Illegal Entry in Bhutan – Book Sample from ‘Forever Off Track’


The upcoming book Forever Off Track chronicles Karin-Marijke and Coen’s remarkable 3.5-year overland journey from Europe to Southeast Asia in a rugged Land Cruiser. Join them as they step out of their comfort zones, deal with fears, explore the beauty of the world, and embrace a life of full-time nomadism.

This story is a sample of their journey through Bhutan.

In my rearview mirror I saw a couple of soldiers leaping into action, flailing their arms and shouting.

“They’ve spotted us.”

“Never mind, pretend not to see them. I’ll drive on.”

Yesterday’s fog had lifted. Against a cerulean sky with fluffy white clouds the green, terraced rice fields gave the valley a manicured look. We looked around with smiles on our faces, realizing how lucky we were to be here; however, the idyll lasted only a short time.

“We’ve got company. A car is catching up with us, you’d better slow down.”

A police officer motioned us to pull over. Friendly but firmly he asked us to return to the checkpoint to register and we had no other option than to oblige. Had our illegal entrance into Bhutan come to an end already? We hadn’t even spent twenty-four hours here. What was going to happen? Would they send us to prison? Fine us? Throw us out of the country? This could become an expensive ordeal.

‘Take a deep breath. Have faith in the unknown and keep an open mind. You’ve been there before,’ I reminded myself.

Crossing the Border

Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan kingdom wedged between the powerful nations of China and India. It opened up to foreigners in 1974. To visit the country officially, we would have had to arrange our trip through a travel agency, and the cost would have been about two hundred US dollars per person per day. This was neither within our budget nor our way of traveling. Over the past two years we had become travelers who were no longer easily intimidated by authorities.

On the contrary, we had developed a liking for defying them whenever possible. Here was a new challenge: traveling in Bhutan without a visa. It would be incorrect to claim we were the first to do it. Two Dutch couples had illegally driven into the country not too long ago. The first had stayed two days, the second five, before turning around and leaving without having been caught.

The day before, the gate in the Indian border town of Jaigaon had stood open and we had driven through. Nobody stopped us. No questions were asked. No alarm bells went off. Officially we hadn’t left India and officially we had never entered Bhutan.

From Phuntsoling, the border town in Bhutan that lived on trade and abounded with markets and vendors, we quickly moved on to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. In a thick fog we could only see six feet ahead, making driving arduous. 

We stopped at a roadside restaurant, a wooden, ill-lit hut with plastic flowers on the tables and tacky lamps hanging from the ceiling. Posters and newspapers featuring Indian popstars were stuck on the walls. With a wood-burning stove heating a kettle of steaming water in the middle of the room it was a cozy place. We ordered using our hands and sounds. Coen is good at mimicking animal sounds, which works particularly well to bring smiles to little kids’ shy faces, but also to order chicken, beef or pork in places where we don’t speak the language.

The owner served bowls of rice, dried beef, lentils and vegetables, all of which were tasty and helped our tired muscles to relax. He then taught us the elementary words in Bhutanese for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. Paying wasn’t a problem. Even though Bhutan’s currency is the ngultrum, it is equivalent to the Indian rupee and payment in either currency is accepted.

After a nap we were back on the road. As we snaked through the mountains the sun came out and the mist lifted, vanishing into thin flying spirals. An awe-inspiring ocean of ancient forests encompassed us with no civilization in sight except for the road we were driving on. It took a while for the notion to sink in. We were in Bhutan!

It had been one of the countries on my childhood wish list, like Tibet. Now I was here! I was stoked, ready to see it all. Taking in the surroundings, I let the moment settle in my system. Every minute we were here was thrilling.

The night before we had camped in a parking lot and this morning things had been fine until the soldiers spotted us…

What do you think?

Will the soldiers escort us out of the country?

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Forever Off Track

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