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The Great Escape (The Road to Bhutan Starts Here)

How to you get to Bhutan?  In the case of many people, you start by getting out a globe or an atlas and figuring out just where Bhutan is.  Here’s a hint:  Find India and look at the far northern border of the country.  The small country to the north – that’s probably Nepal.  Look for the even smaller country to the north, just to the right.  There you go. 

The first visitors to the country, back in 1974, weren’t tourists at all; they were state dignitaries arriving to celebrate the coronation of the Fourth King of Bhutan.  This first group of foreigner visitors, VIP guests for this illustrious occasion, marked the beginning of international tourism in Bhutan.  They were the first, but certainly not the last.

Today, there are two ways for international travelers to enter Bhutan: overland or by air.  The two land entry points into Bhutan are along the southern border with India (it is not possible to enter Bhutan from the northern border with China).  The only international airport is in Paro, in western Bhutan. 

A journey overland into and through Bhutan is a fascinating experience.  International travelers can enter through two gates: Phuentsholing, the busy town bordering Jaigoan, West Bengal, and Samdrup Jonkar, which borders Assam.  Overland travel in Bhutan is slow as roads are narrow and winding, and travel speeds are necessarily slow.  But the splendid views that greet the travelers are perhaps best enjoyed at the slower speed.  Plus, a tour overland allows the traveler to stop at all the scenic or intriguing or curious locales along the way.

Travel by air is quicker and affords the traveler the incomparable (and, to some, terrifying) descent into Paro.  The plane seems to fly awfully close to the mountains and the pilot warns passengers not to be scared – “this is the way we do it,” he assures. 

Getting to Bhutan by air may be a puzzling prospect at first glance. Bhutan is served by only one airline, the national Druk Airways, and tickets cannot be bought through any of the popular web-based travel sites.  Tickets must be purchased from the Druk Air website (www.drukair.bt) or from a travel agent who is in the know.  Druk Air also has offices in the cities it serves: Bagdogra, Bangkok, Dhaka, Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata, Kathmandu, and, as of the autumn of 2012, Singapore.  The important thing to know is: if you can get to one of those cities, you can catch a flight to Bhutan. 

All international tourists must have a visa, which will be procured for you by your tour company.  The visa cost is included in the daily tariff of USD200 for travel during the low season (December – February, when it is cold in much of Bhutan, and June – August, when it is monsoon season in much of Bhutan), and USD250 during the high season.  The tariff includes most of your travel costs: lodging, meals, tour guides, internal travel, etc.  Extra expenses are just that, extra.  So, if you want to stay at an ultra-swanky hotel, there will be an extra charge.  Likewise, the cost of the beautiful and unique Bhutanese handicrafts you will certainly want to buy in memory of your trip is not covered in the tariff – though the colorful, hand-woven scarf or the lavishly hand-painted thanka will delight you for years to come. 

Your tour company will send you a visa clearance letter before you arrive.  Show this letter to Bhutanese immigration officials at your point of entry and they will stamp a lovely Bhutan visa into your passport.  If you are a collector of passport stamps, you have now collected one of the most coveted! 

Indian and Bangladeshi visitors do not require visas and are exempt from paying the daily tariff charges.  Visitors from India and Bangladesh may travel to Bhutan with either a passport or a voter ID card.  Present either of these documents along with two passport-sized photos at your entry point to receive an entry permit.  For travel to restricted areas, which includes the lovely regions of the country east of the scenic mountain pass at Dochula pass, even these visitors need route permits. Permits can be procured in Thimphu – be prepared to fill out some forms, to provide a few more passport-sized photos, and to wait while the request is processed. 

So, how do you get to Bhutan?  Well, with a little planning (and perhaps an investment in an atlas), without too much difficulty and with great delight!

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