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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Getting around Bhutan

Bhutan is a small country with a limited number of citizens and a restricted tourist population. Due to these two broad reasons, there are not a lot of commute options across Bhutan. And hence if you are going to Bhutan as a traveler or as a businessman, you have to keep this in mind as it will have a lot of effect on your travel plans and duration. And to add to this, the entire country has one highway that connects from the Indian border, moving to West Bhutan and all the way into Eastern Bhutan. Since most of the country is mountainous, densely forested and prone to landslides, road travel is much slower. Between Phuntsoling, Thimphu and Paro, there are broader roads, but the roads to the other cities of Bhutan are connected by single lanes.

Milestone marker in Bhutan
But, having said all this, it is not inconvenient to get around Bhutan. It just takes a bit longer, but the country’s natural beauty and helpful people make it a memorable and rich experience.

The only international airport is Paro and only Druk Air and Tashi Air fly in. There is a domestic airport in Bumthang that is connected to Paro by Tashi Air. There are no daily services, but a domestic flight option is available.

In terms of ground transport, there are three main options, Toyota Coaster buses, share taxis and Toyota coaster/car hires.

Toyota Coaster Buses
These are equivalent of Bhutan’s buses and are the cheapest option. Though, they are fairly comfortable. The locals prefer this option a lot as it is very cheap. The only thing to keep in mind while booking these buses is that their tickets go out real fast and if you wish for even a single seat, you might need to book at least 24 hours in advance and if you want special seats like the single row seats, then may be 3 or 4 days. The Toyota coaster buses move at an average speed of 30 km/hr and are known to have some delay.

Share Taxis
A street vegetable seller from Bhutan
A lot of Indian small cars/hatchbacks (Hyundai Santro, Maruti Alto, Maruti Wagon R, Hyundai i10) and larger jeeps (Mahindra Bolero, Mahindra Scorpio) provide their services on a share basis. Personally, I took the smaller taxis and they seat 4 people apart from the driver. It works for shorter distances and for shorter people, but is very tight for tall people and for longer distances. Typical rates for such small size taxis are: 650 BTN from Phuntsoling to Thimphu, 200 BTN from Thimphu to Paro, 250 BTN from Thimphu to Punakha, 500 BTN from Trongsa to Bumthang. The cost goes down during the lean season and goes up during the festival season. Most of these share taxis start before noon. The share taxis are reasonably faster than the coaster buses.

Taxi Hires
For those in a large group or for last mile travel, you need to hire a taxi. Depending on your budget and/or group size, you can decide on a hatchback or a SUV. Toyota Land Cruiser Prado and Hyundai Santa Fe are two luxury options. For large groups, an entire Toyota Coaster can be hired. The prices of these hires can be negotiated directly with the driver or the tour operator.

Directions on the Thimphu-Paro road
The one thing I noticed while commuting in Bhutan is that nearly all the drivers are honest and abide by the prices fixed by the government. They also display their ID cards and are also fairly dependable. Some of them are vey helpful too.

If you do not want motorized transport, you can walk most of Bhutan. The terrain is beautiful, though steep at most places and works in your favour if you have time at hand.

If you are a backpacker and/or budget traveler, you will either take the coaster bus and/or share taxi. If you wish for a luxurious option, you will hire an entire car and/or fly where possible.

Note: Most of Bhutan’s roads are mountainous with lots of winding turns. If you are prone to motion sickness, carry your pills with you. The best idea is to eat well and sleep through the journey. Some people have found success with smelling citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, etc.



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