Getting to Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan remained largely cut off from the rest of the world up until the early 1960’s. Entering the country was difficult as it was only accessible by foot from two main entry points, one in the North and another from the South. The Northern route was through Tibet, crossing high mountain passes that were inaccessible throughout the winters. The second entry route from the South came through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. The high, frozen passes in the North and the dense, jungles in the South made it extremely difficult to enter the country.
However, carefully planned economic development has made the country much more accessible and there are now a network roads entering and traversing the country, as well as one international and a couple or more domestic airports.
Today the main roads entering the country are through Phuentsholing in the south, linking Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal, through the border towns of Gelephu, in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar, in the east, that link with the Indian state of Assam.
All visitors to Bhutan require a visa to enter the country (see visa formalities). Visa clearance must be obtained before coming to Bhutan and travel must be booked through a Bhutanese tour operator or an international partner. Indian, Bangladeshis and Maldivian nationals can receive a visa on entry and it is not necessary for them to book travel through a tour operator. It’s however, recommended. In the case of Indian nationals a passport or voter card are acceptable on entry.
Travel by Air
The national airline Drukair flies from Thailand, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Singapore to Bhutan’s Paro International Airport, located in the west of the country.
Just a year ago Bhutan had its second national airline in the form of Bhutan Airlines, thus offering commuters with an added choice and the luxury of benefitting from competing fares. Bhutan Airlines, owned by a private firm, currently operates in the Paro-Kolkata and Paro Bangkok sectors.
Paro is situated at an elevation of 2,225 m (7300 ft) above sea level and is surrounded by mountains as high as 4,876 m (16,000 ft). Presently Drukair is the only airline operating flights into and around the country with a fleet of Airbus A319’s. It services Bangkok in Thailand, Delhi, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Guwahati in India; Dacca in Bangladesh; Kathmandu in Nepal; and Singapore. There are a regular domestic service to Bumthang (central region) and flights available to Trashigang (eastern region) and Gelephu (southern region). A second international airport is currently under construction in Gelephu along the southern border to India.
Flying into Bhutan’s Paro International Aiport is typically an exciting experience as the descent into Paro valley brings you closer to the mountain tops than most other flights in the world. The flight between Paro, Kathmandu and Delhi is particularly rewarding as it offers spectacular views of 4 of the 5 highest mountains in the world. In clear weather, as you soar higher up, you’ll be treated to amazing close-ups of Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kangchenjunga at their best.
Visit www.drukair.com.bt for more information.
Travel by Land
Phuntsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar are all located along the southern border of the country with India. They are the only overland border entries open to international tourists.
The town of Phuntsholing is located approximately 170 km east of the Indian national airport Bagdogra. After crossing Phuntsholing, your will begin a mountainous climb through hair-pin bends until you enter Thimphu, the capital city. The 176 km journey usually takes around 6 hours. Travel sickness tablets are recommended for young children and adults who may not be accustomed to the mountain roads.
Gelephu in South-Central Bhutan is another entry point to Bhutan. It is approximately 250 kms from Thimphu. The journey will take you through lush sub-tropical jungles and pristine alpine forests before finally bringing you into Thimphu. You will traverse across three districts with a travel time of approximately ten hours.
Samdrup Jongkhar is the only entry point in eastern Bhutan. The town borders the Indian district of Darranga in the Assam state and is approximately 150 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The journey from Guwahati is about three hours. Tourists entering Bhutan through Samdrup Jongkhar will have to travel through Trashigang, the largest district in the country, and from there east through Mongar, Bumthang, Trongsa and Wangde Phodrang to reach the capital city, Thimphu. The distance is about 700 kms and can be done over a duration of three days.