Yes, I do believe that unplanned trips are fun. But there’s a fine line of difference exists between planning and gathering information. Well, to tell you the truth, I’m planning a trip to Bhutan ever since I returned from my Sikkim Trip. Previously I planned it with my family but then various things happened and finally my marriage was fixed with the love of my life.
Ahhh…I just couldn’t describe the dilemma I was in. Should I plan it as Honeymoon or a Family Trip as my parents are avid travelers and from a very long time they had this urge to visit Bhutan. And to tell you the truth, I have been planning this trip to Bhutan with them from a very long time. Finally after discussing with her, I got the green signal and took the most dangerous decision that anyone would never think of, A Family-moon (Family Trip cum Honeymoon). Yes, you are welcome to go ahead and criticize my decision in comments 😛 I shared this decision of mine with many friends, colleagues and family members, and yes they all laughed on this idea of mine and gradually I stopped feeling awkward and started hiding the truth about my planning.
But I must mention, that my girlfriend (Sorry, she’s my wife now 😛 ) supported me a lot on this. With around 3 years of courtship, we both knew each other and our family very well. I still remember the day I shared my plan with her, she nodded and said “Eksonge ghurte na gele moja hoy na” (There’s no fun if you go alone). Yes…I got the best life partner. No girl (at least whom I know) would ever agree for such plan.
Various short trips were planned in between with friends, but ultimately none happened as I had to back out due to financial issue. At one hand marriage was getting nearer and on the other I was planning for a long 2 weeks trip. Yes, you heard it right. I managed to take 3 weeks leave from my office. And all my Bengali readers would know how a Bengali marriage is. So I kept 1 week for the marriage ceremony and “Ashtamangala” and 2 weeks for Honeymoon Oops Familymoon!!
It was around May and I started gathering information regarding how should I proceed and all. The first site I came upon is Tourism Council of Bhutan and the first link under Trip Planner is Minimum Daily Package.
Let me jot down the things I came upon while planning for a trip to Bhutan. Well I have one bad news and one good news for citizens of specific countries.
The Bad News :
What it states is, Tourism to Bhutan is not that simple. Unlike other countries you just can’t buy tickets, get your visa done, pack your bags and land up there. There are few more steps involved to get into Bhutan.
First of all, tourism to Bhutan is not open like other countries. The tourism sector is controlled by Tourism Council of Bhutan referred as TCB. TCB has set a minimum daily package. It’s $200 per person per night for off season (January, February, June, July, August & December) and $250 per person per night for high season (March, April, May, September, October & November).
What the F***?? Yes, all tourist going to Bhutan have to go through TCB Approved Agents and have to pay this price. Wait, the story doesn’t ends here. This $200 / $250 per person per night is applicable only if you are travelling in a group of 3 or more. Otherwise you have to pay a surcharge of $40 per night if you are travelling alone and $30 per person per night if you are travelling in a group of 2.
Are you F****** kidding me? Not at all, read about the surcharges at Surcharge.
Don’t get disheartned. TCB has done this to make your travel experience in Bhutan smooth and keep away any unwanted tourists. For the price that you pay i.e. $200 / $250 you’ll get
- A minimum of 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star will require an additional premium)
- All meals
- A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay
- All internal transport (excluding internal flights)
- Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
- All internal taxes and charges
- A sustainable tourism Royalty of $65. This Royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure.
The one and only good news that I can provide you is…
- You’ll get 25% discount if you are a full time student and below the age of 25 years.
- One member will get 50% discount on daily package if you are travelling in a group of 11 members.
- One member will get 100% discount on daily package if you are travelling in a group of more than 16 members.
- You’ll get a 50% discount on Royalty Fee (i.e. $65) after 8th night. i.e. if you stay more than 8 days, you’ll get 50% discount on Royalty Fee from 9th day.
- And finally, you’ll be exempted from playing the $65 Royalty fee from 15th night.
And the final part of the story is, before landing in Bhutan, you have to wire transfer the full amount along with $40 as visa fee. Your Visa will be processed by TCB once they get full payment of your trip. At your point of entry you will be required to show your visa clearance letter, the visa will then be stamped into your passport.
Ohh wait, let me warn you, this is the price that you pay to Bhutanese Agent. So if you contact a Bhutanese Agent directly, then it’s fine. But if you go through some local agent then the price will be increased as this so called local agent is there to do business and of course he’ll keep his cut. Only TCB approved agents are permitted to conduct tourism in Bhutan. So if you involve any local agent, he/she will finally have to contact a Bhutanese agent to conduct your tour and thus the price get’s increased. Thus I’d highly suggest if you are planning for a trip to Bhutan, try not to involve any local agents in between and directly contact TCB Approved Agents.
But, any normal people will worry about trusting a foreign agent. TCB has designed this by keeping these thing in mind. The amount you transfer is kept with TCB on Bhutanese National Bank. After your tour is over it’s transferred to respective agency. So everything highly depends on your experience of your trip to Bhutan. And let me inform you that TCB have very strict policies regarding tourism. One complain of yours can make the agent out of approved registered agent and thus agencies do their best to please you.
Final Verdict : Well, if you think wisely, this price set by TCB is justified if you notice what they offer you for that price. Infact you’ll have to shell out same amount if you had planned it on your own. And I see many people complaining about that $65 Royalty Fee. But let me tell you, they use that fee specially for Hospitals. Any kind of Medical treatment in Bhutan is free for all citizens and tourists visiting Bhutan. Isn’t that amazing? Even most developed countries than Bhutan doesn’t have this facility.
But yes, these rules and prices keeps off any backpackers. As backpackers would not go for 3* hotels and exclusive vehicles. And TCB has clearly mentioned that they do not want any backpackers or expats in Bhutan. But being a backpacker and budget traveler myself, I feel sad for such decission.
You can read all these details at Tourism Council of Bhutan and can comment below if you have any queries. I’d be glad to help you out and clear out any queries that you may have.
The Good News :
Visitors from India, Bangladesh and Maldives are exempted from this whole set of rules I have discussed above. Yes, that means, you can pack your bags and land up there without any visa and preliminary bookings without involvement of any travel agent.
Ahhh…being an Indian and keeping in mind the political relation with India, we Indians are relieved from paying this minimum daily tariff. Though Indians do not need Visa to visit Bhutan but Indians need permits to visit Bhutan. When you’ll cross border you’ll be issued an Entry Permit at Phuentsholing, which is valid for 7 days and for Thimphu and Paro only. That means with that permit you can go to Thimphu and Paro and stay upto 7 days. If you want to visit any other destinations other than Thimphu and Paro, you’ll have to get Restricted Area Permit from Thimphu Immigration Office for those destinations. And if your plan is to stay more than 7 days then you’ll have to apply and get extension permit for the same. All the permits are free of cost.
Phuentsholing is the border town on Bhutan side whereas Jaigaon being the border town at Indian side. If you are entering from West Bengal, the nearest Railway Station is Hasimara and the nearest Airport is Bagdogra. Shared cabs and Exclusive vehicles both are available form Hasimara and Bagdogra to Jaigaon and Phuentsholing. Another border town is Samdrup Jongkhar in the east which is connected to Assam in India. But this border is rarely used to entry and exit. The Jaigaon / Phuentsholing border is mostly used to enter Bhutan by road. Or you may plan to directly fly at Paro Airport in Bhutan. Another important thing, that I’d like to mention here is, if you want to enter through Phuentsholing and exist via Samdrup Jonkhar then you have to purposefully mention that at the time of getting your permit. Generally you’ll have to exit from the same border from where you entered, unless specified exclusively.
And if you choose to fly, then at present, there are only two carriers if you choose to fly to Paro. One is Drukair and another one is Bhutan Airlines. Otherwise you may fly to Bagdogra and can enter via land border.
You must carry Passport or Voter ID Card and passport size Photo, and you’ll be issued an Entry Permit (Valid upto 7 days and for Thimphu and Paro only) at the time of entry (Both via Border Town or Airport).
If you don’t have either of them, then you have to apply for Identification Slip at Indian Consulate in Phuentsholing. There you have to produce any two documents from Ration Card, PAN Card, Driving License and Aadhar Card along with passport size photo. Once you acquire the Identification Slip from Indian Consulate you may approach the Immigration Office for Entry Permit.
On a normal day, you’ll be done within 15-20 mins or else if there’s a rush then it depends. Try to get there as early as possible to avoid any delays. The Immigration Office at Phuentsholing is open on all days, i.e. you don’t have to worry if your plan is to reach there on Saturday or Sunday. In case it’s closed, they issue permits from a small room alongside a gate.
UPDATE (April 2017) : As per recent communications with various sources in Bhutan, I came to know that, with immediate effect they have closed Phuentsholing Immigration Office on Saturday & Sunday and Govt. Holidays. From now on they will only issue permits from Monday to Friday (except Govt. Holidays) from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. So any tourists reaching Phuentsholing on Saturday or Sunday or on Govt. Holidays will have to wait till Monday / next working day. And due to this reason, they have started facing more than double of rush on next working day (mostly Monday) which has lead to a lot of chaos out there. So if possible, try to avoid landing there on Mondays.
UPDATE (April 2017) : Only exception to the above is Paro Airport. Irrespective of Saturday / Sunday / Govt. Holidays, you’ll be issued Entry Permit on your arrival. So if your plan is to arrive there on a Weekend or Govt. Holiday, you can consider this.
But note that, Thimphu Immigration Office works only from Monday to Friday. So if you plan to extend your stay or visit other destinations than Thimphu and Paro, make sure you plan to have a working day at Thimphu.
If you are from Kolkata, you can get your permit done from Kolkata Bhutan Consulate. The address mentioned there in the link is not valid as they have shifted from 6, Mall Road, Kolkata – 700080 to 48, Tivoli Court, 1A, Ballygunge Circular Road, Ballygunge, Kolkata – 700019
NOTE : Even though there’s a Bhutan Consulate too at Delhi, but as of now, they doesn’t issues entry permit like Kolkata Bhutan Consulate.
UPDATE (April 2017) : The process of getting entry permits from Kolkata Bhutan Consulate has been changed a bit. Same as like earlier, even now too, one can submit the forms on others behalf (i.e. their family members), but as they have introduced Biometrics here like at P/Soling Immigration Office, all the members needs to be present for the Biometrics process on the given date. The permits will then be issued on another date which can again be collected by one member on other’s behalf.
UPDATE (April 2017) : Bhutan Govt. have introduced Online Permit System which is not open to public as of now and is only accessible by local Bhutanese Tour Operators. So you can also opt for the same if you are planning to cross the border on a weekend or govt. holiday. But the catch is, it’s mandatory hire a licensed Guide if tourist is opting for Online Permit System which the tour operator will arrange accordingly. You may or may not book the whole tour through the tour operator, but you must hire a Guide through them if you are opting for Online Permit System.
UPDATE (April 2017) : From 1st April 2017, A new rule has been introduced by Bhutan Govt. with immediate effect, is that hotel booking is mandatory for regional tourists (i.e. citizens of India / Bangladesh / Maldives) in order to get permits. But it’s still not clear that whether one needs to show the hotel booking receipt for just one night or for the whole tour. I’ll update this space accordingly, once I come to know more about it.
Now that the information gathering phase was over it was time for planning. At the beginning I thought of covering whole Bhutan including Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue, Phobjika / Gangtey, Trongsa, Bumthang / Jakar, Mongar, Luthnse, Trashigang and Samdrup Jonkhar. But soon, various searches of mine revealed that Mongar, Luthnse, Trashigang are very remote and there’s no point in going there unless one wants to visit the Dzong there. So I limited this of my trip to remaining places.
I was getting anxious day by day as I couldn’t wait more and things were getting very monotonous gradually. Finally the day came when booking period opened for January 31st. The very first task I did in the morning is booking the tickets upto Hasimara. Only a single train from Sealdah, i.e. Kanchankanya Express goes upto Hasimara, and I didn’t want to take any chance of getting into Waiting List by leaving it for later. I have to wait for another 12 days to book return tickets 🙁
I believe this is the time when I always kept searching about Bhutan whenever I used to get time. And surprisingly I never used to get bored. I kept searching and reading various travelogues of Bhutan.
- 1st Feb : Day 1 : Hasimara – P/Soling via Jaigon
- 2nd Feb : Day 2 : P/Soling – Thimphu
- 3rd Feb : Day 3 : Thimphu SS
- 4th Feb : Day 4 : Thimphu – Phobjika via Punakha
- 5th Feb : Day 5 : Phobjika – Bumthang via Trongsa
- 6th Feb : Day 6 : Bumthang SS
- 7th Feb : Day 7 : Bumthang – Punakha via Wangdue
- 8th Feb : Day 8 : Punakha – Thimphu
- 9th Feb : Day 9 : Thimphu – Paro SS
- 10th Feb : Day 10 : Paro – Day Trip To Haa
- 11th Feb : Day 11 : Paro – Hike to Tiger’s Nest
- 12th Feb : Day 12 : Paro – Hasimara via P/Soling & Jaigaon
Though it was winter season and Hotel bookings were not necessary as it was low season anyway, but I thought of pre-booking hotels due to Familymoon 😛 Finally I started calling hotels by filtering out by my budget. You can find the list of hotels at http://www.hotel.bt/. Another great site to look for accommodation is TCB.
In the mean time I also started mailing few TCB Approved Agents around September. While going through my planning phase, I must mention that of all the agents I mailed, the most responsive were Heavenly Bhutan and Bhutan TravelRouters. In fact many agents do not cater Indian Tourists and quotes price in USD which is not valid for Indians. Out of all the agents I mailed, only these two operators quoted price in INR. But none of them deals in Budget Hotels. Actually TCB Approved Agents are not allowed to deal with Budget Hotels, they are allowed to only deal with Standard Hotels / Luxury Hotels, keeping in mind your experience of your trip to Bhutan, and thus the price gets increased.
Though finally, I didn’t go with any one of them. I always like to travel on my own. But one can get a fair idea of cost involved by speaking to some agents. You can easily lower down 20% – 30% cost from what’s quoted by the agents if you travel on your own. Another thing that I came across while planning for my trip to Bhutan is, if you hire car from Bhutan side it’ll cost more whereas if hired from Jaigaon (India Side) it’s much cheaper.
Primarily I thought of travelling by Bus. But then my plan was to visit upto Bumthang, Phobjika, Haa etc. And Buses in Bhutan is regular for Thimphu and Paro but for Bumthang, Phobjika and other remote places it runs thrice weekly. Though I’m not 100% sure about this information, but this is what I came up after googling various blogs and sites. But then I thought, well I already made my Honeymoon a Familymoon, let’s not hit the extreme point.
So, I started contacting various agents from Jaigaon. Mostly I have contacted with Mr. Sujit Goswami from Maruti Tour & Travels and Mr. B. K. Prasad from BK Tour & Travels. Both of them quoted 3000/- for Innova exclusively. And then I thought of asking for tariff of Hotels from them. And surprisingly I found that both of them quoting lower rates from what’s quoted by the hotels. This is the case specially in Bumthang, Phobjika and Punakha. Generally there are lots of Hotels and Budget Hotels at Thimphu and Paro. Even in high season, one can land up there and can find a room easily at peak time or at time of Tshechu (Festivals). But Bumthang and Phobjika being a remote destinations, very less hotels exists and that also in high range.
I tried getting reviews of both Mr. Sujit Goswami from Maruti Tour & Travels and Mr. B. K. Prasad from BK Tour & Travels. I found few members from India Mike Forums have traveled with both Maruti Tour & Travels and BK Tour & Travels. Both of them almost quoted same price but the main difference was in the payment terms. Mr. Sujit Goswami from Maruti Tour & Travels asked for 25% advance and 50% when we’ll reach and meet him at Jaigaon and remaining 25% at the end of our tour. But Mr. B. K. Prasad from BK Tour & Travels said we’ll have to deposit 20% Advance and will have to pay remaining 80% at Jaigaon before starting the tour.
Well, I was highly hesitating for going with BK Tour & Travels after this. So I was thoroughly searching for review about both of them. And then I came up with this and this. Both of them are same review posted by same person and after reading this I really got scared. But then at India Mike Forums I got some good reviews about him. And luckily I came in touch with one friend of my cousin who recently traveled to Bhutan on December 2015 and he did the whole trip through BK Tour & Travels. So finally I came to know that he’s the first one to start tourism to Bhutan based on Jaigaon and he’s very reputed. Ahhh… I breathed a sigh of relief.
Finally after exchanging lots of mails with both of them, I decided to go with BK Tour & Travels. There was no point in booking hotels on my own as BK was offering better price than what they quoted over phone. So without hesitating anymore I transferred the advance amount to his bank a/c.
Now that hotel booking were done, it’s time to get the permits arranged. Though one can easily get permits at the point of Entry but as I belong from Kolkata, I took the extra step to get it done from here to save my precious time there. I carried all the required documents along with their photocopies and photographs and filled up the form on December 28th. The lady at reception told me that the permits will only be issued after January 15th. I agreed, as my travel date was January 31st.
At this point let me tell you that, if you have Passport then you do not need to submit anything else, but if you don’t then you have to submit another supporting document such as PAN Card, Aadhar Card or Ration Card along with your Voter ID Card.
Now that all preliminary task were over, I could finally see my hard planned trip being a success. It’s a different kind of enjoyment that you feel inside.
Read my next post about crossing the border at Entering Bhutan – The Land of Thunder Dragon
Mr. Raju & Miss Menuka from Heavenly Bhutan : +975-17617107 / +975-517661700. You can mail them at email@example.com. You can also contact them via their Facebook Page. They are very reputed. You can read about their reviews at Trip Advisor Forums
Trip Reports :
Entering Bhutan – The Land of Thunder Dragon