Specially crafted and updated travel guide for travelers planning to travel to Bhutan| A Must Read Travel Guide.
Are you looking for a perfect getaway to a mysterious mythical Bhutan? Are you confused where to begin? Then this travel guide to Bhutan is exactly what you need. This guide has everything you need to know about planning the perfect holiday without losing your mind.
Disclaimer: Some tips mentioned in this travel guide may not be applicable to some travelers. Travelers from India, Bangladesh or Maldives are not restricted to the “daily package tariff” and “mandatory tour operator”.
A brief account on Bhutan
Where is Bhutan?
Bhutan is a very small country in South Asia tucked cozily in the heart of the eastern Himalayas squeezed in between two of the out sized nations in the world; China in the north and India to the south. It is home to some 700,000 happy Bhutanese living in a harmony with the environment.
Bhutan is known for its pristine environment and its adoption of Gross national happiness as a factor to measure the country’s development rather than the Gross national product. Bhutan is also a leading country in terms of eco-tourism which has grasped a lot of foreign attention and some even claim that Bhutan in coming years will be the model country for eco-tourism. Bhutan’s unique culture and traditions also never failed to awe-struck any travelers who came across Bhutan. Bhutan is also celebrated for having the friendliest people in the world. Still not convinced? Don’t take my word for it but you can read more about Bhutan here.
Tourism in Bhutan
Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only few decades back after remaining in isolation for many years. Bhutan welcomed its first tourists of 300 visitors as late as in 1974 .Since then tourist arrivals have been progressively increasing with about 250,000 tourists traveling to Bhutan in 2017, which is about one third of the population of Bhutan.
Bhutan has always been mindful of the impact of mass tourism on its culture and especially on its pristine environment which is why it has efficiently come up with the policy of high impact and low volume which bring us to the tourism guidelines and policies:
Travelers must come into the country through a local tour operator/tour agency
Travelers cannot simply take flights to Bhutan and explore its wonders by themselves. You must first get in touch with an authorized Bhutan tour operator and then buy the package that seem fit for your liking and then make required payments in advance before your arrival. Your trusted tour agency will make all the required documents ready for your trip. The Bhutanese tour operator should be registered with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB).
Tip: Book directly through a local Bhutanese travel agent, save costs on commissions added on by middlemen.
Minimum daily package and tour cost
The government of Bhutan has set a minimum daily package rate for your tour which depends on your travel dates and which is inclusive of all the other elements such as accommodation, entry fees for sightseeing, a certified driver and a proficient tour guide. The rates depending on dates are as follows.
Peak tourist season: US$ 250/night per person (Mar, Apr, May, Sep, Oct, Nov)
Lean tourist season: US$ 200/night per person (Jan, Feb, Jun, Jul, Aug, Dec)
Other services Included in this rate are as following:
- 3-star accommodation on a twin-sharing basis
- All meals
- Private car with driver throughout the trip
- Private English speaking tour guide
- All entry fees to monuments, parks and festivals
- Trekking tents, cook, equipment, haulage (if going on a trekking tour)
Surcharge for FIT or small group
Individual travelers who are not huge fans of group tours or a couple just looking for a quite romantic getaway without the pressure of a family or a solo person simply wishing to embark on this journey alone visiting Bhutan are subject to a surcharge as follows on your minimum daily tariff:
- One traveller: US$ 40 per night
- Two traveller: US$ 30 per person per night
Good news! Get discounts on your tour package to Bhutan
Travelling with a group of more than 11 people or if your tour duration exceeds 8 days you are eligible for various discounts. Discounts are also available depending on your entry and exit points. Children below 12 years are also eligible for discounts. Keep that in mind when you ask your travel agent for a tour quote as not all travel agents may provide the right information about your savings.
Tip: To differentiate themselves (as they can’t do on price), tour operators may provide extras. So, feel free to ask.
How does the tour booking process work?
Choosing a tour operator
The first step of your planning phase is to get in touch with a local tour operator here in Bhutan. Which is not an easy job as everyone may get overwhelmed with a long list of strange sounding travel agents in Bhutan? Here is where we can provide our expertise as you can start by checking the list of tour agencies that is maintained by the Tourism Council of Bhutan in the tour operator directory. Then you may check their individual websites and see what packages they offer, their costing and what kind of tour they specializes in such as( adventure tour, cultural tours, trekking and hiking tours, etc) and also check what all services they provide.
Choose few from the list and try to contact them, you can probably determine the quality of their services from their response and interactions you have with them.
Found the perfect tour agent? Nope? Still confused? No problem! We can still help as we are also an authorized local travel agent in Bhutan, fairly latest and run by people with lots of individual experience in the travel sector and who are genuinely interested to provide you with the best experience possible in Bhutan.
Tip: Avoid travel agents that offer very low rates compared to the minimum package rate. Why? Because they may probably be pulling dirty tricks and breaking the law of the country which, trust me, you don’t want to be a part of.
Tour payment and visa processing
After having decided your tour agent and the type of tour you want to avail, your agent will ask you to make the payments so that they can begin to process tour tourist visa to Bhutan. Why do you need pay the full payment before arrival? You will need to make the full payment because without the payment TCB will not process your visa application. You will also be transferring the payment to TCB’s bank account and they’ll hold it until you have entered the country, completed your tour and departed the country.
Tip: Ensure you are transferring the payment to TCB’s bank account (the ultimate beneficiary will be the tour operator). Since 2017, you can also make online payment using Bank of Bhutan’s payment gateway.
The best time to travel to Bhutan
Weather in Bhutan
Bhutan experiences four seasons every year. Western and central region along the temperate climatic zone generally have warm days and cold nights during winter season and hot and humid days and cool nights during summer season. Light occasional snowfall can be expected during the winter months in the western and central region while the highlands and the mountains in the alpine region see snowfall most of the year.
Spring and fall seasons in Bhutan have the most favorable weather conditions for any outdoor activities and it is also considered the festive season time of the year.
Best time to visit for festival
The most popular festival in Bhutan is the Tshechus (masked dance festival). Tshechus are an annual religious event which is observed at large courtyard of Dzongs and where monks perform meticulously choreographed dances wearing beautifully carved and painted masks depicting pantheons of Buddhist doctrine guardians and deities. The dances are believed to invoke deities to bless the onlookers. Some of the popular Tshechus are the Thimphu Tshechu, Paro Tshechu and Punakha Drubchen.
Getting to Bhutan
Travelers can either fly to Paro International Airport or can get into the country via road through Phuntsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar. As most of the tourist attractions are in the western part of the Country, most tourists prefer to fly into the country through Paro which is only an hour drive from the capital city, Thimphu.
Flying into Bhutan
Bhutan has only one international airport in Paro which is located at exactly 90 minutes drive from the capital city, Thimphu. The Airport functions with two airlines, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. Druk Air is a government operated organization while Bhutan Airline is a private business run by the Tashi Group of companies. Both the Airlines are very well maintained and well serviced.
Druk Air’s modern Airbus A-319 and ATR plane flies to and from:
- Bangkok (Thailand)
- Delhi (India)
- Mumbai (India)
- Kolkata (India)
- Bagdogra (India)
- Gaya (India)
- Guwahati (India)
- Kathmandu (Nepal)
- Dhaka (Bangladesh)
- Changi (Singapore)
Whereas Bhutan Airlines only operate with fewer destinations like:
- Bangkok (Thailand)
- Delhi (India)
- Kolkata (India)
- Kathmandu (Nepal)
Both DrukAir and Bhutan airline offer similar airfares and services. You can either book your flight tickets directly on the respective airline’s website or you can also ask you tour agent to arrange it for you.
The Best Part of Flying to Bhutan
The landing and the taking off of the plane in itself is an amazing experience. As Bhutan is mountainous country the view of mount Jomolhari as the clouds disperse is a magical experience and especially if you are flying from New Delhi and Kathmandu to Paro, you can enjoy an amazing view of Mount Everest. You will need to manage a window seat on the left side of the plane on your flight to Paro.
Tip: If you are planning to visit Bhutan during the peak tourist season, plan and book your trip at least few months in advance as flights and hotel rooms tend to get totally booked.
Entering Bhutan by land
If you wish to combine a tour in Nepal and also India then entering into Bhutan would be much easier and cheaper by road through Bhutan’s southern Borders with India. The nearest Indian airport to Phuntsholing is the Bagdora airport at Siliguri (West Bengal, India) from where Phuntsholing town is just 4 hours away. You can also have your tour agent to pick you up from Bagdora airport and then have a spectacular 5 hours drive to Thimphu, capital of Bhutan.
Popular attraction sites to visit and things to do
Bhutan offers a wide variety of must see and must do things depending on your travel duration. If your travel duration is less than one week then a tour into the western region is recommended. The western Bhutan tour includes Paro, Thimphu (the capital of Bhutan), Haa, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang and Phobjikha.
Located at an hour drive from Paro town is the beautiful capital city Thimphu. A city of about 200,000 people, it is one of the smallest and least populated capital cities in the world and is the only capital city in the world still without a traffic light. The beauty of having no traffic light is the dancing traffic man signaling the cars and managing the traffic is something to see.
Sites to see in Thimphu: Tashichodzong(fortress), Buddha Dordenma (Buddha point), Motithang Takin reserve, Folk Heritage Musuem, Authentic Craft Bazaar, Centenary Farmer’s Market, Semtokha Dzong.
The beautiful valley of Phobjikha is home to the endangered black necked cranes. The cranes are attracted to this spectacular land for its enormous marshy land spread in the center of the valley which remains protected for these migratory seasonal birds. The birds fly to the valley from Tibet every winter and flies back in early spring. The picturesque valley is a perfect place to get away from the fast forwarded world and find some inner peace and also spend some quality time to do some soul searching.
Places to visit and things to do in Phobjikha: Gangtey Monastery, Gangtey Nature Trail, Black Necked Crane Information Center, Local community in Gangtey
Set in a beautiful open valley and enclosed by mountains is the Paro valley. Paro is also home to the only international airport in Bhutan. The highlight of the Paro tour is the cliff hugging breathtaking Paro Taktshang (tiger’s nest).
Popular sites to visit in Paro: Paro Taktshang (includes a 3 hour hike), Drukgyel Dzong, Tamchog Lhakhang, Paro Rinpung Dzong.
Central, Eastern and Southern Bhutan
If you plan to explore Bhutan for a longer stretch, then you should visit parts of central and eastern and southern parts of Bhutan like Bumthang, Trongsa, Tashigang and Tashiyangtse and Zhemgang.
Hotels and accommodations in Bhutan
Your accommodation is more likely to be selected and arranged by your tour operator as a part of your inclusive packaged rate. It is mandated by TCB that a 3 star rated accommodation to be arranged by any tour operator so nothing to Worry about there but if you wish to upgrade to a higher rated luxury hotel then extra cost may be applicable.
However if you wish to have a quite humble stay at a farm house, your tour operator will arrange it for you.
Classic Luxury accommodations
Bhutan boasts of high end luxury hotels and resorts which generally cost around $300+ per night. The ones worth your every penny are Aman Resorts (Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang), Uma (Paro, Punakha), Taj Tashi (Thimphu), and Le-meridian (Thimphu) and Zhiwaling in Paro. If you would like to stay at these properties, you can have your tour operator arrange it for you and extra cost are applicable.
Typical 3-star hotel
A typical 3-star hotel will have the following amenities:
- Spotless rooms with windows, proper ventilation, clean and sanitized sheets, towel, blanket, etc.
- Comfortable mattresses
- Bathrooms with installed shower and toilet
- 24 hours of running water and access to hot water
- Internal heating systems
- Daily house keeping
Home stays in Bhutan
Apart from the overrated wi-fi connected robotic hotels, you can also choose to spend a night or two with a local family at a farm house. After all what is a Bhutan tour without a little mix of authentic Bhutanese experience with the locals. Staying at a farm house will provide you with a true experience with a real Bhutanese family. Don’t worry you won’t be invading their private space as they are generally friendly people and even warmer hosts. You can even experience authentic Bhutanese cuisine first hand straight from the mother’s hand (nothing like mother’s warm food). During the day, you could watch or partake in the daily village life in Bhutan or ramble through the villages or even engage in a local archery game. You’d be glad to know that all farm stays are inspected and certified by the Tourism Council of Bhutan, and are equipped with all basic amenities for a comfortable stay. Paro, Haa and Punakha offer a lot of farm-stay experiences.
Tip: It is in your best interest to decide and let your travel agent know about your choice of accommodation in advance during your tour booking process.
Red rice, chillies and butter tea is the basic overview of Bhutanese food. Bhutanese eat rice in their every meal. Another local favorite is the “Ema Datshi” which literally translates to chillies and cheese. Bhutanese like their Ema Datshi very hot and spicy. You must try Ema Datshi when you are in Bhutan but you can have a less hot version of it, just ask your cooks to tone down the hotness for you.
If Bhutanese food does not impress you then you can also choose to have international cuisine which the hundreds of restaurants in Bhutan offer.
Your all inclusive tour package already includes the cost of all meals during your entire tour. You’ll be eating your breakfast most likely at the hotel that you are staying whereas the lunch and dinner will be arranged at different restaurants which are TCB certified restaurants and will most likely be set meals or buffets. However, at any point of your trip if you wish to have a fine dining experience at an expensive high end luxury resorts/restaurants. You will be asked to bear the bill yourself.
Tip: You must mention your dietary preferences to your travel agent at the time of tour booking so that they can provide you with better dining experience.
Ground Transportation in Bhutan
You will be traveling through Bhutan by car. A comfortable well serviced car and a certified driver will be arranged for you which are a part of your all inclusive packaged rate deal. The type of vehicle will depend on the size of your tour group;
Roads in Bhutan
You will experience the drive of your life through Bhutan’s winding twisty roads that climb up on mountains and come down in valleys through villages. If you do not fall asleep through the journey, you’ll be pleased to see the beautiful sceneries, waving trees and spectacular landscapes.
Tip: pop some motion sickness pills if you are prone to getting car sick. These twisty roads are mean sometimes.
Since 2015, you can choose to take a helicopter sightseeing tour in Bhutan. These tours range from 30 minutes to 2 hours and can fly 6 passengers at a time. You will be able to fly over Paro valley, Taktsang, Drukgyel Dzong and also view a glimpse of Mt. Jomolhari. (Note: extra charges apply for this tours, it starts from US$ 1,500)
The helicopters are operated by Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Ltd. (a state owned enterprise) and the aircrafts were bought brand new in 2015, piloted by certified international pilots.
Phone and internet
SIM cards and phone network coverage
The two mobile operators in Bhutan, B-mobile and TashiCell offer good phone network coverage and connectivity inside Bhutan. They provide decent LTE data speeds and both the service providers offer tourist sim cards. To use their service, ensure your phone is compatible with the following specifications:
- B-Mobile: LTE Band 3 (1800Mhz)
- TashiCell: LTE Band 28 (700Mhz)
If your tour includes trekking in the mountains, there is limited or no mobile network coverage during the time of the trek but your tour operator should have a satellite phone which can be used in terms of emergencies.
Internet and Wi-fi
Almost all hotels in Bhutan offer Wi-fi to their guests, however some hotels have limited it just to their lobby area.
Tipping culture in Bhutan
Tipping is still fairly a new culture in Bhutan and it is not really mandatory and you need not tip at restaurants as they already charge a certain amount of service tax on the cost. If your guide and driver go out of their way to make your trip a memorable one then you can tip them as gesture of gratitude.
We will be updating this guide as and when we have new information.