We had our hearts set on exploring the North East of India after our month in Nepal and so the most logical way was to travel from Ilam to Darjeeling. This looked really easy on a map as the two towns are at a similar latitude and what seems like a short distance apart.
Unfortunately however, tourists are unable to cross the Nepal/India border in the mountains and need to travel down to the main border crossing at Panitanki-Kakarvitta before heading back up into the mountains again on the other side. This sounds like a pain and it makes for a pretty long journey but we managed to travel from Ilam to Darjeeling using public transport in one day. The connections were relatively easy and the journey is fairly cheap for the distance covered.
Tips for travelling from Ilam to Darjeeling
- Start early. Although there are multiple connections at each point the roads in this area aren’t great and there are often stops, breakdowns or other obstacles which can add time to your journey.
- Make sure you have a visa for India (if required). Not rocket science, you’re crossing a border so make sure you have the necessary documents. You can check the visa policy for India here.
- There are plenty of options to exchange cash at the border but the rates aren’t great. Only exchange the amount you need to get you to Darjeeling and use an ATM there.
- You’ll probably arrive in Darjeeling late and it’s not the most walking friendly city so we recommend booking a place to stay in advance. We thoroughly recommend Smriya Homestay. It had hot water, working wifi and a big, comfy bed. Book now.
How to get from Ilam to Darjeeling using public transport
Ilam to Charaali
There are sumos (shared jeeps) running from the sumo stand in Ilam down to Charaali town. They leave when full so it’s best to get there early as you have better chance of setting off quickly. The first ones start from about 6am, we headed off at 7:30am from our comfortable hotel (Hotel Green View). The journey takes 2.5 hours and costs 300 NPR per person.
Charaali to the Kakarbhitta border crossing
There are public buses going along this road to the border which is about 15 minutes away. We opted not to waste time waiting around and jumped in a tuktuk (we left over Nepalese rupee to spend) which cost us 200 NPR.
The Kakarbhitta border crossing between Nepal and India
When you are dropped at the border crossing there will be plenty of touts trying to sell you a taxi across the border. Ignore them and head to the large building on the left which is where you will be stamped out of Nepal. If you have a lot of luggage you may want to negotiate a taxi or cycle rickshaw over the bridge to India but otherwise grab your pack and make the 10-minute walk to the other side.
On the other side of the bridge the chaos of India hits you full on. There is a guard at the bridge who will ask to see your passport. This is just a check and not where they stamp you in so you have to continue walking until you see the sign pointing down a path to the passport office. Just ask if you can’t find it.
There were a couple of other people waiting when we were there but as we already had visas the whole process only took about 20 minutes and we were on our way to Siliguri.
Kakarbhitta border to Siliguri
Look for the sign the says ‘Siliguri’ or ‘NJP’ (this is the railway station). Either of these options will take you to a connecting sumo stand. Ours ended up going to NJP which is 7km from the city but there were also sumos going from there. The journey takes about an hour and costs 100 INR per person.
Siliguri to Darjeeling
We arrived in Siliguri at about 1pm so we had plenty of time to get to Darjeeling. There were sumos in the parking lot of the train station but we needed to wait an hour for it to fill up. They run more frequently in the morning. But once it set off the journey was an easy going climb up the hill to Darjeeling. It took around 3.5 hours but this can be more depending on traffic. We negotiated the ride to 200 INR per person.
Siliguri to Darjeeling by train
If you are a train enthusiast it may be worth spending a night in Siliguri in order to take the toy train up the hill to Darjeeling in the morning, the train leaves at 8.30am and takes around 7 hours. This steam train trip is a registered UNESCO site and on a clear day is a spectacularly beautiful journey.
Tickets need to be booked in advance and often sell out. The journey costs 1280 INR or 1550 INR in the air-conditioned cabin. You can book tickets online through the Cleartrip app or at any train station.
Wondering what there is to do in Darjeeling? Have a read of our 2 day itinerary for Darjeeling.