Saturday, September 10, 2011

Entering Bhutan

Got up early in the morning to catch the 7am bus to Siliguri. Reached Siliguri little past noon. A comfortable journey. I guess after travelling in jeeps with 10 people stuffed in, bus journeys feel like luxury!
Walked to the main bus stand. LP says the bus to Phuentsholing leaves from here at 2 pm. Can't seem to find any bus operator there. After a few inquiries, I get to know that the Bhutan Transport counter has been closed. No one knows for sure whether the bus still runs :O Panic! There are some offices of tour operators on the other side of the first road. The first one says, 'We don't do bus bookings'. The second one turns out to be a good samartian. He guides me to a nondescript bus standing beside a petrol pump down the road. I trudge with my heavy bag pack. The sun's killing me. After a good 10 days in the hills the April heat of the plains wears me out. Finally I spot the bus. It leaves at 2.30. 5 hours later I enter Bhutan at Phuentsholing.

The border gate

In a moment I lose half an hour of time. Bhutan time is 30 mins ahead of IST. All the budget hotels in town are occupied or not-really-budget! So I cross back to the Indian side of the border to Jaigaon. Voila! Half an hour snatched back :P
Next day morning I head back to Phuentsholing to process my entry permit. The counter is manned by a helpful Bhutanese. He tells me solo travelers are usually not issued permits but he will forward my application to their boss nonetheless. After a while I am ushered into the Chief Immigration Officer's office.
'So you are travelling alone'
'Yes sir'
'We do not encourage solo travelers'
Full-on pitch begins 'Sir, I have come from very far to see your beautiful country. I have read blogs and travel books on Bhutan. Amazing country and great people. Blah blah blah.... In a blog I read about a solo traveler doing this trip last year. Hope you can make an exception for me too'
15 mins later the friendly counter guy returns my application with words 'Rejected. Re-apply with tour operator'. Bah! He tells me walk into any tour operators office on the Indian side and have him resubmit my application. Application resubmitted through an agent. And now I am an acceptable tourist! :S

Got the permit at 1.30. Rushed to the bus stand. Both the buses to Thimpu leaving later that day are fully booked. So I book myself onto a 8 am bus. 'Bhutan time not Indian time' he reminds me.
Back to the Indian side. Check in. Order lunch to the room. Stock up on munchies. Switch on the TV. I am not leaving the room for the rest of the day. India's playing Pakistan in the World Cup semifinals! It doesnt get any bigger than that!
Last Pakistani wicket falls. Jaigaon erupts. Suddenly the population of this small trading center town seems to have been multiplied manifold! Huge processions! Cars, motorcycles, people on foot. All waving flags, shouting slogans, beating the drums, dancing, bursting crackers, distributing sweets. For once I don't regret the delay caused by the Immigration office :)

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