Harshita: Dude, we should travel together.
Khyati: Yes! We should.
Tickets booked to Bhutan!
That is more or less how we landed in Bhutan. Only, the process of booking tickets and planning the trip wasn’t all that easy. If you are an Indian passport holder then this blog has pretty much every question answered!
First thing first, how can one enter the land of thunder dragon? There are two ways:
-By Air: Druk air and Bhutan airlines fly to Paro from Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Bagdogra
-By Road: You can drive or take a private transport from Jaigaon to Phuentsholing. Or take a bus from Kolkata.
We decided to take a flight from New Delhi to Paro. It sure is expensive but it saves a lot of time. Also, you see spectacular views of the Himalayan range from the sky. Now, booking a flight ticket was the trickiest part of our planning.
There are only two carriers that fly to Bhutan – Druk Air and Bhutan Airline. The only way to book tickets is via their website, and the website isn’t the best. You have to keep trying and after gazillion turns and heaps of luck your booking will go through. The easy way out is to book via a tour operator. We got our tickets booked via Mr Manish from Blissful Holidays. (They also plan Medium to Luxury trips check them out.)
As an Indian national we are lucky that $250/day policy doesn’t apply to us. We can visit this beautiful country on our own terms. All we need is a permit. The permit is valid for 7 days and are of two kinds- one to visit Paro and Thimpu and another one to visit areas like Punakha/Wangdue.
If travelling by road:
Visit the Immigration office in Phuentsholing to get the 7-day permit for Thimpu and Paro. All you need is a Passport/Voter ID, 2 passport size photographs and details of the first hotel you are staying at. It should take about 30-40 minutes for the entire process. The office is closed on Bhutan public holidays and on weekends, so plan your trip accordingly.
If travelling by air:
This is super seamless! All you need is your passport and details of the hotel you are staying at on the first day. Pass the immigration, get your passport stamped and that’s that! Took us 5 minutes to get our permit.
Getting extended/other permits:
If you wish to extend your stay or if you are visiting areas that require special permits, get them at the Immigration office Thimphu. Again, the office is closed on Bhutanese public holiday and on weekends. If you have planned your stay via a travel agency they will take care of all the permits. We planned it with Bhutan Yul Happy Trip Advisor.
Go Independent or via an agent?
If you follow my journey on Instagram you know I am an independent solo traveller. I cringe at the thought of going on a planned trip. Having someone handover an itinerary to follow is my worst travel nightmare! So when I realised that the only way to move freely around Bhutan was to have a driver and a guide I was in two minds. But, our tickets were already booked and I had made up my mind to visit Bhutan. So there was no going back.
Here is a directory of all registered tour operators https://www.tourism.gov.bt/tour-operators. I found Bhutan Happy Yul Trip Advisor on Facebook, verified them online and dialled them up.
Finalising the plan was pretty simple, Mr Dhami was open to all our interest and budget. He crafted an itinerary, made our bookings and told us that our guide will pick us up at the airport. He also said that feel free to change the itinerary around once in Bhutan.
Tashi was standing at Paro airport with a placard in his hand that read “Khyati Maloo.” He introduced us to Jamtsho (driver) kept our luggage and off we went. “So, as per your itinerary today, you were supposed to go to the Dzong and the Big Buddha. But since it is late we will not be able to do that,” he said showing us a print out of our itinerary. I thought this trip is doomed! Only to realise later, it is far from doomed.
In a day Tashi and Jamtsho understood our interests. Though their official timings were 9:00 am to 5:00 pm they worked for as long as we asked them to. And the itinerary was never mentioned! When we got bored of the monastery hopping they took us karaoke bar hopping. When we had had enough of eating in the hotel dining area they took us to the best picnic spots. The fun trail of Gangtey, drinking Ara at the highest point in Thimphu, tripping on Bollywood songs, trying Bhutanese food and making them try Indian food. The trip wouldn’t have been the same if not for them. It was not a 7 night 8-day trip planned by a tour operator. It was an 8-day long road trip with our Bhutanese friends. 🙂
So if you are an independent traveller, do not worry. Your Bhutan trip will not be a nightmare if you choose the right operator. Within a couple of conversations, you get a sense if the operator is open to changes. I would highly recommend Bhutan Yul Happy Trip Advisor.
But if you still want to go independent you will still need a car to move around at will. You can get one at Thimphu market. You can also use public transport to go from one city to another, though this will restrict your movement around the city.
Money and cost:
1 INR = 1Nu
If you have booked via an operator all your stay will be paid for. You can also opt for different meal plans – breakfast included, breakfast and lunch included or all meals included. Which leaves with very little money to carry (depending on your travel style). Do carry cash, INR works just fine. We did not feel the need to convert our money. A meal could cost you anywhere INR 300 and upwards. Beer at a bar will cost about INR 110 and Zumzin (wine) will be around INR 240. All these beverages are much cheaper at a wine shop. I spent a total of INR 26,000 inclusive of all stay, food, private transport, guide and driver. A detailed blog on money and cost in Bhutan, and how to travel Bhutan on a budget to follow.
The Itinerary 7 Nights 8 Days:
Day 1: Arrive at Paro, drive to Thimphu. We realised we were not prepared for the cold so went shopping for warm clothes. Drove to see the Fortress all lit up at night.
Day 2: Started early. To visit the Big Buddha, Chorten and the highest point of Thimphu. Later that night we went karaoke hopping.
Day 3: Drove to Punakha via the Dochula pass. Packed up some lunch from the hotel went for a picnic by Punakha river. Later we went to visit the Punakha Dzong which happens to be the most important Dzong in Bhutan. Drove a short while to visit the suspension bridge. At night we found a spot by the Punakha river overlooking the Dzong and decided to do a small bonfire.
Day 4: Visited the temple of the divine madman in Punakha and went onwards to Gangtey. We skipped the Gangtey monastery. Instead took a 2.5-hour long trail to our lodge. (much recommended, read more about it here). We spent the rest of the day observing the black-necked crane, chilling and soaking in the view of Gangtey valley.
Day 5: A rather long drive back to Paro. We stopped in Thimpu to eat at one of the Indian military canteens. Reached Paro quite late at night, roamed around the cafes, shopped a bit and that’s all.
Day 6: Drove to Chele la pass which is at 4000 mt. above sea level . We climbed much higher than the usual viewpoint clicked some gazillion photos with the flags. Back in Paro, we went cafe hopping trying the food (particularly momos) at every place possible. We called it an early day.
Day 7: We trekked to the tiger’s nest today. Oh, what an experience! It took us a total of 5 hours to trek back to the base. Extremely tiring yet exhilarating. Later that night we went to a local pub to celebrate our time in Bhutan.
Day 8: Say bye bye to the last Shangri la and head to the airport.
If you have any questions feel free to comment below!