Planning to travel to Bhutan? A country known as much for its Gross National Happiness as for its mountainous ranges, Bhutan is an intensely beautiful but potentially challenging country to visit. Recently, I had the chance to visit the tiny Himalayan kingdom on behalf of Wanderful on a FAM trip with Gray Langur Tours (view disclosure statement here). Over the course of 12 days, I had the chance to trek, eat, sightsee, and mingle with royalty – and here’s what I learned.
This guide is part one of three in Wanderful’s series about travel to Bhutan. Be sure to stay tuned for the next installments!
First thing’s first: your visa. Unless you have a passport from India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives, you will need to go through Bhutan’s unique entry requirements. First, you will need to pay a $250 (USD) daily visa fee (yes, daily; this is not a budget destination) through a government-approved travel agency, and only after your total visa requirement (daily fee x number of days) is paid, will you receive entry approval.
The good news is that your fee will cover almost everything you need, from transport to food to hotels to sightseeing. The $250 a day rate is for a basic tour, so the more fancy, luxurious, or custom your experience, the more it will cost per day.
The fee also covers the cost of your required guide(s). Foreigners (except those from the exempt countries listed above) must travel with tour guides (there are checkpoints along the roadways to ensure this).
For those balking at the idea of having a tour guide with you at all times, don’t fret too much. Bhutan is not North Korea; you don’t need to be with your guide at all times. The guides are licensed and present during intercity travel, visits to holy sites, and other organized activities, but you are free to wander around town or go for a hike on your own. That being said, the guides have a lot to offer, from stories to information on cultural customs to recommendations – you won’t regret having them around!
Before the 1970s, Bhutan was relatively closed off to the outside world. Remember those mountains I mentioned? They make it pretty easy to remain isolated. But, with the opening of its borders, Bhutan has seen a quick uptake in modernization, at least in certain forms. For example, a government ban on television and internet was lifted in 1999, meaning Bhutan’s residents went from no media to internet to smartphones in a matter of decades.
Still, there remains an intentional drive to preserve and celebrate Bhutanese culture and traditions. Many of the Bhutanese I spoke to would remind me that they are sandwiched between two socio-political giants, India and China, and do what they can to maintain their sense of national identity. That being said, the influence of their neighbours – India in particular – is readily felt, from the cuisine to the music to the evolving cultural expectations. Visitors will no doubt enjoy the interplay of old world observances and contemporary conventions, a combination that is, above all else, uniquely Bhutanese.
The national language is Dzongkha of the Tibetan language family. Though most Bhutanese I encountered speak not only excellent English, but often fluent Hindi as well, it’s always nice to learn a phrase or two in the local dialect before a visit. The two Dzongkha terms I found myself using the most were kadincheyla (thank you) and kuzuzongpola (hello). The la at the end connotes respect, and you can add it at the end of any sentence to sound a little more reverential, la.
The Royal Family
I met the King of Bhutan and two princesses while on my two week stay – and I don’t think my experience is unique! The Royal Family of Bhutan is known for being down-to-earth and accessible, meaning meeting a monarch is not entirely out of the question during your stay. Some royal rules to follow:
Do not photograph anyone in the Royal Family without express permission from the crown.
If you need to gesture to a member of the family or their likeness (ie. a photo), use an open palm, but never point.
It is polite and customary to refer to Royal Family members as Their Majesties.
Remove your hat and sunglasses when in the presence of royalty.
Your daily fee will cover all of your necessary expenses, but you should bring cash to pay your guides. A sum of 15 to 20 US dollars per day, per guide is suggested. You can exchange US dollars, Euros, pounds, and few other major currencies at the airport in Paro for a decent exchange rate (suggested), or visit an ATM (available – but not totally reliable – in Paro and Thimphu).
Don’t be surprised if you find a rupee in your change: the Bhutanese Ngultrum is on par with the Indian rupee and both denominations are used interchangeably in the country (except for the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which are not accepted).
Wifi is available in hotels and cafes in the larger cities, but speeds can vary significantly. Five-star hotels will have decent internet available throughout their facilities, but the wifi at the one 3-star hotel we stayed at was patchy and limited to common areas.
If you really need to stay connected and you have an unlocked phone, grab a SIM card upon entry. Gray Langur organized SIMs for our group and kept them topped up, so I imagine you can ask for this service from any tour company. The 3G or LTE network is great in the cities, less so – not surprisingly – in more rural or remote places.
Tourists can only buy limited data packages, so ask a Bhutanese guide to purchase your SIM for the best deal. On our tour, we noticed that those of us with Bhutan Telecom SIMs had better reception in rural areas than those who were on the Tashi Cell network.
Climate and Weather
Like anywhere, this varies significantly depending on when and where in the country you go. I visited Bhutan in late October and experienced temperatures from -6C at night high in the mountains to +22C in the heat sink of Punakha. When packing for the trip, my motto was bring layers – and expect rain!
More than once, I’ve heard people say that you don’t go to Bhutan for the food. I don’t know if this is entirely true, but what I can say is that local cuisine is not a highlight of a Bhutan tour group experience. Catering companies and hotels bend to Western palates, and you can generally find a variety of Bhutanese, Indian, Chinese, and intercontinental options at buffets. Vegans and vegetarians will be delighted to know that it is extremely easy to go meat-free for your entire stay.
If you do want to experience Bhutanese food, I would suggest breaking away from your group for a meal or two and, if you can, have a guide take you to a local eating spot. But buyer beware: Bhutanese love their chilies. The ingredient is a feature in most fare, including the national dish ema datse, a chili-and-cheese concoction that is served with rice, potatoes, and veggies. Other items to try include momos (delicious dumplings), kokka (noodles), yak burgers (available in Paro and Thimphu), and suja (butter tea). These side trips will cost you extra, but when a plate of hot momos is only 60 cents, it’s worth it for the break in monotony alone.
Did you know that Bhutan makes its own booze? Visitors can try ara, the local rice wine, which is similar to sake and easy to drink. Or, have a glass of K5, the first whiskey to be blended and bottled in Bhutan, and named after the fifth and current king, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. For something lighter, grab a glass of Druk 11,000, the most common Bhutanese beer.
Keep in mind that Tuesdays are dry days in Bhutan, meaning there can be no sale or public consumption of alcohol. Why Tuesdays? Apparently they had to “pick a day” to observe sobriety and Tuesday was it.
The Bhutanese government imposed a dress code in the late ‘80s, mandating that citizens wear traditional gho and kira when in public. Over time, this has relaxed to a requirement only at work, school, and official events, but Bhutanese men and women continue to wear their traditional clothing daily and with pride. And, according to Karma Wangchuk, creator of Bhutan’s biggest fashion blog Bhutan Street Fashion, foreigners are encouraged to purchase and wear Bhutanese clothing while in the country. As a bonus, wear a nice kira and you may even end up in front of his lens and on his feed!
As for Western wear, my general impression is that Bhutan’s style of dress skews to the modest side. It’s up to you whether you want to adhere to that ideology when on the streets, but note that in monasteries and temples, all visitors are required to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants (keeping a jacket or large scarf on hand is helpful for these visits).
Officially, takin are the national animal of Bhutan, but you are definitely more likely to run into the dogs that roam the kingdom’s streets and mountain paths. Kezang Tobgye, one of the head guides on the Gray Langur tour, told me that during the day, humans work and dogs sleep, and at night, the dogs go to work while the humans rest. And, I guess he was right, if by work you mean bark incessantly (and, did I imagine it, or do they get progressively louder as the night wears on?). Whether you’re in the cities or camping, a good set of earplugs or headphones will be handy if you’re hoping for a proper night’s sleep.
As in all countries, caution should be exercised before attempting to pet or play with a stray. We were especially warned not to approach any dogs after dark, as they are more likely to bite at night.
Hopefully this primer has been helpful to you in planning your travel to Bhutan! Or if you’ve been already, what are your tips for visiting this happy, picturesque nation? Leave your comments or questions below!