No longer the economic hub of the East

Samdrup Jongkhar town, which was once the most happening place in eastern Bhutan is today one resembling a ghost town

Amidst the towering yellow buildings, a figure sits quietly with a steaming cup of tea, watching as a handful of individuals scurry past. Jigmela, an 82-year-old man reminisces about a time when the town, once the hub of activity in eastern Bhutan, was teeming with life. Now, it stands eerily quiet, at times devoid of any signs of human presence.
The echoes of a bustling past still reverberate through the abandoned streets of Samdrup Jongkhar, the once-thriving commercial heart of eastern Bhutan. Yet, despite its former glory, the town now lies eerily empty, bereft of the vibrant energy that once pulsed through its veins. A ghost town, frozen in time, waiting to be reawakened. And inhabitants of the town cite several reasons for this.
One is the Gyelpoishing to Nganglam highway, which a resident of Samdrup Jongkhar says is directly responsible for “killing the aura of Samdrup Jongkhar town.” According to him, Samdrup Jongkhar’s economy was severely affected with the completion of the 77kms Gyalposhing – Nganglam highway in 2018.
“The trip from Mongar to Phuentsholing was has been cut down by more than 200 kms as a result of the construction, which benefited the residents of the eastern Dzongkhags. Businessman from places like Mongar, who earlier used to take their goods from Samdrup Jongkhar began to go to Phuentsholing,” he said.
Sangay Dorji, a resident of the town said that before the construction of the Gyalposhing-Nganglam highway, Samdrup Jongkhar served as the primary transit point for all travelers. “It was a transport hub and a popular transit point for pilgrims and adventurers alike. It was a vital crossroad for travelers and it was very difficult to get rooms in the hotels of the town. Today, everything is dead,” Sangay adds.
According to some residents, the town’s decline began in the early 2000s, with the onset of military operations and the exodus of some significant Indian traders to Jaigoan, a nearby town on the Indian side of the border. The loss of these figures and the subsequent decline in commerce had a profound impact on the town’s economy.
A resident, Kunzang, who is 76 years old and has lived in Samdrup Jongkhar for nearly a decade, recalls the earlier days saying that development was sparse and there were fewer structures at that time.
“There were simply a few tiny huts and in a few years the town boomed only to transit into a town without people,” Kunzang notes. According to him, the gradual death of Samdrup Jongkhar town began with the growth of militancy in neighbouring Assam district. “At the edge of the town is the market of Gudama, which was once a colorful and bustling marketplace. Gudama was for Samdrup Jongkhar, what Jaigoan is for Phuentsholing,” the 76-year-old mentions. However, Gudama became barren as armed Indian forces took over in a bid to quell militants of Assam.
“Samdrup Jongkhar was severely affected and since then the town has not been able to revive,” Kunzang underlined.
Another resident, Karma Tenzin, said that the town is a good example for “urban poverty” “There are enough development infrastructure but no population,” he added.
Karma further mentioned that even though the economy had deteriorated, the situation was under control as few easterners would still travel through Samdrup Jongkhar. But then came the Covid 19 pandemic. Leading to the closure of the border and taking down Samdrup Jongkhar town with it. While the new normal has started, residents of the town are pessimistic about the town’s future. “The revival of the town’s status as the economic hub of eastern Bhutan is like a dream,” Samdrup, a resident said. According to Samdrup, the town has been shut out from the “veins of development.” “Everything goes from Phuentsholing, directly to Mongar and the other eastern regions. Apart from few people who have to come to Samdrup Jongkhar, given a choice, all the people avoid the town,” he said. The same is echoed by other residents and businessman.
However, there are few like Sonam, another businessman, who is placing his bet on the industrial estate of Motanga.
“Several factories are coming up in the new establishment of Motanga and it is the only hope for people living in Samdrup Jongkhar.”
Meanwhile, Jigmela goes back, excavating memories of a time long past, which has flooded his mind. He recounts how, the once-bustling thoroughfare has given way to an eerie stillness, a ghost town frozen in time.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu