Bhutan is one of India's closest neighbours and offers an array of spectacular views and activities to tourists. But if you'd thought that Bhutan was a hard country to access, think again. It can be easily located through a multitude of transportation options and below, we bring to you the simplest and most convenient of the lot, the road trip.
The route we've traced begins at various points in West Bengal, India and ends at Thimpu, Bhutan.
There are three points where you can cross over the Indian border and into Bhutan. These are Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Phuentsholing. The first two are connected to the Indian state of Assam. Here in this article, we've focused on the third route, which means entry through the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing point in the border that West Bengal shares with Bhutan. This is the simplest and most convenient route to take, and you can quickly reach the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu from Phuentsholing within a few hours.
Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives don't require a visa to travel to Bhutan and can obtain a permit from the entry point. They need to carry a valid passport to get this permit. Indian nationals can also use their Voter ID card. Please make sure that you carry passport-sized photos of yourself too.
For all other tourists, a visa clearance must be obtained. The Tourism Council of Bhutan processes this within 72 hours and requires $ 40 in visa fees. This visa clearance letter has to be shown upon arrival to get the visa stamped on your passport.
The Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing is your entry point for travelling to Thimpu. The capital city is around 170 km from here and can be easily reached.
This article first details how you can reach Phuentsholing and then how you can travel from there to Thimpu by road.
Kolkata is well connected to all parts of the country by road, air, rail (even waterways). If Kolkata is your starting point, there are several pros as well as a couple of cons.
Firstly, if you want to take a bus, you can spend a very nominal amount and reach the India-Bhutan border town of Phuentsholing. This option is easy on the pocket, and there is not any change of transport that you have to worry about. The Royal Bhutanese Government runs several buses throughout the week. The other side, however, is the fact that it's a long journey of around 22 hours and the roads are not always in excellent condition. So the trip may be somewhat an uncomfortable one.
If you're looking to take to the roads a little further into the journey, we recommend taking a train from Kolkata to Siliguri/New Jalpaiguri (NJP), Falakata or Hasimara. From there you can take a car, auto rickshaw, shared jeep or taxi to reach Phuentsholing and then after getting your permit, proceed onwards. Trains from Kolkata to NJP cost around INR 875 (Kanchanjunga Express - 3AC).
There are many days and overnight trains available from Kolkata. The journey to Siliguri takes around 12 hours while if you decide to travel to the other points closer to the border, it will add a few more hours to your train journey. The frequency of direct trains going to Falakata and Hasimara is however lower. Trains from Kolkata to Hasimara cost around INR 1014 (Kanchan Kanya Express - 3AC).
The third option is, of course, taking a private vehicle from Kolkata to Bhutan. If you want to rent a vehicle, Kolkata has abundant options, and this is a great way to travel if you're going to be utterly self-reliant while travelling. Keep in mind that you will need to obtain a permit for your vehicle before you can finally drive onto the roads of Bhutan. Permits can be obtained for a fee at Phuentsholing itself, from the Regional Transport office. Please make sure that you carry the documents about your car (original as well as copies) as well as your passport and driver's license (if you do not wish to take on a local driver).
2. From Siliguri or Bagdogra
The trip from Siliguri to Phuentsholing is a much shorter one of about 157 km. When you reach Siliguri, your options are to take a bus, private taxi, shared jeep and such. The journey by bus takes around 5 hours, and you can enjoy the hilly vistas as you travel. Unfortunately, the roads are often poorly maintained and can make for an uncomfortable bumpy ride. The Bhutan Government runs two buses daily on this route at 07:30 hours and at 13:30 hours. There are also taxis and a non-AC taxi that can carry five people will charge around ? 3000 for the one way trip. Prices vary a lot, and you may have to bargain to get a fair rate.
From Siliguri, you can use one of two routes to travel to Phuentsholing. The first, using the NH31C, has a shorter distance to cover. The second route, through the Siliguri-Guwahati National Highway, however, might be a better option despite being a tad longer. You can also take a train from Siliguri to either Falakata or Hasimara and then take a vehicle to the border. Trains from Siliguri to Hasimara cost around ? 495 (Indore - Guwahati Weekly Express - 3AC).
From Hasimara the distance to Jaigaon is a mere 15 km and would be a much more comfortable distance to travel. It takes only around 30 minutes to reach the border from there, and you have several options like an auto rickshaw, shared jeep or taxi to reach the limit. It will also cost you less if you travel this way. Auto-Rickshaw costs around INR 100, a shared jeep costs you around - INR 50 per person while a private taxi from Hasimara costs approximately INR 400. The cheapest option would be taking a bus which costs around INR 15 per head. Please do keep in mind that the prices fluctuate and can change at any time.
Keep in mind that a lot of these vehicles will drop you on the Indian side of the border and you may have to take another vehicle to cover the short distance to Phuentsholing. The cost for this border to border trip is minimal.
The nearest airport in India is Bagdogra which is located some 9 km away from Siliguri. The airport has flights coming in from major Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. It also has international connectivity with Bhutan through flights to the Paro Airport.
As you drive to the border, you can follow the meandering course of the Teesta (and several other rivers) and watch tea gardens pass by your car window. The roads are usually in excellent condition, and the 4-hour journey between Bagdogra and Phuentsholing can be made in relative comfort. The distance is about 164 km, and buses and jeeps and taxis are plying as well.
The cheapest option when travelling from Bagdogra Airport is to take a shared taxi from near the airport to the Nepal border.
3. From Phuentsholing to Thimphu
Once you reach Phuentsholing and obtain your permits, congratulations, you're officially a tourist in Bhutan. The next step is to travel and explore this beautiful country. From the border, if you want to go to Thimpu, you have buses as well as private taxis available. About 164 km or 5 hours by road, the quality of the roads vary and can make the journey longer. Bus fare is approximately around INR 250 while you can get both shared and private taxis too. Read more about travelling to Bhutan by buses
You can get a four-seater private taxi for around INR 2,500. As you travel, watch out for the beautiful teak forests along the road. You can also stop to visit the Kharbandi Gompa, a beautiful monastery offering a view of the hills.
There are a few checkpoints and landmarks which you will cross during your journey. These include the Rich ending checkpoint, Gedu village, Takti-chu, Wangchu, Tsimakoti pass and so on. En route, keep your eyes peeled to catch a glimpse of waterfalls, mist-covered towns and winding streams as you sit back and enjoy the hilly landscape. This is one of the most popular ways to Travel to Bhutan by Road from India.
The Bhutanese currency is the Ngultrum (Nu.) It is of the same valuation as the Indian rupee. Incidentally, the Indian rupee is accepted as legal tender in the country.
Most hotels and handicraft stores in the country offer the option of paying by credit card.
If you're not sure what to buy when in the Kingdom of Bhutan, here are a few recommendations:
Favourite handicraft items include hand-woven textiles of raw silk, carved masks, woven baskets of cane and bamboo, wooden bowls otherwise known as Dapas, handmade paper products, metal crafts and so on. You can also get a beautiful Thangkha painting or some vibrant postage stamps.
Bhutan is a mountainous country and if you're travelling through the winding roads, motion sickness can become a major concern. Do make sure that you carry appropriate medicines if you're prone to motion sickness.
If you're not entirely sure of your Bhutan itinerary yet, do check out the link below to find out the highlights.