Bhutan is a small landlocked country sandwiched between two mighty nations and yet amazingly it has never been colonized. Overcoming civil war and ending up as a country know for its concept of gross national happiness, Bhutan has come a long way from being a nation of hill tribes to becoming a democracy. Ranked first in economic freedom and as the least corrupt nation in 2016, Bhutan is a traveler’s delight. The countryside is magnificent, the landscape awe inspiring and the people happy and simple. There is a sound reason why it is know as The Last Shangrila.
Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldives nationals do not require a visa to enter Bhutan. They need to apply for a permit either online through a government approved travel agent or personally at the immigration office at Phuentsholing. But be warned that depending on the crowd it can take anywhere between 2 hours to 5 hours to get one.
Paro international Airport connects Paro to Delhi, Kolkata, Gaya, Bagdogra and Guwahati. Druk Air, which is the national carrier, conducts the flights landing and taking off from Paro. For budget travelers there are buses from Kolkata and Shiliguri. However, in my personal opinion, the best way to travel is to hire a taxi and move at your own leisure.
We landed at Bagdogra in the afternoon and took a taxi to Hashimara which is about 10 kms from the border. The nearest border town is Jaigaon and you can also make a night halt there. The immigration office at Phuentsholing opens at 9 in the morning and we were there by 9:30. It being a Wednesday there were very few tourists and we had the permits in our hand by 11:00. I had hired a Bhutanese travel agent prior to embarking on the trip and he had sent a driver cum tour guide to pick us up from Hashimara. He also helped us in doing the paperwork for the permit. He also got hold of a Butanese SIM for us to be used for the duration of the trip.
Phuentsholing is a bustling business hub as it is the entry point for all the goods entering Bhutan. Being a hilly region Bhutan has few industries of its own and depends on India for most of its requirements. We later got to know that even the local people prefer to come and shop at Phuentsholing as it is much cheaper. Unlike the other borders India shares with its neighbours the border with Bhutan is almost informal. An ornate gate is the only indication that you are crossing over into a different country. Indians do not require a permit to enter Pheuntsholing and spend a day there. And the same is the case with the Bhutanese nationals. In fact there are small gates along the fence that function as pedestrian walkways. People are constantly crossing over and back and the security there is less than what you see at a mall entrance. No baggage are being checked. No identity cards or any documentation is needed.
The permits issued at Phuentsholing are only for Thimpu and Paro. If you plan to visit more places then you need a special permit from Thimpu. As we started climbing the mountains we left behind the heat, humidity, dust and grime of Jaigaon/Phuentsholing. The air became cooler and crisper. The clouds started rolling in through the windows. We were looking forward to an amazing trip.