Introduction

Bhutan often touted as the Last Shangrila is a tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled between India and China. What makes Bhutan unique is not just the beautiful Himalayan landscape but also its wonderful people who according to my experience were one of the happiest and honest in the world.

Bhutan, the land of thunder dragon, has the unique distinction to be the sole surviving home to Vajrayana Buddhism and is the only Buddhist kingdom in the world. It’s no surprise that Bhutan is a deeply religious country with strong adherence to its traditions.

Thimpu is the capital city of Bhutan, and is popularly known for being the only capital in the world with no traffic lights! Beat that! Paro town located close to Thimpu is the site of international airport and country’s national carrier – DrukAir.

Interestingly, it’s mandatory for people working in public sector to wear the traditional Bhutanese dress. The royalty is highly regarded in Bhutan, specially the former king who gave up his thrown. You’ll see framed pictures of the royalty, draped in traditional dressed, at almost every public office, hotel and restaurant.

Bhutan Traditional Architecture
Bhutan Traditional Architecture

The people of Bhutan are honest, helpful and welcoming. Check my blog post on Bhutan for my personal experiences. Bhutan is known for championing the happiness of its people rather than chasing materialistic goals. Gross National Happiness is the figure more sought after than Gross Domestic Product.

Selling and consumption of tobacco in any form is strictly prohibited. Police do random checks on the main highway for illegal trafficking of cigarettes. That being said I’ve seen a few people, young ones of-course, smoking cigarettes on the street in broad day light.

 

Money Exchange

Indian money is widely accepted you can get by anywhere in the country with Indian notes. It’s still wise to keep local Bhutanese currency with you, for just in case scenarios.

Get your Indian money exchanged in the Phuntsholing, just walk in into any of the restaurants and ask for BC (Bhutanese currency). While returning back to India you can repeat the same process to get IC, if you are out of luck, just go to permit office and ask for an exchange with the people waiting for their permits. I actually followed later approach, and can vouch it works!

There are visa atm everywhere in Phuntsholing and Thimpu, there are a few in Paro and I even saw one at Jakar. But at the same time carry enough cash for just in case scenarios.

Good news for Indian traveler is that the currency conversion is pretty straightforward. Indian currency 1 INR = 1 Nu. Also, Indian currency is widely accepted and used interchangeably with the local Bhutanese currency. The only other country that I’ve seen seamlessly allowing two currencies is Cambodia. Cambodia allows people to use US Dollars and Cambodian Riel interchangeably without hassle. For more details on my Cambodian adventure check my blog post on Cambodia.

 

Safety in Bhutan

Bhutan is one of the safest place in the world to travel. The country in general has very low crime rate and crime against tourist is something unheard of. If you are a solo woman tourist there can’t be any safer place than Bhutan. So, grab your backpack and get on with that Bhutanese holiday you’ve been dreaming of for long! And yeah, don’t bring heels bring good shoes and boots

 

Bhutan Visa

Citizens of following countries do not require a visa, however they require a permit to enter the country:

  1. India
  2. Maldives
  3. Bangladesh

A Passport or a voter id card is a must for citizens of India to get entry permit for Bhutan. Note that any other type of id including Adhaar card is not accepted. The officers at the immigration center are very strict and won’t listen to any of your pleas. Most likely (99.99%) you will be returned back if you don’t carry the proper id. Good news is that even if you don’t have the proper id you can still visit and stay in the town of Phuntsholing

The permits are free and are issued at few of the crossings, Phuntsholing being the most popular among those. Phuntsholing is located next to the town of Jaigaon which lies on Indian side. The two cities are separated by a wall and a gate that allows the flow traffic between the two.

Try to reach the permit office as early in morning as possible as it gets crowded later during the day.

If you are a solo traveler (Indian) visit Bhutan on a weekday. At Phuntsholing border crossing authorities don’t issue permit to solo travelers on Saturday and Sunday.

 

How to reach Bhutan

Air

The international airport in Bhutan is located in the small town of Paro which is about a distance of couple of hours from the capital city of Thimpu. Unfortunately, your flying options are very limited as the only two operators allowed to fly are Druk Air (dominant player) and Bhutan Airways (relatively new).

The closest airport to Bhutan on the Indian soil is Bagdogra Airport. The little town of Bagdogra is located very close to the bigger city of Siliguri. Siliguri is also a gateway to the picturesque town of Darjeeling and the beautiful Himalayan capital Gangtok. Check my blog post on Darjeeling and Gangtok for more details.

Phuntsholing remains the most popular entry point or border crossing for the Indian travelers. This is where you will be coming when you arrive by flight at the Bagdogra airport. Bagdogra is well connected to Delhi with several flights daily, and as well as to Kolkata. Tourists arriving from Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai can take any economy flight such as Spice jet which connects to Bagdogra via Kolkata.

At Bagdogra airport you can easily find someone to share a prepaid taxi to Jaigaon. Simply stand near the prepaid booth which is located on the inside, on the left of the Bagdogra airport exit. Wait for few minutes and talk to people, you should be able find someone going in the same direction. Note, it is perfectly okay to travel by the road as the road condition is perfectly fine and not deteriorated as mentioned in several blog posts (perhaps those posts are old).

Alternatively, you can take an auto to the New Jalpaiguri and catch a bus or a train from there.

However, the cheapest option would be to take an auto (max 40 rupees) to “Bihar mod” which is located very close to the airport and hop on to one of the buses coming from Nepal. Yes! You heard it right, buses coming from Nepal. The bus will take you to Siliguri.

The towns in Bhutan are well connected with each other by domestic flights. Note, that the flights are not very frequent, so plan your itinerary carefully.

Buses are the major public transportation. The bus network is very good and the services are provided by private operators. The coaster buses provide an economical and comfortable means of transportation.

Road

The three land border crossings are located along the Indian border: Phuntsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar.

The Indian town bordering Phuntsholing is Jaigaon and you can just walk over from Jaigaon to Phuntsholing. From Phuntsholing you can take a coaster bus to Thimpu or you can hop onto a shared taxi. Shared taxi are readily available from Phuntsholing taxi stand which is bit of a walk (15-20 minutes) uphill from the permit office. Note that buses go on scheduled time, and strictly adhere to it as well.

Indians can bring their cars though they need to obtain a car permit to enter.

Rail

Bhutan doesn’t have a train line, not surprisingly, because of its mountainous terrain. The nearest railway station to Phuntsholing is the Hasimara station in India. Hasimara is about 17 km from Jaigaon and you can easily travel between the two in a shared auto. Note that Hasimara is a relatively small station and not many trains cross through it.

When traveling by train to Bhutan probably your best option is New Jalpaiguri Station which is quite a busy station. From New Jalpaiguri you can either take a local train to Hasimara or travel by shared taxi/ bus to reach Jaigaon. Once at Jaigaon you can just walk over the border to Phuntsholing.

 

See

Paro, Thimpu and Punakha are three most visited towns in Bhutan. Additionally you can visit Jakar (Bumtang) which lies in interior Bhutan.

Tiger nest is top most attraction. Taktsang Monastery also known as Tiger’s Nest is the world renowned Buddhist religious site located near the town of Paro. Tiger’s Nest is associated with the legend or rather belief for the local people, according to which the highly revered Guru Rinpoche came to the site riding on the back of a tigress somewhere in the eighth century. Interestingly, you can visit a small cave where a soft toy of a tiger is placed. I do not the reason or significance of it and I request to you to post in the comment if you know anything on the subject. What makes the temple jaw dropping is its location – Tiger’s Nest, constructed in the 17th century, is perched on top of a cliff 1100 meters high.

Bhumtang needs inner permit. You can only apply for it in Thimpu – remember on Sunday the office is closed, so plan your itinerary accordingly.

 

Bhutanese Foods/ Restaurants

It came as a shock to me that being hardcore Buddhist Bhutanese are big on beef. Anyone remember Siddartha saving the dove?

Try Ambience Cafe Thimpu, they serve very good breakfast with cappuccino. And they have good wifi as well.

Some of the famous Bhutanese dishes are:

  • Ema-datsi. Ema means chili and datsi is a kind of cottage cheese, so ema-datsi is similar to jalapeños with cream cheese.
  • Kewa-datsi. A potato, cheese and chili dish.
  • Shamu-datsi. A mushroom, cheese and chili dish. Kewa-datsi and shamu-datsi tend to be less hot than ema-datsi; all three dishes are generally served with rice.
  • Cheese momo. A small steamed bun that traditionally contained cheese, cabbage and sometimes onion. However, these days other vegetables, including green papaya, may be substituted for cabbage.
  • Red Panda Weissbeer – Wheat beer

Bhutan Hotels – Where to stay in Bhutan

Don’t book online, the prices are high mainly because a select few properties are listed. Instead, book only when you arrive, in towns like Thimpu and Paro you’ll find enough options to choose from. Plus, you can check and compare the hotels and bargain as you please.

Also, note that the hotel prices vary based on season and off season period.

The best way to find a suitable hotel in your budget is through the Bhutan Hotel website: hotel.bt

On the left hand side bar, provide the destination city and choose the price range (e.g. less than 1000 Nu) and you’d see a filtered result of your choice. You can also select the wifi option if you are looking for one. Booking can’t be done online but you can send an email or make a call to the hotel asking them to reserve a room for you. There is no advance payment need to be made.

Thimpu

Several budget hotels are the beginning of the Norzim Lam 1. Start your search from Hotel new Grand which btw has a good pure veg restaurants that serves north Indian food. Some of the below 1000 Nu options in Thimpu can be found here.

Paro

I wholeheartedly recommend Paro hotel. The hotel is run by a very nice family. Very clean and modern rooms, bathroom has hot water. A double bed room would cost you around 1200 Nu/- You can’t book the hotel online as there are no contacts available. The hotel is located quite close to Sonam Trophel Hotel which is very near to the petrol station.

Jakar

There are a string of cheap hotels on the central street (Jakar main market) of Jakar. All these hotels range around 600-700 Nu/- for the night. It might be however little tricky to find a vacancy if you come late in the evening as lot of locals coming by bus would stay in these for the night. I strongly recommend if you are coming by bus to book the hotel first as soon as you step down.

There are more hotels (much nicer) located along the road to Jakar, some 200 meters from one end of the central street. These are bit pricey though and would cost around 1800-2200 Nu/- in off-season.

Note none of these hotels are listed anywhere online, and not even in the Google Maps. You have just have to get there.

 

Bhutan Itineraries

All the below Bhutan Itineraries start and end in Phuntsholing.

Bagdogra to Phuntsholing itinerary

  • Day 1: Reach Bagdogra early morning.
  • Leave from Bagdogra to Jaigaon = about 5 hours. Get the Bhutan permit in Phuntsholing. Stay for the night in Phuntsholing.

Alternatively,

  • Day 1: Reach Bagdogra in afternoon or late evening (I reached late evening).
  • Leave from Bagdogra to Jaigaon = about 5 hours. Stay for the night in Phuntsholing or Jaigaon.
  • Get the Bhutan permit in Phuntsholing early morning. Leave for Paro by bus/ shared taxi

Follow the Bhutan Itineraries below:

Bhutan Itinerary – 3 days

Paro – 1 Day (Zero night)

  • Reach Paro by evening from Phuntsholing = 6 hours
  • Early Morning get started for Tiger’s nest = whole day
  • Stay in Paro for night or reach Thimpu in about 2 hours

Thimpu – 2 Days (One night)

  • Thimpu sightseeing: Book a cab from the taxi stand for the sightseeing package. Night in the hotel.
  • Thimpu Relax: Walkaround and spend a relaxed day. In the afternoon leave for Phuntsholing. Reach Phuntsholing by late evening.

Bhutan Itinerary – 4 days

Paro – 1 Day. Thimpu – 2 Days. Punakha – 1 Day

    • Day1: Reach Paro by evening from Phuntsholing = 6 hours
    • Early Morning get started for Tiger’s nest = whole day
    • Stay in Paro for night or reach Thimpu in about 2 hours
  • Day 2: Get the inner permit in the early morning. Thimpu sightseeing: Book a cab from the taxi stand for the sightseeing package. Night in the hotel.
  • Day 3: Catch a cab/bus to Punakaha – takes around 2-3 hours.
  • Punakha Dzong and enjoy the views of the valley.
  • Spend a night in Punakha or come to Thimpu by late evening.
  • Day 4: Return to Phuntsholing by late evening.

Bhutan Itinerary – 5 days

Add one more day to the four day itinerary above

Bhutan Itinerary – 6 days (7 days to make it more relaxed)

Paro – 1 Day. Bumthang – 1 day. Thimpu – 1.5 days

    • Day 1: Reach Paro by evening from Phuntsholing = 6 hours
      • Early Morning get started for Tiger’s nest = whole day
      • Stay in Paro for night or reach Thimpu in about 2 hours
  • Day 2: Get the inner permit in the early morning. Thimpu sightseeing: Book a cab from the taxi stand for the sightseeing package. Night in the hotel.
  • Day 3: Catch a cab/bus to Bumthang – takes around 9-10 hours depending on road condition. Night in hotel in Bumthang
  • Day 4: Bumthang sightseeing full day. Night in Bumthang, as there are no night buses to Thimpu.
  • Day 5: Bumthang to Thimpu = 9-10 hours. Rest for the night in Thimpu.
  • Day 6: Half day in Thimpu. Leave Thimpu in afternoon and reach Phuntsholing by late evening. Night in Phuntsholing.

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