It’s been more than a week since I left Bhutan, and I’m still in disbelief that I was able to finally make it there to see “The Last Shangri-La” with my own eyes.
This magical land is a prime example of how to show off the best of what the country has to offer while balancing local development and sustainability in every way. If you are looking to visit a country that hasn’t been completely overrun with tourists, then you need to add Bhutan to your bucket list. I can wholeheartedly say that it is entirely different from any other country I’ve ever traveled to.
Though Bhutan has been open for tourism for more than 40 years, planning a trip can be extremely daunting and overwhelming, so much so that many people give up altogether because they’re not sure where to start. When I told people I was going to Bhutan, I was bombarded with questions by friends and family: how do you even get there? Isn’t it super expensive? Don’t you need to go with a tour group? What is there to see and do in Bhutan? What are the best places to visit in Bhutan? Is Bhutan worth visiting?
If you’re tickled by the idea of traveling to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, then you absolutely need to keep reading this definitive Bhutan travel guide for answers to all of these frequently asked questions about traveling to Bhutan!
Read on for the ultimate guide to planning your trip to Bhutan!
History and location of Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country located in the eastern Himalayas with India to its south and sharing a border with China in the north. It’s about 240 KM wide and 200 KM tall – tiny! Its population comes in at approximately 800,000 people, the vast majority of which practices Buddhism. The country is also known as “Druk Yul”, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, a creature from Bhutanese mythology.
Its landscape is extremely diverse and ranges from subtropical plains in the valleys to national parks and forests as well as snowcapped mountain ranges. One of the world’s most difficult treks, the Snowman Trek, takes place across the mountains in the north and takes nearly a month to complete!
Though it is small, it packs a powerful punch and has managed to preserve its rich culture and traditions while growing and assimilating new technology. It has also never been colonized and maintained complete sovereignty throughout history – it was formally consolidated and became a nation state in 1616, and its first King was crowned in 1907. The King leads state affairs in Bhutan, whereas the Chief Abbott (leader of the monastic body) oversees religious and spiritual affairs.
Bhutan is also sometimes referred to as the “Happiest Country in the World” because it was the first country in the world to measure progress based on happiness. The 4th King coined the term, Gross National Happiness, at a time when the rest of the world was primarily focused on economic growth.
Gross National Happiness is not a guarantee of happiness, but the government in Bhutan has made it a national priority to create the right conditions for its citizens to pursue happiness and achieve a balance between economic, physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Each year, a commission conducts a poll with the people of Bhutan and measures nine different domains: living standards, education, health, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, time use, psychological wellbeing, ecological diversity and good governess.
Tourism in Bhutan
Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974 when the country opened up to foreign visitors. Although there is no limit on the number of tourists allowed to visit every year, the government is mindful of the impact that tourists can have on Bhutan’s environment, culture and traditions, so it aims to achieve “high value, low impact” sustainable tourism.
So…what does this mean exactly? The government values tourism that gives visitors an opportunity to appreciate and understand its culture and traditions, while ensuring that the environmental impact is kept to a minimum. In fact, the country’s constitution states that Bhutan must maintain at least 60% of the country under forest cover at all times, and it has also broken records for the most number of trees planted per hour – together, these types of initiatives has made Bhutan the world’s first carbon negative country.
Additionally, its “Minimum Daily Package Fee” for tourists includes a daily sustainable development fee of US$65 which goes towards funding education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, and the building of infrastructure to accommodate growing tourism.
Why you should visit Bhutan sooner rather than later
There are many reasons to visit Bhutan. Bhutan offers a deep cultural travel experience for people wanting a spiritual journey, amazing architectural landmarks for sightseeing, a range of hiking trails for trekkers of all levels and vivid landscapes for photography junkies. Can’t make up your mind? You can get a taste of everything in just a few weeks’ time.
It is, without a doubt, one of the most uncrowded, untouched and pristine destinations I have ever had the privilege of traveling to, and offers an incredible immersive cultural experience that you don’t find in many places around the world anymore.
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Bhutan visa requirements
All tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) require a visa and must book their holiday through a Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners. The tour company takes care of the visa application process (among other things) and you are sent the visa confirmation a week or so ahead of your trip – make sure you print it out and take a copy with you to Bhutan.
The visa fee is US$40. More info about visa requirements can be found here.
How to get into Bhutan
Wandering how to get to Bhutan? The easiest and fastest way to get to Bhutan is via plane. While there are a handful of land border crossings, both Drukair (the national airlines, AKA “Royal Bhutan Airlines”) and Bhutan Airlines (privately owned) fly frequently from Kolkata, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore to Paro International Airport (the ones in Bumthang and Gelephug are for domestic flights only).
The Drukair and Bhutan Airlines schedules change by season, but usually there are several international flights each week from Kolkata, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore. We took Drukair and was very surprised at how new the aircraft was and how spacious the seats were. The flight from Bangkok took just 3 hours, and we were served a light meal onboard as well.
Flying into Paro is an experience in and of itself – its runway is at a high elevation and fairly short, and pilots must perform difficult maneuvers to wind and weave between mountains before landing. I counted three nearly-90 degree turns before we landed. Only 8-10 pilots are qualified to fly in and out of Paro!
Because of the difficulty in flying in and out of Paro, flights can not be operated at night or in poor visibility, so flights may have to be delayed and rescheduled. Additionally, you cannot reserve your seat in advance, so make sure you arrive at the check-in counter early to make sure you get a good seat. On the flight into Bhutan, you would want to be seated on the left side of the plane. On the flight out of Bhutan, try to be seated on the right side of the plane for a chance to spot the Himalayan mountain range on a clear day.
Quick tip: make sure you double check if your flight is making a quick stop – we weren’t aware that we were stopping in Guwahati for an hour on the way back to Bangkok from Paro.
How to choose a Bhutan tour operator
This is perhaps one of the most confusing aspects about planning a trip to Bhutan. With the exception of Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders, independent travelers must plan a trip through a licensed Bhutan tour operator. Here’s the problem – there are more than 1,000 to choose from, so how are you supposed to decide on which one to go with?
Because the price of travel packages (hotels, drivers, guides) are fairly standardized in Bhutan, it is not a very useful comparison tool. What it really comes down to is professionalism, experience, reliability and ability to customize your itinerary and hotel preferences. We ended up planning our trip to Bhutan with Druk Asia, a Bhutanese tour company that has been in operation for more than a decade, and we pretty much didn’t have to lift a finger: Druk Asia took care of everything. You just show up!
Druk Asia booked our flights with Drukair, sorted out our visas, arranged our hotels in three cities (you can choose specific ones), and hooked us up with an extremely professional guide as well as an experienced driver. Kammie, our dedicated trip manager, kept us posted throughout the booking process on which hotels we were staying at, pre-travel tips, change in guide, and was extremely responsive over email. We never had to wait more than 12-24 hours for a response. The company also lets you customize your trip itinerary so that you see and do exactly what you want to – don’t feel like hiking? No problem. Seen enough temples to last you a lifetime? Great, there are many alternatives.
Nawang, our guide, grew up in Thimpu and was extremely knowledgeable about the history, culture and customs of Bhutan. Although my boyfriend and I usually don’t go on organized tours, Nawang’s easygoing style made traveling through Bhutan a breeze and we never felt that we had to rush from place to place or that we didn’t have any time to ourselves. He shared stories and tales from Bhutanese folklore and religious history, and there wasn’t any question about Bhutan that he didn’t know the answer to (and believe me, I had many questions). When you book with Druk Asia, you’re booking a private tour – you won’t be herded around with dozens of other tourists.
The roads in Bhutan are outrageously winding, and it isn’t uncommon for cars to overtake slow lorries or herds of cattle. For this reason, you need to make sure that the tour company sets you up with an experienced local driver. Our driver was incredible and navigated the bends skillfully, making sure we were safe at all times. For all of these reasons, you absolutely should book your trip to Bhutan with Druk Asia – it’s one of the best travel agents in Bhutan!
It’s also important to know that you don’t necessarily have to book with a Bhutan tour operator in your country – Druk Asia has offices in Bhutan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and we organized our trip through them even though I am based in Hong Kong and my boyfriend is based in Sri Lanka. If you’d like to do some additional research into different tour companies, a full list of travel agents in Bhutan is available here, or you can e-mail [email protected] to determine if the company is properly authorized.
What’s included in a tour package for Bhutan
“How much does it cost to visit Bhutan?” This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions about visiting Bhutan. This “Minimum Daily Package Fee” is probably what throws most people, and let’s be honest – the name alone makes your head spin. So, how much does it cost to travel to Bhutan? The fee changes with number of people in your group, the season, and which part of the country you are visiting.
Here’s what you need to know about it – The Government of Bhutan sets minimum selling prices for packages to Bhutan. Many people think that the fee is on top of hotels/food/tickets, but it’s actually almost all-inclusive.
If you are traveling in a group of 3 or more people, each visitor must pay US$200 per day in the off-peak season (January, February, June, July, August, December) and US$250 per day in the peak season (March, April, May, September, October, November). If you are traveling alone, you have to pay an additional US$40 per night on top of the minimum daily package fee, and if you are traveling as a group of 2 you pay an additional US$30 per night. A US$65 per day Sustainable Development Fee* is already included in this total rate (not additional), and goes towards free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation for Bhutanese citizens.
Here is what the minimum daily package fee covers:
- A minimum of 3 star accommodation (you will need to pay the difference to stay at 4 & 5 star-hotels)
- All meals
- A licensed English-speaking Bhutanese tour guide and driver/vehicle
- Entrance into monuments / the Tiger’s Nest
- All internal ground transport
- US$65 Sustainable Development Fee
- Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
- Taxes, surcharges, government contribution
And here’s what the minimum daily package fee does not cover:
- Travel insurance
- Tips for the guide and driver
- Air travel to/from Bhutan
- Any additional spending for alcohol, souvenirs, etc.
* No Sustainable Development Fee for tourists visiting the Eastern circuit. With effect from November 2017, no Sustainable Development Fee will be applicable for the tourists visiting the six eastern districts (Mongar, Samdrup Jongkhar, Lhuntse, Tashi Yangtse, Tashigang and Pemagatshel).
The best time to visit Bhutan
Now that we’ve gotten the daily packages out of the way, it’s time to decide on when to travel to Bhutan. The best month to visit Bhutan somewhat depends on what you want to see and do.
The peak season for travel to Bhutan is from March to May and September to November. Though it is the peak season, don’t expect hordes of people as you would in places like Japan, India or Italy. The overall visitor numbers to Bhutan are still low in comparison, though you will want to book early to guarantee your flights, hotel room, guide and driver. During spring you will see different varieties of flowers in bloom, and during autumn there is a festival every few days across the country.
Photo credit: anandoart / Shutterstock
Festivals in Bhutan usually showcase colourful dances by monks dressed in elaborate costumes and draw big crowds of Bhutanese people who wear their best pieces of clothing. Festival season begins in September. During spring and autumn, the days are cooler which makes them ideal seasons for trekking.
The off-peak season for travel to Bhutan is from December to February and June to August. We visited in early July, and most of the time we were the only tourists at landmarks! During the winter months, you can try to spot the black-necked crane, check out the special winter festivals or go snow trekking. Though the monsoon season takes place over the summer months from July to August, don’t expect the kind of heavy rainfall you’d experience in other countries in South and Southeast Asia. We experienced minimal rain in July and most rainfall was confined to the evenings and early mornings. Summer travel in Bhutan is severely underrated! If you want to travel to Bhutan but are on a tighter budget, plan your trip during the off-peak months.
Weather in Bhutan
The temperature and climate changes drastically with the elevation – the higher the elevation, the cooler; the lower, the warmer. One takeaway from our time in Bhutan in July is to take the weather forecast with a grain of salt. It was meant to be 12-25 degrees Celsius every day and we packed our light down jackets, sweaters and leggings. We pretty much didn’t end up using a single thing! Most days were sweltering hot – 25 degrees Celsius and upwards! You can check out historical weather data for Bhutan here.
In general, the temperature ranges between -5 degrees to 12 degrees in winter; 5 to 28 degrees in spring, 12-28 degrees in spring and 7-24 degrees in winter depending on where you are in Bhutan.
What to pack for Bhutan
Essentials: Passport, tickets, cash, credit cards, driving licence, printed copies of the itinerary, visas, hotel confirmation and insurance.
Electronics: Camera, laptop, mobile phone, adapter. Bhutan primarily uses the three-pronged circular plug (Type D).
Toiletries and medication: Conditioner (most hotels only provide shampoo), dramamine for motion sickness (you’ll need it – the roads are very winding), sun block if you are visiting during the summer months, imodium just in case, facial tissues as not all public toilets have toilet paper.
Clothing: In general, people tend to dress more conservatively in Bhutan though it isn’t an issue to wear short sleeve tops or shorts if you are walking around. Druk Asia can also arrange traditional Bhutanese attire for you to wear if you’re interested – the gho for men, or kira for women.
If you are visiting during autumn/winter, bring warm clothing including long-sleeved shirts, down jackets, thermals. If you are visiting during the summer/spring months, bring sunglasses, a hat, a thin long-sleeved cardigan or hoodie for the evenings. If you are doing any trekking or hiking (including to the Tiger’s Nest), bring proper walking shoes and thick socks.
When visiting any fortresses (Dzongs – where Buddhist monks reside), temples or other religious sites in Bhutan, you must adhere to a strict dress code. You have to wear long pants/dress and long sleeved tops (not enough to just cover your shoulders with a shawl), and hats/caps must be removed. As we traveled to Bhutan in summer, we brought jeans and long sleeved tops to change into before entering these types of sites – you’re not going to want to wear warm clothes any where that you don’t have to!
When you enter the prayer halls within temples, you will need to also take your shoes off so wear something that you can slip off easily.
Mobile phones and internet connectivity in Bhutan
Mobile phone and internet connectivity is (surprisingly) decent in Bhutan. You can buy a SIM card at Paro International Airport when you arrive – it will cost you US$10/300 Nu and includes 2 GB as well as local calling credit. Most hotels have free wi-fi, but don’t expect it to be incredibly stable or lightning fast.
Credit cards and currency in Bhutan
Bhutanese currency is known as the Ngultrum, or the Nu for short. It is pegged to the Indian Rupee, so some places also accept small denomination INR notes. Otherwise, you can exchange money at banks or local shops – the rate is approximately US$1 to 60-65 Nu. Banks will not accept your USD if it is crinkled or has any markings. The good news is, you don’t have to exchange much money as most things including entrance fees are included in your daily package already. You will only need enough petty cash for tips, beer/coffee, souvenirs, etc.
There are ATMs in Bhutan, but only in the main towns, and they don’t always work. Visa is accepted at most hotels and bigger shops, but Mastercard/American Express are not widely accepted.
Make sure you exchange your Nu back into USD or another currency before you leave – it isn’t accepted in many other countries. You’ll find the currency exchange counter at the arrivals hall of the airport, NOT the departures hall! We learned the hard way!
Tipping in Bhutan
Hotel and restaurant staff don’t tend to expect tips, though you may want to leave a small amount for the cleaning staff. Following industry norm in other countries, tipping the driver and guide is now commonly practiced though it is entirely at your discretion, and won’t be expected. Should you want to leave a tip for your guide and driver, Druk Asia recommendeds tipping US$3/day/person for the driver and US$5/day/person for the guide, or a flat US$100 for the guide and US$60 for the driver for an entire week-long trip.
Food in Bhutan
Forget the fast food. There is tons of fresh produce in Bhutan and Bhutanese cuisine is influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian food. The restaurants you are taken to will mostly serve buffet-style meals with plenty of options – white or red rice, vegetables, pork and chicken, and food tends to be seasoned well and not too spicy. The most famous Bhutanese dish is chilli cheese, which is basically chilies served with a cheese dressing – don’t worry, it’s not as hot as you’d imagine.
Alcohol and tobacco in Bhutan
There are lots of local beers and whiskey brands. Try the K-5 whiskey, a smooth smokey whiskey, or a craft beer from Namgay Brewery in Paro. I was a big fan of the IPA! Tuesdays are dry days in Bhutan, which means most restaurants and hotels won’t serve alcohol.
Bhutan has banned the consumption and sale of tobacco, which means that smoking is disallowed in public places, though you can smoke behind closed doors.
Safety in Bhutan
Bhutan is an extremely safe country, and everybody we crossed paths with was friendly and happy to help. Most Bhutanese speak English as public education is free and English is taught at school. We wandered around Thimpu town in the evenings and never felt uneasy during our time there. We kept our valuables locked in the hotel room, but I felt comfortable walking around with my DSLR camera across my body, whereas I would definitely have put it away in my bag in some other countries.
Where to go and what to see in Bhutan
Here’s the thing about Bhutan: it’s a big country! For first time visitors to Bhutan, you’re likely to tour the Western circuit including Paro, Thimpu, Punakha and Gangtey. You can explore these cities easily in 1 week. If you have more than a week, you can extend your Bhutan tour itinerary and venture onwards to Central Bhutan. Though places aren’t far apart, the roads are extremely winding and driving time is longer than you’d expect. To give you an idea, Bhutan is only 240 KM wide but it would take 2 days of driving to get from east to west.
If you only have 1 week in Bhutan, don’t skip these top places to visit: to give you an idea of what to expect, a 1 week itinerary for Bhutan will look somewhat like this. Once you land, you will be driven to Thimpu where you spend the first 2 nights and visit the Thimphu Dzong, Buddha Point, Sangaygang view point, takin (Bhutan national animal) enclosure, Simply Bhutan museum, National Memorial Chorten, and Changangkha Monastery.
Next, you’ll drive to Punakha via Dochula pass and visit the Chhimi Lhakhang temple of the Divine Madman, suspension bridge and Punakha Dzong. Spend the night overlooking the lush rice terraces and rivers in Punakha, before making your way towards Paro for the last few nights.
In Paro, visit the Paro Dzong, National Museum, Kyerchu Temple and Paro Town. You’ll also drive 2 hours outside of Paro to head to Chele Pass, the highest road pass in Bhutan (3,988 m) for a chance to see the rare blue poppy, and drive down to Haa Valley which only opened to foreign tourists in 2002.
Finally, set aside 1 day to hike to the Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang, arguably the most famous landmark in Bhutan. According to legends, it is believed that the second Buddha flew to this location on the back of a Tigress and meditated in one of the caves for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. Others say that it is called the Tiger’s Nest because tigers had been sighted in the caves deep within the mountain.
If you have a few extra days, you will move onto Bumthang, largely considered the religious heartland of Bhutan.
Can you customize the Bhutan tour itinerary? Yes! The itineraries are a guide rather than a fixed schedule, and it is easy to skip or add particular sights quite easily. We pretty much stuck to the itinerary, and each day, we drove around and went sightseeing from approximately 9 AM to the morning to 4 or 5 PM in the afternoon with an hour for lunch. The pace was leisurely and we were never rushed.
Because we landed late on day 1, we ended up not visiting Thimpu Tashichho Dzong and Changangkha Lhakhang temple as planned on that day. Instead, our guide simply shifted them to day 3 on our way back from Punakha. The same thing happened in Paro – we wanted to watch the planes landing at the airport, so we just shifted some things around to the morning of the last day when we weren’t scheduled to fly until 4 PM. No big deal!
How much time to spend in Bhutan: 1 week in Bhutan was a perfect amount of time to spend in Bhutan for a first trip, though I probably would have been happy to spend a few more days if we had visited during festival season. Though I’m quite happy to visit a temple a day, my boyfriend wasn’t as enthusiastic as me after 6 days of fortresses and temples – it all depends on what you’re interested in seeing. Next time, and there will be a next time, I would love to explore more of the lesser-visited regions of Central and Eastern Bhutan and observe some festivals during the autumn months.
If you live in Asia or Oceania, it is quite easy to visit Bhutan more than once over separate trips so you don’t “overdose” on the sights and food in one go, but it’s understandable for people who live further away in Africa, Europe, North America or South America to want to spend a few weeks in Bhutan to make the travel time worthwhile.
Photography in Bhutan
Plunging valleys, sweeping landscapes, winding rivers, colourful prayer flags and lush rice terraces – Bhutan is a photographer’s dream! Bring a wide angle lens (18-24 mm) as well as a zoom lens (105 mm or so should do), especially for the trek to Tiger’s Nest. If you want good photos of airplanes winding and weaving their way into Paro International Airport, bring a bigger zoom lens – 300 mm or so.
When taking photos/filming inside Dzongs, monasteries, temples, or any religious institutions, check with your guide whether it is permitted as some areas do not allow it. You are not allowed to take any photos in the prayer halls. You will also not be permitted to bring your bag, phone or camera into Tiger’s Nest nor the National Museum in Paro.
Drone laws in Bhutan are changing fast, but are very very complicated. You can try to navigate the procedures and forms for getting a permit here, but for the average hobby drone pilot it isn’t worth bringing the drone or risking a penalty (or worse) for flying a drone without approval in Bhutan.
Last but not least, be sensitive to when and where you take photos and video of people.
I hope these practical Bhutan travel tips and advice help answer all your questions about what to see in Bhutan, how to get there, how to book a Bhutan tour and more! Feel free to leave me a comment if you have any questions that aren’t covered in this Bhutan travel guide.
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My trip to Bhutan was in collaboration with Druk Asia. I only recommend products, services and hotels that I have had positive personal experiences with – the opinions on Yogawinetravel.com are (and always will be) my own!