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Travelling in Bhutan

  • Submitted by: Hardeep Johar
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005



In response to several "Bhutan" travel requests I am posting what little I know about Bhutan and travel.




CAVEAT:




Most of the information below is old and things could have changed.




CONTENTS OF THIS POST:




1. Travel to Bhutan.
2. Getting there.
3. Local Transport.
4. Currency.
5. Hotel facilities.
6. Notes on Thimpu and Paro.




1. TRAVEL TO BHUTAN
(This information is reasonably current):




As far as I know, travel to Bhutan by individual foreign nationals (as tourists) is permitted. However, you have to buy a travel package which consists of hotel and local travel in Bhutan. Once in Bhutan, the package is flexible (you can take off on your own). The package includes a guide and a tour operator of some sort. The Bhutanese government also organizes guided tours of various durations, mostly during summer and fall. The Bhutan goverment has selected travel operators that can make all arrangements for you.

In the US contact the Bhutan Embassy in Washington D.C. or Bhutan Travel Inc, 120 E 56 Street (212) 838-6382 in New York City. In Europe, the only Bhutan mission I know of, is in Geneva. Look for a Bhutan Travel office in major cities.






2. GETTING THERE:




Druk air, the official airline of Bhutan, flies daily from Calcutta, a few times a week from Dacca (old information). I think they also started a flight from either New Delhi or Varanasi. You can also go by road via Phuntshiling (sp?) on the India - Bhutan border. From Calcutta, the flight is 1 and a half hours, the road trip is at least 2 days. Bhutan has no railroad.





3. LOCAL TRANSPORT:




The bus from Paro airport to Thimpu is a comfortable minibus. All other public transport services are BAD! Dilapidated, crowded buses take you almost anywhere in Bhutan, but be there early if you want to sit. The plus side is that the buses are inexpensive. Always check the schedule, and try taking a cab if you can afford one. Cabs are very expensive (e.g. bus ride Paro-Thimpu by airline minibus Rs. 25, by public bus Rs. 5, by cab Rs. 300). Cabs to most of the tourist sights tend to be more expensive.





4. CURRENCY




The Bhutanese rupee is converted 1:1 with the Indian rupee and the hotels convert most major currencies into Bhutanese currency. The Indian rupee is freely accepted in Bhutan. In Thimpu you can often pay in foreign currency, but elsewhere no one has even heard of the US or Europe so carry Rupees with you! Banks give you a better rate but you can only convert during banking hours. American Express checks give a better rate than cash (marginally). Conversion of dollars etc. to rupees is easier than it is in India.




5. HOTEL FACILITIES:




There is one hotel in Paro and two good ones in Thimpu. The hotels are good and have all modern amenities including central heating/air conditioning and are designed to cater to the Western traveller. The hotel in Paro has many cottages dotted on the hillside with a beautiful view of the valley. Thimpu hotels are in the city (more like a large village really). The only restaurants are in the hotels and they serve Indian/European/Bhutanese food. European beer is available as are bottled water, and coke, pepsi etc (everything is expensive). You can buy stuff like toothpaste, soap etc in the one or two stores in Thimpu but is hard to get anything useful in Paro or elsewhere in Bhutan. Unless things have changed, carry plenty of film. We did not carry enough, could not get any in Paro, and could get only black and white film in Thimpu.





6. NOTES ON THIMPU AND PARO




Bhutan is a beautiful and unspoiled country. My wife and I went there for our honeymoon (Indian nationals are permitted to travel on their own) a few years ago and really enjoyed our trip. We did not trek except for a couple of one day hikes, but, I think, that the government does organize longer treks (again in groups). Whether you agree or not with the policy of controlling the inflow of foreign nationals, I must say that the policy has been remarkably successful in preserving the countries beauty. This is in sharp contrast to what is happenning in Nepal.

A visit to Bhutan starts with the flight to Paro in a 16 seater fokker which drones at a low altitude first over the Indian plains, and then through the himalayas. A rare treat. You land at Paro, a small airstrip maintained by the Indian Air Force and walk to the customs and immigration building (a small shed) where an official makes sure that you are not a subversive character. Almost anyone you will meet in an official capacity (including hotel employees) speak english.

Paro is a small town (one street approx half a mile long) nestled in a valley, by the side of a river, has a beautiful hotel (exactly one), a massive monastery where you can roam at will. Neither the hotel nor the airport are in the town, and only the hotel is walking distance. Cabs (Jeeps) are easily available, though not inexpensive. Approximately 50 miles from Paro is the monastery of Taktsang perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, a long, steep hike from the road (2 hours for a monk wearing slippers, 3-4 hours up for a seasoned trekker with good boots, allow 1-2 hours for the return). Except for a couple of monks, you won't meet anyone on this walk. Halfway to the top there is a "restaurant" which caters mainly to tourist groups. When we were there, no group was expected for a while, and the caretaker could only give us some tea. If you go alone (that is not in a tourist group) make sure that you check the bus timings for the return trip from the point where the hike starts to Paro. The last bus is fairly early in the afternoon. We missed the bus, but were lucky enough to be given a lift back by a Bhutanese Army truck.

Taktsang is important for the Bhutanese people because the Buddhist monk, Guru Rinpoche, is thought to have landed there on the back of a flying tiger centuries ago to bring Buddhism to Bhutan (from Tibet). The Guru Rinpoche is close to a God in Bhutan and you will see many signs of him there. New Yorkers, there is an excellent introduction to the Guru at the Museum of Natural History.

Thimpu is one and a half hours by bus from Paro. Thimpu has a few hotels, two good ones, and a couple of terrible ones. Bhutan is expensive by Indian standards (which is why no Indians go there). The good hotels cater to UN officials and Indian government officials (plenty of both around), and the terrible ones cater to salespeople selling "Hamam" soap (an inexpensive Indian soap).

There are a couple of short treks around Thimpu, and plenty of interesting monasteries to visit. Phajuding monastery is a short hike (4 hours round trip) from Thimpu on a poorly marked trail. We got hopelessly lost and never made it there. The Kings palace (cab ride), the religious secretariat, the tomb to the old king, many monasteries (what did you expect!) are the sights in Thimpu.

The himalaya in Bhutan is very different from what it is in Nepal and India. Very green, part rolling, part craggy hills, and almost no cultivation or deforestation. Parts of it look like the Swiss Alps (rolling meadows with icy peaks jutting out of nowhere). It is the only place I've been to that is almost unspoiled by man, and I've travelled and trekked fairly extensively in Nepal and India, and hiked a bit in the US and Europe. This is partly because the government controls tourism, and partly because the population of Bhutan is so low (cannot be more than 50000 -100000 in an area as big as New York State).

Hardeep Johar
hjohar@rnd.stern.nyu.edu
(212) 998-4205