Whenever I think of my trip to Bhutan, I get visuals of a band singing Stand By Me in the busy town square in Thimpu, the picturesque road to the Dzong in Paro, the greenery outside my homestay in Haa Valley.
Whenever I think of my trip to Bhutan
I feel the comfort of my host Rinchen Om’s voice when she said pray to goddess Tara and you will get everything you want;
I feel the warmth of my host Samten Om’s smile when she had no common words to communicate with me;
I feel the excitement of my host Eden’s conduct when she was sharing stories of Bhutanese culture;
I feel the enthusiasm of little Tenzin’s laughter; I feel the calm Tenzin Om’s demeanor.
Tony Perrottet is not wrong when he states you will suspend your disbeliefs gladly because of the people of Bhutan.
Their earnest beliefs will touch your heart in a way few experiences can.
Journey to Bhutan
If I say I got intrigued with Bhutan when I heard of Gross National Happiness, I am sure it won’t be a surprise. The intrigue factor just increased when I discovered that tourism is controlled. A nation in sync with nature, right in my neighborhood. It was always on my travel list.
Therefore, when I decided to spend some time in Sikkim for my sabbatical, I decided to visit Bhutan too.
I traveled in June 2017 just before the monsoon season in July and August. It is advisable to avoid the monsoon season because of landslides, continuous rains etc. But, I am sure if you plan meticulously, it should not be a problem.
The easiest way for me was to take a bus to Bhutan from Siliguri. The buses ply from 7:00 AM to 12:00 noon. I took a normal bus which cost me Rs.140, the cheapest I have ever paid for an international destination.
Bhutan Visa Rules for Indians
When I was researching on what all permissions I need for my trip, I got confused with contradictory information.
Some said confirmed accommodation bookings are compulsory, some said it is fine only for your first destination in Bhutan after Phunstonling. Some said solo travelers are not given permissions easily etc.
Let me debunk some of these myths based on my experience.
Citizens of India, Bangladesh or Maldives, don’t need a visa to enter Bhutan. However, one does need permissions for the further itinerary.
Citizens of these countries also exempted from $250 package rule. Tourists of other nationalities need a government certified tour operator to organize their trip.
Permissions at Phunstonling
If you enter Bhutan via Punstonling, you need to visit the Visa office and get your permissions for the journey ahead.
The business hours of the office are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (local time). If you arrive after 5:00 PM, you can either stay at Phunstonling or Jaigaon, the border town on the Indian side.
The popular opinion on the web is that getting an accommodation in Phunstonling is difficult. I came across a lot of options for all budgets. Some of them were within walking distance from Visa office.
However, the starting price for a decent room is Rs/Nu 1000. Which reminds me, Indian currency is revered in Bhutan and all merchants, hotel owners are more than happy to be paid in INR.
Documents Required for Bhutan Visa
A passport with minimum validity of 6 months or a Voter Identity Card is acceptable as a proof of identity. Aadhar Card is not considered as a valid proof by Bhutan government.
To get permissions, you need to submit following documents:
- One copy of id document (self-attested)
- Detailed itinerary
- Booking confirmation from hotels at each place
- Photographs (I think two!)
- Visa form available at the office. A wise idea will be to collect the copy of the form beforehand if possible.
- Self Declaration (for solo travellers)
The detailed itinerary should mention the places you want to visit, number of days at each place along with the confirmation of booking from the hotel/homestay/guest house you’d be staying at.
If you don’t like paying for hotels in advance, you can try the no credit card option on booking.com. The confirmation receipt from booking.com suffices as a proof or you can ask your hotel/host to email the confirmation to you.
Soft copies are not accepted, therefore ensure you have hard copies ready.
Solo Traveling in Bhutan
Solo traveling is not common in Bhutan. A solo traveler is a surprise, an Indian solo traveler more so and a female Indian solo traveler is apparently a rare sight. So, one gets all kinds of advice from hotel staff, visa office personnel, even the visa officer.
The hotel staff at one place told me you won’t get permission, the visa office personnel said it looks difficult, the visa officer told me the world is a cruel place, we all should be safe!
Well, they all had good intentions with these comments. They were commenting on the basis of their past experience. As for me, I was already in Phunstonling, I could have returned without trying or I could have returned after trying for permissions. In that situation, returning after trying made more sense.
So, I went ahead with my request of solo travel for 10 days in Bhutan.
A solo traveler has to provide additional declaration (on plainn A4 sheet) that he/she is traveling alone and will be responsible for his/her own well being.
As for the world is a cruel place? The well-meaning Visa officer was only checking if I have traveled alone earlier and if I have it in me to experience his country alone. After, sharing few friendly suggestions and warning me not to work at all, he signed off my permission request smilingly saying, you guys should teach us IT.
Capital City of Thimpu
My first destination was the capital city of Thimpu.
The journey from Phunstonling to Thimpu was a reminder of treacherous slopes of Sikkim I traversed a day before. The mist on long winding roads felt familiar and comfortable. The little bus which could seat 30 people was full of locals and their newly acquired possessions for business and personal use.
At each checkpoint, from my last seat, I had to hop on various baskets and buckets to go out and get the permissions checked. It was the only way I got reminded that I am not in my own country.
Otherwise, the friendly chats with locals in Hindi, their experience with Jabong and Myntra hardly made me feet that I am beyond the borders of the homeland.
After 6 hours of the slow ride, I reached my destination 5 Km outside of Thimpu city.
A kind fellow passenger from bus offered to drop me at my Airbnb host’s house because the walk would have been difficult.That lady took a detour, dropped me at the location, ensured I was picked up safe and then left.
At that time, I wanted to tell that visa officer, the world may be a cruel place but kindness is trying and that matters.
My Airbnb host in Thimpu is vivacious and charming, to say the least. She is one of those people who can brighten a room with her stories and anecdotes. Her effervescence was matched by her husband’s grace.
Being at their home for three days felt like visiting old friends, where time was spent in sharing stories, drinking wine and enjoying the food. Now, I have an idea why my fellow Airbnb-er from India, seemed totally smitten by the couple.
Thimpu: City with Music As Its Language
My most important to-do task in Thimpu next day was to get permissions for Punakha and Haa valley. The process at Thimpu visa office was much smoother and faster.
I only had to submit another declaration about solo travel along with the permission document from Phunstonling. Once that was done, I did not visit any other government office in Bhutan again.
I had no set agenda or plan to explore Thimpu. I was not aware of must-visit destinations. Being a non-city person, I usually miss researching about these things.
I just walked around the city and went to museums, markets, gardens, at my fancy.
After lunch, I stumbled into the launch of indigenous potato chips at the Clock Tower.
Sitting in the crowd, not understanding a word of local jokes, watching groups gather and disperse, I felt I was watching a movie.
Stories were playing all around me and I was just sitting there and watching them. There was a quaint familiarity about Thimpu. The cafes, markets, people seemed all familiar to me.
My host at the Airbnb surprised me with a dinner when I reached back. She made traditional Bhutanese cuisine for us (my fellow Airbnber and me) which was scrumptious.
On my host’s recommendation, both I & fellow Airbnber went to a popular club in the city later.
At 1.30 A.M, in a foreign land, I was quizzing a Bhutanese guy on Kishore Kumar songs and he was getting every word of the song right! The crowd went berserk when Channa Mereya came on.
The place was small and crowded. But, not once I felt uncomfortable or unsafe. It just seemed like one big celebration where everyone wanted to enjoy and have a good time.
The experience was similar when I attended the concert on South Korea and Bhutan friendship next day.
It was the most awaited event for the Bhutanese; Someone suggested that I should attend it because I will be in Thimpu that day. My host’s husband told me I won’t regret attending it for sure.
The tickets were free for citizens but the tourists had to pay. Though, the guard at the entry gate was kind enough to allow me to enter the venue without one.
The energy at the venue was electric, girls swooning over popular boy band from Korea (pardon my memory for not remembering the name), standing at the gantry I was enjoying the cheer that music brings to our lives, even if words make no sense.
I think I will always remember Thimpu as the vibrant city with music as its language.
Coming up in part 2 – A visit to the land of fertility temple, new friends and the tranquility of belief.