Saturday, January 11, 2014

A week in Bhutan - An Overview

Bhutan, India's landlocked neighbor on the north east is slowly and cautiously edging its way into modern life. Its a norm to see boards in front of public offices and monasteries that all Bhutanese citizens be dressed in their national attire in order to enter. A busy office goer in Thimphu on the way back home will make a quick stop at a roadside temple and hug and gracefully rotate the prayer wheels a few times. The streets are clean, there are no power cuts (they export hydro electric power after all), chilies are eaten as a vegetable, the king and queen make a fairy-tale, handsome couple and are much loved and the cities are surrounded by the lush and verdant beauty of the lower Eastern Himalayas and no one honks or yells! The dazzling monasteries perched in exotic locations will leave you feeling awestruck. 

To top it off, due to India's good relations with Bhutan and being their primary trade partner, Indians do not need a visa or prohibitive tourism fees to enter and visit Bhutan, while the rest of the world (barring just a couple more countries) have to pay the steep fee of $280 per day to visit as a tourist.

Geographically, north-east India or nearby Sikkim are just as beautiful with vistas of the majestic snow capped Kanchendzonga, but if you just step past the Bhutanese border, you will get to experience their culture and lifestyle which is quite different and that in my opinion, makes Bhutan a must-see for the Indian traveler.

Tiger's nest monastery - a good 3 hour climb to a monastery perilously perched on top of a mountain cliff, with no road access


While Bhutan is small, please be reminded that its incredibly mountainous and there are only two or three airports in the whole country. It takes a day by land to go from Thimphu to Central Bhutan, so if you have just a week, its best to limit your travel to Western Bhutan. Western Bhutan has a lot to see - Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and the Jomolhari trek for those interested. Central Bhutan is well known for the Bumthang valleys, a collection of 5 valleys well known for their scenic beauty and slow paced lifestyle.

Entering Bhutan (entry permit for Indian travelers)

Indian citizens do not need a visa, but do need an entry permit which is available at the India-Bhutan border town of Phuentsholing or at the airport in Paro for those who fly in. Phuentsholing (or Jaigaon on the Indian side) is about 4-5 hours drive from Bagdogra, the nearest airport in West Bengal, India, close to the city of Siliguri. Siliguri has a train station in nearby New Jalpaiguri which has frequent trains from Kolkata. Its also possible to go up to Hasimara by train, from where Jaigaon is just 1/2 hour away by public transport (easily available). From main town Jaigaon, the India Bhutan gate is a short walk away and just beyond that is main town Phuentsholing.

Downtown Jaigaon has at least 3 to 4 decent hotels, some with air conditioning. We stayed at the newly opened Ibis hotel, which has sparkling clean A/C rooms for Rs.1800 and a restaurant that serves up very tasty food. Hotel Devi and Prasant nearby are good choices too, though a/c is not available everywhere. Check before you check in.

Siliguri to Jaigaon/Phuentsholing

Its not very easy to find a bus from Siliguri to Jaigaon. Either you have to go to the bus terminus to get a WB bus to Jaigaon or catch the Bhutan Transport Corp bus (BTC) that leaves at 12 and 2 in the afternoon. From 'Siliguri Junction', the BTC buses are a 10 minute walk away, and most cops know the way. Seats fill up very quickly and are quite cramped. The BTC buses go all the way unto Phuentsholing. You do NOT need a permit to stay overnight in P'ling. Crash for the night and get early to the permit counter to apply for yours. En route from Siliguri to the border, all buses stop at Hotel Bhutia, which has excellent veg momos. Freshen up here, as it gets really hot and stuffy. 

Entry Permit for Indian Citizens

Entry permit office is located very close to the India-Bhutan gate. Ask the guards at the gate and they will point you. The gate is only for vehicular traffic. All pedestrians will be directed to a pedestrian entrance which marks the border between the two countries. Please carry two passport size photos, copies of your Indian passport or Voter ID card. You will be photographed and the permit will be issued in as little as 10 minutes if there is no traffic. We went on a Sunday and maybe thats why we didn't see folks who go to work in Bhutan. No one will check your permit until you leave P'ling and there is a checkpost outside town. Permit is valid for 7 days only and can be extended up to your date of departure in Thimphu's immigration office. If the permit is valid up to 22nd, but you leave on the 24th, you can get it extended up to 24th immediately…its not a seven day extension. Make sure you add a day or two in case plans change.


There are public buses between cities, but for most other tourism, taxi is the main way to go. All cities/towns have shared taxis, which are considerably cheaper than renting one on your own. Buses from Phuentsholing to Thimphu fill up very quickly. Its best to buy the ticket the earlier day and leave soon as getting the entry permit. Shared taxis, Mahindra Boleros are everywhere, but they are not the most comfortable as they will only leave if they are full. Only Thimphu has public transport within the city. For tourists it will be efficient to hire a taxi for the day for sightseeing. You can negotiate with any taxi for the day or go through your hotel. Rates are expensive!

Vegan Food

Bhutanese people eat a dish called ema datsi in copious amounts. This is a dish containing chilies and cheese. You can also find Potato + cheese and mushroom + Cheese combos. Obviously not vegan, but vegans can survive very well here. All lunch meals include rice, dal and some side (mixed veg curry or meat) along with a sauce containing chilies. Indian food is widely available, so are snacks from India. Many nice restaurants have veg momo. Its very normal for a meal for two to run unto 400 rupees, even in a small restaurant. We may have paid tourist prices!

Dzong/Monastery Rules

Dzongs usually close at 5 pm, as they are administrative offices just as much as they are monasteries. Wear full pants and shirts that are not sleeveless. Guides recommend full sleeve, but Dzong security at Punakha told me 1/2 sleeve is okay, its sleeveless that is not okay. Carrying a thin jacket helps. Photography is not allowed in any of the temples, but the courtyard should be okay. Taktsang Monastery in Paro is stricter, as they ask you to leave your bag outside.


Really depends on the time of the year. In June, we were supposed to see a lot of heavy rain, but we rarely saw them. Still, we are glad we packed our rain coats and a light jacket. Thats all we really needed. Punakha and Phuentsholing are hot! Thimphu and Paro are pleasant in June. I didn't use any of my winter clothing, so I should have packed thin layers and one jacket and a scarf (instead of the two I took). Winter is supposed to be very cold, but really beautiful.


Easily available in the June off-season. I highly recommend all the hotels we stayed in.

  • Thimphu - Hotel Namgay Heritage Hotel, Hotel Wangchuck (the former is more expensive, but the rooms are luxuriously appointed, the latter less expensive but very comfortable and full of foreign tourists. The former is an uphill walk from the center of the town while the latter is right behind the clock tower.)
  • Paro - Hotel Holiday Home (close to the airport and 20 minute walk to town through the University. Very peaceful and comfortable. Its better to book a taxi for day sightseeing)
  • Jaigaon - Hotel Ibis
  • Phuentsholing - Hotel Yeobar - Very new and run by a former school principal. Inexpensive, huge rooms. No a/c.
  • Bagdogra - Hotel Marina - Ideal if you have a plane to catch the following day.