Want to travel somewhere under the radar? Somewhere more culturally traditional and untainted by mass tourism? Somewhere that’s like stepping back in time, where very few have the privilege to see? Consider traveling to the Asian country of Bhutan. I hope this Bhutan travel guide convinces you that this little country should be on your list. Read on to learn how to travel to Bhutan.
Bhutan. Land of the Thunder Dragon. A country shrouded in solitude and mystery for so long, the response I got most from people when I told them I was traveling to Bhutan was, “Never heard of it. Where’s that?!”
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Where is Bhutan?
The little Asian country in the Eastern Himalayas is wrapped on three sides by India and bordered on the north by the Tibetan region of China. Taking up only 300 square miles, Bhutan has a small population of only around 800,000 people making even the largest capital city of Thimphu (population around 100,000) feel like a small town.
Shockingly, Bhutan has never been colonized or had European influence. Buddhism was introduced in the 8th century and the country has remained isolated by the Himalayan mountains for centuries. Until 1974, tourism to Bhutan was actually not allowed. The government preferred to retain the culture and traditions of their heritage and not be affected by outside influences.
In 1907, Bhutan was reunified under one elected “Dragon King” or royal house, the the House of Wangchuck. There have been 5 monarchs under the Wangchuck dynasty and democratization began under the third king, tourism development under the fourth king, and the first elections under the current king.
Transitioning from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, Bhutan held their first democratic elections in 2008 and voted for a Prime Minister. The king of Bhutan remains head of state while the Prime Minister acts as head of government.
In 1989, a royal decree, “driglam namzha,” rooted in 17th century guidelines, set cultural regulations for the citizens of Bhutan as well as architecture. A traditional dress code was mandated for all citizens in public during business hours. Men wear a knee length robe called a gho, and women wear a top called a wonju with a heavy folded skirt called a kira, along with a jacket called a toega.
When building fortresses (dzongs), they must comply with a traditional aesthetic of carved multicolored wood, without nails, and be built without the use of architectural plans. A high llama directs construction with spiritual inspiration to provide the dimensions. Dzongkha was also made and enforced as the official language. The stipulations of “driglam namzha” seek to encourage a distinctive Bhutanese identity and unify Bhutan culturally.
Facts About Bhutan
Some of the most incredible things about Bhutan:
- They did not have roads or cars until the 1960’s.
- Internet didn’t arrive until the late 1990’s. Bhutan was the last country to receive television in 1999.
- The capital and largest city, Thimphu, is the only capital city in the world to not have a traffic light. They tried one for 24 hours then opted for a traffic directing police man in a little booth instead.
- There are only a handful of pilots certified to land in Bhutan’s one international airport because it is so challenging to land at and requires specialized training to fly there.
- 72% of Bhutan is covered in forest at the time of this post and the government has mandated that 60% or more is required to be covered by trees by their constitution.
- Bhutan introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” to the UN in 1998. The concept is rooted in their religious principles and commitment to environmental conservation.
- Many Bhutanese are multilingual (Dzongkha, English, Nepali, Hindi, etc.) because English is taught in their schools.
- Bhutan is famous for their festivals. The country is deeply rooted in religious tradition and visiting during a festival is a great way to connect with the culture. You can check the Bhutan Events Calendar to see when they are.
- Bhutan is a place where you won’t find a Starbucks or McDonalds. Fingers crossed, hopefully we never will.
Read more about the people and the culture of Bhutan.
How to Travel to Bhutan
The most frequent question I got after my trip to Bhutan was questioning how to travel to Bhutan. You can’t just hop on a plane and go to Bhutan. Bhutan travel is limited to a packaged tour bought through a registered Bhutanese or international tour operator. You can find a comprehensive list of these licensed tour operators HERE.
As I mentioned, I chose Druk Asia and had the most incredible time. They took care of coordinating the airfare from our connecting city of Kathmandu, processed our visas, and everything went completely smoothly! The only decisions we had to make were our dates, which city we wanted to fly to Bhutan from, and which tour itinerary we wanted from their website.
Everything is fully customizable too. If you want to upgrade hotels, participate in a festival, or do some sort of activity, just ask and they can try to accommodate you.
Flights to Bhutan
There are two airline carriers serving Paro, Bhutan: Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. Collectively, these airlines connect to a number of different major cities. It’s a fabulous way to combine destinations and get two trips in one. My mom and I spent a couple days exploring Kathmandu, for example. The connection points are:
- Bangkok (BKK – Thailand)
- Delhi (DEL – India)
- Mumbai (BOM – India)
- Kolkata (CCU – India)
- Bagdogra (IXB – India)
- Gaya (GAY – India)
- Guwahati (GAU – India)
- Kathmandu (KTM – Nepal)
- Dhaka (DAC – Bangladesh)
- Changi (SIN – Singapore)
Keep in mind that flights in and out of Bhutan can be delayed due to weather and conditions. Give yourself a good amount of time between connecting flights. For fun, consider spending an extra day or more in your connecting city like we did in Kathmandu. It gave us peace of mind about flight delays and gave us the opportunity to see another amazing place. Look into connecting cities visa requirements though if you plan to do this.
There are a few land entry points into Bhutan, however they are many hours from the main tourist destinations.
Visas for Traveling to Bhutan
Visitors to Bhutan must have a visa (except for citizens of India, Bangladesh, and Maldives). Visas are only issued once you have a confirmed booked tour to Bhutan with a registered tour operator. Again, there are a lot of certified tour operators, and you can find a list HERE. I chose Druk Asia and didn’t regret it for a second. Everything was well planned out, the guide and driver were amazing, all was smooth, punctual, and perfect, to be honest.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel to Bhutan
The second most frequent question I was asked was how much does it cost to travel to Bhutan. The Royal Government of Bhutan has set the daily minimum cost to visit, which is all inclusive of tax, accommodations at 3 start hotels, meals, a licensed guide, all travel with your Bhutanese guide, and camping equipment for trekking. For those traveling in a pair or solo, there may be an additional surcharge per day. 3 or more in a group slightly reduces the price.
- $250/person/night – March, April, May, September, October, November
- $200/person/night – January, February, June, June, July, August, December
If you feel like grumbling about the daily fee, consider that this covers the Bhutanese’s free education and healthcare, as well as the country’s infrastructure, helping to keep Bhutan sustainable and traditional. I say it’s brilliant.
The only extra costs above the $250/day are:
- Airfare to Bhutan – my roundtrip flight from Kathmandu was $215 and may vary from departure location.
- Spending money for souvenirs or extra snacks if you so desire. You can ask your guides to take you to a bank to use an ATM in Paro or Thimphu. Some shops will accept credit cards but ONLY Visa!
- Tips at the end for the guide and driver (those are the only tips needed).
- Travel Insurance: World Nomads comes highly recommended by many travelers and is what I purchased for this trip.
Best Time to Visit Bhutan
Bhutan has a wide range of climates and zones from alpine to subtropical, and a big difference in elevations. Heavy summer rains (monsoon season) in Bhutan last from June to September. But fall from September to November is often clear and crisp with golden colors. I went on my Bhutan tour in mid November and it was sunny the entire time, great temperature for a light jacket or sweater, or a coat at the coldest passes.
December, January, and February are colder and often get snowfall. Spring, of course, is warm and lush with flowers blooming. If you’re visiting Bhutan to trek, spring and fall are best. If you’re doing a high altitude trek, there will still be too much snow in the spring, so stick with fall.
As mentioned before, you can save $50/person/day on Bhutan travel if you go during the low season (December, January, February, June, June, July, August). Check the weather forecast shortly before you travel in different regions to know the ranges in temperatures and pack accordingly.
What to do in Bhutan
Bhutan travel has something for just about anyone, but it is mostly appealing to the outdoor nature lovers. Even if a multi-day trek through the high mountains doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options.
From a 25 day strenuous trek through a dozen snowy mountain passes to simple day hikes, Bhutan is a place where you will WANT to have some mobility. You could still see the towns and the dzongs without putting much effort in, but you’d miss out on places like the iconic Tiger’s Nest.
The hike to the Tiger’s Nest is not as difficult as you might think. We started our hike around 8 am and were back to the car around noon. It is a climb, but if you take it slow with breaks, it’s not that hard and totally worth it. This was one of the most beautiful and spiritual places I’ve ever seen.
Additional outdoor activities Bhutan travelers can arrange are white water rafting, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, and trekking. Or perhaps you’re solely interested in Bhutan for the festivals. Most of them are to celebrate and honor the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche. Exact dates of each festival vary each year, so check the calendar when planning your visit around a particular event. EVENT CALENDAR.
Tips for Bhutan Travel
For the best views of the Himalaya mountains, sit on the left side of the plane on your way to Bhutan and on the right when departing Bhutan.
Bring motion sickness medication for days with driving on windy roads. For me, it was the first day we arrived and drove from Paro to Thimphu. Maybe I had no food in my stomach, but the drive made me incredibly nauseous.
If you’re a light sleeper, bring ear plugs because sometimes the stray dogs bark during the night. I never noticed it, but had heard that some people are bothered by it. The stray dogs in Bhutan are so sweet and in my experience, not skittish at all. I’m thinking that’s a testament to the Bhutanese’s gentle nature towards them.
Druk Asia airline actually feeds you a little snack on their short, hour long flight from Kathmandu. How cool is that?!
The airport will definitely ask for your visa for Bhutan, so make sure to print and bring the visa along. Your tour company will typically email it to you before your trip.
Bring warm clothes, but I also definitely recommend using the traditional outfits provided by the tour company. They are warm and all the locals love seeing tourists dressed up like them. I kept warm by wearing fleece leggings underneath mine.
Most hotels have decent internet.
There are multiple different outlet/plugin types used in Bhutan: C, D, F, G, and M. Super confusing. Just bring one of THESE universal ones and you’ll be good but keep in mind the voltage is different, so US hairdryers are probably a no-go.
Most everyone in Bhutan (except for the elderly or some small villages) can speak English, it’s amazing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my Bhutan Travel Guide and it’s either motivated you to add Bhutan to your bucket list, or it’s provided some insight on how to travel to Bhutan.
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