Shrouded in mystery, Bhutan is one location to which not many tourists have had the pleasure to travel. So where exactly is Bhutan, anyway? Located high in the beautiful peaks of the Himalayas, Bhutan, which is officially referred to as the Kingdom of Bhutan, is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world. As you might expect, not only does Bhutan have a strong cultural heritage, but it also has stunning scenery that ranges from the Himalayan mountains to the lush jungles in the south. So what do you need to know to get ready for your trip to Bhutan? Read below to find out!
All nationalities — other than Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians — are required to have a visa to enter Bhutan. Bhutan is not your regular backpacking mecca, like Thailand or India, which allow tourists to venture in alone or without official tour groups. In fact, if you aren’t from the three countries mentioned above, you need to travel Bhutan with a tour company (who will help you obtain that visa, as well). See point number 2 for more details on tour groups!
2. Tour Company
If you want to visit Bhutan (and you aren’t from one of the countries mentioned in point number 1), you must go with a tour company. In other words, it is not possible to travel independently to Bhutan.
That is not to say you cannot roam around the city on your own or hike on your own; you just can’t travel on your own between cities. The advantage of a tour company is that they will take care of the logistics, allowing you to have a worry-free trip.
3. Visa Cost
So what does the visa cost for a trip to Bhutan? Perhaps the visa costs are one reason that not too many tourists frequent this country. The cost is approximately $250 per day and includes everything in your tour: hotels, private transportation, guide, driver, entrance fees, meals, and tea and water.
As one guide put it, the reason for this cost is the focus on quality tourism. The high cost is also a way to limit the number of people coming into the country and help protect the environment, in turn allowing the travelers to experience a more “pristine” environment.
Another interesting fact is that $65 of the $250 is a Royal Fee used by the government to fund the country’s health and education system. So, traveling to Bhutan also means directly empowering and contributing to the country’s health and education system, thus “giving” to the destination versus just “taking” from it. If you are tight on budget, there is also the possibility to join tour groups, instead of a private tour. This might decrease your visa cost to as low as $200 per day.
4. How to travel to Bhutan
Most of you will be flying in to Bhutan’s international airport in Paro, an hour away from the capital city of Thimphu. Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines are the two airlines that fly into Bhutan from nearby countries such as Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
5. Where to stay in Bhutan
You can stay in hotels and homestays when visiting Bhutan. No matter where you stay, you will still need to pay the visa’s full price. Farmhouses in the countryside are homestays where you will get the unique experience to stay and eat with local families.
When you’re trekking in this region, camping is also a great experience. These camping treks include a cook, horses for your “baggage,” and a guide. If you’re not hiking, you can still camp but with the luxury of a hotel room.
6. What to eat in Bhutan
So what do people in Bhutan eat? Well, first of all, Bhutan is known for its spicy food, but if you’d prefer, you can ask for dishes that aren’t quite so hot. Since you will have a guide from the beginning of your trip, you can convey any specific food instructions to him or her. Meals are mostly offered in buffet style. The national dish in Bhutan is ema datse, a spicy curry of farmer’s cheese paired with red rice, and ezay salsa (another popular dish) is a topping made from dried chillies.
7. Currency in Bhutan
Ngultrum is the local currency, although US dollars can be used to purchase souvenirs. There are not a lot of ATMS in the country, so you’ll need to be sure to withdraw cash from the airport ATM. Since your tour covers everything, you only need cash for souvenirs and other miscellaneous purchases. Note that if you do pay in local currency, you might also receive change back in Indian Rupees. Since both currencies are paired one to one, the Rupees is accepted everywhere.
8. What to wear in Bhutan
When visiting a monastery in Bhutan, you won’t be allowed inside unless you are wearing long pants and long sleeve tops. You also need to wear closed-toe footwear. Wearing hats inside a monastery is also a sign of disrespect.
For women, loose pants and skirts are appropriate, but you should try to avoid low-cut tops and sleeveless shirts. Very short or tight clothes are considered inappropriate. Check the weather during your visit but depending on when you’re traveling to Bhutan, you may need a warm jacket, good leather or waterproof fabric boots, a waterproof jacket, a warm hat, and sunscreen. Gloves and thermal wear are recommended if you are going in winter. If you’re going on a trek, make sure you have a backpack, head lamp, insect repellent, and good walking shoes.
It’s time to hike your way across Bhutan, visit the country’s cultural sites, and befriend its beautiful people. To begin planning your trip, check our our Bhutan trip page.
Written by Preethi Chandrasekhar.