For many, the kingdom of Bhutan is a land shrouded in mystery -- after all, it is one of the least-visited countries in the world. This is mostly intentional, as its government had for a very long time purposely sheltered the country from the rest of the world. Bhutan is now slowly opening up its doors to visitors, but remains cautious, with a minimum daily fee and strict regulations as to how tourists can visit the country. Actually, going with an organized tour may be your only chance to see Bhutan.
There is a very good reason for this. Bhutan has no intention of letting development overrun its natural resources and dilute its culture, making it one of the best examples of sustainable tourism in the world. For those who decide to take this opportunity, the Dragon Kingdom never disappoints.
Historic palaces and long-standing monasteries cradled within dramatic mountain landscapes, vibrant cultural festivals, and some of the most jaw-dropping trekking available in the world all combine to make a visit to Bhutan an unforgettable experience.
The most famous image associated with Bhutan is that of a beautiful Buddhist monastery, precariously perched on a cliffside, surrounded by the Himalayan mountains and forests. The Taktshang Goemba is the most iconic of these, the visit involving a steep hike up a mountain to get some truly spectacular views. Nearby, the temple of Kyichu Lhakhang is another example of traditional Bhutanese architecture and the Buddhist way of life that is still predominant in the country.
Along with the holy buildings, Bhutan’s administrative palaces -- called dzong -- are another key attraction. Trongsa Dzong and Punakha Dzong are the largest examples of this sort of structure in the country, both filled with the history of the kingdom of Bhutan and its rulers. Tours will be sure to take you to a few examples of these amazing cultural points of interest.
One of the main appeals of traveling to Bhutan is the opportunity for breathtaking treks across the Himalayan landscape. The Druk Path trek is the most popular with visitors, connecting the city of Paro to the capital, Thimphu. The four-day trek is a perfect way to catch a glimpse of real traditional Bhutanese life, passing historic fortresses and yak herding camps against the background of wild forests, clear lakes, and vast pastures.
For those looking for something more extreme, the Jhomolhari Trek is an arduous seven- to ten-day journey through high altitudes that takes you to Lingzhi, the country's highest settlement, and offers incredible views of its two tallest peaks. The Soi Yaksa trek is a shorter version for those who want to see the mountains without making their way up to Lingzhi.
Every year, Bhutanese towns come to life with Buddhist festivals called tsechu. Tsechus are colorful, vibrant affairs that mainly revolve around traditional charm dances. These Tibetan spectacles tell stories and offer moral advice through the medium of music, dance, and costume.
The largest and most famous tsechus are those held in Paro and Thimphu, but there are dozens of these festivals across the country. Because the date of these celebrations varies depending on the place, visitors to Bhutan have a good chance of catching a tsechu no matter when they go.
The daily fee system used by Bhutan to control tourism means that independent travel is not really an option. Booking a tour is the only way to visit the country, but there are a wide variety of options and operators available for you to choose from.
Best Time to Visit Bhutan
The best time to visit Bhutan is either in spring (March-May) or fall (September-November). During these times, the weather is at its best and most pleasant and the landscape is most beautiful.
Spring sees the rhododendrons bloom and is also when the Paro tsechu takes place, while the fall offers the clearest views of the Himalayan mountains and the Thimpu teschu. If you are planning on visiting during these times, make sure to book hotels and tours well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly.
If you visit during the winter, you may be faced with cold weather, but you could make some good savings as the daily tourist rate is lower. Summer brings heavy monsoon rains that make trekking and hiking impossible.
What to Look for in a Tour of Bhutan
Your choice of tour of Bhutan will depend on how much time you have and what you are most interested in. Many tours focus on culture and include visits to the main temples, palaces, and cities, while others are solely dedicating to trekking the country’s many trails.
Shorter four- to seven-day tours of the country will mostly be of the first kind with a couple of short hikes thrown in. You will travel in between cities and destinations by car and domestic flights, which can save you considerable amounts of time.
If you have more time, you can take a longer tour that includes both cultural visits and a full trek. For instance, several tours offer the chance to visit the attractions of Paro, such as Taktshang Goembaand Rinpung Dzong, before walking the Druk Path trek to reach Thimphu. This itinerary allows you to visit most of Bhutan’s highlights while also making the most of the country’s natural beauty.
Typical Tour Cost
All visitors to Bhutan have to pay a fixed price of $250 a day ($200 a day during the low tourism seasons). There is a $40 per day surcharge for people traveling alone or $30 per day for a group of two. This is supposed to pay for accommodation, meals, entry fees, a guide, transport, visas, and a sustainable tourism fee.
Beyond the fixed daily fee, tour costs will vary depending on length and what you intend to do -- most of them cost between $1,000 and $3,000. Remember that the minimum is $250 a day, so tours charging more than this should be offering something extra, whether it be a particular activity or a better-quality hotel.
The only things you should have to budget for outside of the tour are tips, souvenirs, and drinks (except for water). Some tours may have charges for excess luggage.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Temperatures vary throughout the day, especially during the peak seasons of spring and fall. Dress in layers so you can adjust easily. If you are trekking, you will have to pack lightweight, breathable, and hand-washable clothes. Many treks go into high altitudes so you will need to keep warm -- thermal layers are a good idea.
Visitors to Buddhist temples and monasteries are expected to dress quite formally. For men, this means a shirt and long pants. For women, a long skirt or pants and covered shoulders. This also applies to festivals, where everyone tries to look their best. Bring a pair of slip-on shoes since you will have to remove them every time you walk into a temple.
Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun, and an umbrella or light rain jacket will come in handy at almost any time of year. Pack a swimsuit if you are going to be visiting the traditional hot baths. A flashlight is a good idea both for treks and dark temple interiors, and you may also want earplugs to block out the sound of barking dogs at night.
Altitude medication is a good idea, as is a basic first aid kit with antiseptic cream, band-aids, painkillers, diarrhea medication, DEET-containing insect repellent, and antihistamines. Some tours have first-aid kits included, so check ahead with your provider in case you don’t have to bring your own.
Most trekking tours provide tents, sleeping mats, and basic kitchen utensils. You will have to bring your own sleeping bag (a four season model is recommended), pillow, and any other trekking gear like walking sticks. Gear rental isn’t common in Bhutan, so you will have to purchase these before leaving home.
Other Tips for Travel in Bhutan
The currency of Bhutan is the Ngultrum (Nu). It has the exact same value as the Indian rupee and rupees are widely accepted throughout the country (except for notes of 500 and 1000). This is good news if you are traveling to Bhutan from India, as you won't have to worry about exchanging your cash.
It's a good idea to do some research on Tibetan Buddhism before you go. This will give you a deeper understanding of the culture and traditions of the land and will be appreciated by the locals you encounter.
The biggest health risk in Bhutan by far is diarrhea. Though it is not particularly dangerous, it could ruin your trip, so take every precaution during your stay -- never drink tap water, always check the seal on water bottles, peel and wash any fruit, and take recommendations from your guide and fellow travelers when it comes to restaurants. The food and drink given to you by your tour should be perfectly safe. If you do get diarrhea, stay hydrated with plenty of water and hydration salts.
The World Health Organization recommends the following vaccinations when traveling to Bhutan:
- Diphtheria and tetanus (for adults)
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
Some vaccines, like rabies, tuberculosis, and meningitis, are recommended for those staying over a month in the country. Since the vast majority of visitors come with a shorter tour, this is not likely to apply to you. If in doubt, ask your tour provider for advice on immunizations.
Malaria is a risk in rural regions, so once again it is worth checking with the tour organizer whether you will be visiting any at-risk areas. If so, you will need to bring enough malaria medication for the duration of your trip. Either way, you should bring and regularly apply a DEET-containing insect repellent.
Altitude sickness is a risk if you are going to be climbing above 10,000 feet, but most tours that involve this kind of altitude will include a few days of appropriate acclimatization.
Make sure you have purchased adequate health insurance before traveling, taking into consideration any activities you will be doing during your stay. You should know exactly what you are covered for, how you can make a claim, and how the money is transferred to you in the case of reimbursement.
Bhutan is a very safe country. Theft, begging, and scams are very rare, particularly when compared to nearby countries like India. That said, you should still stay vigilant in cities and stay aware of your possessions at all times.
Accidents can happen during treks, so be careful where you step and make sure you have reliable shoes. This applies especially during and after heavy rains, when paths will become muddy and slippery.