Although Bhutan is a neighbour and shares very close relations with India, information about the country is limited and Bhutan doesn't rank high among holiday preferences. So here's some tips for fellow Indians travelling to the 'Land of the Thunder Dragon'.
Citizens of India, Bangladesh and Maldives don't have to organize their trip to Bhutan through a package with a government-approved local agent and pay the minimum tariff, set by the government. This means that travelling to Bhutan for said citizens is much cheaper, as they pay only for their actual use of services. This also means that they can organize it all by themselves, although a local agent can help much. And a guide can add much information, both on cultural tours, and especially is useful for walks, as most are without any signage. Treks in Bhutan have to be organized by a local agent, who will deal with all the logistics of the camping.
Carrying a passport is ideal, though not necessary. Even a Voter's ID card is sufficient. A visa is not required either. An entry permit will be given when crossing the border.
If Indian Citizens do not have passport or voter id, they can obtain an identification slip from the Indian Consulate Office by providing proof like birth certificate, aadhar card etc. The office is located in 'India House'. They take a contribution of Rs. 100 for Army Welfare Fund. Carry the photocopies of the proofs being submitted, fill up a simple application form and the identification slip will be issued in 15 mintues.
Druk Air offers direct flights to Paro, which is the only international airport in Bhutan, from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bagdogra. Popular travel websites such as Yatra and Makemytrip donot offer these flights. You will need to contact the authorized Druk Air travel agent in the city closest to you (view their website for details), or call the airline office directly. Fares listed on the website are higher, for Indian citizens, they are slightly different. Also, these aren't daily flights, so when if intent to fly both ways, better to first see the flight schedule and availability and then plan the rest of your trip. Best is to let your tour operator do the booking for you.
Despite being a small airline, Druk Air's service quality is quite good. You don't have any in-flight entertainment apart from their magazine, Tashi Delek, but the crew is friendly and attend your needs. Like with Indian airline companies, Druk Air offers a choice of Indian vegetarian and non vegetarian meals, without requiring you to book it beforehand. Jain food isn't available though if you need it. Catering of meals on flights departing from India is done by Taj Sats, so you can be assured of a good meal. While travelling from Mumbai or Delhi to Paro, please request for a window seat on the left (right for the return flight). The flight path crosses by the snow capped Himalayan peaks and offers a spectacular view of Mount Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest.
If you're flying from Kolkata, Bhutan Airlines, a private company runs a Bangkok - Kolkata - Paro service.
No other airlines currently operate on this route.
Druk Air flights are expensive and as Indian citizens, you have the liberty of both entering and exiting the country by land. There are direct flights to Bagdogra in Northern West Bengal from Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai and this works out cheaper. Or you can even take a train to Siliguri. From there the Jaigaon/Phuentsholing border is around 4-5 hours. Thimphu is another 5-6 hours from here and the drive uphill is beautiful. Phuentsholing offers plenty of hotel facilities for a break journey. The border between Phuentsholing on the Bhutan side and Jaigaon on the Indian side is open, so you can even cross over for some Indian food if you like. But there are some time restrictions before which you need to go back to Bhutan. The road from Bagdogra to the border is not in a good condition.
For travel in Bhutan, if done individually, you can either use public buses or hire a car with driver. If a local agent is used, he'll come and receive you at the border or close to it, as by agreement ( you can ask to be picked up in Siliguri, in the west, or in Guwahati in the east).
You can also take your Indian Car to Bhutan and obtain a permit for the car from the Regional Transport Office in Phuensholing for a feeof about ng 200. Cost of Petrol is cheaper by about Ng 11 in Bhutan than in India in May 2014.
Majorly all tour operators in India... have tours to Bhutan. Only few offer group tours, while customized packages are available with all. Although, the catch is that bookings are only handled by local Bhutanese operators, so they need to forward your request to Bhutan. Alternatively you can deal with a Bhutanese agent directly. Trip reports with recommendations are plenty in the Bhutan forum on TripAdvisor.
For a customized package, it makes sense to directly contact a tour operator in Bhutan. There are many registered tour operators, a comprehensive list is available here..
A local Bhutanese guide is not a must for Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldives citizens in Bhutan but if you prefer, to have your trip organized by a local travel agency, this will assign you a guide. Guides are professionally trained and are very well informed, they will accompany you throughout your visit and provide exhaustive information on not only the places you visit, but on anything you want to know about the country as whole. This becomes necessary as there is isn't any visitor information board at most places. Guides generally speak English, but quite a few understand Hindi and are able to speak basic Hindi as well.
The local currency is the Ngultrum, which is pegged to the Indian Rupee. The rupee is also legal tender in Bhutan, so you do not need to convert any currency, rupees are accepted everywhere.
Please bear in mind that though officially 500 and 1000 rupee notes are not supposed to be accepted, practically, all the establishments accept these notes. .Very few places accept cards, so it's best to carry how much ever you need, in cash.
You can get a prepaid SIM card in any shop on showing your immigration permit. Bring an unlocked phone with you. For a weeklong trip a 100 Rs/Nu card is sufficient. Call to India are charged at 5 Rs/Nu per minute.
TRAVELLING WITHIN THE COUNTRY (Covering Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjikha)
For travel in Bhutan, if done individually, you can either use public buses or hire a car with driver or drive your own Car.
If you use a local agent, you'll have a car and driver, apart from the guide. Hyundai H1 is a popular tourist vehicle, which can accommodate 6, plus the guide and driver, apart from having plenty of room for luggage. Your Bhutan registered car can come to pick you up at Bagdogra or Siliguri. Alternatively, even Indian cars are allowed into Bhutan.
The roads from Paro Airport to Thimphu is good and Thimphu being the capital has good infrastructure. On the way from Thimphu to Punakha, the roads are being widened for a Hydro Power Project (as of May 2014). As a result, road conditions are bad and the road is only open to traffic at fixed times during the day. Your guide will have update info regarding these timings.
From Punakha to Phobjikha, the road is in a very bad condition and can be classified as Kutcha for most of the way. The drive is picturesque, but will be painful for those with motion sickness or a back problem. Roads in the Paro area are good. All roads in Bhutan have many curves and therefore the driving is slow.
There are very few (if at all) restaurants and restrooms on highways, please do not be picky.
FOOD AND HOTELS (Covering Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjikha)
Quite a few Indian travellers are apprehensive about vegetarian food in Bhutan, but the problem is overrated. Hotels provide you with breakfast and dinner in the package and most of them will specially cook roti, dal, subzi and rice for you if it isn't there on the buffet, at no extra charge. You need to tell them in advance though. The same applies for breakfast. Do not be very picky about taste, it might not be the best, but they spare no effort in catering to your needs. Bhutanese food has vegetarian options too, if you aren't particular about sticking to Indian vegetarian. Ema Datsche is the national dish and is essentially chilies and cheese. Chillies in Bhutan are used as a vegetable and not as a spice. Vegetarian Thukpa, Bathup and Momos are other options. Shops in Thimphu and Paro were well stocked with packaged foods... juices; namkeen etc. and brands are predominantly Indian ones, so you won't face a problem finding your favourite product. You can even buy a bottle of pickles for your meals since you may find the food a bit bland for Indian tastes. But do stock up on what you need for the long road journeys, you won't get anything on the way.
For lunch, there are Indian restaurants in Thimphu and Paro. In Thimphu, Chula, behind Taj Tashi serves good Indian food, while in Paro, Sonam Trophel in the main market serves both Indian and Bhutanese.
On the way to Punakha, you can have Bhutanese food in the restaurant at Dochula Pass and again at the entry to the walk up to Chime Lakhang.
Keep in mind that many hotels in Bhutan, including some high end ones, won't provide you a TV in the room. WiFi is available at some. Electric kettles are provided, but some places won't give you tea/coffee/sugar/milk powder. Please check up on these based on your requirement.
MISCELLANEOUS DOS AND DON'TS
- Taking pictures inside the alters of dzongs, temples and monasteries is strictly prohibited
- Take off your caps/hats inside dzongs, temples and in front of the national flag
- Wear full length, long sleeved clothes while visiting dzongs, temples, monasteries, schools and any government institutions
- Walk clockwise while crossing dzongs, temples, monasteries, prayer flags and other religious artifacts
- Please seek permission before clicking other people or religious items
- Do not give sweets, money, pencils, pens etc. to the children
- Although Bhutan is safe, please keep your valuable items safe
- There are a lot of stray dogs in Bhutan. Do not tease them as they aren't friendly. Barking dogs are also a nuisance at night in several areas
- Public display of affection is uncommon in Bhutan. Kindly refrain.
- Smoking in public places is prohibited
- Buying of antiques from Bhutan is strictly monitored by customs. Please insist on a cash memo/original bill while purchasing
Bhutan is really like no other! Do not expect it to provide the commercial pleasures of a run-of-the-mill Indian hill station. It's completely non-commercial and unspoilt (the way it should be). Visually, it's very appealing. Government rules dictate that buildings, right down from palaces and monasteries to apartment blocks need to conform to the traditional architectural style and the overall effect is very impressive. The people are trustworthy and friendly and ever ready to break into a smile. The mountains, forests and rivers are in pristine condition. The cities are clean and the traffic (whatever little there is) is well organized. People say that a holiday in Sikkim or Ladakh offers a similar experience at a lower cost. But no, Bhutan is altogether unique experience and well worth the extra cost!Hope this write-up gives you enough information to plan your next Bhutan holiday!