As travelers learn more about the Kingdom of Bhutan, the country finds itself atop many a travel bucket list. It’s unlike any other place on earth, and is certainly worth visiting. Its Himalayan vistas, ornate monasteries and well-preserved culture rightfully attract intrepid travelers from around the world.
However, its very uniqueness and its relative newness to the world of tourism means that Bhutan is still shrouded in a bit of mystery. Travelers often arrive without the knowledge necessary to ensure a stress-free experience. Having boarded a plane to Paro a few months back, I found myself squarely in this camp, excited by the prospect of adventure but understanding almost nothing about that it’s like to travel in Bhutan. I learned on the fly, but if I’d had the following information ahead of time, it would have transformed my entire experience.
The Facts about Flights
Paro is home to the only international airport in Bhutan. Only two airlines (Druk Air and Royal Bhutan) fly into and out of the country. What’s more, flights only depart from a select number of cities in Nepal, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Singapore. Because of these restrictions, consider booking your round-trip ticket to Bhutan first, as it may impact your other itineraries. I had to change multiple flights I’d scheduled once I realized the limitations into/out of Paro. And leave at least a four to five-hour layover in your city of departure, as you’ll have to re-check bags and pass back through security.
Visas and Guided Tours
Visiting Bhutan requires a visa costing US$250 a day, and you must travel with a guide. While this sounds expensive, the fee includes accommodation, a driver, your guide and three meals a day. Travel companies also build this fee into their trip costs, so it’s not an additional expense.
The Government of Bhutan has a good amount of control over tourism, so expect a more structured experience than you might be used to. You’ll certainly be taken to magical places: into monasteries, through valleys and up mountain passes. But it can feel a tad routine, like there’s a check-list to work through and a script being read.
Really seeing the country off the tourist trail requires some effort on your part. While many sites, particularly dzongs, are inaccessible without your guide, try to venture out on your own. It will give you an opportunity to immerse yourself in the non-touristy Bhutan: people haggling over kilos of chilies or an astrology shop selling good luck charms.
You may ask yourself, ‘In a Buddhist country with less than a million people and fewer than 100,000 cars, how much noise could there be?’ The truth is, a lot. Dogs abound, and while you may have passed a handful lazily lounging in the sunshine, they come to life at night, barking for hours on end. Earplugs won’t drown out every canine conversation, but they go a long way to ensuring a good night’s sleep.
Spice is Life
Whether you love or avoid spicy food, be warned. The food in Bhutan is hot, hot, hot. The national dish, ema datshi, is literally chilies coated in chili-infused cheese sauce. While the tourist restaurants (you are limited to very specific establishments, as approved by the government) have tailored their cuisine to foreigners’ palettes, you will always have the opportunity to taste this dish or add extra chilies. Give it a go, if you dare.
Cash is Crucial
The national currency is the ngultrum, and it’s crucial to always have some on hand. ATMs can be found in the bigger cities but are few and far between elsewhere. What’s more, the internet is unreliable, rendering credit card machines useless at times, if they’re even available. Either take out money in Thimphu or Paro, or exchange a few bills at the airport when you land. Don’t take out too much though, as it’s difficult to change Bhutanese money back into any other currency. Remember, your day-to-day expenses are already covered, so cash is mostly for souvenirs, tipping, and drinking.
*Note, the ngultrum and Indian Rupee are 1:1 so you can also use Indian currency while traveling. In fact, you might find you’re given change in rupees anyway.
Wild and Winding Roads
I’ve been on my fair share of winding passes, but nothing comes close to what you’ll find in Bhutan. The roads are mostly paved, but not without potholes, and exceptionally narrow, the width of one car yet open to two-way traffic. Add in the curves — be they hairpin, 360 degrees, or simply six in a row–and you’re in for an exciting ride. The absence of guard rails as the road runs right along a sheer cliff adds to the experience. Thank goodness the daily visa includes a driver, so you don’t have to worry about manning the roads. But, do bring motion sickness medication, just in case.
Smoking’s a No Go
The sale of tobacco is banned throughout the country, but you can BYO cigarettes. Expect to pay a tax per pack upon entering (keep the receipt to show upon departure), and be sure to ask about designated smoking areas.
In Bhutan, the arts remain very much associated with Buddhism. Because of this, most crafts are spiritual in nature. From masonry to wood carving, individuals train in a craft and take great pride in their work, understanding the cultural and historical significance of their practice. Thangkas, religious paintings on cloth, are a popular purchase, as are the intricate textiles woven by local women. But, prepare yourself for a much higher price point than in many other Asian countries.
You’ll find internet in major towns like Thimphu and Paro, but the further afield you venture, the less likely you are to find Wi-Fi. If staying connected is essential, consider buying a local SIM card to increase your chances of cell service. This can be done at the airport, where you will find two providers: B-Mobile, owned by the state, and TashiCell, a privately-owned company.
The Bhutanese proudly wear their national dress–a gho for men and kira for women–which covers almost every inch of skin. It is important for visitors to also dress conservatively, particularly when visiting dzongs or religious sites. At a minimum, cover your knees and shoulders. Pack plenty of lightweight pants and floor-length skirts, as they’ll get far more use than shorts. Leave anything spaghetti-strapped at home.
Just remember, “no shoes, no photos”: any place or time you remove footwear, you should put your camera away. More often than not, this will be inside or near a religious building or temple. But even when free to photograph, be sure to ask the person’s permission prior to snapping away, particularly if you’re right up close to them. Often nuns and monks will decline, so it is always safest to simply ask.
You’re bound to visit numerous monasteries or other religious sites during your trip, so it’s important to know the unspoken rules about circumambulation. Always, always be sure to walk around the structures in a clockwise direction. It not only shows respect for their customs but brings good luck to those who do it. It’s suggested you either make one or three revolutions, for either good thoughts, good speech, good body or all three.
As Buddhists, the Bhutanese do not believe in killing animals. There is, however, often some form of meat available at tourist restaurants. You can assume it comes from India and often contains the more grizzled bits than anything else. I, an avid meat eater, more or less avoided it while in Bhutan.
Alcohol is allowed, and quite present in Bhutan. Most hotels offer a wide variety of beverages and you’ll find people selling ara, a traditional drink made from wheat, barley, rice, millet or corn. It has quite a distinct taste but worth a try, particularly if offered by a local. The cost of alcohol, however, is not included in your daily visa, so factor consumption into your daily budget.
Unexpected Plants and Penises
Don’t be surprised to find a plethora of both marijuana and phalli throughout Bhutan. The former grows wild throughout the country, particularly in the south. Often it is used as pig food, a great way to maintain the animals’ appetite. The latter is linked to fertility and good fortune. You’ll spot them on necklaces, painted on buildings, or carved into wood, particularly in the town of Lobesa, home to a fertility temple.
Article and photos by Alison Spencer