Please do not rely on this piece. I did not spend days researching this, and also, things change all the time. I do hope it will get you started and hopefully you’ll enjoy the read. The advice covers mostly the standard route from Paro to Trongsa. The situation in the rest of the country differs.
The best news first: Bhutan is quite possibly the most beautiful country you will ever visit. It is also extremely safe. Its hospitality industry, which is exclusively focused on low-impact, high-value tourism, is well-established, highly regulated/supervised, and professional.
Welcome to the land of the Thunder Dragon
We left very much with the impression that everyone, the government as well as all citizens, have a strong interest in making your stay as pleasant as possible, and they will make an effort to make you feel welcome from the moment you arrive.
Some of the local laws might not come across as particularly liberal to Westerners, but overall the atmosphere has a very open touch and feel. Make sure you respect the local traditions and rules, of course, but the fellow travellers we spoke with and we ourselves never felt the need to constantly worry about invisible lines we weren’t allowed to cross. Quite the contrary.
Different from, say, hugely popular Dubai, we are not aware of any serious incidents involving Western tourists getting into trouble. Your guide will always be available to give you pointers, where needed. There was an incident of an Indian visitor climbing on top of a holy chorten last year. He was arrested but later released without charges after he had issued a written apology.
The situation is depending on a million factors such as your country of residence and is constantly changing. At time of writing no tourists are allowed into the country yet.
While Bhutan’s hospitals are not up to Western standards and there is extremely limited capability to deal with Covid patients, the country’s Covid response has found admirers around the world. Hardly any other country has been as successful in stemming the spread. There is not a single Covid death so far.
Preservation and celebration of Bhutan’s unique culture and traditions
The whole country is very much focused on the preservation and celebration of local culture and traditions, in many ways moving further away from Western values and consumerism over the years. However, at the same time, locals are interested in and open towards the Western lifestyle, we never witnessed any sneering or antagonism, quite the opposite. Locals are genuinely proud about their culture and want to share it with you.
Select your tour operator wisely
Unless you are from certain South Asian countries, you will be obliged to have your whole tour organised by a local tour operator or through a foreign agent working with a local tour operator.
A list of authorised tour operators in Bhutan, may be obtained from the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
We would recommend Bhutan Norter, the company that sponsored our visit, but whoever you choose, make sure you do your research. Ideally you will find some good reviews or recommendations relating to them.
Ask plenty of questions. In the recent past, there have been several issues with foreign middlemen/agents who tried to circumvent the strict local stipulations. From the very limited experience we had talking with guests of other tour operators and from our online research, we got the impression that overall the level of service does not seem to differ dramatically for the basic tour packages (not talking about special focus tours like cycling tours, upgrades to five stars, or non-standard travel itineraries).
The itineraries seem to be very similar, depending on the length of the stay, and the standard three-star hotels appear to be of a somewhat similar standard. The difference often comes with the expertise and flexibility offered and effort put in by your personal tour guide and driver.
You might choose to mention early on to your agent that for safety reasons you insist on a driver that does not use betel nut during the day. We witnessed one case where a fellow traveller’s driver seemed pretty spaced out on the addictive, slightly hallucinogenic, extremely unhealthy, but (locally) perfectly legal drug which increased in popularity over the last few years. Every single other driver, and we witnessed dozens most days, was very sober and very pleasant, so this is not a real issue.
We also usually ask plenty of questions about the car prior to any such trip. The difference between a brand-new, large SUV reserved for two guests, and an old, small van, used by eight guests can make or break your holiday.
You won’t cheap this one out
The government’s low-impact, high-value tourism policy means, among other things, that you will be asked for USD 250 (USD 200 during off-season) per person per day for your trip, plus something in the region of a one-off USD 45 for your visa. The whole amount becomes due before the local tour operator will, on your behalf, apply for your visa and start booking hotels, etc.
Visas are only issued on arrival, but you must apply in advance through a tour operator and receive visa approval before you travel. Your passport should be valid for at least another 6 months after your planned departure date.
The fee includes nearly all expenses for most travellers, i.e. hotel, food, your guide and the driver, the car, petrol, and admission fees. The fee also includes a USD 65 per person per day tax, which funds public services like education and healthcare. You will be asked for an additional USD 40 per day, if you travel alone.
If you limit your trip to Eastern Bhutan, then the USD 65 fee will not be charged.
The fee does not cover any upgrades, for example to four and five-star (from the standard three-star), special activities such as rafting or cycling, specialised focus tours such as bird-watching or trekking, alcoholic or soft drinks, the purchase of gifts, souvenirs, hygiene articles, clothes, or special food and privately organised restaurant visits. Tips are also expected and not included in the fee.
Visitors from several South Asian countries, including India will be charged USD 17 instead of USD 65 tax and can book their own accommodation and meals, etc.
Can I travel freely?
You can, as long as you stick with itineraries offered by your operator (as standard package or customised on request). No major customisations are possible once you are in the country, because your visa is linked to your specific itinerary. You can ask to do slight diversions from the route, stay longer or shorter at certain sights, etc.
Unless you are a citizen of certain South Asian countries, you are only permitted to travel with your tour guide. However, this never felt like an inconvenience or limitation to us. Very different from North Korea, your guide is not here to limit your movements, shield you from the real Bhutan, or prevent you from interacting with locals. He is here to make sure you have a great time and get all the insights you seek.
Non-South Asian tourists can only enter or depart the country through Phuntsoling, Samdrup Jongkhar and Gelephug (by road), or, by far the most common choice: Paro (by air).
Typically visitors give 12 to 20 USD per day to their guide at the end of their stay, and 10 to 15 USD per day to their driver. You also tip 1 USD for porters carrying your luggage and other minor tasks. You do not tip for anything else, normally, such as waiters.
Bhutan boasts one of the most magnificent wildlife habitats the world has to offer: tigers, rhinoceros, leopards, including the snow leopard, dolphins (yes, check out Trevor’s Travel Trivia), various types of bear, crocodiles, golden lemurs, to name just a few.
However, the elusiveness and rarity of those animals paired with the government’s low-impact, high-value tourism policy means that the most exotic animals you are likely to see are takin (in the preserve near Thimphu), yaks, barking deer, local fish, and birds, for example Himalayan vultures, black-necked cranes (during winter).
As mentioned, we never felt like we needed to constantly worry about what to say, not at all. As you would expect from any comparable country, there are a few obvious topics around which to tread carefully, such as Buddhism, or the ancient traditions that are held up so high by locals. The King and the royal family are still seen as incarnations of gods, so criticizing them amounts to blasphemy.
Don’t mention the “Nepali issue.” In the 90s, approximately 125,000 ethnic Nepali southern Bhutanese, nearly 20% of the population, were expelled from the country.
Some visitors have reported that their guides tried to steer them away from discussions about any Western influence or any potential issues with the strong focus of non-material aspects of happiness over material matters. Our guide was perfectly happy to involve in this topic.
The Divine Madman and the phallus depictions do not seem controversial among locals (and of course they shouldn’t be). On one occasion we witnessed some fellow travellers banging on too much about it, as if this were what the essence of Bhutan boiled down to, which did not cause any repercussions but felt rather uncomfortable to the rest of us travellers.
Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan apparently makes a good read (we only read bits of it so far), if you would like to come prepared.
Prophylactic measures and vaccinations
Happy to briefly share our experience, but it is absolutely vital that you visit an expert in travel medicine, as soon as you booked your trip (some vaccinations need several applications and can take many weeks). The advice is very likely to vary depending on the itinerary, activities, the time of year of your visit, and potentially fast-changing local conditions.
In our case we were advised that no vaccinations or prophylactic measures for local diseases like malaria or dengue fever were required. However, it turned out that we needed to spend USD 150 per person on refreshers of vaccinations that we had been given as children growing up in Western countries.
Protection against mosquitos
See above, you need to get your own advice. We were told to apply insect repellents several times a day, avoid bright colours, and wear long sleeves and no shorts, while travelling in the lower regions of the country.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate. There are various helpful websites, in the UK the best one is TravelHealthPro website.
Make sure you have some cash with you when you enter the country. You won’t be able to obtain the local currency at home by most chances, but take Indian Rupia or U.S. dollars with you, which you can then exchange. In case of Indian Rupia you will even be able to pay with them in nearly all places along the major tourist routes. The local currency is pegged 1:1 to the Rupia at time of writing. You will not be able to use USD widely, so will need to change these into local currency.
Many visitors, even if they told their bank at home about their upcoming trip, will find that they are not immediately able to take money out at the ATM. Not a single one of our cards worked and we had to call the issuers to make them unblock the cards.
You will only find ATMs in the biggest cities, and even those will at best be reliable two out of three times, from what we heard, on a bad day none of them will work at your specific location.
Just as you will typically not be able to obtain Ngultrum (Nu for short) in your home country, neither will you be able to exchange Nu back into the currency of your home country after you left.
You can simply purchase souvenirs at the airport with the leftover cash. No guarantee and best not to rely on this, but just to let you know: we asked nicely and were able to make a minor purchase in Nu at one of the airport shops and then have the full change (the equivalent of USD 90) given back to us in USD.
Hot for the Himalayas
Until we started to research our trip, we were full well expecting that a Himalayan kingdom, the highest country on Planet Earth, would be fairly cold at the very beginning of March. However, Bhutan is much warmer than we had thought. The temperature will clearly vary, though, depending on random conditions of the day, the time of year, the region, the altitude, etc.
To give an example, in Punakha, which is at a relatively low altitude at 1,300m, the average daily lowest temperature is 11C March, the average daily highest temperature is 22C. Even at Tiger s Nest I was sweating while just wearing a T-shirt (it was unusually hot at the time and the ascent was exhausting).
Always be prepared for cold weather and rain, though, possibly even snow and ice, depending on when and where you go. We did pass by tiny bits of ice and snow on the mountain passes, and we never ventured north of 3,250m. It does get a lot colder if you proceed further up.
Adventures on the Scoville scale
Locals do not consider it to be food, unless it contains vast amounts of super-hot chillies, so be prepared for a spicy culinary experience. An Indian blogger friend of ours admitted that he did not manage to finish his Ema Datshi, the national dish, because it was too hot for him. Of course he had been invited by locals who prepared the dish just the way they eat it.
We only enjoyed milder versions, adjusted for the Western palate, and found every meal, bar none, very pleasant or even outright ultra-delicious. Nearly all tours provide you with Western or generic Asian rice-based options, too, so there will be something for everyone.
Ask your tour operator to arrange a meal at a local family home or ideally farm house. Bring a bottle of K5 (named after the current 5th King of Bhutan) as a gift.
We never encountered any obvious issues with hygiene and did not meet any other travellers who did, but it is highly advisable to use the standard precautions for this part of the world.
Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap before using them to eat food. Buy your own water, carbonated water, so that you can be sure that the bottle is still sealed.
Sanitizing wipes in large amounts come in handy and do not pet the stray dogs you will find everywhere and nearly all of which carry disease, no matter how cute they look (they mostly do, and they are very peaceful).
Medications to bring
Just like you would for trips to other countries in the region, do bring ample amounts of Imodium, just in case. The roads are all very winding and steep so if you are prone to travel sickness, then come prepared. We always take ginger drops, but others might go for something stronger. Even if it seems highly unlikely that you would need it, just take any other medications with you that might come in handy, for example against headache, pain, or cold. Do not rely on local pharmacies, not that we have heard anything bad about them, it is just common sense.
We travelled via Abu Dhabi (and Kathmandu), and the UAE have extremely strict and – to the Western observer, irrational restrictions on medications, even if you are just on stopover. Some over-the-counter sore throat lozenges, cold medicines and plenty of other pills can land you in jail, so make sure that any medication you bring will be legal at all stopover points on the way. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet, which implies it is fine if your doctor said you need the medication or if you are only on a stopover.
Re-entry visas on the way
If entering and exiting through the same stopover point, there is a good chance you might require a re-entry visa. The embassy staff (or the computer, if you do it online) won’t care if you thought they knew that you will pass through their country twice. It is your job to make sure you request a re-entry visa, if needed.
Bhutan uses the UK standard sockets and plugs, so if your gadgets do not have those plugs, then make sure you bring a sufficient number of adapters.
We had heard horrific stories about the roads in the kingdom from some other bloggers. However, it seems that during the past few years, at least on the stretch between Paro and the Phobjikha Valley, the roads have improved a lot. We found all roads to be up to Western standards. We always felt perfectly safe. It helped that everyone drives extremely carefully and slowly. On some of the mountain passes we hardly ever exceeded 30km/h.
Statistically, Bhutan’s roads are among the safer ones in the region. During the rainy season, all road traffic is dangerous and should be avoided where possible.
Is Paro a dangerous airport?
Paro has been called one of the most difficult airports in the world with the runway nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains up to 5,500m high. We felt perfectly safe during the landing approach. There are a few sudden movements and the descent is pretty steep, but no one on board felt worried about it by the look of it.
Alcohol is easily available at all hotels and restaurants. Many locals enjoy their tipple.
The purchase and sale of cigarettes is prohibited and carries very harsh sentences up to several years in prison (for dealing, dealing being widely defined).
Up to 200 cigarettes can be imported for strictly personal use, subject to an import duty of 200%.
You must be able to produce your customs receipt if asked by the police or you will be charged with smuggling and could face a prison sentence of up to 3 years. Smoking is forbidden inside public spaces such as hotels, restaurants and bars, including most attached outside areas.
However, many venues visited by tourists will have designated smoking spaces.
Please do not smoke anywhere else.
While it is illegal to kill any animal for consumption, it is perfectly fine to consume meat, as long as it has been imported. Nearly all hotel buffet menus contain at least one meat dish, sometimes more.
WiFi is available at nearly all hotels and even some tea houses and cafes, mainly in the main cities. It is never very fast, but usually works okay’ish. Up- or downloading larger amounts of data will usually be a problem, the maximum is often at downloading a regular-size PDF or uploading a photo to Twitter.
Pigs on Pot
In Bhutan’s central valleys and the southern lowlands cannabis grows wildly everywhere. Farmers feed it to pigs as cheap fodder and to stimulate their appetite. Don’t even think about trying it yourself. It can land you in jail for up to five years.
Needless to say, stay away from Class A drugs.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Bhutan and the maximum penalty according to the law is several years in prison. Prosecutions are very rare, but they do happen. There are many useful online guides for LGBT travel, which should be consulted where relevant.
When visiting dzongs, temples, or other religious sights, make sure you dress respectfully. Also, do not enter religious buildings unless you take off your shoes first.
The export of all antiques is strictly prohibited and closely monitored.
For more information about the country, feel welcome to check out our posts about our one-week stay in Bhutan, our visit to Tiger’s Nest, Punakha Festival, and our two-part article about local travel trivia.