Bhutan makes it difficult for foreigners to enter their country — except for Indian nationals, a visa is required and usually bound to the obligation of spending a minimum of 200 US-dollars a day. That’s far above what I would usually spend in a day, and while traveling the North of India, Bhutan was not really in my scope.
This until I had heard about the city of Phuentsholing, directly bordering with Jaigaon in India. Due to all the personal and business relations across the border, Bhutan has a special regulation, allowing Indians to enter Bhutan and move within the limits of the city and a few kilometres without formal immigration to the kingdom. This sounded like an opportunity to get an impression of the country for free, given this regulation would (hopefully) also apply to other nationalities.
Coming from India’s beautiful Sikkim, I came to see the imposant Bhutan Gate in dusk. It seemed that some vehicles were just rolling through without a formal check, so I just tried my luck. My motorcycle might not be the most unassuming one, and I got stopped at the gate. “Sir, if you want to enter, you need a visa! Also, you need to stamp out of India first.” was what one of the officials said. Of course, applying for a visa was not an option, time- and cost-wise. It was turning dark already and I checked into a place in Jaigaon in India.
Once again, the whole process of walking up the reception in motorcycle attire and parking the bike in the backyard seemed to work their magic and I felt like I was the special guest of the hotel. The manager wanted to have a chat, curious about my itinerary. I then could confirm with him about Bhutan’s entry regulations and how they are handled, which is less regulated for Indians and the usual visa-requirement for everyone else.
I thought about giving it another try, anyway. I had been so close! As the morning came, I approached the gate, and… didn’t get stopped. I was in Bhutan! For sure, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble — the intention was just rolling around the city, get an impression, and leave back into India, no offence. A bit nervous about someone realising my foreign license plate, at first I kept going on the main road, which immediately climbed uphill through a forest — Bhutan’s border is defined by the start of the Himalaya slopes, i. e. leaving the sea level quickly. I passed by the entrance of Rinchending University and some other buildings — the architectural style was quite different and looked far-Eastern. Along with the traditional clothes some of the people were wearing, it reminded me of what I had seen in pictures of Japan.
Of course, I wanted to take a picture with the Bhutan Gate, so I stopped by the side of the road — a move totally acceptable in India, where I even would have had some company within less than a minute. Alas, not so in Bhutan: I promptly heard a whistle and an official came towards me. Maybe I was playing with fire here — he could have easily asked for my passport, seeing my foreign plate. But then again — what was the worst thing could happen? I had entered through a legal entry point metres away, so probably they just would ask me to leave. Luckily, the only concern here was that im not supposed to stop by the road but rather supposed to use the designated parking area for motorcycles. Fair enough; I parked and went for a stroll around the market, talking to some of the shop owners. One of them gave me a small Bhutan note which he said I should keep as a souvenir. Inside every shop and on every bill, there is a picture of the King (whose name is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk). I didn’t fail to get a Bhutan sticker for my bike, and it was time to finish this semi-legal interlude and leave back into bustling India, headed deeper into its North-East and towards Myanmar.