During last week of Octoeber 2015, my work took me to Phuentsholing, Bhutan. Being a Ghumakkar, I worked out the possibility of making a fine balance between profession and passion.
Phuentsholing, with an altitude of apprx. 300 metre, is a small town in Bhutan, placed on the border touching India. On the Indian side, Jaigaon is the last town. After crossing the gate, you will find Phuentsholing to welcome you to Bhutan. For visiting Bhutan, you do not need any visa. Your Indian passport or voter card will serve the purpose. It is a thriving commercial centre, situated directly at the base of Himalayan foothills. It is a fascinating place where different ethnic groups mingle prominently Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese. Being the border town, Phuentsholing serves as the convenient entry/exit point for Bhutan and also the important link to West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam.
The journey to Bhutan
Due to the last minute requisition, we had to catch Kanchankanya express (13149) from Sealdah station on 25th October 2015 at 8.30 pm. Those who have travelled from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Assam are conversant with the main line. But this train takes a different route from NJP station in the morning, which goes through deep forest of North Bengal. We reached Hasimara at 10.25 am on 26th October. Tiku, a young man known to me and working with us for the last two decades, was there to receive us. From the station we went straight to Madarihat Gate of Jaldapara National Park for enquiring about booking of jungle safari. As we could not find any booking for that day, we decided to approach the next day. So we moved on to Phuentsholing, Bhutan. We checked in at Hotel Druk, where we had a comfortable stay and delicious food.
In the post lunch session we visited the town and the outskirts. Phuentsholing being a small town, we covered it fast and went to the valley of Torsa river. We roamed here and there over river pebbles and spent tranquil time upto dusk. We made up a short plan about the following day’s visit to Jaldapara.
Jaldapara is well connected by road. Madarihat town is the entry point of Jaldapara National Park . It is located 140 kms from Siliguri town – the gateway to North East India, Nepal (from the eastrn side) and Bhutan. Apart from the closest Hasimara rail station, New Jalpaiguri ( NJP) and Alipurduar are the major railway stations to reach Jaldapara National Park. The distance between NJP railway staion and Jaldapara National Park is 145 kms and Alipurduar to Jaldapara National Park around 60 kms. If anyone comes by flight, then Bagdogra airport is there, which is apprx. 15 km from Siliguri.
Jaldapara National Park was formerly known as the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary. It was declared a sanctuary in 1941 for protection of flora and fauna and was declared as a national park in May 2012. Jaldapara National Park is located in the flood plains of river Torsha. It lies at Madarihat Block in Jalpaiguri district. The total area is nearly roughly 216 square km. The Malangi River flows nearby from east to west, also accompanied by rivers Malangi, Hollong, Chirakhawa, Kalijhora, Sissamara, Bhaluka and Buri Torsa. Apart from Kaziranga and Pobitara in Assam, Jaldapara in West Bengal is also the safe home for this famous single horned rhino since long. This park holds the maximum number of rhinos population in India after Kaziranga, where other wild life like Royal Bengal Tiger, Asiatic elephant, deer, sambhar, barking deer, spotted deer and hog deer, wild pig and bison are also available. Besides, Jaldapara is a paradise for bird watchers.
Next day, on 27th October we finished some official work in the first half and reached again the booking counter adjacent to the Jaldapara tourist lodge. There was a statue of a rhino for attraction of tourists. Every day, this national park operates 4 Gypsy trips and 2 elephant trips. For availing the elephant trip, it will be convenient to stay in the tourist lodge, as the trips start very early in the morning. Timings for Gypsy trips are rather comfortable : 5.30 am, 7.30 am, 1.30 pm and 3.30 pm. For each trip 10 vehicles are available. Apart from the driver, you need to take a Govt provided guide with the Gypsy. Maximum 6 visitors are allowed to seat in the open hood vehicle. The rates go like this : Rs.60 per head for the visitors + Rs.250 for vehicle entry fee + Rs.800 for the Gypsy hire + Rs.230 for the guide. We reached exactly at 1.30 pm at the counter. Luckily, we got the last Gypsy. Filing up the form, making payment and getting money receipt took 10 minutes. So by 1.45 pm, we were out with the last Gypsy.
From the booking counter one has to come back to highway then go to the entrance of the national park, where the jungle safari actually starts. At the gate there is a small office, where a lot of information of the leader of the visitors (like your name, address, mobile number, number of visitors, etc.) are manually recorded by the staff in a thick register (what we used to do 15 years ago in offices), which leader has to sign. Then the vehicles are allowed to get into the park. There were two thick pillars on both side of the road. A statue of a rhino was placed at the top of each pillar. But before that, tourists will notice a big statue of a rhino which was there at the centre of the road entering the forest.
Once the formalities were over, our safari started through the dense forest. The road was natural (not asphalted). On the right side, along the boundary of the forest, we noticed un-insulated metal wire fencing fixed with low height pillars. We learnt that live electricity is charged in that wire fencing after 6 pm, so that any person who intends to cross the boundary will get electrocuted. This arrangement is made to protect wildlife from illegal entrants.
Before the start of journey, our guide advised us not to talk aloud. Because, any kind of loud sound may compel the wildlife to keep away from the visitors. We first reached the area called Holong. There were a two storied tourist bungalow, a small park and a flowing river, which made the place attractive for human beings, as well as for wildlife. Plenty of peacocks were roaming here and there. We reached the river bank. A rhino was gazing on the opposite side of the river. We were surprised that at the very first point of the safari, we saw a wildlife. Many tourists gathered to see the animal. Gradually peacocks and monkeys started to come out of the jungle and walked along the rhino. We spent apprx. 10 pleasing minutes over there, took many snaps and went back to the Gypsy for moving towards further deep into the forest.
On way, we crossed a few weak wooden pools made over small rivers. The second point of stopover was Harindanga. There was a 4 storey watchtower in the middle of a very vast field. The field was full of grass and other plants, as tall as a human being. No wildlife was visible there. But the area was full of fresh oxygen as the air smelled pure and wild. We bathed in silky sun and proceeded further.
Next and last stop was Jaldapara. A 3 storey watchtower was there at this place. While we were watching the jungle from the 2nd storey, a trained elephant came with two mahouts. Our guide told that the elephant was famous for being naughty. It stopped, say 30 metre away from the watchtower and lied down on the ground to help both of the mahouts to get down. Then it went to an area full of vegetation. An over enthusiastic lady tried to get closer for a photoshoot, but immediately guides and Gypsy drivers available there restrained her. It is difficult to gauge mood of an elephant even by the local people. It takes no time for an undomesticated elephant to get angry. So we watched the animal from safe distance for some time and then we started the return journey. It was already 3 pm and the sun started to become soft.
While returning, we noticed that a wild cock was roaming in the jungle nearer to our slowly moving vehicle. On being pointed out by our guide, we saw an eagle sitting in a Simul tree. We were standing on the open hood Gypsy. That way we had a vivid view of the forest. Continuous jerking of the vehicle, because of the natural uneven road, posed a strong challenge for photography. Still I tried my best to snap whatever object attracted me. Varities of trees and plants were there in abundant numbers, which our guide was describing in low but clear voice. We saw another trained elephant while coming back. The mahout was standing on its back. He even gave pose for a photoshoot. Then we returned to the booking counter, as the safari finished.
We were in happy mood all along, as we did not expect to get the last minute safari trip. While coming back to Phuentsholing, we stopped by a tea garden. It was Satali Tea Estate. The lush green beauty and the carpet like look of the garden evoked my old memory. I had been in Tinsukia, Assam for 7 years during my early career, where I visited tea factories also. Here at Satali, we took a group photo with the help of a garden employee. The air of every tea garden is so pure that you can cleanse your lungs with fresh oxygen. Everything was going on fine. We had some tea and local snacks on the return journey and we reached Phuentsholing by 5 o’ clock.
Suddenly, I remembered that somebody told me earlier about a crocodile park in Phuentsholing. We reached the park fast. But by then, it already became dark. It was last week of October and Bhutan is placed on the Eastern side, so darkness came fast, though it was only quarter past 5. The park was established in 1976. It is under control of ministry of agriculture and forest, Govt of Bhutan. The authority of the park kindly allowed us to get into, as all the visitors already departed. It was a small park, not a specious one, without illumination facility. So we put on flash lights of our mobile cameras. There were ponds around, encircled by high and strong wire mesh fencing. Crocodiles and Gharials were there in considerable quantities. They were preparing for a sleep. A supervisor was there, who guided ourselves to a glass covered box, where some eggs were kept for display. We were told that those were eggs of crocodile, but got spoilt. They kept those eggs for sometime for display purpose. It is the rule of nature that all the eggs do not yield result everytime. Our journey for the day was over. It was a satisfying day after all. We returned to Hotel Druk.
At the dinner, we opted to have Bhutanese dish. So we ordered rice, Ema Datse and Bhutanese chicken. Ema Datse was unique. It was a combination of cheese and chilli in white gravy. I liked it, as it was simple and I was having it for the first time. Bhutanese chicken was also light in taste. After the hectic day, simple dishes helped us to regain energy fast.
Next day morning, on 28th October we checked out of the hotel at 8.30 am after the pleasant stay. We bid goodbye to our friends and proceeded towards Siliguri, particularly NJP station. Leaving behind Phuentsholing, Jaigaon, Madarihat, Jaldapara, we moved along the national highway. On way, we crossed a lot of local rivers, as we know that North Bengal has plenty of rivers, coming from the Himalayas, heading towards Bangladesh. At 10.45 am we crossed the bridge over river Teesta. The rail bridge was parallel to the road bridge. Rate of Innova hire from Phuentsholing to Siliguri town / NJP station is aprx. Rs.3500/-. We safely reached NJP station at 12 noon and conveniently caught NJP Howrah AC express (22310) at 12.35 noon, which reached us Howrah safely on 10.50 pm.
Some useful information:
- Hotel Druk, Phuentsholing, Phone no. 975-5-252426, /27, /28, 77190042, /43, /44. FAX No. 975-5-252929.
- Innova owner at Jaigaon : Mr.Harish, 09593964677
- Jaldapara Tourist Lodge, PO Madarihat, Dist Jalpaiguri, PIN-735220. Online booking link : http://www.wbtourism.gov.in/guest/lodges?lodgeId===AUVZ0VWtGZXJFbaNVTWJVU
- Forest guide at Jaldapara: Mr.Bindu Barman, 08927999463.
- Details of trains touching New Jalpaiguri (NJP) or Hasimara (HAS) are available at Indian Railways website. Similarly details of flights to and from Bagdogra airport are available in websites of Yatra, Make my trip, Travelguru, Ease my trip, etc. and websites of several flight operators.