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Crossing Border – Bhutan a Solo Trip

By Anoop Menon @3amblog

My budget tour plan was turned to be a luxury trip which was kind of a blessing in disguise ! All started from the day when my ticket to NJP (New Jalpaiguri) was not confirmed, had to book a flight to Kolkata 7500/- and Chair Car to NJP 1200/-

Day 1 Going Solo (18th Feb 2015 , 2.00 am) , Flight to Kolkata from Mumbai, which reached at 4.00 am , took a room in city nearby airport , slept few hours took a local bus to Howrah, where my next train to NJP was booked , a cool chair class which took 8 hours with lunch, tea, snacks and dinner , worth it ! Reached at 11.00 PM , took a room nearby NJP station where I had my next morning booking for Hasimara.


Day 2 Crossing Border (19th Feb 2015, 7.00 am), NJP station waiting for my train to Hasimara, 11.30 am reached Hasimara where I took share rickshaw to Bhutan Gate (Jaigoan, Indian side of border). Crossing the border was as normal as walking into any neighbors’ gate but with a sense of excitement. Went to the immigration office in Phuntsholing , Bhutan side of border, took a form filled it attaching my passport copy and a photo, had to wait before I get my permit , immigration officer was on lunch break so took a stroll around the area (free zone it is, as told by the staffs there). Came back and was waiting for my turn to come, a Bangladesh National before me was there to extend his traders permit for few days before he winds up his business and cancel his residency here, officer seemed to be very new with the computer and its process, as he frequently called his juniors for help, he goofed up by renewing someone else’s permit, which took few minutes with help of other staff to cancel and get it fixed.

My turn with few Q&A ,

Immigration Officer : “What are You?”

Me : “Single Traveler, Sir!”

IO :  “No permit for single travelers”

oops! (which I knew before I came, had read in few blogs)

Me : “Sir I was not aware, am from Mumbai , I checked net nowhere it was mentioned”

IO : “Net gives you permit?”

Me : “Sorry sir, I was not aware of this rule”

IO : “Where you want to go, why you here?”

Me : “ Sir, I want to see the Tigers Nest”

IO : “Will give you 5 days permit if you give a written undertaking, that any issues or problems you take  complete responsibility”

Me : “Done, sir”

3.30 pm, Got my letter with data entered by the staffs in system, came back to the Immigration Officer, he read it with a smile and stamped, there I get my 5 days permit to Paro and Thimpu !

Lucky I was carrying an umbrella, started raining cats and dogs managed to get to a taxi , but not so lucky , no taxi was going to Paro, would have to pay 3000/- , as there was no one going there and could not share ! Got a taxi who helped me to check around for sharing taxi and dropped me at nearby busstop. No bus , all full and none going after 4.00 PM, so reserved a ticket for next day morning 8.30.

Took another taxi got to a hotel nearby took a room (Bhutan Hotel), freshen up came out for a stroll in a new country, soon I realized Bhutan gate , Taxi Stand, Busstop and the hotel were all nearby , just 5 minutes walk from each other.

Beauty of traveling alone is you meet and know many interesting people , I came across this man in the restaurant who claimed himself to be a businessman, he helped me with few Bhutanese cuisine ( Pork Paa and Chicken Imadashi) and I learnt alcohol at Bhutan is very cheap, all brands are from Scotland. Interesting but fishy part of this man was he said he was there for a client meeting with an MBA studying girl (Nagaland and Nepal resident) studying in West Bengal, she was his Marketing Executive whereas her major in MBA was H.R. and a solo traveler herself.

Went back to my room after my dinner and good conversations with my bar mates.

Day 3 , Bus to Paro (20th Feb 2015, 8.00 am), Morning went around the local market before I took my bus. Bus started at 8.40 am , was not as full as I thought and climate was at its best. 6 hour journey amidst hills/mountains was a good experience , but mountains with white shining peaks was something new for me.

3.00 PM at Paro, I was surprised as this was something opposite to what I had imagined it to be, Paro was a small calm and empty looking beautiful village.

First thing I did was enquired about Tigers Nest monastery at a taxi stand, 850/- to and fro till the base. Left for a hotel nearby from there deciding to come back next day morning. Checked-in kept my luggage and came out for a stroll and to a café with wifi where I updated my friends about my whereabouts as I dint have network there, so had to look for wifi.

Day 4, Dada and Hero (21st Feb 2015, 7.00 am), 7.00 am I came back to the taxi stand , was looking around for taxi heard someone ask me where am I going, initially I thought it’s a taxi guy, I told Tigers Nest, he said he is going at the same place and is single as well and suggested to join him, that was my man and least I knew this is going to be a lifetime experience.  Taxi took 250/- till the base.

Together we started our climb , slow and steady pace , my partner being from Nepal and Darjeeling, trekking for him was like climbing any building stairs for me, he lead through a narrow path usually taken by locals, instead of regular wider way which was used by travelers/tourist and horse. I had to stop every 5 minutes hike for a minute and so , he was so cooperative and cool about it , he knew people from plain finds it difficult. This path he called it shortcut ( he usually took shortcuts, for every trek we did) which he can recognize from his experience.  This trek which usually should take 2.30 to 3.00 hours took us mere 1.30 hour, just because he had to keep up with my pace , else he could have done it in 1 hour. Met a person on horseback while our way up, he wished us good morning and I wished him a very good morning in return , he looked like an Army man, but I wondered why would an Army guy take horse. Reaching the top was like an experience which I will not be able to put in words here, my partner who called me hero and I would call him dada, dada was good with local languages so added benefit , he spoke to monks and locals for information’s, and return we get offerings , which are like chips , chocolate , biscuits and cold drinks.

I saw few Indian tourist there on my way down, this Indian guy who came to me to check if water is sold anywhere around , I offered my bottle , dada pointed out a bottle kept at a bench which he took and said was for the girl with him.

At a point down dada showed me a monastery up which was at a higher level than Tigers Nest, and he said we are going there , which I felt was not a good idea but followed him, this climb was bit more risky than the previous one but worth it, this took us another 45 minutes up and down back to the way where we met this path which went to Tigers Nest, noticed an young guy whose leg slipped and luckily was not big accident and heard him speak in Marathi to a girl with him, which I guess was his sister, dada took his usual shortcut and I would freak out if he disappeared from my sight, this route hardly have any other tourist. He reached the base before me to enquire for taxi but in vain, there I saw this man whom I met on my way back on horse along with the guy who slipped and the girl, they were family and as I rightly guessed he was army man, with a higher rank as he had a car arranged by government and a gypsy with his assistants following him, dada asked me to check if we will get a lift till the highway and there we hoped in the gypsy. We learnt that they are off to sightseeing around Paro which we joined as gatecrashers, 2 more temples free with Indian Army was another experience, funny though.

Back to Paro we had our lunch and then back to the café for a Hot Chocolate and wifi, climate was cold, after few walks around we went to watch a local program at night. Bhutan was celebrating Losar, their new year, so this type of concert and programs where common around Bhutan.

Day 5, Thimpu (22nd, Feb 2015), 7.00 am , took a cab to Capital of Bhutan, Thimpu. Like any other Capital of a country Thimpu looked very much like a city unlike Paro, entering Thimpu you will see a golden Buddha’s head at a top of hill. It’s a tallest and largest statute of Buddha, under construction, Bhutan government claiming it to be the 8th largest statue in the world made of copper and glitters of gold. We took a room first and then came out around to check for places to visit, dada met an old lady nearby in a tea stall and spoke to her in Nepali, I was surprised when the lady came out with us stopped a taxi and bargained with him to take us around for sight seeing, atlast the taxi driver agreed upon 2100/- for 5 to 6 places , which included 2 monastery, trekking again started to make me feel uncomfortable but then dada would insist to come with him, I would just follow him, this was a easy climb, took us 30 minutes to reach up, monastery was like any other, but should agree it gave some kind of peaceful sense and a different feeling. Came back and off to another one , this time I had decided I would say no for any other trek and dada agreed he wont insist, but this time it was the taxi driver who said you have come so far better go and see, there am on the way up again, but this time the way was well made with permanent pathway, but not for us dada took me from a way opposite to the monastery which lead to another at the backside, with a narrow and bit risky way, which lead to back of the original one, and to admit this was worth climbing up and one of the best, personally I felt this was better than the Tigers Nest. There I saw two familiar face, which I recognized immediately and I told him we met at Tigers Nest, the girl said yes for water I remember now. Once down we were back on the taxi and saw few temples, Buddhas dome (Stuppa) and the big Buddha statue, on the way we saw Kings Palace, Parliament house and assembly house, which we decided to come back walking in the evening.

Went back to room stretched hands and legs, relaxed for few hour before we started our evening walk in the town, saw a handicraft market nearby and some local shops. My permit expires next day , dada had 2 more days, so our discussion was weather to wait or leave next day, at last we came to a conclusion that will try if I can extend my permit and then get permit for Punakha (another district worth visiting as per the taxi driver) if no I will leave to Phuntsholing and dada will continue to Punakha. Night as usual we went to a café with wifi before went back to hotel. Saw 2 bikers from Delhi outside café , I always wanted to ride a long distance (my next trip).

Day 6, Permit or no Permit (23rd Feb 2015) 8.00 am, Went to busstop to check for bus , again all bus were full for the day so decided to go for permit and then take a cab, We were still discussing how to convince  the immigration personnel to extend my permit and issue one to Phunaka, we were sitting outside the immigration office waiting for the office to open at 9.00 am. Saw a lady coming towards us, and asked “are you waiting for the immigration office” ? , “yes madam”! “its public holiday here, wont open”! we stood up slowly and left the place, dada was quite disappointed, I was ok, infact was thankful that it didn’t work. Then with plenty of time in hand we walked toward the parliament house , took a long route amidst nice scenery , saw the palace and parliament house, worth visiting. After long walks we came back to our room took our luggage and back to taxi stand, got one who promised us to take just 2 of us for 400/ each, this was very good drive as had bollywood numbers playing throughout, on our way saw this two bikers from Delhi passing us tried to click and take few videos. On the way had to stop at check-post to stamp exit on the permit paper, there were this two bikers who were very much upset and swearing on the Bhutan Government and suggested me not to stay here for long. We continued our journey to Phuntsholing, the climate got very foggy and I could hardly see the road , wondered how the driver managed it, obviously he was quite familiar and experienced in this route. 5.00 PM we reached Phuntsoling and checked-in the same hotel I stayed, went to the busstop booked 2 tickets to Silliguri for next day morning 7.30 am, I wanted to visit Gangtok but as per dada time was very less for Gangtok, as my return ticket from NJP was on 26th 1.00 am, so just had 24th evening and 25th , so I decided to visit Darjeeling and dada anyways had to go there. Went around crossed border to India and back to Bhutan, was a funny feeling, dada bought himself a rice cooker from local market, than back to hotel at night had dinner and off to bed.

Day 7, Bus to Silliguri (24th Feb 2015) Morning at bus stop found myself standing at the top of bus arranging luggages, back in India after 5 minutes, After 3 hours or so Silliguri was just 30 minutes away, we thought we would reach quite early , but were wrong, bus broke down at a bridge at an intersection to Gangtok and Silliguri, bridge and the surrounding was very beautiful, I was thankful that the bus broke down, wanted to take some snaps of the bridge which I couldn’t have otherwise and wanted a nice cup of tea, also the bus drive was not much fun, and frankly I dint want to reach anywhere so early, I ordered for a strong tea and was clicking pictures when I saw dada bringing down our bags, I went back to the bus took my bag and learnt we would have to other mode of transport, came back to take my tea when dada got a pickup truck ran to catch it, throwing our bag behind the truck and tea cup on other hand we were in with my tea and hand outside the window, sipping in between every halt. This was better than any other drive I had till now. With beautiful ghats, tea gardens with women plucking tea leaves we continued to Silliguri.

Silliguri is a good and huge market with many traders, wholesellers and retailers , we kept our bags at a shop where dada used to get his merchandise for his shops in Darjelling, (dada had 2 shops at Darjelling, “Buddha Stores”) and traveling alone was his hobby. Dada got a safe for his shop from Silliguri market and a new HTC mobile and few things for his shop, all on cycle rickshaw. Got a car to Darjelling, was very uncomfortable but managed it because of good scenery on the way. Dada arranged me a room around, and showed me a place to relax, I kept my bag in the room and came out to take a walk, Was very nice with bookstore and cafés around, I took few videos and snaps of the café and relaxed at the center with benches before I went back to room to retire.

Day 8, Darjelling ( 25th Feb 2015) Morning 7.00 am, went to the place were dada and we dicided to meet, and learnt  that the place where I had relaxed last night had free wifi for tourists, nice, took a walk to Japanese Temple and Buddha Peace Pagoda. Back to room took a shower and went back to dada where he arranged me a taxi for sight seeing for 700/- went around saw tea graden and had good two cup of tea made from fresh tea leaf. Saw Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Rope Way , Tibetan Refugee Camp, Race Course now Army camp, football ground etc., came back to room check-out and bus back to Silliguri, promising dada to help him make a email address, face book page and google id for his shop and to plan for Srilanka together next year. My ticket was from NJP so took  a share auto to NJP from Silliguri, where I saw another rickshaw catch fire and a fire brigade take wrong route and letting the rickshaw burn. At station I was continuously checking if my sleeper class ticket got confirmed, and was surprised when got a message, not only confirmed but also upgraded to 3rd a/c.

Day 9 & 10 Train to Mumbai (26th and 27th Feb 2015),  Train left NJP at 2.00 am, and here ends my trip.

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