Bhutan Travel Guide
The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted a cautious approach to tourism to avoid any negative impact on the country's culture and environment. All tourists, group or individual, must travel on a pre-planned all-inclusive guided tour through a registered tour operator in Bhutan or their counterparts abroad. The basic rate is fixed by the government.
There are still plenty of tourists wanting to explore the breathtaking mountains and valleys of this astonishing country. The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning it must be environmentally friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. The number of tourists is also kept to a manageable level by the limited infrastructure.
The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul; means’ Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Much of Bhutanese history is lost in legends but the first major event was the arrival of Guru Rinpoche, believed to have brought Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet in the eighth century. Bhutan, the world’s last Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, became a coherent political entity around the 17th century and has never been conquered or ruled by another foreign power.
Bhutan is a peaceful country with strong traditional values based on religion, respect for the royal family and care for the environment.
When to Visit Bhutan?
You can visit Bhutan at any time of the year. Visitors tend to stay away during the Monsoon months of June, July & August when the weather is sometimes a little wet for sightseeing.
Due to the wide range of temperature and climatic conditions, it is advisable to bring appropriate clothing. For protection against cold, layered clothing is better than a few thick ones, so choose your cloths accordingly. Cloths should preferably be made from natural materials, which allow the body to breathe better. You will be offending people if you walk around in skimpy or tight-fitting clothes. Shorts are not welcomed and women are advised to wear skirts or loose trousers; men should not wear a singlet. During the visit of monasteries, Dzongs and religious institutions, one should not wear shorts & hats, caps or smoke.
Cotton and light woolens in summer (June to September) and Woolens and jackets the rest of the year and rain gear for the monsoons and comfortable shoes.
The five-star hotels are not available in Bhutan. Comfortable hotels and lodges built in traditional architectural style are available in the major towns. All tourists are lodged at the hotels approved and classified by the Department of Tourism. Western Bhutan has better hotels while in the central and eastern part of the country, accommodations establishment are simple and offer minimum facilities.
Tourist hotels have a choice of Bhutanese, Indian, Chinese and Continental food
You will be accompanied by an English-speaking tour guide throughout your stay. Our tour guides are licensed and trained in programs conducted by the Department of Tourism. They have mountain guide training, including safety and first aid instructions. They are well versed in local history and local knowledge. Plus their extensive experience and knowledge of western culture would make you feel at home. For other non-English speaking tourists, we arrange guides on a need basis.
We use Japanese imported Toyota cars and buses for land transport within Bhutan.
Although the system of ‘give and take’ is always there in Bhutanese tradition, tipping is not compulsory. But if you would like to appreciate the services of our guides, drivers and other staff you may give them according to your will.
The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. For this reason, the number of tourists visiting Bhutan is kept to an environmentally manageable level through Government regulated tourist tariff.
Bhutanese Royal Government has been strictly limiting the number of tourist coming to Bhutan so that traditional culture can be preserved. Bhutanese are highly religious people and therefore it is important to show respect and understanding for local customs, the way of life especially while visiting religious institutions.
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) equivalent to Indian Rupee, which is also accepted in Bhutan. There are no ATMs in Bhutan, and credit cards are accepted only at a few high-end tourist shops. You cannot purchase Ngultrum prior to arriving in Bhutan, but you can easily buy Ngultrum at the Paro airport, at Bhutan National Bank and the Bank of Bhutan, and at major hotels in Thimphu and Paro, all of which accept traveler's checks and/or dollars and various other currencies. When visiting smaller towns, however, you should bring Ngultrum for your purchases, as it may not be possible to exchange your currency.
For up-to-date currency exchange information, you can visit Exchangerate.com.
Bhutan has the only one-time zone. It is six hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), 15 minutes ahead of Nepal, 30 minutes ahead of India, and one hour behind Thailand.
Visitors are required to fill up the custom form and hand it over to concerned officers on arrival. These articles are exempted from duty:
- Personal effects and articles for day-to-day use by visitors.
- Liters of alcohol, 400 cigarettes and 150 grams of pipe tobacco.
- Instrument, apparatus or appliances for professional use.
- Photographic equipment, video cameras and other electronic goods for personal use.
The articles mentioned under third and fourth must be declared in the Customs form. If such are items disposed off in Bhutan by sale or gift, they are liable for customs duty. On departure, visitors are requested to hand back their Custom form.
Import and export of the following goods are strictly prohibited:
- Arms, ammunition, and explosives.
- All narcotics and drugs except medically prescribed drugs.
- Wildlife products, especially those of endangered species.
- Any old items to be taken out of the country if they have not been certified as non-antique.
The photographic opportunities on all trips are immense. You will also wish to record the landscape, buildings, and people. Bhutan is generally liberal about photography by the tourists but there are some restrictions for photographing radio towers, military installations, inside Dzongs, Temples, and Monasteries.
You could use your video camera for recording your events during the tours (except in those restricted places mentioned) but there is a set of rules for the commercial filming.
There is no personal insurance included in the tour price. Travel insurance should be obtained from your place of residence before the commencement of your trip. Bhutan Travellers will not hold liability for any illness, injury or death sustained during a journey/tour/trek.
Bhutan Visa Procedures:
All the visitors those who are interested to visit Bhutan are required to obtain a visa and it is processed and arranged by Amazing Nepal Trek & Expedition. No foreign mission grants Bhutan tourist visa.
We will handle the visa procedures for you. The Bhutanese Government will sanction the VISA only after the receipt of full payment in advance. The cost of the visa itself is US $20, which can be further extended with an additional fee of US $15. Visa fee should be paid along with the tour payment and actual Bhutan VISA will be stamped in your passport on arrival at Paro airport.
For all travelers, entering into the country by road through Phuntsholing (border town in the south of Bhutan), the visa is stamped on arrival and Visa Clearance Number is forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu.
If you have received a fax copy of your visa authorization, it is useful to bring a copy with you in case of confusion at the Druk Air check-in counter or at the visa counter at Paro airport. The authorization letter has a reference number that can help the authorities find their copy of the authorization letter. Your passport is stamped with actual visa at the port/border of the entrance to Bhutan against the payment of cash US 20 with 2-passport size photographs.
Weather and Climate:
Higher parts of Bhutan have pleasant months on either side of the rainy season, which lasts from May to September. The climate along this belt defies generalization but it can be safely said that spring (March to May) brings warm days and cool nights with the mercury averaging 15-20 degree C at daytime. With June come occasional downpours and summer temperatures peak at over 20 degrees C. The milder months of autumn (September to November) are less wet and are the best time of the year for tour and trekking.
The winter months of December, January and February are very good to visit but the night time temperatures often plummet below – 10 degrees C in higher altitude valleys. Once or twice there is snowfall in colder valleys of Thimphu, Paro, Trongsa, and Bumthang.
However, winter offers its own charm of crystal clear sunny blue skies and unhindered view of snow-capped mountains.
Gross National Happiness:
What is happiness? In the industrialized countries, it is often equated with money.
Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation.
But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea. In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not it’s G.D.P. but its G.N.H. (gross national happiness).
Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.
Now Bhutan's example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.
Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders, and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.
The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.
"Its ideas which determine the directions in which civilizations go, If you don't get your ideas right, it doesn't matter what policies you try to put in place."
Still, Bhutan's model may not work for larger countries. And even in Bhutan, not everyone is happy. Members of the country's delegation admitted their experiment was very much a work in progress, and they acknowledged that poverty and alcoholism remained serious problems.
The pressures of modernization are also increasing. Bhutan linked itself to the global cultural pipelines of television and the Internet in 1999, and there have been increasing reports in its nascent media of violence and disaffection, particularly among young people.
Some attendees, while welcoming Bhutan's goal, gently criticized the Bhutanese officials for dealing with a Nepali-speaking minority mainly by driving tens of thousands of them out of the country in recent decades, saying that was not a way to foster happiness.
Nature and Environment:
Buddhist respects for life, a national policy of strict forest conservation and sparse population have contributed to the country's impressive forest cover of 72%. In spite of the small size of the country, due to altitudinal range from 200 m to over 8000 m, the ecosystem of this small nation supports more than 165 mammals, 612 species of birds and many 5,000 plants. Bhutan is rightly called the Jewel of the Eastern Himalayas and is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.
Pure mountain air, crystal blue skies, and pristine vegetation cover are every environmentalist's dream. Since the government disallowed mountain climbing, now Bhutan has the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Buddhism plays a central role in Bhutanese lives. Bhutanese culture and tradition are, therefore, closely related to religion. Men wear Gho - a knee-length robe - and women wear Kira - a sheet-like clothe piece.
An overwhelming majority of the Bhutanese are Buddhist, practicing the Tibetan Lamaism sect. Hindus make up around 10% of the population. Bhutanese are deeply religious people. Numerous temples, monasteries and learning center are found in Bhutan. Prayer flags flutter on hills, chortens dot the village landscape. Most of the Buddhist precepts are underlying the state's law as well as day to day conducts of the people.
Festivals - Tshechus and Losars:
Tshechus are religious festivals conducted by monastic bodies of different regions on auspicious occasions. The teachings of Lord Buddha are enacted through mask dances for three-five days in the courtyard of the dzongs or monasteries. People attend these Tshechus in their best clothes, with picnic baskets.
Losar, on the other hand, is celebrated on Lunar New Year. People cook special dishes and wear new clothes. It is time for the family get-together. Men play archery or darts while women sing and dance. Day-long archery matches are held between rival villages.
Getting in Bhutan:
Druk Air flight is the best way to enter into the kingdom of Bhutan. The following cities are connected to Bhutan with Druk Air flights. Only Druk Air is operating in Bhutan. As Druk Air flight can be delayed because of weather, it is advisable to keep a 24-hour gap before any onward international connections.
- Nepal: Kathmandu (KTM)
- India: Delhi (DEL) and Calcutta (CCU)
- Bangladesh: Dhaka (DAC)
- Thailand: Bangkok (BKK)
- Burma: Rangoon (RGN)
There are two overland entry/exit points. One is from the Indian state of West Bengal into Phuntsholing in southwest Bhutan. Four hours drive from Phuntsholing will take you to Bagdogra in the state of West Bengal (India) which is the nearest airport from Phuntsholings. Phuntsholing serves as a convenient point for the travelers wishing to visit the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal along with Bhutan. The drive from Phuntsholing to Thimphu takes six hours.
The other point is Samdrup Jongkhar in the southeast, 110 km from Guwahati, India. An Inner Line Permit to enter Assam will also be required to enter/exit through Guwahati. Tashigang is six hours' drive from Samdrup Jongkhar.
Where to Go?
The ideal time for touring to Bhutan is late-September to late-November when skies are generally clear and the high mountain peaks rise to a vivid blue sky. March-May is recognized as the second-best time to visit Bhutan for touring and trekking. Though there are more clouds and rain, the magnificent wildflowers are in bloom and birdlife is abundant. You're likely to get wet no matter what the season, but avoid the monsoon, June-August, when an average of 0.5m (1.5ft) of rain buckets down in Thimphu and up to 1m (3ft) saturates the eastern hills.
Winter is a good time for touring in western Bhutan, bird watching in the subtropical jungles in the south, and white water rafting. The days are sunny and cool but it's quite cold once the sun sets. From December to February the road from Thimphu to Bumthang and the east may be closed because of snow for several days at a time. It would be best not to plan to visit these regions at this time.
In recent years overcrowding has become an issue during the major tsechus (Buddhist festivals) at Thimphu and Paro, which coincide with the best seasons. You stand a much better chance of getting flights, accommodation, and probably a more intimate and rewarding festival experience if you schedule your trip around one of the other cultural events.
Dining in Bhutan:
Rice and vegetables with plentiful chilies are the main food in Bhutan. Bhutanese eat an incredible amount of chilies. Most Bhutanese prefer ‘Emadatse’ a dish made entirely of chilies mixed with cheese. Meat is widely eaten in Bhutan. Common meat includes pork, beef, chicken, fish and yak meat. The Bhutanese also eat a variety of vegetables, including potatoes, fern, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, and mushrooms.
The Bhutanese are fond of taking ‘suja’ (butter tea) and ‘ara’, an alcohol distilled from the brewery of locally produced rice, wheat, maize or corn. Drinks are also used as a part of offerings while performing ceremonies on different occasions.