To continue my ‘only-fly-as-a-last-resort’ policy, I decided to cross the border from India to Nepal overland. As I was coming from the Northeast region in India and had finished off my time there with five days in Darjeeling, I decided to cross at the eastern border post at Panitanki-Kakarbhitta.
To read my article on the forgotten Tibetan refugee population of Darjeeling click here.
In Darjeeling, I caught a shared sumo/jeep from outside Rama Hotel, just down from Chowrasta Mall, to Siliguri. Siliguri is the bustling, chaotic and sprawled city that is a major transport hub, with the NJP train station and buses and jeeps heading in all directions. I got out of the jeep at NJP station where there are local buses at the front leaving for various destinations.
It took me a bit but I found a bus which had PANITANKI written on the front. There was no one else on it and I figured it would be one of those, ‘wait-til-full’ types. After only one hour sitting on it and only a couple of other people getting on, surprisingly, it started to move.
The bus conductor yelled, “NEPAL, NEPAL,” whilst hanging out the door, which sounded rather exciting. The ride was over an hour and I knew I would be starting to get close to the border closing time of 6pm (although I heard this changes frequently). By the time the bus arrived in Panitanki, locals had got on and off along the way and only I was left to get off at the border town. It was more just a cluster of shops, money changers and a couple of hotels, not much of an actual town.
I walked the 10 minutes to the immigration post which was off the road to the left before the bridge. The Indian official was watching TV with his feet up and was rather annoyed that I had disturbed him. He made me wait 10 minutes until he even got up to go over to his desk. He didn’t bother to ask me any questions and just did whatever he needed to do, which took five minutes.
Just before the bridge, to the right there was a sort of check point where a friendly Indian officer just checked my exit stamp and filled out a register. He told me Australia was playing India in cricket that night and I pretended to be just as excited as he was about it.
I then hurried across the long bridge between no mans land, which took me about 15 minutes to walk. There were locals coming and going in both directions and I saw no other foreigners. Once across, the Nepali Immigration was in a large building hidden behind some trees to the right before the large ‘Welcome’ gate.
I walked in and at first thought that there was no one there. A man appeared and gave me a form to fill out for the visa. He offered 15, 30 or 90 day visas and of course the most cost effective was 90 days and so I opted for that. I needed USD$100 but didn’t have that much in USD so scraped together whatever I had and then the rest I gave him in Indian rupees, of which I ended up with just 500 rupees (AUD$10) remaining! He was a nice man and he too said that Australia was playing cricket and then proceeded to turn on the large screen mounted on the wall where Fox Sports came on. He joked, “You should stay to watch!”. Again, I pretended to be super excited about it and then politely moved on as it was getting dark.
I walked out and the town of Kakarbhitta was just off the road to the right. It was larger and seemed to have more services and options than Panitanki so I was glad I’d decided to stay on the Nepali side of the border. A man approached me and said he could show me a hotel, and although I usually avoid such touts, I had no recommendations for hotels and so went with him. There was one street lined with hotels, that I’m sure were all relatively the same. I decided to stay at the hotel the man showed me and for AUD$15 it was good enough.
The tout who had taken me there could of course arrange a bus ticket for me on to Kathmandu for the following day. I didn’t know if I really wanted to go straight to Kathmandu yet, but he said it would be the best idea, as eastern Nepal didn’t really offer anything overly interesting to visit. For 1600 rupees or AUD$20 I got a seat in a minivan to Kathmandu leaving at 6am the next morning. So off I went to the mad house of Kathmandu.
Where I stayed
The only place worth mentioning was the place I stayed in Darjeeling which is called Golden Orchid Lodge. It’s one of the best value places I stayed in India and the manager is super nice and even remembered me from a previous visit a year before. It’s only 200m from Chowrasta Mall, has a good onsite restaurant (excellent thali), Wi-Fi, comfortable beds and even electric blankets (it gets very cold there in winter) for 600 rupees or AUD$12 for a budget double room per night.
In Kakarbhitta, there are many hotels of which I’m sure quality and facilities are much the same. The place I stayed was called Seemana Hotel, which had large rooms and a restaurant on the bottom floor. The owner was not necessarily very friendly and didn’t speak English but it was just for the night.
Where I ate
Again the only place worth mentioning is from Darjeeling. By far the best place in the small town is Kunga Restaurant, an unassuming small Tibetan restaurant with just 5 tables. It’s always packed and their opening times change frequently but their traditional Tibetan food is known to be some of the best in India.
How I got in
The jeep from NJP to Darjeeling takes four hours and costs 250 rupees or AUD$5.
The bus from NJP to Panitanki took one and a half hours and cost 40 rupees, less than a dollar.
How I got out
The minivan from Kakarbhitta to Kathmandu took an epic 14 hours (although the road was pretty good) and cost 1600 rupees or AUD$20.