How to Reach Bhutan (Phuentsholing) from India (for Indian Travelers)?
Indians enjoy special privileges in Bhutan and it becomes evident from the ‘entry policy of Bhutan for Indians’ itself. We can enter into Bhutan even without a passport; just by showing the voter’s ID card. You can trust this information and pack your bags as we (me & my wife) recently traveled (March 2015) to Bhutan and this was an independent travel, i.e., travel without any travel agent. Hence, we can tell you how exactly does it work there. Any other foreign nationals (exceptions may be there) are required to book their travel in Bhutan by a tour operator authorized by the Royal government of Bhutan which costs them minimum 250 $ per day. And for Indians, it’s possible to cover Bhutan tour with a basic itinerary in that much amount.
Entry into Bhutan from Phuentsholing
The entry to Bhutan is through Phuentsholing – the border town of Bhutan adjacent to Jaigaon (the Indian border town). Jaigaon is easily accessible via the bustling town of Siliguri which is considered to be the second largest city in West Bengal after Kolkata and also considered to be a business hub of West Bengal. There are two buses run by Royal government of Bhutan at 7:30 am and 1:30 pm from Howrah Petrol Pump. You can ask any Rickshaw guy to drop you near Howrah Petrol pump, telling him that you want to catch a bus to Bhutan. Earlier these buses use to run from Heritage Hotel, but not anymore. The ticket is very reasonably priced at just Rs. 100/-. Since only a limited number of seats are available on these buses, you must book a ticket for a 1:30 pm bus at 9:00 – 10:00 am itself. There is no office where you can make a reservation, however, you will see a conductor standing behind the bus, at a tea stall and giving tickets. A number of shared taxis also run from the same point. The taxi guys offered us seats at the rate of Rs. 500/- per person in a shared AC taxi. So in case you miss the buses run by Royal government of Bhutan, you can take a shared taxi. If you leave by 1:30 pm bus, you can expect to reach around 6:00 pm which leaves enough time for you to find a hotel if you haven’t booked already.
The other option is to take a bus to Jaigaon and from there take an auto rickshaw. If the bus drops you near the border gate, then you can just walk through the border gate without any restrictions into Phuentsholing – the entry point of Bhutan.
The route from Siliguri to Phuentsholing isn’t that exciting. There are some tea plantations and typical Indian villages on the way. You can prefer to get down at the Phuentsholing bus stand or at the border gate itself, depending on where your hotel is situated. Moreover, the Phuentsholing bus stand is also not too far from the border gate.
The moment you enter Bhutan from the border gate you realize the difference in the air, level of cleanliness and architectural style. The difference is worth observing.
The other entry into Bhutan is possibly from Guwahati. However, I do not have details of it as we took the Siliguri-Phuentsholing route.
Staying at Phuentsholing
Most probably you will reach Phuentsholing at a time when the immigration office is closed and you will need to stay for a night at Phuentsholing or Jaigaon. Booking a hotel online is a bit challenging as very limited number of hotels are available and most of them didn’t show online availability at a time when we tried to book it. The hotels for which availability was shown were in the higher budget range, at least for a budget traveler, exceeding Rs. 3500/-. Therefore, after reaching you can just walk around, see the rooms and choose a hotel. We stayed at Bhutan residency (just behind the bus stand) which had good rooms at reasonable prices and decent food too. If you have a good budget, you can stay at hotel Park or hotel Druk as well which are at the top of the pyramid.
Staying at Jaigaon is also an option you may consider if you are unable to find a good hotel on the Phuentsholing side.
Permit for Entry into Bhutan
The immigration office of Royal government of Bhutan, which is at the right-hand side when you enter from the border gate, opens at around 9:00 am. Make sure that you reach there at this time or a bit earlier to avoid any unnecessary rush. Just in few minutes the place gets really crowded with many tourists and contract workers. We made it on time and went upstairs to get the entry permit done. You can ask anyone there for the entry permit form and fill it up quickly. Ensure that you have a copy of the passport or a voter ID and a passport size photograph to submit along with the form. If you haven’t already got one copy of the ID, you can get it done from a shop opposite to the immigration office. After submitting the form, the first step is document verification, the second is scanning of your finger prints and capturing your photograph, and third step is permit creation. So you can take a walk around after the second step and come back after around half an hour to an hour and collect the permit. We got the permit done around 10:00 am.
Stay Connected – Buy a local Bhutan SIM card
After getting the permit, we bought a local SIM card (of Tashi Cell) from a store below Hotel Central. The internet package could be activated by visiting the Tashi Communications office which is quite close to the shop. Please ask the shop owner for its exact location rather than struggling to find it yourself.
Traveling to Thimphu or Paro
The next thing after buying the local SIM was to book a bus ticket to Thimphu from the Phuentsholing bus stand. There are a number of buses to Thimpu, however to Paro there are limited buses which run mostly in the morning. So I would advise you to enquire about the bus timings on the same day you reach Phunetsholing. We took a bus ticket to Thimphu and we were charged approximately 200 Rs. for each ticket which was quite reasonable as compared to the shared taxi prices. However, if you do not find a bus that suits your timing, there are a number of taxis that run from just outside the bus stand. You can consider reserving the full taxi or taking a shared one as per your convenience.
Tips for traveling to Bhutan
- Do carry at least 4-5 passport size photos for permits and few copies of your passport or voter’s ID card.
- Carry an umbrella or a raincoat as it can rain any time in Thimphu. You may even experience hailstorm.
- Do not hesitate to ask for a discount at good hotels like Park, Hotel Bhutan Residency, etc. Most of them will give you some offer.
- Do not worry if you get a permit only for Thimphu and Paro, and only for 6-7 days. You can extend the permit for restricted areas and also for a longer duration at Thimphu’s Immigration office.
- Do not expect good access to internet at most of the hotels. They may have a wi-fi, however, it wasn’t working most of the time and in most of the places.
- People are nice, a lot of vegetarian food is available everywhere, and weather is just awesome – so pack your bags and get going.
- Withdraw some cash from Siliguri or Jaigaon as most of the places might not accept cards in Bhutan. You can also withdraw from some of the Bhutanese ATMs as we had done in Paro.