According to an old song (ask your granddad), ‘it’s a long way to Tipperary’, but to be honest, getting to Tipperary – it’s in Ireland - is a doddle. Bhutan, not so much. Surrounded by Tibet to the north and India in every other direction, this tiny Buddhist kingdom in the eastern Himalayas is a proper haven for high-altitude trekkers.
However, there’s a price to pay for all of Bhutan’s mountainy goodness; as destinations go, it’s a bit remote to say the least. In fact, before the early 1960s you could only get into Bhutan on foot, either south from Tibet or north from West Bengal, India. We don’t really recommend you try this; if you’re planning on a couple of weeks in Bhutan to experience some frankly mind-blowing treks you a) don’t want to waste half of your precious time actually getting there, and b) don’t want to be utterly knackered before you actually start trekking in Bhutan.
So… what’s the best way to get to Bhutan? Well, if you were thinking of taking a nice sea cruise there we can rule that out for starters; Bhutan is landlocked and surrounded by mountains, you ninny. That really leaves only two other options: making the journey overland or flying into Bhutan.
Getting to Bhutan overland
If you’re a real sucker for challenge, there are two further overland border crossings from India into Bhutan. One is via Darranga in Assam (More tea! Tough luck if you’re gagging for a coffee) which is a four-hour journey from the nearest airport at Guwahati. Crossing in Darranga takes you into the town of Samdrup Jongkhar, from which it’s a bit of a magical mystery tour through a host of Bhutan’s towns and villages if your ultimate destination is Thimpu.
Lastly, you can head toward Geluphu, a pretty border town located about 150 kilometres southeast of Thimpu and which lies more-or-less smack in the middle of Bhutan’s southern edge above the Indian region of Assam.
Getting to Bhutan by air
Having said all that, I should point out that there are no direct flights to Bhutan. That would be far too easy; where’s your sense of adventure? No; first you’ll have to get to Bangkok, Kolkata, New Delhi, Guhawati, Kuala Lumpur, Doha, Singapore, Bagdogra (see above), Dhaka or Kathmandu and then catch a connecting flight to Bhutan’s sole international airport located near the town of Paro. In other words, flying to Bhutan takes time - just not as much time as going overland.
Your flight into Bhutan will be on a separate ticket to your international flights, and I’m afraid that means clearing immigration at your chosen transit airport. Sounds like a drag – and it is. Not only will you have to reclaim your luggage and check it back in again for the Bhutan flight, but you may very well have to pay for the privilege. Depending on which country you are in, you will have to apply for a transit visa before you can reach your bags, so a bit of forward planning is required if you’re going to breeze through the airport
Two operators provide regular flights into and from Bhutan: the national airline, Druk Air, and a private company; Bhutan Airlines. Whichever you choose, though, you are guaranteed one of the most exhilarating/bum clenching (in a good way) flight experiences on the planet. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re a nervous flyer. And don’t worry – everything will be fine.
Still with me? Good. Well, here’s the thing. Bhutan’s Paro Airport is probably the world’s most challenging airport to land at. It’s unsurprising really, given that the runway is situated more than 2,500 metres above sea level and is surrounded by mountains. Bhutan’s airlines don’t take chances with their valued customers, so you’ll need to accept in advance that if the weather’s looking a bit iffy over Paro your flight is likely to be delayed. Once onboard though, if you can bag a seat on the left hand side of the plane you’re in for some in-flight entertainment unlike any other. Guided by some of the world’s most capable pilots you’ll fly so close to the mountain tops that it feels possible to reach out and scoop some ice for the nerve-steadying drink you’ll need. For maximum amazingness (is that a word?) pick up your flight to Bhutan in Kathmandu, Nepal. That way, you’ll fly over four of the five highest mountains on the planet and can wave at Mount Everest as you pass by.