Routes to Bhutan
Till the early 1960’s, Bhutan remained cloistered from the rest of the world. The hermit Kingdom was accessible only by foot. Of the two main entries, in the north the high mountain passes enabled the crossing only during the snow-free seasons while, in the south, the connectivity was through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. With modern development, however, came the motorable road, opening the country not just to the outside world but also overcoming the extremely difficult geography that had isolated the Bhutanese communities from each other for centuries.
The main thoroughfare in the south today is from Phuentsholing, the country’s second biggest town and the conduit of most of its commerce. The town links Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal while its other sister towns, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar, connects with the Indian state of Assam.
In 1983, Bhutan introduced its national airline, Druk Air, connecting the country to the metropolis in India, and eventually to Bangkok, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Singapore. Druk Air operates a fleet of A319 aircraft. In the latter half of 2013, a new airline was launched. Bhutan Airlines currently flies only to Bangkok but has plans to operate from several other cities in the coming year.
Bhutan today has one international airport at Paro in western Bhutan, an hour’s drive from the capital city, Thimphu. The international airport at Paro is located at a height of 7300 ft above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 16,000 feet.
In the past few years, the capacity for airline travel was augmented with the opening of three domestic airports in central, east and southern Bhutan. This provides passengers with the choice of multiple entry into Bhutan from various parts of India.
Phuntsholing in south-west Bhutan, Gelephu in the central and Samdrup Jongkhar in eastern Bhutan are the only land border areas open for international tourists.
Phuntsholing is located approximately 170 km east of the Indian airport at Bagdogra. After Phuntsholing, the journey by road meanders northward over hills and mountains to Thimphu, the capital city. The journey takes approximately five hours.
From Gelephu to Thimphu, the distance is approximately 250 kms and takes travelers through sub-tropical regions before entering the alpine zone and then finally into Thimphu. The journey traverses across three districts in about 10 hours.
Samdrup Jongkhar, the only entry point in eastern Bhutan, borders the Indian district of Darranga, Assam, and is approximately 150 kms away from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The journey from Guwahati to Samdrup Jongkhar takes about three hours, and thereafter an additional six hours to Trashigang, Bhutan’s largest district. From Trashigang, the lateral highway takes the travelers via Mongar, Bumthang, Trongsa, Wangde Phodrang and then finally to Thimphu. The distance of about 700 kms takes a minimum of two days.
The contact addresses of the Druk Air offices are as follows:
New Delhi Tel: 91-11-335-7703
Kolkata Tel: 91-33-240-2419
Paro International Airport Tel: +975-8-271856/271857
Visit www.drukair.com.bt for more information
You can enter into Bhutan from any of the three entry points: Samdrup Jongkhar (southeast Bhutan), Gelephu (south Bhutan), and Phuentsholing (southwest Bhutan)
You will be endorsed by the immigration officers upon your arrival before you are issued with a permit. Make sure you go personally. You may have to carry your passport (also some passport photographs) or voter’s registration card. If you plan to travel by road, the endorsement is done at the entry points in Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar, and Gelephu. If by flight, you will enter from the Paro Airport.
Traveling within Bhutan
Despite the major hurdle posed by the inaccessible terrain, the high mountain passes, all major towns and important places of visit are connected by a good road network.
However, an important feature of the road system is the innumerable curves and bends that one will have to negotiate. Besides the bends, another characteristic of the road network is the steep ascents and descents that slow down the car travels. An average speed for road travel rarely exceeds 40 kilometers an hour, with tourist buses making even slower progress. One is however generously rewarded for the long and tiring car journey by the spectacular views of the mountains, the lush green jungles, the ancient villages, the majestic temples and monasteries and the many road side restaurants and inns.
The roads are well sealed but the rides can still be bumpy as the lanes are single and narrow at most points. The advantage is that the Bhutanese are well accustomed to driving such lanes and know their land well and are careful drivers.
Tourists can travel in Bhutan with medium-sized buses (20-22 seats), small buses (8-12 seats) or hired cars. Road widths do not permit larger buses.
Bringing in your own vehicle
Indian visitors can bring in their own vehicles. For the entry of the foreign cars, the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) – www.rsta.gov.bt – will have to endorse the documents. But we strongly recommend that you use our cars and the services of the local drivers as the narrow and winding roads in Bhutan may pose a challenge for you.
The Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan has initiated a travel and medical plan solely for the visitors. You may visit the web site at www.ricb.com.bt.
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) that is at par with the Indian Rupee. It is however recommended that you carry travelers’ cheque or cash, preferably American Express and US dollar instead, as the ATM facilities for foreign currency is limited to just few towns including the capital city Thimphu. Visa and American Express credit cards are also widely accepted.
Some of the banks that you can avail of services and facilities while in Bhutan are the Bank of Bhutan Limited, the Bhutan National Bank, the Druk PNB, Bhutan Development Bank Limited, and the Tashi Bank. Many of these banks provide you with SMS and internet banking facilities. There are also ATM facilities that you can avail of and ATMS are located in a number of places where you can withdraw your money especially in Thimphu and in the border town of Phuentsholing. Traveler’s cheque can be easily withdrawn and exchanged into local currency. However, as you travel into the interior, ATM and internet facilities are almost non-existent and we suggest that you do your banking facilities while in Thimphu.
All major towns are well connected with electricity that runs on 220/240 volts with round hole two-pin and three-pin power outlets. Our energy is clean and green energy generated by hydropower.
The country has a good network of telecommunication facilities. Almost every town has an internet cafe and IDD calling booths from where you can log on to and send messages home and to your loved ones. Also most hotels have internet access. Mobile (cell) phone is also widely used with international roaming facilities.
Bhutan experiences a great variation in its climate. Summers are warm with average daily temperature ranging from 20 to 25 Celsius, while winters are cold. In winters temperatures are usually below 15 Celsius. So bring with you a couple of warm clothes and comfortable shoes to go with the weather, the terrain and the program. You might want to consider ‘what to wear’ for hikes, trekking and sightseeing, as well as for dinners, appointments and functions that we have for you. Others that you could consider bringing with you would be a pair of sunglasses, sun screen lotion and a hat; antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream, anti-diarrhoea pills, altitude & car sickness medicine; insect repellent, flash light (w/spare batteries) umbrella, camera, films and accessories (including spare camera batteries)etc.
Bhutan is an ideal place and a frequent haunt for photographers offering immense opportunities for photography especially during our outdoor sightseeing trips. However you may need to check with your guide for indoor photography as taking photographs inside Dzongs, temples, monasteries and religious institutions are restricted unless you have a special permission from the Department of Culture. One can however, capture images of the landscapes, the panoramic views of the mountain ranges, the rural folk life, the flora and fauna, the Bhutanese architecture and the Dzongs and Choetens in particular.
For people who love shopping and taking home gifts, Bhutan offers a variety of goods that revolve mainly round textiles. You may shop for items like hand-woven textiles that is either in raw silk or silk, carved masks of various animals, woven baskets of cane and bamboo, wooden bowls known as Dapas, handmade paper products or finely crafted gods of silver. You can also shop for thangka paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamp. One can come across these items in the many handicraft shops in and around Thimphu and also in major towns. Please remember that buying and selling of antiques is strictly forbidden in Bhutan.
Tipping is a purely personal matter. We do not have any tradition of giving tips and we clearly leave it up to you as to whether you want to give tips to your guides and drivers.
The following articles are exempt from duty:
(a) Personal effects and articles for day to day use by the visitor (b) 1 litre of alcohol (spirits or wine) (c) 200 cigarettes, on payment of import duty of 200% (d) Instruments, apparatus or appliances for professional use (e) Photographic equipment, video cameras and other electronic goods for personal use.
You have to complete the passenger declaration form on your arrival before checking out. The articles mentioned under (d) & (e) must be declared on the declaration form. If any such items are disposed of in Bhutan by sale or gift, they are liable for customs duty.
On departure, visitors are required to surrender their forms to the customs authorities.
Import/export restrictions of the following goods is strictly prohibited: (a) Arms, ammunitions and explosives (b) All narcotics and drugs except medically prescribed drugs (c) Wildlife products, especially those of endangered species (d) Antiques.
Imports of plants, soils etc. are subject to quarantine regulations. These items must be cleared on arrival. Visitors are advised to be cautious in purchasing old and used items, especially of religious or cultural significance, as such items may not be exported without a clearance certificate.
Besides Dzongkha, the national language and, English is also a medium of communication and most Bhutanese speak English. Communicating in English especially with the people in the urban areas and the towns will enhance your knowledge on Bhutan.
Cloths and paraphernalia
With great altitudinal variations weather is quite erratic in Bhutan. So be prepared to brace the erratic weather as you step outdoor. We expect visitors to dress modestly and respectfully especially if you are planning a visit to the monasteries, fortresses and other religious institutions. As a mark of respect, be kind enough to remove your hats, caps etc. as you enter religious and administrative premises, institutions and in any other place that you come across with the national flag being raised.
Our standard time is 6 hours ahead of GMT and there is only one time zone throughout the country.
Office hours in Bhutan are divided into two – the summer timing and the winter timing. The summer timing begins at 9 AM Bhutan standard time and goes on till 5 PM in the evening. The summer timing is followed from March till the end of October. The winter timing that lasts for the months of November till the end of February begins at 9 AM in the morning till 4 PM in the evening. However, these timings are followed only by the civil servants. For those people employed in corporations and private organizations, the timings are usually from 9 AM till 5 PM irrespective of the season.
Before embarking on a trip to Bhutan, it is advisable to have tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A inoculations.
We have a duty to protect Bhutan from Drugs and Tobacco Products. To do this we need your help and cooperation. If we stop you and ask you about your baggage please cooperate.
Please do not carry tobacco goods that are over the limits.
Most hotels in Bhutan meet the recent standardization policy, most tourists accommodate in a 5 star or a 3 star hotel. The hotels are well maintained and have all basic amenities such as geysers and shower rooms and are properly maintained. Visitors can be assured of their warmth and comfort of the hotels, and the ambience and the hospitality offered by the hotels are incredible. The 5 star hotels are mostly located in Thimphu and in Paro; towns like Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang also have a variety of hotels that are comfortable. Away from town, you may find it tempting to camp outside in the forest or make a night halt at the purpose-built-in cabins sprinkled along some main trekking routes.
Most Bhutanese dishes are rich and spicy with a lot of cheese and chili. It is advisable that visitors stick to the Chinese, Continental or Indian cuisine that is served in most restaurants. Visitors can also choose among the various vegetarian and non-veg food. You can also try out momos, the Tibetan dumplings, and for those daring, you may try out the ema datshi dish served with cheese and chili and other typical Bhutanese dishes.
Weights and Measures
Bhutan has a standard system of weights and measurements in place and most weights are measured in gram and kilogram. With better and efficient measurement systems readily available, most of the shopkeepers in the capital city make use of electronic and weighing scale. However, as you travel further east, you will find the ordinary weighing scale in place.
While safety is not much of a concern, it is good to come prepared for any mishap. One needs to avoid walking alone or roaming the streets after 9 PM as you may never know of any mishap that may occur. Or else you may visit the town in groups or with your guides.
Also please ensure that your belongings especially your passports, route permits, cameras, wallets and purses are properly secured.
Guides and Interpreters
Bhutan has a good team of interpreters and guides who are well-versed in history and possess good communication skills. They are all certified having undergone training conducted by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. There are also guides who speak fluent Japanese, Thai and other European languages.
Public holidays are declared by the government. However, each district has its own list of holidays that is observed especially while conducting annual Tshechus (religious festivals).