Things You Need To Know Before You Go To Bhutan
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If you were to re-enact the story of The Lost Horizon, it would not take a lot of imagination to choose Bhutan as Shangrila, that mythical place of harmony and peace, where time stands still. This is the reputation of the Kingdom of Bhutan, a landlocked country in South Asia, which never even heard of television and the Internet until 1999.
With its 38,000 square kilometers of land, it is not the smallest country in the world (that would be Vatican City, at 44 square kilometers), but with more than 70% of it covered in dense forest and wide range of climates (it has five distinct seasons: autumn, winter, spring, summer, and monsoon), it is quite an oddity. Measuring its success in Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross National Product, it is bound to be less than affluent in the global perspective. However, the Bhutanese ranked as one of the happiest people in the world according to a 2016 CNN report, so they must be doing something right. Tourists should be able to bask in all that happiness, right?
In this Bhutan Travel Guide blog, we listed travel tips and advice on how to get there, things to do and see, places to eat, best places to stay, tour packages and more.
As this article points out, the purpose of GNH is to put the government in a position of responsibility to create an environment where people can be happy. However, happiness is highly subjective, varying from one person to another. People expecting Bhutan to be a sort of low-cost paradise will be sadly disappointed. Bhutan is certainly gorgeous and a haven for the environment, but that does not translate to low-cost, or even a pleasurable experience to modern tourists. It is strictly a when in Rome type of experience, because the Bhutan government puts a premium on limiting the number of tourists they allow within their borders (unless you happen to be Indian, Bangladeshi, or Maldivan, with whom the Bhutanese share a border and history). Here are important things you need to know before you go to Bhutan.
Getting to Bhutan
You need a visa. That is normal enough, but here’s the hitch: You can’t just book a flight to Bhutan and expect to be welcomed with open arms. You have to book your holiday through one of their approved tour operators at a minimum $250 per day for a group of at least three during the high season (March to May, and September to November), $200 during off-peak season (Jun to August, and December to February). Single or two people traveling together are charged an additional $40 and $30 per person day on top of the daily tour package, respectively.
Flights to Bhutan
The tour operator will do the paperwork for your visa ($40 visa fee), and wait for confirmation of approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu before booking your flight. Oh, and there is only one flight service to Bhutan, via Druk Air. You can get there by road and enter through Paro airport, but your tour operator still has to wait for confirmation before taking you in. You get your visa at the port of entry when you arrive, not before, and it includes the exact dates you can be in Bhutan.
Upon arriving, you have to fill up a baggage declaration form for anything you bring into the country, such as cameras and laptops. DO NOT LOSE THIS FORM. You have to return it when you leave Bhutan, and you may have to show the items you included in the form. If you lose the form, inform your tour guide immediately, to avoid problems.
You can bring in:
- 1 liter of alcohol, duty-free
- One carton of cigarettes or 200 cigarettes (subject to 200% duty tax); one or two packs are typically waved through without charge
Staying in Bhutan
The tour package includes all meals, accommodations, a licensed tour guide, transportation within Bhutan, and camping and trekking equipment. It also includes all internal taxes and a tourism royalty of $65, which goes to funding the education of children and health care for the Bhutanese.
Your tour operator will arrange for accommodations in any of the approved hotels for international tourists. While the minimum you get is a three-star hotel, the rating is not the same as in other countries. The hotels are generally clean, but amenities are basic. On your last day, you only get breakfast. You will have to pay for anything else using your own supply of ngultrum (Nu), which has the same value as the Indian rupee and they are interchangeable within Bhutan. A typical meal at a restaurant in Thimpu ranges from Nu335 to Nu1000, and most of them are spicy, although the Bhutanese are careful to tone it down for tourists.
Your tour guide is the key for getting around in Bhutan. You cannot just traipse along on your own, even if many Bhutanese can understand and speak English. There are many restricted areas in Bhutan outside the Thimphu and Paro valleys, and you need a permit to include these restricted areas in your itinerary. While you may request to visit certain areas, you have to tell your tour operator in advance so they can arrange for paperwork. Without the permits, you may run into trouble at the many checkpoints placed in strategic locations in these areas.
Among the places you should visit includes the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery, where you can have your fill of the view of the surrounding forests. You should also go to Punakha Dzong, or the Palace of Great Happiness, which is a three-hour drive from Thimpu.
If there are no festivals, you might be able to get into designated tshokhang (assembly hall) and lhakhang (monastery) in a dzong (fortress), but only under the supervision of a licensed tour guide. They will know the dress code, visiting hours, and protocol for visiting these restricted areas. You may be able to visit a village-run or private lhakhang on the fly if your guide is willing to bring you.
Bhutan Travel and Tour Packages
9D8N Classic Bhutan Tour
- Spend nine days traveling through Bhutan and explore into more remote parts for a truly unique experience.
- There are loads to see and discover: from the largest city Thimphu to natural green valleys and quaint villages
Get an in-depth look at a number of local crafts.
- Embark on a hike and take in the view of the Himalayas
All expenses (except alcohol and tips) including transport, food, and accommodation are covered for the duration of the trip.
- This Bhutan itinerary includes car transport between sights and some moderate hiking but can be fully customized to your preferences
- The consumption of tobacco is not altogether prohibited in Bhutan, though it is largely banned in places of public accommodation.
- Plastic bags are banned, so don’t bring any yourself
- There is no regular public transport between towns. If you want to go on an adventure, you will have to hitchhike. It is safe enough, and token payment in cash or gifts are much appreciated by the drivers that pick you up.
- Bring water and food if you are going to the rural areas; the food along the way may not be to your liking
- Internet access is good in most urban areas; Thimpu has approximately 20 Internet cafes
- There are ATM machines, and you can use credit cards, but if you want to avoid high transaction fees, it may be a good idea to bring along a good amount of cash
- There are no homeless in Bhutan, but children may ask for money or school supplies. If you want to give, course it through a school.
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Originally Published on May 17, 2016, this Bhutan Travel Guide was last updated in August 2018.