A trip to Bhutan is an experience in itself. It’s one of the most isolated countries in the world (Bhutan certainly ranks near the top) . Breathtaking scenery, thousand year old monasteries, gross national happiness, a different way of life – the country certainly has a lot to offer.
So if Bhutan is in your travel checklist, let me share some tips. I’m not claiming to be an expert here, but I reckon I can shed light to some things. I suppose there aren’t really a lot of other people around who can give tips for Bhutan so here goes.
Arranging the trip
All trips to Bhutan (unless you’re Indian or Bangladeshi) have to be arranged with a Bhutan-based travel agency who also handles the visa application. All agencies charge the same. The country is famous for its USD 200 per day fee which is set by the government to “filter out” low value tourism. It sounds expensive – not denying that – but this fee is inclusive of all meals, 3-star accommodations, transport, the service of a guide plus entrance fees to all attractions. It’s possible to choose the cheapest hotels but visitors will still have to pay the same daily fee. On the other hand, it’s also possible to stay in 5-star hotels but it comes with a surcharge.
By now, it’s quite obvious that there’s no backpackers scene in Bhutan, except probably for the small number of Indian and Bangladeshi tourists who go there for backpacking trips.
How to get there
There are only two airlines that fly to Bhutan, and that is DrukAir, the flag carrier and Buddha Air. The former flies to Bangkok, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Gaya and a couple more destinations in Eastern India while the latter flies to Kathmandu. Bangkok and Kathmandu are the most popular routes. It is also possible to get to Bhutan overland via the southern border with India.
US Dollars are widely accepted in Bhutan but don’t expect to get a favorable rate outside – the spread ranges from 5 to 10%. The money changer in the airport offers quite a good rate, as well as the banks in Thimphu. Indian Rupee is also widely used, and accepted on a 1:1 basis with the Ngultrum (Bhutan’s currency).
Most of the major travel destinations within the country lie at an altitude of about 2,200 meters above sea level. This does not cause altitude sickness for most people. There are notable exceptions on the altitude – Tiger’s Nest Monastery and Dochula Pass are both at 3,100 meters above sea level. Most people still don’t feel altitude sickness at this height. Nevertheless, if you’re planning to trek up the monastery, it’s advisable to do so during the last leg of the trip after getting somewhat acclimatized to the altitude.
All meals are included with the daily fee. Typical meals would include red rice, vegetables cooked with cheese and the occasional meat dish. Traditional Bhutanese food is often spicy but those served to tourists are most likely blended with international cuisine. We even had Tom Yum Soup for dinner during our first night!
How many days should you spend in Bhutan?
This really depends on your budget, interests and the presence of a festival during your travel dates. Our trip lasted 5 days / 4 nights and we were able to cover Paro, Thimphu, Dochula, Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang. This is probably the minimum number of days that visitors are recommended to stay in Bhutan. For a more comfortable trip, 7 days / 6 nights is suggested – and this would give visitors more leeway to venture into Central Bhutan (Phobjika Valley, Gangtey and Bumthang). For those visiting to witness a festival, allow an extra day aside from the itineraries described above.
When to go?
October to November and April to June are the best times to visit. This is when sunshine and blue skies are at their peak and the temperatures are more comfortable for getting around. December to Feb will be too cold (though also blue skies) while July to September will be too dull and grey, not to mention rainy. It used to be possible to get a $40 discount on the daily fee for travel during these off-peak months but word is that the government is doing away with that for 2011 and just charging the fixed $200 fee for travel at any time of the year. There are also plans to increase the daily fee to $250 per day by 2012.
Before coming to Bhutan, make sure that you attend to the following:
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu.) that is at par with the Indian rupee. It is however recommended that you carry travelers’ cheque or cash, preferably American Express and US dollar instead, as the ATM facilities for foreign currency is limited to just few towns including the capital city Thimphu. Visa and American Express credit cards are also widely accepted.
All major towns are well connected with electricity that runs on 220/240 volts with round hole two-pin and three-pin power outlets. Our energy is clean and green energy generated by hydro power.
The country has a good network of telecommunication facilities. Almost every town has an internet cafe and IDD calling booths from where you can log on to and send messages home and to your loved ones. Also most hotels in Thimphu and Paro have internet access. Mobile (cell) phone is also widely used with international roaming facilities.
Bhutan experiences a great variation in its climate. Summers are warm with average daily temperature ranging from 20 to 25 Celsius, while winters are cold. In winters temperatures are usually below 15 Celsius. So bring with you a couple of warm clothes and comfortable shoes to go with the weather, the terrain and the program. You might want to consider ‘what to wear’ for hikes, trekking and sightseeing, as well as for dinners, appointments and functions that we have for you. Others that you could consider bringing with you would be a pair of sunglasses, sun screen lotion and a hat; antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream, anti-diarrhea pills, altitude & car sickness medicine; insect repellent, flash light (w/spare batteries) umbrella, camera, films and accessories (including spare camera batteries) etc.
Bhutan is an ideal place and a frequent haunt for photographers offering immense opportunities for photography especially during our outdoor sightseeing trips. However you may need to check with your guide for indoor photography as taking photographs inside Dzongs, temples, monasteries and religious institutions are restricted unless you have a special permission from the Department of Culture. One can however, capture images of the landscapes, the panoramic views of the mountain ranges, the rural folk life, the flora and fauna, the Bhutanese architecture and the Dzongs and Chortens in particular.
For people who love shopping and taking home gifts, Bhutan offers a variety of goods that revolve mainly round textiles. You may shop for items like hand-woven textiles that are either in raw silk or silk, carved masks of various animals, woven baskets of cane and bamboo, wooden bowls known as Dapas, handmade paper products or finely crafted gods of silver. You can also shop for Thangkha paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamp. One can come across these items in the many handicraft shops in and around Thimphu and also in major towns. Please remember that buying and selling of antiques is strictly forbidden in Bhutan.
Bhutanese speak a variety of languages but Dzongkha is the national language and one of the most widely spoken languages. English is also a medium of communication and most Bhutanese speak English. Communicating in English especially with the people in the urban areas and the towns will enhance your knowledge on Bhutan.
Clothes and other paraphernalia
With great altitudinal variations weather is quite erratic in Bhutan. So be prepared to brace the erratic weather as you step outdoor. We expect visitors to dress modestly and respectfully especially if you are planning a visit to the monasteries, Dzongs and other religious institutions. As a mark of respect, be kind enough to remove your hats, caps etc. as you enter religious and administrative premises, institutions and in any other place that you come across with the national flag being raised.
Standard time is 6 hours ahead of GMT and there is only one time zone throughout the country.
Before embarking on a trip to Bhutan, it is advisable to have tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A inoculations.
Avoid drinking un-boiled water or taking ice cubes at all times as most water sources in Bhutan are untreated though they have their source in the mountains. One can come across treated and bottled water readily in any town and are affordable.
Import of Medicines for Personal Use
Any person who wishes to bring into the country any medicinal product listed under Schedule A of Bhutan Medicines Rules and Regulation 2005, shall be allowed in a quantity not exceeding the required dose for one month. List of medicinal products can be found under Schedule A of the Regulation which is given in following link. In case of prescription drugs, the person shall be allowed in a quantity as prescribed in the prescription. For more detail visit the following link (Drug Regulatory Authority of Bhutan): Drug Regulatory Authority of Bhutan
Govt. of Bhutan has a duty to protect Bhutan from Drugs and Tobacco Products. To do this we need your help and cooperation. If they stop you and ask you about your baggage please co-operate. *Please do not carry tobacco goods that are over the limits. For more information please see following link. Tobacco Control Act
Over the years, many quality hotels have come up in Bhutan. Most hotels in Bhutan meet the recent standardization policy, most tourists accommodate in a 5 star or a 3 star hotel. The hotels are well maintained and have all basic amenities such as geysers and shower rooms and are properly maintained. Visitors can be assured of their warmth and comfort of the hotels and the ambience and the hospitality offered by the hotels are incredible. The 5 star hotels are mostly located in Thimphu, and in Paro, towns like Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang also have a variety of hotels that are comfortable. Away from town, you may find it tempting to camp outside in the forest or make a night halt at the purpose-built in cabins sprinkled along some main trekking routes.
Most Bhutanese dishes are rich and spicy with a lot of cheese and chili. It is advisable that visitors stick to the Chinese, Continental or Indian cuisine that is served in most restaurants. Visitors can also choose among the various vegetarian and non-veg food. You can also try out Momos, the Tibetan dumplings and for those daring; you may try out the Ema Datshi dish served with cheese and chili and other typical Bhutanese dishes.
Flora and Fauna
A wide range of animal could also be found frequenting the jungles of Bhutan. Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, the Bengal tigers that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the gorals and the Langurs, the Himalayan black bear and Sambars, the wild pigs and the barking deer, the blue sheep and the musk deer. In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across the clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, golden Langur that is unique to Bhutan, the water buffaloes and the swamp deer. Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’ situated as it is at the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas.