A Blog on Travel to Bhutan : The Last Shangri-La

by Manoj Keshwar on 07 November 2015
Motorcycle or Family Travel to Bhutan

Bhutan is very Unique?
Bhutan as a country has always remained elusive and there is an air of mysticism about this hidden Mountain Himalayan Kingdom. If you are a person who is looking to an offbeat holiday destination – with Family or as solo, I have found Bhutan to be an exceptional destination for a week to 10 days. There is boundless nature, trekking, culture, bird watching and few more dos in Bhutan. Of course exploring the country on Motorcycle is a cut above the rest of the experiences.

There has to be something unique about this hidden Shangri-La. Read a few things :-

  • Its a country that measures its worth by quantifying ‘Happiness’ in terms of– Gross National Happiness; rather than GDP. Ever heard of anything like this before? It is the happiest country in Asia and eighth happiest in the World. See this video to know more about GNH - What is "Gross National Happiness" ?

 

  • Country where every foreigner has to pay a steep royalty for their travel and stay in Bhutan. As an Indian you are fortunate that there is no royalty to pay for travelling to Bhutan.
  • A country that has no traffic lights - and the traffic is regulated by free flowing traffic circles. I am told the attempt to instal a traffic light was turned down as it restricts the natural flow of life. Since there is less traffic volume, it sure is manageable for now.
  • No Newspapers on a Sunday - Bhutan is known to be a nation with no sense of urgency whatsoever. Something that really brings in 'Happiness' i guess. So much so that there are no newspapers printed on a Sunday or nor do they want to read it. Isn't that cool!
  • No desserts, Lots of Chilly - May be it is the only country in the World where Chilly is the favourite veggie and there is nothing called a dessert in their daily menu. And of course Tea with Salt is quite popular. Spicy country eh!
  • They believe modernisation does not necessarily mean Westernisation. Wonder why India or other countries never thought that way.
  • Bhutan has never been colonised - no wonder then, they staunchly practise and protect their centuries old un-spoilt Buddhist culture. The efforts are on to ensure that the village culture is retained at all cost.
  • We do have Bollywood in there - Salman Khan is the most popular star in this easy going Nation. The Bhai rocks … :)
  • Indians need no visa to go to this Shangri-La and you could just drive into Bhutan in your own car, as you would do in a remote state in India ( say Ladakh and North East).
  • Overall, 75% of the population is Buddhist, about 23% is Hindu, 1.6% muslims and 0.4% other religions.

Entry to Bhutan. From India, Bhutan can be entered at three places –
a. West- If you fly to Bagdogra – take a 4 hour car or a bike to Phuentsholing ( Indian town co located on the border is Jaigaon), at the border of Bhutan. Here you enter Bhutan from West and travel all the way Eastwards through the country.
b. East- If you fly to Guwahati – you could take a cab or a bike to Somdrup Jongkhar ( Indian town is Darranga). Here you enter Bhutan from East and then can travel all the way westwards
c. Central - The third un-assuming place to enter is from Gelephu and this takes you to the central Bhutan. A relatively lesser developed area.

Flights. If you travel by air, you should know that only Druk air flies to Paro ( the only International airport in Bhutan) from Kolkota and New Delhi. The seats are limited and are in short supply. They can be booked online or through an agent in Bhutan.

Best Time. Best time to travel is from March to May and from End September to November. People do travel in winters too – its quite cold and non-touristy in winters. You could expect warm, cold and wet weather all in the same day. Must carry warm clothing and a rain-cape or umbrella. For bikers the rain protection is a must. If possible avoid the monsoons from June to September, though Bhutan is beautiful all year round.

No Smoking. Smoking is officially banned in Bhutan and buying or selling tobacco is a punishable offence. Travellers however can carry their reserve of tobacco to a prescribed limit.

No Speeding. The official speed limit is 50 kmph – and as i said before, no one is in a hurry here. Since there are no traffic lights - they really want you to slow down and take it easy. That really is a cool contrast from the fast paced lives that we live in cities.

Permits To travel in Bhutan you need permits from Immigration office at the border towns - Phuentsholing or Somdrup Jonkhar. You need to hire a travel agent to do this. This is done in 2 parts if you want to see whole of Bhutan and just once if you are only doing West Bhutan. The first permit is issued at border for Paro and Thimpu, the second one is issued from Thimpu immigration office for central and eastern Bhutan.

  • The immigration offices are open on all week days. In Phuntsholing the office does open on weekends in first half of the day – that is not the case with Thimpu which does not open on weekends. One should plan the travel keeping these facts in mind. The Thimphu offices close for almost a week during Thimpu Tsechu festivities and that will be a problem to those who want to travel to central and eastern parts of Bhutan. It makes sense to get these permits planned and obtained from your operator well in advance. Viktorianz can help :).
  • In order to process a permit, as an Indian you will need – a passport or a voter’s ID and fill up a prescribed form. This form can be downloaded from the net.
  • You need a permit for carrying your transport, either bike or car, inside Bhutan. After you have obtained your immigration permit, you will have to go to Transport office for obtaining car or bike permits.
  • Immigration offices are a crowded affair. Overall you would need half a day or a bit more to obtain these permits. It is less crowded if you enter from Assam – Somdrup Jongkhar side.
  • If you are carrying a hired bike or someone else’s car – you need an Authorisation letter to this effect- this will be issued only after you have your permits.

The Roads
The roads in Bhutan are good to average. They are wide in the west and become narrow as we travel to Central and East. In Bhutan a lot of roads are made by Dantak (Indian Border Roads Organisation), but these are mostly in West Bhutan and East Bhutan. The Roads from Thimphu to Trashigang is with the Bhutan Govt – these are narrow roads, which are under an ambitious widening project – this is likely to continue till 2017 if not later. The widening work of roads causes a number ( 4-5) of road blocks. The blocks are for 2-3 hours at a time, a few times in the day. One should cater for additional 3-4 hours of travel time to cater for these blocks. There may be times when one may have to return back from a land slide - we had to do that on our September ride.

While on a road trip – you don’t find many eating places. There are small home run tea points who offer some tea, maggi, hot chicken and pork curries and rice. My favourite has been rice and chicken curry. And goes without saying everything in Bhutan is organic. As we go deeper into Central and East Bhutan the places to eat become fewer. And so, need to plan your lunches well. They don't seem to giving business much priority here for sure. One of the place on the road from Phontsholing to Thimpu, that is a must stop to eat is the Dantak Canteen at Sakhti which offers some very good variety of food including South Indian.

Suggested Itinerary You could do a lot of stuff in Bhutan - Family tours, self drive tours, bird-watching tours, Monastery tours and some very good trekking tours. They all have their own charm - you could write to me for all of them separately.

Bhutan has two circuits to offer and that are popular -
a. West Bhutan - This would be the option one could take if you have less than a week. This would cover Paro, Thimpu and Punakha - the two biggest towns of Bhutan and an earlier capital. It would cover most of the To-Dos from tourist point of view.
b. Full Bhutan - If you have 10 days, and you really want to see whole of Bhutan - you could explore the finest of the preserved countrysides -anywhere in the World. This would mean - after you do West Bhutan - you go deeper into the Central and Eastern Bhutan - some of remotest and lesser known regions of the World. This would give you the picture of real Bhutan.

If you are on a self drive car or a motorcycle ride and want to explore whole of Bhutan – 10 days is what you should plan. Here is one suggested itinerary - The Bhutan Motorcycle Ride. The itinerary below is for those who land in Bagodgra and enter Bhutan from West.

A typical 10 Day Itinerary would look like this -
Day 1 - Bagdogra
Day 2 - Phuntsholing
Day 3 - Paro
Day 4 - Paro
Day 5 - Thimpu
Day 6 - Punakha or Wangdue
Day 7 - Bumthang
Day 8 - Monger
Day 9 - Trashigang
Day 10 - Guwahati

Based on the interests and time available, the itinerary can be customised. If one is short of time - you could fly in and out Paro and do the West Bhutan. If you are not from India, then it would be mandatory for you to engage with a travel agency that would completely take care of your travel needs in Bhutan. Viktorianz is happy to help anytime.

Have a look at these two videos about Bhutan -

( All thanks to my friend Nitin Das

All thanks to my friend Kapil R Singh)

Happy touring the Last Shangrila then
Mike Keshwar
+91- 997 1119 102
manoj@viktorianz.com
www.viktorianz.com