Bhutan Travel Guide: Overview
It’s easy to see why Bhutan is known as the “Last Shangri-La." Its culture—deeply influenced by a unique form of Buddhism and rich with traditions of spirituality, art, music, dance and food—has not only been preserved but treasured by its citizens. This is, in fact, a foundational tenet of Bhutan. Until only a couple of decades ago, the country chose to isolate itself from the rest of the world and refused the influences of other societies and customs. Televisions, smartphones and the Internet exist in Bhutan, but their ubiquity and impact on the local culture is much less than that seen with its neighbors. Further differentiating itself from other nations, Bhutan measures its economic and national success with a rather unique self-created methodology: Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Bhutan cares deeply about preserving its culture, traditions and environment. Located deep in the Himalayas, its natural beauty is abundant and timeless. Its charm and appeal also lie in its refusal to let tourism run wild. There’s no overdevelopment, no mass land sales and no exploitation of its people solely to make Bhutan a popular destination with travelers. Bhutan has strict controls regarding who can enter the country, how long they stay and where they go. For these reasons, it's not a budget travel destination, and it takes some planning to visit here, but as anyone who takes on the challenge can attest, once you arrive, you immediately realize, appreciate and celebrate just how truly special it is.
Archaeological evidence suggests this area was inhabited as far back as 2000 BC. Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the seventh century AD, extending the Tibetan Empire into the region and ordering the construction of two Buddhist temples in the Paro area.
Until the early 17th century, Bhutan was essentially a patchwork of small, warring fiefdoms, and then the Tibetan lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, who had fled religious persecution in Tibet, unified the area. To defend the country against periodic Tibetan advances, Namgyal built a network of impregnable dzongs (fortresses) and promulgated the Tsa Yig, a legal code that helped to bring local lords under centralized control. Many dzongs still exist and are active centers of district administration and religion.
Through the British East India Company, the British entered Bhutan in the 18th century as part of its colonial expansion into India, China and the region as a whole. The British remained involved in the country's affairs for the ensuing two hundred-plus years. After centuries of internal struggles, civil wars and conflicts with neighboring peoples, during which the British backed certain leaders and factions, Bhutan chose a king in 1907. The nation settled into an agreement that gave the British control of Bhutan's foreign affairs.
In 1953, the king established the 130-member National Assembly in order to promote a more democratic form of governance, and the country eventually changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.
It was only in 1999 that the country lifted its ban on television and the Internet and began to open up more to the outside world. In 2005, Bhutan began to implement a new constitution, and in 2007 and 2008, it held its first national parliamentary elections. After opening its country to commercial tourism in 1974, Bhutan welcomed 287 tourists that year. Every year, as the draw of this vibrant, unspoiled country increased, more and more people made the journey. Today, over a quarter-million people visit Bhutan annually.
Due to its relative isolation from the rest of the world and strong adherence to its traditions and religion, Bhutan has maintained its customs over the last several centuries. Experiencing the nation’s unique culture is one of the strongest draws for Western visitors.
Bhutan is officially the only Buddhist kingdom still in existence, and the large majority of the country adheres to the state religion of Vajrayana Buddhism. (By and large, Hindus make up the remaining people.) The religious leaders have always had a strong say in Bhutan’s political affairs and have been political leaders in the past as well. The lifestyle of the people, therefore, largely conforms to these religious beliefs. The country controls the influence of foreign culture, which is also why the local traditions have remained so strong. However, this is slowly changing with the continued presence of tourism, as well as the curiosity of much of Bhutan's younger population. The juxtaposition of young Bhutanese tapping their smartphones while traditionally dressed Buddhist monks walk by is becoming a more common sight in Thimpu, the capital city.
No rigid clan systems exist in the nation, and men and women share equal rights. Most of the country relies on subsistence farming.
The Bhutanese inherit some truly unique customs that have their origin in the mythological legends and folktales of the country. For example, visitors will likely see giant phalluses painted outside the homes of otherwise reserved Bhutanese people. Theses images represent the Divine Madman, a figure believed to ward off evil spirits. Don’t be alarmed when you see this on a person's home.
It’s compulsory for all Bhutanese citizens to adhere to a national dress code when in public. Men wear robes called gho, while women wear brightly colored kira with ornate brooches and wraparound skirts.
Visitors should take advantage of the opportunities to witness cultural experiences, such as dance, music, archery (a very popular sport) and religious ceremonies.
Good to Know
When traveling in Bhutan, keep some of the following in mind:
The official currency is the ngultrum (BTN), which is pegged to the Indian rupee (INR). US dollars are widely accepted. Bhutanese currency is only needed for personal expenses and small souvenir items. For larger expenses, travelers can use US Dollars and other foreign currency. Most ATMs in Bhutan (mostly concentrated in Thimphu and Paro) are compatible with international credit cards, such as Visa, Mastercard and Maestro. However, as the service is not overly reliable, it’s good practice to have a supply of ngultrum or US dollars on hand.
Tap water is unsafe in Bhutan. Stick to bottled water or the purified water provided by your hotel.
Tipping is not obligatory. Hotels and restaurant bills include service charges of 20 percent. There’s no need to add anything further to these bills, but do feel free to tip your guides, drivers and other crew members accompanying you throughout your trip.
Bhutan is a modest country that adheres to its Buddhist principles. Dress conservatively, and be respectful of the local culture and customs. Never touch someone on the head, and don't use your feet to point at anything. A formal greeting is to bow with outstretched, open hands (palms up). Always show the utmost respect in temples and holy places.
The standard voltage is 230 volt, and the frequency is 50 hertz. If you're coming from North America, you’ll need a voltage converter and plug adapter to fit your devices.
Most hotels have Western toilets and provide toilet paper, though some exceptions exist, particularly in local hotels in eastern Bhutan. There are very few public toilets, so take full advantage of hotel and restaurant facilities before any long drive. Most public toilets are of the Asian squat variety, and toilet paper isn't provided, but a container of water should be present.
When To Visit Bhutan
October to December is the ideal time to visit Bhutan as the air is clear, and the skies are sunny. January and February are colder, but in March and April, the climate remains dry and pleasant. In late spring, the famous rhododendrons bloom spectacularly and flood the valleys with color. Heat and humidity increase in May, and from June to September, monsoon rains cover the mountains.
- Thimpu is one of just two Asian capital cities that doesn’t have a single traffic light. (The other is Pyongyang, North Korea.)
- “Bhutan” translates roughly to “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” It earned this nickname due to the fierce storms that often roll in from the Himalayas.
- In Bhutan, killing a black-necked crane, which is highly endangered and culturally sacred, could carry a lifetime sentence in prison.
Full article coming soon.
Regions and Cities
Jakar: This administrative town in the north is the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan.
Punakha: A former winter capital of Bhutan, the city still hosts the monastic body in winter.
Thimpu: The capital and largest, most developed city, Thimpu contains many monasteries, museums and landmarks to visit.
Worth a Visit
Jigme Dorji National Park
Bhutan's largest national park, this stunning place provides sanctuary for many wild animals. Keep a keen eye out for any number of species, including snow leopard, Himalayan black bear, red panda, musk deer, sambar deer and barking deer.
Royal Manas National Park
This park and the adjoining Manas National Park in Assam provide an opportunity to spot many kinds of wild and exotic animals, including tigers, leopards, rhinos, bears, pangolins and elephants.
No Bhutan travel guide would be complete without mentioning the hike to this monastery perched atop the side of a cliff. It's said Guru Rinpoche (an eighth-century Tibetan Buddhist master) was carried from Tibet to this spot on the back of the tigress, hence the name. First constructed in 1692 near the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated, this monastery (still functioning amid daily visits from tourists) consists of four temples with residential accommodations for the monks.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Bhutan
Bhutan has one international airport (Paro) and two airlines (government-owned Druk Air and the privately run Bhutan Airlines). Although schedules change by season, usually several flights a week arrive from Kathmandu, New Delhi, Singapore and Bangkok. These are either direct or have a stopover. Only a few aircraft can operate on a runway as short and high as Paro's, and because all landings and takeoffs in Paro are by visual flight rules—the pilot must be able to see the runway and surrounding hills before landing—no flights can be operated at night or in poor visibility. When Paro’s valley is clouded in, flights are potentially delayed for days. When this happens, your tour program must be changed and everything rebooked.
Since independent travel to Bhutan is not allowed (you must apply and go through an approved tour operator), your tour operator will apply for and receive your visa for you when you book your trip, and you’ll normally have already paid the visa fee directly to that operator. When you arrive at one of the ports of entry for tourists, your visa endorsement is stamped in your passport at that time. You’ll receive a visa for the exact period you have arranged to be in Bhutan. If extenuating circumstances require you to obtain a visa extension, your tour operator will arrange it.
Bhutan doesn’t have a railway system, and because there’s only one main road through the country, the only way to see Bhutan is by foot, car or the very limited domestic air service, which is restricted to Paro, Bumthang and Gelephu, as of 2018. Travelers should discuss their desired routes and itineraries with their tour operators since tourists aren’t able to book their own flights or travel unaccompanied through the country.
The national highway, a stretch of tarmac that winds its way up and down mountains, across clattering bridges, along the side of cliffs and over high mountain passes, is in the process of being widened to double lanes. This is a massive undertaking because of the rivers, mudflows and landslides that currently present hazards—especially when it rains. Roads can easily become blocked due to snow or landslides and can take anywhere from an hour to several days to clear, and these conditions won't change with a wider road. Public buses are crowded, uncomfortable and generally not recommended for travelers. Point begin, however you travel, bring plenty of reading material for your journeys!
Taxis frequent Thimpu, Paro and Jakar, and drivers usually don't use their meters. If you’re traveling on a tourist visa, transport costs are likely included in the price of your trip, and you'll have a vehicle available for both short- and long-distance travel.
Bhutan is a multilingual society with 19 different languages and dialects spoken throughout. That said, Dzongkha is the national language. Widely spoken in the western region, this became the state language in 1971. Besides Dzongkha, you’ll likely encounter three other dominant languages: Tshanglakha (or Sharchokpa), spoken in eastern Bhutan; Lhotshamkha (or Nepali), spoken in the southern region and Bumthangkha, spoken in central Bhutan. As the medium of instruction in schools, English is widely spoken. Hindi is also common and understood by most Bhutanese because of the influence of Bollywood (Indian cinema).
If you want to practice the local language, here are some key phrases in Dzongkha:
- Hello: Kuzu zangpo la
- How are you?: Gaday bay zhui?
- Yes: Inn
- No: Men
- Nice to meet you: Ga choe da je di sem ga yi
- Excuse me: Atsi zur nang
- Thank you: Kadrin chhe la
Food and Drink
Although Indian, Tibetan and Nepali influence can be felt in the local cuisine, Bhutanese food is quite unique and strongly reflects the local ingredients. Datshi (cheese) is ubiquitous throughout Bhutan and is combined with potatoes, meat and other vegetables in a number of dishes. Ema datshi (chilies and cheese) is the most famous dish in Bhutan, and it’s present in nearly every meal. The chilies, which can either be fresh green chilies or dry red chilies, are sliced lengthwise and cooked with Bhutanese cheese and plenty of butter. Chilies are used in lots of Bhutanese dishes, and they can pack a punch! Meat is eaten more commonly in Bhutan than in other neighboring Buddhist regions, which is largely due to the mountainous geography and relative lack of many fresh ingredients beyond chilies, potatoes and a few other vegetables. As a result, it's common to see beef, yak and pork meat used in Bhutan.
Food in Bhutan: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Bhutan is generally one of the safest places in the world for tourists. Tourism is a huge part of the Bhutanese economy, and daily tariffs and strong government control ensure there’s little to no crime committed against visitors. Thimphu police are quite active and do rounds around the city at night to ensure the safety of those enjoying Bhutan travel.
Bhutan has a universal health care system, and hospitals and clinics are located throughout the country, even in the remotest areas. Travelers, however, should not expect high-tech facilities.
In terms of the natural environment, bears are a threat in remote mountainous regions.
Tobacco users should know that the sale of tobacco (cigarettes, chewing tobacco or other tobacco products) is effectively banned throughout Bhutan. (Bhutan remains the only country in the world to enforce this policy.) Penalties for possession or use of tobacco might be severe. That said, due to a parliamentary amendment in 2012, the country now allows visitors to import a limited quantity of cigarettes and tobacco products into the country for personal use only. To do so without facing fines, one must have receipts proving the payment of import duties.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Bhutan adventure!