BootsnAll Travel Network

Four Hours in Phuentsholing

Yes, the title is correct. I spent just over three hours in Bhutan. Even with the inclusion of the day’s journey through India that took me to the border, it still won’t be a long entry, but A. My ‘blog entries are generally way to long anyway; B. I really wanted to have “Bhutan” as one of the categories in my blog; and C. I think it’s just so cool that I actually got to go there that I had to give it its own entry.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist monarchy sandwiched between two giants, China and India. Save for a few small sections around the edges, virtually all of the nation is mountainous, with several 7000m Himalayan peaks within its borders. Bhutan has something of a reputation for mystery, both because of its location and its official attitudes towards outsiders. Historically and, indeed, today, Bhutan has been a difficult place to visit. Even now that its borders are opened, strict controls are put on the number of tourists each year, and every one of them MUST be part of a government approved tour, all of which cost US$200/day or more. This insularity, as well as its beautiful mountain setting mean that its one of the most untouched, unspoilt corners of the himalayas, and indeed, the world.

All of this, of course, makes it an almost irresistable travel destination.

My trip towards Bhutan began with a bus ride down from the hills of Darjeeling. The trip down was just as steep and winding as the climb up (duh) but was managed surprisingly well by the bus. Also a surprise was how built up the area around the road was. Somehow there was room for lots of villages and reoadside tea shops amongst all the steepness, the windingness and the toy train tracks (the narrow gauge railway ran parellel to the road crossing it many times on the way down as it cut corners we took a bit tighter.)

I’d woken that day with a bit of a cold and a mild stomach upset. On the way down from Darjeeling the latter upgraded itself to “moderate.” I was very happy when we took our first bathroom stop, but it wasn’t truly feeling like a desperate situation just yet.

We came to the end of our descent and headed across the flats to the outskirts of the town of Siliguri (I’d been there on my way to Darjeeling from Nepal) before heading off on a different road towards the Indian town of Jaigon, on the border of Phuentsholing, Bhutan.

The bus passed through country not at all disimilar to Nepal’s Terai, though perhaps a bit more tropical. The land was very flat with regular wide, dry riverbeds. Agriculture of some sort or another occupied most of it, though they were interupted by patches of palm and bamboo. The clear agricultural king of the area was tea. I was surprised to find tea growing down there. Given that these plains were almost 2000m below Darjeeling, tea must have a great tolerance for altitude and temprature. (I later learned that while tea does grow down on the plains, the stuff from the hills is of much higher quality.)

When we did finally arrive in Jaigon, seven hours after departure, it was something of an anticlimax. The bus grumbled through busy traffic (the main road through town was being upgraded) with people slowly emptying out as we came closer and closer to the border. When we finally arrived at the last stop there were only about three people aboard.

I climbed off the bus and walked down to the Indian immigration checkpost, which the conductor had told me I needed to visit immediately. The checkpost was a single story building set back from the road, perhaps 200m from the actual border. There certainly wasn’t anything FORCING me to go in, but I still stuck my head in and asked if they’d mind if I found a hotel first. Not a problem.

After comparing a couple of places and discovering that the filthy local hotel cost the same as the more upmarket one (which seemed to cater mostly to Indian businessmen) I checked in and headed straight back out, not even bothering to unpack. I didn’t have a lot of time left in the day and wanted to spend as much of possible of it in Bhutan.

As explained earlier, the border at Phuentsholing was supposed to be open to foriegners without a visa. I still needed to formally exit India, however and this is where the problems started. I entered the office amongst a large group of Germans coming from Bhutan, and presented my passport. There appeared to be some trouble, but I had to wait until the teutonic horde had passed through to learn more about what it was. Apparently they wouldn’t issue me a departure stamp without a stamped, signed form from my entry point. Funny that. One of the English ladies I’d entered India with had SPECIFICALLY asked if there was was anything we needed to take with us when we departed the post there. After much begging and pleading, it became clear that there was nothing to be done. The official said the only thing for it was to return to Panatanki and ask for a form from the officials who had processed my entry. He also noted, however, that I was welcome to walk down to the Bhutanese border and see if they’d let me in without the exit stamp.

I headed a couple of hundred metres down the main street of Jaigon to the gateway to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan.

This was where I met my second problem. Apparently I’d been ill informed. I’d read guidebooks, I’d read websites, I’d even posted to the Lonely Planet forums, all in an attempt to confirm that, yes, it really was officially possible to enter Phuentsholing (if briefly) without a visa. Everything I’d read said yes. Everything I’d read was wrong.

The uniformed border guards took a look at my passport, seemed a bit troubled and then summoned an immigration official. To my surprise, he was a young man wearing shorts, sandals and a “World Cup of Cricket 2003” T-shirt. I explained my understanding of the situation to him and he explained that the “free city” policy had been revoked in January, 2005 as a result of security concerns in India. Indians and Bhutanese were still welcome to cross the border freely, but foreigners needed a visa. I wasn’t entirely sure how this particular policy helped deal with security in India, but certainly wasn’t going to press the issue. Instead, I smiled a lot, explained how I had made a special trip simply to visit Phuentsholing, and that I desparately wanted to visit his country, even if only for a few minutes (appeals to national pride are almost always helpful.) After a little bit of this, the fellow said, “you REALLY want to visit Bhutan… Okay. I give you one hour, and you do not go past that road,” (perhaps 300m away.)

I left my passport with him and walked under the beautiful and imposing gateway and into The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (how dramatic does THAT sound!?)

My very first task was to try and find some postcards and stamps. I’d promised Kate, the friend who was renting my house while I was away (and since I mention it, a big thank you to her) that I’d send her a postcard from every country I visited, and I was keen to not let her down here, even if I wasn’t “officially” in Bhutan. Sadly the post office was closed and the few people I asked said that it was the only place to find stamps.

Phuentcholing looked like the kind of place (and Bhutan had a reputation as the kind of place) where that might be true. The moment I crossed the border things were very, very different. Much of the grubbiness and all of the chaos from the Indian side were gone. In their place were orderly streets and tidy (if occaisionally mouldy) shops. Adding to the effect was the fact that marketing seemed to be a pretty simple practice in Bhutan. Almost every shop bore a single sign outside, green with white lettering stating its name, its business and its address. Many of these businesses were places that took advantage of the proximity of the border, specializing in imported goods.

While the advertisements for the shops weren’t up to much the physical structures that contained them were often quite pretty. The best of these were decorated with traditional Bhutanese motifs, bright in colour and intricate in design (there was even a gas station so adorned!)

I wandered around inside the permitted borders, and found the one notable tourist attraction, a pretty Buthanese style Buddhist temple, featuring a pair of enormous prayer wheels. The park it sat in was a popular spot, and dozens of Bhutanese walked clockwise around the temple while spinning hand-held prayer wheels and repeating mantras.

My time was running short and I had one more task: find myself a Bhutanese beer for my Beer Tasting List. As I walked in search of my beverage I was delighted to see a shop selling “Bhutanese Philatelic Stamps and Postcards.” I ran inside and grabbed a few of each, delighted that I’d be able to fulfill my promise after all. The transaction was made simpler by the fact that the Bhutanese Ngultrum is pegged to the Indian Rupee at a 1:1 exchange rate, and Indian rupees are freely accepted in Phuentsholing.

Following this I made my way to a bar (they pretty much all seemed to be attached to hotels for some reason, despite the fact that they all had primarily Indian and Bhutanese clients) and attempted to find a beer made in Bhutan. Sadly it appeared that there was no such thing. I had to content myself with a Bhutanese whisky and Coke.

I finished off my drink, and with my last minutes ticking down, I headed back to the gateway, having spent 52 minutes in Bhutan, but fully satisfied with the experience. Even if it was only an atypical border town and lacked the charm and beauty of the interior I had been in Bhutan!

When I returned the friendly immigration fellow was (thankfully) still there. He thanked me for returning promptly and as promised. He also asked if I’d been able to try any Bhutanese food. I disappointedly replied that I hadn’t. Well, he couldn’t let me leave his country with an empty stomach… Plus a large group of tourists had just arrived, so I’d be taken for one of them if anyone saw me. He pointed out a nearby restaurant that he said served the best Bhutanese dishes in town and said I was welcome to head over there for dinner if I wanted. Cool! Bonus time!

I went and sat down in the restaurant, asking which the waiter thought was the best of the Bhutanese Vegetarian dishes on offer. “Oh, Ema Datsi, with Bhutanese red rice,” he replied, and I happily sent him away with that order. A few minutes later he reappeared and said thoughtfully that Ema Datsi was awfully spicy… was I okay with that? I most certainly was.

While waiting I also managed to procure myself a Golden Eagle lager. It wasn’t made in Bhutan (it was brewed in the Indian mountain state of Sikkim) but was labelled “for sale in Bhutan only.” This was good enough for me.

When the food appeared, I took a taste of the red rice. It was delicious, larger grained and somewhat more flavourful than plain white rice. The Ema Datsi looked good as well, but… those can’t possible ALL be chillies in it, can they? As it turned out they were. Ema Datsi is a creamy curry made up almost entirely of green chillies. It was a good thing I liked spicy food!

Following my very pleasant meal I headed back to the border and retrieved my passport. Before I headed back across, however, I spent a good long time sitting under the gateway, just out of the rain, with the immigration official. We talked for ages about one another’s countries.

A few interesting things I learned about his country during our conversation: Bhutan has a population of just 600 000, but huge hydroelectric capacity. At the time, there were a pair of dams under construction with combined 2000MW capacity. This explains why Bhutan has the highest per capita income in south Asia. There is a 0.5 hour time difference between Bhutan and India (though this still isn’t as odd as the 15 minute difference between Nepal and India.) The Jaigon-Phuensholing border is crossed by thousands of people every day, most of the Bhutanese looking for foreign products in Jaigon and most of the Indians going to work as nannys, cleaners or similar workers in Phuentsholing. Bhutan is currently trying to develop a social security system. The immigration official himself was only 21!

Finally, his shift ended. He headed back towards home and I towards my hotel, but not without thanking him for the zillionth time for his kindness in allowing me entry to the country.

I climbed up to my room, and was greeted by a friendly pair of Indian accountants who had the room across the hall. They invited me to sit down with them for a talk and a snack (masala dosa-a vegetable and potato filled lentil flour crepe.) Before I was gone I’d learned all I’d ever wanted to know about the Indian banking system and tax laws (this may suggest that our conversation bored me, but that would be untrue. I actually DID [for reasons unknown even to me] have some questions about those subjects, so was happy to chat have run into them.)

The next morning I packed up and headed down to the Jaigon bus station as early as I could. I had a train to catch back in Siliguri at 14:50, but I still wanted to make it to Panatanki to pick up the immigration form that had been so mysteriously denied me and then head back to the New Jalpaiguri train station with plenty of time.

The bus trip back followed more or less the same route I’d covered the previous day, and was just about as pleasant, since my cold and stomach problems still hadn’t resolved themselves. A small plus was that as I was disembarking in Siliguri, preparing to catch a jeep to the broder, I discovered that the bus actually carried on to Panatanki itself, obviating the need for a bus change and saving me a few rupees to boot.

In Panatanki I returned to the border station I’d visited a just a few days previously. Before I even said a word, the man produced the form I required and handed it to me. I supposed that he’d had a few other people return to correct his oversight as well, and had remembered me. Soon enough it became apparent that this was not so. He’d actually not remembered me and had simply given me a departure form on the assumption that I was leaving India for Nepal. When my situation became clear he took the form back and said: Ah… okay. What you need to do is go to Nepal now, then I can give you the form.
Me: Um… Okay. But my Nepali visa is expired.
Him: Oh, then I can’t give you the form.
Me: But I will NEED the form when I try to leave the country. They told me so in Jaigon.
Him: Oh, no, they’ll give you one of these to fill out when you’re ready to leave from Delhi.
Me: No, I’m afraid they won’t. I tried in Jaigon and they absolutely refused.

The above is actually a very brief summary of the conversation. Most of the points contained therein were actually repeated five or six times over its course.

After a while, the fellow at the desk finally fetched one of his superiors, with whom most of the previous discussion was repeated. Now THIS was the Indian bureaucracy that I’d read about and feared.

Finally I noticed, and pointed out that there was even a spot on the form labelled “Immigration Stamp: Arrival,” and that I would clearly not be able to get this in Delhi, even if they DID issue me the form there. This gave them pause. After much consultation they (three immigration officials now) finally agreed that, yes, this did make some sense. After a few more minutes hesitation they stamped my form and sent me on my way, asking (with clearly kind and concerned intention) if I was happy now, and if my problem had been solved. “Yes, very happy. Thank you,” I replied, only slightly exaspirated by the process.

The trip back to Siliguri took about an hour on an incredibly bumpy bus, but this still gave me plenty of time to catch a shared autorickshaw through the busy, bumpy, dusty streets to New Jalpaiguri train station, 13km south of town. I arrived with less time to spare than I hoped, but still lots to ask around and find where to board my train.

Finally the time came and I climbed aboard, headed for my next destination, the city of Patna, 13 hours away in India’s Bihar state.

BIG, HUGE, TREMENDOUS thanks are, of course, due to the Bhutanese immigration official who let me in the country. I’d love to thank him by name, but just in case any of his superiors read this, I won’t, for fear of getting him in trouble. Without his kind assent the whole stomach-upset-ridden 12 hour Darjeeling-Jaigon-Siliguri bus ride would have been for nothing and I would have been very sad to have missed out on (admittedly only the tiny least attractive corner of) his pretty and interesting home. Perhaps some day when I’m rich and famous (or at least rich) I’ll be able to head back and see all The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon has to offer.


2 Responses to “Four Hours in Phuentsholing”

  1. Michael Bardecki Says:

    I am envious of your travels, my name is Michael Bardecki, I live in St. Petersburg Florida. Are you the son of Michael at Ryerson? What do you know of your family’s ancestry? I have recently been trying to piece it together and given the limited number of Bardecki’s you must some how be related. My grandfather was Michael and came from Poland after escaping the Russians. He, as I have been told worked against the Russians who had killed his family when he was a small boy, he stowed away on a ship and jumped in New Jersey and settled in Michigan. Any information you could provide would be helpful.
    God, to be younger and traveling. Have a great time! Drop me a line when you can.
    Michael Bardecki

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Charlie Says:

    Hey Llew

    I’m finally all caught up. You can start writing again. I’m very envious of the mountain climb in Nepal. The pictures were fascinating. Had me at the edge of my seat when I was reading all about it.

    Did you hook up with Ronnie of MH in India.

  4. Posted from Canada Canada