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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.