Why laidback? Because that is perhaps the best way to go about exploring the Darjeeling Hills and the Dooars.
This is not a trip with calculated pitstops or assigned designations. You stop when you need to, you walk until you cannot, you explore until your heart’s content.
This is another reason I think you should plan your trip to North Bengal without a guide or tour agencies. I always found those packages lack the same enthusiasm you possess when you are exploring the place. Plus, itineraries can be very limiting and often a hindrance.
What if you wanted to stay at a place for another day? How do you back out of pre-booked hotels and the lunch buffets? All irrelevant questions if you ask me.
A slight disclaimer – this post this about how I have explored the region so far. It will not include the usual thrills and spills that you will find on any travel website. This is Bengal through the eyes of someone who just travelled without consulting a “must-visit” list.
What you need to know before you go:
When I say North Bengal:
This refers to the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills, the fertile plains of Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar and the lush Dooars of Alipurduar.
Some of the cities and towns in the region include Siliguri (the largest metro in the vicinity), Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Mirik, Kurseong, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Coochbehar.
How to travel there:
Nearest airports are Bagdogra (15kms from Siliguri) and Guwahati (532kms from Siliguri).
All these places are very well connected by road and rail, with nearly everyone one having stoppages for AC two- and three-tier trains.
Cabs are easily available on-hire from any of these places. Bookings can be done online, via apps like Make My Trip or even by just popping up to a local travel agent in Siliguri.
Renting bikes and cars are an option as well – go for this if you really want to explore the area at your own convenience.
What the weather is like:
Between April and October, the days are humid and muggy while the nights are cool and breezy. Temperatures can sore anywhere near the high 30s, while the humidity lurks above 75 percent all day. Carry your umbrellas and raincoats if you want to avoid getting drenched in the afternoon showers.
The cooler months are extremely pleasant with comfortable temperatures. Warm woollens are recommended for any trips to the hills.
Best time to visit:
I always loved the rains and when it’s green all around. The streams are full, the canopies are lush and thick, the rain-soaked grass perfumes the air in every step. The comfort of travelling in your own car with the AC on full blast helps forget the worries about the heat.
Anytime in April and May is the best time. It is just before the monsoons hit and it is not as blisteringly hot and humid.
Where to begin your trip:
You touch down in Siliguri, and very soon the bustle and disorganisation of the place terrors you. The constant honks and screeches of tires will haunt you at every turn.
Hate it as you may, avoiding Siliguri is not an option. It is like that awkward encounter with distant relatives who keep on asking you about when you want to get married. You smile or chuckle a response and leave the room rolling your eyes.
All trains, buses and your flight out will leave from Siliguri.
Where you choose to go after reaching Siliguri is the main question.
I think this one of the most talked about hill stations on every travel list. I am not going to dive into the details and the places you should visit. Moreover, I have already listed my trip to Darjeeling last December in another blog. Here it is!
Darjeeling is 70kms or 2 hours away from Siliguri by car. Other transport options include the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or government and private buses from Tenzing Norgay bus stand.
Underrated to the core, this place is skipped by most travellers. But coax any offbeat backpackers about their favourite place in the Bengal hills and this small district headquarters will always be a heartfelt mention.
Situated 30kms from Darjeeling in terms of distance and a world away from your usual tourists, Kalimpong is famous for quiet streets, amazing food and views that stop you dead in your tracks.
Do yourself a favour and get a packet of the locally-made Kalimpong Lopchu sweets before you set off on your walk. You will find yourself mysterious empty-handed on the way back.
You will probably cross Kurseong on the way to Darjeeling. It is impossible to miss with its immense TV Tower jutting into the sky – a giant among the small buildings in town.
Stopover at Giddha Pahar and catch the sunrise or the sunsets! The area is seeing a lot of development and people are opening up homestays at every bend. Spend a day here walking uphill to Dowhill Park or Eagle’s Crag.
Ah, the famous Sandakphu-Phalut trek – which I admit I still am yet to undertake! But if you are looking for that one unique thing to do on your trip to Bengal, this is it.
A five-day trek which takes you through forest trails, chirping birds, mesmerising sunrises and lofty peaks. Four of the five highest peaks in the world are visible from Sandakphu and you get to view them from a touching distance. Tell that on your CV the next time someone asks you for something “different”.Know more about Sandakphu here.
If you love outdoor hikes and nature camps, look no further. Reach Siliguri and book your tickets to the gateway of the Dooars. Numerous wildlife parks dot the landscape, interspersed with rowing tea gardens. The green is like a default colour scheme in the region, forming the background the jungles, where the roads cut through like flashing grey sword.Know more about Alipurduar here.
The erstwhile princely state manages to entice you with its charm and hospitality that it is widely popular for. Grand palaces and forgone colonial buildings line the city that comes alive in the evenings.
Coochbehar was so popular among Bengal and Assam alike that there was a massive tug of war between the states to include the province with their respective boundaries. Yet, when you set foot there, you understand how different its culture and heritage is.Know more about Coochbehar here.
Phuentsholing & Bhutan:
Bhutan is barely 15kms from Hasimara. When you are done trekking through the forests and sipping lazy cups of tea in the Dooars, head over to Jaigaon and spend a day in Phuentsholing, the Bhutanese border town.
Entry into Phuentsholing is free and without interruption. You can try one of the popular local bakeries or restaurants there, and splurge on some Thai goods sold in abundance in the shops that line the main market.
Don’t forget to get some local peach wine on your way back!Know more about Phuentsholing here.
So, this was just a rough guide to give you a sense of the place. If you need any help visiting these places, read up and research thoroughly. I will be glad to send links and give travel tips as well.
However, please do keep in mind that I do not organise trips of my own. I mainly travel solo but will be glad to have company at times during my trips. Give me a hola whenever you are in the Northeast or North Bengal.