BHUTAN: HOW TO TRAVEL TO THE THUNDER DRAGON KINGDOM
Bhutan is a tiny, isolated Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. It is known for its mountainous beauty, its impressive fortresses, and Gross National Happiness, the metric that all legislative decisions are weighed against. To travel to Bhutan is to join a relatively small group of tourists who have been able to experience its breathtaking mysticism and gentle people. In Bhutan, you’ll trek to the Tiger’s Nest, rub shoulders with monks, meet tons of friendly locals, and be humbled by the size and scale of ancient Dzongs.
Ready to go? Well, not so fast. There’s a lot of research and careful planning that you need to do first in order to navigate Bhutan’s unique “High Value, Low Impact” tourism model. Allow me to show you the way! Let’s start with some frequently asked questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I just show up in Bhutan?
Bhutan is not like Thailand, where one can generally hop a plane on a whim and obtain a Visa on arrival. It’s not even like Vietnam, wherein you must do some minor prior arrangements to get a Visa. It’s quite a bit more complex than that.
Unless you’re from Bangladesh, India, or the Maldives, travellers must arrange a guided tour in advance with a licensed tour operator in Bhutan such as Wind Horse Tours. They will guide you every step of the way and arrange your Visa, transportation, accommodation, meals, and activities. The guides are fabulous and not only do they make sure you see as much as possible, they teach you everything your curious mind wants to know about the Dragon Kingdom.
While our tour was being arranged, our fabulous friend Brennan was kind enough to liaise with Wind Horse so that communication was streamlined and clear. We just waited for Brennan to ask for our passports, credit card info, and preferences, then he arranged everything! Get a friend like Brennan.
How do I get to Bhutan?
Bhutan has two airlines, Drukair (aka Royal Bhutan Airlines) and Bhutan Airlines, which collectively serve only 5 international countries: India, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, and Bangladesh. Your best bet is to book your flight from Bangkok through your tour company or on your own through the respective airline websites, and then arrange to fly to Bangkok from wherever you live. Bangkok and Singapore are the most active and accessible hubs that these airlines service. The flights come at a cost - we paid about 800 USD each for a flight from Bangkok to Paro. The flight stopped over in Kolkata. It was 2.5 hours to Kolkata and another 50 minutes to Paro. Tip: sit on the left side of the plane for views of Mount Everest!
How does the Visa work?
All Visas are arranged in advance by tour companies in the country’s capital and largest city, Thimpu. You cannot arrange a Visa outside of Bhutan in an embassy. Once you pay for your tour and provide your passport details, your Visa will be arranged. Be sure to do this as far in advance as possible. The Visa paper will be sent to you through your tour company and it costs 40 USD (included in your tour). Once you arrive in Bhutan, whether at the airport or overland, you simply produce your passport and your Visa paper and your passport will be stamped with your Bhutan Visa stamp!
What is the trip going to cost me?
Bhutan has an interesting all inclusive tourism model which requires visitors to pay for what they call the Minimum Daily Package. There is a minimum fee set by the Royal Government of Bhutan for all visitors. This means that you must pay a per night fee of 200 USD (January, February, June, July, August, and December) or 250 USD (March, April, May, September, October, and November). This fee includes:
3 star hotels
Tea and coffee
Internal transport (van and driver)
A licensed Bhutanese guide for your stay
The fee applies to groups of 3 or more. Surcharges apply for groups of two or individuals. Your package might cost more than 200 or 250/day, meaning that your tour company provides above and beyond the aforementioned amenities. For example, 4 or 5 star hotels.
Ready To Go?
I hope the above information does not deter or intimidate you. It can seem complicated and expensive to visit Bhutan, especially when compared to its neighbours like Nepal and India. I assure you that this is unlike any place you’ve ever been and it was worth every penny. So, are you ready to go? Let’s get to the fun stuff…
Our Favourite Experiences
Tiger’s Nest Monastery: active monastery built into the side of a cliff at 3100m elevation. 9.5km hike, about 5-6 hours round trip. Challenging but appropriate for many fitness levels.
Paro Dzong: we visited many Dzongs, but Paro was my favourite. Be sure to stop at the Wheel of Life painting to get a lesson in Buddhist beliefs from your guide.
Suspension Bridges: prayer flags adorn the many suspension bridges of Bhutan. Look into the crystal blue water below and you might spot some river otters, like we did!
Thimpu Karaoke: don’t miss a night out in Thimpu, where karaoke bars are aplenty.
Eating Momos: ask your guide to bring you to a local momo joint so you can eat all the himalayan dumplings you desire. They generally come in four flavours: veg, cheese, beef, and pork.
Khamsum Youelay Namgay Temple: hike through golden rice fields to arrive at this tiered temple, where one of the best views of Punakha valley awaits.
Meeting Locals: all of the locals understand and speak English. They are friendly and warm. Relax and say hello!
King’s Palace at Night: the sprawling official Royal building in Thimpu is a must visit. I recommend going there right before nightfall. Once it’s dark out, the structure is beautifully lit in yellow and crimson floodlights.
Archery: once you see the locals play archery, you’ll surely want to try! Our guide took us into the wilderness to channel our inner warriors and warrioresses.
You’re spending a lot. This is a trip of a lifetime. Make the most of your trip by following some of these tips that my friends and I came up with after our time in Bhutan:
Pack Light, but Pack Smart. You do not need a lot of clothing in Bhutan. Locals dress simply and traditionally, and fashion will not be your priority. You should be comfortable and ready to be active. Also, bring lots of layers that are easy to put on and take off. As the day warms up, you’ll want to be dressed cooler. Also, the temperature will vary by elevation. When you visit temples and dzongs, you’ll need to wear long pants, long shirts, and close-toed shoes. Stay flexible, respectful, and comfortable.
Travel in a Group. Traveling in a group not only reduces your costs, but it’s a blast! Share this once in a lifetime experience with some of your closest friends. Also, you can book a completely private tour for less if you have your own group.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Get. You will be sent an itinerary, but if your tour guide is as awesome and flexible as ours, it’s not set in stone. However, if you do not ask (politely), you will not get anything changed. Want to eat momos for lunch? Ask. Want to go to a totally local hole-in-the-wall for dinner? Ask. Want to skip the folk art museum and go rug shopping instead? Just ask. I think you get the idea.
Plan for Purchases. You’re going to fall in love with this country and want to bring a piece of it home with you. Leave room in your bag and your budget for something special, such as a special hand woven rug or an antique Guru mask. Credit cards are accepted widely for larger purchases.
Timing is Everything. Don’t let your experience be ruined by unfavourable weather. The best time of year to visit Bhutan is October, when the weather is fair and it’s not too crowded. You may also want to plan your trip around one of Bhutan’s famous religious festivals, which we did not see, but we heard they are fabulous.
Manage your Expectations. Bhutan is a developing country with unique views about what progress and prosperity mean. There is little foreign commercial influence and infrastructure is limited. Expect to use less-than-pristine bathrooms during your travels. Do not expect to eat at McDonald’s or drink a Starbucks coffee. It’s all part of the experience!
Bring some Cash. My husband and I exchanged about 300 USD to share on our arrival in Thimpu. It is handy to have cash for temple donations, beer or soft drinks, and small souvenir purchases. Your guide can get you the best rate for exchanging, so wait until after you exit the airport to do this.
Internet. It is possible to get a visitor’s sim card, but I’d recommend not. The hotels and some cafes all had decent WiFi. While in Bhutan, you’ll want to soak up every bit of your experience. It’s a great place for a digital detox.
Prepare. Come to Bhutan well-rested and ready for lots of activity. There’s a lot to see. Also, don’t forget to bring Imodium and other medicines. The food is very spicy and very different than what you’re used to. Also, well…. hygiene is sometimes an issue, as in most developing nations!
Bhutan is mysterious, stunning, traditional, and totally unique. If you’ve dreamt of visiting this place but have felt held back by expenses, travel time, or the feeling of the unknown, do not hesitate. It will live up to be everything you imagine it to be.