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A COMPLETE GUIDE TO TRAVELING TO BHUTAN

written by: Kanti Khadka   |   Nov 17, 2019   |   87 views

A COMPLETE GUIDE TO TRAVELING TO BHUTAN

Tucked between two powerful countries India and China, Bhutan is the most isolated and incredibly beautiful country in Asia. Also referred to as the Last Shangri-La, Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. The cultural richness, the unexploited religion, and its distinctly unrivaled natural beauty make it one of the most sought after travel destinations.

Bhutan is often famous amongst travelers as an expensive travel destination. Its unexploited culture, tradition, environment and the sense of isolation it maintains from the outer world is what lures these travelers to this beautiful mysterious land every year.

To help you navigate through this incredibly mesmerizing country, here is the complete guide to traveling to Bhutan.  

Visa Information

You require a Bhutanese visa before arrival while traveling to Bhutan. All the Bhutanese visas are issued only from the head office of the Department of Immigration. During the visa application, visa fees must be paid to the Bhutan tourism board. It is mandatory to make travel arrangements at least 90 days earlier. Nationals from countries except Maldives, India, and Bangladesh must apply for a visa through a locally registered travel agency.

Citizens from Maldives, India, and Bangladesh can acquire entry permit on arrival upon producing their passport with six months validity. Meanwhile, Indian nationals can also use their voters’ identity cards to attain an entry permit.

All the other countries must obtain a visa clearance in advance by the means of their tour company before touring to Bhutan.

Documents Required For Bhutan Visa Application

Upon making full payment of Bhutan tour and Bhutan visa fee of US$ 40 to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Travel companies will obtain your visa. Your Bhutanese visa will be sent to you prior to your arrival in Bhutan.

Requirements

A scanned copy of passport with at least six months' validity at the point of arrival in Bhutan.

Information is listed below:

  1. Full name as per passport
  2. Occupation
  3. Mailing address
  4. Contact No. (Mobile preferred)
  5. Submit a scanned copy of your passport

Note: Visa clearance takes at least 7 days to process and airplane tickets to Bhutan cannot be purchased without visa clearance. Upon entering Bhutan all you need to bring is your valid passport and an official letter sent by your tour company.

Bhutan Tourist Visa Extension

In order to extend your visa for additional days in Bhutan, consult with your travel agency and they will take care of it for you. The visa renewal fee is approximately Nu. 50( US $1= 71.66 as of 2019).

Transportation

There are two different ways to reach Bhutan- Overland and on air. While flying to Bhutan is well known, traveling to Bhutan overland is less heard of.

Traveling to Bhutan overland

You can actually travel to Bhutan by road through India via three different border crossings- Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar, and Phuentsoling.

You can also travel to Bhutan overland from Nepal through India. When traveling to Bhutan from Nepal, first you will exit Nepal at Kakarbhitta and travel by road to one of the three border crossings to Bhutan in India. Direct buses to Kakarbhitta run from Kathmandu on a daily basis. Look for ticket counters. The cost to Kakarbhitta ranges from $15-$20 on local buses. Next, you take a bus to Darjeeling from Kakarbhitta. Upon reaching Darjeeling, you then take another bus to Phuentsoling which falls on the border between India and Bhutan. From Phuentsoling, it takes almost 6 hours to reach Thimpu.

Note: If you want to avoid all the hassle involved in booking buses book an overland trip to Bhutan through a tour operator. They will take care of it.

Traveling To Bhutan On Air

Only two airlines travel to Bhutan, Druk Air, and Royal Bhutan Airlines. The flights to Bhutan have operated from five different countries altogether.

Country City Flight Operation
India

Bagdodara

Guhawati

Kolkata(Calcatta)

New Delhi

Two weekly flights

Two-weekly flights

Daily flights

five flights weekly

Thailand Bangkok Daily flights
Bangladesh Dhaka Two weekly flights
Nepal Kathmandu Six flights weekly
Singapore Singapore Two flights weekly
Indonesia(an exception)   Operates during the season only

 

Flights to Bhutan are known to be very expensive which starts at $400. The cost, however, is reasonable given the Paro airport is one of the most inaccessible, dangerous and difficult places to land in the world. It is the only international airport in Bhutan.

Due to the difficulty in landing, flights to and from Bhutan do not operate at night. Most interestingly, only 8 pilots in the world are certified to land and takeoff in Paro. Bummer but true, flights to Bhutan are highly weather dependent. Thus, delays are very common.

Road Conditions In Bhutan

Bhutan is an exceptional experience. Do not expect fine roads as in western countries or in some of the Asian countries. Bhutan is still improving its roadways and upgrading from dirt and gravel roads to asphalt. Only around 60% of roads in Bhutan are actually paved with concrete or asphalt rest are dirt or gravel roads.

The main road in Bhutan is East-west highway which runs from Phuentsoling on the border with India in the southwest to Trashigang in the east. This road branches off to the major cities like Thimpu, Punakha, and Paro. 

While the rads to Thimpu, Paro, and Punakha are rated the best highways in the nation, the road is not as good. It is a mix of old paved road, dirt or gravel tracks. Thus, it can take up to 3-3.5 hours to complete the entire journey. 

The best-paved part of the road in Bhutan is the one leading up to and down from the Dochu La pass at 3100 meters. The maximum road speed is limited to 50km/hr as this country is comprised of rough hilly terrains.

If you are thinking of short-distance traveling within the country, short taxi rides will cost you between 50-100 nugultrum.

Note: In case you think the taxi driver is charging you more than the standard amount takes the details displayed in the vehicle- taxi number, Driver's name, and details and complain to the traffic police. The police in Bhutan takes a serious view of it.

Tour Company And Costs

Bhutan is an expensive travel destination. On top of that, you can only travel to Bhutan after booking a trip with a certified local travel agency. But don’t let these stigmas fool you. It is actually worth it. Imagine getting to stay in luxury hotels and not having to pay for food or any other charges throughout your tour apart from your personal spendings. Well, it is not as bad, is it?

Furthermore, the per day charge levied on the travelers varies according to the season. Here is a brief insight on how much it costs during high season and low season.

Peak Season: March, April, May, September, October, and November

  1. $250 per person per day ( for a group of three or more people)
  2. $280 per person per day (for a group of two people)
  3. $290 per day (for single individuals)

Low Season: January, February, June, July, August, and December

  1. $200 per person per day (for a group of three or more people)
  2. $230 per person per day (for a group of two people)
  3. $240 per day (for a single individual)

So, What does this daily fee include?

Almost everything you require while on a trip to Bhutan. The daily fee includes all accommodation, food (excluding alcohol), ground transportation, entrance fees, a private guide, and the driver.

Know that your travel insurance and flight costs are not included in the fees.

What's best is the fee includes $65 which is used for sustainable development that goes to free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.

Best Time To Visit Bhutan

Bhutan’s climate varies all over the year. Usually, due to its sub-tropical climate, Southern Bhutan can be hot and moist and the northern part can be cold in summer due to its high altitude. While weather in the high altitudes is subject to change drastically, anytime is the best time to visit Bhutan if you are looking for spiritual relief.

February- March, September- November are the best months to visit Bhutan. Though the weather during this time of the year is colder, skies are generally clear and blue making it the perfect time to sightsee and hike.

June to August is the summer/monsoon season in Bhutan. During the monsoon season, it typically rains for 1-2 hours in the morning. Heavy downpours are rare. Temperature ranges from 24 to 25 degrees. Trekking during monsoon is not recommended while one can go for a short day hike with ease. Make sure to carry an umbrella and raincoat while traveling during this season. Furthermore, summer is also a wonderful time for mushroom picking, observing a Matsutake Mushroom Festival and catching glimpses of (sometimes double) rainbows over the valleys.

December -February is the winter season in Bhutan. During this time, the weather is coldest and very unpredictable in the mountains. However, winter is a good time to catch the endangered black-necked crane in the Phobjika valley.

Festivals

The next best time to visit Bhutan is during festivals. December- February is high festival time. You will most likely stumble into festivals every now and then during this time. You can also be some of the very few foreigners to have witnessed some of these festivals. Check the list below to find out when and where the festivals in Bhutan take place and plan your trip accordingly.

 

Places Festivals Dates
Punakha

Punakha Dromshen

Punakha Tsechu

February 12-14

February 15-17

Bumthang

Ura Festival

Nimalung Festival

Kurjey Festival

Tamshing Phala Choepa

Tangbi mani

Jakar

Jambay Lhakhang Drup

Pakar

Nalakhar Festival

16-20 April

10-11 July

11 July

7-9 October

10-13 October

5-9 November

13(evening)-16 November

14-16 November

12-14 December

Tashigang

Gom Kora 

Tashigang Festival

14-16 March

5-7 December

Paro Paro festival 17-21 March
Tashi Yangtse Chorte Kora To be confirmed
Thimpu

Thimpu Drupchen

Thimpu festival

3-October

7-9 October

Gangtey Gangtey Festival 10-13 October
Wangdphodrang Wangdi festival 5-7 October
Mongar Mongar festival 4-6 December
Trongsa Trongsa festival 4-7 January 2020
Luntse Luntse Festival 4-7 January 2020

 

While observing these festivals note the following things on what not to do:

  1. Do not eat, drink, talk or laugh loudly at inappropriate times while on the dance floor.
  2. Do not flash cameras or intrude on the dance space while photographing the dancers or onlookers.
  3. Festivals in Bhutan are genuine manifestations of thousand-year-old religious traditions, thus take them seriously.
  4. Do not in any way infringe or impair the sacredness and the beauty of the ritual.
  5. Last but not least, tourists are given the privilege of witnessing these beautiful events don’t belittle the rituals and customs just because you don’t understand the depth of these beliefs.

Accommodation

You can either book a luxury hotel or consider a homestay. Both ways, you are sure to experience a relaxed and comfortable stay. The cost depends upon the place you choose to stay in. In a luxury hotel you will experience comfort like any other hotel while in a homestay, you get to observe a typical Bhutanese lifestyle and enjoy the warmth of Bhutanese hospitality.

Food and Beverages

Bhutanese culture has very few delicacies in meat and fish as fishing is not allowed in Bhutan. So, during your stay vegetables with rice will be served for your meals. Additionally, if you are into alcoholic beverages then you can try Ara; a popular local distilled drink.

Rice is a Bhutanese staple diet served with one or two side dishes consisting of either meat or vegetables. Pork, beef, chicken and yak meat are consumed most often.

Less the chance but if you ever get tired of Bhutanese dish then there is a wide selection of western and Indian food available in many of the restaurants around the country. Fast food chains sadly are not available but the local food is typically delicious. Besides, 'Tibetan' cuisine - momos, thukpas, etc are also available.

Bhutanese cuisine is known to be spicy as chilies are an essential part of nearly every dish. You can guess from their national dish which is Ema Dathi (Chillies and Cheese). They eat it almost everywhere and most Bhutanese would not enjoy a meal that is not spicy.

If you are into alcoholic beverages then do try out some of the local brands like Red Panda ( a specialty from Bumthang), Druk 11000, range of fine wines and whiskeys. And they are quite cheaper than in India.

Additional information

Wifi

Internet access in Bhutan is not something as good. But it works fine. There are very few internet cafes in town. Most of the hotels also provide wifi connection. But the connection is not as strong and might work only in the lobby and restaurants only.

Getting Sim Card In Bhutan

Bhutan has two mobile network providers: B-Mobile and Tashi Cell. B-Mobile provides Tourist Sim Card for 100 Bhutanese Ngultrum which is about 1.5 USD. Tashi Cell sells a normal Sim Card for 200 Bhutanese Ngultrum for about 3 USD.

The only difference between a tourist sim and a regular sim is a tourist sim has validity or life of one month only.

You can buy 475 Mb data with B-mobile for 99 BTN.

You can buy 400mb data on Tashi cell for 99 BTN.

The phone call rate to most European Countries, USA, and Asian countries is 15 BTN/Minute. SMS cost abroad is 10BTN/ each SMS everywhere in the world.

Currencies

Bhutanese currency is called Ngultrum(BTN). Apart from Ngultrum, Indian Rupee is also commonly used. The Bhutanese Ngultrum and Indian rupee are equivalent so you can pay everywhere with the Indian rupee. It is common to pay and receive the exchange in both BTN and Indian currency. 

ATM

ATMs are not common in Bhutan. Only three banks in total accept foreign credit cards in Bhutan. The three banks accepting foreign credit cards are Bank of Bhutan, Bhutan National Bank, and Druk Punjab National Bank.  ATMs in the big cities accept VISA cards also.

Independent travelers

The Bhutanese government is quite conservative about allowing visitors into the country. Independent travel to Bhutan is recently being introduced but it's not something the government encourages. Visitors to Bhutan generally must either be tourists, or guests of the government. The only other exception to visit the country is to receive an invitation by "a citizen of some standing" or a volunteer organization.

Except for the passport holders from India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, all tourists must travel on a pre-planned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom designed travel itinerary.

Important Tips

  1. Mountaineering is prohibited in Bhutan but hiking on the peaks under 6000m is acceptable.
  2. Dress modest wear long-sleeved clothing covering your arms and legs. While visiting Dzongs and monasteries cover your body properly. Do not wrap the jumper or jackets around your waist or wear revealing clothes. Wear closed shoes most preferably.
  3. Smoking is banned unless you bring your own cigarettes and smoke inside your room.
  4. Tipping waiters and porters not compulsory but tipping a guide is a must.
  5. Don’t expect heavy discounts. Only 10% of discounts are applicable to goods.
  6. Tuesdays are considered the national 'dry day,' so the sale of alcohol is prohibited.
  7. Bring a multi-purpose electrical plug and a universal travel adapter as most of the hotel rooms have limited electrical plugs, so it'll be wise to bring along if you have many devices.
  8. Carry a jacket or jumper and some layers of clothing irrespective of the season as the weather in Bhutan isn’t as predictable.

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