Bhutan is a destination that flies under the radar a lot when it comes to travelling in Asia. Even though it is open for tourism, the Buddhist kingdom feels remote and out of reach. Known for its monasteries, dzongs and dramatic landscapes, travelling in Bhutan is still considered off the beaten path, and far from your typical holiday destination. If you’re intrigued and want to find out more, read on to find out more about travelling in Bhutan!
1. You have to go with a tour group
Unless you’re from India, Bangladesh or Maldives, it is not possible to travel independently in Bhutan. All other visitors need to travel with a tour guide, and tourism is very carefully managed here. We know many people will shudder at the thought of a guided tour, but this is because the kingdom is acutely aware of the environmental impacts mass tourism can have on its unique landscape and culture. Bhutan is also a destination where having a local guide really adds to your travel experience. They are there to share stories and help you connect with locals along the way, which is essential in understanding Bhutan’s culture. In some ways, you are also travelling for a good cause, as 30% of money from tourism goes towards the ‘Sustainable Development Fee’, which provides free healthcare, education and infrastructure for local Bhutanese.
2. You need a visa
Everyone traveling to Bhutan will need to obtain a visa in advance, except for nationals of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Citizens of these countries must still pay a Sustainable Development Fee of US$17 per day. For other nationals, the Sustainable Development Fee is US$65 per day and it is included in the ‘Minimum Daily Package’ rate (we’ll talk more about this next!) The visa itself costs US$40 and it must be applied and paid for in advance through registered tour operators. You should make your travel arrangements at least 90 days prior to travelling in Bhutan, so that there’s enough time for all paperwork to be completed.
3. There is a ‘minimum spend’
Travelling in Bhutan can be quite a costly affair. Since the focus here is on high quality tourism, a ‘Minimum Daily Package’ applies in order to filter out budget travelers, minimize high volume tourism and protect the environment. The Minimum Daily Package is essentially the minimum price of tours. This is set by the government and can’t be negotiated. Prices vary according to season and number of people in a group.
High Season: March, April, May, September, October, and November
- US$250 per person per day, for a group of three or more
- US$280 per person per day, for a group of two people
- US$290 per day for single individuals
Low Season: January, February, June, July, August, and December
- US$200 per person per day, for a group of three or more
- US$230 per person per day, for a group of two people
- US$240 per day for single individuals
The price includes a minimum of three-star accommodations (four and five-star may require additional payment), meals, ground transport, guides, and cultural programs. From it, US$65 per day also goes towards the Sustainable Development Fee.
4. You can customize your trip
Even though you need to travel with a tour guide, it is possible to go anywhere in the country. It just has to be arranged beforehand in order to get the appropriate zone travel permits, especially if you want to travel to a special zone. You can also change your plans during your trip, but try to avoid making last-minute changes. For one, you will incur some extra costs like hotel cancellation fees, and it will also take time for your guide to rearrange everything and apply for zone permits.
5. Prepare for the altitude
The altitude in Bhutan is higher than what most people are used to. Paro, where all flights into Bhutan arrive, is at an altitude of 2,200 metres. Many treks in Bhutan can also go 4,000 metres above sea level. This makes for great views, but can also cause altitude sickness if you’re not acclimatized. If you have concerns about experiencing altitude sickness while travelling in Bhutan, definitely check with your doctor for a prescription like Diamox.
6. Pack proper clothes
Bhutan’s traditional costume is a robe known as kho for men, and a shirt and wrap called kira for women. You’ll see many people wearing them, even in the capital. Foreign tourists aren’t expected to wear local clothes, but that doesn’t mean you can wear anything! Bhutan is relatively conservative and tank tops and shorts are definitely not a common sight.
Dzongs are fortresses and monasteries and there are official dress codes to enter. Visitors must wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants 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.
7. No photos if your shoes are off
The landscape in Bhutan is stunning and you’ll want to take photos at every turn. An easy to remember if it’s appropriate to snap a photo is if your shoes are on, then feel free to snap away. If they’re off, then you should just capture the memory in your mind. If you need to remove your shoes, it usually means that you’re in a sacred area where it would be inappropriate to take photos.
8. Bhutanese food is spicy
We hope you like spice, because Bhutanese food is spicy. In fact, its national dish, ema datshi, is chilis and cheese. Bhutanese people cook and eat chilies like they’re any other vegetable. If you can’t take spice, that’s okay too because tourist restaurants are able to adjust the spice level to the foreign palate. Your guide will ask you on the first day about any dietary restrictions or allergies that you may have. This would be a good time to let him know if you can’t take spicy food!
9. You’ll see lots of phallic art
Don’t be alarmed by Bhutan’s phallic obsession, as it’s part of their culture and religion! You’ll see lots of phallic art around – painted on doorways, on the walls, and even as giant sculptures and souvenirs. The history of these phallic symbols can generally be traced to Drukpa Kunley. You will learn more about him, his teachings and how they came to be part of Bhutan’s Buddhism during your trip. The belief that the symbol brings good luck and drives away evil spirits is ingrained in the common Bhutan people. There’s even a temple, Chimi Lhakhang, where couples trying to have a kid will visit to seek blessings. Women with fertility problems will make three rounds around the temple while holding a wooden penis close to their chest. Talk about a unique ritual for fertility!