spun from yak hair, called a Shoma, with 5 tentacles sticking out. It acts as a cushion for carrying loads. The tail-ends will drain water off should it rain.
We came across the boys outside the village, and these ladies with their grandkids when they were coming out of their houses. I was fascinated by the elderly ladies’ fashion accessories! In case you’re wondering, these people had no idea their village was having visitors!
Definitely not kidding.
Bhutan is probably the closest you can feel to heavens.
Magical and fleeting views; blink and you’ll miss it. Fog, mist, clouds, mountains, and houses – they blend into one, painting a perfect picture of what paradise feels like.
When we returned to Radhi village from Merak, the darkness that surrounded the village threw me a little off-guard. How does everyone still potter about as usual?!? I wondered, while I’m here feeling rather blind in the dimness. Ugyen confirmed that a blackout had occurred; it isn’t this dark all the time. We ladies still had to use the backyard washroom, our handphones’ feeble lamps lighting the way. In the quietness, my imagination ran wild – Will I see shadows that I shouldn’t see? Will a ferocious creature (Yeti?!?) barge out from the bushes? Will there be strange-looking creepy-crawlies dropping onto me in the washroom?
Sorry to make you excited for nothing, but nothing close to that happened.
The electricity returned soon, warm lamps creating a lovely glow. Empty beer bottles had already been used as candle-stands. Our warm hosts (Ugyen’s kind sis & family!) had prepared milk tea and snacks. It was so pretty a setting, so casual an atmosphere.
“Remember, if you hear a ‘cuckoo’ sound at night, don’t cuckoo back.
Because if you cuckoo back, Cuckoo will come.”
We laughed hysterically at this warning by Ugyen, who was smiling rather nervously. Yetis (also known as the Abominable Snowman), are said to roam the highlands, including Merak. Ugyen depicted the story of his grandfather coming into close encounter with a Yeti, when he was bringing goods down from the highlands to trade with the villagers.
(His grandfather survived to tell the tale.)
Bhutan doesn’t even have to try hard. It just quietly wins your heart over.
Today we’ll be leaving Trashigang
On Day 4, we’ll spend the morning in Trashigang before driving to Trashiyangtse. I reluctantly checked out of my ridiculously spacious hotel room (will include a hotel review in my next posts), and we proceeded on for the day.
Our fourth day in Bhutan, we laughed at finally stepping into a Dzong.
If you’re visiting Bhutan for the first time, Dzongs are important places in Bhutan. You’ll definitely visit one by the first or second day.
At Trashigang Dzong, some novice monks were occupied with touching up the paintwork of the smaller, religious statues at Trashigang Dzong. It was said: if you mess up doing this repair work, in the next life, you’ll be born with deformities. 😨 I’m sure each of them was taking their work extremely seriously.
After lunch at a local restaurant, 24km away from Trashigang later, we arrived at Gom Kora, a quaint ancient temple overlooking Dangmechu river. Over at this temple, we listened to the stories of how Guru Rinpoche meditated to subdue a demon into a huge black rock here, as well as admire the different relics left by the Guru.
The most distinctive aspect one could feel in eastern Bhutan, is the way the atmosphere is void of stress, haste, chaos. As unusual as this may sound, never have I once heard a child cry in Bhutan. When the vibe is so calming and peaceful, it’s actually a challenge to be in a bad mood. Your whole body and soul will naturally relax.
(My photo journal is getting very long. To be continued in a next post..!)
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Wanna know more tips from visiting the eastern circuit of Bhutan? I’ll be consolidating plenty of tips in a future post, keep a lookout for it! Meanwhile, check out the best of my Bhutan posts!
• What the Bhutanese taught me about living, love and death
• EVERYTHING you need to know before travelling to Bhutan