We could see a flickering monitor of a TV playing on a very low volume. In only the dim light that was coming from a small incandescent bulb as well as from the TV, we could see a few tables and a few people sitting around one of those tables inside.
The nervousness from the face of the lady disappeared only when our Bhutanese friend told her something in a language alien to us.
We had no idea that we were about to commit our first crime in Bhutan!!
It was around 9 at night, we reached the famous Bhutan gate. We took the first few customary pictures of the iconic gate to commemorate our entry into another country.
To my surprise, I came to know that this prominent landmark is not the entrance gate, in fact on the contrary, it is the exit gate from Bhutan.
As it was already slightly late as per Bhutanese standards, most of the activities around that area had already came to a halt, so was the case with the city of Jaigaon.
Jaigaon is the Indian city that shares the border with Bhutan. It was just like any other city in India, though at night I couldn't figure out how busy it really was. Maybe due to the influence of its neighbour, most of the area on the Indian side looked rather empty for an Indian town.
Through the entrance gate for the vehicles we got inside Bhutan, just like going to another state in India through a state check post.
But as soon as you enter into Bhutan, you will feel the difference. Just an entry gate changes everything. The laws became stricter, people became law abiding, the road rules became proper and the side effects of it could be seen upon us, the Indian tourists!
Personally, I became anxious before doing anything and self-conscious at each turn on the road. Some of the roads were one way, some of them didn't have free right turn and at some points, you can't just make a U turn from wherever you want, like we do in India. Since laws are strict and police aren't corrupt, one can't really get away with breaking the laws. I think that is pretty scary thought for an Indian!
Somehow, without breaking any laws we reached our hotel. After finishing the check in process, the time was already 9.30 and the hotel's restaurant had already stopped taking any new food orders.
After a quick shower, hungry and tired we went out to find some restaurants that were open. There was a rule in Phuentsholing, possibly everywhere in Bhutan, to close the restaurants or any other shops by 10pm or 11pm at the most. By the time some of us got to the restaurant, it was almost half past ten and the police on patrol came to the restaurant and asked to put the shutter down.
The law-abiding restaurant owner bore with us for the extra half an hour and now he didn't have any other option. So, we were politely kicked out of the restaurant. By this time we had made friends with another local Bhutanese person. With all the shops closed and still hungry we didn't know where to go.
Then the saviour appeared in the form of our new local Bhutanese friend. He took us through the dark corridor of narrow streets to a place, but it was also closed. Then we took another corridor to enter into a building that looked like a shopping complex which was almost shut and dark.
He guided us through a flight of stairs and to a door where he started knocking. The feeble sounds that were coming from inside stopped all of a sudden. A lady's voice could be heard from inside. From the tone of it, we understood she was asking who was knocking. Our Bhutanese friend replied and a few minutes later the door was opened.
In the dim light that was coming from the small bulb and the TV, we could see a few tables and a few people sitting around one of those round plastic tables. The nervousness from the face of the lady disappeared only when our Bhutanese friend told her something in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. He was probably telling her that we were hungry tourists looking for some food!
She closed the door and latched it immediately as we got inside the room. It was actually a small family run restaurant which was operating illegally after 11 pm! That day we understood the relativeness of the term legal! Eating outside after 11 at night can also be a crime in some places!!
Whenever we were talking loudly we were asked to reduce our volume levels. Later we were also started to become cautious of the police who were on patrol. We also went silent whenever we heard any unusual noises from outside.
It was the first time I was eating out with so much anxiety! Without any other notable incidents, we finished our food and went back to the hotel to have a good night sleep with a satisfaction of breaking the law on our first day itself, even in Bhutan too!
If you want to get the feeling of a place, you have to wake up early in the morning and go for a walk through the heart of the new town, village or wherever you are. So early in the morning I set out to find the pulse of Phuentsholing.
I walked towards the Bhutan gate to get a better view of the gate we photographed last night. With the morning light I could see the reality of Bhutan in a better way.
The roads were wide and neat without any visible garbage anywhere. And more importantly cars were parked exactly within the lines painted for the parking spots. I couldn't find any vehicle that was parked just randomly!
When I continued walking through the sidewalk, there were Indian looking women and school going kids walking in the street. Again, to my surprise, they walked till the zebra crossing and slowly crossed the road, even though the streets had almost no vehicles running at that time. Crossing the road completely in right-angles was a matter of surprise to me, taking into consideration how close this place is to India!
I know these are not things that one needs to get surprised at. But listen to the rest of the story to get the full picture.
I saw quite an inflow of people through a gate which was casually guarded by a Royal Bhutanese police woman cladded in a black uniform. I was wondering from where these people were coming and what these people were doing so early in the morning. So, I walked towards the gate and figured out that they were the people who stay in Jaigaon, the Indian side, and come into Bhutan for work; it was their daily commute to work! How cool is that? Going to another country for work every day!
Like many other things in Bhutan, that was also a one way. My instincts told me to cross through the gate rather than walking another hundred meters or so to get to the exit gate. Since I was in Bhutan, I didn't dare to do that. So, I walked towards the exit and inquired to the policeman who was keeping guard if I could go out to the Indian side and come back in without any ID card since I wasn't carrying one during my morning walk. The policeman just asked if I was from India and upon hearing my ‘yes’, he said it was okay for Indians.
Thus, I went to the other side, which was separated by a half a man high sidewall with twice a man high iron rods installed in series. Through the iron bars one can see the other country clearly. It is such a friendly border indeed, I thought.
Through the exit door I went outside and stepped into India. The moment I stepped in, I knew already that I was in India. The spotless roads of Bhutan were replaced with roads which are flat but imperfect at each hundred meters or less. And there were tiny bits of garbage all the way and big chunks of them at almost all the corners.
Early morning itself people were sitting on the sidewalks and selling things. And above all the place was reeking with cow dung and other complexly mixed bad odours. If it was a pleasant one, I would have done some research to figure out the individual fragrances! I felt that even a blind person could tell in which country they were standing!
Further away, just in front of the Bhutan gate on the Indian side, all the auto-rickshaws were already parked in the most random way possible in comparison with what I had just saw less than a hundred meter away on the other side! Many of the street side food vendors started calling me to eat from their joint and the whole scene had only one name! Chaos!
It is very interesting to see such a drastic change of cultures just on the two sides of a long fencing.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't yet another post where some Indian bitches about India after visiting another country. India is definitely a very interesting country to explore. Many of the cultural intricacies are worth a good study as well. Out of which the carefreeness and utmost hope of things-will-get-figured-out-somehow are the noteworthy ones.
It could be one of the by-products of such attitudes that even after seeing a great example right next to the international fence, we Indians don't want to learn a lesson or two. At the same time Bhutan has taken good points from countries around the world and implemented it without harming their traditions and cultural values.
As an example, Western-style education was introduced to Bhutan as early as 1907, but they also made sure that everyone follows the traditional way of dressing at schools. Though there could be two sides about it, there are so many things that everyone can learn from Bhutan, especially for the Indians.
Out of these things what I, as an Indian can learn, would be a lesson on being reflective upon our reluctance to learn a better way of doing things even when an example is presented right in front of us.
As a nation we should take some extra efforts to create a better life for the self and for others rather than taking the path of least resistance. For starters, disposing a small plastic wrapper in a bin which is kept ten meters away from where you stand rather than throwing it wherever you are standing.
As a nation, we Indians should cultivate a sense of belonging towards the nation, towards the public places and towards all the public properties. I'm not talking about the patriotic feeling one gets when India plays a cricket match. I'm talking about treating the country as your own home.
If you still didn't understand, try answering these. Would you throw garbage inside your own home? Would you spit inside your own home? If not, why anywhere outside?
Swachh Bharat starts with a shift in thinking, with a change in attitude. It doesn't come from sweeping a bunch of pre-planted green leaves or erecting hoardings in every nook and corner!
For an Indian to get some good lessons on how to treat one’s own country, Bhutan gives the best opportunity. Phuentsholing being the land border, one can actually feel the difference between two countries and learn a lesson or two from it.
Also, Indians don't need any permits or immigration clearance to enter into Phuentsholing area of Bhutan. An Indian can just walk in and stay there. So that makes it a perfect place for Indians to visit and to have some shift in thoughts on how to become a better citizen. Also, Phuentsholing is the place from where you can obtain immigration clearance and other permits to visit the rest of Bhutan.
In case you want to know more about the permits in Bhutan, check this detailed guide written by Offbeat explorers.
So what do you think about visiting Phuentsholing in Bhutan?
NB : Please please vote for me to Win this trip of a lifetime. Voting Link is here.