Paro Airport is the only airport in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and is renowned as one of the world's most scary airports for landings. Only eight pilots worldwide are qualified to land at Paro but I'm really pleased that I didn't know that before I went there. It's a condition of getting your visa to visit Bhutan that all travellers - with the exception of those from India - have to either enter or leave the country by air. Most will probably do both as the road journey to the border is so awful and so time consuming that it really can't be recommended.
We flew to Paro in mid-October on a clear, warm, sunny day so our experience really wasn't very worrying at all. However, the airport uses a system known as Visible Sight Rules which means that no plane can be permitted to land if the pilot can't see the runway - or take off if the pilot can't see the mountains. It seems obvious but many airports happily let pilots land in heavy fog or storms using automatic pilot settings but that's not allowed in Paro.
Our flight from Delhi was scheduled to stop in Kathmandu along the way so we were really surprised when, several hours before we were due to land, the pilot told us we were approaching Paro. The journey had been a pretty one and we had been lucky enough to get seats on the left side of the plane and to see four of the world's highest mountains from our window. Coming into Paro, the plane makes several steep 'banking' moves to shuffle through the mountain peaks. The approach to the runway follows a river and squeezes between high mountains covered in green trees with a few scattered houses.
Our landing was smooth and uneventful and as we taxied along the runway we started to notice the airport buildings were far from normal. Not only is the airport tiny, but every building - with the exception of the aircraft hangar - is built in traditional Bhutanese style with lots of carved and painted woodwork. Even the air-traffic control tower looks like it was built by Disney.
The plane came to a halt close to the arrivals hall and we left by steps at the front and rear of the plane. The plane stood photogenic against a background of green mountains with its bold Bhutanese flag on the tail fin. Only one airline - the national carrier, Druk Air - uses the airport and only a tiny number of flights come in each day so there's no need to worry about not getting a good place for the plane to park or having to wait a long time.
We walked to the arrivals hall, trying not to giggle at the local men in their traditional dress of the Gho - a knee length coat with more than a passing resemblance to a tightly belted dressing gown. These are worn with knee-high socks and well polished shoes. Entering the arrivals, we popped to the toilets and were impressed at their cleanliness, then joined the queue for immigration. An official asked if we were tourists (pretty obviously I'm sure) and then sent us the a desk marked for aircrew - they had all already passed through the hall. Whilst we waited in line, a lady took the copies of our visa confirmations which our tour organisers had emailed beforehand, and she disappeared off to find the visas. In just a few minutes, they immigration official had found our visas, stamped our landing cards and waved us through to baggage reclaim.
Paro has just the one luggage belt and needs no more because it has so few flights. With the plane standing so near, our bags were already on the belt before we got there and we were soon out the door to receive a traditional welcome of a white silk scarf and then whisked away by our guide and driver.
The airport is only a few minutes drive from the town of Paro and can be seen from most high points in the town. If you are leaving from Paro rather than arriving there, don't go to the airport too early - there's very little to do and you could probably stay in the town and wait until you see your plane land before you set off. Also be sure to check your flight departure times - Druk appear to fly when they feel like it and frequently change flight times without warning.