While there have been increasing reports of fatalities and injuries to Bhutanese pilgrims in India, there are also growing accounts of Bhutanese pilgrims feeling duped and cheated on the booming pilgrimage tours organized from Bhutan.
The Bhutanese talked to three recently returned Bhutanese pilgrims all of whom had a harrowing and difficult experience including one who even lost her husband Karma, 58 from Mongar when he was hit by a vehicle at a stop.
This particular tour was organized by Lhathong Adventure owned by Tshering Euden who sold the tickets while the actual tour was conducted by her brother Namgay who owns the Jampel Tenzin Travel Agent company, both of them operating from Phuentsholing.
The tour package was Nu 14,000 for an 18 day pilgrimage of religious sites in Bodhgaya in Bihar, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Tso Pema and Manikaran in Himachal Pradesh from 3rd to 21st January 2017.
In what was a mistake to begin with, the tour group was a record size one with around 470 Bhutanese passengers consisting mainly of older people packed into seven Indian buses.
Norbu Tshering, 62, a retired mask dancer in the government and currently a farmer from Paro was sent on the tour by his son Chen Tshering.
Norbu Tshering said, “I am a farmer and I can take hardships especially for a holy pilgrimage but that does not mean also that people should be dying or risking their lives. The way in which the 18 day tour was done made it a very difficult one for all the pilgrims due to the attempt of the tour company to save money. In all the rush there was also a loss of one life. More nearly lost thier lives after the break on a bus failed and crashed into another vehicle shattering all its windows.”
Norbu said that for a large group of 470 people on seven buses there were only three tour guides in the form of Namgay and two teenagers. The others were cooks and some of the tour operators relatives on the same pilgrimage.
He said that an elderly man from Mongar lost his life on 10th January because there were no clear instructions and because the bus stopped at places where there were either no bathroom facilities or if they were, then it was not enough for the large 470 sized group.
“The man crossed the road at such a stop and he was hit by an incoming vehicle which killed him and badly disfigured his body,” he added.
“Afraid that the buses would leave them and with no proper facilities a lot of Bhutanese people, including elderly women had to do their bathroom near the buses. I felt it was both personally humiliating for them and also disgraceful for Bhutanese people in a foreign country,” said Norbu.
Ugyen Nidup, 54 from Trongsa working as a school teacher in Paro and also sent by his children for the tour also had the same feedback on the loss of life. He said along with only a few people to look after such a large group the instructions were only being given in Dzongkha and the deceased who was not conversant in the language had no idea what to do or where to go.
Norbu said that the tour operator to save money kept the mainly elderly passengers night after night in the bus with no halts.
“On one stretch we spent three continuous nights travelling in the same bus and as a result many people were even unable to get up from their seats by the end of it,” said Norbu.
He said that of the 18 day journey there was only around 7 days with halts.
Another issue was on the quality of accommodation. In the first three day stop of Bodh Gaya people were put in all kinds of accommodations. Norbu said that a large group even had to stay in a tent put in the courtyard of a private monastery which the tour operator Namgay denied. Namgay, though, himself admitted that up to four to five people were put in a room each while hundreds were put in common ‘halls,’ to sleep at night.
The blankets organized by the tour operators were also not enough and as a result many had to sleep cold at night.
In Varanasi, during the one night halt, the pilgrims were put in the common hall of a security barrack.
Norbu said that he was appalled to find that in Manikaran, Himachal Pradesh, during the three night halt, all the Bhutanese passengers were put up for free in a Sikh Gurdwara compound and given free food from the Gurdwara. Norbu was appalled as such accommodations and free food are mainly meant for destitute people and not a Bhutanese tour group which had paid for its accommodation.
Ugyen said that he was disappointed with the whole tour due to things like this and long bus journeys with no stops to accommodation issues, all of which aimed to maximize the profit of the tour company.
Namgay while admitting to keeping Bhutanese pilgrims in the Sikh Gurdwara with free food and accommodation said that it is not anyone’s business on how the tour company manages or whether it pays for facilities as long as the tour is completed.
Another major issue was food which the tour operators company had promised to take care of for the entire journey.
Here, Norbu said that again given the large size of the group people had to wait in long lines for their turn and at times people towards the end people would not get enough as food would run out.
Since the tour company cooked communally there was no consideration for many people who had diet restrictions due to their health issue like blood pressure or diabetes etc.
Food preparations by the company which had to start from scratch after halting the bus and taking out the pots and pans to cook for a large group often ate up a lot of time. As a result pilgrims on many occasions opted to go without food to reach their destination on time.
Norbu said that the tour group comprised of people across the country but there was a sizeable group from Bumthang and many of them towards the end said that they had been duped by the tour company.
Norbu’s son, Chen Tshering said that most of the buses the pilgrims travelled on are old and each carried 50 to 60 people driven by one driver all day and night which was a danger as it could result in driver fatigue.
Both Norbu and Ugyen said that the tour company did not have any advance of itinerary or the details of the tour and accommodation while booking the tour package.
On the death of Karma, Tsering Euden of Lhathong adventures said that she heard that he was mentally disturbed and was also drunk and despite being warned two times he crossed the road. Namgay of Jampel Tenzin Travel Agent also said that he heard Karma was drunk.
However, the wife of Karma, Pema Wangmo 50, denied the two statements of the tour operators. She said, “Once we crossed the Phuentsholing gate there was no way that my late husband could get access to alcohol and he was definitely not drunk when he died. He also had no history of mental illness or problems.”
She also pointed out that despite she herself, her husband and others on the tour not knowing Dzongkha all the instructions were conveyed in Dzongkha by the tour operator staff and as a result they did not know what exactly was going on.
Pema Wangmo, however, said she was grateful that the tour company flew in her husband’s body by air from India to Bhutan.
Tsering Euden said that Nu 14,000 for an 18 days tour all the way to Himachal Pradesh would mean that it is not a very ‘standard tour.’ She claimed that on the other hand there were other pilgrims who came forward to thank her company for the tour at such a less amount. She said the tour only took interested people and nobody was forced to go. She, however, admitted that given the large size of the group the company did make a profit.
If 14,000 is multiplied into 470 pilgrims it comes to Nu 6.58 mn in revenue for the one tour making it a fairly lucrative business especially with the low cost nature of the entire operation.
Namgay said that it is not possible to satisfy all the people and he claimed that people who had problems on the tour were the well off people or former civil servants. He said that if people wanted a more luxurious journey then they could pay Nu 50,000 per person and he could do the same tour in 45 to 50 days with nightly halts. However, he argued at such a high rate the less well off people who he estimated formed around 45 percent of the group would not be able to afford more expensive pilgrimage tours.
He said that this time there may have been some problems due to the large size of the tour group on account of the Menlom Chenmo in Bodh Gaya. He said that he normally does around 200 to 250 people in a group and he does around 10 such tours in a year.
Namgay said that the accommodations and facilities he could find were as per the budget of the tour. He also claimed he had a total of 13 staff including cooks and others accompanying the tour. Namgay also claimed that bus stopped at places with proper bathroom facilities.
Meanwhile, the Bhutanese pilgrims tour operations from Bhutan to India has seen a huge boon. While there were only around five companies a couple of years ago organizing such tours this year there are around 35 companies doing the business.
Namgay, himself, without specifically naming any tour company said that a majority of these new companies have Bhutanese licenses but are actually run by Indian across the border. He claimed that he heard much worse complaints from pilgrims travelling in the other services including not even being given the promised meals.
While the government may have little or no control over Bhutanese pilgrims who go on their own hiring their own vehicles like the recent 45 Bhutanese pilgrims who met with a Bus accident in Swarghat in Himachal Pradesh, but the Bhutanese tour companies operating on Bhutanese soil are bound to follow Bhutanese laws and are liable for lapses.
Given the booming number of such tour companies and the increased number of Bhutanese pilgrims this new sector is yet to see much needed government regulation and checks.
In the words of Norbu Tshering he already suffered in such a tour but he does not want others in the future to go through it.