Everything You Need To Know To Plan a Bhutan Trip

Click here to read our Travel Stories from ‘Thousand Kilometres Across Bhutan’

Planning a trip to Bhutan is different for Indians and for SAARC nationals than for other nationalities. If you don’t belong to one of the SAARC countries including India, then you will need a visa and will have to contact a local travel agent in Bhutan and have to make all your bookings only through them.

If however, you are Indian or a SAARC country national, you do not need a visa but do need a Permit to enter Bhutan. Read on to plan your trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

In 2019, Bhutan had proposed that Indians, Maldivians and Bangladeshis will have to pay a daily fee of INR 1200 (vs. USD 250 per day paid by other nationalities) from July 2020 onwards. Exemptions for this Sustainable Development Fee are available if you’re travelling in eastern districts from Trongsa to Trashigang. However since Bhutan has bee closed for tourism since March 2020 due to the spread of CoVID-19, details of the fee are still awaited. We will update the blog post once it is announced.

Click here for our Stories from Bhutan

How to reach Bhutan

Druk Air Plane landing in one of the most treacherous airports of the world, Paro, Bhutan

Bhutan can be reached by air or by road.

By air, there are two flight services operated by Bhutan which will take you to Paro city: 1. Druk Air and 2. Bhutan Airlines. They cost the same and fly to and from Delhi and Kolkata to Paro. Druk Air does have some flights from Guwahati too.

The road option will require you to reach Jaigaon, the border town on the India side which will take you into Phuentsholing, the border town on Bhutan’s side. There are a few ways to reach Jaigaon/Phuentsholing.

Take a flight to Kolkata and an overnight train from there to Hashimara. There onwards you will find a ton of taxis plying to Jaigaon/Phuentsholing at reasonable rates and will take you about half an hour to reach the border towns. Alternatively, take a flight to Bagdogra, Siliguri and a taxi from there to Jaigaon/Phuentsholing which will take you about 3-4 hours.

How to get Permits to enter Bhutan

Entry Permit

Documents: A passport with at least 6 months’ validity or voter’s id card
4 passport size photos
If you have children on the trip, birth certificate/school id card

By Flight: If you choose to fly into Bhutan, your Entry Permit will be provided at Paro airport.

At the airport you will be given a card by the authorities and you need to return this at the time of exiting the country.

By Road: If you enter Bhutan by road, you need to get the permit yourself from Phuentsholing. Entering Phuentsholing doesn’t require a permit and you are even allowed to stay in Phuentsholing without a permit. Vehicles from India can enter Bhutan.

At Phuentsholing, you need to make it to the permit office early. It opens at 8 a.m. and there is bound to be some queue. The first queue is to collect the application form. Once you get it, fill in all the information, make sure you have all your hotel bookings attached as proofs, affix photo and keep more photos handy. Keep your voter’s id or passport ready for inspection.

Once your forms are checked at the entrance, you will be called as per your turn and asked to give your bio-metrics inside the office. The permit will be handed over at the same office or will be stamped in your passport.

This process should not take you more than 2 hrs or so.

Important to note is that this is the Entry Permit that allows you to enter only Thimphu and Paro. Entry Permits are only issued in person and cannot be arranged by an agent in advance.

If you want to go anywhere else in the country, including Punakha, you will need a Route Permit. This will have to be obtained by you at Thimphu by providing proofs of hotel stays. It can be arranged in advance through an agent though we did not try it and cannot confirm it.

Route Permit

The Thimphu Permit office opens at 9 a.m. but queues start as early as 8 a.m. You need to collect the form and submit it with proofs of your route by giving hotel bookings, if applicable. The will also check the validity of your Entry Permit, keep it handy. The Route Permit will be issued in an hour or if there is too much crowd, will be the same day 2 p.m. onwards. However, if you submit your form in the second half of the day, you are likely to get a permit only the next day.

Local Travel

Road travel is the only option available in Bhutan with the exception of some flights from Bumthang to Paro. But we did not use any internal flights.

We booked a cab for 10 days for our journey from Phuentsholing itself across our travels from the east to the west of the country and back to Phuentsholing. It cost us INR 20,000/- for driver, guide and his accommodation and food, but that’s based on your bargaining skills. You need a guide-cum-driver to enter some of the places in Bhutan and in our case Sonam (our driver) was officially both. The average price for a four-seater cab is INR 700 per person per day or INR 2,800 per day.

Within Paro and Thimphu you can find taxis to take you around but we prefer not being stuck without one since it is a sparsely populated country.

What To See

Our top picks for Bhutan include the following. You can find details in our blog posts on each location and what it offers.

Starting from the west to the east:

  1. Haa Valley
  2. Paro
  3. Thimphu
  4. Punakha
  5. Gangtey/ Phobjikha Valley
  6. Trongsa
  7. Bumthang

Accommodation

View from our room in Dewachen Hotel, Gangtey/Phobjikha Valley
Yangkhil Resort in Trongsa, Bhutan with views of the Trongsa Dzong from our room and great service!

We prefer a mix of homestays, budget hotels and luxury so that we enjoy every aspect during our travels. especially the longer travels.

Here’s a list of places we stayed at and would recommend to you too.

  1. Kisa Villa – Thimphu
  2. Airbnb (Langmana’s Place) – Paro
  3. Yangkhil Resort – Trongsa
  4. Dewachen Hotel – Gangtey/Phobjikha Valley
  5. Sherab Dema’s Homestay – Bumthang
  6. Ugyen’s Homestay – Haa Valley

All drivers and guides across Bhutan have a place to stay in every hotel, resort and homestay along with food. So you can be assured of their care.

Food

When in Bhutan, you eat local! This was the highlight of our trip, enjoying the cuisine of the country. Mridula is a vegetarian (eggetarian?!?) and Rahul eats meat, so we had plenty for both of us to try. And trust us when we say there is more than just “Ema Datshi” in Bhutan’s culinary delights.

Bhutan does not have commercial restaurants serving western or non-Bhutanese food. There are some in Paro and Thimphu but that too mainly cafes or patisseries. Most hotels too serve local food.

Bhutan’s food consists of locally grown vegetables that survive harsh winters on sloppy mountains. For vegetarians you can enjoy flat beans, corn, potatoes, mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. and the meat-eaters can enjoy pork and beef other than chicken. The preparations are eaten with red rice or noodles. Popular dishes include Ema Datshi (chilli and cheese and comes in combinations of potato/beans/mushroom/beef), Rice with Ezay (chilli sauce or chutney), Dhali (Dal or Legume Soup), Buckwheat Pancakes, etc.

If you are someone who craves for western food or your own Indian delicacies, we would advise you to carry some ready to make meals.

They brew an alcoholic drink called Ara in almost every Bhutanese home.

Local wines, whiskeys and beers are definitely worth a try especially for their price and unique taste!

Weather and Clothing

In summers Bhutan has pleasant temperatures averaging to 20°C. A light jacket would do for summers with a scarf or cap to manage the breeze.

Winters, which is when we visited, temperatures can dip to negative especially in rural parts and usually averages between 8-11°C in the main cities. You definitely need to carry your layers, thermals, gloves and appropriate footwear too. You will also experience snow or rains during this time.

All Dzongs, Monasteries and places of importance require visitors to be fully clothed and covered.Covering your heads is not necessary, but shoulders and legs are to be covered.

The local people wear their formal wear during the day and casual wear after office hours, which are both customary attires. You will find very few people dressing in western clothes. In fact we did not see any western clothing brand having outlets in Bhutan.

Currency

Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu)

You can carry Indian currency or convert it to Bhutanese Nu at Phuentsholing or Thimphu. Indian currency is freely accepted across the country as the conversion is 1:1. However, the balance or change will be returned in Bhutanese Nu.

Credit or debit card acceptance is rare and there are hardly any ATMs as well, none which service Indian cards anyway. Best to keep cash handy. Some shops in Paro and Thimphu have started accepting credit cards though.

We made all the accommodation booking online and paid online too. We had reserved money for local travel and other expenses and could manage without any trouble with what we carried from India.

Bhutan is a safe country and you can keep cash on yourself. Of course, basic safety measures should be followed.

Budget and Costs

Our budget for the 10 days excluding our travel from Mumbai to Bhutan came to approximately INR 65,000/- for 10 days for two people. This included:
– Cab and driver-cum-guide : INR 20,000/-
– Stays avg. INR 3,000/- per night : INR 30,000/-
– Food and drinks : INR 12,000/-
– Shopping + Entry to places : INR 3,000/-

Language

The national language is Dzongkha.

However, Bhutanese people can communicate in English and a fair bit of Hindi too. Always, hire a guide/driver with whom you can converse easily and who can communicate on your behalf. However, always pick up a few local words so that you are not cheated on prices in curio shops, especially.

Rules to Remember

Some strict rules to follow when in Bhutan:

  1. No Smoking
  2. No Honking
  3. Follow Traffic Rules & Signs as there are No Traffic Lights in Bhutan
  4. Be mindful of the environment and do not litter. Bhutan is an extremely clean and environment friendly country.
  5. Respect the local culture and act responsibly
  6. Always be polite to everyone and they will be too
  7. Always have your Permit/Passport Hand

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