“ Address: MG Road / near Bhutan Gate / West Bengal / India „
When I think about the Hotel Anand, I can't help but have a little giggle at the memories of the place. In some respects it was a really lousy hotel and one I wouldn't be rushing back to, but in others, it had a certain kind of quirky charm. And since it's almost impossible to find anything out about this hotel on the internet, it does rather cry out for a review.
**Jaigaon? Where's that**
A good question, for sure. I doubt many people outside India - and many in the country - have ever heard of the place and even fewer have been there. It's a grubby little uninspiring border town that you wouldn't 'choose' to visit. However, if you need to get into or out of Bhutan and you can't get a flight for love or money, then Jaigaon is unavoidable. The border that justifies the town's existence is the border with Bhutan and since the gate between Jaigaon on the Indian side and Phuentsholing on the Bhutanese side is the only crossing point accessible to foreigners, they've got the monopoly.
**What on earth possessed us to go there?**
We flew into Paro, Bhutan's second city, but we couldn't get a flight out. The company who organised our tour offered to take us from Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, to the border for a fee of $100 and we couldn't really argue about that. It also worked out quite nicely because it opened up the opportunity to then drive on to Darjeeling for a few days. I asked for advice on whether we could go from Thimphu to Darjeeling in one go, and we were advised to take a night stop in Jaigaon and then travel the next morning. The guy at Blue Poppy (our tour company) recommended the Anand and mentioned one other hotel in the town that was a possible alternative.
** Researching Jaigaon**
When I'm planning to go somewhere new, I like to do a bit of online research so I have an idea what I'm letting myself in for. It can help prevent the sort of mistakes I've made in the past of grossly over- or under-estimating how much there is to do in a town. In the case of Jaigaon, it probably wasn't a wise thing to know too much. There's not a lot of info around, but the little I found painted it as something like a Wild West outlaw town - a place that existed for the Bhutanese to cross into India, buy cheap booze and contraband cigarettes and pick up prostitutes. Yippee - it didn't exactly sound like it was going to be a cultural hot bed. I found references to the two hotels, one by a lady travelling alone which suggested the Anand was an intimidating and unpleasant place full of men giving her predatory looks. However, if there was little info on the Anand, there was even less on the other hotel and the Anand had Air Con - decision made, we followed the advice of our tour company and decided to go for the Anand.
**Booking a Room**
You'd think in these days of the internet that booking would be dead easy and usually I'd agree. But with the Anand you have to REALLY want to get a room to put up with the trials of getting one. Firstly there are no booking agencies working with the Anand so you'll have to negotiate directly. The website gives an email address, a bunch of phone numbers and a fax. So I emailed a booking enquiry and waitedand waited.and waited a bit more. No reply. I tried phoning each of the telephone numbers and even called my husband and made him try them because there was always a message saying there was something wrong with the number. If the phones weren't working then the fax was unlikely to do the job either. And so, with only about a fortnight to go before our departure, with some trepidation, I rang the mobile phone number for the manager. It just didn't seem quite right to call a mobile in India but it worked. I obviously caught the gentlemen out of the hotel, doing his shopping and he asked me to call back 15 minutes later.
A second call and I got him back at the hotel in his office. He seemed to know what I wanted and I got the impression he must have had - and ignored - my email. I asked if I should email again to confirm what I wanted and he just said 'oh no, don't worry, I trust you'. I had to be quite pushy to say that actually I wanted the confirmation for my own benefit and I dangled the carrot that I also wanted to book a car and driver for the next day and would need his help. So he agreed to email me details for a car, and sure enough, within 48 hours I was lined up with a 'A/C Deluxe' room for about £17 for the night and a car to Darjeeling the next day for about £45.
**Getting to Jaigaon**
The nearest airport on the Indian side is probably Bagdogra. If you are travelling from Bhutan there's only one way and it's a long and unpleasant mountain road that's more roadworks than road. We'd been originally told it should be about a 5 hour journey but due to the road maintenance works to repair all the landslides from the summer rains, the road was closed at one point and the detour increased the journey time to about 8 hours. Those were eight very long, bumpy and uncomfortable hours. Ladies, bring a sports bra - it's like going on a camel safari. And everyone, bring travel sickness tablets.
We eventually got to the border, went to the immigration post in Jaigaon (essential, don't forget to do this or you'll have difficulties when you eventually leave India) and then we were dropped at the hotel.
What a weird hotel. The entrance is down a steep tiled slope into an underground cavernous reception area. You can drive through the lobby to get to the reception desk. Along the sides of the lobby are chairs and fish tanks, a small 'business centre' - in other words a pc in a room - and a travel agency. The front desk were clearly expecting us and I guess they don't get too many European visitors. They took our passport details, said it would be fine for us to pay the next day and sent for a porter. I asked what time our car was booked for the next morning and, after lots of head wobbling, it seemed that it could be ready whenever we wanted but 8am might be a good time.
This is where I start giggling again. We followed the porter up the stairs and along a maze of tiled corridors until we got to our room. I've looked at the website since getting back and I'm pretty sure that the 'deluxe' room on the website is the room we were in. I can only say that the old adage about cameras never lying was clearly not one that applied in this case. The room was like something out of your worst student accommodation nightmare. It was large with lurid green walls and a dark red, extremely scruffy carpet. There was a hole the size of a football in the carpet near the entrance to the bathroom. The windows had scruffy curtains and when we drew them to get more light in, the windows were so grey that it didn't make much difference and the view, such as there was one, was of a side alley. On the plus side, this meant the room was quieter than it would have been at the front.
There was a large double bed with a check bedspread and there were blankets in thin cotton covers that proved to be a bit scratchy. The bed was - as is almost always the case in India - really hard. At the foot of the bed was a wooden bench to put our cases on and there was a coffee table with armchairs. The AC unit was in the window and there was a ceiling fan as well. On one wall was a shabby old dresser with a TV on top and there was a large wardrobe near the hole in the carpet by the bathroom. The bathroom was a bit grim and I wasn't keen to try the shower. On the whole the room was clean but just really shabby. The lighting was all ultra-low wattage energy savers which was probably a good thing. If we'd had brighter lighting I hate to think what we might have found.
We sat in our room and giggled at the state of it. The porter came back to make sure we knew about the room service menu and to make sure we didn't forget. We could phone down or we could use the restaurant. He was very enthusiastic and obviously quite motivated by the tip he'd had earlier. We couldn't see a lot of reason to go out and explore Jaigaon, the weather was dreary and wet and we'd not seen anything that looked very exciting, so we watched some TV and took a nap to recover from the journey.
**Time for dinner**
Mid evening we realised we really did need to get something to eat. It was dark and wet out and we just didn't feel like going exploring. Walking down the stairs we saw one of the hotel staff idly scratching his crotch and I thought 'I hope he's not the chef'. I needn't have worried - he was the waiter. He led us into a hilarious little dark room, decorated in red and white candy stripes, with red plastic chairs and tables and incredibly dim lighting. We ordered two lime sodas, two vegetable noodle soups, mutter mushrooms and plain daal and a portion of rice. I figured if we kept it really simple it couldn't go too wrong. Fortunately the restaurant was entirely vegetarian which I appreciated - I think you are much less likely to pick up something nasty from a vegetarian kitchen rather than one processing meat.
We waited in our little stripy room, sipping our lime sodas. Two girls came in, sat with the menus and then stomped off when they realised they couldn't get chicken or beer. Eventually our food arrived and was absolutely delicious. There was a large amount of silly paper napkin origami going on but the food itself was exceptional. Considering the bill for this feast was a massive 180 rupees (about £2.30) we were really impressed. At breakfast the next morning we polished off cheese toasties, tea and coffee for just 66 Rp (about 80 pence).
Check out next morning was smooth. The room had cost us 1350 Rp (£17) and the car was 3500 Rp (£44). We paid cash and there were no nasty surprises. Everything was smooth and well organised.
**The Little (Car) Engine that Could**
The journey to Darjeeling almost justifies a review in its own right but is something I can't miss telling you about. We'd been offered either of the hotel's vehicles, a 4 wheel drive or a small compact, and knowing how hard it is to get all the luggage in a compact, we'd asked for the 4WD. It looked fantastic - the staff had been polishing it for hours and it looked pretty spiffy if you could turn a blind eye (as you usually must) to the lack of seat belts. As we were about to set off, the receptionist pointed out that one of the tyres was a bit low and the moment the driver turned the engine on, a supercilious voice announced that he needed to check the oil. A red light was blazing on the dashboard showing the car was over heating.
About 5 minutes from the hotel the driver pulled over and got the tyres pumped up. We asked him about the temperature gauge and he shrugged, wobbled his head and said 'no problem' in a not entirely reassuring way. He turned on the engine and the voice told us again that the engine was dangerously hot. He didn't seem worried.
About an hour later, a new warning message started; "Please check the brake fluid, the level is too low". At intervals the voice chirped up again with the same warning. The driver pulled over and got a garage to top something up and we started off up the hills towards Darjeeling. The only thing worse than driving for several hours up winding roads with hairpin bends is driving for several hours with a voice telling you that your brakes are buggered. The driver was getting more and more tense. I suppose it could have been worse if we'd been going downhill but it was still a bit hairy. After about four hours we got to our destination and hubby named the car as 'The Little Car that Could' after the film about the train that never gave up trying to get to the top of the mountain. Underpressure tyres, overheating engine, leaking brake fluid; none of these can stop an Indian driver on a mission.
OK, it's not the Ritz but this place quite possibly IS the best hotel in town, hard as it might seem to believe it. If you go with a sense of humour and an open mind and aren't too picky about everything, you might even quite enjoy it. Just don't plan on staying longer than you need to.