Where is Bhutan?
Bhutan is a small, landlocked Himalayan nation, about the size of Switzerland, sandwiched between India and China in the eastern Himalayas. Also called “Druk-Yul” or “The Land of the Thunder Dragon”. Its landscape ranges from sub tropical foothills in the south to sub alpine forests and snowy mountains in the north. Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country and is known as the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism.
Geographical Area: 38,394 sq. km
Coordinates: 27º25’01” N;90º26’06” E
Major Languages Spoken: Dzongkha, English
Time: 6hrs+ GMT.
Government: Constitutional Monarchy.
Population: 7, 68,000.00
Why must I visit Bhutan?
Bhutan is the last Shangri-la on earth. Bhutan is considered a “special destination” by even the most privileged travelers. It’s a secluded location with limited accessibility and still a magical kingdom of the past in many ways. Preservation efforts have shielded many from visiting this jewel of the Himalayas. Bhutan opened its doors to tourism in 1974 with the number for tourists kept to an alarmingly low and environmentally sustainable level through government structured tourist regulations.
Its ancient history, which is a mixture of oral tradition and classical literature, tells of a largely self sufficient population which had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.
I have never been to Bhutan and have absolutely no idea where to start. What are your recommendations?
It really depends on what you hope to see and experience during your trip. Our destination specialists will make the best recommendations as per your travel preferences. Many travelers incorporate Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey, Trongsa and Bumthang though some travel solely for trekking in the Himalayas.
Do I need to use a Tour Operator to book my travel in Bhutan?
Yes. It’s a government regulation that you must use a licensed Bhutanese Tour Operator or one of their international partners to book your travel to Bhutan.
What is the cost structure? Why is it so expensive to visit Bhutan?
During the low season months (Jan, Feb, Jun, Jul, Aug and Dec) it costs US$ 180 per person per night for groups of three or more.
- For a single traveler, its US $220 per person per night (Inclusive of USD 40 per night FIT Surcharge).
- For groups of two, it costs US $ 255 per person per night (Inclusive of USD 30 per person per night FIT Surcharge).
During the high season months (Mar, Apr, May, Sep, Oct and Nov), it costs US $ 225 per person per night for groups of three or more.
- For a single traveler, its US $265 per person per night (Inclusive of USD 40 per night FIT Surcharge).
- For groups of two, it costs US $ 255 per person per night (Inclusive of USD 30 per person per night FIT Surcharge).
So on the face of it, Bhutan may seem like an expensive destination than nearby Nepal, India or elsewhere but it’s actually not a bad deal, considering all that is included and packaged within that fee. This fee actually includes a 3 star accommodation, a private guide and a driver for transportation, entrance fees to sites and all meals, during the entire course of your stay within the country. Also included in the fee is a $65 per day royalty that goes to the government towards free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation.
The philosophy behind the mandatory minimum fee being that it creates a “high-value/low-impact” tourist environment as envisioned by the government of Bhutan. The government executes and controls this minimum fee in order to manage tourism in a more sustainable way, to grow and blend sensibly with the world without taxing the local environment and more importantly, highlight and conserve the unique ‘culture and tradition” of the country.
How does one get to Bhutan as a tourist? What are the visa procedures?
All visitors require a passport, valid for at least 6 months before your trip starts and an entry visa for Bhutan which must be pre-approved prior to your arrival. Your Bhutan visa will be arranged by your tour operator and all they usually need is a scanned copies of your passport photo page. Please be sure you carry the same passport that you submitted for your Bhutan visa or you will be denied entry.
Bhutan visas generally cost USD 40. A visa approval letter is issued after prepayment for your travel arrangements and the actual visa is stamped into your passport on arrival at Paro Int’l Airport.
Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldivians don’t need visas to enter Bhutan but a travel permit.
Paro International airport is connected to Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bagdogra, Bodhgaya, Guwahati, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Bangkok and Singapore.
The three land border crossings of Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar from where you can travel overland are along the Indian border in the south.
When you check in at the airport starting in Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi, or Kathmandu you must show your approved visa authority letter for Bhutan (that has been sent to you via email). When you arrive at Paro Int’l airport, all visitors are now required to provide fingerprints and a facial image. It’s a smooth process and you’ll get through quickly.
What is the baggage limit for a single traveler on Druk Air?
Druk Air provides the standard baggage allowance of 20 kg for economy class travelers and 30 kg in business class. The allowance for carry-on bags is 5 kg.
What currency is used in Bhutan?
Bhutanese currency is known as the Ngultrum (Nu). Its value is pegged to the Indian Rupee which is also accepted as legal tender. However Indian Rupee notes in 500 and 2000 denominations are not acceptable.
The US Dollar (USD) is also widely used and accepted by everyone. Many prices at tourist locations and shops are priced in USD. We recommend taking USD in many denominations (especially lower denominations for small purchases). Credit cards are increasingly being accepted if you have a larger purchase (like a nice souvenir), but beware that they may charge anything between (3-7%) on top of your purchase to account for the fees that the credit card companies will charge that vendor.
The major banks now have ATMs and you can withdraw local currency via Visa & MasterCard credit & debit cards & Cirrus/Maestro endorsed bank debit cards. The ATMs do not always work and usually you’ll only be able to draw small amounts in any single transaction, so back up cash in USD or Indian Rupees is advisable.
Here are some useful tips on currency & credit cards.
- Consider a budget of US$30 per person per day to cover tips, drinks & handicrafts.
- US$100 bills do receive a better exchange rate at local banks.
- US dollar bills issued before 2000 will often NOT be accepted!
- If taking in Indian Rupees please note 500 or 2000 rupee notes are not accepted.
- ATM machines are now available for use by visitors in western & central Bhutan.
- ATMs generally only offer small sums (around $100-200USD)
- You may need to try different bank ATMs to accept your card.
- It is best to obtain some Bhutanese Nu from the Paro airport ATM (right of exit door).
- ATMs accept Visa & MasterCard (debit & credit).
- Traveler’s Cheques (Amex) are accepted, but we don’t recommend bringing them as the exchange rate isn’t very good.
- Visa, MasterCard & American Express is now frequently accepted in the larger handicraft shops and in most hotels. When using your credit card please ask the merchant if there is a fee surcharge (usually 3-7%).
How much should I tip in Bhutan?
For people that carry your bags (porters and such at hotels) 50¢ is acceptable or up to $1 if they go really out of their way.
More importantly, for your driver and guide (who you will be with the entire time), we suggest that you give them:
- 1-2 people in your group: $8-10/person/day for your guide and $5-7/person/day for your driver.
- 3-8 people in your group: $6-8/person/day for your guide and $3-5/person/day for your driver.
- 8-16 people in your group: $4-6/person/day for your guide and $3-5/person/day for your driver.
- If your tour is more than 8 days, you can lower the rate a little.
Tipping When Trekking:
At the end of each structured trek component of your stay in Bhutan (not applicable to day hikes) you will also need to tip your trekking cook(s) and horsemen. Your trekking guide will normally be your guide throughout your entire journey so wait and tip guide and driver at the end of your stay in Bhutan using the previous formula.
Recommendations for tipping trekking crew: These figures below are the total tips to be offered and not per person. You can arrange to pay these tips via your trekking guide who will assist with this process.
Private treks of 5 trekkers or less:
Treks of 4 nights or less: Total US$100 to the 2 cooks & total US$80 to the 2+ horsemen.
Treks of 5 nights plus: Total US$150 to the 2 cooks & total US$100 to the 2+ horsemen.
Group Treks of 6 trekkers or more:
Treks of 4 nights or less: Total US$150 to the 2 cooks & total US$120 to the 4 horsemen.Treks of 5 nights plus: Total US$200 to the cooks & total US$200 to the 4+ horsemen.
Please note that you should pay each individual directly and in either USD or Ngultrum.
What about the Bhutanese people, the culture and traditions?
Bhutan’s population is in many ways, one large extended family. More than 70 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across rugged mountain terrain. With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions and wheat, buckwheat and maize in still higher valleys, people farm in narrow terraces cut onto the steep hill slopes.
Bhutanese are by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with an open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an in-built social value in Bhutan.
Bhutanese language and literature, the arts and crafts, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values draw their essence from Buddhist religious teachings. The tradition of fine arts is still very much alive today, as manifested in exquisite traditional paintings visible in monasteries and houses, skillfully enhancing the indigenous architecture. The combination of engineering skill and aesthetic beauty is unparalleled. Traditional shapes, colors and patterns on the walls, doors and windows, monasteries and bridges, put Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own.
Music, dance and handicrafts, both by the clergy and the lay population, play an important role in day to day life. Bhutan’s textile tradition with its distinct technique, color and style is increasingly being appreciated by textile specialists, collectors and users.
What is the food like in Bhutan? The delicacies?
The typical Bhutanese will eat rice (Indian white rice, or the indigenous red variety), which is the main dish; chillies and vegetables three times a day. Along with that, they often serve different side dishes of beef, pork and chicken, of course with Bhutanese chillies and veggies.
The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chillies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy enough!
Ema datshi (chillies and a mild cheese is the national dish and prepared differently wherever you go. It’s spicy and is typically eaten every single day. Veterans say you haven’t really visited Bhutan unless you’ve tried ema datshi. Have your guide ask for it at your hotel or restaurant as it may not be served with your meals coz it’s too spicy for many visitors.
Salted Butter tea (suja or solza) is served on all social occasions, as is prevalent among all Buddhist communities of the Himalayas (from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh). In traditional homes in the Bhutanese hinterland, the serving host will sit beside you with a jar full of the butter tea and will almost instantly fill your cup to the brim after you have had a sip! That’s part of the Bhutanese tradition, of course.
Chang (a local beer) and Arra (or Arak) is a clear alcohol distilled from various grains. Here is a good article about Bhutanese food and culture.
The typical tourist class hotel serves a western style breakfast and quasi-Bhutanese style lunches and dinners (which are adjusted slightly for the western palette). Some hotels and restaurants, however, forego Bhutanese cuisine entirely for a more international fare which is quite a shame as Bhutanese food is quite good!
While you are eating it will be rare that your guide or driver will eat with you. If you ask them to join you (sometimes you have to press them), then they reluctantly join. Otherwise they’ll eat in a back room with the other drivers and guides at the hotel or restaurant.
Can I smoke cigarettes in Bhutan?
It is against the law to sell or purchase cigarettes or tobacco products in Bhutan. It is, however, not forbidden to smoke in appropriate areas. You may carry a small supply for personal use. Please note a 200% duty applies to all imported tobacco products and you must show a valid receipt of purchase to avoid confiscation
What are the duty-free allowances?
The following are the allowances per person when entering Bhutan:
- 1 liter bottle of spirits or wine (rigidly enforced)
- 250 ml of perfume
- 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams tobacco ** A 200% duty fee will apply to bring cigarettes and tobacco products into Bhutan. If you do not have your receipt, you will not be able to bring it into Bhutan.
- Currency – no restriction
- Gifts/Souvenirs – no restriction.
What are hotel accommodations like?
Most visitors to Bhutan take the standard tourist tour package which includes Bhutanese style 3-star hotel accommodation with private bathroom. In order for you to get the best from your Bhutan experience, we urge you to consider the following points.
- Please don’t expect your hotel to be any more than a basic 3 star property, and you won’t be disappointed.
- Rooms with double beds are somewhat rare. We can request one for you but please expect twin beds in many hotel rooms.
- All hotels offer private bathrooms, however the hot water supply can be ‘erratic’ in some valleys in Bhutan.
- Farm-stay accommodation offers shared western style toilet and very limited washing facilities (no showers!) and we do recommend you carry a hand towel with you on farm stays as towels are not always available.
- It is possible to stay in very luxurious 4 and 5 star hotels, however, we can work with you to determine the level of luxury you’d enjoy on your trip!
What will be the mode of travel in Bhutan?
Yak Holidays Int’l provides comfortable Toyota Coaster buses for groups of seven or more. For groups of up to six, you will be provided comfortable Toyota Hiace buses. Smaller groups of 1-2 people will discover the country in comfortable 4WD Toyota Land cruisers or similar.
The climate and weather?
Bhutan has four distinct seasons: Spring, Monsoon, Autumn and Winter.
It rarely gets terribly cold and certainly doesn’t get terribly hot. The only months where there is considerable rainfall is in mid-June through early September. For the cooler times of the year, the hotels have space heaters for your room. There is rarely need for air-conditioning though a few hotels have it.
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Bhutan (end of Feb till Mar) and (Sep till Nov).
For wild flower lovers, the best months are May, Jun and July, when mountain sides are carpeted in abundant colors with wild flowers and plants of the season.
Nov, Dec, Jan and Feb offer breathtaking mountain views, sunny days and the usual morning and evening chills.
When is the best time to visit Bhutan?
Bhutan can be visited all the year round! Even in the busy seasons it is not terribly crowded with tourists, there are even fewer tourists in the off-peak seasons.
What should I pack?
For Bhutanese nationals, there is a national dress code for anyone working at any office or in tourism photos here, and everyone wears it except after work or at home.
For the tourists, we recommend casual travel wear, but nothing too revealing (like spaghetti straps or short shorts). Pack warmer clothes for the evenings (pretty much year-round) and probably a 2nd pair of shoes for wearing around your hotel.
Dress Code for Entering Dzongs & Monasteries:
You can use the following guidelines to help you in planning what you wear. You can discuss each day’s visits with your guide to reconfirm the appropriate attire.
- Please wear shirts with collars, long or short sleeved.
- Women can wear a pashmina shawl or scarf in lieu to cover neck & shoulders.
- Full long pants or long skirts – ankles must be covered.
- No hats, umbrellas, t-shirts without collars, knee length/short skirts, ¾ length (capri) pants or shorts.
- It is safer to dress up in smart casuals and avoid short pants, skirts, tank tops, etc.
In many religious sites you will be required to remove your shoes. Take thick long socks to cover your ankles which will also be more than handy on the often cold stone floors.
Is there Internet & wifi in Bhutan? Can I get a SIM card in Bhutan?
Most hotels have wifi, even if only in the lobby area or business center. There may even be computers for use by guests. But in remote areas outside western Bhutan Internet networks tend to be weak and feeble, if at all.
You can purchase a local SIM card that would give you connectivity outside the hotels or when you are travelling, if you want to. Bhutanese SIM cards are available at a SIM counter located in the post office (to the right of the terminal exit door) at Paro Airport. Here you can purchase and get assistance for activating your new SIM cards in your devices. The cost for the SIM is approximately US$2.00 plus call credits.
What type of electricity is available in Bhutan?
Bhutan operates on 230 volts, 50 cycles AC system, which is generally reliable, although power outages can occur. The standard socket is the Indian-style round pin socket. We always suggest bringing a universal plug adaptor (or this one with USB outlets).
Personal Security Issues?
Bhutan still remains an extremely safe destination with an exceptionally low risk of theft or harassment. Foreign tourists are usually held in high esteem. However we do recommend you to keep all cash & valuables either on your person or in your vehicle where they will be safely managed by your driver whom you can trust implicitly. Please do not leave cash or valuables on display in hotel rooms.
I am a young woman travelling to Bhutan? Is it dangerous or do you have suggestions, feedback?
In comparison to most Asian countries of the developing world, Bhutan prides itself on its lack of a class system and an absence of sexual discrimination. Bhutanese women tend to have the same rights as men, including rights to education, voting and holding positions in government. Women, both foreign and Bhutanese, are not subject to harassment and do not need to take any special precautions. Bhutanese are more likely to help a woman in distress than a man. Young men have a reasonably liberal attitude towards their relations with women. Yet there may be several opportunities for misunderstandings if you don’t make your intentions clear from the very outset. As with any countries you have been to, you cannot be silly and do all the things you won’t do otherwise in your home. Exercise General Caution.
Some dzongs and monasteries are not open for visits by tourists so that the monks can continue their practices without interruption. Parts of many monasteries and temples do not allow photography. Please be sensitive to never disturb someone while taking their photo and be sure never to take someone’s photograph without them acknowledging that it’s OK, usually it’s just a nod–which most people will give you.
Many sections of Bhutan’s roads are currently undergoing widening or repair. Road closures of up to 3+ hours are not uncommon. As a result, your driver & guide can suggest the best times for road travel to suit the conditions on the day.
What are the major tourist attractions in Bhutan?
Bhutan has so many attractions on offer. It is a country of diverse altitudes, climate and vegetation. Bhutanese “culture and tradition” is pretty much intact even today. Bhutanese are warm and welcoming. Active Buddhist temples, monasteries, historic Dzongs and monuments, many of which date prior to 17th century which are still very interesting to see. The architecture of Bhutan is so unique, yet so colorful and well maintained. Bhutanese people wear beautiful and colorful attire. There are many colorful festivals with ancient mask dances. Bhutan is a haven for trekkers, providing pristine mountain views and travel through virgin forests, remote villages, with almost no other tourists around. So the list can be pretty long.
Some words in Dzongkha, the national language:
Kuzuzangpo La – Respected Greetings.
Tashi Delek – May all good things come to you. (Use this as a farewell)
Kardenche La – Thank you.
Goempa – Meditation Centre.
Lhakhang – Temple.
Chapsa – Toilet.
Chuu – Water.
Bang Chhang – Beer.
Toh – Food
Your guide, along with many young Bhutanese will speak fluent English.
What is trekking like in Bhutan?
You can trek most of the year (except mid June to late September when it is too wet) and treks range from 2 to 12 days with varying degrees of difficulty. Guides, horses, horsemen & a cook accompany and support trekking groups. Campsites are set up in advance and trekkers enjoy the magnificent scenery & culture with only a daypack to carry. Binoculars, camera, sunscreen, insect repellent (in summer), sunglasses, lip balm, a good pair of walking boots and warm clothing are essential. Winter trekking is kept to the lower altitudes in the valleys. Many treks take you to high altitudes and the air is rarefied. Altitude sickness is possible and should be taken into account when planning your itinerary. You need to bring your own sleeping bag for trekking.
Do I need travel insurance?
It is mandatory for all visitors to Bhutan to hold a valid comprehensive travel insurance policy in order to be granted a visa. We recommend that you have your travel insurance in place at the time of paying your Bhutan travel deposit for your protection.
Will I get altitude sickness or AMS in Bhutan?
We recommend you to arrive in Bhutan to acclimatize three days before starting your trekking or climbing unless you are at least moderately fit and do not suffer from any lung related condition such as asthma. As a precaution we suggest those in the high-risk category and/or those undertaking high altitude trekking carry Diamox as the Bhutan trekking crews rarely carry such medication. If you suffer from altitude sickness please descend to lower altitude as quickly as possible, drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol. Diamox (Acetazolamide) may be combined with Ibuprofen and after initial treatment; symptoms may last for a few days.
How do I prevent altitude sickness?
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills or narcotics. They may decrease ventilation, intensify hypoxemia and make symptoms worse. Drink plenty of fluids. Avoid heavy exercise; mild exercise is okay. Your guides are well versed in how to help if you do feel the effects of high altitude. Be sure to let a staff member know as soon as you feel the symptoms.
Will I get motion sickness?
Bhutan’s has sharp bends in almost all the places and can induce motion sickness. We recommend bringing dramamine (Dimenhydrinate) as a precaution. In our experience, most people who believe they have altitude sickness actually suffer from motion sickness.
So where do I start if I wish to visit Bhutan?
You can start a dialogue with us and we can walk you through the steps. Once you identify the package/trip that suits you, you can book online, e-mail inquiries, fax or call us. If you need a customized trip, you need to first decide on the approximate duration you wish to spend in Bhutan, then check with the Druk Air flight schedule to decide your entry and departure dates. The duration of your stay in Bhutan will determine your package costs.
“The Process”, once The Booking is received?
Once the booking is executed after depositing USD 200/250 from your end, generally, one question that will govern the guests’ mind is what is next? In the sense, like what’s going to happen now? What’s the next course of action or what will follow? Given below are the general processes that take its course progressively.
A generalized explanation with the sole intent to provide you with a fair idea of the steps involved and how that helps the process to takes its course smoothly, once the booking is received till the trip ends:
- Ground Arrangements
With the deposit of Tour payment, the process of ground arrangements start, notably hotels, where we send the reservation notice, upon hearing from the concerned hotels we update you the status. We send you invoice/receipt of the payment, if possible, with the hotel status also.
If the flight reservation is done by us, we require legal name as it appear in your passport to book and purchase the ticket. Better, the copy of Passport, preferably colors in clear and legible nature. Even if you buy flight ticket on your own, we still need your passport for issuance of Visa at a later stage.
- Links for Information
And also our Guests Relation Manager will send you email comprising the links which would contain information about weather, check lists of things to bring, tipping etc. which can possibly assist you to prepare well beforehand for your forthcoming trip.
- Mode of Payments
The remaining payment is due in full 70 days before the start of the trip. Note all payments (other than initial deposit).
We accept payment by wire transfer. Invoice/Receipt will be sent prior to receiving the final payment.
- Final Documents
As the name itself suggests, it’s the last document you will receive other than Visa from us. Our intent is always to send the final documents as soon as possible. It basically confirms all the aspects pertaining to the trip and contains confirmation of hotel list, flight details, itinerary, notes on what to expect from the trip etc.
For Bhutan portion, visa is done by us. Department of immigration issues visa a month or sometime even less prior to the commencement of trip, which is supposedly a standard practice.
- Feedback– Post Trip
Once your trip has concluded, follow up email requesting the feed backs, insights and your perspectives in regards to the trip’s nature will be sent to you. It’s paramount for us to have your view as it’ll assist to identify areas, if any, that possibly have potential for improvement.
Please note that all the documents including Flight tickets will be sent via email. Also, if you have any queries pertaining to any concerned subject, please feel free to ask us.