Getting to Bhutan – it ain’t easy

Before moving on with this story, I must explain the booking process. Before purchasing tickets, you must have acquired a Visa. These two items are purchased through government licensed tour operators only. I contacted one based on reviews I read about on Tripadvisor. There are about three thousand tour operators in Bhutan, not all of which are government licensed, but after reading reviews, taking a look at their web site, and exchanging a few emails, I selected a reputable company. Unlicensed tour operators, I believe can be used for regular domestic tours, but using them for air tickets and visas complicates the application process.

My visa arrived three days before I left home, which made me a little nervous, but the friendliness and sincerity of the emails I received from the tour operator assured me that there was no pending problem..

I checked in at the Druk Airline counter, which was tucked away in the corner of the Bangkok Airport’s departure hall. Druk is one of two airlines that are owned by the government of Bhutan and the only ones allowed to fly into the country. Druk is the only one that flies out of Bangkok, and only once a day. This frequency is understandable, as the carrier only has four aircraft on its fleet at the time of writing this.

There was no indication of any delay when I checked in, but when I went to the gate, a delay was announced, but without much detail, except that an update would be provided in thirty minutes. That time had passed when I fired up my computer and googled the flight number KB123, and the resulting information showed a more extensive delay. I approached the gate agent, who told me that the weather was poor in Gaya, a city in North India, where my flight was due to make an intermediate stop on the way to Paro. This delay ended up being three hours before we lifted off from Bangkok Airport.

Two hours into the flight, the pilot announced that the weather had deteriorated in Gaya again, and in the next ten minutes he would make a decision on whether to detour to Calcutta. Fuel was the determining factor. However within five minutes, he was back on the PA system to announce that conditions had improved, and had made a decision to try and land at Gaya. I love the term “try and land”, because if he couldn’t, then there was no fuel left to go elsewhere.

On the approach to Gaya, the seatbelt sign was turned on, and after thirty minutes we were still in the clouds or maybe it was fog. It made me a little nervous, but when the clunking sound of the landing gear deployed, I knew we were close. Another ten minutes passed by before I saw some landscape through the mist. The ground was virtually upon us and thirty seconds later we smoothly touched down.

Passengers heading for Paro stayed on the plane while there was an exchange of passengers in Gaya. Thirty minutes later, we were back up in the clouds.

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Mt. Everest in the distance

The clouds disappeared as we headed towards Paro. As I was seated on the left side of the aircraft, it provided me with a distant view of Mount Everest as it peaked through the clouds. We started the descent in mountainous terrain, and as we reduced altitude the ground and mountain peaks appeared to be very close. On approach to Paro airport, we took a sharp left and then a sharp right turn to navigate our way through the mountains, and eventually hit the ground at high  speed before the pilot slammed on the brakes.

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Not sure if he is meditating, sleeping or praying during landing

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It’s a little close, isn’t it?

 

I found out later that Paro is the World’s most dangerous airport to land, and that there is only a few pilots skilled enough do it. I had a new found respect for Druk Airlines after that.

In a recent visit by the Indian Prime Minister, Druk Airline pilots had to educate Indian Airlines how to safely navigate through the mountains to land safely at the airport.

Leaving Paro, was a little easier, as the plane accelerated to take off speed as quickly as possible before going into a steep climb.

The good thing about this experience is that I am still here to talk about it.

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