Crossing the Jaigon-Phuentsholing Border: A How NOT To Guide

Gold Buddha at Buddha Point in Thimphu, Bhutan

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Most non-Indian travelers to Bhutan come in by air. But due to the cost, this was out of the question for Jeremy and me. Our [round-trip] flights to India from London cost nearly £600 ($770) each. As there are no direct flights from London to Bhutan, it would be another £1200 ($1540) to fly from India. You might be thinking, ‘But I thought tourists to Bhutan pay $200+ a day, surely you could afford the flights?’

We could not. You see, we were not technically tourists, we were classed as guests due to my mother living there. As guests, we were not subject to the daily tourist tax, which was literally the only reason we could afford the trip in the first place.

Instead, we were entering by land, which was turning out to be no easy task. Considering she had completed the trip before, I asked my mother if there was anything I needed to know for the border crossing, and procedures we should be aware of. She was incredibly unhelpful (sorry mother). By ​her own account, she was never actually stamped out or into at the border, which I still don’t understand, but as you can imagine, this was not helpful for two people who were not resident in Bhutan or India.

Bhutanese prayer wheels
Bhutanese prayer wheels

We found out pretty quickly that all of the resources available for crossing the border were useless to us. Every single one simply said, ‘Your tour guide will meet you at the border and provide assistance.’ Jeremy and I were on a different visa and not going through a tour company, making this information irrelevant. I could have been worried, but instead I said confidently, “It’s fine, I’ve done plenty of border crossings.”

This was true, and many before resources like travel blogs or smart phones were readily available. I really wasn’t worried. But I should have been because from the get-go NOTHING was easy about this journey.

Let’s start back at the beginning

Why Bhutan?

Bhutan is one of the most remote countries in the world. Nestled between India and Tibet, Bhutan has been relatively cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn’t even until 1974 that Bhutan let in tourists. In 2017, a little over 250,000 people visited Bhutan – over 2/3 of whom were from neighbouring countries (specifically India). For reference, that same year, neighbouring India welcomed 10.18 million tourists.

Additionally, to stave off the impact of mass tourism, Bhutan implemented a daily tourist fee. While I truly believe this is a good thing, it put the possibility of visiting Bhutan squarely outside ​our budget. The fee is $250 per person, per day – except from December-February and June to August when it is $200. This does not include a $40 ($30 in off peak) surcharge for groups of 1-2 people. The fee only covers 3 star accommodation, so tourists wanting luxury accommodation can expect to pay even more. Affording a trip to Bhutan seemed like a pipe dream.

But everything I read – and saw – about Bhutan just made me want to go more. The country’s previous leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, created the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). King Jigme believed that GNH was more important than Gross Domestic Product. GNH uses various factors to determine the overall happiness and wellbeing of a population. There are 4 pillars of GNH (sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance); and 9 domains of happiness (psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards).

Traditional, ornate building in Bhutan
Seriously, almost every building looks like this!

As a long-time cultural heritage geek, this criteria alone put Bhutan on the map for me. Add in the gorgeous photography, a largely untouched tourist trail and I was hooked.

With that in mind, I could not have been more thrilled when my mother moved to the capital city, Thimphu. Her residency allowed her to have two visitors per year not subject to the tourist tax. The only problem? I was still a university student and not exactly rolling in money. By the time I had a stable income and the savings to go to Bhutan, my mother was nearing the end of her contract. Jeremy and I jumped on the opportunity.

Pre-Planning Fun

Annoyingly, we had a pretty slim margin of dates available due to work and my mother’s schedule, and ticket prices were higher than usual when we finally agreed on exact dates, despite booking them 4 months in advance.

Obtaining Visas

The fun started with getting our Indian visas.

It was relatively easy for me, Americans are entitled to a ten year visa to India. As I lived in the UK where I was applying from, it was a fairly painless and inexpensive endeavour.

But Jeremy is British and, well, their visas are more expensive. To be totally fair, this was pretty painless, as well, but where my ten year visa cost around £70, Jeremy’s cost nearly double for one year. As we would be entering India twice, it was also cheaper to get a multiple entry one year visa rather than two single entry e-visas.

Our Bhutanese visas on the other hand, were much more complicated.

In order to secure our Bhutanese visas, we had to provide our travel in and out of Bhutan. Because of this, we had to go by train as we could not get bus tickets that far in advance. Because there is no train system in Bhutan, we were told it was sufficient to take the train from Kolkata to Hasimara, a town near the Indian-Bhutanese border, and from there get a taxi to the Jaigon/Phuentsholing border crossing.

Bhutanese Visa
Our Vis​as for Bhutan​

Obtaining Train Tickets

Not only did we need to buy the train tickets online – which is impossible without an Indian credit card – but the seats fill up extremely fast.

We found only one company in the UK who provides these tickets: India Rail. They were only contactable via email. You can call, but they simply refer you to their website contact page.

For several weeks, I emailed back and forth with them trying to confirm available dates and times and prices. Also, for those interested in travelling on the cheap, you cannot book anything below 2nd class through (at least not at the time of booking – please let us know if any of the above has changed since 2017). In second class sleeper, our tickets cost £58 ($75) per person each way plus a £6.50 ($8.30) handling fee.

Once we finally agreed on dates, we had to send them a cheque in the post to secure our seats. We could not put a hold on these via phone or email, so there was the chance that by the time they received our cheque, the seats would be ​unavailable. Luckily, this was not the case and several weeks later, we finally received the train tickets in the post. They looked like they had been shipped from India in the 1950s (unfortunately, I do not have a photo). And, as we found out later, they had very little useful information on them.

By Train from Kolkata to Hasimara

By the time we arrived in Kolkata, we had been travelling for nearly 24 hours straight. We had nearly eight hours in Kolkata before our train. It took about five seconds to decide to spend it sleeping in an air conditioned hotel near the train station. Money well spent.

When we arrived at the train station, things were seemingly going smoothly. We were dripping with sweat, ​but ​w​​​e were on time and we found our platform easily. Then we realised our tickets didn’t say what train car we should be on, or our seat numbers. We asked at the information counter, and were told we would probably be near the end of the platform. We began to walk in that direction, sure it would be simple enough. I don’t know why, all my time living in India as a kid should have indicated otherwise.

Bird's eye view of the Paro Airport
Paro Airport: The most dangerous commercial airport in the world – and the way most people come in

The train arrived. It was not obvious where we should be. We could tell that certain train cars were third class, so we walked past those towards the upper class cabins. Partway down the platform, we realised that some of the train cars had lists of names on the outside. Jeremy began frantically reading them as they were slightly too high for me to see. As luck would have it, the second train car we checked (the third we arrived at) had our names – and our bed numbers! – listed. We climbed on only a few minutes before the train took off and hastily made our way to our beds.

Looking back, the odds that we found the correct train car were astronomical. For starters, most of the cars didn’t even have lists on them as they’d come off in transit. Plus we didn’t even notice the lists until we had nearly passed the car we were in. Although considering Kolkata is the first stop, I’m not sure why these signs were even put up prior to that.

On the train, everything went smoothly. Although if possible – don’t get the bed above the window on the side as it is CRAMPED. Even for me, at only 4’9”, I could barely move – Jeremy sleeping there was simply out of the question. Nor did I have a window, so I felt claustrophobic. Otherwise, the atmosphere was friendly and comforting.

Shortly after leaving Kolkata station, families began to unpack their dinner and vendors peddled their wares and food at each stop. The smell of Thalis and chai filled the air with a wonderful infusion of cardamom, cumin and garlic. I bought some poppadums and chai. Jeremy ​declined, weary of buying street food in India. “Suit yourself,” I said, devouring my food. Food is one of the things I love most about India.

View of Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu
View of Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu

We made friends with our neighbours, and asked around if anyone else was getting off at Hasimara. We lucked out and met a businessman who was travelling to Phuentsholing and offered to split the taxi with us. From Hasimara, we drove straight over the border – the easiest border crossing I had ever experienced, or so I thought. It was instantly calmer in Phuentsholing than in Jaigon. ​Jaigon was bustling and frenetic, full of shops stuffed to the brim with goods and passersby rushing from Point A to B. By contrast, Phuentsholing was nearly empty, its few inhabitants – whether Bhutanese or Indian – walked with a cool composure. We felt relaxed. Our new friend dropped us off outside the Bhutanese visa office, an ornately painted building next to a fuel station, and insisted on paying for the whole taxi, although we tried in vain to give him at least half the fare.

To Bhutan to India and… Back to Bhutan

And here’s where it started to go pear shaped. We arrived at the visa office, handed over our visa paper and were told we could not get our Bhutanese stamps until we were stamped out of India. Plus, it was lunch time, so we would have to wait an hour anyway.

“Where is the Indian immigration office?” We asked.

The Bhutanese officials looked at each other for confirmation, then turned back to us and replied, “We are not sure. You can ask outside. You will also be needing extra copies of the visa document.”

​O​f course we would…

We headed outside, a bit confused. A gaggle of taxi drivers rushed over to us, asking if we needed a taxi.

“Indian embassy?” We asked, hopefully.

The Bhutanese drivers looked confused and called over a passing Indian. His name was Ram, and he offered to take us to the immigration office.

He held out his arm for our bags; exhausted, I handed mine over. Jeremy clung to his. This whole scene is pretty ironic, because in general, I am the less trusting of the two.

Our new friend flagged down a tuk-tuk and we were on our way back into hectic India. We quickly found out that Ram had no idea where we were going. Ah, Indian hospitality! Soon enough, the tuk-tuk driver dropped us off (5 rupees well spent), and Ram pointed us towards a… house.

​Map between immigration offices

Now don’t get me wrong, I lived in both Abu Dhabi and Doha and a lot of official organisations exist out of large homes in both cities. But for some reason, this one really threw me (I blame it on the Bhutanese building being so nice!) Thank god for Ram, because we would never have found the building otherwise. It is located off the main road and there are no signs until you are right outside. I don’t even remember the building itself saying what it was. It was salmon coloured with an imposing metal gate that did not seem inviting. Maybe we ​won’t be leaving India, I thought.

Ram led us past a gate into the grounds, still carrying my bag. The courtyard was completely ​deserted.

Uh-oh, I thought, worried we’d missed our window and would need to find accommodation in Phuentsholing for the night.

Ram began to look around and located a sleeping guard. Within moments, the guard was on the phone. We were told to wait inside the building foyer. About 15 minutes later, another man appeared and ushered us inside the locked immigration office to our right, turning on the fan. We filled out an immigration form, and were asked to provide proof of our hotel in India, and our Bhutanese visas.

Buddhist Prayer Flags
Buddhist prayer flags can be found hanging all over the country

The immigration officer took our forms behind a counter and stamped them. He then walked to the other side of the room behind another desk and stamped our passports. He handed us back our passports and waved jovially goodbye.

Ram was still waiting with our bags. After advising we were good to go, but needed a photocopy of our Bhutanese visa, he nodded and began walking. We followed Ram back through a market, sweat dripping down our faces as we raced to keep up with him. He deposited us off at the Bhutanese immigration office and took off again with our visa and 20 rupees.

Are We Still Here?

In the meantime, we began to count out the money for our visa. We had exactly $80 (the visas were $40 each). My mother, and her boss had assured us we could use dollars. Turns out this is only true at the airport.

“We don’t accept.” The immigration officer told us, motioning towards the dollars. “Only Ngultrum.”

“Indian rupees?” I asked, even though I knew we didn’t have enough.

He shook his head.

“There is a bank next to fuel station.”

Colourful Bhutanese Money
Beautiful Bhutanese Bills (1 Ngultrum = 1 Rupee)

Jeremy went to the bank while I stayed with the bags and waited for Ram. Various Bhutanese immigration officers walked in and out of the room, even offering me water, tea and biscuits. All of them were dressed smartly in brightly coloured Ghos, the traditional male Bhutanese dress. 

Ram showed up about 10 minutes later. I began to fish around for a tip, but he disappeared before I had time to properly thank him. Shortly after, Jeremy appeared.

“I need my passport, and our visas.” He said, looking defeated. I handed them to him and he was off again.

Ten minutes later, Jeremy was back, out of breath. “They said they can’t exchange money, but they can withdraw money from a bank account. But we can’t use my account because they don’t work with my bank. They will withdraw from yours.”

“You can leave bags here.” One of the immigration officers smiled at us.

We took off again for the bank. With me there, we finally got the money and headed back to the Bhutanese immigration office. The immigration officers mercifully took pity on us and almost instantly stamped us in.

Officially in Bhutan!

When we arrived at Phuentsholing it was 13:00. When we finally received our stamps it was 16:00.

We walked outside to find a taxi to take us the 5 hours to Thimphu. Compared to the 10 or so drivers earlier, there was now only 1. As it was just the two of us, we had to pay for all four seats in the taxi. There was also additional costs for it being a 4×4 and to go to the Royal College of Thimphu. We agreed on $35. At this point, we honestly didn’t care. Plus, based on what our friends at immigration had told us, the cost seemed fair. Our driver, Ugyen, drove back into Jaigon to get some provisions. We were incredibly thankful for this as we had not eaten since snacks and chai on the train that morning.

Overlooking Thimphu
Overlooking Thimphu

Then we were off, driving straight up into the mountains for two hours straight. Ugyen drove quickly and expertly around the bends with the windows down. After the oppressive heat of Kolkata and Jaigon, the cool wind and fresh air felt fantastic!

Six hours later we finally arrived at my mother’s house in Thimphu. But don’t worry, our troubles didn’t end at the border. Along the way, we stopped for tea and dinner and I dropped my camera in a bucket of water, forcing us to use Jeremy’s phone for pictures for the remainder of our trip (and multiple trips thereafter)!

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