When we started chalking out our plan to travel to Bhutan – the Land of Thunder Dragons earlier this year, we were scouring tons of articles on Bhutan and what to know while planning a trip. Despite everything we had read and learnt about the land and its culture, the actual journey to Bhutan which happened in August 2018 taught us that this place can surprise you even when you think you know it all. So here is your complete travel guide to planning your travel to Bhutan – from how to reach, processing your permits/visas, food, culture, stay, what to wear and must see places.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
How To Reach Bhutan
Over the years, accessibility to Bhutan has improved through better connected roads and direct flights to Paro. Visitors can travel to Bhutan via Air or use the land bordered with India at Phuentsholing(West Bengal) or Gelephu(Assam).
Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkar and Gelephu are the only three points through while tourists can enter Bhutan via land. We flew down to Kolkata and traveled by a train from Sealdah to Hasimara in West Bengal. You can then take a taxi to get to Phuentsholing where your permits will be processed
Paro International Airport is the only International airport that is in Bhutan. Surrounded by mountains and with a short runway, Paro is one of those adrenaline raising airports where only a limited number of pilots are approved to perform the take off and touch down.The only National Air Carrier of Bhutan, Druk Air operates flights to and from from Paro to Kolkata, Delhi, Gaya, Bangkok (Thailand), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Dhaka (Bangladesh).
Pros : The flight to Bhutan offers spectacular views of the Paro valley and flies close to several mountain ranges. The experience would be one of a kind for anyone visiting Bhutan. You can process your permit easily at the airport if you are travelling by Druk Air.
Cons : There are limited number of flights and taking the option to fly by air can prove to be pretty expensive. At time of writing this article, there is no online portal for making reservations directly with Druk Air. Tourists would need to go to their website and drop a query for reservation or go via approved travel agents who can reserve your tickets.
Bhutan can be reached via buses from Kolkata. The buses are run by Royal Bhutanese Government and can take anywhere between 15-18 hours to reach.
There are no direct trains to Bhutan. Tourists will always have to get to a railway station that is closest to Bhutan and opt for road transport to get into Bhutan. Convenient and best options from India are New Alipurduar, Siliguri, New Jalpaiguri and Hasimara. Hasimara is probably the closest at a mere 17 kms from the border India shares with Bhutan.
Processing Permit/Visa for Entry to Bhutan
Bhutan has strict procedures regarding processing permits and visas for foreign nationals to enter the land of Thunder Dragon. The entire process on where to obtain permits, how long they are valid and how to go about procuring them can be quite confusing for anyone who is planning a travel to this mountainous country.
We have already explained above the various ways to reach Bhutan. All permit procuring processes are carried out at these entry points to Bhutan. Likewise, when you return, all exit formalities are also done at the same place that you have procured the permit. There are also multiple check points where the permits are verified.
Bhutan Permit for Citizens of India/Bangladesh/Maldives
Due to the treaties between these three countries and Bhutan, if you are citizen of one of these countries, you are probably lucky in that you can process your permit with relatively much less hassle than any other global citizen. For Indians this is particularly easy because you only need to use your passport to gain permit to enter Bhutan.
If citizens of these countries are flying into Paro through the International Airport, then the permit will be provided at the airport itself and stamped into the passport. Similarly the exit process will be completed at the airport.
Instead if citizens of these countries are visiting Bhutan by Road, then permits can be processed at the Immigration Office of Royal Government of Bhutan in Phuntsheoling. You will be requested to provide copies of your passport. The forms provided should be filled in with details of the places you are visiting and duration of your stay. Finger print and photograph will be taken here and added to your documents. Apart from the permit that will be provided, your passport will be stamped for entry/exit. The permit is generally valid for 7 days for Thimphu/Paro
Special permits are required for Punakha and certain treks in Bhutan. Please check with the tour operator or at the permit processing centers at your entry points for details depending on your itinerary.
The office in Phuntsheoling works from Monday – Friday. If you are travelling by road on a weekend, you would either need to wait until Monday to get your permit or go via a tour operator to get your permit completed on a weekend. We ended up reaching there on a weekend and relied on a government approved tour agency to procure our permits. We were also using car and driver supplied by them – so we rolled everything into a package and paid them as a whole.
Bhutan Visas for Nationals of Other Countries
For any national apart from citizens of India/Bangladesh or Maldives, a visa is mandatory to gain entry to the Kingdom of Bhutan. This can be done through a licensed tour operator or an international travel agent.
Travel Tip : When you pick a licensed tour operator, be certain to reach out to the ones that belong to Association of Bhutanese Tour operators. Only approved tour operators can process your permits. They are generally very helpful and reliable.
Daily tariffs are applicable to foreign tourists apart from citizens of India, Bangladesh or Maldives. This is covered in the next section. One way of skipping these charges for foreign nationals is to obtain a Personal Guest Visa if you have a friend who is a citizen of Bhutan who has lived abroad for a few years. This will waive off the daily tourist tariffs.
Tariffs and Packages for Visiting Bhutan
If you were believing that Bhutan is a pocket friendly destination, you will stand corrected when you visit this country. In accordance with the Governments controlled approach to tourism to preserve the Bhutanese culture and tradition, there are tariffs applicable to all tourists visiting Bhutan. India, Bangladesh and Maldives nationals are exempt from the following tariffs
- Bhutan discourages single male travelers. Solo travelers will have to pay a fee of USD 290/night
- A charge of USD 280 per person per day will be levied for a couple travelling to Bhutan
- A charge of USD 250 per person per day will be levied for a group of three travelling to Bhutan
The above fee includes accommodation in 3 star hotels, transport, guide and driver, entry to dzongs and temples and all meals throughout the course of stay in Bhutan.
For India/Bangladesh/Maldives nationals, these would be charged on actuals. There is entry free to all temples, monuments and dzongs which will have to be paid during the visit. Most of these are in the range from Nu.200 to Nu.500.
Currency, Credit/Debit cards and Payments in Bhutan
The currency in Bhutan is called Ngultrum(denoted as Nu.) Though there could be a really minor conversion difference, the Bhutanese Nu. is roughly equivalent to the Indian Rupee (INR). If you are travelling from India, you can carry the Indian currency and use it in Bhutan. It might be slightly hard to use Rs.2000/- notes in Bhutan and hence it is preferred to carry denominations of 500 or 100s during your travel.
Foreign nationals can either opt to carry Indian currency or convert their national currency to Bhutanese currency during entry or at the Royal Banks of Bhutan. Since the Bhutanese currency is used and circulated only within the country, it is advisable to spend your local currency before you leave Bhutan because chances of having these exchanged at a later point in time elsewhere is close to nil.
It is always advisable to carry cash for all expenses when you are travelling to Bhutan. Most foreign credit/debit cards may not work in Bhutan. Even if they do, they would be subject to a surcharge for the transactions made within the country.
If you are shopping for souvenirs, please ensure to carry sufficient cash for making the payments. Most of the things in Bhutan that you shop or restaurants that you eat will prove to be expensive.
SIM Cards, WIFI and Data Connectivity in Bhutan
Just like credit and debit cards, no foreign SIM card would work once you enter Bhutan. There are no provisions to set up international roaming packages for your SIM card while you are in Bhutan. All other operators would simply cease to work.
As soon as the permit is done and approved, tourists can use their passport copy and optionally a passport photo to obtain a prepaid SIM connection for the duration you will be in Bhutan. B-Mobile and Tashi Cell are the two operators and you can check with the tour agent or providers to check which plans would best suit you while you are in the country.
Most hotels are equipped with WIFI that is available freely for use. Data packs from pre-paid sim cards are of limited options and hence it is advisable to turn off unnecessary app updates on your cell phone while using data off the prepaid connection to preserve whatever limited data package that is taken.
Travel Tip : Even if you have a dual sim phone, it is recommended to use only the Bhutanese SIM card in your phone while you are there. The sim cards are normally micro/nano sim cards and come with adapters.
Food and Cuisines of Bhutan
Rice and cheese are the staple food of the Bhutanese. If you would like to try out the local cuisine the “Ema Datshi” is what would be optimal choice as it is the national food of Bhutan.
For the less adventurous, you can try to find familiar cuisines in Bhutan. There are multiple Indian restaurants throughout though we wouldn’t say that the food would be as delicious as you get it in India.
Travel Tip : Yogurt/Curd is hard to get in restaurants. In most cases in the places that we stayed, we had to make sure to let them know a day ahead that we needed curd with our meals. Otherwise most restaurants do not stock this.
Out of the places we stayed, we probably enjoyed our food at Hotel Tenzling in Paro the most. They had an amazing cuisine that was tasty and offered a lot of variety in the buffet. We also raided a few cafes in the towns of Paro, Thimphu and Pheuntsholing and munched on some delicious pastries and snacks. Food options are pretty minimal in Punakha because the town is smaller and less populous that the other popular destinations in Bhutan.
Places to Stay in Bhutan
If you are foreign tourist travelling via a travel agent, it is mandatory to choose from the 3-star hotels on their pre-approved list. This also means you cannot be using AirBnb bookings if you are going via an agent. While there are multiple options to stay in Bhutan, here are the three that we enjoyed the most, each for a different reason.
Dhumra Farm Resort, Punakha
This invariably would be our most favorite stay and experience in the entire trip. The beautiful wooden cottages with a view of the Punakha Dzong and the Pho Chhu and Mo Chuu river is worth dying for. Add to it, the very welcoming Sangay and his wife will ensure that your stay is welcoming and pleasant. The road leading up to the resort is uneven and not tarred. Do not be disappointed seeing these roads because you will be rewarded with the most beautiful views, a welcome drink, very welcoming staff and comfortable cozy cottage room to stay in once you get there. You can make your reservations for this beautiful resort here.
Travel Tip : Either opt to have dinner and breakfast at the resort or ensure to carry sufficient food before you go. The roads are not great leading up here – you wouldn’t want to go back to Punakha just for buying/having food later. The Farm Special room is equipped with a small kitchen and sufficient cutlery. They also provide dinner and breakfast on demand at extra cost.
Hotel Tenzling, Paro
If Dumara welcomed us with amazing views and stay experience, Tenzling ended our long tryst with trying to find good food. After 3 days of experimenting with food(which ended in disappointment most of the time), Tenzling is where we probably started having amazing food – which was highly important for us to gain some stamina before the Tiger’s Nest hike. The breakfast buffet costed roughly about 400 Nu. and had great options.
The rooms here were also very cozy, warm and welcoming. There is no fan but there are plenty of windows. Keep the windows and doors shut in the evenings to keep mosquitoes away. We carried a bug repellant with us all through the journey which came to the rescue one night after we were careless enough to leave the doors open for a long time. Wifi is strong in the lobby but may not be that effective in the rooms.
Travel Tip : The souvenir shop here sells stuff at probably a much better rate than you will find in the rest of Bhutan. They also have an amazing cute little pupper who will steal your heart!
Hotel Riverside, Thimphu
Riverside is a quaint hotel in the town of Thimphu. As always, the customer service and staff was very helpful and welcoming for our short stay here.
Thimphu is the most populous town in Bhutan and there are several places of stay available here. While the two earlier resorts had promising views to offer, most hotels in Thimphu are just for a stay overnight while you are here. It is also highly possible that you will be disturbed by barking of dogs when you stay anywhere in the town of Thimphu. So if you are one who may be troubled by noises at night, it would be wise to carry a pair of ear plugs.
Things to Do in Bhutan
Here are 6 of our top to-do things in Bhutan
- Hike to the Tigers Nest – Paro Taktsang is one of Bhutan’s iconic tourist destinations. The complete hike takes roughly 6 hours and is a definite must do when you are here.
- Punakha Dzong – Situated at the convergence of Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers, this insanely beautiful Dzong is a treat to the eyes and soul.
- Temple of the Divine Madman – Also called as the temple of fertility ( yeah, you heard right) this place is an interesting one to visit for certain- and do not forget to shop the wooden phallus for gifting your curious friends back home 🙂
- Rafting and trekking – For the adventure addicts, a rafting in the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers should definitely be on the to-do list. More details can be found here . Bhutan is also home to some of the best hiking/trekking trails. If you have more time to spend in Bhutan, choose a hike of your preference and enjoy scaling the mountains and greenery.
- Suspension bridge Punakha – No trip to Punakha is complete without visiting the suspension bridge. The long hanging bridge near to the Punakha Dzong with metal ropes and prayer flags is an ideal photo destination like no other.
- Buddha – Dordenma Statue – This is a gigantic statue of Buddha on the moutains of Bhutan and can be accessed by road. This is a rather modern structure and well worth visiting while you are in Thimphu.
If you are looking for more offbeat stuff like hikes and treks, here is an itinerary and adventure organizer that we would recommend – Roads and Journeys and check out their Bhutan Adventure packages here.
Best Season to Visit Bhutan
March – May : This is the spring season in Bhutan and is characterized by the abundance of fresh blooms after the winter. The rhododendrons carpet the hillsides with flowers and are at their best during this time of the year
June – August : This is officially the monsoon season in Bhutan. Most showers happen late in the evening or night and normally does not impact day time sight seeing. Lots of mountain roads in Bhutan may see landslides during these times and hence travel times may depend on how soon these are cleared before traffic can continue to flow. That being said, we visited in August but we did not have issues with rain or landslides.
September – November : Considered to be most popular time to visit Bhutan, this season also sees a hike in prices and hotels will need to be booked in advance to ensure you do not run into last minute hassles. This is also the time of the national festival Tshechu where the towns drape into the colors of festival and celebrate. This season is also known for its clear weather and blue skies.
December – February : This is the coldest time in Bhutan and also sees a lesser density of tourists. The mountains can tend to go cold but the skies remain clear and offer rewarding views of the Himalayas for those who are willing to brave the temperatures and visit Bhutan during this time.
What to Wear in Bhutan
Bhutan is a mountainous Buddhist country. The local folks are almost always dressed in their traditional outfits – the “Gho” for men and the “Kira” for women. The Bhutanese are always modestly dressed and stick to their traditional costume for all official purposes.
While visiting monasteries and places of religious interest (which you would be doing on a daily basis) it is always advisable to wear dresses that fully cover the body. That would mean no sleeveless or shorts for men and women. Most places require everyone to wear full sleeved tops to cover the hands completely. Men would need to wear collared T-Shirts. If you do not happen to be wearing the right attire, using a scarf or jacket over your dress would also suffice in most places.
Most of the monastery visits involve short hikes or walks and hence it is advisable to wear shoes that can be comfortable. The hike to the Tiger’s Nest definitely requires sturdy shoes and active wear.
People and Culture of Bhutan
Bhutan has multiple synonyms – worlds happiest country, the only carbon negative country and etc. It would also be appropriate to honor Bhutan as one of the worlds safest destination for tourists. The people of Bhutan are exceptionally welcoming and go to great extents to make you feel comfortable. They are a law abiding and civilized group of humans who keep their King and the country in high regards.
Every time we left the car with our personal belongings, by practise, we ended up requesting the guide/driver to lock the car. Each time they responded with a smile on their faces – “This is not India. Do not worry”. And true to their word, there was nothing for us to worry about ever during the 5 days we spent in this country tucked into the mountains.
Agent and Package Details
There are several government approved agents in Bhutan. It is best to use guided tours on your first visit to know about the history of the place. This also helps in procuring permits for your travel to Bhutan. It might be wise to let the agent know your places of interest. We visited Thimphu, Paro and Punakha but it would be good include Phobjika Valley also to your itinerary if time permits.
Agent Name : AD Tours & Travels
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone : +975-5-252462 / +975-17351324 / +91-7872254450 / +91-913544293
Cost : ~ 45,000 per head for 2 pax (5 nights/4 days).
The travel to Bhutan is an experience. The kind that stays with you after you have left. It is a destination that remains etched in your mind for the soft spoken and broad hearted people who live in this mountain country. It is a country that does not sacrifice the green cover in the name of tourism. Bhutan does everything in its power to retain their tradition, culture and greenery with their controlled tourism ideas – a model that a lot of places the rest of the world can learn from – we do not need to exploit to grow. We can grow being one with nature.
May you discover the beauty and magic of Bhutan as we saw it – Tashi Delek!
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