(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Bhutan!The Big Bhutan FAQ
“I want to go to Bhutan!”
Often touted as “the Last Shangri-La,” Bhutan sometimes seems shrouded in mystery. We’re here to clear up any questions you have before planning your Bhutan vacation!
Why is it so expensive to visit Bhutan?
On the surface, Bhutan seems like an expensive place to visit. In the off-season (June, July, August, December, January and February) it costs $200 USD per person, per day, and during the rest of the year (March, April, May, September, October and November) it costs $250 USD per person, per day for groups of three or more. There may also be an additional charge for a group of fewer than three people. For groups of two, it costs $280 USD per person, per day; a solo traveler is $290 USD per day.
But remember that this is ALL-inclusive: this fee includes 3-star hotel accommodations, a private guide, a private driver, entrance fees to sites, and all meals (including tea and coffee). While it’s more than you would spend on an independent trip to nearby India or Nepal, but it’s not a bad deal considering all that is included in that fee.
What important is to understand the philosophy behind the mandatory minimum, in that it creates a high-value/low-impact tourist destination. This developing country with a low GDP gets as much money as possible from tourism without the impact that tourists often cause. This said, Indian and Bangladeshi nationals do not have to pay that minimum charge and pay the hotels and restaurants directly, but many Bhutan nationals would like to see this policy change.
Can I visit Bhutan independently?
You cannot visit without purchasing a pre-arranged package. You can travel on your own with a completely private vehicle and guide (meaning you don’t have to be part of a group). And when you’re on your private tour, whether in your private vehicle or on your private hiking tour, you will enjoy flexibility and independence, although you will always have a guide with you [unless you’re from India or Bangladesh].
When is the best time to go to Bhutan?
Bhutan can and should be visited year-round. Though even in the busy seasons it is not terribly crowded with tourists, there are even fewer tourists in the off-peak seasons. My favorite time of year was June, although you aren’t able to see as many mountain peaks as during the cooler months from October until late May.
What are the passport and visa requirements or Bhutan?
All visitors require a passport, valid for at least 6 months longer than their journey, and an entry visa for Bhutan which must be pre-approved prior to your arrival. Your Bhutan visa will be arranged by your tour company and all they usually need is a quality scan (or photo) of your passport photo page. Please be sure you carry the same passport that you submitted for your Bhutan visa or you will be denied entry.
Bhutan visas generally cost $40USD but are sometimes built in to your travel package. A visa authority letter is issued after prepayment for your travel arrangements and the actual visa is entered into your passport on arrival at Paro Airport.
If traveling to India and Nepal please note visas are also required, though both countries now offer visa on arrival (VOA)
What are hotel accommodations like?
Most visitors to Bhutan take the standard tourist tour package which includes Bhutanese style 3-star hotel accommodation with private bathroom. In order for you to get the best from your Bhutan experience we urge you to consider the following points. Please don’t expect your hotel to be any more than a basic 3 star property, and you won’t be disappointed. Rooms with double beds are somewhat rare. We can request one for you but please expect twin beds in many hotel rooms. All hotels offer private bathrooms, however the hot water supply can be ‘erratic’ in some valleys in Bhutan.
Farm-stay accommodation offers shared western style toilet and very limited washing facilities (no showers!) and we do recommend you carry a hand towel with you on farm stays as towels are not always available.
It is possible to stay in very luxurious 4 and 5 star hotels, however; we can work with you to determine the level of luxury you’d enjoy on this trip!
Is there Internet & wifi in Bhutan? Can I get a SIM card in Bhutan?
Most hotels have wifi, even if only in the lobby area or business center. There are also often computers for use by guests. Some remote areas outside of western Bhutan have sparse Internet, if at all.
You can purchase a local SIM card that would give you connectivity outside the hotels when you’re in town and such, but most people don’t find that necessary for a short trip. Bhutanese SIM cards are available from a SIM counter located in the post office (to the right of the terminal exit door) at Paro Airport. Here you can purchase and get assistance for activating your new SIM cards in your devices as it is often necessary to call the local Telco HELP line for SIM activation. The cost for the SIM is approximately US$2.00 plus call credits.
What is it like arriving into Paro Airport?
When you check in at the airport starting in Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi, or Kathmandu you must show your approved visa for Bhutan (that has been sent to you via email). When you arrive into Paro airport, all visitors are now required to provide fingerprints and a facial image. It’s a smooth process and you’ll get through quickly. You’ll then collect your baggage and run it through an X-ray scanner before walking outside to look for a sign with your name on it. It’s all a very easy process.
What is food like in Bhutan?
The typical Bhutanese person will eat rice, chillies and vegetables three times per day. Along with that they often have beef, poultry, and some dairy. Ema datshi (chillies and a mild cheese, seen below) is the national dish and prepared differently wherever you go. It’s spicy and is typically eaten every single day. Some say you haven’t really visited Bhutan unless you try it. Have your guide ask for it at your hotel or restaurant as it may not be served with your meals as it’s too spicy for many visitors.
Butter tea (suja or solza) is served on all social occasions. Chang (a local beer) and Arra (or Arak) is a clear alcohol distilled from various grains. Here is a good article about Bhutanese food (and culture) from my friend and well-loved food blogger Mark Wiens (and here is another of his articles about food in Bhutan).
The typical tourist class hotel serves a western style breakfast and quasi-Bhutanese style lunches and dinners (which are adjusted slightly for the western palette). Some hotels and restaurants, however, forego Bhutanese cuisine entirely for a more international fare. I happen to think that’s a shame as Bhutanese food is quite good!
While you are eating it will be rare that your guide or driver will eat with you. If you ask them to join you (sometimes you have to press the issue) they will join. Otherwise they’ll eat in a back room with the other drivers and guides at the hotel or restaurant.
How much do drinks cost in Bhutan?
As mentioned, any tour to Bhutan will not include drinks (beyond tea and sometimes coffee). Here are approximate costs in US$ at standard 3-star hotels for various beverages.
- Large bottle of Mineral Water………………………………. US$0.75
- Local beers …………….……………………….……………..US$2.50-2.75
- Imported Beer………………………………………………… US $2.50-3.50
- Bottle of imported red and white wines……………………. US$35-40.00
- Bottle of local or Indian wine ……………………….………..US$10-15.00
Tuesdays have been declared ‘dry days’, as in alcohol free, by the Bhutanese Govt. Although highly unpopular and, outside of the capital Thimphu, rarely adhered to it is important you are aware of this and that local bars, including your hotel bar, may well be closed on a Tuesday. We recommend you prepare in advance as you may only be permitted to consume alcohol in your hotel room on Tuesdays.
Can I take photos in a monastery?
Some dzongs and monasteries (lhakhangs) are not open for visits by tourists so that the monks can continue their practices without interruption. Parts of many monasteries and temples do not allow photography. Please be sensitive to never disturb someone while taking their photo and be sure never to take someone’s photograph without them acknowledging that it’s OK (usually just a nod–which most people will give you).
Are there stray dogs in Bhutan?
There are a LOT of street (stray) dogs in Bhutan. On the whole, they appear healthy and many have notches in their ear to indicate they have been spayed or neutered. It is extremely rare that they are aggressive and most won’t pay you much attention. They can often be noisy at night–especially in downtown Thimphu. You might want to bring earplugs if it’s bothersome. Rabies does exist throughout the sub-continent; if you intend to do any volunteering or playing with the dogs it is recommended to get a rabies vaccination.
What personal security issues should I be aware of? Is Bhutan safe?
Bhutan remains an extremely safe destination with an exceptionally low risk of theft or harassment. However we do recommend you keep all cash & valuables either on your person or in your vehicle where they will be safely managed by your driver whom you can trust implicitly. Please do not leave cash or valuables on display in hotel rooms.
What are the road conditions like?
Many sections of Bhutan’s windy roads are currently undergoing widening or repair. Road closures of up to 3+ hours are not uncommon. As a result your driver & guide will suggest best times for road travel to suit the conditions on the day.
What are some words in Dzongkha (Bhutanese language)?
Here are a few basic phrases to help you along the way. Your guide, along with most Bhutanese up to around 40 years of age will speak English very well.
Kuzuzangpo La – Respected Greetings.
Tashi Delek – May all good things come to you. (use this as a farewell)
Kardenche La – Thank you.
Goempa – Meditation Centre.
Lhakhang – Temple.
Chapsa – Toilet.
Chuu – Water.
Bang Chhang – Beer.
Here is a video with some clear pronounciations of some Dzongka phrases.
What is trekking like in Bhutan?
You can trek most of the year (except mid June to late September when it is too wet) and treks range from 2 to 12 days with varying degrees of difficulty. Guides, horses, horsemen & a cook accompany and support trekking groups. Campsites are set up in advance and trekkers enjoy the magnificent scenery & culture with only a daypack to carry. Binoculars, camera, sunscreen, insect repellent (in summer), sunglasses, lip balm, a good pair of walking boots and warm clothing are essential. Winter trekking is kept to the lower altitudes in the valleys. Many treks take you to high altitudes and the air is thin. Altitude sickness is possible and should be taken into account when planning your itinerary. Many companies require that you bring your own sleeping bag and pad, so be sure to clarify that with your tour operator.
What are typical Bhutan cancellation charges?
The Drukair / Bhutan Airlines air flight component of your tour package will be totally non-refundable once tickets are issued soon after your deposit is paid. Your Bhutan land arrangements are subject to the cancellation fees dependent on the provider. Travel insurance should be purchased no later than the day you pay your deposit for your protection. We use and can strongly recommend World Nomads.
Do I need travel insurance?
It is mandatory for all visitors to Bhutan to hold a valid comprehensive travel insurance policy in order to be granted a visa. We recommend that you have your travel insurance in place at the time of paying your Bhutan travel deposit for your protection. Lauren and I use and can recommend World Nomads. For most activities (including trekking) you will only need the Standard Plan at World Nomads. But please check the activities you will be doing and verify that you will be covered with the Standard Plan. Otherwise you will require the Explorer Plan (which we like anyway due to the increased limits). You can check your rates in the box below.
Thinking About a Bhutan Adventure?
Have a look around this FAQ… We love Bhutan and we have a feeling you might, too.
What are the main health issues that I should be aware of?
We recommend all travelers visiting developing nations to have hepatitis A vaccinations and be up to date on tetanus and childhood vaccinations. There are hospitals and clinics in Bhutan, but for serious emergencies you would need to be evacuated to Delhi, Bangkok or Singapore. Please be sure you have travel insurance. We have and can recommend World Nomads.
Will I get altitude sickness or AMS in Bhutan?
We recommend arriving to Bhutan three days before starting trekking or climbing unless you are at least moderately fit and do not suffer from any lung related condition such as asthma. As a precaution we suggest those in the high-risk category and/or those undertaking high altitude trekking carry Diamox as the Bhutan trekking crews rarely carry such medication. If you suffer from altitude sickness please descend as quickly as possible and drink plenty of fluids. Diamox (Acetazolamide) may be combined with Ibuprofen and after initial treatment symptoms may last for a few days.
Will I get motion sickness?
Bhutan’s roads are very windy and can induce motion sickness. We recommend bringing dramamine (Dimenhydrinate) as a precaution. In our experience most people who believe they have altitude sickness actually suffer from motion sickness.
What are the duty-free allowances?
The following are the allowances per person when entering Bhutan:
- 1 liter bottle of spirits or wine (rigidly enforced)
- 250 mls of perfume
- 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250grams tobacco ** A 200% duty fee will apply to bring cigarettes and tobacco products into Bhutan. If you do not have your receipt, you will not be able to bring it into Bhutan.
- Currency – no restriction
- Gifts/Souvenirs – no restriction
Can I smoke cigarettes in Bhutan?
It is forbidden to sell or purchase cigarettes or tobacco products in Bhutan. It is, however, not forbidden to smoke in appropriate areas. You may carry a small supply for personal use. Please note a 200% duty applies to all imported tobacco products and you must show a valid receipt of purchase to avoid confiscation.
Throughout Thimphu, Paro and an increasing number of other destinations there are ATMs where you can withdraw money in Ngultrums (aka Nu). The Ngultrum is pegged exactly to the Indian rupee so Indian rupees are often also used (though it is illegal to use Indian 500 & 1000 rupee notes). The US Dollar (USD) is also widely used and accepted by everyone. Many prices at tourist locations and shops are priced in USD. We recommend taking USD in many denominations (especially lower denominations for small purchases). Credit cards are increasingly being accepted if you have a larger purchase (like a nice souvenir), but beware that they may charge several percent (3-7%) on top of your purchase to account for the fees that the credit card companies will charge that vendor.
The major banks now have ATMs and you can withdraw local currency via Visa & MasterCard credit & debit cards & Cirrus/Maestro endorsed bank debit cards. The ATMs do not always work and usually you’ll only be able to draw at small amounts in any single transaction, so back up cash in USD or Indian Rupees is advisable.
Here are some useful tips on currency & credit cards.
- Consider a budget of US$30 per person per day to cover tips, drinks & handicrafts.
- US$100 bills do receive a better exchange rate at local banks.
- US dollar bills issued before 2000 will often NOT be accepted!
- If taking in Indian Rupees please note 500 or 1000 rupee notes are not accepted.
- ATM machines are now available for use by visitors in western & central Bhutan.
- ATMs generally only offer small sums (around $100-200USD)
- You may need to try different banks ATMs to accept your card.
- It is best to obtain some Bhutanese Nu from the Paro airport ATM (right of exit door).
- ATMs accept Visa & MasterCard (debit & credit).
- Traveler’s Cheques (Amex) are accepted, but we don’t recommend bringing them as the exchange rate isn’t very good.
- Visa, MasterCard & American Express are now frequently accepted in the larger handicraft shops and in most hotels. When using your credit card please ask the merchant if there is a fee surcharge (usually 3-7%).
How much should I tip in Bhutan?
For people that carry your bags (porters and such at hotels) 50¢ is acceptable or up to $1 if they go really out of their way.
More importantly, for your driver and guide (whom you will be with the entire time), we suggest that you give them:
- 1-2 people in your group: $8-10/person/day for your guide and $5-7/person/day for your driver
- 3-8 people in your group: $6-8/person/day for your guide and $3-5/person/day for your driver
- 8-16 people in your group: $4-6/person/day for your guide and $3-5/person/day for your driver
- If your tour is more than 8 days, you can lower than rate a little.
Tipping When Trekking:
At the end of each structured trek component of your stay in Bhutan (not applicable to day hikes) you will also need to tip your trekking cook(s) and horsemen. Your trekking guide will normally be your guide throughout your entire journey so wait and tip guide and driver at the end of your stay in Bhutan using the formula in the previous page.
Recommendations for tipping trekking crew: These figures below are the total tips to be offered and not per person. You can arrange to pay these tips via your trekking guide who will assist with this process.
Private treks of 5 trekkers or less:
Treks of 4 nights or less: Total US$100 to the 2 cooks & total US$80 to the 2+ horsemen.
Treks of 5 nights plus: Total US$150 to the 2 cooks & total US$100 to the 2+ horsemen.
Group Treks of 6 trekkers or more:
Treks of 4 nights or less: Total US$150 to the 2 cooks & total US$120 to the 4 horsemen.
Treks of 5 nights plus: Total US$200 to the cooks & total US$200 to the 4+ horsemen.
Please note that you should pay each individual directly and in either USD or Ngultrum
What will the weather be like?
It rarely gets terribly cold and certainly doesn’t get terribly hot. The only months where there is considerable rainfall is in mid-June through early September. For the cooler times of year, the hotels have space heaters for your room. There is rarely need for air-conditioning though a few hotels have it.
What should I pack?
Well, if you’re from Bhutan, there is a national dress code for anyone that is working at any office or in tourism (photos here, and yes, everyone wears it except after work or at home). Luckily for you, however, it’s a little less strict! We recommend casual travel wear, but nothing too revealing (like spaghetti straps or short shorts). Pack warmer clothes for the evenings (pretty much year-round) and probably a 2nd pair of shoes for wearing around your hotel.
Dress Code for Entering Dzongs & Monasteries:
It’s not agreed upon by everyone, but you can use the following guidelines to help you in your planning. We recommend you discuss each day’s visits with your guide to reconfirm appropriate attire.
- Please wear shirts with collars, long or short sleeved.
- Women can wear a pashmina or scarf in lieu to cover neck & shoulders.
- Full long pants or long skirts – ankles must be covered.
- No hats, umbrellas, t-shirts without collars, knee length/short skirts, ¾ length (capri) pants or shorts.
- It is safer to dress up in “Smart Casual” and avoid short pants, skirts, tank tops, etc.
In many religious sites you will be required to remove your shoes. Take thick long socks to cover your ankles which you will appreciate on the often cold stone floors.
What type of electricity is available in Bhutan?
Bhutan operates on 230 volts, 50 cycles AC system, which is generally reliable, although power outages can occur. The standard socket is the Indian-style round pin socket. We always suggest bringing a universal plug adaptor (or this one with USB outlets). Please know that any plug often fits into the sockets loosely. Sometimes you may find the need to prop it up to stay inside the socket.
What is shopping like?
The best weavings and textiles will generally be Bhutanese and be quite expensive as they are top quality. For general trinkets and handicrafts the best place to buy price-wise is from the traders at the beginning of the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)–though we suggest you purchase them on your way out and not on the climb up. Some handicrafts sold in Bhutan originate from Nepal.
Both Paro and Thimphu main streets offer excellent shopping and inexpensive local jewelery. There is a new Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu city whose products are all made on site and quite exquisite.
Can I buy antiques in Bhutan?
Please be aware that purchasing and exporting (or carrying out) genuine antiques is forbidden. For better or worse, you can usually rest-assured that almost anything you see is not an authentic antique.
How do I bargain in Bhutan?
Bargaining in Bhutan is not as common or necessary as in nearby India or Nepal. Many shops have fixed prices. If you visit a table in the market or on the street (or many of the shops on the main streets in Thimphu and Paro) you can certainly bargain, but it should be done in a friendly manner and with a smile.
What gifts can we take for the local children?
Don’t do it… The Bhutanese government discourages gifts of any kind to children to avoid promoting the practice of begging. Gifts to a teacher of school supplies or oral hygiene kits or money is fine.
Should I bring hiking poles?
If you wish to use a quality hiking pole please take one from your home country. Hiking poles available in Bhutan are made from branches collected in the forest. These are one of the very lightest options for trekking poles and fold to the smallest size available; they are very highly rated and will easily fit inside your luggage.
Will I see wildlife in Bhutan?
Despite a plethora of National Parks and wildlife refuges spotting wildlife in Bhutan is a matter of good luck! There are no roads into National Parks and no eco-tourism ventures allowing good access to wildlife areas. Trekkers have the best opportunity to spot wildlife (such as deer, mountain goats, and occasionally monkeys); langur monkeys & yaks can be seen from the main road throughout much of Bhutan. Bird life is common and if you’re very lucky a leopard, bear or tiger is spotted. We urge you not to bank on wildlife encounters on your Bhutan visit.
Are you Ready for your Bhutan Adventure Now?
We love Bhutan and we have a feeling you might, too. We’d love to help you plan your trip!