Nestled in the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most stunning destinations that few travelers make it to. As the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, Bhutan enjoys a harmonious society, strong cultural heritage, and a varied natural scenery that ranges from lush jungles to the Himalayan mountains.
This all sounds beautiful and paradisiac, and it very well is, but there are certain things you must take into consideration before visiting Bhutan, as it is not your typical holiday destination.
Here are eight things you must know before planning your trip to Bhutan.
Westerners looking to visit Bhutan must hire a tour company to get their visas to Bhutan approved. Not only that but once you’re traveling in Bhutan, you’re not allowed to roam freely between cities. There are checkpoints between some cities where your visa is verified along with the tour company “responsible” for you.
Having said that you’re free to roam around within the city or hike trails in the surrounding areas on your own, as long as you don’t walk from one town to the other.
Yes, it is an expensive visa, but it includes everything except drinks other than water and tea. Your hotel (3 stars), transportation, guide, driver, entrance fees, and meals are all covered within those $250. Should you want more luxury and require a 4 or 5 stars hotel, you simply need to add the rate difference to the daily visa fee. On the other hand, it is not possible to downgrade to 2 or 1-star hotels should you want to pay less for your visa.
Should you be on a tight budget, you can join bigger tour groups to get a visa discount that could go as low as $200 per day. Also important to note is that if you’re traveling solo, you will have to add $40 per day to your visa fee. Unfortunately, Bhutan is not a backpacker friendly country, but even with the relatively high expenses, it is worth it.
Bhutanese eat chili for breakfast, snacks, lunch, and dinner. They believe any meal without chili pepper is an unworthy meal. If you’re into spicy food, then you’ll feel like you’re in heaven. Otherwise, if spicy food is not your thing, you can ask them to make non-spicy dishes when you have the option of ordering food, but most of your meals will be buffet style, so your food will be ready by the time you get to the restaurant.
Before going to any restaurant, your guide will ask you for any food allergies or things you don’t like. That will be a good time to tell them you don’t like spicy food so they can accommodate you to a degree.
Don’t be alarmed by Bhutan’s phallic obsession. You’ll see them painted over doorways, across walls, and even as giant sculptures. This phallic worship is a nod to the teachings of Drukpa Kunley, a revered saint who traveled the country teaching a new form of Buddhism—through sex.
There’s even a temple in the Phunaka Valley where couples looking forward to having a kid visit it to meet with the monk, pray, make an offering, and walk around the temple while holding a two-feet sized penis. It’s a local ritual for fertility.
While you can use the local currency the Ngultrum (or Nu for short), it is convenient to take US dollars for any souvenir purchase, tips, or drinks. Get whatever cash you need at the ATM at the airport as there are not a lot of ATMs in the country. The main cities do have several, though.
It is normal to pay in Nu or USD and receive Indian Rupees in return. The Nu and the Indian Rupee are paired one to one, so it is accepted almost everywhere in the country.
When planning your trip to Bhutan, take into consideration what you’d want to see and the seasons. Spring and fall are often considered the best times to visit. Winter will give you the clearest views of the snowcapped Himalayas, but sometimes, some mountainous roads are closed when there’s snowfall.
Summer, on the other hand, brings heavy rains. And even when it isn’t rainy, clouds tend to hover the sky and cover some of the best views.
Dzongs are some of the most impressive buildings in Bhutan, and you shouldn’t miss seeing them. A Dzong building is composed half of a temple and the other half of municipal offices. Make sure you have dressed appropriately, to visit their interior spaces. Proper clothing consists of long pants and long sleeve shirts/t-shirts. Jeans are acceptable as is casual clothing as long as they cover your arms and legs. Closed shoes are also required. Should you have a jacket, you're not supposed to wear it on your waist or have it unbuttoned or unzippered.
While there is a mobile network in the country, their service and coverage is still hit and miss. Some cell phone providers (from your country) might allow roaming there, but most still don’t. You should verify with your company.
Alternatively, if you want to stay connected, you can get a local SIM card for tourists. You’ll need your passport to get it. But again, the service is hit and miss and only works (mostly) in the city. Some hotels have WiFi, but it is also not that reliable.
Even though it’s a relatively expensive country that still regulates your movement through it, I believe it is worth visiting and spending as much time as you can there.
Is Bhutan on your travel bucket list?
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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