Getting into and around Bhutan

At this point, you are probably asking, how can I get to this  land and travel there, learn more? Indeed, most ardent travellers, be they independent or group-oriented, ultimately reach a point where they focus on finding an extra-special destination in order to enjoy truly unique experiences. I am always searching and I must confirm Bhutan is one such destination. Despite being a somewhat costly proposition ( I don’t want to hide that from anyone) and perhaps a bit more chaperoned than I might desire (because independent travel is not allowed), it does still hold a unique position on the list of destinations. Bear with me for some practicalities!

During the booking stage exclusivity is ensured by the following process: All tourists (except Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldivians) need a pre-arranged and pre-paid itinerary, whether travelling solo, as a pair, or in a group. Each travel package must be organised by an accredited tour operator, usually Bhutanese. A fixed nightly fee is charged, out of which accommodation, meals and transport are provided. Currently the nightly fee is US$250 in the high season and US$200 in low season (65 dollars goes to the government). A supplement applies to single (US$40) and couple (US$30 per person) parties per day. Peak seasons are March-May and September-November, and for those periods  it is advised to book well in advance. A guide and driver  are included in the package.Tips for them are given at the end of the trip, and are generally determined by the size of the tourist party. Between US$3 and US$10 per day is the guideline.

The visa is arranged by the tour operator, but requires the passport photo page to be scanned. Approval is granted only after the tour price is received by the Bank of Bhutan and a visa clearance letter is issued. Such letter has to be shown at check-in or, if arriving by road, at the border where the visa is then stamped into the passport. All flights to Bhutan land at Paro airport, and are operated on Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines. Departure points are Kathmandu, Singapore, Bangkok, Dhaka, and several Indian cities.

Additionally, there are three designated land entry and exit points, Phuentsholing (the major border with Bengal), Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar (in the east). An Indian visa is required  if using  land borders or flying through Indian cities. For example for my first visit in Bhutan I arrived and exited from Phuentsholing across the Indian border town Jaigaon in Bengal. For my second  trip I flew  into Paro from Bangkok (right past Mount Everest) and  exited from Samdrup in Eastern Bhutan into Assam/India.

Often people fly in because road travel is slow due to condition and sometimes weather. Whichever method you are choosing, there is always a friendly guide and driver welcoming you to take you safely to a mostly 3 or 4 star and comfortable hotel.  Again all meals are provided by the hotels in the package. Generally a western breakfast is served; for lunches and dinners choices are comprised of Indian, Chinese or Bhutanese dishes. You could also eat elsewhere in restaurants and cafes, especially in the capital Thimphu.

Bhutanese cuisine includes meat, poultry, rice, vegetables, and stews, nearly always with chili. Salted butter tea (suja) and local beer (chang) are common. The food is usually offered in buffet style and in regard to food  I would like to offer some advice. It is understood that beside exotic locations exotic food experiences are ecumenical. Bhutan is no exception. However, one must know that Bhutanese eat mostly just  one dish for their meals: Ema Datse (cheese, chili and rice). So here is a tip. While passing through the different areas of Bhutan ask your guide to point out the local produce. You will discover organic fruit, cheeses and vegetables  that often do not appear on the tourist menu. Do not be afraid to ask in the kitchens and hotel dining rooms (perhaps with a bit of notice) for something of the local produce. You might be surprised! And this simple act may change your food experience into something quite memorable.

Enough of food and back to touring. Most first time visitors opt for 6 night tours exploring Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. Some seek a longer and a more adventuresome journey to remote areas in Eastern Bhutan. Monastries and Dzongs (fortresses) are clearly the prime attractions in Bhutan. Tiger’s Nest  (Taktsang Monastery), a 6 km hike from Paro,  is a major draw card. Smart casual dress is required for entry to monasteries and photography privileges are restricted. Whilst most institutions are in Thimphu, the National Museum is in Paro. They tend to be closed on weekends.

As I already noted above, every visitor will at some point pass through Bhutan’s capital Thimphu. For me it was in Thimphu where I first experienced my enchantment and decided to establish a website to convey this feeling. Thimphu has an average January low of – 2 C and an August high of 25°C; so depending on the season you come don’t forget clothing for both wet and cold weather. A power cord adapter is also useful.  Leave your smokes at home (if you have this habit) because smoking is restricted or even barred in some spots and a 200% duty applies to tobacco brought in. Yes, and at this point let’s talk money. The Bhutanese Ngultrum is fixed at the same exchange rate as the Indian Rupee. Rupees and several foreign notes are readily accepted in Bhutan and it is recommended to bring relatively smaller denominations. Sometimes credit cards can be used and there are ATMs  at the airport in Paro as well as in Thimphu.

For those more sporty types (and I am certainly not one), trekking  is available  and trekkers usually camp or use farm stays with shared facilities. Trekking requires an extra permit. There are numerous treks, some up to 30 days long such as the Snowman Trek, but the most popular is the Druk Path from Paro to Thimphu. Bhutan is also renowned as a land of many festivals (tchechus) and the one in Thimphu is possibly the best known.

Colourful markets and craft stores abound for souvenir shopping and prices are usually fixed. The export of some antiquities is prohibited. Bhutan has also gained importance as a health or spiritual retreat. A search on the internet will yield the right tour operator for the choice and theme of the desired trip.

Festivals and interesting architecture also shape tourism in Bhutan. Archery is the national sport. Competitions are held throughout the country at weekends. Visitors are not only welcome to watch but also to  add their voice to the enthusiastic cheering that accompanies these events.

Don’t forget to observe the animal world of Bhutan.  First, there is the Takin Preserve in  Motithang, a suburb of Thimphu. The Takin is the national animal. It looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. Then, venture out, encounter the Yaks and the black-necked cranes in the Phobjikha Valley.

Now, get ready for a special journey. Bring an open heart. See with open eyes, soak up the magic, bear in mind that you might not find the same facilities as in other tourist destinations. Bhutan is a kingdom in the sky and not a country with huge shopping malls. Last not least choose your tour operator well.

After all that, simply……join the people of Bhutan and enjoy!

To make things easier for you, here is a link to the informative and useful site of Bhutan’s tourism council. The Tourism Council lists lots of tour operators. Do your research and make a choice. I thank the Tourism Council for contributing photos to “Hello Bhutan”. Also keep your eye on Wanderlust ; this publication voted Bhutan as a top destination at times and in 2012 it listed this website as one of 8 top sites.

Read about Bhutan

Lonely Planet Guide to Bhutan – There are few guidebooks about Bhutan and Lonely Planet is one of the best. Most likely you won’t use this book for hotel and restaurant recommendations because your tour operator will be making your hotel reservations on your behalf. However there is plenty of  great historical, religious, cultural and other information in this guide to keep you reading, during and long after your journey to the Kingdom.

Bhutan, a Trekker’s Guide – This book offers a very detailed guide to Bhutan’s many (but not all) treks. If you’re considering one of the more popular routes, this guide will help you plan and prepare. Times and distances are pretty much on target but understand that new paths on the same routes are often developed, cutting down times while also rain/bad weather can increase times by quite a bit.

Beneath the Blossom Rain by Kevin Grange –This is Kevin’s story of undertaking the Snowman Trek, notoriously known as the hardest trek in the world.

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Queen Ashi Dori Wangmo Wangchuk –Marvellous that the Queen of a country would spend so much time trekking the mountains of the Himalayas to meet the locals and to find out what their needs were. Queen Ashi Dori Wangchuk did just that and and wrote about her experiences from the perspective of a true insider.

Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom by Francoise Pommaret – Francoise is an ethno-historian who has lived in Bhutan for 30 years and knows Bhutan like few outsiders. This book is a comprehensive study of all facets of Bhutan and its people. It is not a guidebook in the Lonely Planet sense, but a must for anyone travelling to the country.

Beyond the Sky and Earth by Jamie Zeppa – One of the best memoirs about Bhutan, this book chronicles the story of the author who spent a couple of years in Bhutan working as a teacher in a remote village. It’s reflective, insightful and a romance all at once.

Buttertea at Sunrise by Britta Das – Though this book isn’t quite as well known as Beyond the Earth and Sky, it makes for enjoyable reading. Similar to Jamie’s story, this book chronicles Britta’s 2 year stint in Bhutan as a physical therapist in a remote region. It, too, is insightful and a love story.

Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon by Katie Hickman. This book represent an excellent story about Bhutan written by a foreigner. It follows Katie and her partner’s travels across the country by foot and by horseback. She was one of the first travellers to be allowed entrance into Eastern Bhutan and thus she provides insight into this region that was so untouched by the outside world.

Under the Holy Lake by Ken Haigh – Though this book is based on Ken’s experiences in the late 80s, it’s likely that little has changed in Eastern Bhutan since his work as a teacher in a small village. Equally as well written as the other memoirs about Bhutan, Ken writes with a fresh perspective and interesting insights.

Bhutan: The Land of Serenity by Matthieu Ricard – This coffee table book was written and illustrated by Matthieu, who is a professional photographer and the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. It’s filled with images of the Kingdom and includes details about the culture and religion.

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming – This is a must read book that provides a “big picture” overview of the country and its people. Linda has lived in Bhutan for 10 years and is married to a Bhutanese artist. She writes in a funny and insightful way and is a person who has a deep appreciation for the culture, but who is also still an outsider.