Bhutan, a tiny country in Asia, only began allowing tourism in the 1960s, so it can be tough to find practical travel information about this mysterious country. Intrigued and planning a visit? Here are 10 things you should know.
You Can’t Go On Your Own
Bhutan charges all foreign tourists (with the exception of Indian citizens) a $200 to $250 daily fee to visit. (The price varies based on whether you are visiting in low season or high season.) Depending on what you have planned, you may need extra permits for trekking or visiting more remote parts of the country. I traveled to Bhutan on Exodus Travels’ fantastic Land of the Thunder Dragon Tour. I highly recommend going with a trusted tour company like Exodus, as it handled all the logistics of my visa and planned out a seamless itinerary that gave a great overview of the country, from trekking to festivals. Attempting to book a four-night hiking/camping experience and coordinating the domestic flights and visas would have been very challenging on my own.
If Your Shoes Are Off, Don’t Take Photos
Our local Exodus guide, Norbu Tshering, came up with an easy way for my tour group to remember when we were allowed to take photos—if your shoes are on, snap away. If they’re off, it’s not appropriate, so just capture the moment in your mind. If you have taken your shoes off to enter somewhere, it means that it’s a sacred place (like the inside of a monastery), and so you won’t be able to take photos.
Don’t Believe the Weather Forecasts
Bhutan’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, and when I visited, the forecast seemed always to be the opposite of reality. When it called for clear skies, it poured—and vice versa. Pack layers and be prepared for multiple kinds of weather in one day—especially if you are doing any type of trekking, as the weather can change quickly at high altitudes.
Bhutan Is at a High Altitude
Paro, where all flights into Bhutan arrive, is at an altitude of over 7,000 feet. Many treks in Bhutan go above 13,000 feet, which makes for great views, but can also cause altitude sickness if you’re not acclimatized. Definitely pack aspirin for headaches and check with your doctor to see if you might want a prescription for a medicine that can help with the altitude adjustment.
Ask for a Window Seat
If you’re flying to Paro from Kathmandu, ask for a window seat on the left side of the plane on the flight in and on the right side on the way back. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of Mount Everest.
The Roads are Winding and Rough
Although Bhutan has nearly completed construction on its national highway, a modern two-lane paved road, you may still encounter plenty of dirt roads, one-way streets, hairpin turns, and everything from cows to dogs lounging in the middle of the road. Travel generally takes longer than it would at home–keep this in mind when plotting out your itinerary, and be sure to pack motion sickness pills if you think you’ll need them. Choose your trip wisely. Many itineraries I saw featured long days of driving (up to six or seven hours), and I appreciated that my tour never involved driving more than two hours at a time.
Don’t Expect to Try Local Meat
Since Bhutan is a Buddhist country, there are no slaughterhouses within its borders, and all meat is imported (mostly from India). And fishing is only allowed on a catch-and-release basis. Fortunately, the local vegetarian food is amazing, so there will be plenty of Bhutanese delicacies to sample (especially if you like chilies).
Always Pack Long Sleeves/Pants/Skirts
If you are visiting any dzongs (fortresses), cultural sites, or monasteries, you’ll need to have your arms and legs covered to enter. If you’re attending a festival, bring something modest but dressy to show respect.
Many people on my tour had issues with withdrawing money from the ATMs in Bhutan. Bring cash to be safe; you can easily exchange American dollars at the airport or your hotel, and I had no issues changing mine back at the end of the trip. There was no currency exchange desk past security at Paro Airport, but an airport staff member tipped me off that the duty-free and souvenir shops will make the exchange for you. Most places in Bhutan will also accept whichever currency you have as payment as well, although you may receive change in the local currency. I found that American dollars were widely accepted. Credit cards are also accepted for larger purchases, but be warned that most places charge a high convenience fee for cards.
In Buddhism it’s believed that neutering or spaying a cat or dog will stop the reincarnation cycle for the animals, and so it’s not a common practice in Bhutan. This has resulted in an explosion in the street dog population, especially in the larger cities (where they are well fed by restaurants). It’s said that “Bhutanese dogs sleep all day and bark all night,” so pack earplugs if you don’t want to listen to the howling.