After all the contemplation and online research, we finally headed towards the destination we had been dreaming about for months now. It was a Saturday morning. We boarded our flight from Bangalore, and after half a day we were in Bagdogra at 3 p.m. We all stepped outside the airport, clueless about where we head next. I mean we had an idea that we need to be reach Jaigaon(the border town) from there, but were still not sure whether taking a train would be better or a local bus. We managed to sneak out of the lure by pre-paid taxi stand that was asking us to pay about a sum of 2600/- for an Indica for 3-4 people.
On asking around, we found that the bus stand in Siliguri (that was about 30 kms from Bagdogra), has regular buses to Jaigaon, but the probability of it taking too many stops and making us reach really really late in night was high. The trains are available from Siliguri to Hasimara (a station 15 kms from Jaigaon), but they are not that regular or on time (thats some half-cooked info we knew of at that point), for now all we knew the next train would be in evening by 6 p.m. In the meantime, one of us had some couchsurfing aquaintances traveling in the same direction who incidentally were in the same flight. They convinced us that we better head for the border ASAP, and we have more than 100% chances of getting a permit tonight itself. They also found a taxi guy who was willing to transport us for a mere Rs. 400/- per head to the border town. Seemed like a good idea, we caved in.
It all turned out to be a good call. The taxi we were taking was a Bhutan vehicle, with a native driver, who wanted to return across the border. Not bad at all, being in Indian territory, we were already riding the Bhutanese air 🙂
The route was serene almost instantly. Infact, there were many instances I wanted to stop the vehicle and just capture the beautiful landscapes. With River Tista crossing our path numerous times, making the landscapes even more delectable, our 4 hour or so journey was a delight.
We did take breaks for tea and snacks a couple times, making our drive about 5 hour long. On the way, we were lucky to pass ‘Laddoo Gopal‘, a famous joint in Siliguri for chaats and ofcourse laddoos..and other Indian sweets. An authentic taste of chaat and bengali sweets is so very rare in Bangalore, and so we all just pounced on all we could order. They also had a speciality called the ‘Palak momos’. Everything was fresh and ofcourse yummy.
Some snacks and chai later we resumed our drive, and by 8 p.m. on the same day we were standing in Phuentsholing (Bhutan) territory. The driver, directly drove into Phuentsholing, crossing the border gate between Jaigaon and P’ling. Apparantly people are allowed to move freely in any of the regions upto 5 kms, you require permits beyond that. So basically we were allowed to stroll that side without a permit. The difference in both the regions was stark, in the face, even in the dark of the night. While Jaigaon had a typical Indian street, with dirt and garbage lying around everywhere, vehicles driving at their will with no lane or traffic sense, and with lots of people, the town just across from the huge gate was quiet, quaint and laid back. It was definitely clean, well maintained.
We rushed to the border office that looked like had a light on inside, some of us went in and enquired. We were advised by the polite officer to come in the morning, which will be a Sunday, and we were relieved to know that they do work on Sundays. He also handed us over the forms to be filled for the permit. We strolled back to the vehicle, and unloaded our stuff. The group split, while one went in search of a reasonable hotel for night stay, the other went into a cafe to get a grub. Zicom Cafe in Phuentsholing turned out to be our regular hangout while getting in and out of Bhutan. It is one of few good cafes in that region, with a very decent breakfast/snack menu. We could not find a hotel in Phuentsholing ofcourse, as most tourists had already occupied it. One of the owners who also owned a hotel in Jaigoan a few mins walk away suggested us to go there. It was a decent place called Hotel Siddharth, we walked back into India and checked in. By 9:00 p.m. streets in Jaigaon became deserted and almost everything was closed, so we had to head back into P’ling to get some dinner. We dined somewhere close to the border itself, keeping a close watch on the gates (like they might close right on time!). Turns out, even though the locals try to warn you many times that the gates will close exactly at 9:30 p.m., there is always room for leniency, just one of the good traits of the Bhutanese people you will come across through your trip 🙂 By the way, Bhutan runs half an hour early than India. So by Indian time, the gates close at 10 p.m.
Next morning, early by 7:50 a.m we reported to the Visa Office in P’ling. The Officer was already there and asked us to come in one by one with our forms and documents. You need your Indian passport copies and the duly filled form given by the office – thats all. The Officer asked us few simple questions about our stay and plans in Bhutan. From this office you can only get permits for Thimpu & Paro, rest any other destination in Bhutan requires permits applied in Thimpu only. We were asked to wait 5 mins for the permits to be issued. Somehow, we assumed it to take longer and so we went away to have breakfast at Zicom – stupid if you think.
During the day the differences come out even more obvious. Both the towns have huge mountains in their background. But the ugliness of buildings on Indian side, and the beautiful traditional architecture on Bhutanese side, makes and breaks the look of the grand mountain landscape at the same time.
After breakfast, we returned and surprisingly there was a huge crowd outside the office, unlike early morning when we were the only ones around. We made way to the door and asked the guy inside for our permits. He immediately, came out with our forms and softly complained “Where were you all, we kept looking for you guys”, he handed over respective permits to us. We were stupidly smiling at all this, and walked back to checkout of our hotel in Jaigaon.
Some Important TIPS:
Cash & Currency – This is the last place before entering Bhutan, where you have any access to your money – withdraw all the cash you will need through your trip. No Debit/Credit/ATM card will work in Bhutan for any Indian Bank (check the back side of your cards for confirmation). You can always pay all over Bhutan in Rupees.
Phone connection – If you need phone access, better not use Indian sim, its way too costly for using in Bhutan. Better walk to a Tashicell centre opposite Zicom, and buy off a local sim card. Rs./Nu.200/- and passport copy and you are sorted. But if you want to use 3G, better go for Bmobile connection, they have a very good 3G connectivity as informed by locals.
Internet/Wi-fi – Zicom is the last place that gives you free and excellent Wi-fi connectivity. Anywhere else in Thimpu or Paro, internet was either out of service or too feeble. So you might as well give up on being connected.
Although we hadn’t included Thimpu in our plan, as we didnt expect to get a permit on sunday, we decided to spend next 2 days in Thimpu. We had our bookings in Paro only from the 30th. Suddenly our trip sounded complete with Thimpu & Paro all accounted for.
While we leisurely checked out from the hotel, our acquaintances who joined us unplanned in Bagdogra, were smart enough to go and book seats for Paro in the local bus station at Phuentsholing.
We only reached there by 12 p.m. to realise that buses are limited to any place in Bhutan, seats are even less (20 per bus). The only seats available to Thimpu were in an evening bus at 5 p.m. We stood outside station confused and making up our minds to spend on a taxi to Thimpu. We were approached by a local to help us, he told us that bus tickets are usually booked off in advance, and it will be better for us to find a good deal on a taxi. He offered to help us find a taxi. Right outside the bus station, you will find many taxi guys for hire. Typically it costs Rs.650/- per head for Thimpu or Paro, as the distance is similar. We found a taxi with a Thimpu native, again, who wanted to return to his hometown soon, agreed to take 3 of us for Rs.600/- per head. Luckily a good deal.
Our Driver Mr.Karma was like most Bhutanese people, very friendly and polite(If his no.hasn’t changed you can contact him at 77675579). We had a peaceful drive of about 6 hours through the hills to reach Thimpu. On the way you will find many picturesque locales, that your taxi driver will be more than willing to halt at. They usually break for lunch on the way at Hotel Sonia, that will serve traditional Bhutanese food, and also some other options like soups, chowmein or even maggi. For tea or coffee, if you don’t like milky stuff, you will need to instruct on making it strong. You can find all about our food experience in Bhutan on this blog post.
We reached Thimpu at about 7:30 p.m. Since it was not part of our itinerary, we had no idea where to stay here or what to do. We asked Mr. Karma to help and he dropped us at one of his friend’s hotel, Hotel Nemo (this hotel has no online presence, you can try your luck to get contact of the owner from Mr.Karma who is his friend). It is situated in a very good location, on Chang Lam Street, which is almost the middle of Thimpu, with the shopping street running parallel, and all kinds of pubs restaurants on this same street. You can find all about our stay in Thimpu in this blog post.
2 Days later, with Mr.Karma’s help we got in touch with Mr.Suman for a taxi drive to Paro. Thimpu and Paro are hardly 2 hours away from each other. It should cost you about Rs.200/- per head for this ride. A bus will be cheaper, but again, only 2 buses run in a day, morning 8 a.m. and afternoon 2 p.m. for which you require to book in advance on the bus stand. Mr. Suman agreed to drive us along with an additional passenger as he needs to make Rs.800/- out of each ride. We agreed. We reached Paro by noon, and checked into our pre-booked hotel, Hotel Jigmeling. You can find all about our stay in Paro in this blog post.
While returning from Paro, we again could not manage to get bus tickets to Phuentsholing, only 2 buses ran during the day, morning and afternoon. Being a tourist season, getting in will be easier than getting out. Taxis in Paro were not ready to bargain on the cash. After extensive search around the town, we had to agree for a Rs.1000/- per head deal.
We reached Phuentsholing in about 6 hours, taking the exact same route. On drop, we sipped some coffee at Zicom, bidding final adieu to Phuentsholing, we headed back to Mother India. Right outside the gateway in Jaigaon, at the auto stand we got a ride to Hasimara Railway station for Rs.50/- per head. At the station, we went and bought tickets to Siliguri Junction on Kanchan Kanya Express for Rs.60/- each. The train was at 4:40 p.m. right on time, and we reached Siliguri at about 8 p.m. Trains between Hasimara and Siliguri are quite regular and can be relied upon if you have 5-6 hours to spare. Since our flight was the next day from Bagdogra, we had to night stay in Siliguri. Finding Hotel was the toughest here, that too at night, but we did somehow find it online, a certain Hotel Manila right across the Railway station. It costed about Rs.1900/- for a AC room for 3, costly but thats the price for a decent hotel for women. The taxi to Bagdogra costed us Rs.600/- (not per head, the vehicle)
Siliguri was hot as hell, and coming back from the hills it wasn’t inviting enough to be home, but then you always have to come back.