Bhutan is a small, landlocked nation located in the eastern Himalayas between India and China. Its landscape ranges from subtropical plains and forests in the South to subalpine forests and snowy mountains in the North. Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country and is known as the last stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism. The small Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan opened itself to the outside world only in 1960s. Until now, it had been largely mysterious even to its neighbours but abandoning its self-imposed policy of isolation had it grappling to find a precarious balance between modernisation and the preservation of its culture and traditions. However, it does seem that Bhutan has found the perfect balance between the two and now though it is making tremendous developments in all sectors, it also manages to hold onto its unique identity that makes it unlike any other country in the world with a population of just over 0.7 million. Druk Yul — the local name for Bhutan — means “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” The dragon appears on the Bhutanese flag. Bhutan is the only country in the world to officially measure national happiness. The index is known as GNH (Gross National Happiness). Rather than placing emphasis on GDP, Bhutan attempts to track the happiness of its population. The United Nations bought into the idea in 2011 and released the World Happiness Report in 2012. The annual report uses Gallup data and ranks countries by factors such as social, health, and environmental wellness rather than just economic concerns. Bhutanese receive free education from the government. A heavy emphasis is placed on Buddhist teachings. Most schools have an English curriculum. Until education reform was passed in the 1990s, only around 30 percent of males and 10 percent of females in Bhutan were literate.
Having always been politically independent, a rich and distinctive culture developed in the country over the ages. Perhaps the most important single factor in the moulding of Bhutanese character and thought has been the teaching of Lord Buddha, whose eternal truths were first brought into the country from Tibet over the high, snow-bound mountain passes by the great Indian saint, Guru Padsambhava.
In the Buddhist perspective, culture, tradition, beliefs and the environment are dynamic phenomena that are interwoven tightly in the web of life. As a Buddhist philosopher say, “Culture lies not in objects or monuments but in the mind and compassion towards all sentient beings”.
Bhutan’s unique cultural and traditional values, highly valued in themselves by all the population, are the essential embodiments of the nation’s identity. For a small country located between two most populated countries of the world, India and China, the preservation and promotion of its distinct cultural identity is seen as an important means for its survival as an independent and sovereign Kingdom. It was this identity that has protected and sustained Bhutan and also provided the foundation for its major policies.
The country’s difficult topography succeeded in keeping each ethnic group separate and vibrant. The majority of the Bhutanese are divided into three main ethnic groups: the Sharchops, people from the east, the Ngalops, people from the west and the Lhotshampas, people from the south. Tshanglas, the inhabitants of Trashigang, Mongar, Pemagatshel, and Samdrup Jongkhar are considered Bhutan’s earliest residents and their origins can be traced to the Tibeto-Burmese race. The Ngalops of western Bhutan are the later settlers who migrated from Tibet bringing with them Vajrayana Buddhism as it is still practiced today. Lhotshampas migrated into Bhutan from the south and settled in the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work in the early 20th century. Bumthaps and Khengpas of Central Bhutan, Kurtoeps of Lhuentse, Brokpas and Bramis of eastern Bhutan, Doyas of Samtse and Monpas of Trongsa and Wangdue constitute other minority groups.
Dzongkha, meaning the language of the fort, is the national language of Bhutan. Dzongkha, widely spoken in the western region became the state language in 1971. Bhutan is a multilingual society. There are 19 different languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. Besides Dzongkha there are three other dominant languages – Tshanglakha also known as Sharchokpa, spoken in eastern Bhutan, Lhotshamkha also known as Nepali, spoken in the southern region and Bumthangkha, spoken in central Bhutan. English is widely spoken as it is the medium of instruction in schools. Hindi, the Indian language is also widely spoken and understood by most Bhutanese because of the Bollywood (Indian cinema) influence.
Tshechu is a religious festival meaning “tenth day” held annually in various temples, monasteries and dzongs throughout the country. The Tshechu is a religious event celebrated on tenth day of a month of the lunar calendar corresponding to the birthday of Guru Rimpoche (Guru Padmasambhava). However the exact month of the Tshechu varies from place to place and temple to temple. Tshechus are grand events where entire communities come together to witness religious mask dances, receive blessings and socialise. In addition to the mask dances, Tshechus also include colourful Bhutanese dances and other forms of entertainment. It is believed that everyone must attend a Tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once to in order to receive blessings and wash away their sins. Every mask dance performed during a Tshechu has a special meaning or a story behind it and many are based on stories and incidents from as long ago as the 8th century, during the life of Guru Padmasambhava. Two of the most popular Tshechus in the country are the Paro and Thimphu Tshechus in terms of participation and audience. Besides the locals, many tourists from across the world are attracted to these unique, colorful and exciting displays of traditional culture.
It is estimated the ninety five percent of Bhutanese follow Buddhism. The large proportion of the population in the western and central Bhutan are descendants of Tibetan immigrants and follow the Drukpa Kagyu or Nyingmapa, disciplines of Mahayana Buddhism, which is the state religion. The ethnic Nepalese practice Hinduism, while there are limited number of Bhutanese practicing Christianity, and Islam. Few Bon priests still follow the Shamanistic religion. Freedom of religion has been guaranteed in the constitution of Bhutan although the state prohibits conversions.
The Spring & Autumn seasons are the best time to visit Bhutan. Having said so, summer and winter have their own draws and attractions.
Spring is the favorite time to visit Bhutan. Nature lovers who are keen on local flora should consider visiting Bhutan end of April or in May. Flowers would be in full bloom then. It really depends on what you want to see and do. If you want to trek, April, May, September and October are the best months with optimum weather. Although it is colder, the skies are generally clear and blue, and most importantly, it won’t be muddy. Do note that the monsoon season in Bhutan is from July – August and during this time, light rain (1-2 hours) in the morning is typical. Heavy downpours are rare, but we generally do not recommend trekking, unless they are short day hikes. Winter is a good time to catch the endangered black necked crane in their winter home, the Phobjika valley and summer is a wonderful time for mushroom picking (there’s even a Matsutake Mushroom Festival) and to catch glimpses of (sometimes double) rainbows over the valleys. If you’re there to seek solace or for spirituality reasons, anytime would be a good time to go.
- If you are visiting a Dzong or temple make sure to take off your shoes before entering.You may take photos in the courtyard, but never in the temple. Always move in a clockwise direction. Don’t speak loudly. You should leave a small offering of money. When you do, a monk may poor some holy water into your hand, then you should drink it (or pretend to) and spread the rest on your head from front to back
- If you would like to exchange some gifts with your Bhutanese friend make sure you never open a gift in public or in front of the person who gave it to you. Generally Bhutanese will refuse something three times before they except it (they are not being rude). Even if you are a tourist you are expected to refuse something at least once. The exchange of presents between the citizens of Bhutan is customary unless a present is received from a superior. If you receive a gift, make sure to always return the container the gift was given in and include a bit of nibbles such as fruit, breads, or candies. Bhutanese view those who don’t return the container as a sign of poverty.
- When dinning in a group wait for every one to be served (even at restaurants). If you are the guest the host will ask you to start eating once every one is served. If you are the host you need to ask the guest to start eating, then once they start you may eat.
- Most hotels have WiFi, but if you need more connectivity you can get a local SIM card from Tashi Cell or B-Mobile and top up with prepaid cards.
- The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, but most Bhutanese are fluent in English as that is the medium of education so communication shouldn’t be a problem.
- The local currency is the Ngultrum, which is pegged to the Indian Rupee. Note: The Indian Rupee in denominations of 500 and 1000 are no longer accepted in Bhutan.
- As the tour packages are prepaid, you’ll only need money for your own personal expenses – souvenirs, tips (for driver & guide) and drinks. We normally recommend travellers bring about US$200
- There are ATMs in Bhutan, but only in the main towns. A word of caution, the ATMs do not always work and if they do, one is usually only able to withdraw small amounts.
- Visitors should be able to pay via credit card at most hotels and handicraft stores
- Bhutan is the only country in the world that has banned the consumption and sale of tobacco, resulting in smoking being largely disallowed in public places. Having said that, consumption is not completely prohibited in Bhutan so if you want to smoke, bring your own cigarettes and ask your guide where you can light up.
- Tuesdays are considered the national ‘dry day,’ with the sale of alcohol prohibited.
- Do pack warm clothes, especially if you’re travelling between the months of November and March. As a general tip, it would be wise to always have a jacket when travelling in Bhutan regardless of the seasons as you will experience huge changes in elevation, with certain valleys colder than others. It’s best to be prepared!
- Prepare some of your own entertainment for the flight as well as the trip. Bring some books to read and save movies to watch on your laptop or tablet. Apart from Thimphu and Paro, nightlife is non-existent and most hotels tend to be a distance away from the main town.
- You can haggle in most shops but don’t expect more than 10% discount. Generally speaking, prices between shops don’t differ substantially.
- The roads tend to be windy so if you are prone to motion sickness, bring Dramamine or other medication to prevent nausea as you will be spending a lot of time in the car travelling around Bhutan.
- Bring along a multi-purpose electrical plug and a universal travel adapter. Most hotel rooms have limited electrical plugs, so it’ll be wise to take along if you have many devices.
- When taking photos/filming inside Dzongs, monasteries, temples, or any religious institutions, check with your guide whether it is permitted as some areas do not allow it.
- It is the Buddhist belief to respect all forms of life, and this includes Bhutan’s large number of stray dogs. It’s best to avoid contact with the strays and not to feed them; they might look cute, but they’re not trained and may bite.
- Apply insect repellent to skin and clothing to avoid being bitten: wear long sleeves, long trousers, hats and shoes (rather than sandals), and for rural and forested areas, boots are preferable, with trousers tucked in, to prevent tick bites. Additionally, leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can be spread in fresh water, is found in Bhutan. Avoid swimming in fresh water and water that isn’t chlorinated, such as lakes, ponds, or rivers.
- The low latitude of Bhutan combined with its high altitude means solar radiation in the country is intense. Even on cloudy days, you will get sunburn if you’re not careful, so bring sunglasses (two pairs in case you lose one or they break), wear a hat or cap, and apply a high factor sunscreen regularly.
Seasons: Bhutan has four distinct seasons in a year. The Indian summer monsoon begins from late-June through July to late-September and is mostly confined to the southern border region of Bhutan. These rains bring between 60 and 90 percent of the western region’s rainfall. Annual precipitation ranges widely in various parts of the country. In the Northern border towards Tibet, the region gets about forty millimeters of precipitation a year which is primarily snow. In the temperate central regions, a yearly average of around 1,000 millimeters is more common, and 7,800 millimeters per year has been registered at some locations in the humid, subtropical south, ensuring the thick tropical forest, or savanna.
Bhutan’s generally dry spring starts in early March and lasts until mid-April. Summer weather commences in mid-April with occasional showers and continues to late June. The heavier summer rains last from late June through late September which are more monsoonal along the southwest border. Autumn, from late September or early October to late November, follows the rainy season. It is characterised by bright, sunny days and some early snowfalls at higher elevations.
From late November until March, winter sets in, with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall common above elevations of 3,000 meters. The winter northeast monsoon brings gale-force winds at the highest altitudes through high mountain passes, giving Bhutan its name – Drukyul, which means Land of the Thunder Dragon in Dzongkha (the native language)
Average Maximum – Minimum Temperatures
Money: Bhutanese currency is Ngultrum (Nu.) and is officially pegged to the Indian Rupee (Rs.). Also Indian Rupee is acceptable all over Bhutan, except Rs 500 and Rs 2000 currency notes. Credit Cards have limited acceptability and payment through credit card is accepted mainly by Deluxe hotels, restaurants and few selected handicrafts establishments, located in relatively larger towns. ATMs facilities are available only in prominent towns from where travellers can also withdraw local currency Ngultrum, but in limited quantity. Traveler’s Cheque can be easily withdrawn and exchanged in local Bhutanese currency. All prominent currencies can be changed by travellers from banks, or at hotels. Visitors are also advised to carry small amount of cash, preferably US Dollar to meet any incidental expenses.
Tipping: You are allowed to carry up to the limit of 10,000 USD cash if not you can carry your visa/credit card for your personal shopping. Tipping is not a standard practice but there are no strict laws against it too. You may or may not want to tip the driver, porter, bell hop, maid, tour guide or any other service provider depending on how much you were satisfied with the services they provided and how much you enjoyed your trip because of them. It is not compulsory to give out tips in Bhutan and you are the one to decide whether you were really treated & served well or not and whether they are worth rewarding.
In hotels and restaurants, usually a standard service charge is levied on your bill but if you are really happy with the good service that they gave you, you can offer a tip to service staff. Normally, people pay tips after the work is completed but there are people who tip the staff beforehand to ensure a good service too.
You may tip a small amount to the room service attendant on the very first day of your stay in the hotel to ensure that they give you a better service but do not forget to tip them at the end of the stay, if they have really been attentive to you. Porters can be tipped certain amount per bag that they carry. Tipping the driver is not too common but if he has driven you safely and made your drive pleasant for you, you may tip them per day, depending on the distance travelled. You can leave the change as the tip for the waiters at the restaurants.
1. Do I need to use a tour operator to book my travel ?
It is a government regulation that you must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator to book your travel to Bhutan or one of their international partners.
2. Do I need a visa to enter Bhutan ?
All International tourists wishing to enter Bhutan require a visa which must be pre-arranged through a license Bhutanese Tour Operator or one of their international partners. Visa clearance must be obtained through your tour operator prior to travel. For Indian passport (or VIC) holders, Bangladeshi nationals and persons from the Maldives may obtain a visa on entry.
3. How much does the visa cost ?
For International tourist visas, a cost of USD 40 is applicable. This can be paid in advance to your tour operator or travel agent. For Indian passport (or VIC) holders, Bangladeshi nationals and persons from the Maldives, there is no cost incurred.
4. How do I get to Bhutan ?
There are a number of airports where you can fly into Bhutan from (Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Bodh Gaya, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Guwahati, Singapore and Mumbai.). At present two carriers operate to Bhutan, Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. Also, there are three land border crossings which you can travel into the kingdom overland. All crossings are along the Indian border only – Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar. All travel arrangements to Bhutan must be made through a local tour operator. A list of tour companies operating in Bhutan is available on this website. Your selected tour operator will make all the necessary arrangements.
5. What does the $200/$250 per day minimum daily package include ?
The $200 per day (January, February, June, July, August) and $250 per day (March, April, May, September, October, November) package includes a minimum of 3 star accommodations, costs for food, an experienced guide and transportation within the country. Also included in the price is a $65 per day Sustainable Development Fee that goes towards free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation. All of these services will be arranged by your tour operator.
6. What currency is used in Bhutan ?
Bhutanese currency is known as the Ngultrum. Its value is tied to the Indian Rupee which is widely accepted in the country.
7. Is there a limit on the number of tourists that can enter Bhutan each year ?
There is no limit on the number of tourists allowed to visit in a year. In order to protect their culture, traditions and natural environment, the government has adopted a unique policy of “High Value, Low Impact ”. This policy is aimed at attracting discerning tourists that will respect the unique culture and values of the Bhutanese people while also providing the visitors with an unforgettable one of a kind experience.
8. What’s the food like in Bhutan?
The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chillies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered very important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that is not spicy.
Rice forms staple Bhutanese diet. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are consumed most often. A wide selection of western and Indian food is also available in many of the restaurants around the country.
10. What should I pack ?
It depends on the season of travel. Except for summer months, warm clothing, down jackets, and sweaters are recommended. In summer, heavy cottons and lightweight woolens will be acceptable. Layering is best to accommodate the varying temperatures. Also remember to pack comfortable, soft-sole shoes. While visiting temples and other religious places, remember to dress conservatively. Slacks are more appropriate for men and pants/longer skirts appropriate for women. Shoulders must also be covered when inside religious buildings.
11. When is the best time to travel ?
Our destination specialists will recommend certain travel times after learning more about your preferences. The Bhutan climate is varied and depends on the elevation. The southern areas are more tropical while the Himalayan regions have continual snow. The southwest monsoon is usually from June – September. Also, many travellers visit Bhutan during a specific festival or holiday, when the towns become vibrant stages for music and dance performances.
12. Are vaccinations required ?
Immunisations are not required to visit Bhutan. (Exception: if you are traveling from an area infected with Yellow Fever, you must have a certificate.) Depending on the season and region of travel, certain vaccinations and/ or medications are suggested and we will recommend preventative measures. We do encourage all travellers to be current on routine immunisations. Also, we recommend the Tetanus and Hepatitis A vaccine. Malaria is present in lowland regions of Bhutan, and preventative treatment and tropical strength insect repellent is advised.
13. Is altitude sickness common ?
Yes, altitude sickness is common in Bhutan and can affect any traveller, regardless of age, strength, or fitness level. Symptoms include dehydration, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, edema and insomnia. To alleviate the chances of altitude sickness, we recommend limiting alcohol, staying hydrated and planning for rest days in the higher elevations.
14. Is Bhutan a safe country ?
Bhutan has a low crime rate and is generally a safe country. However, as with any international travel, please be aware of your surroundings. Check with your guide about the safe/unsafe areas of town and use caution when traveling alone. Also, always make sure your purse is zipped and wallets are in sealed pockets. In the markets, be vigilant of pick-pockets and distraction scams. The best deterrent is caution and awareness.
15. Do Bhutanese speak English ?
English is commonly spoken, as it is the medium of instruction in schools. The national and official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, a Tibetan dialect spoken mainly by Ngalop in the northern and western parts of the country. Road signs and government documents are written in English and Dzongkha, and the national newspaper is printed in English, Nepali and Dzongkha. In the villages, different ethnic groups speak their own language.