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Gelephu: Bus Service to Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar and Panbang

As dawn breaks, the honking of vehicles, big and small, breaks the pleasant Gelephu morning. While residents are still in the comfort of their beds, a long line of vehicles bound for Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar and Panbang has queued up in front of the Gelephu gate, waiting for the escort.

By 6:30 am, constables register the vehicles and passengers. Hawkers shout for hot tea, momo and snacks through the windows of vehicles.

A group of people has reached the border gate earlier than the vehicles. Without a scheduled public transport service, these early birds were there to hitch lifts in any kind of vehicles.

"Jabkha jabkha, teru khey nga (Get in the back for Nu 100)," shouts a truck driver, brushing his teeth. Wangdi, 69, from Wamrong is returning to Samdrupjongkhar after he came to attend his sick brother, resettled in Gelephu.

Carrying a green Chinese bag, he walks to a truck driver and asks if he and his brothers could be adjusted in the front seat. "My brother's ill and it'll be difficult for him to sit in the back," Wangdi said.

Before the escorts arrived, about 23 people boarded a DCM truck. The passengers are from Trashigang, Pemagatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar. "Without a proper bus service, we have to take lift in whatever vehicle is there," said a 25-year old woman from Trashigang Rangjung.

Handing over Nu 50 to his daughter, who was crying, Dendup Tshering, 61, from Shingkhar Lauri, tells her to come in a bus next time. "We came here to meet our son and she fell ill," he said.

"She'll stay back to do the necessary treatment and come."

Dendup says that, by the time they reach Samdrup Jongkhar, they will be covered in dust. But there are not many options.

This is the plight of people travelling between Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar, and Gelephu and Panbang since the public bus service was suspended a decade ago. Bhutanese buses taking the Indian highway were stopped for security reasons in 2000.

Today people travel in taxis, trucks, DCMs and hitch rides in light and medium vehicles. Some even climb on fully laden loads and travel despite knowing the risks. A few travel by Indian buses.

"Every time I travel in such open vehicles, I worry if I'll reach home safe," said a mother of three from Pemagatshel. "It takes about three days to reach home via the lateral highway."

Another passenger said some drivers take the shortcut to S/J by following village roads through India. "It's not safe, but we've no choice," he said.

But conditions will improve, according to the road safety and transport authority's senior regional transport officer in Gelephu, Loknath Sharma. "The government had given us the approval since January 1 to introduce bus services between the places," he said. "But as of now there's only one bus plying between Samdrupjongkhar and Gelephu on alternate days."

Loknath Sharma said that, within a month, more businessmen will procure buses and there will be a bus plying to Gelephu and Phuentsholing daily.

He said that, though bus services were suspended, the government had improved the lateral routes for the convenience of people. "There was only one bus travelling between Thimphu and Trashigang but today there are a lot of buses plying to the east," he said.

Contributed by Tashi Dema , Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper 2010


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