23rd October 2016. We made it! …To Siliguri, our starting point at least.
After the eventful day marred by flight delay at Shanghai airport due to the typhoon Haima, only to be cancelled after 5 hours of waiting, add an hour plus of human queue to have our transit flight path rearranged to Singapore instead of via Hong Kong. Hastily purchase our replacement domestic tickets from New Delhi to Bagdogra in between the one hour transit time in Changi Airport, as we will not make it for our pre-arranged flight.
I was mentally prepared to abandon this trip, if not for the persistence of my partner. I would have submit myself (once again!) to the infamous air traffic control of China airport.
After 3 boarding and 14 hours of cramp confinement in the air. We finally landed in Bagdogra and a short taxi ride to Siliguri, both name of cities that I have never heard of before and for this very reason I am so addicted to traveling.
I just can’t wait get onto the saddle… to escape from my hectic world and get lost in another…
Siliguri, West Bengal – Bagdogra Airport is the closest to South-east overland crossing into Phuentsholing. And from Siliguri, we will ride to the Indian border town of Jaigaon to enter Bhutan.
Road and traffic conditions are of similar experience where I last rode in Assam towards Arunachal Pradesh and back. Spanning across Darjeeling (known for their tea) and Jaipurguri district of West Bengai, passing through the numerous enchanting tea gardens (plantations).
The border is about 150km away. Riding at average speed of 60km/h, the journey will still take half of daylight time, with a chai stop and a lunch in between, We have to reach our destination before the vehicle permit office close. Reluctantly, we could only breeze pass this part of the journey, missing the opportunity to immerse ourselves into the flanking landscape and tea plantations.
Jaigaon, West Bengal – A typical Indian town, comparing it to my only other impression so far – Karol Bagh of New Dehli, this is a toned-down version. But still overwhelming with bustle of everyday life, trades, colors and non-stop horning! Organized chaos is an understatement.
The Immigration office for foreigner are not even located within the vicinity of the border checkpoint. One could have walk out of India without anyone stopping. Indian nationals are free to enter Phuentsholing without any permit (and vice versa for Bhutanese) and not many other foreigners exit India or enter Bhutan via this route. Even the customs office are not attended to, with the person who unlock the office, dressed in his casual t-shirt, shorts and slippers whom I thought was the caretaker was actually the attending staff himself. After getting our exit stamp and on the way out of the residential complex doubled as a Frontier Check Post. We were stopped eventually by guards in uniforms, who just had their afternoon chai (still in his hand) at the back of the complex and surprise to find us. We ‘sign-in’ as he requested, without questioning the sequence of procedure. All I need is my exit stamp on my passport and see you again India in 2 weeks!
Phuentsholing, Chukha – The South-western Indo-Bhutan border town of Bhutan. Prior to our arrival, we were told this is where the chaos stopped. On this side of the border, it will be a different world.
Less noise pollution, less congestion, less traffic and people will be in orderly manner, somewhat described as a Buddhistic paradise. Maybe so for my Indian friends who are used to the world on their side. From my third person observation, this town has an overlapping culture identity. There are still distinctive expression of Indian vibrancy in Phuentsholing. The use of pastel bright colour of some building are still very much Indian in culture, even though the architectural details are Bhutanese. Many of the shop owners are ethnic Indian (I am not going into the sub-group by language or ancestral lineage) though they may be of Bhutanese citizen. Few things do differ, it is a lot more quiet, road and people traffic are slower in pace, even the bars (more like just a place to have a drink.. ok it’s a bar! ) does not play any music. By rule or choice, I am not complaining. Traffic rules are strictly obeyed, no overtaking or lane splitting even for bikes, traffic are moving in line and no horning!! That is a blessing!
However my Bhutanese guide disagreed. To him Phuentsholing is still an Indian town. He just can’t wait to show me what his real Bhutan is like, as he describe to me, one that is more paradisaical than what I have heard and seen so far.
Oh well.. that’s 3 perceptions of a single town, and with that a thought came into my mind – Truth is Relative.
My Dharmic journey has just begun…
Bhutanese Cuisine – are know for their spiciness. or better known for ‘eating chili as a vegetable, not as a spice’. Limited choice for my partner who doesn’t take spicy food, but a Nirvana for me. We have a tough decision on the choice of restaurant. Almost all restaurant are barely occupied or empty of customers. Hence the rule of ‘if it’s crowded, it must be good’ does not apply here, unlike back in South-East Asia. We bump into our guide on the street who took us to the best restaurant in town, rightfully named – Zen Restaurant.
By regulations, all restaurant in Bhutan are not allowed to serve pre-cooked food to prevent wastage.
You will not find any of the junk fast food chain in whole of the country. Out you go Capitalist Consumerism! … I’m liking it here already.
It will take at least 30 minutes to an hour to have your first dish serve, and each mealtime will take up 2 hours or more of your life. Which gives us a lot of time for dining table socialization, that are fondly missed back in my rushy world.
Typical of an restaurant within the Himalayan countries, beside Bhutanese cuisines, Indian, Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes are served. Though you will not find the meat here as fresh as what we have back home, which I later found was their preference for their meat to be sun dried.
The meat are hard, dry and crunchy but still good. And most of the dishes are spicy, and chilies are plentiful. I am now convinced Bhutanese don’t classify chilies as spices. Our request to the waiter for a less spicy, less chili was returned with a ‘what are you going to eat then?’ blank face.
This will be a journey of discovery…
- Druk Yul is the official name of Bhutan, meaning ‘Land of Druk’ and Druk is the ‘Thunder Dragon‘, as depicted in their flag.