I have yet to visit Bhutan, that mysterious country landlocked between Tibet and India. So when fellow travel blogger and solo female traveler Melissa Douglas of High Heels and a Backpack offered this guest post, I couldn’t say no! Going on a Bhutan tour is not in my plans yet so in the meantime, let Melissa guide you on what you need to know when traveling there.
Nestled deep within the high Himalayas, Bhutan is a land where magic and fantastic creatures are part of reality and not just a story. It’s a land where dragons are said to have once soared above the skies and where the national hero flew around the country on the back of a flying tigress.
Intrigued? Of course, you are! As one of the least visited countries in the world, there is a cloud of mystery that surrounds the Dragon Kingdom. Let this Bhutan travel guide tell you what you should know before you go.
1. The Costs of Traveling in Bhutan
Traveling in Bhutan will cost you a pretty penny. The Bhutanese government imposes a minimum daily fee of $200 ($250 in the peak season) per person for everyone who visits Bhutan.
However, before you decide that it’s just too expensive and trot off in search of a better deal, make sure you are informed about the costs of the Bhutan tour and what they cover.
The aim of this is to minimize the negative impacts of tourism. It ain’t cheap, sure. However, it includes pretty much everything — your hotel, three meals per day, a private tour guide and driver, admission fees, and even bottled water.
Once you have paid this fee, you will need virtually no extra money during your trip aside from buying souvenirs or any extra food, so when you think about it, Bhutan may not end up that expensive, after all.
2. You Can’t Travel by Yourself in Bhutan, You Must Have a Guide
Yup. It may not be what a badass experienced world traveler wants to hear but part of the terms of traveling to Bhutan is that you be accompanied by a tour guide and driver at all times.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean being lumbered with a busload of tourists trailing around after a guide. In fact, most Bhutan tours are just you and your travel buddies with a private guide.
This can result in being a really positive experience. Likely, your guide can take you to places that the locals love, enriching your Bhutan tour. Check here for a list of authorized Bhutanese tour companies.
3. The Visa Process is Pretty Straightforward
While it’s true that you need a visa to travel to Bhutan, obtaining this could not be more straightforward. In reality, you don’t really need to do anything since your tour operator will organize this for you.
Just send your tour operator details of your passport and they will take care of the rest. A few days prior to departure they will send you a visa confirmation which you need to print and take with you. On arrival in Bhutan, this will be replaced with a printed visa in your passport.
4. Getting to Bhutan Can Be Tricky
There is only one airline that flies to Bhutan and that is the national carrier Druk Air. As you can imagine, there are only a few flight routes to Bhutan. Flights leave several times a week from the following destinations only:
- Bangladesh — Dhaka
- India – Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra, and Guwahati
- Nepal — Kathmandu
- Thailand — Bangkok
5. You Should Take a Bhutan Tour During a Masked Dance Festival
Tshechus, or masked dance festivals, are a huge part of Bhutanese culture. These festivals date back all the way to the 16th century.
The dances were originally performed to subdue evil spirits, prepare for battles, or celebrate special occasions, but they are incredibly beautiful to watch. During these events, the Bhutanese dress up in their best gho and kira and enjoy picnics and family time while watching the performances.
It’s not uncommon to spot Bhutanese royalty in the crowd either! These events happen frequently — almost monthly in fact, and it doesn’t cost you extra to include this in your Bhutan travel itinerary.
6. You Should Prepare Yourself for High Altitudes
Since Bhutan is situated in the Himalayas, amid mountainous terrain, the altitudes are much higher than those which you are typically used to. In fact, they can range anywhere from 3000 to 5000 meters above sea level.
Altitude affects everyone in different ways. Some people may experience headaches and lightheadedness, others are completely unfazed. It’s worth picking up some altitude sickness tablets (like Sorojchi which is used in Peru and Bolivia) from your local pharmacy prior to departure just in case.
Ginger tea, served everywhere in Bhutan, is also good for nausea.
Take it easy on your first few days in the country and allow yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude. When hiking the Tiger’s Nest or other trails, take it slow and rest frequently. The thin air will have even the most experienced hiker wheezing and panting like an 85-year-old chain smoker.
7. Happiness is Measured. You’ll Wish This Was Your Government.
Bhutan is the only country in the world where happiness is measured. As a matter of fact, the government values GNH (Gross National Happiness) more than they value GDP!
As part of satisfying national happiness ratings, education and healthcare in Bhutan are completely free, and the government invests money in building attractions and entertainment facilities that locals will love.
8. When to Go on a Bhutan Tour
Between October and December, or from March to May, are the best times to plan your Bhutan itinerary as the temperatures are warm and pleasant with clear blue skies and minimal rainfall.
Between the months of June and September, monsoons make for a humid and sticky atmosphere that can impede your travel plans. January and February are very cold, and snowfall can make some hiking trails inaccessible.
9. The Language of Bhutan
The official language of Bhutan is Dzong (aka Bhutanese); however, most people in the country speak English.
You may be surprised by the extent of this. Since most Bhutanese people must study English at school, even those in the most remote and isolated areas will be able to communicate with you.
10. The Availability of WiFi
Unfortunately, the WiFi situation in Bhutan leaves a lot to be desired. Essentially, you should look at your time in Bhutan as an opportunity to switch off and enjoy what is happening around you rather than via the digital world.
The internet in most hotels is patchy at best and its connectivity is often restricted to the reception areas.
11. You Should Get a Bhutanese SIM Card
If you want to use data so you can stay somewhat connected, pick up a Bhutanese SIM card once you arrive in the country. You can get a Tashi cell prepaid SIM with 400 MB data for 350 ngultrums (about $4.50).
The connection is good enough to check emails and social media. There are plenty of places to pick up SIM cards in Thimphu. Ask your guide to point you to a store.
12. Be Sure to Carry Enough Cash!
ATMs are not widely available in Bhutan and you will seldom ever encounter stores or restaurants that accept credit card payments. There are a few ATMs in Thimphu, but throughout the rest of the country, you may find that the ATMs are broken or out of order.
For a week in Bhutan, around $100 of additional funds ought to be enough to cover any souvenirs or extra expenses.
13. Understand the Currency of Bhutan
The official currency of Bhutan is ngultrum and is currently pegged to the Indian rupee. There is a currency exchange at Paro airport and another in Thimphu.
To be honest, the rate really didn’t vary very much at all between the two. US dollars are also accepted at a lot of hotels and tourist stores. Click here for the current exchange rate.
14. Bhutanese Food is Spicy
Traditionally, Bhutanese food is prepared with lots of fresh chilies and as such, it is incredibly spicy.
Many restaurants and hotels automatically prepare a milder version of dishes for foreign travelers; however, if you are intrigued to try things the authentic Bhutanese way, you can request it. Be sure to order up a plate of ema datshi — melted yaks cheese served with chopped chilies (more delicious than it sounds!).
Have you been on a Bhutan tour? How was your experience?
About the Author
Melissa Douglas is a full time travel writer and blogger from the UK who left the corporate world in search of a more adventurous existence. She aims to push the boundaries of solo female travel and spends most of her time exploring unconventional and off the beaten path destinations – from the Middle East, to the Silk Road, and everywhere in between. Follow her on High Heels and a Backpack, and via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.