Self-drive through the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is a good vacation from Kolkata. Debarshi, our travel partner Dr Asok Majumder and I drove to Bhutan in December 2013. In this post, I have written about the process of getting travel permits for Bhutan self drive for Indians. Of course I will write about our holiday of self-drive to Bhutan in a detailed post.
Types of permits
We needed two types of permits since we were driving our own vehicle – Red Rackham to Bhutan. For the uninitiated, ‘Red Rackham’ was our beloved Mitsubishi Pajero, which served us tirelessly for 5 years before we thought of retiring him. You will need an immigration permit to enter and travel through Bhutan. You will also need a travel permit from Indian Motor Vehicles Registration to drive in Bhutan.
To go beyond Thimphu and Paro one needs a ‘special area permit’ from the Royal Government of Bhutan Immigration Office at Thimphu on any working days (Monday to Friday). We renewed them in Thimphu – I will talk about that in details. But, the entire process is seamless.
The Royal Bhutan Consulate
The Royal Bhutan Consulate is easy to locate. Just after the Flyover on the Jessore Road towards Kolkata International Airport, take a right on the road beside the Mrinalini cinema (non-functional) and then again the first right lane. The Royal Bhutan Consulate with its whitewashed walls is bang on your right after the water tank.
Immigration Formalities and Permits
We got these permits from Kolkata from the Royal Bhutan Consulate in Mall Road, Dumdum. You can also get the same permit from Phuentsholing at the India – Bhutan border, but it would involve an hour’s wait.
You can complete the Immigration formalities at the main gate waiting area. The consulate security is responsible for accepting forms and delivering stamped and signed permits. You can download the PDF (attached here) or take a print out from the Consulate.
The form needs very basic information and a passport size photograph along with either a photocopy of the voter ID card or passport as proof of your Indian citizenship. The oicial at the gate verifies the form with the original at the gate and returns them.
The working hours for submission of forms is 9 am to 1 pm and collection of the permits 2 pm – 4 pm just about a week before the travel date.
The Consulate does not accept the applications more than a month earlier from the travel . They need at least 3 days of processing time.
Vehicle permits are not issued from Kolkata or anywhere in India. This permit must be obtained from Phuentsholing RSTA (Road Safety and Transportation Authority) office with the car documents. Our friend, Siddhartha Goswami had helped us out by sending copies of the documents beforehand to the RSTA through on of his contacts. He handed over the permits to us in Phuentsholing. The process is very simple and it takes 15 minutes to get the car permit issued. This permit is also valid till Thimphu allowing us to drive to Paro, Thimphu & Haa Valley.
An Indian driving license is recognized and valid in the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan, hence we could drive around with ease.
Special Area Permit
For travel beyond Thimphu into Central & East Bhutan, all Indian Tourists need to obtain the Special Area Permit from the Immigration Office in Thimphu .It is seamless process and does not take much time.
Immigration Office in Thimphu
The immigration office is just at the end of the Handicraft Market. We filled in the fairly simple and brief application form with personal details, places and names of the Hotels. We submitted this along with our photographs and photocopies of the main permits from Kolkata. It did not take even an hour to get the fresh permits
RSTA office in Thimphu
Thimphu is a quaint town with no Traffic signals and fairly easy to navigate. Just go down south from the immigration office, cross the river and the RSTA office is on your left. A parking attendant guided us to the office.
It took us 10 mins to locate the office for stamping our permit extensions in the RSTA but we were really impressed with the operatons. Once we found the correct department, we went to the cabin of the person and he just stamped our extension permits just glancing through our papers.
This entire process is only for Indian and Bangladeshi nationals. Bhutan also has an eVisa process for other nationalities, information for which is available on the country’s website. You can book tours with a local licensed tour operator. They will apply for the tourist visas . Bhutan also has a per day charge for foreign nationals staying in Bhutan. As of a few years back as I remember, it was around USD 250. The probable reason could be to restrict too many visitors and protect the pristine forest cover in this HImalayan Kingdom. Today Bhutan is blessed with 90% forest cover and they measure their success on ‘Gross National Happiness’ .
This self-drive to Bhutan in December 2013 was a superb holiday. I will continue to write about experiences in my next few posts.