Authentic Traveling

Stories from off the beaten path

Category: Indian Subcontinent (Page 1 of 2)

From Dhaka to Calcutta via Benapole

There are two ways to get from Dhaka to Calcutta – by train or bus. The train, called the Maitree Express, runs three times a week towards Calcutta while buses tend to leave early in the morning or in the evening.

By Train

The Maitree Express train leaves from Dhaka Cantonment Station yet tickets must be purchased at the ticket window at Kamalapur Station. The window is only open from 9 am – 7 pm. Tickets go on sale five days before the trip, but unless they’re bought early, Maitree Express tickets tend to sell out fast. When I went to the station around Thursday at noon, I could no longer purchase any ticket of any class for the train the following day. Hence I took the bus.

By Bus

There are many bus companies going from Dhaka to Calcutta with varying quality; however, the price for the buses appears to be the same so it pays to go with one you know is high quality because the price will likely be the same. The bus I took was called Shohagh Elite, but it was not the nicest for the price so I won’t recommend it here. Near Kamalapur Station there are multiple bus companies offering this service. Greenline was a really nice company, but they only do night buses to Calcutta.

My Trip

I got up very early Friday morning to reach the bus pickup office by 6:30 am for the 6:50 am departure. Once on the bus things were very straightforward. I just sat back and relaxed until we arrived at the Benapole border crossing.

Before getting off the bus, my bus company gave everyone transiting through immigration special stickers so their staff could easily identify us and shepherd us through the immigration process. Exiting Bangladesh took only a couple minutes. The authorities gave me some trouble about my Indian “e-visa” which entitles me to two entries into India. I explained to them that the visa clearly shows I have two entries and I have used one of them thus far. Still they took me over to the India side to reconfirm. Again I had to explain this to the confused Indian authorities who finally said I was okay.

Once I got over to the India side, there was a massive line. The first choke point was a security check point. Fortunately as a foreigner, all the security guards encouraged me to cut the line until I got to the security check point where they just waived me through. The second line for the passport check, however, was not going to let me cut so I had to wait nearly an hour in a huge line snaking back and forth within a nearby warehouse before finally reaching the immigration hall.

Benapole Border Line

When I reached the Indian immigration officials, I had to again explain to three different people that my visa clearly says I am allowed another entry before being stamped in. As I left the immigration area, a man saw my sticker and directed me towards the bus company offices on the Indian side. There I waited another hour (for those that could not cut the line) until we boarded a different bus bound for Calcutta. I had to pay an additional 250 rupees that they told me about in Dhaka. This is so if you don’t make it all the way through immigration, you aren’t forced to pay for the whole trip.

The bus to Calcutta took a little under three hours, and the driver dropped me off a short 10 minute walk from the airport so I could catch my flight that evening to Bangkok.

In total the trip took about 16 hours – three of which were spent waiting for everyone to get through immigration.

Dhaka, Bangladesh Tour

If you come to Bangladesh, you must see Dhaka. While many may say it is a very busy city that should be avoided, there is nothing quite like seeing the madness of the capital city.

I paid a visit to Dhaka in May, 2017, but due to limited time constraints I only had one day to see the sights. To make up time and to make sure I could see as much as possible in this short period of time, I hired a tour guide making the process much easier.

I originally met my guide Jahid in Srimongal where he usually works; however, he also does touring of Dhaka. He gave me a great tour of Srimangal and Dhaka, and I strongly recommend him, but I also know there are several other guide companies in Dhaka so it just depends on what you’re looking for. Many Dhaka tours can be found online, but I think the best tours are the ones where a guide takes you to the sights via rickshaw and other public transport. Dhaka is best seen from a rickshaw, not a private vehicle. You can get in touch with Jahid by visiting his website here. Or learn more about my Srimongal tour here.

Dhaka Tour

Jahid and I left Srimongal on the the first bus available to reach Dhaka at 11:00 am. First we went to my hotel, dropped off our stuff, and went to the train station so I could purchase my onward ticket from Dhaka back to India. Tickets for the Maitree Express were all sold out, but Jahid helped me find a bus company with direct service to Calcutta.

After securing my bus ticket, we went to the main offices of Sonali Bank in downtown Dhaka so I could pay my departure tax. The story of visiting this bank is actually quite funny – when we first got there, we were directed to the departure tax window where there were several Indian men fighting each other to pay the tax with the teller screaming right back at them. Apparently she was about to leave for her lunch break, and she was telling everyone in the line that they would need to wait another hour for her to get back.  We tried to give the clerk my passport, and she threw it right back at us. The fact that only one person was working the departure window was ridiculous.

But Jahid knows Bangladesh well. In Bangladesh if you’re a foreigner, you’re usually allowed to cut lines and are just treated much better because you’re considered a guest in their country. They want to make sure you’re well taken care of. When Jahid realized we would need to wait an hour, he asked some bank employees if we could speak to the manager about my situation. Next thing I know, I am sitting in the office of the deputy general manager of all of Sonali Bank in Bangladesh. After explaining our situation, his staff personally took my passport, filled out my forms, and made sure I got a departure tax receipt. Only in Bangladesh can you get away with stuff like this.

Now with everything sorted it was time to begin the tour. First stop we went to Lalbagh Fort, a beautiful Mughal era palace in downtown Dhaka. As we walked around the fort, I ended up being the prime attraction for most Bangladeshi’s and snapped photos with countless people.

Lalbagh Fort

Next we went for a late lunch/early dinner at probably the most famous biriani places in Bangladesh – Hazir Biriani. It was SO GOOD. After eating, we spent sometime just walking around or riding rickshaws through Old Dhaka visiting mosques and taking pictures of all the colorful fruit vendors.

Dhaka Mosque Dhaka fruit vendor

Towards sunset, we made our way to the main highlight of the tour – a boat ride on the Buriganga river. We went to a dock where hundreds of ferries are moored waiting to leave for destinations all throughout Bangladesh. It was unbelievably crowded, but Jahid led us to an area where we could hire a small wooden boat to take us out on the river. Normally these boats are used for locals to cross from one side to the other, but we instead took it out for our own sunset cruise.

Dhaka River

After the boat ride, Jahid introduced me to one of his uncle’s friends who also happened to be a local politician in Old Dhaka. Earlier in the day, we tried to visit the Pink Palace, but it was closed. Jahid’s contact though was able to use his political connections to speak with the guards and let us tour the complex.

Last stop of the night was to try some betel leaf before making it back to the hotel. The betel leaf wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly good. This man wrapped several sweets into the leaf with betel nuts to give it a nice flavor, but it ended up tasting too sweet almost like a nasty mixture of candy. I guess I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t go for it again.

Betel Leaf

Final Thoughts

The crowded streets of Old Dhaka are incomparable to anywhere I’ve been. I thought I saw madness in India, but it was 10 times crazier in Dhaka. If you do just one thing in Dhaka, try to take a boat out for a sunset cruise and visit the colorful fruit markets along the river. These are best viewed at sunrise when vendors begin selling their fruits or sunset when the crowds are less, but the light is equally as good.

 

Visiting Srimangal, Bangladesh

Srimangal

Srimangal is a town in North Eastern Bangladesh known for its serene natural beauty, friendly people, and rows of endless tea gardens as far as they eye can see. I spent two nights here in May, 2017, and it was one of the main highlights of my trip throughout the entire Indian subcontinent.

How to get there

Srimangal can easily be accessed by bus or train from Dhaka. Train tickets are sold from Kamalapur Train Station in Central Dhaka. There is a large sign board near the station entrance noting the train schedule in English. There are several trains to Srimangal everyday; however, some have one “off” day per week meaning the only option would be a later train or the bus.

I arrived in Dhaka on one of those off days so I took the bus to Srimangal. The main bus station for Srimangal is Sayedabad Bus Terminal located a 15 minute walk from Kamalapur station or perhaps a 40 taka rickshaw ride. At the main bus station, I was directed to Shayamoli transport company which has hourly non-a/c buses to Srimangal. There might also be A/C options, but these are less frequent.

The bus drops passengers off in central Srimangal making is easy to find a hotel. The total trip time is about four hours.

Where to stay

Before coming to Bangladesh I mapped out various hotels so I would always have options at each new city I visited. I did this because tourist infrastructure and English ability are severely lacking in Bangladesh. This helped make my trip much smoother and hassle-free.

I stayed at Green View Rest House just a block away from the bus stand. I opted for a non-a/c room which was not a problem since the overhead fan was so powerful. My room had a cold shower (which I preferred in this heat) and a western toilet. The entire hotel was spotless. I paid 1,000 taka a night for the room. The only downside was no wifi, but most budget hotels in Bangladesh don’t seem to have wifi.

Tour Guide

I personally think the best way to see Srimangal is with a tour guide. Normally I am someone that likes to go at it alone, but I decided to spring for a guide this time, and I went to many places I would have never gone on my own.

In Srimangal, there are very few foreigners so the guides tend to find you if you walk around town enough. On my first day I met Jahid of Sreemangal Tours. Jahid is an entrepreneurial university student originally from Srimangal who speaks impeccable English and loves sharing his culture with foreigners. I had a great experience with Jahid, and I would strongly recommend him for tours.

To set up the tour, Jahid will meet with you and discuss many different options for the day depending on your interests. I opted for a “highlights” tour to see the best of Srimangal in one day. His guiding fee was $30 per day, and for transportation we rented a CNG (auto-rickshaw) for another 1,500 taka.

Tour of Srimangal

Jahid came to my hotel at 8:30 am to pick me up and bring me back to his family’s home for breakfast. We probably had the best meal of my entire time in Bangladesh. I was also able to meet his parents and older brother. His brother teaches English at a Canadian international school in Dhaka. Because of his high level of English, I picked his brain about the current politics of Bangladesh to learn much more about the country.

After breakfast, we met our CNG driver and began our tour. First we went to Lawachara National Park to walk through the native Bangladeshi jungle and check out the three different species of monkeys living in the park. We also stopped in a small village on the national park property where hill tribe people prepare betel leaf for export.

Next we visited a beautiful lake on the outskirts of Srimangal – an excellent place for photos. We wandered around the banks of the lake stopping for tea and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. Jahid also took me for a quick stop at one of his favorite local Bangladeshi snack shops where we ate singara – a spiced potato and vegetable mixture wrapped in a thin dough and fried. It was delicious.

Sreemangol Touris

After snacks, we took our CNG out to a quiet road deep in the tea fields where Jahid taught me how to drive it. I actually quickly picked it up and drove for about a kilometer, but I had some trouble when the road was rocky. I needed to downshift and slow down, but the shifting on a CNG is a little confusing compared to a motorbike. Rather than attempt the rocky areas, I let our driver take back control so I could enjoy the rest of the ride.

Riding a CNG

Driving a CNG

We continued along through the tea fields stopping in many places for photographs until we finally reached what I thought was the highlight of the trip – a real pineapple plantation.

When we arrived men working on the farm were loading freshly picked pineapples up into some wheel barrows. One of them had a machete and grabbed a couple pineapples to peel off the skin. I’ve eaten some good pineapple in my life, but nothing compares to what I had on this farm. Wow. The pineapples were still warm from the sun and couldn’t have been juicier.

Eating a pineapple in Srimangal

Srimangal Pineapple Farm Srimangal Pineapple Farm

After taking sometime to photograph the plantation, we checked out another small village of pineapple farmers before getting back in the CNG to return to Srimangal. The final stop on the tour was supposed to be a tea plantation factory, but the workers said we would have to wait 45 minutes for a tour. It was getting close to dinner time so I chose to skip it, but it definitly would have been cool to see.

Final Thoughts

I am more of a do-it-yourself person, but for the most part I’ve always been happy when hiring out a guide. Jahid was a great tour guide for Srimangal, and I would recommend his company if you are in town. As for choosing guides in general, I think the best thing is to chat with them beforehand and determine their knowledge and English language ability. If they don’t seem worth it, skip the guide, but if they pitch the tour well, sometimes its worth it to spring for a guide.

I only had five days in Bangladesh so my time was limited. I think without Jahid I would have needed at least two days to visit all we did in Srimangal, but there is no way I would have found that pineapple plantation on my own. Bangladesh is a beautiful country, and there is nothing like seeing it through the eyes of a passionate local.

If you end up visiting Bangladesh and use this guide, let me know in the comments below!

 

Insane 50 Hour Journey Through India to Bangladesh

Berhampore

When I visited India and Bangladesh for the first time, I only gave myself three weeks for the entire trip. This amount of time is woefully insignificant to see India so to make up time, I traveled like a mad man. Even though my journey was crazy, everything seemed to fall into place as I barely made my bus and train connections. I think traveling is about the journey more than the destination, and my trip from Darjeeling to Dhaka was quite an adventure

Day One: Darjeeling

It was Sunday morning in Darjeeling. I woke up early around 7:00 am to get some breakfast and access the internet briefly before beginning what I thought would just be a 20 hour trip to Dhaka. My plan was to travel to Siliguri, a few hours from Darjeeling, and take a bus to the Bangladesh border. I would cross the border, and finally take an overnight bus to the capital, Dhaka. It did not work out this way.

Around 10:30 am, I reached the shared taxi stand in Darjeeling to get a ride down to Siliguri, the main city of this region. The trip was long – three hours to be exact – and the driver packed us into his jeep like sardines. In the center seats, we were four deep, and I had to sit in the middle. The trip down from Darjeeling was long, windy, and full of traffic. The road is only wide enough in many places for just one car so there were often police along the road stopping traffic as one group passed another.

The entire trip felt like we were going to get into an accident at any turn, and sure enough we did! A motorcyclist came around a sharp turn in our lane and we hit them head on. Fortunately both vehicles were going slow enough that the girl on her motorcycle did not fall off, but both our front bumpers took quite a beating. After 10 minutes of our driver yelling at this girl, he picked up his bumper, tied it down to the roof with the other luggage and carried on.

Finally we reached New Jalpaiguri train station in Siliguri where the last of us exited the jeep. A few of us needed to get to the bus station in town, so a nice Indian girl from my jeep helped me get a shared rickshaw to the bus station.

When I get to the station, finding the right bus turned out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated. I saw an “inquiry” desk at the bus station and asked where I could get a bus to “Changribandha” – the border post for Bangladesh. The inquiry desk told me there was no bus – which turned out to be false – and sent me on a wild goose chase for twenty minutes until I finally did find the counter no more than 20 meters from the inquiry desk. I honestly don’t know how these guys keep their jobs but whatever.

I got the ticket for Changribandha and had a thirty minute wait for the bus. I sat down in the cleanest looking seats of the station – which isn’t saying much – and watched a cow pee on top of a pile of trash on the platform among other things. This was pretty normal for India. A young boy came up to me and offered to “pierce my ear” with a needle he had. I firmly told him “no thanks”, but then he started quoting prices that got progressively lower. I continued to say “no” more and more forcefully, but he kept persisting. Why the hell would I pay to get my ear pierced by this kid? Does he usually find clients in the bus station that are like well yeah I guess now is a good time to get my ear pierced in a bus station? One will never know.

Tenzing Norgay bus station in Siliguri, India

At 3:00 pm, I get on the very old bus, and like all things in India, there is shit on the bus. No literally, there was feces on the floor towards the front of the bus. Human? Animal? Didn’t want to find out. The driver did poured some water on it and sort of wiped it up with some newspaper. Surprisingly there were so many other smells on the bus, that the shit on the floor actually didn’t really make much of a difference to my overall experience.

The ride to Changribandha was three hours. Every stop we made, more and more people attempted to get on the bus until it appeared to be truly full, but nevertheless, more people somehow made it on.

I arrived in Changribandha around 5:00 pm and was easily able to find a rickshaw to take me to the border. I initially came to this border post on very sketchy information that I could get a visa on arrival there. Unfortunately this was not the case, and I was turned away at the border post by the Indian officials who would not stamp me out because they knew I could not enter Bangladesh. They told me I needed to go to Calcutta and cross through Benapole. If interested, click here to read more technical specifics on this border crossing.

The whole way to Changribandha I was worried that I was going to arrive at the border post after it had closed. Fortunately I made in time. If I had come late, I would have found out about this visa issue the following morning wasting even more time.

After getting turned away, I had to figure out how to get to Calcutta. This is the part where the plan breaks down, and I am completely improvising the rest of the journey.

Traveling to Berhampore

Leaving the border, I was able to get a rickshaw back to the same roadside bus stop where my first bus initially let me off. Unfortunately getting on a return bus to Siliguri was going to be much more difficult. As the sun was setting, I kept thinking that if the return bus is just as full, I likely wasn’t going to get on with my bag, let alone get a seat.

As I waited along the road with several other Indians, a man in a truck that spoke no English offered to give me a ride. Surely this would be better than the bus so I took him up on his offer. For the next twenty minutes, he kept trying to converse with me using the few words he knew in English followed by lots and lots of Hindi. I did not understand anything he was saying, but eventually I found out he wasn’t going all the way to Siliguri. He dropped me off at another intersection closer to Siliguri where I could find another bus. I guess it was helpful, but finding a bus at this new intersection proved more difficult than the last.

For the next thirty minutes in pure darkness, I tried to flag down a bus, truck, car, or anyone that could take me to Siliguri. I was also not alone as several other people were trying to do the same thing. Many buses passed us, but none wanted to stop even when they weren’t completely full. I finally saw a bus stopping on the other side of the intersection with “Siligiri” written on it letting a passenger off. I sprinted towards it hoping that if I could at least get my body on, they wound let me travel with them. Luckily this bus had several open seats and many others followed my lead and got on.

Around 9 pm, I finally arrived back in Siliguri and began looking for a decent A/C bus to Calcutta. The journey to Calcutta is 14-16 hours so most buses tend to leave Siliguri in the afternoon to make it to Calcutta by morning. This meant that there were no direct buses left to take me to Calcutta.

After some searching, I found a bus bound for “Berhampore”. I had no idea where this was, but the driver said it was on the way to Calcutta. That was good enough for me. The bus was a sleeper bus meaning there are actual compartments with real beds. Unfortunately these are “double beds” meaning if you’re traveling alone, you may have to share it with a stranger. I prayed that the bus wound’t fill up as I had no other option at this point. I travel pretty rough, but I wasn’t very excited about sharing a bed with a random dude. Luckily my wish came true, and even though I shared the bed for a short while, eventually the man was able to move to an empty compartment of his own.

While the ride was incredibly bumpy, I instantly went to sleep due to near exhaustion and woke up the next morning somewhere in West Bengal with no more phone battery.

Getting out of Berhampore

In the morning when I realized I was the only one left on the parked bus, I promptly gathered my stuff and got off. I found the driver nearby and asked if there was a train station in this town. He directed me to a rickshaw driver who took me on the five minute drive to the station. The only reason I know I was in Berhampore was because the station was called “Berhampore Junction”.

At this point planning to be in Bangladesh by now, I was out of Indian rupee. I needed to find an ATM before I could do anything. In typical Indian fashion, the one at the station was broken. I began to leave the station wandering through the city to find an ATM periodically asking people along the way. Sure enough I found plenty of ATMs, but none of them were working. It took four ATMs to finally find one that worked. The walk through town though was one of the most interesting experiences yet in India. No tourists come to Berhampore. I was truly off the beaten track here walking through the “real India”. Cows, traffic, and of course more shit (literally).

Berhampore

When I got some cash, I returned to the train station and managed to buy a ticket to Bengaon, the main border crossing for Bangladesh. To get to Bengaon, I had to first ride the train to Ranaghat, another similarly sized Indian city. It was quite easy to make the trip as numerous Indians were let me know where I would need to get off and transfer trains.

When I got to Ranaghat, I exited the train and made my way through the crowded station to the main railway offices. I thought that if I found some higher-ups at the station, perhaps someone might speak English and help me find my transfer to Bengaon. This plan worked, and I was told to wait on the second platform until 1:00 or 1:30 pm when the train would likely be arriving.

So wait I did while just about everyone in that station watched my every move with great curiosity. As an adventurous traveler, I sampled much of the train station street food during this wait, and I am glad to say I didn’t get sick!

Ranaghat Train Station

In India people just cross over the tracks rather than use the bridge.

 

Finally the train to Bengaon arrives, and off I go. It took thirty minutes to get there. When I exited the final station, I was able to get a rickshaw to the border.

At this point, I’d been traveling for over 24 hours. It was hot, and I had been sweating all day. I’ve never wanted a shower more in my life, but that luxury was still nearly 30 hours away.

Rickshaw to Benapole

Benapole Border Crossing

When we reached the border, Benapole, I easily exited India and began the three hour waiting process to enter Bangladesh. The officers were very nice to me, but the paperwork they needed to complete to let me into their country was incredible. I felt bad for them. Click here to read about more specific details crossing at Benapole.

I was able to get the elusive visa on arrival at this border – something I couldn’t do at Changribandha. I think many foreigners assume the visa on arrival can only be obtained at the airport so rarely anyone attempts to make this crossing.

To Dhaka

When I got into Bangladesh almost nobody spoke English. It was thirty minutes later than India and many bus companies had already left for the evening. After some searching, I heard a man saying Dhaka, and I was able to hop in a A/C Business Class bus – exactly what I needed after this long day. A/C has never felt as good as it did when I got on that bus.

We left at 7:00 pm and arrived to Dhaka at 3:30 am with one stop for dinner. One of the craziest parts of the bus ride was when I woke up in the middle of the night to notice the bus was no longer moving. I thought we might have been taking a bathroom break but then I noticed a slight rocking of the ground below us. Looking out the windows I could only see other buses and trucks next to us so I got out to inspect where we are. Turns out we were on a ferry crossing a river so large that I couldn’t even see any lights in the distance! That was a mind blowing thing to wake up for.

When we arrived in Dhaka, the bus company allowed the remaining passengers to wait until sunrise in their offices. I used this opportunity to take a nap before waking up at 5:30 am to start looking for the train station.

Just a five minute walk from the office was Kamalapur station where I was able to find an English timetable. I knew there was a 6:40 am train to Srimangal, my final destination, but unfortunately Tuesday was the “off” day.

To Srimangal

I got a quick snack and coffee from one of the stalls outside the train station, and began walking towards the nearby bus station. At the station a nice man helped me find a 7:30 am bus to Srimangal.

I arrived in Srimangal around noon, and I made my way to a hotel I looked up beforehand. I knew Bangladesh had poor tourist infrastructure so I mapped out potential hotels to stay before I came in case I had a problem finding something suitable.

When I checked into my room, I took one of the best showers of my life and went right to sleep. It took me over 50 hours to reach Srimangal. I spent two nights back-to-back sleeping on buses and braved the unbearable heat.

If there is anything I learned from this experience it is that I am far more capable of pushing myself to the extreme than I thought I was. Despite the great uncertainty of each step along this journey, I never once doubted myself. I think traveling like this has given me the confidence to take on any challenge. If I can figure out how to travel alone through West Bengal without any outside help, I think I can manage just about anything.

Srimangal

Srimangal

Five Tips for Traveling in Bangladesh

Dhaka Pineapple Vendor

Go to Dhaka

Many guidebooks and even Bangladeshis will tell you to avoid the capital, but a visit to Bangladesh is not complete without seeing the hustle and bustle of the world’s densest city. No where else on earth will compare to Dhaka.

Girls in Dhaka

You will be the only foreigner

While in Bangladesh, I saw one other white person my entire time there. We stopped to chat for a bit, and she said that in her three weeks in Bangladesh, she had seen one other white person besides me, and I was the first to talk with her. This would change, however, in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka.

Eating a pineapple in Bangladesh

Eat everything

I think my favorite part about traveling in Bangladesh was the food. As soon as I crossed the border from India, I could instantly tell that things were about to get much better. From roti with fried egg to biriani and fresh pineapple, every meal I ate in Bangladesh was unforgettable.

Three Piece Dress in Dhaka

Have your camera ready

Bangladesh is a beautiful country. Everything from the clothes to the rickshaws are brightly colored and just pop out in photos. The best time to photograph is right before sunset when colors appear most vivid.

Bengali Kids

Learn some Bengali

Even though I only had five days in Bangladesh, the total lack of English forced me to learn several words in a short period of time. My tour guide and I played tricks on the locals where he would ask me questions in Bengali and I would respond “jii” meaning “yes”. He would tell kids to ask me if I could speak Bengali to which I replied “jii” leaving them completely shocked!

Benapole Border Crossing into Bangladesh

Benapole Border Crossing

I got a visa on arrival at Benapole! In May 2017, I traveled to Bangladesh overland through Benapole border crossings without any serious issues. This guide explains how I made the trek.

I initially started my trip to Bangladesh in Darjeeling, and after an extremely long journey, I was able to reach Bengaon, the train station near the Bangladeshi border.

There are AC bus services from Kolkata to this border post which are a better option, but as I was traveling entirely independently from Darjeeling, I rode the local trains. To get to Bengaon station, I had to first get a ticket to Ranaghat where I was able to transfer trains to Bengaon. This is the only town connecting trains to Bangaon. Ranaghat is just another midsize West Bengal city – I never saw another tourist there and barely anyone spoke English, but fortunately some men in the train station offices spoke enough English to direct me to the platform for the train to Bengaon. I showed my ticket to several people before finally confirming which train I needed to take.

The trip to Bengaon took around 30 minutes. After I got off the train, there were several rickshaws available. I told them I wanted to go to Benapole. The fare was 100 rupees, and it took at least 30 minutes. I honestly felt bad for my driver paying him so little to ride his bike this far even though I was probably still overcharged.

Rickshaw to Benapole

Once we arrived to the border post, I was pointed into the direction of a small office building for Indian departures. There were several officials checking passports and no lines. My official confirmed I could get the visa on arrival, but he had to get his boss to ask me a few questions about why I wanted to go to Bangladesh. I told him tourism, and he was okay with that. He gave me some trouble about not being able to re-enter India, but I showed him that my e-visa still says I have one more entry allowed. After actually looking at my visa and realizing his mistake, he said I was all good and stamped me out of India.

Getting to the Bangladeshi border post was just a short walk, but that’s where the waiting began. Right before the border office some men tried to fill out my visa forms for me. I may have been able to get one inside, but I paid the guy 20 rupees to do it for me to avoid the hassle. Once inside, there was a specific desk for foreign passport holders where I began my three hour ordeal entering Bangladesh.

The officers were very polite and seemed to be working hard, but they needed to fill out a tremendous amount of paperwork to finally allow me into their country. Initially they gave me a long form questionnaire asking more about the purpose of my visit, my home address, and my income. All of these questions were scrutinized multiple times by the officers; however, they were quite nice about it – nobody was hassling me. I think very few non-Indian foreigners cross at this post so many of the officials had to make calls to their boss to confirm the process. Their lack of knowledge caused a lot of the hold up. Side note: there is also a somewhat clean bathroom in the waiting area which is nice considering how long I waited.

After a couple hours of waiting, they asked for the $50 payment, but they made a big deal about my dollars not being in “pristine” condition. We had to go through all my dollars and pick the best ones out, and they only reluctantly accepted them. It’s not like I have been crumpling up my bills. I got cash from an ATM in the United States a few months before and kept it in an envelope my entire trip. Ultimately they relented on their request, but if you can, bring a perfect $50 bill.

After the three hours sitting around, I was finally called up to the desk again. A few more checks of my passport, and the official picked up the stamp. I crossed my fingers as he leafed through my passport to find a suitable page. All of a sudden – stamp! I was in Bangladesh.

I left the border post and began searching for a bus to Dhaka as it was now 5:40pm (+30 minutes later than India). Right outside the office, there are multiple bus companies going to Dhaka, but almost nobody speaks English. After asking several completely unhelpful people, finally I heard a man saying Dhaka and he directed me to a very nice luxury bus company. Exactly what I wanted after a long day of traveling.

I was not able to find an ATM immediately across the border. Everyone I talked to said it was 2 km further down the road. When my bus left I did actually see several ATMs about 2 kms down the road. There are money changers at the border though that will take Indian rupee. I exchange 1,500 rupees which was enough to get me to Dhaka with any food or drink I might need. Once in Dhaka, there were plenty of ATMs.

My bus left a little before 7pm and arrived in Dhaka around 3:30 am. We stopped for dinner at 10:00 pm at a cafeteria frequented by many bus companies. When we arrived in Dhaka, the bus company allowed the remaining passengers to hang out in their offices and sleep a little more until the sun came up.

If you end up crossing through Benapole, let me know in the comments below. Hopefully this guide can add to the dearth of reliable information on the subject.

 

Changribandha Border Crossing into Bangladesh

Tenzing Norgay Bus Station

Tenzing Norgay bus station in Siliguri, India

To make a long story short: you cannot get a Visa on Arrival at Changribandha, but if you already have a Bangladesh visa, here is how you get to the border.

Most people coming into Bangladesh via this border will be coming from Nepal or Darjeeling. There are at least two border crossings in India’s North Eastern states and another land crossing near Kolkata so people from those areas will likely not be heading to Changribandha.

I spent a couple nights in Darjeeling, and I heard some very unreliable information that visas on arrival could be obtained at Changribandha. Reaching the border from Darjeeling is a long trek – much longer than one would think. I went down to the Darjeeling shared taxi stand at 10:00 am and easily found a jeep for Siliguri that finally filled up around 10:45 am.

It was a three hour journey to Siliguri. When you get to Siliguri, ask to be dropped off at the Tenzing Norgay bus station. This is where you can get onward buses to Changribandha. I incorrectly thought buses to the border went from NJP station so my driver took me there. In hindsight, I should have told him I wanted to go to Changribandha, and he would have dropped be off at the Tenzing bus station. NJP is about two kilometers further down the road from the bus station so I needed to double back in a shared rickshaw (20 rupees) to the station. While it barely costs anything to double back, the traffic in Siliguri is horrendous so this ate up nearly an hour in total.

Once at Tenzing Norgay, there are ticket counters on the west side of the station entrance selling tickets to Changribandha. There is a completely useless “inquiry” desk that initially told me there were no buses to Changribangha. Don’t waste your time with them. At the ticket counters, you can clearly see “Changribandha” written in English.

There is also a daily 1:30 pm A/C bus directly to Dhaka from a small parking lot across the street from Tenzing Norgay bus station, but it is essential to buy tickets in advance.

I got on a 3 pm local bus bound for the border that initially was only 25% full, but as we continued on, the bus picked up more people until it wasn’t possible for anymore to stand inside, but even then they tried. Get a window seat. It took almost three hours to get to Changribandha. The border stop is just a fork in the road without any signs so let several people around you know where you want to go, and they will notify you when you reach the stop. Don’t worry, they will all be trying to chat with you.

After I got off the bus, there were several rickshaws for hire to take me to the actual border. I paid 100 rupees and the trip felt like 10-15 minutes. Once I got closer to the border, the driver took me through a small village where I eventually reached a lone border post in what feels like some small jungle village.

On the Indian side, a couple of people pointed out some shacks where I could get the appropriate stamps to leave India. There are also several guys hanging around working as informal money-changers. This was as far as I made it because Bangladesh did not have the facilities for visa on arrival at this border post. India did not stamp me out.

I had read reports that the border closed at 5:00pm, but I was at the border at 5:45 pm and I still would have been able to cross. While I cannot be sure of the closing time, it is at least 6:00 pm Indian time.

Once over into Bangladesh apparently there is a 6 pm bus to Dhaka, but I cannot confirm this.

If you this guide helped you into Bangladesh, let me know in the comments below!

Review of Darjeeling, India

Darjeeling, India

I spent two nights in Darjeeling in late April and while I was initially quite excited, I left feeling like this place had been unnecessarily hyped up by guidebooks and India travel websites.

I’ve been to three hill stations now in India, and compared to all three Darjeeling had the most expensive and poorest quality accommodation of the bunch. There are no hostel options here (that aren’t completely sketchy) and because Darjeeling is almost perpetually covered in mist and fog, many of the cheaper rooms are damp and musty and way over-priced for the poor quality.

I’ve been to Dharamsala and Manali in Himachal Pradesh, and Darjeeling was the most touristy of the three towns in my opinion. Manali was the most laid back. While McCleod Ganj in Dharamsala is actually almost all hotels and restaurants, it maintains the laidback vibe lacking in Darjeeling.

Accommodation

The cheapest accommodation in Darjeeling is located along Dr Zakir Hussain Road at the very top of the hill. I stayed at Long Island Hotel for 700 rupees in a decent dry room. It had a squat toilet but at least a hot shower. I had to look around a lot to find this deal and later found out that the hotel seems to charge people based on how they look – desperate or wealthy – so bargaining is definitly possible.

How to get to Tiger Hill

In Darjeeling, the number one activity is visiting Tiger Hill for sunrise. Tiger Hill has great views of the Himalayan range where you can see the third highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga, and even Mount Everest on a clear day. It is best to check the weather before you head out to make sure that it will be clear. Unfortunately even though the sky was blue, there was too much fog and haze on the horizon to see the sunrise.

It is very easy to get to Tiger Hill on a budget. Head down to the Club Size Taxi Stand located at the traffic circle around 3:30/4:00 AM. There will be shared jeeps waiting for Tiger Hill and it should cost 200 rupees. Once the jeep fills up, it is about 30 minutes to Tiger Hill. The jeep will park and then you must return to your same jeep after sunrise for the return trip (included). Your driver will likely also make two stops along the way back at a monastery and railway monument that are quite cool and will make the trip worth it even if you don’t see the mountains.

Darjeeling Recommendations

My early morning adventure really tired me out so I spent the rest of my time in Darjeeling relaxing, eating, and visiting cafes. Some of the best places I visited:

Kunga’s – an excellent Tibetan restaurant located right near the traffic circle. They hand-make the noodles in their soups and while it may cost a little more than other restaurants, the portions and quality are bigger and better.

Himalayan Java – upscale cafe in the main mall area with a great wifi connection. If you’re looking for somewhere to do work, this is the best place in town. A coffee will run you about 120 rupees.

Tom And Jerry’s – a small restaurant and cafe located along Dr. Zakir Hussain Road. They also have a solid internet connection and are almost always filled with foreigners. It is a great place to meet people in town. The coffee is also much cheaper than Himalayan Java because you’re not paying for the upscale cafe environment. They make pretty good lattes (but labeled as regular milk coffee on the menu).

Hasty Tasty Pure Veg – good Indian restaurant located across the street from Himalayan Java. Pro tip: if you visited Himalayan Java before, you can still access their wifi from the seats in the front of Hasty Tasty.

Final Thoughts

Darjeeling is a decent place, but it is more positioned towards mid-range to upscale travel over budget travel. The town is not very backpacker friendly and it lacks many of the good hiking options available in Manali and Dharamsala. It is more of a middle-class Indian family tourist destination. Perhaps Darjeeling is a good place to rest for a couple days if planning to hike further into the surrounding region, but because of all the hype around Darjeeling in books and movies, the place is a little over-rated. Darjeeling was not a highlight of my trip to India, but it was a nice place to rest.

 

Getting from Varanasi to Mughal Sarai

Getting from Varanasi to Mughal Sarai or vice versa is quite easy. The total travel time is between 1 and 2 hours depending on traffic.

If coming from Varanasi, you want to go to Varanasi Junction – this is an area encompassing both the bus station and train station. The only way here from the Ganges river area is via rickshaw and should cost 100-150 rupees. I like to flag down a rickshaw already driving without anybody and show him a 100 rupee bill to confirm my price. The parked cars might charge you more and showing the cash up front usually avoids haggling over price.

Once at Varanasi Junction inform your driver that you want a shared jeep to Mughal Sarai. These pick up along the main road, and you could possibly find them yourself, but the rickshaw driver knows best. People just shout destinations from jeeps so you may need to ask around to find the right one.

The jeep ride is about an hour and cost 60 rupees. Almost everyone gets out just before the train station, but tell the driver you want the train and he will drive the extra 200 meters.

For Varanasi, the process is exactly the same. Catch a jeep outside the station to Varanasi Junction then flag down a rickshaw to wherever you want to go.

Train Travel in India on the Waitlist

Train travel in India can either be very easy or extremely frustrating. While there are various guides many miss key explanations on what to do when things go wrong. Seat61.com/India is a great site for general information on train travel in India, but this guide will specifically address traveling on waitlisted tickets.

The Indian Rail system is actually very well set up and more innovative than any other train system I’ve seen before – even in the US. When trains are full, people are given an option to purchase tickets on the “waitlist” meaning they are not assigned a seat and must wait until enough people have canceled their tickets for a spot to open up. This makes sure trains resources are used efficiently and most trains run at capacity.

Fortunately, outside of peak holidays and weekends, people always cancel their tickets and with a few day’s notice, it can be quite easy to get on a train. It’s easy to check your waitlist status by logging in online by checking your “PNR” status for your trip. Usually you will remain on the waitlist until the very last moment. Trains can be canceled for no penalty up to four hours before departure so all the movement happens in these final hours.

Unfortunately, you won’t always make it off the waitlist and this can be frustrating when you must travel on that date. Generally if boarding a train from the origin or near the origin, you will be placed on the waitlist, but if boarding halfway through the journey, India Rail puts you on a separate waitlist called “RLWL”.

What does RLWL mean?

RLWL tickets are much more difficult to get confirmed because you are choosing to board halfway through a journey when the train may already be full. They do not give these people priority as they are not traveling the full distance. One huge tip to avoid getting on this list in the first place is to buy your ticket from the origin, then change your place of boarding online after purchasing the ticket. You will pay extra, but you will have a good shot at getting on that train in your preferred berth.

What to do if you can’t get on?

Recently I was traveling from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri on the AC3 waitlist. I started at RLWL 13 and only made it to RLWL 3 before the “chart was prepared”. At this point, still being on the waitlist, my ticket was automatically refunded and I was no longer supposed to travel on that train. Once the chart is prepared everything is locked in.

But can you still travel on the waitlist and just explain you need to go to the conductor? No you cannot and should not. You no longer have a ticket because you’ve been refunded. You would be getting on a train without any ticket. The conductor may be nice and show sympathy, but if they aren’t you could be fined and kicked off the train for traveling without a ticket.

My first experience traveling in India on a short trip in Sleeper Class, I didn’t understand the waitlist and just showed the conductor my waitlist receipt thinking it was the ticket not knowing that I needed to get my PNR status and seat location before traveling. He actually didn’t care because there were tons of open seats, but I think I got lucky. I found out later that I was actually confirmed, but without the proper ticket, he could have given me problems.

Traveling without a ticket

The way to travel if you can’t get a ticket is to buy an unreserved ticket at the train station an hour before train departure. Every train has a few unreserved carts which are basically wooden benches without assigned seats. This is the poor man’s way of traveling and you will only get a seat if not crowded. If you have an unreserved ticket; however, you can ask the conductor to upgrade and pay the difference if space is available.

When I was traveling to New Jalpaiguri, I bought an unreserved ticket and found the conductor on the train platform before boarding. I asked him if anything was available in AC3, but he told me it was full. He said there was a spot available in Sleeper Class and gave me the seat number. While not my top choice for an overnight journey, it was much better than being stuck in Varanasi another night. Sleeper Class is obviously not as nice as AC, but in a pinch it is not terrible. I was able to sleep decently and the conductor didn’t even bother to charge me to upgrade.

Click here to read about my ramshackle story getting from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri.

VIKALP Option

One thing missing from many guides are details on the new VILAKP option. Imagine this: you need to get from New Delhi to Kolkata on a certain day. There are many trains running, but all have waitlists. The savvy traveler would buy a ticket on two or more trains hoping that on at least one train, they will make it off the waitlist. Once they have a confirmed spot, they can cancel the others minus nominal booking and credit card fees. This is what people in India used to do before VIKALP came about.

Now when booking tickets along major routes, you are given an option to select up to five VIKALP trains which are alternative trains you would be willing to take if you don’t make it off your initial waitlist. If you do not make it on the first train, you will be automatically placed into a spot on the second train for free. Sometimes this may even mean a free upgrade to a faster and more expensive train. All you have to do is keep checking your PNR status before to find out which train. VILAKP has different cancelation policies than regular train travel in case you no longer want your VIKALP train (you cannot edit these once selected). A quick Google search will find many articles explaining the VIKALP cancelation policies.

Let me know if you have any questions on India train travel and I will continue to update this guide!

 

 

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