The Bhutan blog 1: Sunday and Friday

This is a four-part series on our little escapade to Bhutan in early June. Right from our surprise and fortunate change in travel plans to our ultimate conquest of the Tiger’s Nest trail on the final day, this series will try to best summarise probably one of the most impactful vacations I have EVER had. Part one begins here. Travel tips at the bottom. Additionally, check out Astha’s vlogs here and here for more!

It was about 11 pm on Sunday when Astha texted me. The Phuentsholing border pass was going to be closed for three days leading to our trip. That meant a three-day backlog of pending permits as well as the one filed over the weekend.

We hoped to cross into Bhutan by the evening of that Monday, giving us four and a half days in the country. At this rate, we were looking to get our permissions only by the end of Tuesday – our trip drastically cut short.

There was hardly any time to cover Thimphu and Paro together, and the horror stories coming out of the Phuentsholing border point were making us concerned. People waiting in line from 3 am – seven hours before the scheduled opening of the permit office, the chaos and scramble once the doors open and uncooperative officials. A close friend gave us a first-hand report of the ordeal he endured just a week ago. We had every cause to be worried.

I was already anxious by the time I was scrolling through the internet, trying to find an alternative route. The immigration office at Paro was open on all days I learned, sun or hail. The next step was finding a flight, and given we were due to fly that Friday I assumed there were none.

And then, like a bright ray of sunshine on a clouded monsoon morning, there it was. An advertisement banner at the top of my Gmail page – “Flights to Paro starting ₹7999.” I could not thank the inventor of internet cookies enough. Somewhere in the World Wide Web, my search query matched an ad banner on some server located God-knows-where on the planet, and there I was, browsing the DrukAir website.

I pinged Astha on the latest development. She squealed back with enthusiastic eagerness. There was a flight from Kolkata to Paro Saturday morning within our budget. There was a flight from Bangalore to Kolkata Friday evening. We would have a five-hour layover at the airport, but it was worth the wait.

We tallied the cost of our initial flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Phuentsholing, the hotel prices for the tentative number of days at the border town and the travel to Thimphu. It was nearly as much as our new plans. We did the only logical thing – cancelled the flight to Bagdogra and booked the flights to Kolkata and Paro, while on the phone cracking with delight.

Three crazy hours later, with our initial spurts of feverish delirium settled, we were surfing for an Airbnb for the one additional day we now had. That’s right. From having four and a half days, to begin with, we were looking at spending almost a week in the Himalayan kingdom. The same friend suggested we spend the day at the Royal Thimphu College right on the outskirts of the capital, and we agreed.

The confirmation emails for our flights and homestay had come. The itinerary said, “four days to go till your trip to Thimphu.”

 

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The only travel document we required.

 

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On the road to Thimphu from Paro airport.
Travel tips:
1. Always, always try and book a ticket to Paro directly. It is way more convenient and you’ll avoid all the hassle from Phuentsholing. Plan your trip at least two months in advance and keep tracking the DrukAir website for the lowest prices. We were fortunate enough to get a really good deal just a week before our trip, but do not keep those bookings till the very end. Direct flights to Paro are available from Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Guwahati in India. 
2. Indians require just an Aadhar card or passport to get through immigration at Paro. Keep your travel itinerary at hand for the check at the immigration counter – all of which takes not more than 15 minutes. Just board your flight from India without any other documents.
3. The flight to Paro is simply mesmerizing. The plane glides between steep mountains, banking from left to right before the landing strip suddenly appears out of nowhere. Don’t forget to ask for a window seat!
4. Cabs from Paro airport to Thimphu are a wee-bit expensive, like all other cabs in Bhutan. Given that there are limited buses and strict timings, those taxis are your best option, unless you plan on spending the first half of your trip in Paro. Be prepared to shell out anything between ₹1000 to ₹1500 for the ride. All Indian currencies are accepted. A shared ride may come up to anything around ₹250 to ₹350 per person. The drivers are quite reluctant to bargain with tourists though.
5. Go for an Airbnb stay if you are looking to avoid the noise and chaos of Thimphu – not that there is any! Homestays offer the liberty to roam tension free and come for almost the same price of a relatively well-off hotel.

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