One of the most amazing things you can find when travelling is a place that you never knew existed. A place that is so incredible and authentic and is barely mentioned in any guidebooks. There are rarely tourists or even any hotels.But it feels like a gift to have been there, because you know how rare it is that other travellers will get to experience it.
We were lucky enough to experience such a place on our recent trip to West Bengal when we met up with Ben’s friend and fellow herpetologist, Vishal.
Where is Buxa Fort?
Buxa fort is a tiny hill village located in Buxa Tiger Reserve. The tiger reserve is a 760-square-kilometre area whose northern border runs on the international border with Bhutan. The actual village we stayed at is built right next to the dilapidated fort which has a rich and interesting history.
Cars and motorbikes are unable to get to the village so the only access is by foot. We hired a porter who lived in the village who put our backpacks in his basket and used a head strap to carry it all. He was wearing flip flops!
It was just after 5pm by the time we arrived at the village near the bottom of the track. By the time we had had the obligatory masala chai stop and piled into a van to take us the last 2km up the road to the path it was pitch black. Luckily we were all well equipped with torches. Even so the 3km walk up the mountain was scary, especially when we passed an area where we could catch the scent of leopard!
Buxa Fort: A Quick History
Not much is known about when exactly or by whom Buxa Fort was built. It was originally made of bamboo.In the 1930’s during the British colonisation of India the fort was rebuilt in stone and used by the British as a high security prison and detention camp. . Many high profile political prisoners were kept here in that period. Due to the remoteness of Buxa Fort it was less likely that supporters of the prisoners would be able to get there to rally outside.
Buxa Fort also had a big part to play in the tibetan refugee crisis. In March 1959 the Chinese targeted Drepung monastery where there were over 10,000 tibetan monks. The few hundred monks that had managed to escape into India set up a monastic study and refugee camp in Buxa Fort, the former prison camp of the British. But in 1971 they left, encouraged by the Dalai Lama to move to a more hospitable location closer to other tibetan refugees.
There’s not much left of the fort now, but it was interesting to wander round the ruins. Of course we were wandering round at night looking for snakes.
Back to Basics
As you can imagine Buxa Fort was basic regarding amenities. No wifi, no hot water, sometimes no electricity and definitely none of my beloved cappuccinos, not even coffee! But the back to basics feel was refreshing. My phone only came out to take pictures and I had a nice break from social media.
We stayed at a tiny bunk house with a balcony and 2 basic rooms. I was actually kind of surprised that we had proper western toilets! But since the bathrooms didn’t have showers we ended up having a quick wash in a spring of water on the dried up river bed.
The community of Buxa Fort
The people were one of the most interesting parts about our visit to Buxa. They were pretty much all hill people that spoke Nepalese rather than Bengali. Some of them had a good stare at me and Ben, probably the only western tourists they’d had in a while, but they didn’t really bother with us.
These people just got on with it. They wanted electricity so the whole village had worked together to bring the cables all the way up the hill, on foot. Every week they would walk down to the market in the village at the foot of the hill, they would sell their wares and they would walk all the way back up with supplies. Some would even come over from Bhutan through the border at the top of the hill.
It was also nice to witness the sense of community that so many of us have lost. Everyone would sit outside the tea shack in the middle of the village talking and watching the goings on. We would sit on the benches and have tea, petting the dogs and the lone cat that wandered around the village. They worked hard, but they still had time for each other.
They looked after one another as well. We had hired a guide who was cooking for us and we asked him to be a porter for us for our hike. He decided that he had a friend that needed the money, and directed us towards him instead. Rather than earn even more, he wanted his friend to have a chance to get work.
The most remote Post Office in India (probably)
One of my favourite things about Buxa Fort was the fact that this tiny village, that had no cars, no internet and sporadic electricity had a fully functioning post office! I say fully functioning, however I am still waiting on a few postcards to arrive to their recipients that were sent from there. I thought it would be cool to tell people that their post card was sent from the most remote post office in India. It’s India, I should have known better. You never know though, they may still resurface!
This post office is the last one in India to employ a full time ‘runner’. Due to the lack of transport links it’s his job to run up and down the mountain delivering messages and taking mail down to the bottom. Maybe he dropped my postcards running down the mountain? I guess we’ll never know! I can only pray that they might arrive one day.
Hiking up to Rover’s Point
One of the main things we did during out two night stay was a hike up to Rover’s Point. It was a 13km hike up a mountain. Sounds tiring right? Well somehow, I was full of energy that day. I literally flew up the mountain, much to the agony of the rest of the group (3 of them were smokers). We stopped for lots of rests and of course wildlife spotting.
We also passed through some more tiny hill villages and saw some locals. I said hello to two ladies watching us from their veranda, we witnessed a group of boys practicing archery and even picked up a stray dog that decided to escort us all the way to Rover’s Point. He took up the rear of the group and made sure nobody was left behind.
We had the first of two tea breaks half way up the trail. Our porter, a young guy from the village, made us tea by building a fire and boiling water in a pan. He even used spring water running down the mountain.
Our second tea break was of course at the very top at Rover’s Point. We were only about 2 kilometres away from the border of Bhutan. We’d started our hike in the afternoon and had timed it well for a view of the sunset. Even the dog sat and watched the sun go down with us before disappearing back down the mountain.
Buxa fort was probably my favourite part of our entire trip to India. It felt so authentic and the lack of tourists made us really feel like we were seeing the real thing. It was an unforgettable experience that hopefully won’t be our last.
Have you ever visited somewhere untouched by tourism? Tell me about it in the comments!
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