Bhutan, the Kingdom of Clouds and Happiness, is a place both magical and mesmerising. Its breath-taking and unspoilt views, majestic monasteries, and sheer remoteness, make it an exceptionally refreshing place to visit.
Once a largely isolated kingdom, Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only recently, and travel is still limited and regulated. While visitors from most countries must pay a fee of $250 a day to obtain a tourist visa and register with a tour operator and guide, Bhutan is one of the few places where an Indian traveller (or indeed one from any SAARC nation) may obtain a free entry permit upon arrival without one. A valid passport or Voter ID is needed.
Visitors usually enter the country by air at Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport, or by road at the border town of Phuentsholing. While the two direct airlines, Drukair and Bhutan Airlines, operate direct flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Guwahati to Paro, those travelling on a budget may wish to enter through the border at Phuentsholing, which is a mere 4 kilometres away from Jaigaon in West Bengal, and well serviced by cabs. However, the flights from India to Paro offer spectacular views of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga.
Indians can also apply for an online travel permit, processed through a registered Bhutanese tour operator, who also arranges the transport within the country, guides, accommodation, and meals. This allows visitors to obtain the permits required ahead of time, similar to other tourists (minus the $250 daily fee!). Local tour operators generally have prices ranging from INR 15,000 to 35,000 for two people travelling from 3 to 5 days, and can be contacted directly, or through most major tour operators. Bhutan’s close ties with India mean that the Indian Rupee is widely accepted in the country, though not 500 and 2000 notes (officially at least), and that Hindi as well as English are commonly spoken.
Vegetarian and Indian food are easily available in Bhutan, though both display the spiciness distinctive of the regional cuisine, indeed chillies are often used as a vegetable instead of a spice!
Bhutan and India – ‘Friends at Fifty’
While the country’s relationship with India extends as far back as the 1600s, formal diplomatic relations were only established 50 years ago, in 1968. To commemorate this Golden Jubilee, a special logo was unveiled in January 2018, kicking off a year packed with festivities, cultural events, shows and celebrations. The first in this series of events was a concert, called “Friends at Fifty and Forever” by an Indian band led by Subhangini Joshi and featuring Bhutanese singer Yangchen Drukpa performed at various locations across the country in January.
Festivals, or Tshechu, are also dotted throughout the year in Bhutan, though perhaps the most famous are the Thimpu Tshechu in September, the Paro Tschechu in March and the Punakha Tshcheu in February. The people of Bhutan are welcoming and tradition bound, so conservative and respectful dress and manner need to be adopted at such religious gatherings and at other sacred places.
Bhutan is also well known for its trekking, hiking, and adventure tours which show the natural beauty and untouched environment of the country in its best light. It offers an experience like no other. Without all the trappings of a commercial hill station, friendly people ever ready to break into a smile, and the visual appeal of nature, Bhutan truly earns its cliched descriptions of breath-taking, majestic, and serene.