Thursday, May 31, 2018

Planning a trip to Bhutan

After the wedding and the big Europe trip last year, we decided to keep the anniversary celebrations a bit low key. Maybe a quiet celebration in a cafe, eating a burger and sharing a plate of fries while overlooking the hills and not having to worry about work or getting home early. So yada yada yada, we decided to do that in Bhutan :D
Buddha Point in Thimphu
A lot of people expressed interest to know more about Bhutan and asked us very specific questions. I will write this blog based on the questions we received and our answers.

Why Bhutan?

Frankly after researching about Bhutan, I was not so keen on visiting it but then I am glad I did. So one may ask why I wasn’t so keen? The answer is my past travel experiences. The major tourist attractions in Bhutan are mostly about Buddhist heritage/culture and their scenic hilly landscapes. I experienced both of them in my trip to Laos in 2014 and Ladakh in 2016. But then it was new to wife who hasn’t visited them and it offered the laidback vacation that both of us deserved after the hectic year we had!

But in all honesty, it did have something unique to offer. Mainly the people, so polite, respectful and ready to help you with a smile. The country has a national happiness index and they do not have traffic jams or traffic lights in the entire country! They have a story to tell, the story of how Bhutan united against the Tibetan invasions and how they to this day preserve the culture and traditions. And wife said she will pay for this trip and thus she got dibs on the place to visit, hence Bhutan.

So what exactly is in Bhutan?

If you check the tourist packages, most of the short packages (3-4 Nights) only cover two cities - Thimphu and Paro. An extended package (4-6 Nights) would cover Punakha as well along with a day excursion to Phobjikha or Haa Valley. Each of the cities have Dzongs which are the religious and administrative headquarters for the district. They have their unique architecture which the guides will explain in a detailed manner.
Punakha Dzong
The next major attractions are the museums explaining the heritage and culture. Then there are monasteries and temples which have their own stories. And finally the hilly landscapes and the passes (or as we call the ghats) which offer you amazing views.

If you do not hike the Tiger's Nest in Paro then you have not truly visited Bhutan. There are other adventure activities such as Rafting, Cycling and Trekking but they are mainly given as part of packages which looked expensive so I do not have information about them. Sorry!
Tigers Nest in Paro

Sounds good, so how do I get to Bhutan?

Depending on the time and budget you have two ways to enter/exit Bhutan. First is by Air which is through the Paro International Airport. However only DrukAir and Bhutan Airlines are allowed to operate flights to Bhutan and they can only be booked directly on their websites or registered offline travel agents. The flights are expensive and they have limited seats/schedules available. You can fly in from Bagdogra, Kolkata, Delhi and Guwahati. Flight from Kolkata to Paro takes an hour and costs 8-18k per ticket one way.

Second is by Road. You can reach Phuentsholing which is the entry point into Bhutan by road. You can take the train to Hasimara station which is roughly 20 kms to the border or take taxi from Siliguri Railway Station or Bagdogra Airport. Taxi from Bagdogra to Phuentsholing costs 3k and takes roughly 4 hrs once you beat the Siliguri traffic. Phuentsholing to Paro/Thimphu takes another 5-6 hrs so most people stay the night at the border towns - Phuentsholing (Bhutan) or Jaigaon (India) and head towards further places the next morning.

India-Bhutan Border

Interesting, what about Visa?

For Indians, we do not need Visa but you need to obtain the permit. If you are taking the flight into or out of Bhutan then you need a valid passport since you will have to clear Immigration at the international terminal of the airport. If you are traveling by road then a valid government issued address/ID proof will be enough. Due to dispute over Aadhaar, it is recommended to carry Voter IDs. The basic entry permit covers Paro, Thimphu and Phuentsholing districts. If you wish to visit other districts of Bhutan then you will have to apply for the Restricted Area Route Permit at Thimphu. If entering from Phuentsholing, you can get entry permit only weekdays 9am-5pm, however through airport you get entry permit any day. You can exit by road anytime without issues. If you have taken a package tour then the operator will take care of all these so no worries.

Note that the permits are free of cost so do not let anyone con you saying it is charged. You need to carry a photocopy of your government issued ID and couple of photos to get the permit done. For Restricted Route Access Permit, just walk into the immigration office in Thimphu with the mentioned photocopies and after filling a simple form you will get permit in about an hour or two.
Restricted Route Permit

So how do I travel inside Bhutan?

Well, if you are a solo traveler then you can take the shared taxis which charge you fixed point to point fare. They are readily available for Thimphu/Paro/Punakha. There are buses but the frequency sucks. If you are a couple who do not want to squeeze in with other people or you are a group of upto 4 people then you can rent a taxi for the day or negotiate a package with the driver for the entire duration of the trip. A day sightseeing on the local taxi costs between 500-1500 depending on places and the duration you want to hold the taxi. Outstation taxis as part of package charge you upto 2500 if he is not local. Round trip to another city is charged between 2500 to 3500 per day depending on distance. Local Taxis are all Wagon R!

So language will be an issue no?

Not exactly. Bhutan is heavily aided by India and they are taught English and Hindi in schools. So they can speak enough to communicate. No issues there.

And food and drinks?

The local food is made mainly made of red rice and yak cheese. And they have more options in non-veg which also involves cheese. However due to heavy inflow of Indian tourists, you get all the north indian dishes too. The major cities also have cafes and lounges in case you wish to eat western cuisines. They have local beer and whiskey available in all supermarkets in case you wish to truly experience local and from what i have seen they are cheap too. You also get foreign liquor if you are the classy types. While local food is cheap, the other cuisines are priced higher.
Momos, Egg Thupka and Noodles

Speaking of prices, what about currency?

Everyone accepts Indian Currency. Except for the entry tickets, everywhere else they accept the new 200/500/2000 rupees notes. They return change in Indian currency if they have lower denominations else they give you the local currency. It is 1:1 conversion. So 1 Indian rupee = 1 Bhutanese ngultrum. You can withdraw from ATMs but the banks still consider them as International transaction and charge you a bomb. So it is advisable to take cash into Bhutan. The standard limit of $10k USD applies for customs so you can carry cash without worries!

Oh and I saw you sharing pics on social media, you get internet everywhere?

Actually though you are on roaming, Indian network operators did not seem to work. We bought a local sim card for 250 rupees at our hotel which gave us 1.7GB of 3G data with a validity of 30 days. We also added extra talktime just in case we needed to call someone. The hotel and eateries offer free wifi so you can manage without a sim too!

Now I am concerned about the costs. How much money do I need to carry?

Assuming you have sorted out the reaching to Bhutan part and have paid for room reservations online you only need to carry the money for food, transport and shopping. Oh yeah and entry fees, with all the desi things in Bhutan, you are still considered as a foreigner so you shell out a bit more. Entry fees varies from 100 to 500 per person. Some places have SAARC nation discounts. For food you need to assume 600-1000 rupees per meal for two (excluding breakfast which most hotels give complimentary)

So tell me your itinerary and maybe some pointers on cost?

Major expenses for online bookings:
Flight to Bhutan - DrukAir (Rs 9000 per ticket - Direct booking through their website)
Stay in Thimphu - Wangchuk Hotel (3 nights - Rs 2700 per night) [Highly recommended by us]
Stay in Paro - Tashi Phuntshok Hotel (2 nights - Rs 4600 per night) [Not worth the price, better book something near the Paro town]
Stay in Phuentsholing - Park Hotel Bhutan (1 night - Rs 3000 per night) [Highly recommended by us]

We started off day 0 with a flight from Bangalore to Kolkata and spent a day exploring the city (More about it in another blog)
Day 1: Landed in Paro Airport and took a cab to Thimphu - Rs 1600 for the oneway cab and then explored Thimphu by foot.
Day 2: Hired a cab for Rs 1000 to explore the outskirts of Thimphu city
Day 3: Day trip to Punakha via Dochula Pass - Rs 3500
Day 4: Thimphu - Chele La Pass - Paro Sightseeing - Rs 3500
Day 5: Tiger's Nest Hike - Rs 800
Day 6: Paro to Phuentsholing by taxi - Rs 3000
Day 7: Phuentsholing to Bagdogra by taxi - Rs 3000
We flew back to Bangalore from Bagdogra to reach home in time for dinner.

We had an amazing driver Mr. Sangay from Day 3 of the trip and you can reach out to him if you wish for a taxi only package: +975-7722-1610

You missed shopping, what can I get from there and where can I buy stuff?

Apart from the usual fridge magnets and keychains you get the painted scrolls with the Buddhist lucky signs or similar relics. They have a lot of woolen stuff too, like bags and shawls. We felt Paro is expensive for shopping so you can plan to shop at Thimphu. There is a street near the Indian Embassy which has around 50 shops that sell good quality handmade and handicraft stuff for less. If you plan to go via Phuentsholing then you can hold off shopping in Thimpu since you will find Indian run shops that give you amazing discounts on shopping at the border town (around 40% cheaper than Thimphu).

So anything more about the experiences and places you visited?

Well, yes but there is already an information overdose here so let me keep a few things for my detailed blog that I plan to write next.

Our final thoughts

- Book hotels that are at a walking distance from the city. So that you can explore more food places and get choices apart from what your room service has to offer.
- Look out for credit card offers on domestic flight and international hotel bookings, we got a total of Rs 7000 cashback by  booking through different cards on different days as per the offers :)
- Tuesday is DRY day in Bhutan so most fancy places will be closed that day but if you want you can buy booze from the supermarkets.
- Tourist places are mostly open from 9am to 5pm but it is better to check for national holidays or special timings.
- Entire Bhutan shuts down by 10pm. So if you are stepping out for food then do so by 8:30 pm since most places take last order by 8:45pm.
- Carry some ready to eat stuff like mug noodles or upma mix. It will come in handy when you forget the above point and end up feeling hungry at 10pm with nowhere to go :P
- Take your time and enjoy the stay. You can afford to be lazy in Bhutan :)

Special Thanks:

Susrita and Anupa who gave us pointers and helped us plan the perfect vacation :)

 You might also be interested to read: Leh trip planning, Planning EuroTrip, Trip to Paris
Us in the traditional Bhutanese attire

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