Bhutan in detail

Flights & getting there

The vast majority of travellers to Bhutan arrive by air at Bhutan's only international airport in Paro. Some travellers enter Bhutan by road at Phuentsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar on the southern border with India.

Flights, cars and tours can be booked online at lonelyplanet.com/bookings.

Air

Only Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines are permitted to fly into Bhutan's only international airport at Paro. Reaching Bhutan by air will involve changing to one of these two carriers at a hub airport elsewhere in Asia.

Airports & Airlines

Bhutan has one international airport, Paro, and two airlines: government-owned Druk Air, and private airline Bhutan Airlines, a division of the Tashi Group. Both have offices in Thimphu, and in the countries they fly to – see the websites for details.

The Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines schedules change by season, but there are usually daily flights from Kathmandu, New Delhi and Bangkok, and less frequent flights to Bagdogra and Kolkata (Calcutta) in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Singapore. Periodically, flights also connect Paro to Gaya in India (for Bodhgaya). Longer flights often involve a stop at another airport en route. Extra flights are put on during the Thimphu tsechu (dance festival) in October and the Paro tsechu in April.

There are only a few aircraft that can operate on a runway as short and high as at Paro and only a handful of Bhutanese pilots are licensed to fly on this challenging manual landing route. All landings and take-offs in Paro are by visual flight rules (VFR), which means that the pilot must be able to see the runway before landing, and see the surrounding hills before take-off.

This means that no flights can be operated at night or in poor visibility, so when the Paro valley is clouded in, flights are delayed, sometimes for days. When this happens your tour program will have to be changed and everything rebooked. The upside of such a delay is that you can probably add some spontaneity into your schedule in Bhutan and make a few modifications as you go.

A few tips for travelling by air from Paro:

  • Reconfirm your flight before departure and also once in Paro, to ensure that the schedule has not changed.
  • Check-in early for 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 local airlines recommend that you travel on nonrestricted tickets for any onward connections, allowing at least 24 hours' transit time before your connecting flight.

Flights To & From Paro

DepartArriveFrequencyCost (US$)
ParoBagdogra2 weekly142
ParoBangkokdaily485
ParoDhaka3 weekly213
ParoGuhawati4 weekly153
ParoKathmandudaily234
ParoKolkata (Calcutta)4 weekly238
ParoNew Delhidaily364
ParoSingapore2 weekly539

In-Flight Entertainment

The flight from Kathmandu to Paro provides the most dramatic view of Himalayan scenery of any scheduled flight, so check in early and ask for a window seat on the left of the aircraft. As you take off from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport, look for the impressive Bodhnath stupa to the north. Soon a continuous chain of peaks appears just off the left wing.

The captain will point out key peaks such as Everest (8848m), Makalu (8462m) and the huge massif of Kanchenjunga (8598m), but if you have trekked in Nepal and are familiar with the mountains you can pick out many more. The elusive Shishapangma (8013m) is sometimes visible inside Tibet, and it's often possible to spot Gauri Shankar (7185m), with its notched shape, Cho Oyu (8153m), Nuptse (7906m), with its long ridge, Lhotse (8501m), Chamlang (7319m) and dome-shaped Kumbhakarna (Jannu; 7710m).

Once past Kanchenjunga, the peaks are more distant. This is the Sikkim Himalaya; the major peaks, from west to east, are Chomoyummo (6829m), Pauhunri (7125m) and Shudu Tsenpa (7032m). As the plane approaches Paro you may be able to spot the beautiful snow peak of Jhomolhari (7314m) and the grey ridge-shaped peak of Jichu Drakye (6989m).

The plane then descends, often through clouds, banking steeply into the wooded valleys of Bhutan. Depending on the approach pattern that day, you may see Taktshang Goemba and Paro Dzong as you descend. The bombing-run-style final approach to Paro airport is often described as the scariest landing in the world, but Bhutanese pilots are highly experienced and the views are amazing, as the plane banks and turns almost within touching distance of the mountainous terrain.

Tickets

Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines tickets can be purchased online using a credit card on the airlines' websites. There are no discounts or student fares, except for citizens of Bhutan and SAARC nationals. Be sure to select the correct status when you book – if you try to board with a Bhutanese or SAARC ticket and you are not from the relevant country, your ticket will be cancelled.

It's also possible to have your agent book your tickets and email you the e-ticket. In the event of a cancellation you are likely to get a refund quicker this way and your agent should get direct notifications if there are changes to the flight times. Your agent will also email you a scan of your visa clearance from the Department of Immigration and you may need to show a printout of this when you check-in.

You may need to also buy a ticket to and from the place where you will connect to Druk Air. For most travellers this essentially means Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore or Kathmandu, depending on where you are travelling from and which city you'd rather transit through. Delhi, Singapore and Bangkok offer the most international connections, but Kathmandu will give you an extra taste of the Himalaya. Other connections via Kolkata or Dhaka are possible, but fewer discounted international airfares are available to these places.

Transit Baggage

Although Bhutan's airlines say they have transit 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 or Bhutan Airlines counter.

As a result, you may need to go through immigration at your transfer airport to pick up your luggage in order to check-in again. You may need a visa, even if you're only entering the country to check in your bags. Transiting through Singapore, Bangkok or Kathmandu is usually easiest as you can get either a free visa on arrival or an inexpensive transit visa.

When you depart from Bhutan, Druk Air claims it can check bags through to your final destination if you give staff the flight details during check-in, but be aware that this information is handwritten on the baggage tags, so it's not the fool-proof computer system that usually ensures bags reach their final destination.

Departure Tax

The Paro airport departure tax is included in the price of the ticket.

Land

Border Crossings

Crossing between Bhutan and India (and then to Nepal) is relatively straightforward at the following three points found along Bhutan's southern border. On an organised tour, your driver and guide will arrange to meet you at the border (or sometimes across the border in India) and transport you on to your first destination. For non-SAARC visitors, visas must be applied for in advance through the agency arranging your tour and will be stamped into your passport on arrival in Bhutan. Possible crossing points are:

  • Phuentsholing The primary border crossing from India into Bhutan, on the border with the Indian state of West Bengal.
  • Samdrup Jongkhar Much less used but still possible for exit or entry, in the far east on the border with the Indian state of Assam.
  • Gelephu Another little-used crossing for exit or entry, on the border with Assam.

India

Nepal

If you are travelling overland from Nepal, Bhutanese agencies can send a driver to pick you up at Panitanki (aka Raniganj) in West Bengal, across from the Nepal border post at Kakarbhitta. It's also easy to travel on from Panitanki by bus or shared jeep to Siliguri (₹100, one hour) and pick up transport there to Phuentsholing and other entry points for Bhutan.

Travelling overland into Nepal, the Kakarbhitta/Panitanki border crossing is open from 6am to 6pm. From the bus stand in Kakarbhitta, local buses run to towns in eastern Nepal, and overnight buses make the 17-hour dash to Kathmandu (NRs 1400 to NRs 1685). Bhadrapur Airport, 23km southwest of Kakarbhitta, has daily flights to Kathmandu.

Sea

Bhutan is landlocked so there are no sea routes to the country.