A topic wise, point wise personal note to visiting Bhutan.
The below article is written by Mr. Ashok Kamat after his return from motorcycle ride to Bhutan in the month of July. Behind The Handlebar has featured his write-up to source this information to all those who are looking forward to plan a trip to Bhutan.
- Bagdogra (Siliguri), West Bengal is the nearest airport where you can fly to if you intend to take a road entry to Bhutan. The distance from Siliguri to Jaigaon (Indian town at Bhutan-India Border) / Phuentsholing (Bhutan town at the same border) is about 150 kms. Between these 2 towns there is one huge arch with a gate that separates the two countries.
- Siliguri to Border town of Jaigaon / Phuentsholing is about 150 Kms or so and takes about 4-5 hours of leisurely drive. The route is Siliguri to Gangtok NH10. take a diversion at Sevoke (about 24-26 kms from Siliguri) to right over the bridge on river Teesta and then it is via Damdim-Mal Bazar – Nagrakatta – Banarhat – Binnaguri – Birpara – Madhya Madarihat – Hasimara – Jaigaon. The roads are good with moderate seasonal traffic and should not be an issue.
- If you choose to fly to Bhutan, then you can do so from Delhi / Calcutta ( please check not sure) to Paro International airport. Paro is 55 Kms from capital Thimphu and an hours drive. Paro is also an important tourist destination in Bhutan.
One need not have permit for person or vehicle to travel inside Phuentsholing from Indian side. The Passage is free and no hindrance or checking or stoppage. you can even stay at Phuentsholing if you feel like instead of Jaigaon.
- Bhutanese Currency is Ngultrum which is equavalent in value to Indian Rupee. that is 100 Ngultrum is equal to Indian Rs. 100.
- Hindi is spoken widely in Bhutan and Indian currency is accepted everywhere. so currency and transaction there are no issues.
Bhutan time is 30 minutes ahead of Indian time. So it is prudent to reset your watch 30 minutes ahead as you enter phuentsholing so as to keep yourself in Bhutan time. Please carry either passport or your election ID with 2 No. passport size photos with you. The immigration office is on the right side after entering Phuentsholing gate. There is a board DRUK HOTEL attached to the immigration building compound wall that cannot be missed. Druk ( meaning Dragon in Bhutanese) hotel is in a lane next to the immigration building.
The immigration office opens at 9 AM (Indian time is 8:30 AM) at the first counter you can request for a form and fill up the basic details like name, father’s name, passport / election ID number, purpose of visit, etc and attach your photo and submit at the first counter. ( one form per person to be filled). You will be given a token number and called later. On your token being called proceed to the second counter for biometric ( finger print) check and wait around. Depending on the rush and the waiting, your token will be called again and you will be handed over the Individual permit.
Do carry a bottle of water / juice and some snacks as it could get tiring and humid in the immigration office.
The personal permit at Phuentsholing is valid for 7 days and is valid for passage to Paro and Thimphu only.
If you intend to extend your stay for more than 7 days or if you intend to visit other places such as Phunakha, Bhoomthang, Gangtey, Probjika or Haa Valley you need to obtain a special permit at Thimphu Immigration office ONLY. The special permit at Thimphu is no hassles and you need to attach a copy of your Phuentsholing permit and also mention where you intend to visit.
it is better to put all the places in the intended list ( Phunaka, Bhoomthang, Haa, Probjika etc) as it is free and adding those places will do no harm, but will be useful incase if you have a plan change and intend to visit one of these places.
Police can stop you anywhere on the road and ask you for the permit. If you do not have the permit you will be fined and not allowed to go further. But do not despair. Police are extremely friendly and helpful and generally allow you to pass without fine but a gentle warning not to repeat it next time.
Once you obtain the person permit at Phuentsholing immigration, if you are driving / riding an indian vehicle you need a vehicle permit that can be obtained at RSTA (Road security and Transport Authority) offices at Phuentsholing and Thimphu. RSTA offices are situated at the bus stands of respective towns.
For Vehicle permit you need the following at Phuentsholing.
1. Fill a form ( available at any shop in the bus stand. they will even fill it for you for a small token fee). You need to enter your name, your permit no, vehicle no, your Driving License details in form. it is a very basic form.
2. Vehicle RC Copy
3. Emission certificate copy
4. Insurance certificate copy (Make sure your insurance is valid in Bhutan)
5. Driving license copy
6. Vehicle tax receipt from RTO ( not compulsory)
7. Your individual person permit copy.
You wont be issued a vehicle permit unless you have your personal permit.
Prepare all the above docs and give it to Asst. RTO ( a charming beautiful and helpful lady) and she asks you to pay the challan. Rs. 70/- per bike in the opposite counter. once the receipt is produced to her, your vehicle permit is given to you on the spot. It is a no hassle easy procedure. Do not forget to take a copy of all the above mentioned documents to avoid delay.
The cash counter works from 9AM to 3 PM. so be there latest by 2:30 PM with all the above papers else you could loose a day just for this permit ( we lost a day as we went to the counter at 3:30 and it was closed).
The vehicle permit at Phuentsholing is valid only upto Thimphu and Paro. ( like person permits). You need to extend your vehicle permit at Road Safety and Transport Authority Department (RSTA), Thimphu if you intend to go further to Punakha and other places. again it is a hassle free exercise and does not take much time.
Do not attempt to bribe the police or authorities. They are non corrupt as per my experience goes there. be polite, speak in a low tone, smile genuinely and all doors open in Bhutan and all help will be rendered either govt or private.
Once permits are done, proceed to get a Tashi Sim for your mobile for Rs. 200/- the sim is available at market road shops opposite to the Immigration building at Phuentsholing. The shop keeper will do the necessary setting for your mobile, so nothing to worry there. Top up can be done at any small villages / town anywhere in Bhutan.
Phuentsholing to Thimphu or Paro is about 175 Kms. The roads are hilly, winding, narrow so it takes about 5-6 hours of your time. If there is a check post enroute, do not forget to get your permit stamped for passage else you may have to pay fine at the next check post. We rode in June end and thus it was raining and heavily fogged throughout.
People have divided opinion whether to visit Paro first or Thimphu first. My advise is go to Thimphu, get your Permits extended at Immigration office and RSTA. Another reason is you need permit to visit Haa Valley which falls in the Paro circuit. So if you visit Paro first then you may not be able to go to Haa Valley as you may not have special permit in the first place for that. Any police checking and you will be asked to go back to paro from Chelela pass instead of onward passage to Haa Valley.
Always get special permit for all the possible places and also maximum dates. It is free. So if you are extending your trip after reaching Thimphu for additional one week, take special permit for 8-9 days keeping a buffer day or two. It helps to be prepared with such situations.
That’s all about permit for person and vehicles.
Bhutan ISD code is +975; Bhutan mobile numbers are only 8 digits against 10 digits of India.
Llakhang means Temple or place of worship.
Dzong: Fort like structures which are seat of power (Govt offices ) or monastries where children are taught the Buddhist way of life. Festivals are held here on regular intervels.
Chorten: These are Stupas or small rectangular colorful religious structures that you find everywhere including highways, hilltops, valleys and even remote areas. Chorten or Stupas are the oldest Buddhist religious monuments. There are 8 different kinds of Chortens in Buddhism each referring to major events in the life of Buddha. It is rare to see all the 8 Chortens together. One is in Wangduephodrong near the bridge.8 Different type of Stupas or Chortens are The Lotus Blossom Chorten, The Chorten of enlightenment, Chorten of many doors, Chorten of descent from God Realm, Chorten of miracles, Chorten of reconciliation, Chorten of Victory, and Chorten of Nirvana.
HOTELS & STAYS
The hotels that we stayed in Bhutan.
Hotel 89 in Thimphu is a medium budget hotel. Phone No. +975 – 77 10 00 16. It is opposite Hotel Le Meridian and in the heart of the city. In the main road of Thimphu, Norjim Lam ( Norjim Road. Lam means road in Bhuranese and Norjim Lam is Thimphu’s main road albeit it is a one way. Many roads in Thimphu are one way. Keep a watch out for road signs) there is one signal where police man gives hand signals. Take a left at the junction and after 50 mtrs on left is the hotel.
Paro: Hotel Sonam. It is at the end of the Paro town on left towards the Tiger’s Nest and Drukgyel Dzong road. Room tariff are about 2-2.5K but negotiable to 1.5-1.8K per night. Rooms are clean and spacious. you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. contact number: 17004434 / 08274444 /08275555.
Phunakha: Instead of Punakha, it is advisable to take a room at Lobeysa which is about 10-12 kms before Punakha or at Kingaling about 3 kms from Lobeysa towards Bajo town.
The reason is from Lobeysa it is easy to go to Chimi Llakhang ( you can go on a leisurely trek through lush fields from Lobeysa town to Chimi Llakhang and it will take an hour or so) and to Punakha Dzong via Bajo town the roads are good and more scenic than the regular route. Kingaling Hotel about 3 kms further down Lobeysa town is awesome with room tariff about 1500 for a double room. Kingaling Hotel contact: Mob: 17792625 (Tenzin Wangdag) 17536515 ( Reservation). The supervisor Mr. Karma is an awesome helpful guy there.
The Chimi Llakhang ( temple) is a unique temple of it’s kind in the world. It is also known as Fertility temple. In this temple, the priest blesses the visitors with a bow, arrow and a wooden phallus for fertility and long life. The houses around Chimi Llakhang are all painted with huge phallus images.
There is a Bhutan riders club there called Bhutan Dragons and Mr. Tshering & Mr. Thinley Wangchuk are awesome guys and helpful if any assistance is needed.
There are lot of hotels in Paro and Thimphu but limited in Punakha. So an advance booking at Punakha / Lobeysa/ Bajo town / Kingaling is advisable. Punakha comes under Wangdue Phodrang dist.
The roads in Bhutan are generally Ok. while the road from Paro to Thimphu – 55 kms is excellent and can be covered in one hour, most of the places in Bhutan the roads are always winding / climbing /lots of curves and hence the general speed is about 25 Kmph.
Thimphu to Paro is 67 Kms and road is under construction at places and takes about 3 hours ride. Bhutan experiences lots of land slides and you could see slush on the road with warning signs about land slides at many places.
PLACES TO VISIT IN BHUTAN
(Cameras are allowed inside Dzongs and Llakhangs except into the inner sanctum sanatorium in most places and completely not allowed at Tiger’s Nest, Paro (Takhtsang)
1. Buddha Point ( largest Buddha statue in the world known as Kuensel Phodrang or Buddha Dordenma is about 8 kms from Thimphu City on a hill. The large 160+ feet (52 Mtrs) tall Buddha statue is visible from Thimphu city.
2. The Bhutan National animal is Ta-Kin, a goat antelope. it is a protected animal ( like Tiger in India). there is a Takin reserve to see these beautiful animals.
3. Changanga Llakhang close to the Takin Preserve. Llakhang means Temple in Bhutanese.
4. Then there is the magnificent 350 year old Thimpu Dzong known as Tashichho Dzong. It’s near the seat of power ( King’s palace) and is open only from.5:30 to 6:30 pm in evening. Dzongs are seat of festivals in Bhutan and these festivals are area wise and seasonal. Check out if any festival is happening during your time of visit and plan accordingly. These festivals are absolutely magnificent to watch.
5. Norzim Lam: The main road of Thimphu where you find many hotels and important govt buildings, A stroll along the road and some shopping gives you a glimpse of everything Bhutanese.
6. The Clock Tower: At the begining of the Norzim Lam (Lam means road) on your right side is an Old Classic Clock Tower with an open amphitheatre like space for strolling and relaxing. The clock tower is an important land mark of Thimphu city. There is a beautiful Llakhang (temple) near the clock tower and colorful prayer wheels too.
7. National Memorial Chorten (Stupa) it is extremely popular and is located about 1 km from Thimphu Bus stand.
8. Coronation Park it is a huge park about 6 acres on Chhogyal Lam (road) on the bank of river Thimphu Chu ( Chu means river). There is a huge Buddha statue in the centre of the park It is a Govt park and entry is free.
9. Changlimithang statium: It is the only stadium in Thimphu and located near bus stand and the coronation park. It is locally centrally in the city.
10. Weekly market / Centenary Market: It is located on Chhogyel Lam and half a km from the coronation park. Market sits once weekly on saturdays and sunday. The market is very huge and very clean and well organised and a sight to see.
11. Dechencholing Palace: It is in the far north of Thimphu city and about 4 kms from Tashichcho Dzong and and was the King’s former palace. Entry is not allowed and it is strictyly guarded property. the present King stays at another palace known as Samteling Palace or Royal Cottage close to the Tashichcho Dzong. The present palace is not visible to visitors and is camoflaged by thick bush of trees and is heavily guarded and off limits to tourists.
12. Dechen Phodrang Llakhang: it is a beautiful monastery situated at the end of Gaden Lam (road). This is at a height on a mountain but approachable by road . It is about 4 kms from city centre.
13. Zilukha Nunnery (Thangtong Dewachen Dupthop Nunnery): There is a beautiful Llakhang here and it is a school for girls who are studying to be nuns. it is usually busy with prayers and religious activities and studies.
14. Then there is a Museum, Sentoka Dzong close to Thimphu which is worth visiting.
DINING IN BHUTAN
Smoking in public place is strictly prohibited in Bhutan. You cannot smoke on the road anywhere. You can only smoke inside your Hotel Room.
One awesome place to have lunch is S.P Restaurant, Mothithang Ph: 17584547. It is on the way to the Ta-Kin Reserve and serves awesome tasty food at very affordable rates. and another hotel in heart of Thimphu city that we liked was Ama Restaurant in Norzim Lam very near to the Police Chowki. The entrance to Ama restaurant is a bit downer, but once inside it is a awesome place. Food is great.
Bhutanese Cuisine is different from India. Their staple food is Red rice which is different from our rice and a must try.
Their daily home food are National Dish – Ema Datshi (Tomato, Cheese, Chillies), Keva Datshi ( Potato, cheese, Chilies), Sumo Datshi (Mushroom, Cheese, chillies), Jasha Maru ( Chicken spicy), Fish Maru and Fish Paa. to name a few. Momos are also common here and tastes excellent. Local Drink Ara (arag) is also something to try. Also dont fail to try the local drink SUJA, made of Yak milk and tastes salty.
Both vegetarians and non veggies have ample choices to tickle their taste buds and the portions are adequate too. Rice and Daal with potato curry and vegetable curry are staple food in most of the restaurants. So indians need not miss their home food while in Bhutan. puri & Potato curry, Bread toast, Egg Omlette, Tea, Coffee is available for breakfast in every restaurant.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
We rode to Bhutan in last week of June, supposedly the monsoon time there. Their season follows our season. But the rains are not heavy and continuous like in India. It rains, more of a drizzle for max 15 minutes and then it is sunshine again all over. So if you are planning to go in monsoon ( June July Aug) nothing to worry. The sparse rain won’t trouble you much.
I was told the best time to see Bhutan in all her glory is from September to December. The monsoon would have been over and flowers bloom all over the valley. Bhoomthang is said to be the most beautiful place in Bhutan and between September to December it is virtually a replica of Switzerland with lush meadows and flowers blooming allover. Even Haa Valley is at it’s best during that season. And add to that the chill and fog factor of winter. So September to December is the best time ti visit Bhutan to see her in full glory. March to May summer could be fun, but a bit sunny and harsh relatively. Not much chill or flowery meadows, but suffice for a tourist who intends to check out the usual touristy places. The road from Punakha to Boomthang was said to be under repairs. It is about 200 kms distant from Punakha and as we were riding a motorcycle, the thought of bad, slushy road prevented us to venture to Boomthang. For tourists in 4 wheelers there is no such issue. You can explore all there is in Bhutan.
We chose monsoon June-Aug for our ride as it was off season for my job (marine industry) and also the accommodation were cheaper in Bhutan and monsoon has it’s own different charm. The drizzle, the rains, fog, raincoats, slush, flowing rivers and water falls at every turn of road, cool weather did drive us for a monsoon ride through Bhutan. So pick your season. Bhutan anyway is an all season visitable country.
A few more things to add:
1. Men need to wear full sleeve shirt to enter a Dzong and women have to dress conservatively. The authorities can deny you entry into dzong if you are wearing a short sleeve shirt.
2. There are lot of dogs in Bhutan. Mostly they are harmless. Please carry some biscuits in your bag and feed them when ever you find them. Buddha will be happy and bless you.
3. There are some very old people asking for alms on the street of Thimphu. Please provide them what ever you can.
Please adhere to strict road rules of Bhutan. Police are non corrupt and fines are harsh. A left side indicator from the vehicle ahead of you means you can overtake that vehicle. A right side indicator from the vehicle ahead of you indicates YOU SHOULD NOT Overtake the vehicle in front of you.
No overtaking from left, No honking unnecessarily ( but you are encouraged to honk shortly in hair pin bends / blind corners in hilly roads) but in cities no honking. Bikes and cars can be parked at designated parking slots only. The parking attendant charges Rs. 10/- per hour of parking in Thimphu streets. There are large public parking slots incase if your hotel does not have a dedicated parking space. One such public parking space is next to hotel 89, opp to Le Meridian. The attendant charges Rs. 60/- per day.