Author: John M.
Date of Trip: January 2001
Dusk in Assam at the border of India and Bhutan is like being halfway to heaven. On one side of the majestic Manas River is the lush national park which takes its name from the river, and on the other are the misty Himalayan foothills, which turn golden at sunset.
It’s not a destination for the average tourist, and more appealing to genuine travellers who enjoy getting off the beaten track – a shame really, because Manas National Park is one of India’s officially designated tiger breeding areas. The Park is a splendid and unspoiled wonderland rich in animal, bird and plant life. Visitors prepared to explore one of India’s more remote areas will see certainly see elephants, buffalo, deer, monkeys, giant storks, peacocks and hawks, and maybe even tigers and leopards.
Travelling in this region means arriving in Assam’s largest city, Guwahati (there are daily flights from Kolkata), and taking a 180 km five-hour road trip to a very secluded jungle lodge called Bansbari, at the park’s entrance and overlooking a tranquil 60-year-old tea plantation.
Bansbari is basic but comfortable. It has no regular communication with the outside world and the electricity can be ‘iffy’ at the best of times (although there is a back-up generator). And the staff, who live in several nearby villages, enjoy a lifestyle that has change little over the past 50 years.
What Bansbari lacks in creature comforts is more than compensated for by the absorbingly interesting guided strolls through the tea gardens, 4-wheel drive safaris through Manas National Park, and fascinating walks through the nearby villages.
Safaris through the Park are aboard small open 4-wheel drive vehicles that take about 2 hours to travel from the lodge to the India-Bhutan border – a distance of barely 20km.
Accompanied by highly knowledgeable Bansbari guides and an armed park warden – just in case an elephant decides to charge your vehicle – the bumpy drive passes through plains, forests and eventually jungle, with the last few kilometres rising steeply in altitude as you approach the border.
But nothing can really prepare you for the majestic panorama at the border. It’s truly breathtaking in its raw beauty.
The only sign of civilization is a run-down Indian-style hostel that overlooks the Manas River and the Himalayan foothills. The air is clean and the view is sensational. Occasionally water buffalo can be seen across the river in Bhutan, with some of the more playful ones plunging almost joyfully into the icy waters to frolic.
The border is not actually designated by the river, and crosses it about 300 metres from the hostel, so visitors can actually “enter” Bhutan without the need for a visa or passport. A small domed cairn marks the border so you can have one foot in Bhutan and the other in Assam.
Bansbari Lodge is owned by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, which also operates multi-day cruises along the Brahmaputra River aboard its two well-equipped vessels, the “Sukapha” and the “Charaidew” which have self-contained cabins, wonderful dining rooms and saloons, and marvellous panoramic sundecks.
Tariff for Bansbari is about $120AUS per person a night, which includes all meals, guided walks and a half day safari to the India-Bhutan border. The website is http://www.assambengalnavigation.com .