The country where Gross National Happiness ranks higher than GDP. The only country in the world that is carbon negative and has 70% of its area covered by forests. The mystical kingdom nestled high up in the Himalayas. Bhutan is these things and much more.
Bhutan had been on our travel list for some time. After our usual rounds of research, we figured out that planning a trip to Bhutan was very different from any other place we’d visited so far. Hiring a local tourist guide was mandatory and tourists had to pay a cover charge per day for visiting the country. While this makes it an expensive country to visit, it stays true to Bhutan tourism’s policy of “High Value, Low Impact”. It is a very good way to ensure that tourists come in manageable numbers – the tourism agencies can ensure that you have a great time experiencing the local culture and traditions while reducing the impact on the environment. More on this policy ahead.
Best Time to Visit
October to December is considered the best part of the year to visit Bhutan. The skies are clear, rain is less, and this is an important ingredient to a beautiful trip. March to May (the Spring season) is the best time to witness the valleys full of flowers in bloom. Avoid Jun-Aug which is the rainy season. December to February brings snowfall in many parts which can cause roads to be closed. We went in November and had beautiful weather throughout the trip.
Getting To Bhutan
There are two ways you can get to Bhutan – by road or by air.
Road – you can cross into Bhutan at Phuntsholing from India. The closest airport in India is Bagdogra which is a 4-hour drive from the border. There is usually a long wait time at the border town where you need to get your permits in place before proceeding. It takes another 6 hours to get from the border to the capital, Thimphu. This is the cheaper option, but you will need to add 2-3 days into your itinerary just for the travel.
Air – you can fly into the Paro airport from India, Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh and Singapore. There are only two airlines available – Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. While this is an expensive option, flying into Paro is one of the most spectacular flights you’ll take in your life! We took the Bhutan Airlines flight from Kolkata (we booked it on their website directly).
A few minutes after reaching the cruising altitude, we could clearly see Mt. Everest gleaming to our left.
The height of the mountain was astounding as it always remained in sight high above the clouds. The best part of the flight is the landing. The plane spirals into the valleys with no flat land in sight – it is almost like a video game! Finally, seconds before the actual landing, with the plane still tilted, we catch a glimpse of the runway. Before we know it, we touch down at the Paro airport. After we got down the plane, we could see tall mountains on both sides of the runway – no wonder it was considered to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world. In fact, only a handful of pilots in the world are certified to fly to this airport! Truly an adrenaline pumping start to the trip.
Bhutan’s Unique Travel Policy
As mentioned before, Bhutan has a levy of USD 250 per day per person in the peak season (USD 200 in the low season). If you are travelling solo, you will be charged USD 40 extra. At the time of our travel, only 3 countries were exempted from this – India, Bangladesh and Maldives. However, with increasing number of tourists from these countries, a levy of INR 1200 per day has been put into effect in 2020 – this is to continue tourism in a sustainable way. While this does increase the costs for a budget traveller, it is a good method to preserve the ecosystem and culture that Bhutan is famous for. Now comes the best part – this levy of $250 is not just an entry fee – it actually covers the costs of your accommodation, food, local transportation and a private guide!
There are a lot of travel agencies that you can pick from. Make sure you read sufficient online reviews before making the final decision. After our research, we booked our trip with Bhutan Travel Guru and we totally recommend them! The best part was that it didn’t feel like a trip organized by big tour companies (where they mechanically stick to the itinerary and take us from point A to B). We were made to feel right at home and there was a lot of care taken in the entire planning. They took the personal connect to another level – the owner of the company (Mr Tsheten) actually made time to meet us for dinner. He and his company ensured that we had an amazing time in Bhutan. (No, this is not sponsored. We genuinely recommend them! 😊)
You will need to apply for the tourist visa when you book your trip. The travel agency generally takes care of it as part of the package. Indians (and Bangladeshis and Maldivians) do not need a visa to visit Bhutan.
The Bhutanese currency is called the Ngultrum. Its value is almost the same as the Indian Rupee (1 USD = 72 BTN at the time of writing this). As mentioned earlier, you won’t need to take out cash too much during the trip as most of the travel expenses are covered in the charges you pay the agency.
How many days to spend in Bhutan
A minimum of 5-6 days (excluding travel) to really soak in the peace, enjoy nature and the local culture. This duration will ensure you have enough time to visit atleast 3 parts of the country – typically Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. If you have time to spare, you can visit Bumthang as well.
Day 1: Fly into Paro. Visit Kyichu Lhakhang, Rinpung Dzong. Read more about our time at Paro here.
Day 2: Drive to Thimphu. Visit textile museum, Buddha Dordenma, Takin reserve and Simtokha Dzong. More details about Thimphu here.
Day 3: Drive to Dochu La Pass. Hike through rice paddies and visit the Chimi Lhakhang temple. Visit the spectacular Punakha Dzong. The beauty of Punakha is captured in detail here.
Day 4: Hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. Drive to Thimphu and visit the weekend market. Drive back to Paro.
Day 5: Hike to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery. Visit the Paro museum. Enjoy a traditional hot stone bath and dinner with a local family at a farmhouse. More on the Tiger’s Nest here.
Day 6: Flight back to Kolkata
Bhutan was a very unique travel experience and far exceeded our expectations. Things that really stood out and left a lasting impact on us? The hospitality and warmth of the people, simplicity, living in harmony with nature, tasty food, beautiful sights. It is one of the few nations which hasn’t been swallowed by capitalism (and its inevitable impact on environment and culture). We hope this beautiful nation continues to grow and be a flagbearer of sustainable living and happiness.
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