Plan your trip to Bhutan - The Bhutan Odyssey
Often regarded as the Last Shangri La, Bhutan or Druk Gyul is blessed with abundant forests, pristine valleys and spectacular mountains, Bhutan is a magical land that will amaze you in a number of unimaginable ways. While you may have heard about the breathtaking landscapes, Bhutan is much more than that. To us, Bhutan is probably mankind's most successful attempt to bring harmony between tradition and development. It draws a unique balance between major forces of human nature - our nature that makes us cling to our history, culture and tradition; and our nature that pushes us to evolve embracing change, modernization and development. You have to see it, to believe it.
In our previous blog ‘Introduction to Bhutan’ of the series ‘The Bhutan Odyssey’, we introduced you to the people, politics, religion and interesting facts of Bhutan. We also wrote about the location, geography and climate of Bhutan. In this second blog of the series, we will help you to plan your trip to Bhutan with recommendations on places to visit and the ideal itinerary to follow. We have also highlighted procedure to obtain permits and restricted area permits.
Read other blogs of the series - 'The Bhutan Odyssey', by clicking on the links or the photos below: 1. Introduction to Bhutan and why you should visit it 2. Plan your trip to Bhutan (This article) 3. Places to visit in Thimphu 4. Travel to Phobjikha (Gangtey) Valley of black-necked cranes 5. Punakha - Sightseeing places in the winter capital of Bhutan 6. Paro Taktsang (Tiger's nest monastery) – A complete travel guide
Best time to visit Bhutan
The best seasons to visit Bhutan are spring and autumn i.e. March to May (Spring) and late-September to November (Autumn). The weather during these times is warm, dry and sunny. Many flowering plants bloom during the spring season adding a variety of colours to the beautiful landscapes making spring one of the most popular season to visit Bhutan.
Autumn is the another best time to visit Bhutan mainly due to various festivals that happen during this time.‘Tshechus’ (district festivals) happen separately for each district. Thimphu tsechu and Paro tsechu are the biggest tsechu celebration in Bhutan in terms of audience and participation. While Paro tsechu takes place in the month of March/ April, Thimphu tsechu is celebrated in September according to lunar Tibetan calendar.
Places to visit in Bhutan Best places to visit in Bhutan are:
1. Paro - The city of Paro lies in the district also named as Paro. Paro hosts Bhutan's only international airport and is the second largest city in Bhutan. Paro is located at an altitude of 2200 meters from the sea level. The most popular place to visit in Paro is Taktsang monastery also famous as Tiger's Nest monastery and Rinpung Dzong or Paro Dzong, which is a monastic fortress that overlooks the Paro valley. Paro also has a few lovely historic temples and museums worth visiting. You can read more about Places to visit in Paro in our dedicated article on Paro.
2. Thimphu - The city of Thimphu lies in the district also named as Thimphu. Thimphu is the modern capital of Bhutan and is located in the central western part of the country on the banks of Wang Chhu River. It is the political and economic centre of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Thimphu is located at an altitude of 2334 meters from the sea level and is 50 kilometres away from Paro. The statue of Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu Dzong, Memorial Chorten and the Takin Nature Preserve are the most visited places in Thimphu beside museums, temples and the market. If you are a trek lover, then Tango and Cheri monastery in north Thimphu are worth visiting. You can read more about Thimpu in our detailed article.
3. Punakha - The city of Punakha lies in the district also named as Punakha. Punakha was the capital city of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimphu. Today, Punakha remains the administrative centre of the Kingdom of Bhutan. It is located at an altitude of 1242 meter from the sea level. Two major rivers named Mo Chhu and Po Chhu flow through the district of Punakha. Punakha Dzong, Chimi Lhakhang and the Punakha Suspension bridge are the most visited places in Punakha. You can read more about Punakha in our separate detailed article.
4. Phobjikha - The town of Phobjikha lies in the district named as Wangdue Phodrang. Phobjikha lies at an altitude of 3000 meters from the sea level. It is located in central Bhutan. The main attractions in Phobjikha are the Phobjikha valley popular for the black-necked crane festival and Gangtey monastery. Phobjikha valley is also worth a visit as it provides a unique experience staying in smaller villages compared to other tourist spots which are mainly cities. You can read more about Phobjikha in our separate dedicated article.
5. Bumthang - The town of Bumthang lies in the district also named as Bumthang. Bumthang is located in central Bhutan and is considered to be the religious heartland of Bhutan. It is located at an altitude of 2800 meters from the sea level. Bumthang has the most number of temples and historic site than any other city/ town in Bhutan. Bumthang valley and several temples and monasteries form the places to visit in Bumthang. Bumthang also has a domestic airport connecting it to Paro.
6. Phuentsholing - The city of Phuentsholing lies in the district named as Chukha. Phuentsholing is regarded as the trading, financial and industrial capital of Bhutan. It lies on the border of Indian town named Jaigaon and is the main entry point from the Indian side. It is located in the south western part of Bhutan. Phuentsholing is a low-lying town and lies at an altitude of 293 meters from the sea level. Bhutan Gate, Karbandi monastery and a couple of temples are the famous places to visit in Phuentsholing.
Apart from the above mentioned major attractions passes like Dochula Pass (Thimphu district) and Chelela Pass (Haa district), valleys like Haa Valley (Haa district) and Trongsa valley (Trongsa district) and forts like Wangue Phodrang Dzong (Wangdue Phodrang district) and Trongsa Dzong (Trongsa district) are popular places of visit. Eastern Bhutan is less frequented by tourists and is relatively underdeveloped with little facilities. However it also means it is raw and pure in terms of its natural and cultural beauty.
One can also plan on trekking to various Himalayan mountains in Bhutan. Snow treks and camping on mountains is becoming more and more popular in Bhutan.
How to reach Bhutan
Note that Bhutan does not have a railway track. So you can either reach Bhutan by air or by road -
Reach Bhutan by air: One can directly fly to Paro International Airport however connectivity to Paro is limited to few Indian cities and few Southeast Asian countries like Thailand (from Bangkok), Singapore, Nepal (from Kathmandu) and Bangladesh (from Dhaka). Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air are the only carriers that have flights to Paro. Tickets to Bhutan cannot be booked from any travel portals like Skyscanner, Makemytrip etc. One can book flight tickets to Paro, Bhutan only from official websites of Bhutan Airlines or Druk Air. Book your flight tickets well in advance to save money if you opt to fly.
If you are travelling from India; New Delhi, Kolkata and Bagdogra in West Bengal, Guwahati in Assam and Gaya in Bihar have direct flights to Paro. Flying to the international airport in Paro, Bhutan is quicker but a relatively expensive way to reach Bhutan especially if you are travelling in a group.
Reach Bhutan by road: Entering Bhutan by road is the cheapest way to reach Bhutan but it would mean having one more day in your itinerary. Phuentsholing (south-western Bhutan), Gelephu (south-central Bhutan) and Samdrup (south-eastern Bhutan) are the only three land border areas open to enter Bhutan. However, Gelephu and Samdrup border gates can be used to enter Bhutan only for trading and commercial purposes. Tourists visiting Bhutan for a vacation can only enter through Phuentsholing border gate.
How to reach Phuentsholing (border town of Bhutan) or Jaigaon (border town of India):
Note that Phuentsholing in Bhutan and Jaigaon in India are border towns of both countries separated only by a gate. To reach Phuentsholing from India, one would have to reach Jaigaon. There are number of ways to reach Jaigaon -
Reach Phuentsholing by air + road: Bagdogra/ Siliguri in West Bengal is the nearest airport from the border town of Jaigaon. You can fly to Bagdogra from your location as Bagdogra is well connected to major Indian cities via air. You can also take a train or drive to Bagdogra based on your convenience. You can then reach Jaigaon by road or rail. Jaigaon is 160 kilometres (around 5 hours) away from Bagdogra airport
The quickest way to reach Jaigaon from Bagdogra would be via private taxi or
For a cheaper way, you can hop onto a bus to Jaigaon or hire a shared taxi/ jeep
You can even take an auto, shared taxi or prepaid taxi to New Jalpaiguri railway station and buy tickets for Hasimara, the nearest railway station to Jaigaon
Reach Phuentsholing by rail: Hasimara station is the nearest railway station from the border town of Jaigaon. You can reach Hasimara in train and then can travel by road to Jaigaon. Jaigaon is around 17 kilometres away from Hasimara railway station. You can hop onto a bus to Jaigaon or hire a shared taxi/ jeep or a prepaid taxi to reach Jaigaon.
How to get permits to enter Bhutan - For citizens of India, Bangladesh & Maldives
Citizens of India, Bangladesh and Maldives do not need a visa to enter Bhutan but a permit is required. A valid Indian passport valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry into Bhutan is a requisite to enter Bhutan.
Permit for Bhutan if you fly to Paro: If you fly to Bhutan, the permit formalities are done at Paro airport immigration office. At the airport immigration office, you will get a permit to visit Paro and Thimphu only. If you wish to travel outside Thimphu or Paro i.e. to Punakha, Trongsa, Bumthang or Haa valley, you will need to get an additional inner-line restricted area permit from Thimphu immigration office before you travel to these places. Thimphu immigration office is open from 9AM to 5PM BTT (Bhutan standard time). The office is closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Bhutanese public holidays. Permit for Bhutan if you enter by road from Phuentsholing: The Bhutanese immigration office is located in Phuentsholing very near to Bhutan Gate. The permits to enter Bhutan are issued here. Please note that you can roam about in Phuentsholing, visit the sight-seeing places and stay in hotels in Phuentsholing (only up to 3 kilometres range) without a permit. The immigration office in Phuentsholing remains open from 9AM to 5PM BTT (Bhutan standard time). The office remains closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Bhutanese Public Holidays.
Note: Bhutan consulate offices in New Delhi and Kolkata used to issue permits for Bhutan previously, but that has been stopped now.
The permit that you will get from Phuentsholing immigration office is valid for visiting Thimphu and Paro only. If you wish to travel outside Thimphu or Paro i.e. to Punakha, Trongsa, Bumthang or Haa valley, you will need to get an additional inner-line restricted area permit from Thimphu immigration office before you travel to these places.
Online regional permit system:
The easiest way to get permits to Bhutan is through a Bhutanese tour operator. There is an online regional permit system that facilitates online processing of permits for citizens of India, Bangladesh and Maldives through registered Bhutanese tour operators. If you use this system, you can get permits much before you reach Bhutan. Read more about our experience and how easy the process was for us in the PDF version of this article.
How to reach Bhutan for Foreign Tourists Foreign tourists of all countries other than India, Bangladesh and Maldives have to apply for a visa to visit Bhutan. These tourists have to mandatorily book their trip to Bhutan through a Bhutanese tour operator. These tour operators arrange for their visas and permits and book a complete holiday for them. A fee amounting to USD 250 per person per day is charged from the foreign tourists during peak season months of Spring (March, April, May) and Autumn (September, October & November). For rest of the months which are considered lean tourist season, the fee is USD 200. This fee includes permit approvals, twin sharing accommodation in a 3 star hotel, food, a vehicle for internal transportation and a certified tour guide. The daily fee does not include one time Bhutan visa fee of USD 40 and any airfares. Independent travel by foreigners is prohibited in Bhutan and they have to pay the daily fee of USD 250/200. A part of this fee goes to the Bhutan government who then uses it in various ways such as providing free education and healthcare in Bhutan.
Itinerary for your Bhutan trip would be purely based on the amount of time you have. A total of 12 nights, 13 days is required to cover most popular attractions if you fly in and out of Paro. If you travel by road via Phuentsholing, another 2 days might be required.
12 Nights 13 Days itinerary for Bhutan: Day 1 – Arrive Paro, drive to Thimphu and sightseeing in Thimphu. Night stay in Thimphu Day 2 – Full day sightseeing in Thimphu. Night stay in Thimphu Day 3 – Thimphu to Phobjikha and sightseeing in Phobjikha. Night stay in Phobjikha Day 4 – Phobjikha to Trongsa and sightseeing in Trongsa. Night stay in Trongsa Day 5 – Trongsa to Bumthang. Night stay in Bumthang Day 6 – Full day sightseeing in Bumthang. Night stay in Bumthang Day 7 – Bumthang to Wangdue to Punakha. Night stay in Punakha Day 8 – Full day sightseeing in Punakha. Night stay in Punakha Day 9 – Punakha to Paro. Night stay in Paro Day 10 – Full day sightseeing in Paro. Night stay in Paro Day 11 – Trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Night stay in Paro Day 12 – Full day Excursion to Haa Valley. Night stay in Paro Day 13 – Fly out of Paro
+1 day - To arrive at Phuentsholing (Night stay at Phuentsholing) and reach Thimpu
+1 day - To leave via Phuentsholing
Please note that if you are entering Bhutan via road through the town of Phuentsholing, it is advisable that you book the first night stay in Phuentsholing to obtain your permits. Next day, you can drive to Thimphu from Phuentsholing and follow the rest of the above itinerary. In that case, you will have to add one more day to your trip to Bhutan. Also, carefully plan your trip such that you are in Phuentsholing during weekdays to obtain the permit and also in Thimphu during a weekday if you wish to travel to restricted area zone, for which you will have to get an inner-line restricted area permit from Thimphu. Of course, if you are going through a Bhutanese tour operator like Nature Tourism Bhutan, you won't have to worry about the day.
Also, add a few more days to your itinerary if you are a trekking enthusiast. For example – You will need one full day if you wish to trek to Tango-Cheri monastery in Thimphu. If you have more time in hand, adding eastern Bhutan to your itinerary would be worth it.
The above itinerary can of course be shortened based on how many days you have in hand. You can read our recommended itinerary for Bhutan for shorter duration in the PDF version of this article. We have incorporated recommended itineraries starting from 2N3D to 12N13D in the PDF version that could help you plan your trip with as many days as you have.
Nature Tourism - Bhutan As you may have noticed, planning a trip to Bhutan is not very easy. The flight tickets are expensive and travelling by road requires an additional night in Phuentsholing for acquiring permits – that too during the weekdays. Even obtaining restricted area permits from Thimphu immigration office mandates you to be present there during the weekdays only. So, for a hassle-free trip, we booked our tour through Nature Tourism – Bhutan.
Nature Tourism – Bhutan is a tour operator that offers customized itineraries based on your budget. Their itineraries have more focus on Bhutanese character and culture and in this way you get to know more about their fundamental beliefs, spiritual beliefs, practices and architectural traditions. They also took care of our accommodation and food at all the places and we did not have a single complaint with their arrangements. We were in constant touch with Mr. Karma Jamtsho, the founder of Nature Tourism – Bhutan and he ensured that the trip is designed as per our requirements and pace. He promptly replied to all our queries and kept us updated on the permit and booking arrangements. Karma, our driver and Dorji, our guide were humble and kind and treated us like their family. All in all, we had a great trip with Nature Tourism – Bhutan without any regrets or glitches. We highly recommend booking your trip with them. You can book your tour to Bhutan with Nature Tourism through their official website.
Important things to know while travelling to Bhutan
Bhutan language: Dzongkha (Dzong=district, kha=language) or Bhutanese is the sole official and national language of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Bhutan Currency: Ngultrum is Bhutan's currency and its value is fixed equal to the Indian rupee. Indian rupee is freely used in Bhutan. You can pay in Indian rupees and you might be handed over Ngultrum as change back. Get more information regarding Bhutan currency (Nu) in the PDF version of this article.
Food in Bhutan: Bhutanese cuisine involves a lot of chillies, red rice and cheese. Rice is often accompanied by meat or vegetables. Cheese is made from cow's milk is called 'datshi' and is used to prepare a variety of sauces. Ema datshi is the national dish of Bhutan which is a curry that involves a spicy mix of chillies with cheese. Get more information regarding the food in Bhutan in the PDF version of this article.
Bhutan time zone: Bhutan standard time (BTT) is the time zone of Bhutan. BTT is 30 minutes ahead of IST (Indian standard time) and is +6 hours ahead of the UTC (Universal Time Coordinated). To avoid confusion, always ask your guide and driver if they are following IST or BTT time zone. Get more information regarding Bhutan time zone in the PDF version of this article.
Bhutan telecommunication/ SIM Card: Even though your mobile phones will get good network and internet connectivity in most of Bhutan, it is advisable to put them on airplane mode the moment you enter Bhutan. Data and call charges on international roaming are exorbitantly priced. We highly recommend that you buy a Bhutanese SIM card from Phuentsholing or Thimphu. This will help you to stay connected with your guide and driver. Get more information regarding telecommunication in Bhutan and our tips from our personal experience in the PDF version of this article.
There are so many other interesting places to visit and things to know about Bhutan that can help you plan your trip. If you are interested in knowing more, you can sign up for our newsletter and download full PDF version of this article
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Hope this article was able to help you plan your trip to Bhutan. Do you need any information which we have not covered? Or is there any tip you would like us to add in this guide? Do let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.