Stranded in Samdrupjongkhar

The tall notice (order) came. And the gate of Samdrupjongkhar was closed, sturdily. Not a single Bhutanese vehicle was allowed to go outside the gate. Not a single Bhutanese soul was allowed to walk out.

The notice stated the highway of Assam would be affected, as there would be a strike in the neighboring Indian State. So, the Bhutanese commuters were not allowed to travel through the state.

Thus, I returned to my hotel room. It was frustrating to stay in a place one more day, or more, where I didn’t know a soul and I was not familiar with the place.

Samdrupjongkhar is a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants at the southeastern part of Bhutan that borders the Indian State of Assam. It is often used as an entry and exit point by merchants and commuters travelling to eastern Bhutan. In fact, it is a one-night halt town. But due to unending insurgency issues and protests in Assam that affect the highway, travelers are often stranded in this town, sometimes up to three days.

So instead of staying in my room grumbling about the situation, I decided to walk around and explore the town more to kill my time and escape boredom. Surprisingly, I found the town fascinating and it has so much to offer, in its own little ways.

Right in the middle of town is a small park with a beautiful dungkar of Bhutanese architectural design and intricate paintings. It has some open space, where green trees and flowers provide you shade. You can either sit on the concrete benches and relax or just lie down on green meadows and enjoy children playing around or just watch the dungkar glitters at night, as the lights fall on it.

One thing I loved doing in Samdrupjongkhar to pass my time is going to the border gate, and just sitting, to watch. So many Indians, over a thousand, mostly day laborers enter the gate in the morning. They come riding bicycles. But before entering, they keep their cycles locked outside the gate in a long line. They religiously go for security check, register their names at the immigration counter and march towards their respective places of work.

In the evening, from 5 pm onward, the laborers return. Though muddied with dust and sweat, their faces glimmer with smile and joy. Some burst into laughter and others engage in a loud happy talk; for they could earn their day’s wages and are happy to feed their families. They pick up their cycles and ride off home. This particularly sight brings me such a beautiful feeling – of simplicity and naivety, of hard work and rewards, and of reverence and the beauty of life.

Strolling around the town helps you spend your time. But do it slowly, because the town is very small. A bustling and clean town, Samdrupjongkhar is the main economic centre of the eastern Bhutan. It holds the distinct honour of being the oldest town in Bhutan, and is believed to be developed as a result of construction of the Samdrupjongkhar-Trashigang national highway in the 1960s.

As you walk around it, you get to see a diverse mixture of small shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. Not only the locals, but people from as far as Trashigang, Lhuentse and Yangtse are seen in the town trading. It’s intriguing to see them carrying loads of goods on their back staggering and bargaining and buying more.

However, what I liked most about the town is funny names of the shops.

Today, there are a handful of well-maintained hotels with good logistics. They even serve you a good mix of Bhutanese, continental and Indian cuisines. Hotel Menjong, Hotel Friends and Hotel Park are a few to name.

But the Hotel Friends is very popular among the locals and even tourists from India for its foods, whiskey and beer. Kuenzung Pizza and Restaurant, a newest hangout place in the town, is also popular among the locals and serves pizzas, cakes and noodles.

I was told that Samdrupjongkhar used to house the oldest cinema theatre in the country, which was popular even among the Assamese. However, today, it seems defunct.

But other forms of entertainment have emerged in the town, such as drayangs and karaoke. They are located in the Lower Market and always gather huge crowds at night.

Right next to the Lower Market, there’s a tall and long suspension bridge over a river that connects a housing colony to the town. When I visited it, I spotted many young people and Indian tourists taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful sight and pleasant breeze.

Two minutes walk towards north of the town, in front of the Bus Station, you can spot a Youth Center. It’s a cozy place that provides services like Internet, carrom and small library. If you have kids with you, then it is the right place to visit and avail the services while passing time.

Opinion by Riku Dhan Subba

The writer is an officer in the Department of Information and Media and an active blogger

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