Nestled in the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most stunning destinations that few travelers make it to due to its location, cost, or travel logistics.
As the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, Bhutan counts with a strong cultural heritage, a harmonious society, and a varied natural scenery that ranges from Himalayan mountains on the north to lush jungles on the south.
This all sounds beautiful and paradisiac –and in my opinion, it is– but since Bhutan is not your typical holiday destination, there are several things you must take into consideration before planning your trip to “The Last Shangri-La.”
1. You need a visa to enter the country
Except for Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians, all other nationalities require a visa to enter Bhutan.
Indian, Bangladeshis and Maldivian nationals can fly in or go to the border with a valid passport with a minimum of six-month validity (Indian citizens may also use their Voters Identity Card [VIC]). All other tourists must obtain a visa clearance via their tour company before traveling to Bhutan.
You are required to send the photo-page of your passport to your tour operator who will then apply for your visa. At your point of entry, you will be required to show your visa clearance letter (emailed to you by your tour company), so immigration then stamps your official visa in your passport.
2. You must hire a tour company
Unfortunately, it is not possible to travel Bhutan independently (except for Indian, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians).
Westerners must hire a tour company to get their visas to Bhutan approved. Not only that but once you’re in Bhutan, you’re not allowed to roam freely between cities – only with your tour guide. There are checkpoints between zones (regions) where your visa is verified along with the tour company’s documents.
Having said that, you’re free to roam around within the city or hike trails in the surrounding areas on your own, as long as you don’t hike from one city to the other.
I chose to go with Yangphel Adventure Travel as they are one of the most reputed and oldest tour companies in Bhutan. They’ve been leading tours since Bhutan opened for tourism in the late 1970s. I recommend them as they made my experience in Bhutan a memorable one. Plus, my guide, Tshering, was really knowledgeable, which is essential in a country with so much history and mysticism.
Another plus of having a tour company is that they will take care of everything for you, so you just relax and enjoy the moment.
3. The visa costs $250 per day or more (or maybe a bit less)
It sounds expensive, and maybe it is for a budget traveler, but, the visa includes everything in your tour, so basically your visa is your tour. The reason for the high visa cost is because Bhutan is focusing on “high value, low volume” tourism, as my guide shared with me. The high cost will “control” the number of tourists coming into the country, thus enhancing the individual, “almost exclusive” experience you have there.
Your visa fee includes a three-stars hotel, private transportation (a jeep, mostly), a guide, driver, all the entrance fees, tea, water, and meals. What’s not included are drinks other than tea and water (like sodas and beers), souvenirs, tips, insurance (unless stated), and other expenses not specified by the tour company. Additionally, $65 of those $250 are the Royal Fee and go to the government to fund the country’s health and education system.
Of the daily visa fee, $50 goes to your three-star hotel booking. Should you want a more luxurious hotel – four or five-stars – you could ask for it, but you will need to pay for the daily difference in price. For example, if a five-star hotel costs $400 a night, you will subtract the $50 from the visa and pay a difference of $350 per night (totaling $600 per day including the visa). The average extra cost for a five-star hotel is $300 more per day, depending on the hotel and season.
Yangphel gave me the opportunity to stay at the only five-star hotel in Bhutan owned by a Bhutanese, the Zhiwa Ling Hotel (which is recognized as one of National Geographic Lodges), and Oh my God… that place is worth it! So beautiful!
On the other hand, it is not possible to downgrade to two or one-star hotels should you want to pay less for your visa. But, should you be on a tight budget, you can join tour groups instead of having a private tour. Some companies, depending on the trip and the group size, often offer the visa for as low $200 per day. But, the average discount I’ve seen for tour group visas is around 10% off or around $220 to $230 per day.
Also important to note is that if you’re traveling solo on a private tour, you will have to add $40 per day to your visa fee ($290 total per day), and if traveling as a couple (or two travelers), it is $30 extra per day per person ($280 total per day per person). Three or more travelers is the regular price. Unfortunately, Bhutan is not a budget-backpacker friendly country, but even with the relatively high expenses, it is worth visiting it.
Regarding travel insurance, if your tour company doesn’t include it, I recommend getting yours with WorldNomads, which covers you in Bhutan.
4. You can either fly or enter the country overland
Flying is the most common method to reach Bhutan, but you must know that there’s only one international airport in the country, located in the city of Paro – one hour away from Thimphu – the capital city.
Only three airlines fly to Bhutan: Druk Air, Bhutan Airlines, and Buddha Air (just charter flights). Flights to Bhutan only depart from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia are seasonal departure points. If your tour doesn’t include flights, I recommend checking for flights on Skyscanner.com. A trick that often helps me save money is to buy two separate roundtrips: one from your home country to one of the countries mentioned above, and then another from that “middle country” to Bhutan. Often comes cheaper, but not always, so check both options.
Entering overland is possible from India, but not from Tibet/China.
Also worth noting about Paro Airport is that landing there is one of the most interesting, if not scary, landings I’ve ever experienced. The airport is wedged in between mountains, so pilots have to do some serious maneuvering and turns to reach the landing strip.
5. It is possible to go camping and do homestays (sort of)
While you can’t downgrade to lower star level hotels, you can do homestays. Having said that, Bhutan’s homestays are not like the typical homestay program where you stay at someone’s home. In Bhutan, you can stay in farmhouses in the countryside, but they operate like a hotel, with hotel standards (western standards). On the plus side, you eat with the family on every meal.
Camping is also possible, especially if you’re doing multi-day hikes across the country or in more remote regions. When trekking, the camping experience is more like regular camping, but you have a cook, horses to carry your stuff, and a guide. If you’re not trekking, then the camping experience is more like “glamping,” where you’ll have a traditional Bhutanese tent and have the “luxury” of a hotel room in a tent.
Even when camping or doing a homestay you must pay the visa’s full price as every tourist in Bhutan is required to have a car, driver, guide, meals, and hotel (or some sort of accommodation).
6. You can go anywhere in the country
When you plan your trip, you will either tell your tour company where you want to go or they will suggest popular places to go. It is possible to go anywhere in the country, but it has to be arranged beforehand to get the zone travel permits – especially if it’s a special zone. You can change plans during your trip too, but they shouldn’t be last minute changes (like same day or maybe next day). If you’re changing the day before or same day, you will need to pay the hotel cancellation fees.
It takes time for your guide to rearrange everything and get zone permits if you’re going to a different zone than previously planned. Be aware that changing plans will incur some extra costs, as expected. It is also possible to extend your stay if your visa allows it (or if you extend your visa).
Most travelers don’t go to the east side of the country but it’s only because of logistics and lack of tourism infrastructure in the region, but that is slowly changing as new airports open in those zones, make tourism more accessible.
7. Expect really spicy food
Bhutanese eat chili for breakfast, snacks, lunch, and dinner. I was told that they believe any meal without chili pepper is an unworthy meal, and I think that’s sort of true. If you’re into spicy food, then you’ll feel like you’re in heaven. On the other hand, if spicy food is not your thing –like me– you can ask them to make non-spicy dishes when you have the option of ordering food.
Your guide will ask you on the first day about any dietary restrictions or allergies, so this would be a good time to let him know if you don’t like spicy food or anything else. Most meals will be buffet style, so, unfortunately, most dishes they cook will have some spice (but sometimes they accommodate you with a non-spicy batch if ordered). For some non-buffet restaurants, your guide will tell you the meal options to choose about 45 minutes to an hour before lunch/dinner, so your food will be ready once you arrive.
The country’s national dish, ema datse, is a spicy curry of chilies and farmer’s cheese; paired with nutty red rice. It is also topped off with ezay salsa, which is also made from dried chilies.
8. Expect to see a lot of phallic symbols. It’s not porn!
Don’t be alarmed by Bhutan’s phallic obsession. It’s part of their culture and religion! You’ll see penises painted on doorways, across walls, and even as giant sculptures or souvenirs. This phallic worship is a nod to the teachings of Drukpa Kunley, a revered saint who traveled the country teaching a new form of Buddhism—through sex.
You’ll learn about him, his teachings, and how the phallic symbol came to be part of their Buddhism throughout your trip. To me, he sounded like a horny monk who wanted to have sex with everyone (even with a cow), but hey, this is part of the interesting history of Bhutan.
There’s even a temple in the Punakha Valley, called Chime Lhakhang, where couples trying to have a kid visit it to meet with the monk, pray, make an offering. Women with fertility problems hold a wooden penis about two feet tall and give three rounds around the temple while holding it on their chest like a baby. It’s a local ritual for fertility.
9. Bring US Dollars and expect Indian Rupees in return
While you can use the local currency, the Ngultrum (or Nu for short), it is convenient to take US dollars for any souvenir purchase, tips, or drinks. Get whatever cash you need at the ATM at the airport as there are not a lot of ATMs in the country. Major cities do have several, though. But, don’t get too much cash, as almost everything is included on your tour. I withdrew the equivalent of $60 in Nu for a week and had some extra by the end of the trip.
It is normal to pay in Nu or USD and receive Indian Rupees in return. The Nu and the Indian Rupee are paired one to one, so it is accepted almost everywhere in the country. Also, candy can be a form of “change” if they don’t have any small currency available.
10. Astrology is big in Bhutan
Whether you like astrology or not, you’ll learn a lot about it in Bhutan. This study of the movements and relative positions of celestial objects is so prominent in the country that it is consulted even to build a house, have children, get cremated, and so on.
Be respectful with what your guide says about astrology (even if you don’t believe in it) since it is an essential aspect of their culture.
11. Mountaineering is forbidden in the country
Hiking is possible up to 6,000m in elevation. Peaks under that altitude are considered trekking peaks. Anything above that is considered mountaineering, and it is forbidden as the mountains are sacred for the Bhutanese. Snow peaks are considered the domain of the gods and goddesses, and it is believed that if you go there, they’ll get disturbed – bringing hail storms, drought, floods, etc.
The story goes that in the 80s, a Japanese team tried to climb Jomolhari Mountain’s 7,300 meters’ peak (where the mountain goddess lives) from the Bhutanese side, but died in the attempt. According to my guide, two more teams tried but he’s not sure if they were successful (according to Wikipedia, it has been summited since 1937, though from Tibet). Then on 1988 and 1989, a huge drought came, affecting the crops of the country. Then when they finally harvested, a rainstorm came, damaging, damping and rotting the rice grains. Farmers consulted astrologers, who told them the goddess of the mountain had been disturbed. Since then, climbing has been forbidden in Bhutan.
12. Summer is monsoon season
When planning your trip, take into consideration what you’d want to see and the seasons. Spring and fall are often considered the best times to visit, especially if you’re going hiking as the skies are mostly clear and the temperature is not too hot or cold. Also, September to November are considered their tourism high season months.
Winter will give you the clearest views of the snowcapped Himalayas, but you run the risk or not reaching some of the most mountainous regions since several roads are closed when there’s heavy snowfall.
Summer, on the other hand, brings heavy rains. And even when it isn’t rainy, clouds and fog tend to hover the sky and cover some of the best views. I visited during the summer, and though I couldn’t appreciate the clearest views of the mountains, I didn’t get any rain.
13. Take proper clothing
Dzongs are some of the most impressive buildings in Bhutan, and you shouldn’t miss seeing them. A Dzong is a traditional building that is half a temple and half municipal offices. Basically, in Bhutan, there’s no separation of “church and state.”
When visiting a Dzong or any monastery, make sure you are dressed properly; otherwise, you won’t be allowed in their interior spaces. Proper clothing consists of long pants and long sleeve shirts/t-shirts. Jeans are acceptable (as is casual clothing) as long as they cover your arms and legs. Closed shoes are also required. Should you have a jacket, you’re not supposed to wear it around your waist or have it unbuttoned or unzipped. You can’t wear caps or hats inside the monasteries, but it’s ok to have them in the courtyards and outdoor spaces.
For my trip, since it was during the summer and relatively hot, I traveled with a day pack with a pair of jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Every time I went to a Dzong, I wore them over my shorts and short sleeve t-shirt. It was easy to put on and take off.
Naturally, since Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas, it’s always good to carry at least a jacket as even during the summer it gets cold up the mountains, especially at night.
14. Want to stay connected? Get a local SIM card.
While there is a mobile network in the country, their service and coverage is still a hit and miss. Some cell phone providers (from your country) might allow roaming there, but most still don’t. You should verify with your company.
Alternatively, if you want to stay connected, you can get a local SIM card for tourists. You’ll need your passport to get it. But again, the service is hit and miss and only works (mostly) in the city. Some hotels have Wifi, but it is also not that reliable and mostly slow.
The local SIM card for tourists with Tashi Cell costs 600 Nu (about $9). It includes 300 Nu for calls and text and 2GB of 3G data. You can add more internet as needed. The SIM card with Bhutan Mobile costs 100 Nu (about $1.50) and includes 100 Nu of talk. Data Charges are based on pay per use at 0.0003 Nu per kb.
15. Bring your own smokes
Bhutan banned the sale and production of tobacco. Smoking is prohibited in public places but allowed privately. Tourists and Bhutanese can bring in up to 200 cigarettes. Before smoking, it is recommended you ask your guide to find you a place to smoke, so it doesn’t get you or your guide in trouble.
Hotels, some local bars, and restaurants have indoor smoking rooms, and some nightclubs informally allow it after dark.
Many locals smoke and buy their cigarettes from local “dealers,” but don’t count on buying yours from them as they only sell to familiar faces. So, better bring yours.
Lastly, smuggling tobacco (outside the allowed cigarettes) could get you three years in prison, so don’t do it.
16. Don’t smoke weed
Cannabis grows almost everywhere in the country, freely. Interesting enough, Bhutan was the last country to introduce the radio –in 1988– and the TV and internet came in 1999 (also the last country to get these). Bhutanese didn’t know about weed smoking until the TV came and they saw Bob Marley as an inspiration for it. Now it is considered illegal, and if found in possession it could land you five years in prison.
What’s even more interesting is that before they “discovered” it could be smoked, locals used to collect the cannabis, chop it, boil it, and give it to the pigs. Talk about happy pigs!
17. Don’t go into taboo subjects and don’t disrespect the royals
Your guide will be well informed and will probably answer every question you have about the country, but be mindful about controversial topics as they will steer away from them, especially the Bhutanese refugees issue from the 1990s issue.
Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy since 2007. Criticizing the royal family is almost considered as blasphemy since they are seen as incarnations of gods.
Other than this, your guide, who will always be dressed with the traditional gho (if male) or kira (if female), will feed you tons of useful information about religion, culture, and anything you want to know about Bhutan.
18. Practice the Dha
The Dha, or archery, is Bhutan’s national sport. Tell your tour guide to plan some time to take you to an archery field as it’s an activity that foreigners are encouraged to participate in. Most towns have an archery field.
Otherwise, watch a local match with some of the world’s best archers, which I’m sure will impress you.
19. Don’t have enough time to visit much? Go to Paro and Phunaka
Ideally, you’ll have enough time to visit places like Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and more. But if time (or budget) don’t allow you to stay there for long, focus on visiting Paro and Punakha. In Paro, you’ll see the Paro Dzong, and not far from it you’ll be able to hike to the famous Tiger’s Nest. This semi-challenging hike takes half a day (about two to three hours up, and one to two hours down, depending on your pace) but it is worth every step. You’ll go from 2,500 meters in height up to 3,100 meters, where the temple is nested.
In Punakha you’ll see one of the most beautiful and biggest Dzongs in all of Bhutan. It is very picturesque, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can go whitewater rafting on the river that flows in front of it (though its rapids classification is quite low).
Bhutan might be expensive to visit for a budget traveler, but trust me, it is worth seeing as this is one of the few countries in the world where you’ll still feel like stepping into a completely foreign, non-westernized, environment.