Himalayan Trekkers is excited to welcome you to the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Sitting snugly in the lap of the Himalayas, Bhutan is also deemed to be the last ‘Shangri-la’. This utopian status is well explained by the country’s remarkable natural beauty, its completely carbon-negative environment, and of course, its residents’ fierce but loving determination to preserve their centuries-old traditions.
Apart from this, it is the only country to maintain GNH or Gross National Happiness, proving to the world that they care about happiness as much as the economy. Traveling to this country is nothing short of experiencing the so proclaimed ‘Shangri-la’ but it is always good to get a heads-up about a few facts and rules beforehand for pursuing tours and treks in Bhutan.
1. Across the border with/without a Visa.
Our tourism agency, Himalayan Trekkers will be more than glad to guide you through the Visa acquiring process. Tourists from countries like India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are welcome here without getting a pre-approved visa.
In which case, they will be issued one on landing at Paro or Phuentsholing. However, this visa/permit can be used for a week within the boundaries of Paro and Thimpu. Anyone who wishes to venture beyond these two cities has to acquire another permit from Thimpu.
Indian nationals can also access Phuentsholing via road from Jaigaon side in India. After crossing over to Phuentsholing with valid Voter Id card or Passport, a Visa needs to be applied for at Thimpu. Or, flights can be availed as well, though flights are highly weather-dependent.
Foreign nationals hailing from any country other than India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives must adhere to the elaborate, expensive, and stringent regulations, as put forward by the government.
We, at Himalayan Trekkers, will be more than happy to walk you through the procedures for a smooth and hassle-free experience. For starters, Visa has to be acquired before arriving. The cost is $250 that is inclusive of almost all basic requirements like three-star accommodation, food, water, entrance tickets, private transport along with driver and tour guide.
2. Thumbs-up to group travel in Bhutan
Exploring this country in a group of 3 or more is an economic option. Solo travelers or couples will be charged $40 and $30 extra respectively along with the visa fees. Plus, no harm in gathering friends and family for a trip to this interesting country!
3. Be ready with ample valid currency in hand. (Rupees/Ngultrum)
It is best to carry cash for Bhutan trip instead of relying totally on ATM/credit/debit cards or even internet banking. Any foreign currency can be exchanged into Ngultrum (Bhutan’s currency) upon landing. In case it is not possible to carry cash, it is best to withdraw money from ATMs in Thimpu or Paro but they are not always functional.
Banks like Bhutan National Bank, Druk Punjab National Bank and Bank of Bhutan can assist you with any financial transaction but at exorbitant charges.
4. Being in touch with the rest of the world
Enjoying the serenity of the Himalayas without any usual technological interruptions makes so much sense on a getaway. However, there are times when one may face an emergency or think it imperative to make check-up calls back home.
It is during these times that your existing mobile phone connection or your internet may fail to suffice due to poor connectivity in most parts of the country. In such cases, it is advisable to get hold of a local SIM card, usually from TashiCell or B-Mobile.
The good news is wifi is available in most hotels/restaurants/bars in the larger cities.
5. Consult the Bhutanese calendar for festivities before planning your trip
Bhutan is a country that loves its culture and festivities. While a number of festivals take place throughout the year, Tsechus is by far the biggest of them all. Gala celebrations take place in Paro and Thimpu with revelry all across the nation. Himalayan Trekkers will help all interested wanderers to coincide with their visit with the concerned festival.
Other noteworthy traditional Bhutan celebrations include Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival, Haa Summer festival, Jomolhori Mountain festival, and the Annual Black-Necked Crane Festival, just to name a few.
Bhutan’s festivals are highly influenced by lunar changes so make sure to keep a few days’ margins before and after the predicted festival date.
6. Carrying appropriate medicine is a must
As mentioned earlier, Bhutan is located in high altitudes with treacherous mountainous terrain in a fair part of its topography. Roads are replete with sharp curves and bends, not to speak of the harsh Himalayan climate.
In such circumstances, it is best to go prepared for any kind of altitude sickness, nausea, vomiting, headaches or even stomach upset owing to its spicy cuisine.
7. Consider the different seasons in Bhutan for the type of holiday that you prefer
The best time to visit Bhutan is basically dependant on the traveler. Each season has its own pros and cons so it is better to be clear as to what kind of activity one would like to pursue over there.
Some find their adrenaline rush in trekking and mountaineering, Spring, Summer, and Autumn which are usually in the months of April, May, October, and November will be perfect for them.
Also, Summer is a great time to take part in picking and tasting Matsutake mushrooms. Celebrate the Matsutake mushroom festival and what’s more, vibrant rainbows (yes, it is plural as double rainbows are often visible) may grace you.
Wildlife enthusiasts and offbeat explorers may benefit by visiting in December when the rare and endangered Black-necked cranes arrive in Phobjika valley for their annual tour. There is even a festival in honor of this event.
8. Tread cautiously when it comes to Bhutanese culinary delights
You are dealing here with a nation that absolutely loves chili. No Bhutanese dish is complete without a generous portion of hot chili in them. The national dish is ‘ema datshi’ which is basically rice and chili curry with cheese topping. When in Bhutan, you should most obviously try its most renowned platter but be sure to state the number of chilies that you can tackle before placing the order.
One can also taste the dried beef curry, yak curry, or the more common dumplings with various toppings and undoubtedly chili sauce.
Guess what? The world’s spiciest and hottest chili, ‘dole’ is from here too!
Apart from food, the beverages are also quite inviting, ranging from ‘ara’, a local alcoholic drink to ‘dhachu’ which is essentially sweetened milk from cattle.
Undecided whether to try or not? It will be a pleasure for Himalayan Trekkers to introduce tourists to authentic Bhutanese cuisine.
9. Love cheese? Visit Bhutan’s own Switzerland
If you are a foodie by heart and stomach, heading out to Bumthang in Central Bhutan is a must. From top-grade finger-licking cheese varieties like Gouda and Emmental to seasoned apple cider, buckwheat delicacies, and organic, unprocessed honey, you are sure to taste heaven.
Whatever you do, do not miss out on the locally brewed delicious Red Panda lager.
10. Solid, Liquid but no Gas.
Yes, eat as much food as you possibly can, enjoy the local drinks to the fullest but smoking is strictly prohibited in public. If caught, the jail will be the next destination without any further ado. As stated earlier, Bhutan does not encourage consumption or sale of tobacco or weed.
The best compensation that they do allow is to carry 200 clouds of smoke that you can consume only in designated areas or inside most hotels. It is best to consult with your tour guide before indulging in the same.
11. Judicious wardrobe choices.
Barring the summer months, it is cool if not cold enough to carry woolens and warm clothes. Being a predominantly cold, conservative, and traditional country, it is best to choose an attire that covers the whole body and is somewhat formal. The Dzongs, monasteries, and temples do not allow casual clothes like t-shirts, jeans, or revealing dresses.
The Bhutanese men wear the traditional ‘Gho’ while women are clad in ‘Kira’. One can always buy one of these to celebrate their culture but adorning these colorful outfits can be a bit of a challenge to an outsider.
Also, remember to throw in a couple of good quality hiking shoes or at least heavy-duty sports shoes to combat the mountainous terrain and chilly weather.
Any suggestions regarding the packing list can be discussed with Himalayan Trekkers prior to the journey.
12. Sun-protection is quintessential
Owing to the fact that Bhutan is perched at an average altitude of 8000 m, the sun rays are more direct and scorching. That said, proper protection against the heat, burn and dryness always goes a long way.
Himalayan Trekkers suggests that you carry with you an excellent quality sunscreen, lip guard, light scarves/caps/hats, and shades at all times.
13. Relax in the Bhutanese way
The ‘Dotsho’ or a hot steaming bath is the answer to all that body ache that one is bound to experience after traversing through hilly terrain for prolonged hours. The bath is prepared by heating up stones from rivers and placing them in the bathtub. These stones slowly release heat and minerals to cure the body of usual ailments and fatigue.
This is a great way to unwind physically as well as calm the senses after a day’s tiring journey.
14. Permission before Photography/ Videography
One will never tire of capturing memories on camera in this natural paradise. Be it the mighty Himalayan range or the lush green forests and rivers, postcard-perfect is the appropriate word to describe this place.
Even in cities, the colorful Bhutanese attire, their feisty, vibrant festivals, and the regular Bhutanese way of life will leave no dearth of subjects. The only thing to be wary of is to ask permission of local people before clicking their photos. Friendly as they are, that should not be an obstacle anyway.
What is most important though is to consult your guide or the local authority before photographing within the premises of a Dzong, monastery or temple. It is forbidden to take snapshots inside any holy establishment though it is usually allowed to click them from outside.
Another taboo is to refrain from capturing shots of the Bhutanese Royal family in case you are lucky enough to sight them.
Last but not the least, drones are an absolute no.
15. Trekking, Hiking and Camping
What can be more thrilling than experiencing the Himalayas on foot, up close and personal while coming to a halt at night to sleep under the stars?
Himalayan Trekkers will love to arrange such a trip for you. From a short and easy hike to lengthy challenging treks can be experienced here among which includes Druk Path Trek, Dagala Thousand lake trek, Bumthang Owl Trek, Snowman Trek, Jhomolhari Trek, Gantey Phobijka Valley Trek, Dochula Trek Laya Gasa Trek, and others.
Trekking up to a height of 6000 m is allowed but beyond it is strictly forbidden. It is in order to respect the mountains that Bhutan considers sacred. The snow-clad summit of the Himalayas is believed to be the seat of Gods and climbing these peaks will usher natural calamities.
Being a through and through Buddhist nation, nature in all forms like mountains, rivers, forests, and fauna are meant to be respected.
16. Braving the Tiger’s Nest
The Tiger’s Nest is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Bhutan. It is a monastery that was built in 1692 A.D in honor of the monk, Guru Rinpoche also known as Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have meditated here.
The name owes it to a legend, according to which Guru Rinpoche was carried to this spot by a tigress on its back. Located near Paro, it stands at a towering height of 10,000ft above sea level.
Any tourist with basic fitness should be able to trudge up and down this steep trail in an approximate time of 5 hours, keeping aside the time to explore the monastery itself. However way you plan to do it, it is best advised to set an entire day aside for visiting this place.
Unsure about where and how to start? Himalayan Trekkers can plan your expedition for you as smoothly as you can imagine!
17. Experience the ‘DHA’
Home to some of the most talented archers in the world, Bhutan takes immense pride in its national sport- archery or ‘DHA’. If you are a sports enthusiast, it is much recommended that Himalayan Trekkers arrange a practice session for you in one of the many local archery fields.
The fact remains that whether you decide to try your hand at ‘dha’ or not, it is essential that you do not miss the opportunity to watch some of the professionals in action. After all, it is not every day that you find yourself in Bhutan with the chance to witness its national sport.
18. Connect with your inner self
Try to plan your trip in Spring-Summer to experience nirvana. Himalayan Trekkers will be happy to suggest meditation centers. Feast your eyes on the colorful blooms that take place in Spring and soothe your senses in a serene environment with the Himalayas in the backdrop.
Want to take a step further? Then take part in a guided meditation and ayurvedic treatments.
19. Retail therapy
The National Handicrafts Emporium will meet your souvenir needs. It is an authentic shop that houses the thirteen traditional crafting techniques, handed down by generations. One can find here small tokens to take back home for their loved ones, be it a traditional necklace or an intricately chiseled wood piece among other things.
20. Be prepared for open displays of phallic art forms.
It is better not to cringe at sightings of phallic paintings and crafts almost everywhere. The phallus is deemed to be holy here. Courtesy of a hedonistic monk named Drukpa Kunley who taught that enlightenment can be achieved by bodily pleasures. It is widely believed, even by some Westerners also, that praying at Drukpa Kunley’s monastery will resolve conception and fertility problems.
In a nutshell, for anyone looking for old-world charm, traditional community-based practices, unique culture, and of course, mesmerizing views of Himalayas, then this is your next destination. Most importantly, Bhutan will be a soothing break from today’s never-ending rat-race as well as a technological detox. So, why are you holding back?