Getting into Bhutan

Unless you are an Indian national, the Department of Tourism (DOT) rules require that you either enter or exit Bhutan on a Druk Air flight. This limits the overland option to travelling one direction by air and the other by land, perhaps visiting Darjeeling and Sikkim en route.

Border crossings
The two border crossings from India into Bhutan that are permitted to foreigners are at Phuentsholing, on the border with the Indian state of West Bengal, and at Samdrup Jongkhar, on the border with the state of Assam. At the time of research, foreigners could only use the Phuentsholing border crossing for entering Bhutan. Foreigners could depart but not enter via Samdrup Jongkhar.

To/from phuentsholing
If you are travelling to or from Bhutan by land, all roads lead through Siliguri, West Bengal, the major transport hub in northeast India. Heading into India, you can make road connections from Phuentsholing or Jaigaon (just across the border) to the train station in Siliguri (169km, six hours) or the airport in Bagdogra. From Siliguri there are convenient connections to Kolkata, Delhi or the Nepali border at Kakarbhitta. You can also travel on to the Indian hill stations of Kalimpong, Gangtok and Darjeeling. Bhutanese vehicles may travel freely in India and a Bhutanese tour operator can easily arrange a vehicle to any of these destinations. There are also taxis and shared hire cars available in both Phuentsholing and Siliguri.

Several Bhutanese transport companies operate a direct bus service twice a day between Siliguri and Phuentsholing; buses leave at 8am and 2pm and cost Rs 60 for the 3½-hour journey. In Siliguri the booking office is on Tenzing Norgay Rd (also known as Hill Cart Rd), opposite the Shree Punjab Hotel. You can sometimes find Bhutanese taxis (yellow-roofed minivans with numberplates beginning with ‘BT’) looking for a return fare; you might buy a seat for Rs 200, but usually you will have to charter the whole taxi for about Rs 750. Indian bus companies also operate services between Siliguri and Jaigaon on the Indian side of the Bhutanese border.

The gate between Phuentsholing and Jaigaon closes at 9pm for vehicles, but people can cross on foot until 10pm.

Don’t forget to get your passport stamped when leaving India. The Indian immigration office, open 24 hours, is in a compound on the east side of the main road in the centre of Jaigaon, next door to the Hotel Kasturi and about 400m south of the Bhutan entrance gate. (There is a plan to relocate the office.) If your transport has already deposited you in Bhutan, you can simply walk back across the border to complete the paperwork.

To obtain a Bhutanese visa, foreigners need to present their passport, two photos and a US$20 fee to the visa officer in the drungkhag (subdistrict) office near the east end of town. The visa is issued here, but the arrival details will be stamped in your passport when you pass the immigration checkpoint at Rinchending, 5km away.

Foreigners may cross back and forth across the border during the day but are required to leave by 10pm unless staying in a hotel – a useful facility in case you neglected to complete Indian departure formalities before you crossed into Bhutan.

To/from Delhi & Kolkata
The nearest main-line Indian train station to Phuentsholing is in New Jalpaiguri. From there it’s a 12-hour rail journey to Kolkata and a 33-hour trip to Delhi. You can travel by road direct to New Jalpaiguri from Phuentsholing or drive to Siliguri where you can connect to a local train to New Jalpaiguri.

From Siliguri it’s easy to arrange a share-taxi or bus to Darjeeling, 77km away, or to Gangtok in Sikkim, 114km away. If you are travelling to Sikkim, arrange a permit in Siliguri at the Sikkim Tourist information Centre (0353 2512646; Tenzing Norgay Rd; 10am-4pm Mon-Sat).

To/from Samdrup Jongkhar
At the time of research foreign tourists were allowed to depart Bhutan at Samdrup Jongkhar, and Indian nationals may enter or leave via Samdrup Jongkhar. It is prudent to check with Bhutanese or Indian authorities on the current status of Assamese separatist groups before you decide to travel by land through Assam.

The primary reason you would want to exit this way is to avoid the long drive back over the mountains to Thimphu after visiting eastern Bhutan. The easiest connection from Samdrup Jongkhar is to overland to Guwahati in Assam and fly to Kolkata, Delhi, Bangkok or Bagdogra or get a train connection to numerous Indian destinations. Due to security concerns, all Bhutanese vehicles have to travel in a convoy as far as Rangiya (there’s no convoy on Thursday or Sunday), 49km from the border. (Indian vehicles face no such restrictions.) Four kilometres from the border there is a border post, open 24 hrs, where you must get a police registration/entry stamp. There is a train station at Rangiya for connection to Guwahati. Alternatively, it is an 80km, 2½-hour drive from the Bhutanese border all the way to Guwahati. It is then a further 20km from Guwahati to the airport.

Another alternative is a 400km drive through the Indian duars to Siliguri. On this route you could visit Kaziranga National Park, famous for its rhino population, 233km east of Guwahati.

Panitanki (aka Raniganj), in northern West Bengal, is opposite the eastern Nepal border town of Kakarbhitta. A long bridge separates the two towns across the Mechi River. Bhutanese tour operators can pick you up or drop you at Panitanki or you can arrange for them to take you to Bhadrapur or Biratnagar to catch a flight to Kathmandu.

Panitanki is only one hour (35km) from Siliguri (India). Buses run regularly on this route (IRs 20) and taxis are easy to arrange (IRs 400). A cycle-rickshaw across the border to Kakarbhitta costs Rs 20. Buses depart Kakarbhitta daily at 5pm for Kathmandu (17 hours, NRs 500), a long rough drive via Narayanghat, Mugling and the Trisuli River valley.

A better option is to take a one-hour bus or taxi ride from Kakarbhitta to Bhadrapur and take a domestic flight to Kathmandu. There is a larger airport at Biratnagar, a four-hour drive from the border. Several airlines have offices in both towns, but airlines come and go and schedules change frequently. Jhapa Travel Agency (977-23-562020) in Kakarbhitta will be able to book a flight.

Entering the country
There are only two entry points to Bhutan open to foreigners. Most travellers arrive by air at Bhutan’s only international airport in Paro. The alternative is to travel through the Indian state of West Bengal and enter Bhutan by road at Phuentsholing on the southern border of Bhutan. At the time of research, it was possible for foreigners to depart but not enter Bhutan via Samdrup Jongkhar in the east of the country. Furthermore, unless you are an Indian national, foreigners are required to fly in or out of Bhutan using Druk Air, the national carrier. Most travellers will choose to fly both routes.