spinner
Plan Your Trip

Bhutan Basics

Closed to the rest of the world until recent years, Bhutan is an idyllic mountain kingdom deep in the Himalayas. These days, times are changing and tourists are now welcome in the isolated but culturally rich little country, Bhutan. Lonely Planet called it the number one destination to visit in 2020—I don’t disagree and I’m sure many people will visit despite of the relatively high cost of visiting Bhutan.

The country makes great efforts to preserve their culture in the face of globalization; tourists are expected be sensitive and respectful. Though most tourists visits will be accompained with a tour guide, there are still things you need to know if you want to travel to Bhutan!

The Kingdom of Bhutan is caught between leviathans China and India, in the Eastern Himalayas. The country has a population of roughly 771,612 people. Thimphu, the capital, sits in the west of the country.

Never colonized, and isolated due to its geography, Bhutan developed a strong national identity and culture. It is also the most peaceful and least corrupt country in South Asia, and ranks first in ease of doing business and economic freedom in the region. It’s an outlier in every way!

In 2008 Bhutan changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Although the King is much beloved and respected by the people, his political powers are mostly ceremonial.

Sustainable Tourism

Necessity is one of the reasons tourism is so carefully managed in the country. Though tourism has immense potential to financially support the country, it has just as much power to overwhelm its small population and its delicate cultural balance.

Tourism in Bhutan has been restricted through pricing for decades. “High value” tourists were the only ones able to access the kingdom via mandatory guided tours at a standard, controlled price. Revenues benefit more than those in the tourism industry; 30% of tourism money goes to a “sustainable development fee” that provides free health care, free education, infrastructure, and more for all of Bhutan’s population. I find it hard to be bitter about a system that so clearly benefits local populations!

However, these days the scales are tipping. India has extensive soft power over its small neighbour, and pressured the country to allow its citizens to visit without needing a guided tour. Given the rapidly growing popularity of travel in populous India, Bhutan is increasingly overwhelmed by Indian tourists; in 2018, more than half of foreign tourists in Bhutan were Indians.

Language

Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan.  A variety of regional languages exist, but Dzongkha is the lingua franca.

English is widely taught in school; majority of Bhutanese people are fluent in English.

Useful Dzongkha phrases

  • Kuzu zangpo la – Hello
  • Kadin chey la – Thank you
  • Inn – Yes
  • Menn – No
  • Gaday bay zhui? – How are you?
  • Legshom – I’m fine

Visas

All visitors need a visa to enter Bhutan, except for visitors from India, who require a permit.

Nationals of Bangladesh and the Maldives, as well as nationals of Switzerland and Thailand who hold diplomatic or government- official passports, are also eligible for a visa on arrival at their port of entry.

Visitors from India will need a permit to enter Bhutan and are required to hold an Indian passport or an Indian voter ID card. Indian nationals under the age of 18 may enter with a birth certificate or passport and must be accompanied by a legal guardian.
The visa fee is US$40 per person; this fee is non- refundable.

Culture

Bhutan’s cultural heritage is rich and well guarded. The country is unique in how it protects and fosters its cultural heritage, rather than abandoning its history to globalizing tides. This is the primary reason many tourists have their eyes on Bhutan and the country knows it.

Bhutanese culture is strongly influenced by Buddhism. Many cultural festivals take place each year all across the country, showcasing the diversity of its heritage. Unlike other countries, many of these festivals aren’t typical tourist traps, but rather experiences catering to locals showcasing authentic traditions in their regions.

Traditional clothes and what to wear

Clothes are an integral part of Bhutanese culture. Men typically wear a robe called gho. Women wear a shirt and wrap combination, kira.

These traditional clothes are no longer mandatory for Bhutanese people—unless they’re on official business—but you’ll see many people wearing them, even in the capital.

Dzong fortresses and monasteries are the only place with official dress codes. Visitors to dzongs must wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and closed shoes to enter. Local men have to be in gho. Hats are not allowed for locals or foreigners. Shoes and hats are also forbidden inside monasteries.

Interacting with locals

Bhutanese people are very friendly, if initially shy; the more off the beaten track you go, the more people will want to have a chat with you! Again, language isn’t such an issue since most tourists will be with a guide who can translate.

GNH & Religion

People who have heard of Bhutan often wonder about the country’s philosophy of the Gross National Happiness index. Many people associate this with the idea that the country is an incredibly happy one, or that the government somehow forces people to be happy.

This is a misconception. Surveys suggest that Bhutanese people aren’t significantly happier than other people.

The GNH index means decisions made by the government have to be for the good of the majority of people, and have to take into account the general wellbeing and the overall quality of life of Bhutan’s citizens.

The majority of Bhutanese people follow Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. Bhutan has a Hindu minority, most notably in the southern regions bordering India.

The country guarantees freedom of religion, but proselytising an individual from one’s religion to another is forbidden. Bhutanese people are open to individuals who follow different religions or if one is an atheist.

However, while visiting, one is expected to show respect for its religious traditions and holy monumental sites.

Food

Bhutanese food is spicy. Proof: Bhutan’s national dish is ema datshi, made of chilis and cheese. It’s delicious and I urge you to try it at least once.

Tourist restaurants adjust the spice level of their dishes. A lot of restaurants in Bhutan offer a wide range of western cuisine.

Traveling as a vegetarian or vegan

Bhutanese aren’t all vegetarian. Most of the meat in the country is imported from its neighbouring countries.

The Best Time to Visit Bhutan

The best time to travel in Bhutan is generally in the months of March, April, May. This is the high season for travel in Bhutan, and popular areas will be at its busiest. The weather is generally pleasant around this time, and valleys will be in full bloom. These months are generally dry, but there might be some pre-monsoon rain in May.

September and October are also a good time to visit the country. The air is at its clearest in October, so you’ll be greeted by amazing Himalaya vistas. There are chances of odd showers in September, and temperatures will start dropping in October.

June to August is usually considered the wettest season and also known as the the low tourist season in Bhutan. Prices to visit Bhutan in the low season are relatively lower (see more on this below).

Cost of Travel

Here comes the fun part everyone wants to know about!

Due to its tourism policy, Bhutan is relatively expensive to travel compared to its South Asian neighbors. Foreigners must be on a guided tour that costs $200-250 per day per person, depending on the season.

Cash

Bhutanese currency is called ngultrum (Nu). Its value is pegged to the Indian rupee.

Transport

The most common way of entering Bhutan is by flying into Paro airport. Over landing is increasingly popular for regional tourists.

Since the majority of people who visit Bhutan do so on a tour, the tour company will arrange all of your transport. Usually, this means buses for groups and cars/jeeps for private tours

Safety

Bhutan is a safe country. Crime incidents are quite rare, and the majority of Bhutanese people are very honest and friendly. An example: at one point during my trip, I learned I had to send my passport back to the capital for a visa extension. My guide simply gave my passport to the first person who drove past us in the direction of the capital, and asked him to deliver it to an office… and the stranger did! – Guest of BTS

Things to know!

Most cities in Bhutan have decent mobile coverage, and almost all standard hotels offer free WiFi.

Tour operators can arrange local SIM cards for you if desired. The kingdom’s major mobile operator is the state-owned Bhutan Telecom, operating under the B-Mobile brand. The second operator is called TashiCell.

Here are a few more things about going to Bhutan that tourists might want to know:

  • In Bhutan, all drones must be approved before operation at the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority at Paro International Airport.However, the approval is mostly granted to governmental organisations. Most travellers are not allowed to operate drones. Your bags will be scanned when flying into the country.
  • The sale of tobacco products are available in Bhutan. You can bring your own cigarettes (up to one standard carton) after you declare it at the airport.

Discover the Difference