Kuzo Dzangpo La! Hello from the Land of Happiness – Bhutan. With its gorgeous valleys, calming monasteries, bright colors and truly delightful people – it is not surprising to find Bhutan on almost everyone’s bucket list – even the ones who have been there at least once. I am already craving for another trip to this country. However, while I wait for that to happen. let me help the rest of you to plan yours with this Bhutan Travel Guide.
A landlocked Himalayan country, Bhutan is quite a traditional nation. Quite isolated from the world, it has taken care to preserve its origin. While they do welcome tourists, they are a little restrictive on how many they encourage and the areas where they can visit. Hence, as a traveler, you will find that there are permits that you need to plan for. In addition, the mountainous terrain requires you to be well prepared. From travel permits to visas, places to visit, where to stay, what to eat – I will try to cover it all in this one ultimate Travel Guide to Bhutan. Hopefully, after this, you can just get down to the task and get to that one place on your bucket list.
Bhutan Travel Guide: Getting to Bhutan
As an Indian, getting to Bhutan was quite easy. However, if you are a citizen of any country other than India, Bangladesh and Maldives, you will find it a little restrictive to get here. This is the case not just owing to the mode of travel to Bhutan but also, owing to their tourist requirements. Let me first deal with the Mode of Travel and then, I will share all about Government Prescribed Tourist Packages for Foreigners.
Getting to Bhutan by Road
This is how I got into Bhutan. I flew to the closest Indian Airport – Bagdogra and then, took a cab to the Indian Border town – Jaigaon. From here, we completed our formalities at the Bhutan Border Town – Phuentsholing before proceeding with the rest of our trip. The roads to Bhutan and within are fairly good and the journey not so tiresome. Tea Gardens keep you company all way from Bagdogra to Jaigon after which the mountains of Bhutan take over. One cannot complain about boredom for the stunning views keep you company. There is this one leg where you just don’t see anything for you are traveling through clouds. It is quite a scintillating experience. And a bit scary too! . However, the Bhutanese drivers are quite adept at these roads and the journey is quite safe.
If you want to save some time, you can either land or depart in Bhutan directly and do the other way by road. In our case, we did both by road. Here are some handy tips if you choose to do the road –
- Avoid hiring a car from Bhutan for a pickup or a drop to Bagdogra. They will charge you the additional amount as they need to drive all the way from Bhutan.
- It is better to hire an Indian cab for your airport leg to or from Bagdogra. Should you land in Bagdogra, you will get enough taxis at the airport for Jaigaon. The same is true from Jaigaon. The price per taxi (Xylo or SUV equivalent) is around INR 2700 -3000 for a one-way drop.
- For a travel within Bhutan, hire a Bhutanese cab. They charge you per day at around INR 3200 for a Creta or a Xylo. This includes everything and one need not give out extra. A tip to the driver at the end of the journey is not a norm but is a good gesture.
- There are no mid-sized Vehicles in Bhutan. You can either hire a small car like Wagon R or a big one like Xylo.
- If you get an Indian Vehicle to Bhutan, there are some additional charges for the car.
Getting to Bhutan by Rail
There is no rail to Bhutan directly. The closest station is 17 km from the Indian border town – Jaigaon. It is called Hasimara and you can get a train here using the Indian Railways Network. However, from Hasimara, you will have to follow the by road method of getting into Bhutan.
Getting to Bhutan by Air
Paro is the only international airport in Bhutan and only two air carriers operate here. One is Druk Air and the other is Bhutan Airlines. There are limited flights into Bhutan and hence, the prices of air tickets are quite exorbitant. Whether it is from India or from the rest of the World, you need to book at least 6 months in advance to get a decent price, which will still be high. I tried booking 3 months prior and for 3 of us, the price from Bangalore to Paro (via Kolkata) was a minimum of INR 50,000 one way.
A lot of tourists get into Bhutan by air and then exit by road so that they get to see a bit of India too. Some do it the other way round. It does make it a little more affordable.
Bhutan Government Tourist Packages for Foreign Nationals
As an Indian Citizen, I was able to do Bhutan on a budget. However, if you are not a citizen of India, Bangladesh or Maldives, you will have to avail of a Government Prescribed Package for your visit to Bhutan. These are at a fixed price of USD 250 per day. The price includes your 3-start stay, meals, driver and a guide per day. There are no discounts on this rate and if a tour operator does attempt to give you one, his license is forfeited. You should check out the country deals that Bhutan announces every year on their website. These give you a discounted rate. This year, it is Australia.
As a foreign national (citizen of countries other than the ones mentioned above), it is mandatory for you to have a guide with you all the time. In case of Indians, this is not a norm. Please be aware of this for when I attempted booking a package for Bhutan, some of the tour operators insisted that as an Indian, we too have to follow this norm and have a guide with us all the time. However, with my recent visit, the only places that I found you need a guide are at the Dzongs. For these places, you will find a guide included in the ticket that you purchase at the counter.
Best time to Visit Bhutan
They say barring July and August, all months of the year are great for Bhutan. Each season offers a different beauty of Bhutan. Spring Time in April and May will have Bhutan greet you with a valley of flowers. The temperature drops to around 10 C or lower in Thimphu and Paro while places like Gangtey Valley will be around 1 C. September and October is again mild weather like Spring. Winters can get a little harsh but are pleasing. You will also, get to see the rare Black-Necked Cranes if you go in December. January is when the temperature hits the lowest. Me? I loved Spring with its gorgeous Rhododendron blooms.
Places to Visit in Bhutan
While I can say that the whole of Bhutan is fairly undiscovered, it is these three towns that will form the base of your itinerary. Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. It is from here that you might choose the lesser known towns and valleys, either as a day trip or a few overnights. Here is a quick summary of what each of these places offers. For now, a few of them have been elaborated in separate posts that you can click through. For the rest, there will be posts coming up shortly.
- Phuentsholing – Crocodile Zoo, ZangtoPelri, Karbandi Monastery
- Thimphu – Buddha Point, Trashichhoedzong (Thimphu Dzong), Simtoka Dzong, Memorial Chorten, The Folk Heritage Museum, Changangkha Lhakhang, Thimphu Handicrafts Bazaar, Thimphu Post Office
- Paro – Rinpung Dzong (Paro Dzong), Ta Dzong, Taktsang Monastery, Farmhouse, Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang, Ugyen Pelri Palace, Kyichu Lhakhang
- Punakha – Punakha Dzong, Suspension Bridge, Chimi Lhakhang, Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Dochula Pass
- Haa Valley – A day outing or an overnight from Paro. You can even experience the highest pass of Bhutan – Chelela pass. Don’t miss Lhakhang Nagpo
- Phobjikha Valley – A day outing or an overnight from Punakha. A silent green valley with Gangtey Monastery and the home of the Black Necked Crane
- Bumthang Valley – An overnight from Punakha. A serene valley with traditional villages and undisturbed nature.
A typical itinerary of 6 nights/7 days will include a 2-night stay in Thimphu, 2 nights in Paro, 1 nights in Punakha and maybe one night – either in Phobjikha or Haa Valley. Of course, you can choose to change things around based on your interests.
Bhutan Travel Guide to Permits and Visas
There are two types of Permits that one needs to take care of – Entry Permit and a Route Permit. The Entry permit is only required for Indians, Maldivians, and Bangladeshis. For the others, it is Visas.
The Visas for foreigners come as a part of the Government Prescribed Packages. You will have to pay an additional fee of USD 40 for it. The processing is done by the tourist agent through whom you book your trip to Bhutan.
For Indians, to get your entry permit, you need to submit the following documents at your point of entry –
- Government ID – Passport or Voters ID card
- 2 passport sized photographs
- Hotel Vouchers and Itinerary in Bhutan
- In case of solo travelers, a letter of undertaking
If you come in by air, the entry permit is granted at Paro Airport. At Phuentsholing, since we came by road, we had to approach the Permit House and submit these to get our 7-day Permit for Bhutan. This permit is valid for Paro and Thimphu only. Remember to get to the Permit Window by 8 am to beat the crowd. You need to submit the above documents after filling a form. Submitting them through a local will get your processing done faster. The Phuentsholing permit office is open only till 5 pm on all weekdays (Monday to Friday). 1 pm to 2 pm is a lunch break. Please bear in mind these timings as they will affect your flight and other bookings.
The Route Permit for Bhutan is mandatory for everyone – foreigners, Indians, Maldivians, and Bangladeshis. This allows you to explore places like Punakha, Haa Valley, Bumtang etc. This can only be obtained from Thimphu and is free of charge on working days (Monday to Friday) between 9 am to 5 pm. For this, you need to submit your passport or Voters ID and Visa or Entry Permit. Your driver or tour operator can help you with the same. Again, note that this is mandatory and if you plan your itinerary, please keep in mind the working hours of the Thimphu office. We almost had to extend our stay in Thimphu as we were in the capital over a weekend. Thankfully, our driver and tour operator helped us with the permit and we were able to continue with our original plan.
Packing for Bhutan
Dressing in layers is a good idea in Bhutan. Some of the places are quite cold through the year while the others like Thimphu are milder. Punakha and Phuentsholing are considerably warmer. A down jacket, gloves, and a winter cap is always a good idea. Avoid shorts and sleeveless outfits as in almost all places, you will end up visiting a Buddhist temple or monastery. Here you will need to cover your legs and shoulders.
Trekking shoes or boots will be the most comfortable everywhere for there are little hikes that you will enjoy in Bhutan. Of course, they can get a little annoying when you visit the temples as you need to remove them before you get into the main sanctum.
Sunscreen and mosquito repellants are a definite must. Keep your basic medicines with you. If you are prone to motion sickness, you might want to carry a specific one for that as the roads in Bhutan are quite winding. At the high passes like Chelela pass, you might face a bit of AMS. It might be a good idea to carry Diamox or just head down to the plains asap.
Currency in Bhutan
Ngultrum (Nu) is the currency of Bhutan and the value of the same is equal to Indian Rupees. In fact, all Indian currency is widely accepted across Bhutan. The shops even give you the change back in Indian currency. INR 500 and 2000 notes have a limited acceptance but are not completely rejected either.
Cards are hardly used or accepted in Bhutan. Most transactions are in physical currency form. ATMs are limited to the bigger towns like Paro, Phuentsholing, Thimphu and Punakha. These towns have currency exchange counters for any other currency that you might need to change.
Mobile Connectivity in Bhutan
Tashi Cell and Bhutan Telecom are the two mobile operators in Bhutan. As a tourist, you can take up a tourist SIM. For this you need to show your Passport copy, Visa/ Permit and get a connection. The smallest denomination is 200 Nu which gives you the same value of talk time. For Data, there are various other plans. Tashi Cell is highly recommended owing to its connectivity and signal strength. Wi-Fi is available in most hotels and restaurants.
Bhutan Travel Guide to Food
Be prepared for a heavy dose of Cheese and Chilli. And no, this is not a typo. Bhutanese food is quite heavy on these. And it is quite delightful too. Don’t miss the famous Ema Datshi (Chilli Cheese), Kewa Datshi (Potato Cheese) and Shamu Datshi (Mushroom Cheese). This along with Red rice is the main meal. There are plenty of other traditional things to try and I will shortly elaborate on those – but in a separate post.
The Bhutanese food is available everywhere and in most cases, you will have to do with those. Indian food too, is widely available. It is pleasing to note that fast food is not as readily available – even in the capital city – Thimphu.
Most hotels have a very basic breakfast – consisting of Bread, Jam, Eggs, One Fruit and one Indian dish (Aloo Paratha or Puri in most cases). You will have to pay extra for this as this is generally, not included in the hotels that you book online.The Breakfast ranges from 300 Nu to 500 Nu plus taxes. Food, in general, is a little expensive in Bhutan. However, if you are on the Government package, then this is taken care of in the price.
Travel Within Bhutan
Cabs or Cars are the best way to get across Bhutan. Having a dedicated cab not just saves time but also, helps you in a lot of ways. For example, our driver helped us out with the permits and tickets. To save time, he pre-ordered our meals in places like Phobjikha, where you would otherwise have to wait long for one. The Bhutanese drivers also, help out with guides and suggestions. They are well groomed and have to, in fact, earn a tourism certification to be a Tourist driver.
The price for hiring cabs is as shared in the Getting to Bhutan section. The other way to get around Bhutan is to use their public buses. There are no railways within Bhutan. Internal flights too, are limited.
The distances in Bhutan are not that huge. On an average, the key towns are within 100 kms for each other. However, the mountainous path makes the distance longer. The roads across the major towns are fairly decent. The one thing that I totally loved here was that every driver is considerate. There is no honking or unnecessary speeding. They are so disciplined that there are no signals in Bhutan. In fact, the only one signal in Thimphu is manual. 😉
Bhutan Travel Guide to Hotels
Bhutan has a range of hotels – from three stars to five stars – at least in the 4 major towns – Phuentsholing, Punakha, Paro and Thimphu. On the Government Prescribed packages – these are taken care of by the tour operator. If you are visiting like me, then you can book them through any of the popular booking sites. However, if you are heading to Phobjikha or any of the other offbeat locations, it is best to book through a local tour operator. This is because there is limited availability and owing to low connectivity, these are not online.
The hotels are well equipped with heaters. Most of them have a 24-hour hot water supply and Wi-Fi too. The food in these hotels is expensive and generally, not included in the online rates.
Bhutan Travel Guide to Shopping
The handicrafts in Bhutan is what most people carry home. Most of them are symbols from Buddhism. From prayer flags and wheels to wall hangings, Thangka Art and singing bowls, these make good gifts for your friends and relatives. I found Thimphu and Paro the best to buy these for the prices here were reasonable. You can bargain a little more for some discount. Clothes and bags are quite expensive here as are shoes. In fact, I found them priced double of what you get in India.
On the whole, whether it is shopping or sightseeing, you will love this little country of Happiness. Hopefully this Bhutan Travel Guide has got the ball rolling for you and you are well on your way to booking your own trip there. So, for now – Log Jay Gay – which basically means – See you again! 😉