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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bhutan trip

As it is known, we Bengalis are ardent travelers, and I am no exception. Every year, the travel bug bites me and my son, and we are off to planning and executing. I do not pay any attention to the bank passbook which assumes a very sorry state every time the tour concludes. Still, can't really ignore the call of new places. So, this year, it was no different. At first, I thought of visiting good old North Bengal again, but after careful consideration of the road conditions, which has attained status of worst from bad, and my father's health, I decided to take turn and visit the Land of Dragons, Bhutan. So the planning started.

Phase 1:

As soon as we have decided, my wife dutifully informed me that one of my brothers-in-law, Ashish da, visited Bhutan with his family and friends during last October. Hence started my endless string of phonecalls to secure a well balanced itinerary of Bhutan travel. Ashish da magnanimously decided to keep my request and dropped by in the same evening. At the end of nearly two hours and two cups of black tea, without sugar, I was in possession of a two page long itinerary with details about the expected cost. At the end, I was quite happy that the ball was now rolling in the right direction. Now, I had only three things to take care of:

Getting the permits from Bhutan embassy at Kolkata
Emailing hotels to book rooms
Get an estimate of total cost

Phase 2:

It was not until next few days, that I started to email all the hotels of Paro and Thimphu. How hard could it be- I thought. My wife maintained her notorious reputation by bugging me continuously to hasten. Not to leave any stone unturned, I called one reputed travel agent of Kolkata and asked for a quotation. Surprise! I received a response in two days time. Surprise! Surprise! The room rents quoted was average 40-50% higher than actual. Luckily, the hotels were named and I was able to find their web sites and verify the actual rent. Did I mention anything about the emails I sent? Well, I received only one reply- Hotel Jigmeling of Paro. After few more emails I was able to strike a deal with them for three deluxe rooms for the price of standards. Not bad! I was feeling like thumping my own back; but I could not. None of the Thimphu hotels cared to write back to me even after repeated reminders. So starts the Phase 3 of ISD calls.

Phase 3:

It was clear to me that I must bite the proverbial bullet and start making calls over the border. Luckily, lists quite a few hotels and their phone numbers. Now, the call charge, I needed to find the cheapest possible option for ISD. I found out that none of the private operators feel considerate enough to offer any preferential rate for Bhutan, Rs. 10 per min was the prevailing rate (talk about corporate consensus)! So, what to do? Unbelievably, public company BSNL came to my rescue. My wife and son collected information that bsnl rate was about Rs. 6.50 per min once I buy a special tariff voucher (STV) for Rs. 9.00, valid for 7 days. The only other thing I needed was a prepaid bsnl SIM card. My dear sis came to my rescue, she already had a working bsnl prepaid connection. So, all I had to do was to go online, buy the STV, recharge for talk time, and call; easy! Dear reader, if you are still with me, you must be thinking the same- right? Wrong! My trouble was far from over, read on to find out more.

Phase 4:

The next Sunday morning, armed with the SIM card, talk time and phone numbers of the hotels within my budget, I started calling. Mon dieu, hotels told me to email them! What more I found out- the tragedy of Uttrakhand has taken an indirect toll on me. Most of the hotels that I shortlisted at Thimphu reported to be booked! The capital city of Bhutan, where one can easily get hotels with night stay charges of Rs. 700-800, I had to settle for a hotel for Rs. 1500 per night. Well, I just have the confirmation email from a fellow named Sonam Tshering, who informed me that he has recently acquired the management of Hotel 89, and as I shall be visiting with my family, he would be more than happy to offer me the rooms for the rate mentioned above, which are actually for Rs. 2500 per night. Sounded too good to be true, but, I unfortunately had no other option but to hold at it. The only consolation was that no advance was demanded this time. Prospective travelers should contact Hotel Tandin first, it is the best in budget hotel category. Do not forget to try early to get the booking if you choose a peak tourist season as I did and if you wood like to avoid the scornful, reproachful, "I told you so" look of your wife (I faced it, and trust me, it's not at all romantic!).

Phase 5:

The battle is won! Phew! I was quite tensed for the last one month and could not motivate myself  enough to write anymore of this, the biggest hurdle I was yet to pass- The TICKETs. Yes, I mean, Train Tickets. On the morning of 21st August, I was all prepared to attack the IRCTC website with my 2Mbps broadband connection. I had some shadow practice already, Bought tickets for the 'peak time' days for my sister and brother-in-law. Quite a feat- considering they are schedule for departure on the first day of Durga Puja and return back just the day before. Turned on my PC, settled on my half broken computer chair with my son looking anxiously over my shoulder and my wife prowling like a pussy cat at the back. Computer turned on alright. Hit the "connect" button and the Horror Struck. The damn connection was not getting established! Error! Error! Error! What could I do but to turn to my dear friend Pratyush. I had already charged him to buy two tickets of my group while I was supposed to take care of the rest 5. Pratyush galantly jumped into the troubled water, few nail biting moments and informed me with a quite flat tone- no more tickets in the AC3. Eeeeeek! 

It was time to take a quick decision and my dear friend responded like a well oiled machine to my voice commands over the telephone and secured me 7 tickets for the SL class to Hasimara from Sealdah, for the only available train- Kanchankanya Express. Trouble was- two of the seats are in the next coach and just beside the Bathroom. Sadly, had n option but to accept what the "rail god" was kind enough to provide. 
At around 9AM, as if to mock me, the connection was restored. I did a bit of surfing in IRCTC site and hey presto! Tickets for Kolkata-New AlipurDuar are still available for the date of my journey. My wife and son were ecstatic, and I fell into the trap of buying 7 Garib Rath tickets. After paying nearly 700/- for cancellation charge I was out of the clutches of Garib Rath- after discovering that the train is very consistent in one thing- getting late. 3 hours late arrival at a station which is nearly 60km away from my final destination- extremely bad idea.

Now the return tickets. I took no chances. Woke up at 5:30 in the morning, checked everything and dutifully woke my friend up from his peaceful slumber (how dare he! When I slouch from lack of sleep, he was having a dream). This time, the IRCTC showed its true color. By the time we were able to log in, there was not a single ticket left for Sealdah from Hasimara in AC3. So, decided to go for Padatik Express from NJP, and this time (after a failed transaction) I was able to secure all the 7 seats as I desired- thanks again to my dear friend who managed 2 of those.
The only trouble is that I shall have to sort the matter of reaching NJP from Jaigaon/ Phuentsholing; but that's a worry for tomorrow- lets not get bothered now!

Phase 6:

This is the last phase of the preparation, which would be optional for some travelers. I have collected the Inner-line Permit for both Thimphu and Paro from the Royal Bhutan Consulate office. Please note that, in the beginning, the maximum tenure of the permit would be for 13 days. So if one plans for a travel of longer duration, the permit needs to be extended at Thimphu. Those who are from Kolkata or it's surrounding area, I would highly recommend that the permit should be obtained from Kolkata itself- it would really save some valuable time while traveling in Bhutan.
So, now the only official work left is the permit for "Restricted Areas" like Punakha, Haa Valley, Wangdue etc, which can only be obtained fro Thimphu.

For future travelers:
In peak season getting bookings in the only train Kanchankanya Express, would be a trouble, unless you are ready to travel in Sleeper Class. Alternative options are as follows, avail Saraighat Express from Howrah to New Alipurduar; under desperate condition, one can avail Kolkata- Guwahati Garib Rath, but make allowances for average 3 hours late. Better would be to travel to NJP, from there to Jaigaon via Siliguri (bus services from Siliguri are available). Otherwise, one can buy tickets to Hasimara from NJP and catch the same Kanchankanya Express, provided the traveler catches a train which reaches NJP before Kanchankanya Express, like Darjeeling Mail.

Documents that an Indian traveler must carry:

1. Voter ID card and photocopies of the same. For children Birth Certificate issued by competent Government authority would suffice.

2. Passport size photographs.

3.  Inner-line Permit for Paro and Thimphu- either obtain from Kolkata or from Phuentsholing. If the tourist is entering the country through Paro Airport, then this permit can be obtained at Paro International Airport too. While traveling in Bhutan do not forget to get it stamped at the check posts, it's the responsibility of the traveler.

4. Restricted area permit, if places other than Paro and Thimphu are to be visited.

For non-Indian (Foreign Tourists) the rules of visiting this country is bit different. Please check the Bhutan Government website for more information.

So my dear readers, if you are still with me (that would be quite a surprise though!), stay tuned for the rest. I shall continue to write this Blah! Blah! Blah!

Special thanks to the members of IndiaMike for helping me from time to time with different queries, specially Sri Ashish Das- thank you Ashish babu.