If you are planning for a trip to Bhutan, make sure to check out Planning a Trip to Bhutan – For Indians.
31st January 2016 : Board Train :
Generally on Sunday’s I sleep till 10 or 11 o’clock but today I was so excited that I woke up earlier. Finally the day has come to begin our journey. All the packing were already completed. We had reservations up to Hasimara (HSA) on 13149 – Kanchankanya Express, which leaves from Sealdah (SDAH) at 8:30. I was so excited that I got too restless, as when the time would come and when we’ll leave for Sealdah.
Gradually the time passing by and finally at around 6:15 PM, I unlocked my mobile and booked an Uber. It hardly took 5 minutes to arrive. We quickly loaded our luggage and left for Sealdah. As it was Sunday, the roads were clear from any kind of traffic, so it took us exactly 41 minutes to reach Sealdah.
I and my cousin went for a smoke, as we have to wait until the train is announced and arrives at platform. Suddenly I noticed her mom and dad who came to see us off. Finally the train arrived at 8:00 PM and people started rushing towards their compartments. Ours was S3, so we had to walk towards the end of the platform.
Exactly at 8:30 PM, train blew the whistle and left. As usual I grabbed the window seat and kept staring outside and saw stations passed by. I quickly called B.K. to inform that we have left for Hasimara and he assured that the driver will be waiting for us at Hasimara to pick us up and shared his contact details. After having our dinner at around 10 o’clock we went to sleep just to awake at the dawn of North Bengal.
1st February 2016 : Day 1 : Hasimara to Phuentsholing via Jaigaon. O/N at Phuentsholing :
I didn’t want to miss the enjoyment of the majestic journey from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to New Mal Jn. (NMZ), so I woke up and grabbed window seat again, so that I don’t miss the shots, as soon as the train crossed New Jalpaiguri (NJP). The journey through Tea Garden and Caves of Dooars cannot be explained in words.
Scheduled time to reach Hasimara is 10:25 but I traveled by Kanchankanya many times and I knew that it would miss the scheduled time. And as usual it was late by 30 minutes. As the train departed from Dalgaon (DLO), I called up Raj (our driver) to inform the same, he said that he is already waiting for us at Hasimara.
At around 11 o’clock we reached Hasimara. Raj was waiting outside the station with his shining white Innova. He loaded the luggage on top and we started for Jaigaon.
On the way he told us that “kal Thimphu me baraf gira tha, upar to bahut thand hai” (Yesterday Thimphu experienced snowfall, it’s too much cold up there). Well, to tell you the truth we were already ready for it. I already did my homework about the average temperature in the month of January & February and we brought necessary warm clothes. We have immerse experience of travelling in Himalayas and hill stations so we are well versed with it.
He also told us, that he’s still not sure whether he’ll go with us, as BK has not confirmed anything to him yet. So it might be that some other driver will take us forward. It took us exactly 25 minutes to reach Jaigaon. BK’s office is on 1st Floor of the building at Link Road just 2 minutes walking distance from the Bhutan Gate.
B.K. welcomed us warmly as soon as he noticed us. He was about to send Raj to Phuentsholing Immigration Office which is just across the Bhutan Gate to get the permits ready, but we informed him that we are already done with the permits from Kolkata Bhutan Consulate. He was very happy to hear that and asked me the new address of Kolkata Bhutan Consulate as it got shifted from Dum Dum and he was not aware of the new address. We had to pay him the remaining 80% before starting of our tour, so we asked him about the ATM and he showed us the way to SBI and ICICI ATM which was nearby on the road to right hand side of the Bhutan Gate. It was just 3 minutes walking distance from his office and Bhutan Gate.
There was a long queue at the SBI ATM, I believe this was because of Jaigaon being the prime spot and that also near Bhutan Gate. I was very afraid that whether this ATM would have adequate cash as almost everyone was doing multiple transaction, ofcourse due to withdrawal limit on their ATM cum Debit Card. Finally our turn came. We knew it’d take us a lot of time too, as with SBI Debit Card we can’t withdraw more than 10k at once. But just to try our luck we tried a transaction of 40k and it failed and then we tried for 20k and surprisingly it worked. We withdrew all cash that we had to pay to BK and we needed for our fooding and other expenses. At one point of time the security guard came in to check if we need any help, but I just explained him that we are unable to withdraw more than 20k at once and thus it’s taking a bit of time.
Finally after withdrawing all our required cash, we went to BK and paid him the remaining 80%. At TCB and various Trip Reports I read that Indian Currency is widely accepted in Bhutan. Though TCB strictly mentions that notes (bills) of Rs. 500/- and Rs. 1000/- is not accepted but from various Trip Reports you’d know that it’s widely accepted across Thimphu and Paro. So I was very much sure that we will be smoothly able to do transactions with Indian Currency. But as we had plans to go to much remote places further than Thimphu and Paro, BK suggested us to exchange, as they might not accept Indian Currency there. BK told us that he’ll exchange any Bhutanese Currency (known as Ngultrum or Nu. in short) that will be left with us while returning. It sounded good so we exchanged our currency with Nu. Just to let you know, Bhutanese Currency is on par with Indian Currency if you are not already aware of it.
It was 1:30 PM by then, so BK suggested us to have our lunch at Maa Annapurna Hotel, just opposite his office and told us that we’ll get great Bengali Cuisine there. Till then Raj will go and make the permits from RSTA for his car as his was WB registered car. It might be when we went to ATM he had confirmed Raj only to take us further for our trip. Maa Annapurna was houseful so we went to Tripti Hotel just beside Maa Annapurna. I’d say food was average and they are very slow. So be ready to wait for 15 – 20 minutes before they come to you for taking your order and another 15 minutes to serve you. For Veg. Thali one would have to pay Rs. 60/- and extra for Egg, Fish (Starts from Rs. 80/-) or Chicken (Rs. 80/-).
After having our lunch, I went near the Gate to click some photos and then Raj drove us through the gate, crossing the border. Ahh an International Honeymoon (Ahh…Sorry again, Familymoon 😛 ). This is not the first time I’m crossing the border. Before this one, I had traveled to Nepal when I was kid 😛
The border town on India side is Jaigaon whereas the border town on Bhutan side is Phuentsholing. Samdrup Jonkhar is another border town which is connected with Assam. But Phuentsholing is used mostly to enter and exit Bhutan via land border. As soon as you cross the border and enter Bhutan, you’ll notice the change in architecture of buildings. In Bhutan it’s mandatory to follow this architecture (I don’t know what it’s called) for all buildings. Almost all the buildings have a photo of King and Queen’s hanged at the top of door. We drove past Phuentsholing Immigration Office and took the left road and after few minutes we reached to our shelter for the day, Hotel Shelgoen.
This was our first stay in Bhutan. As we entered the Hotel, we noticed that the reception is well designed with unique architectural design that you can see across Bhutan along with various photos of King and Queen hanged on the wall. Other than the photos there were two clock, one for Indian Time (IST) and another for Bhutan Time (BTT). Bhutan Standard Time (BTT) is 30 minutes ahead to that of Indian Standard Time (IST) and +6:00 Hours to that of GMT. The young lady in reception asked us whether we are guests of BK, we nodded. She handed over the check in form which I started filling up.
At all the hotels we opted for 2 rooms, One Double Bed Room for two of us and another Double Bed Room with an extra mattress for my mom, dad, aunt and cousin. Raj told us to be ready tomorrow by 9AM and left. After filling up the form she handed over the keys to another lady who guided us to our rooms and two other ladies carried our luggage to our room. After getting freshen up, we left to explore the town.
The very first task was to get a SIM Card as we’ll be in Bhutan for 12 days and will be out of contact with our family members for around 2 weeks. I noticed that, we were still getting Vodafone signal on our mobile. I remembered that Raj told us, we’ll get signal in Phuentsholing as long as we are near the Gate. BK offered us SIM Card when we were there for Rs. 250/- and said we’d get talk time of Rs. 100/-. But while planning for Bhutan, I checked out the website of Tashi Cell and Bhutan Telecom. Tashi Cell offers SIM Card for Nu. 200/- with talk time of Nu. 200/- and Bhutan Telecom offers it for Nu. 100/- with talk time of Nu. 100/-. So it was clear to me that BK was asking for more price and thus we denied for the same.
Tashi Cell and Bhutan Telecom are two mobile operators in Bhutan. Tashi Cell is private whereas Bhutan Telecom is government and oldest. The shopkeeper told us that Tashi Cell is better and thus we got 2 Tashi Cell Tourist SIM Cards one for my dad and another for me for Nu. 210/- with talk time of Nu. 200/. He informed us that, Tourist SIM Cards are valid for 1 month. You’ll just have to provide photocopy of your Entry Permit to get the SIM Cards. I asked for 3G packs but the shopkeeper informed us that, packs are not valid for Tourist SIM Cards. One can only recharge Top Up’s on Tourist SIM Cards. Though nothing like this was mentioned on the site of both Tashi Cell and Bhutan Telecom. Anyway, I decided to recharge a top up of Nu. 500/- as I plan to surf internet. But later throughout my trip I noticed that most citizens prefer Bhutan Telecom. But I also noticed that both Tashi Cell and Bhutan Telecom offers great service.
Later in the evening we tried looking for shops where we can get Tea which is very common in India but not in Bhutan. Thus we decided to go back to Indian side to have Tea. Just beside the Bhutan Gate, there’s one entry gate and exit gate which is used for persons walking in and walking out. After having Tea at Jaigaon, we wanted to taste authentic Bhutanese momo. Though momo’s was available there at Jaigaon but still we kind of wanted to have it in Bhutan as we wanted to taste authentic Bhutanese momo and thus we entered again to Bhutan.
After walking around the streets in Phuentsholing for around half an hour, we didn’t managed to find a single joint where we can have Chicken Momo. Most of them had Veg, Beef and Pork Momo. We didn’t wanted to have Veg Momo and latter two our parents didn’t allowed us to have. Finally nearby our hotel we came across a small restaurant where shopkeeper finally nodded when we asked for Chicken Momo. We had a plate of Chicken Momo and Chicken Thukpa.
Generally shops and hotels close by 10:00 PM and thus at around 8:30 PM, we went to a nearby restaurant, K. D. Choden Restaurant & Bar, to have our dinner. Though our hotel had restaurant, but still we decided to try it outside. After walking around the streets for few hours, we became sure that all the hotels have restaurant and bar. Infact hard drinks are very common in Bhutan, all the restaurant and hotels and even stationary shops have bar section.
While planning for my trip to Bhutan, I came across various Trip Reports which suggests to try Ema Datshi, a authentic Bhutanese Cuisine. So we decided to have Red Rice, Jha Chu and Ema Datshi. But unfortunately Red Rice was not available so they served us normal rice. Jha Chu is kind of dal that we had and Ema Datshi is famous Bhutanese food. Ema is a kind of Chilly that you can find in Bhutan and Datshi means curry.
After having our dinner while returning to our hotel, we bought whisky and beer for the night. Indian brands are not available, so we went for Bhutanese Brands, K5 (Whisky) and Druk 11000 (Beer).
After returning to hotel, we thought of rearranging our winter clothes as that would be needed tomorrow while moving up to Thimphu. As Raj had already informed us the same while coming to Jaigaon. The dinner was too early for us as we have dinner at around 10:30 or 11:00 PM when at home. We knew it’d be like this only as this rule is pretty much same at all hill stations. So rest of the night we enjoyed our Beer and Whiskey along with Bhutanese Chips that we got before going to sleep 🙂
The next part of my trip report is continued at Capital of Bhutan – Thimphu In & Around
Hotel Shelgoen :
Tariff : Rs. 1100 x 2 (rooms) x 1 (night) = 2200 + 300 (extra mattress) = 2500/-
I really liked the hotel. The ambience was very nice. The rooms were very spacious and washrooms are that of like 3* hotels and very spacious too. Provided two shampoo and two soaps and two towels with 24×7 Geyser. Room heater is not needed as it never gets that much cold here. Blankets were provided as usual.