Till the early 1960’s, Bhutan remained cloistered from the rest of the world. The hermit Kingdom was accessible only by foot. Of the two main entries, in the north the high mountain passes enabled the crossing only during the snow-free seasons while, in the south, the connectivity was through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. With modern development, however, came the motorable road, opening the country not just to the outside world but also overcoming the extremely difficult geography that had isolated the Bhutanese communities from each other for centuries.
The main thoroughfare in the south today is from Phuentsholing, the country’s second biggest town and the conduit of most of its commerce. The town links Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal while its other sister towns, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar, connects with the Indian state of Assam.
In 1983, Bhutan introduced its national airline, Druk Air, connecting the country to the metropolis in India, and eventually to Bangkok, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Singapore. Druk Air operates a fleet of A319 aircraft. In the latter half of 2013, a new airline was launched. Bhutan Airlines currently flies only to Bangkok but has plans to operate from several other cities in the coming year.
Bhutan today has one international airport at Paro in western Bhutan, an hour’s drive from the capital city, Thimphu. The international airport at Paro is located at a height of 7300 ft above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 16,000 feet.
In the past few years, the capacity for airline travel was augmented with the opening of three domestic airports in central, east and southern Bhutan. This provides passengers with the choice of multiple entry into Bhutan from various parts of India.
Phuntsholing in south-west Bhutan, Gelephu in the central and Samdrup Jongkhar in eastern Bhutan are the only land border areas open for international tourists.
Phuntsholing is located approximately 170 km east of the Indian airport at Bagdogra. After Phuntsholing, the journey by road meanders northward over hills and mountains to Thimphu, the capital city. The journey takes approximately five hours.
From Gelephu to Thimphu, the distance is approximately 250 kms and takes travelers through sub-tropical regions before entering the alpine zone and then finally into Thimphu. The journey traverses across three districts in about 10 hours.
Samdrup Jongkhar, the only entry point in eastern Bhutan, borders the Indian district of Darranga, Assam, and is approximately 150 kms away from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The journey from Guwahati to Samdrup Jongkhar takes about three hours, and thereafter an additional six hours to Trashigang, Bhutan’s largest district. From Trashigang, the lateral highway takes the travelers via Mongar, Bumthang, Trongsa, Wangde Phodrang and then finally to Thimphu. The distance of about 700 kms takes a minimum of two days.
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 Airport.
Travelling within Bhutan
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 travels. An average speed for road travel rarely exceeds 40 kilometers an 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 and 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.
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.
The Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan has initiated a travel and medical plan solely for the visitors. You may visit the web site at www.ricb.com.bt.
Bhutan experiences a great variation in its climate. Summers are warm with average daily temperature ranging from 20 to 25 Celsius, while winters are cold. In winters temperatures are usually below 15 Celsius. So bring with you a couple of warm clothes and comfortable shoes to go with the weather, the terrain and the program. You might want to consider ‘what to wear’ for hikes, trekking and sightseeing, as well as for dinners, appointments and functions that we have for you. Others that you could consider bringing with you would be a pair of sunglasses, sun screen lotion and a hat; antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream, anti-diarrhoea pills, altitude & car sickness medicine; insect repellent, flash light (w/spare batteries) umbrella, camera, films and accessories (including spare camera batteries)etc.
Tipping is a purely personal matter. We do not have any tradition of giving tips and we clearly leave it up to you as to whether you want to give tips to your guides and drivers. However, Bhutan has the tradition of soelra (a form of tip usually given by an elderly or economically well off, as a form of expressing gratitude).
The following articles are exempt from duty:
(a) Personal effects and articles for day to day use by the visitor (b) 1 litre of alcohol (spirits or wine) (c) 200 cigarettes, on payment of import duty of 200% (d) Instruments, apparatus or appliances for professional use (e) Photographic equipment, video cameras and other electronic goods for personal use.
You have to complete the passenger declaration form on your arrival before checking out. The articles mentioned under (d) & (e) must be declared on the declaration form. If any such items are disposed of in Bhutan by sale or gift, they are liable for customs duty.
On departure, visitors are required to surrender their forms to the customs authorities.
Import/export restrictions of the following goods is strictly prohibited:(a) Arms, ammunitions and explosives (b) All narcotics and drugs except medically prescribed drugs (c) Wildlife products, especially those of endangered species (d) Antiques.
Imports of plants, soils etc. are subject to quarantine regulations. These items must be cleared on arrival. Visitors are advised to be cautious in purchasing old and used items, especially of religious or cultural significance, as such items may not be exported without a clearance certificate.