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Shopping in India: Off to Guwahati - Guwahati is more than a shopping destination

Guwahati, the largest city in the neighbouring Indian state of Assam, is a three-hour drive, about a 100 kilometres, from the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar.

Besides being the source of goods needed by the eastern districts Bhutanese visit Guwahati for specialized medical treatment.

Travel to Guwahati almost came to a standstill in the late 90s and early 2000 because of the tense security situation. Even today the direct bus service to Guwahati from Samdrup Jongkhar has not been revived and people do not take their own cars to the city.

But Bhutanese are once again increasingly visiting the city that lies on the banks of Bhramaputra river and is the gateway to India's northeastern states where a number of Bhutanese students pursue college education.

Businesswoman Sonam Choden who sells stationeries, computer accessories and sports goods in Samdrup Jongkhar is a regular traveler to Guwahati. She hires Indian vehicles for Nu.1,300 to Nu.1,700 a day to get there and return in the evening.

Wearing light cottons she and her niece are ready to make a trip. By 7:15 am they wait in front of their house in Samdrup Jongkhar to be picked up by a Mahindra Bolero bearing an Indian number plate.

After almost three hours drive through heavy traffic and a bumpy road the jeep crosses the picturesque Bhramaputra bridge to enter the bustling city of Guwahati.

Sonam Choden and her partner step out into a crowded street and enter a departmental store where they are greeted by a face behind the counter.

Here's my list: Bhutanese shoppers in Guwahati
The commercial hub of eastern region, Samdrup Jongkhar, is struggling to regain its former vibrancy. The business community says they are suffering from lack of customers.

Thromde thueme (muncipal representative), Norbu Wangdi, said that business was slightly better during winters when students were on vacation. "Some of the hotels hardly function during the summer season," he said.

The sweltering heat in recent months has also kept the customers away from the town.

As a strategy to improve business Norbu Wangdi said that proposals were being drafted to make the town a tax free zone to lift it out of difficult times.

In another corner of the departmental store, Pem, a corporate employee and her two children are busy gulping chilled lassi (sweetened curd). They are on a holiday and have come all the way from Trashigang.

Bhutanese frequent the shopping areas like Pan bazaar and Fancy bazaar and Down Town Kumar Nursery, and GNR hospitals for check up and treatment. Those on a holiday also visit the aquarium, the zoo, and temples like Kingaphodrang.

But it was the availability of cheap and variety of items that largely draw Bhutanese to Guwahati. "I come here for shopping thrice a month," said Sonam Choden, who had been making visits for the past 20 years.

According to her, there already existed a long-standing arrangement with suppliers in Guwahati. "If we don't have enough money we take things on credit," she said.

According to Kezang Norbu, the proprietor of a wood based industry and furniture house in Samdrup Jongkhar, Guwahati had grown ten folds ever since his first visit in early eighties. "We used to take our family for shopping and medical check up. But things have changed over the years and we do not feel very safe to take the family there now," said Kezang.

Parshoram, a gup from Dalim in Samdrupcholing, said that many villagers also preferred to buy farm machinery spares from Guwahati. "It is cheaper than the ones sold by the government and there are no lengthy procedures involved," he said.

Jambay, 25, another shopkeeper in Samdrup Jongkhar, said that prices of goods were slightly higher in Guwahati than other places like Siliguri and Kolkata. "But we prefer to go there because it is nearer," she said.

She added that during the height of the security problem when travel to Guwahati was risky they made deals over the phone and received goods from suppliers on time.

While most of the shoppers were from northeast India, shopkeepers in Guwahati Kuensel spoke to say that Bhutanese customers contributed a lot to their business. "We have both the wholesale and retail buyers coming from Bhutan," said Sunil of Oswal store, which supplied handbags. "And they are very friendly customers."

However, Bhutanese frequenting the city say that things would be more convenient if they were allowed to use their personal cars. "Otherwise it calls for extra expenditure," said Sonam, a mother of three.

Done with their shopping Sonam Choden and her niece head back to Samdrup Jongkhar, their cheeks flushed red because of the heat. "If only we could get rid of the dust and the bad traffic it would be so much more fun," she said.

Contributed by Kesang Dema, KUENSEL, Bhutan's national newspaper, 2007
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