Entry is easiest by air. Druk Air is the national airline, sometimes known as Royal Bhutan Airlines, and the only airline that flies into Bhutan. It operates two BAe 146 4-engine jets carrying 77 passengers twice a week from Delhi and Kathmandu, once a week from Calcutta and Dhaka and twice a week from Bangkok.
Schedules and rates may changes at short notice so check with the Druk Air agent in the country of departure. Air fares are relatively costly and payable in foreign exchange with no excursion or concession rates. Druk Air’s in-flight service is good, with a friendly crew, colourful handwoven blankets to keep warm and French Wine Served on board.
Thai International offices in major cities in the US and Europe can issue your Druk-Air ticket, but only after you have confirmed your bookings through the Druk-Air offices in Thimphu, Kathmandu, Delhi, Dhaka, Calcutta or Bangkok. Druk Air requires of visa clearance from Thimphu before issuing a Ticket.
From October to early April, the flight to Bhutan is especially spectacular with the whole of the eastern Himalaya visible, including famous giants such as Everest, Kangchenjunga and Jomolhari. Bhutan’s only airport is in Paro and is an hour’s drive from the capital, Thimphu, A tourist bus or the Druk Air coach will take you from Paro to Thimphu. Paro airport is located in the mountains at 2,200m (7,220 ft) and the weather can sometimes causes delays, especially during the summer monsoon. When leaving Bhutan, avoid tight connecting schedules for ongoing flights.
Following recent renovations, the airport has central heating- a blessing in he bitter cold of Paro winter mornings- a restaurant, bookshop, accessibility lifts for the disabled, and television monitors displaying flight information.
Travelling overland is not recommended unless you are with a group or are particularly adventurous. Phuntsholing is the entry point on the Indian border in the state of West Bengal, a 5-hour drive from Darjeeling or a 3-hour drive from the nearest Indian airport of Bagdogra. The latter is linked by daily Indian Airlines flights from Delhi or Calcutta. The nearest train station is Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri.
Your Bhutanese tour operator will receive you in Phuntsholing. After an overnight stop, it is a further 6 hours by road to Thimphu or Paro.
Visas and Passports
Independent travelers are not granted entry into Bhutan unless invited by the government or if working for an accredited aid agency. Indian and other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) country nationals are not bound by these rules.
Valid passports and visas are essential. There is a fixed government quota on the number of tourists allowed entry into Bhutan, most of which is taken up by travel agents. Tourist operations are handled by private Bhutanese companies but prices are fixed by the government tourist board. Flat rates, one for cultural tours and the other for Treks, include transportation, guides, accommodations and food, and do no vary with the seasons.
The best option is to join a group with an international tour operator who will handle all the arrangements and formalities.
Visas are not issued abroad but are stamped in your passport upon arrival in Paro and cost US$ 20. However, the process is not as easy as it sounds: your Druk Air ticket cannot be issued until Druk Air receives visa clearance from Thimphu. To apply for a visa, contact either your host agency or foreign or Bhutanese tour operator. State your departing airport for Bhutan, or Phuntsholing if you come by land, and give all your passport details at least 15 days before the date of arrival. When it is processed, your visa clearance will be sent to the Druk Air office of your departing airport for Bhutan, or directly to Phuntsholing.
You need a permit to travel in Bhutan outside of Paro and Thimphu. If you are not part of a tour group, you should know that the permit takes at least two days to obtain from Thimphu’s Immigration Office so do not plan to leave Thimphu immediately and do check official holidays. You need two passport –size photos and the complete list of all the places you wish to visit. In addition, a second permit is required if you wish to visit restricted monasteries and Dzongs in Bhutan. This can be obtained from the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs in Thimphu, but be forewarned that this permit is difficult to obtain if you are not a Buddhist.
Although no compulsory vaccinations are required to enter Bhutan, recommended are typhoid, tetanus, poliomyelitis jabs and a shot of gamma-globulin which protects against hepatitis-A. Complete vaccination coverage would include hepatitis-B, rabies and meningitis but is unnecessary for a short stay.
Customs laws forbid the export of antiques or religious objects. Paro airport customs officers are very efficient in his regard.
Always ask for a receipt with your purchase as unrecorded items may be confiscated by the customs officers. Have any new religious objects, such as prayer wheels and thangkas that you have bought or been given cleared by the Antiquities Department in Thimphu. Items purchased from Thimphu’s Government Handicraftts Emporium are exempted from this requirement. If you are carrying religious items from another country, declare them on your customs from upon arrival in Bhutan to avoid any problems when departing.
It is forbidden to export samples of butterflies, plants or flowers.
The temperature and weather can change quickly and you may experience different climates in one day. Depending on the altitude, you may be freezing on top of a pass and two hours later be in semi-tropical jungle. It is difficult to accurately generalize about the climate of Bhutan because of the variations in elevations and seasons. The southern belt has a similar climate to West Bengal-cool and sunny in winter and hot and rainy in summer. The central valleys share the same pleasant climate but the eastern ones are lower and warmer. Winter from November to March is generally sunny except for the occasional snowfall: temperatures can be relatively warm during the day (16 C / 61 F) but fall below freezing at night. Spring, from mid-March to May, is cool and often stormy as it slowly warms up. The monsoon can start as early as mid-June and last until end September. These months are warm and cloudy with showers failing mostly in the evening and at night. October is a gorgeous autumn month with clear skies, warm days and cool nights.
Practical and comfortable clothes are appropriate, with dressy outfits only necessary if you are in Bhutan on Business. Because of the variety of climates you may encounter in one day, choose garments which can be layered, and peeled off as required depending on the temperature changes. From June to September cottons and a good woolen sweater should be enough, whilst from October to May you must also bring a down jacket or a warm coat. Do not underestimate the cold, especially in winter when offices and hotels are usually poorly heated. Hot water bottles are available in the hotel. A raincoat is not really necessary: it is better to bring an umbrella.
A pair of loafers or sneakers are the only footwear required unless you are trekking. Do not expect to buy shoes in Thimphu except thongs and it is often difficult for Westerners to find their sizes.
Always dress conservatively. Shorts, mini-skirts and halter tops, besides being unsuitable for the climate, are definite no-nos as the local population is not used to the display of bare skin.
Officially 220 volts but the power supply can be erratic or non-existent depending on where you are. Be careful as the power sometimes fluctuates from 150 volts to 300 volts causing irreparable damage to sophisticated equipment.
Indian-made batteries are available almost everywhere but their quality is quite poor. Bring your own supply of alkaline batteries.
Bhutan is 6 hours ahead of GMT and 30 minutes ahead of India.
Money Transfers: Currency
The currency is the Ngultrum, divided into Chetrums, and is at par with the Indian Rupee. The Indian Rupee is also legal tender in Bhutan. Travellers cheques in US and Canadian dollars, Japanese yen, German mark, French and Swiss francs and British sterling can be changed at the bank in Thimphu and major Hotels. In smaller towns, US dollar travellers cheques and cash are the most widely accepted currency.
Personal cheques are not accepted and credit cards are still a rarity. Only a few restaurants and shopping outlets in Thimphu accept the American Express Card. Others such as Visa and Mastercard have yet to be introduced.
Tipping and Gifts
Small gifts are important in Bhutanese customs, probably more so than most other places in the world. Posters, Key-chains, stickers and other such souvenirs from your country are welcome and more appropriate than monetary tips.
A departure tax of 300 Ngultrum (US$9) is levied at Paro airport.
HOURS AND HOLIDAYS
Government office hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm in winter (November to March) and 9am to 5pm in summer (April to October). Banking hours are 9am to 1pm Monday to Friday, and 9am to 11am on Saturday. Most shops stay open until 8-9pm but all shops are closed on Tuesday, except Thimphu’s Handicraft Emporium.
Hotels and guesthouses cannot be booked by individuals from outside Bhutan so use this list only as a reference. Your tour operator or host will make the booking, through you can state your preference for a specific hotel.