The ways to Bhutan
Until Bhutan embarked on a planned economic development in the early 1960’s, Bhutan by and large remained cut off from the rest of the world. The country was accessible only by foot. The two main entry points to the country was from the north and from the south. From the north, the entry was from Tibet and was possible by crossing the high passes; while from the South, entry was through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. However, with the planned economic development, accessibility became easy with motorable roads connecting Bhutan with the other parts of the country.
Today the main points of entry are through Phuentsholing in the south that links Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal, through Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar that links with the Indian state of Assam and through Paro, where the entry is through Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan.
Travel by Air
The country has so far only one airport that caters to the needs of visitors coming in through flight. However, an international airport is under construction in Gelephu that will eventually provide passengers with a choice of their entry to Bhutan. Bhutan’s only current international airport in Paro is located at a height of 7300ft above sea level and is surrounded by mountains and hills as high as 16,000ft. Druk Air is the national airline operating with two A319. It flies to destinations that include Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Dacca, Kathmandu and Guwahati in Assam. Plans are also underway to invite other private airliners, and other major Asian cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore, will soon be flight destinations for Druk Air.
The flight between Paro and Kathmandu is one of the most exciting ones as the aircraft passes over 4 of the 5 highest mountains in the world. In fine weather, as you soar higher up, you can enjoy the spectacular display of Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu und Kangchenjunga at their best.
Buddha Airlines services
Beginning August 2010, a new commercial flight entered Bhutan. Known as the Buddha Airlines, it has now begun operation between Kathmandu, Nepal and Paro, Bhutan. It currently runs on an 18-seater, twin propelled aircraft. The fares are relatively lower as compared to the fares charged by Druk Air and currently operate four flights a week. Buddha Airlines, however, plans to go daily with the full flow of tourists visiting Bhutan. It has also plans to link Paro airport with the Indian cities of Bagdogra, Guwahati and Kolkatta in India and even Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Travel by Land
Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar in eastern Bhutan are the only land border areas open for international tourists. The town of Phuentsholing is located approximately 170km east of the Indian national airport Bagdogra. After crossing Phuentsholing, your journey then begins its mountainous climb through endless turns and hair-pin bends till you enter Thimphu, the capital city. The travel time for the 176km stretch can be more than 6 hours.
Gelephu in South-Central Bhutan is another entry point to Bhutan. It is approximately 250km from Thimphu and the journey will take you through the sub-tropical areas of Bhutan before entering the alpine zone and then finally into Thimphu. One will have to traverse across three dzongkhags (districts) and the travel time will be about ten hours.
Samdrup Jongkhar is the only entry point in eastern Bhutan. The town borders the Indian district of Darranga, Assam and is approximately 150km away from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The journey from Guwahati is about three hours. Tourists entering Bhutan through Samdrup Jongkhar will take you to Trashigang, the largest dzongkhag in the country, and from there over the lateral route to Mongar, Bumthang, Trongsa, Wangde Phodrang and then finally into Thimphu. The distance is about 700km and will take you a minimum of three days to reach Thimphu.
There is one national airline, Druk Air and one Nepali airline called Buddha Airlines that flies to Bhutan. The contact addresses of the Druk Air offices are as follows:
New Delhi Tel: 91-11-335-7703/4
Kolkata Tel: 91-33-240-2419 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paro International Airport
Visit www.drukair.com.bt for more information
Land entry points
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 National Airport.
Traveling within Bhutan
Despite the major hurdles posed by the inaccessible terrain and 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’s travel time. An average speed for road travel rarely exceeds 40 kilometers per 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, 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.
If you wish to travel to places other than Thimphu and Paro (permit free zone), you will have to obtain route permit from the Immigration Office in Thimphu (323127/F-321078.). For the tourists visiting Bhutan through our local Tour Operators the route permits are issued with the visa.
Although most of the religious places receive tourists, yet there are some restricted places. If you wish to visit those, you can do so, with a special permit. To acquire one, please contact Department of Culture (322694).
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.