Getting there & away
You need a passport to enter Bhutan and its neighbouring countries. You should ensure that it has sufficient empty pages for stamps, especially if you are travelling via India or Nepal. If your passport has less than six months of validity left, it is worth getting a new one, because many countries in this region will not issue visas to persons whose passports are about to expire.
Keep your passport safe. No country other than India has the facility for issuing a replacement passport in Bhutan. If you lose your passport, you must travel ‘stateless’ to another country to get it replaced. You should carry some additional form of identification and a photocopy of your passport to help in such an event.
Because there is no competition with other airlines for flights to Paro, Druk Air fares are expensive. Check the latest fares at www.drukair.com.bt. There are no discounts or student fares except for citizens of Bhutan. The Druk Air rules say that if fares are increased after the ticket is issued, they may collect the difference when you check in.
Thai International can issue tickets on Druk Air; the Bangkok offices know how to do this, but most of the overseas offices are not familiar with the procedures. Once your Bhutanese agent has confirmed the flight and the visa authority has been issued, allow another week for the reservation information to make its way to Thai International’s computers. You’ll probably still have to communicate several times with your agent in Thimphu to get Druk Air to send a confirmation message to Thai.
Many overseas agents that arrange groups to Bhutan have the tickets issued in Kathmandu, Bangkok or Delhi. A local representative waits at the Druk Air counter to deliver the tickets and check you in for your flight. If you have booked directly with a Bhutanese tour operator, you can send payment for the air fare directly to the agent in Thimphu as a separate bank transfer, not as part of the payment for the tour. The agent can then issue the Paro ticket and mail or courier it to you.
You will need to buy a ticket to and from the place where you will connect to Druk Air. Bangkok is the best place to connect if you are coming from North America, Australia or Asia. Delhi is the best place to connect if you are coming from Europe or the Middle East. A connection via Kathmandu will give you a taste of the Himalaya and of Tibetan Buddhism before you fly to Bhutan (but you might find all the window seats taken by passengers who embarked in Delhi). Other connections via Kolkata or Dhaka are possible, but these are off the routes of direct flights for major airlines, and few discounted air fares are available to these places. The airport tax on departure from Paro is Nu 500, which is included in the price of the ticket.
Unless you are an Indian national, the Department of Tourism (DOT) rules require that you either enter or exit Bhutan on a Druk Air flight. This limits the overland option to travelling one direction by air and the other by land, perhaps visiting Darjeeling and Sikkim en route.
The two border crossings from India into Bhutan that are permitted to foreigners are at Phuentsholing, on the border with the Indian state of West Bengal, and at Samdrup Jongkhar, on the border with the state of Assam. At the time of research, foreigners could only use the Phuentsholing border crossing for entering Bhutan. Foreigners could depart but not enter via Samdrup Jongkhar.
If you are travelling to or from Bhutan by land, all roads lead through Siliguri, West Bengal, the major transport hub in northeast India. Heading into India, you can make road connections from Phuentsholing or Jaigaon (just across the border) to the train station in Siliguri (169km, six hours) or the airport in Bagdogra. From Siliguri there are convenient connections to Kolkata, Delhi or the Nepali border at Kakarbhitta. You can also travel on to the Indian hill stations of Kalimpong, Gangtok and Darjeeling. Bhutanese vehicles may travel freely in India and a Bhutanese tour operator can easily arrange a vehicle to any of these destinations. There are also taxis and shared hire cars available in both Phuentsholing and Siliguri.
The best places to stay in Jaigaon are these air-conditioned hotels:
Hotel Anand (03566-63783, 03566-263290, 263990; firstname.lastname@example.org; M.G. Rd; s/d Rs 300/375-1000) You can get a double with air-con for Rs 1000.
Hotel Kasturi (03566-363035; fax 263254; N.S. Rd; s/d Rs 300/375-1000) Next to the immigration checkpoint.
Several Bhutanese transport companies operate a direct bus service twice a day between Siliguri and Phuentsholing; buses leave at 8am and 2pm and cost Rs 60 for the 3½-hour journey. In Siliguri the booking office is on Tenzing Norgay Rd (also known as Hill Cart Rd), opposite the Shree Punjab Hotel. You can sometimes find Bhutanese taxis (yellow-roofed minivans with numberplates beginning with ‘BT’) looking for a return fare; you might buy a seat for Rs 200, but usually you will have to charter the whole taxi for about Rs 750. Indian bus companies also operate services between Siliguri and Jaigaon on the Indian side of the Bhutanese border.
The gate between Phuentsholing and Jaigaon closes at 9pm for vehicles, but people can cross on foot until 10pm.
Don’t forget to get your passport stamped when leaving India. The Indian immigration office, open 24 hours, is in a compound on the east side of the main road in the centre of Jaigaon, next door to the Hotel Kasturi and about 400m south of the Bhutan entrance gate. (There is a plan to relocate the office.) If your transport has already deposited you in Bhutan, you can simply walk back across the border to complete the paperwork.
To obtain a Bhutanese visa, foreigners need to present their passport, two photos and a US$20 fee to the visa officer in the drungkhag (subdistrict) office near the east end of town. The visa is issued here, but the arrival details will be stamped in your passport when you pass the immigration checkpoint at Rinchending, 5km away.
Foreigners may cross back and forth across the border during the day but are required to leave by 10pm unless staying in a hotel – a useful facility in case you neglected to complete Indian departure formalities before you crossed into Bhutan.
At the time of research Indian nationals needed a total of five photos, to fill in two copies of a form and present two photographs and photocopies of an identification document such as a driving licence or voter card to the office of the Indian embassy (05-252635, 252992; India House, Zhung Lam; 9.30-11.30am & 3.30-5pm Mon-Fri), near the post office in Phuentsholing. You then receive a request form to be presented to the Rinchending immigration officer along with three photographs. On weekends and holidays when the office is closed, Indian nationals who have either a voter registration card or a passport may go directly to the entry station in Rinchending.
Indian nationals may wander freely into Phuentsholing during the day, but are required to leave by 10pm unless staying in a hotel.
The nearest main-line Indian train station to Phuentsholing is in New Jalpaiguri. From there it’s a 12-hour rail journey to Kolkata and a 33-hour trip to Delhi. You can travel by road direct to New Jalpaiguri from Phuentsholing or drive to Siliguri where you can connect to a local train to New Jalpaiguri.
From Siliguri it’s easy to arrange a share-taxi or bus to Darjeeling, 77km away, or to Gangtok in Sikkim, 114km away. If you are travelling to Sikkim, arrange a permit in Siliguri at the Sikkim Tourist information Centre (0353 2512646; Tenzing Norgay Rd; 10am-4pm Mon-Sat).
At the time of research foreign tourists were allowed to depart Bhutan at Samdrup Jongkhar, and Indian nationals may enter or leave via Samdrup Jongkhar. It is prudent to check with Bhutanese or Indian authorities on the current status of Assamese separatist groups before you decide to travel by land through Assam.
The primary reason you would want to exit this way is to avoid the long drive back over the mountains to Thimphu after visiting eastern Bhutan. The easiest connection from Samdrup Jongkhar is to overland to Guwahati in Assam and fly to Kolkata, Delhi, Bangkok or Bagdogra or get a train connection to numerous Indian destinations. Due to security concerns, all Bhutanese vehicles have to travel in a convoy as far as Rangiya (there’s no convoy on Thursday or Sunday), 49km from the border. (Indian vehicles face no such restrictions.) Four kilometres from the border there is a border post, open 24 hrs, where you must get a police registration/entry stamp. There is a train station at Rangiya for connection to Guwahati. Alternatively, it is an 80km, 2½-hour drive from the Bhutanese border all the way to Guwahati. It is then a further 20km from Guwahati to the airport.
Panitanki (aka Raniganj), in northern West Bengal, is opposite the eastern Nepal border town of Kakarbhitta. A long bridge separates the two towns across the Mechi River. Bhutanese tour operators can pick you up or drop you at Panitanki or you can arrange for them to take you to Bhadrapur or Biratnagar to catch a flight to Kathmandu.
Panitanki is only one hour (35km) from Siliguri (India). Buses run regularly on this route (IRs 20) and taxis are easy to arrange (IRs 400). A cycle-rickshaw across the border to Kakarbhitta costs Rs 20. Buses depart Kakarbhitta daily at 5pm for Kathmandu (17 hours, NRs 500), a long rough drive via Narayanghat, Mugling and the Trisuli River valley.
A better option is to take a one-hour bus or taxi ride from Kakarbhitta to Bhadrapur and take a domestic flight to Kathmandu. There is a larger airport at Biratnagar, a four-hour drive from the border. Several airlines have offices in both towns, but airlines come and go and schedules change frequently. Jhapa Travel Agency (977-23-562020) in Kakarbhitta will be able to book a flight.
There are only two entry points to Bhutan open to foreigners. Most travellers arrive by air at Bhutan’s only international airport in Paro. The alternative is to travel through the Indian state of West Bengal and enter Bhutan by road at Phuentsholing on the southern border of Bhutan. At the time of research, it was possible for foreigners to depart but not enter Bhutan via Samdrup Jongkhar in the east of the country. Furthermore, unless you are an Indian national, foreigners are required to fly in or out of Bhutan using Druk Air, the national carrier. Most travellers will choose to fly both routes.
There are several travel agencies and adventure travel companies that specialise in Bhutan, but most operate their Bhutan trips only as part of a series of programs. In addition to removing the hassle of faxing Thimphu and transferring money, they will also arrange your tickets on Druk Air.
Most group tours to Bhutan fly to Paro together, often collecting their tickets at the check-in counter in Bangkok, Delhi or Kathmandu. The agent should also be able to either recommend a group flight or arrange air transportation, hopefully at a reasonable rate, on flights that they have prebooked to the connecting point for the flight on to Paro.
Peregrine Adventures (1300 854 444; www.peregrine.net.au)
World Expeditions (1300 720 000; www.worldexpeditions.com.au)
Abercombie & Kent (0845 0700 600; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk)
Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk)
Explore Worldwide (01252-344161; www.explore.co.uk)
Himalayan Kingdoms (0845-3308579; www.himalayankingdoms.com)
World Expeditions (0800-074 4135; www.worldexpedition.co.uk)
Above the Clouds (802-482 4848; www.aboveclouds.com)
Adventure Center (800-227 8747; www.adventure-center.com)
Asian Pacific Adventures (1800-825 1680; www.asianpacificadventures.com)
Bhutan Travel (800-950 9908; www.bhutantravel.com)
Far Fung Places (415-386 8306; www.farfungplaces.com)
Geographic Expeditions (1800-777 8183; www.geoex.com)
Journeys International (1800 255 8735; www.journeys-intl.com)
Mountain Travel Sobek (1888 687 6235; www.mtsobek.com)
Wilderness Travel (1800 368 2794; www.wildernesstravel.com)
Oriole Travel & Tours (02-237 9201; email@example.com)
Guided mountain-bike tours are arranged by Bicycle Sambhava (www.bicyclesambhava.com). Motorcycle trips can be arranged through Himalayan Roadrunners (www.ridehigh.com) and Saffron Road Motorcycle Tours (www.saffronroad.com).
The only overseas company specialising in river trips in Bhutan is Needmore Adventures (888-900 9091; www.excellent-adventures.net).
Photography enthusiasts should check out the expert-guided itineraries of Rainbow Photo Tours (1800 685 9992; www.rainbowphototours.com). The following companies specialise in tours for twitchers (bird-watchers).
Sunbird (01767-262522; www.sunbirdtours.co.uk)
Wings (888-293 6443, 520-320 9868; www.wingsbirds.com)
It is relatively easy to make your own arrangements if you choose to use a Bhutanese operator. When tourism was privatised the state-run Bhutan Tourism Corporation was disbanded. Many of the ex-employees used their expertise to set up their own operations, and there are now more than 200 licensed tour companies. They range from one-person operations to large and professional organisations such as Etho Metho Tours and Treks and Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited (BTCL), which have fleets of vehicles and, in some places, their own hotel facilities.
The following list includes a selection of the largest companies. For a complete list see the DOT website at www.tourism.gov.bt and the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators website at www.abto.org.bt.
International Treks and Tours (02-326847; fax 323675; www.intrekasia.com/bhutan.htm)
Tashi Tours and Travels (02-323027; fax 323666; bhutantashitours.com; PO Box 423, Thimphu)
All operators in Bhutan are subject to government regulations that specify services, standards and rates. You are quite safe no matter which company you choose, though the large companies do have more clout to obtain reservations in hotels and on Druk Air.
In addition to Etho Metho and BTCL, the largest operators are Yangphel, International Treks and Tours, Rainbow and Gangri.
There are both advantages and disadvantages in dealing with the largest companies. One Bhutanese hotelier suggested that the following companies would be large enough to handle overseas queries, but still small enough that the owner would pay personal attention to your program: Bae-yul, Bhutan Kaze, Bhutan Mandala, Chhundu, Sakten, Tashi, Thunder Dragon, Windhorse, Yodsel and Yu Druk.
Chhundu is renowned for its high-quality personal service, and it’s responsible for looking after many VIP clients. Other companies known for their personal attention and quality service are Lhomen, Namsey, Yu Druk and Bhutan Travel Bureau. Bhutan Kaze and Bhutan Mandala specialise in service to Japanese clients.
If you are planning to go trekking, you might consider one of the companies that specialises in this area. The biggest trek operators are Yangphel, International, Yu Druk, Lhomen, Tashi and Namsey.
Bhutan has one airport, Paro (PBH; 08-271423) and one airline, Druk Air.
The schedule changes by season, but normally there are three flights per week from New Delhi (via Kathmandu) and a daily flight from Bangkok via Dhaka or Kolkata, depending on the day of the week. To allow for extra visitors to the Thimphu tsechu (festival) in October and the Paro tsechu in April, the airline usually provides extra flights.
Reconfirm your Druk Air flight with your tour operator a few weeks before departure to ensure that the schedule has not changed, and also check the flight time the day before your departure. Druk Air is quite good about announcing schedule changes at least a week in advance in Kuensel and on BBS TV. Check in early for Druk Air flights as they occasionally depart before the scheduled time, especially if the weather starts to change for the worse. Flights are often delayed because of weather and Druk Air recommends that you travel on nonrestricted tickets and allow at least 24 hours transit time with your connecting flight in order to minimise the complications of delays. When flights cannot land in Paro there is no charge for the unscheduled tour of Bagdogra, near Siliguri, or Kolkata.
There are only a few aircraft that can operate on a runway that is as short and high as Paro’s. All landings and takeoffs in Paro are by visual flight rules (VFR), which means the pilot must be able to see the runway before landing, and see the surrounding hills before takeoff. No flights can be operated at night or in poor visibility. When Paro valley is clouded in, flights are delayed, sometimes for a few days. When this happens your tour program will have to be changed and everything rebooked. The up side of such a delay is that you can probably put some spontaneity into your schedule in Bhutan and make a few modifications as you go, depending on what you find interesting.
Druk Air is not allowed to issue tickets to Paro for foreign visitors until they receive a ‘visa clearance’ from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu. When the visa is authorised, the information is entered into the computer record for your reservation even though the actual visa will not be issued until you arrive at Paro airport. Druk Air will issue your ticket once it receives this number. For this reason, it’s difficult to get tickets for Paro flights issued along with your other international air tickets.
Because Druk Air has no interline agreements with other carriers, your ticket to Paro will be separate from your other international tickets. This means you cannot check your baggage all the way through to Paro via a connecting flight. You will need to reclaim your baggage and recheck it at the Druk Air counter. Similarly, when you depart from Bhutan, you can only check baggage as far as you are travelling with Druk Air, not all the way through to your final destination.
It is useful to have a photocopy of the visa clearance, or at least the visa number, to expedite the visa process.
Overseas offices include:
Aeroglobal (852-2868 3231; fax 2845 5078; RM, 22-24, New Henry House, 10 Ice St, Hong Kong)
Danfe Travel Centre (01-4239988, airport office 4471712; Woodlands Hotel; Durbar Marg, Kathmandu)
Druk Air Corporation India (033-240 2419, airport office 511 9976; fax 247 0050; 51 Tivoli Court, 1A Ballygunge Circular Rd, Kolkata); Thailand (02-535 1960; fax 535 3661; Room 3237, Central Block, Bangkok International Airport, Bangkok)
Yale Air Service (02-26523362; fax 2643 9614; Hangang Bldg, Yangcheon-Gu, Seoul, Korea)
There are plenty of flights between East Africa and Mumbai. From Mumbai you can make your way to Delhi or Kathmandu to connect to Paro with either Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Air India or Pakistan International Airlines (PIA; via Karachi). STA Travel (www.statravel.co.za) and Rennies Travel (www.renniestravel.com) have offices throughout southern Africa.
Bangkok and Hong Kong are discount-ticket capitals of the region. Be wary of bucket shops and ask the advice of other travellers before buying a ticket. STA Travel (Bangkok 02-236 0262; www.statravel.co.th; Hong Kong 27361618; www.statravel.com.hk; Singapore 67377188; www.statravel.com.sg) has branches throughout Asia. In Japan try No 1 Travel (03-32056073; www.no1-travel.com).
Two well-known agencies for cheap fares are STA Travel (1300 7333 035; www.statravel.com.au) and Flight Centre (133133; www.flightcentre.com.au), both with offices throughout Australia. Quite a few agents specialise in discount air tickets, some advertise cheap air fares in the travel sections of the major weekend newspapers. For online bookings, try www.travel.com.au.
From Canada most flights to Delhi are via Europe but reasonable fares to Asia are also available from Vancouver. Canadian consolidators’ air fares tend to be about 10% higher than those sold in the USA. Travel CUTS (800-667 2887; www.travelcuts.com) is Canada’s national student travel agency and has offices in all major cities.
From Europe, travellers will need to get to Delhi where they can connect with flights up to Bhutan. Although London is the best for good fare deals, most major European cities have fairly competitive deals via the Middle East.
As for continental Europe the cheapest fares are usually with Middle Eastern or Eastern European airlines, though Thai International always seems to have competitive fares. Various excursion fares are available from London to both India and Thailand, but you can get better prices through London’s many cheap-ticket specialists.
Discount air travel is big business in London. Advertisements for many travel agencies appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheet newspapers, in Time Out, the Evening Standard and in the free magazine TNT.
ebookers (0870 010 7000; www.ebookers.com)
Flight Centre (0870 890 8099; www.flightcentre.co.uk)
STA Travel (0870 160 0599; www.statravel.co.uk)
The best connections from the US west coast to Bhutan are via Bangkok. Discount travel agencies in the USA are known as consolidators (although you won’t see a sign on the door saying ‘Consolidator’). San Francisco is the ticket consolidator capital of America, although some good deals can be found in Los Angeles, New York and other big cities.
American Express Travel (www.itn.net)
STA Travel (800 781 4040; www.statravel.com)