Bhutan, known to the locals as Druk Yul or “The Land of the Thunder Dragon” because of the fierce summer storms that descend from the Himalayas, is a mysterious and fascinating landlocked country between the economic powers of India and China. Closed off to the outside world until 1974 – when the first foreigners arrived in the shape of media that were sent to cover the coronation of the King’s father – Bhutan has evolved in this semi self-sufficient state for the last 40 years. Giving way to a unique culture, not influenced by conquistadors or Imperial powers who never managed to control the country. It also follows Tantric Buddhist beliefs. As a result, this is a unique country with many quirky peculiarities and surprising facts and, above all, a heaven of spirituality sure to conquer all souls.
I embarked on a journey that may have changed me forever, one that taught me about compassion, about acceptance and about the impermanence of it all. Here is everything you need to know about traveling to Bhutan, from planning when to go on a trip, what to see, what to do and where to stay. The complete guide to Bhutan.
Guide to Bhutan – Planning a trip to Bhutan
Perhaps the most important element of a trip to Bhutan is deciding the right journey and activities. Visitors to Bhutan cannot plan independently and they must travel with one of the approved travel agencies that the Government has licensed. These are expected to charge $250 per day for what the Tourism Office calls the “minimum package” which includes guide and driver, all food and accommodation and all activities. The price drops to $200 for the lower season (monsoon summer months and snowy winter months). The fact that I was never alone although I was traveling solo reminded me, more than once, of North Korea, although in this case I could have spent time alone if I had wanted to and I did indeed interact with the locals in depth.
Most international travel agencies will be able to organise the trip for you, combining the destinations and types of activities that you are most interested in and putting together a set of lodges and hotels that adapt to your budget, albeit never at backpacker prices. However, they must use one of the Government approved list of agencies.
Lastly, all visitors to Bhutan except for Bangladeshi, Indians and Maldivian need a visa in advance. This will be processed by your agent and it is an easy process that can be completed within a day with a copy of your passport.
Guide to Bhutan – Arriving in Bhutan
There are only a couple of airlines serving the airport and this is likely going to be one of the most memorable landings in your life. Paro’s airport is one of the highest and most challenging airports to land in. There is no equipment available to pilots so special training is required to land given the narrow valley where the airport is and the short runway. Winds and bad weather may delay or cancel your flight so make sure to be ready for that. Or come in the high season (see below) for a lower chance of disruption.
Most international visitors come either via Singapore or Bangkok, the largest hubs in the region with direct flights. However, I would strongly recommend considering Delhi because of the scenic flight over the Himalayas during the 1h flight. You will be soaring high above the 7,000 plus peaks for the duration of the flight, an experience like no other. So, if you can, and many nationalities will have it easy with online e-visas to India, this will ensure a fantastic arrival. Delhi International Airport has a cumbersome but comfortable Holiday Inn where you can spend the previous night as you will most likely have to spend the night there during your connection.
Guide to Bhutan – How long should you stay in Bhutan
The time of the year and the length of your stay will determine how much of the country you can cover as roads are terrible and a lot of time is required to reach anywhere beyond Punakha, unless you are keen to fly into one of only three other airports beyond Paro or pay for a helicopter service. Until 2012, Bhutan had no airports so travel had to be done by road and it could take a few days to cross the country.
Generally speaking, one should consider at least 2 nights at each of the key cities to allow for road travel, three nights if you want to drive to Bumthang or the eastern parts, practically reachable by air as driving could take several days.
As I was planning my trip, my hotel kept sending me tables with the distances between cities and I never paid too much attention to it. Until I went to Google Maps to check the duration of my drive on day 3 from Thimphu to Gangtey and realised that the 130km was supposed to take almost 5h without any stops. Consider an average speed of 25-30km per hour for the journey then add in some roadblocks, which are almost guaranteed, and stops to take in the views and you will find the following distances for some of the key destinations:
Another thing to consider when you plan your duration is the altitude. Both Paro and Thimphu are above 2,000m high and, if you live by the sea or at low altitudes like me, you will feel it. On my first night in Thimphu I found myself out of breath just by walking up the flight of stairs to my room. At 2,500 meters, that was enough to leave me having a hard time breathing. Although this is not an issue if you do not plan to trek, it is important to remember that you will most likely need 3-4 days to acclimatise.
If you plan to trek up Tiger’s Nest, which lies at 3,100 meters and requires a trek up 800-900m from Paro, you should make sure to allow for this to happen after you have been in the country for at least four days and organise it for the last day before your departure. I climbed on my 8th day and had no issues, although the incline is steep and the trek requires a level of fitness.
Factor in all of the above and I would not suggest any trip to Bhutan shorter than 9 nights which should give you a chance to spend time in Paro and Tiger’s Nest, visit Punakha, spend time in Gangtey/Trongsa and reach Bumthang (flying back if possible). If you absolutely must visit for a shorter stay, then you are best dropping Bumthang. If you can spend two weeks, then you have a fair chance of seeing most of the country including maybe the East.
Guide to Bhutan – The best time to visit Bhutan
The weather is a major factor when traveling to Bhutan. Whereas it is important to travel when a destination is best showcased, in the case of Bhutan this is essential. In the Monsoon months of June to September travel should be avoided as roads become impassable, landslides are on the order of the day and the mud everywhere makes enjoying the countryside and some trekking impossible. There is a reason why the “minimum package” amount drops to $200. I highly discourage anyone from traveling during those months, considering the high price of the trip, you don’t want to be stuck at impassable roads, be limited in what you can do or not be able to enjoy Bhutan’s incredible nature.
Another season to avoid is winter. Located in the Himalayas for the most part, Bhutan can be very cold in the winter. Roads also become impassable, frozen and dangerous and the cold makes it more difficult to withstand the higher altitudes and destinations of Gangtey, Bumthang or even Paro and Thimphu. Already in November night temperatures fall to freezing and they hoover around zero during the whole winter (with the exception of tropical Punakha).
The best time to visit Bhutan is in the late Spring months of April and May and the Autumn months of October and November when the sun is shining, the sky is blue and nature is at its most beautiful. Be it because it is blooming with the new melting glacier water or because the leaves are changing colours, turning the country into a fairytale.
Guide to Bhutan – Where to go, the best areas to visit in Bhutan
As a tiny country measuring just 200 by 100 miles and with an elevation that goes from 90m to 7,500m Bhutan has changing landscapes and culture. These are the best parts of Bhutan for visitors.
The green valleys around Punakha enjoy tropical weather that comes as a surprise to everyone who visits Bhutan. In summer, temperatures can reach 30 degrees and even in November, the sun brought warm days at over 20 degrees Celsius. In Punakha one can trek across rice paddies, orchards and up mountains to small temples and monasteries. The river, wide and bloated, is the perfect excuse for some white water rafting, although don’t expect going down steep waterfalls but rather peacefully paddling down the river with occasional rapids.
As Punakha is located at only 1,200m, you do not suffer from oxygen shortages as you would in higher places, so it is a good place to start off if you like hiking but are struggling with altitude in the first days. Punakha is also the center of Bhutan’s longest hanging bridge and is near Chimi Lhakhang, the Divine Madman’s fertility temple.
The economic capital and airport location is also the closest town to Tiger’s Nest and the place with the most number of souvenir shops. Pretty much every hotel chain with presence in the country has a property in Paro to help with the very early flight departures and obsession with Tiger’s Nest. As Bhutan’s airport allows only daylight flying and needs clear skies for take off and landing, most of the flights depart in the early morning and there is little activity beyond 4pm.
It is advised to spend the last nights in Paro for two reasons. First, so that you are close to the airport on your departure day and second, so that you can climb up to Tiger’s Nest on the last day once you have been acclimatised to the altitude. The trek up almost 900m to 3,100 is an arduous 45 degree incline 2-3h trek for relatively fit people, add an hour or two more for the less able. I saw people and Buddhist devotees of all ages and fitness levels going up, and they made it, but they took a much longer time, some even the entire day. The pain can be minimised through the use of donkeys up to the half way point if you really must. The monks that live in the monasteries above Tiger’s Nest and the care taker, all in their 60s or 70s also walk up, so with a bit of patience and will power, anyone can do it.
If you have a bit more time, you should also visit the National Museum, the Paro Dzong, which is similar to the one in Punakha, Kitchu Temple (the first temple to be built in the 7th century). You can also enjoy some time for shopping or trying the national sport of archery, the only Olympic game in which Bhutan participates. Groups of local men play archery on the weekends everywhere around Paro in parks and common spaces.
The only capital in the world to have no traffic lights, Thimphu is sleepy and peaceful, much more than Paro. It was the King’s father who decided to move the capital from Punakha to Thimphu in the 60s and relative development, by Bhutan standards, followed suit.
In Thimphu you can visit the Dechenphrodrang Monastery and have a walk around the town center. This is also a great place to see three of the preserved arts of Bhutan in action. Visit a weaving center to see how the intricate local fabrics used to make the kira and the goh are manually weaved. Go to a paper-making center and watch the artisans boil the bark and make paper sheets, then turn them into beautiful wrapping paper or postcards. You can also visit many Thankha stores where you can see this ancient Buddhist painting art in action, and the patience that each of the paintings takes.
In Thimphu you can also visit the Takin Center, a place where some of the national animal species live. Takin are a rare and very strange animal that look exactly like a cross between a goat and a yak. It has the head of a goat and the strong body of a yak. They only inhabit Bhutan and some parts of Tibet and are a very unique creature. Although they might roam the mountains above 4,000m, it is almost impossible to see them in the wild so your best bet is this kind of zoo in Thimphu.
The largest Buddha in the country is high above Thimphu and you should also visit the city’s clock tower and the National Memorial Chorten, a stupa building that sits in town and is frequented by the elders who spend their last days praying for their loved ones and all beings by walking around the chorten, spinning the prayer wheels and praying.
Perhaps one of the curiosities about Bhutan is that it used to be one of the most coveted stamps in the world. Colourful specimens would be issued every year and they would be so hard to find that collectors from all over the world would pay large sums for them. You can buy some at the Post Office in town where you will be able to even make your own.
On the way from Thimphu to Punakha or as a half day excursion, you can drive up the mountains to Dochula Pass at 3,100m above sea level where you can have a drink with fantastic views over the Himalayas and Bhutan’s highest peaks. The pass is marked with 48 chortens built by the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to commemorate the Indian army soldiers who died in battle against Bhutan. Only in Bhutan can you find the Royal Family building structures to remember lost enemy souls.
Gangtey is an idyllic small village in the Phobjikha Valley. It is known for the beautiful landscapes and its monastery, perched on top of a hill. This is a most tranquil part of the country with early morning rolling mist and cows and yaks everywhere. Gangtey is also the place where the national bird, the black-necked crane, can be seen from November to January when it emigrates from Tibet. This is a precious and much adored animal and the locals believe it to bring good luck. If your lodge knows the head master at the monastery, you could offer a meal to the 50-60 monks and even help cook and serve it, like I did. The views over the valley and the flat bottom after the descent through fir forests taken out of a Tolkien book are unforgettable.
The spiritual center of Bhutan, Bumthang is made of four valleys Tang, Ura, Choekhor and Chumey. It is located in the center north of the country on the border with Tibet and the Himalayas and hence its elevation can reach 6,000m, bringing many high mountain passes above the 3,500m altitude and fabulous views of the many Bhutanese unclimbed mountains. To add to its aura, the long distance from Paro and the terrible roads make Bumthang a seldomly visited part of the country.
As the birthplace and center of Buddhism in Bhutan, the area is filled with some of the oldest temples, monasteries and fortresses often holding relics from previous religious leaders and even the bodies of the last three Kings. This is also where you are most likely to see masked dances during Bhutanese festivals, of which there are many through the year. Ura’s Yakchoe dance is particularly famous and is performed during May’s festival and Jambay Lhakhang Drup is a spectacular five day festival that culminates with a naked fire dance.
One of the most famous temples is Jambay Lhakhang, said to be one of the 108 temples built by Tibetan King Songtsän Gampo in 659 CE on a single day, to pin down an ogress to earth forever and is therefore one of the oldest in the country and included in UNESCO’s temporary list of monuments in Bhutan.
You can also visit Jakar, said to be the birthplace of Bhuddism in Bhutan as it was the first place that Guru Rinpoche visited when he arrived in the country. The summer residence of the first and second Kings of Bhutan is also here.
Bumthang is also a fertile area where orchards and dairy farms can be found and where the famous Bumthang cider and Red Panda Beer are made. So you can also immerse yourself into the art and craft of a good pint by visiting the Red Panda Brewery for a tour.
If you drive to Bumthang, you will have to split the trip into various stops as it would take a very long day’s drive to get there from Paro or Thimphu. Despite the long drive, the journey will give you the chance to visit Trongsa and its famous Dzong in the district of the same name. Trongsa Dzong is the largest fortress in Bhutan and it was built, like most other fortresses, in a strategic point by a river, but also high atop a hill surrounded by a seemingly sheer drop on either side adding drama to its beauty. The Dzong also contains a museum dedicated to the current dynasty and is a great place to learn more about Bhutanese monarchy as every King is first nominated Governor of Trongsa before he ascends to power. Becuase of its strategic position in the middle of the country and on the main road connecting east and west, the Governor of Trongsa was effectively able to control trade across the country holding much power.
Practically nobody visits the eastern part of the country. Because the west and center offer so much and the east is so remote and hard to reach, most visitors never make it to that part. Driving would be almost unthinkable, but since 2012 Drukair domestic flights connect Paro to Yonphula in the East.
Located in the southern part of the country, this is one of the few road connections to the rest of the world. Gelephu’s lower altitude also makes this a fertile land for growing produce and a major trading market. The area is known for its hot springs and for the national park where rhinos and other endangered species roam freely. Gelephu can also be reached via a flight from Paro as it is one of only three local airports.
Guide to Bhutan – Best things to do in Bhutan
Most trips to Bhutan include a bit of nature, trekking, culture, temples, heritage and traditions, meditation and landscapes and the right balance of each is best to provide an insight into this fascinating place.
Temples, culture and museums
Unlike other Buddhist or even Hindu countries, Bhutan complements the religious buildings with fortresses. In addition to temples, monasteries and stupas, the most important buildings in Bhutan are its fortresses or Dzongs. They are exquisite architectural feats, especially since they have all been built by architects with no training, no tools, no drawings and no nails. All of Bhutan’s Dzongs have been built using techniques that did not include any metal nailing. I realised that pretty much every time I would try to take a picture of a building working around its symmetry, the photos came out crooked and I started to joke around with my guide who pointed out that this was because the architects had only their eyes and hands. The lack of nails means that the structures hold through weights and resting beams and therefore are never symmetrical or equal on all sides. Bridges don’t line up with doors, walls don’t line up with roofs and beams don’t line up with floors.
Despite the image that the media may have portrayed of Bhutan that shows monks in temples, you are unlikely to see any large congregations around. Unlike Laos or Cambodia, where monks come out in the early hours of the morning to collect alms from devotees, Bhutanese monks are not expected nor allowed to do that. Partly, this is because the monasteries where they live are located far away from civilisation but also because of the belief is that a good Buddhist monk should not interact with the rest of the population and should instead remove himself from all material distractions. You will soon notice that most monasteries are very hard to reach and indeed isolated, making it hard for monks to interact with others.
The elders, and those in search of meditation, seek the wellness and spiritual retreats through the country that are available to those that want to retire away from distractions and meditate for long periods of time.
Many of the monasteries or temples in Bhutan are privately owned and only inhabited by their caretakers so you are unlikely to see many other monks.
Another main heritage site that is rich and culturally interesting are the preserved arts that Bhutan is trying to protect. Weaving textiles and bamboo, paper making, painting, crafts, carpentry, stone work, carving, pottery, bronze casting, embroidery and bridge building are all of Bhutan’s preserved arts, one of the four pillars in the Gross National Happiness index and they can be observed across the country, both as finished products as well as in factories and arts centers. The country’s geographical remoteness made it an eminently self-sufficient center so a lot of these crafts are also a necessity.
Active holidays – Rafting, trekking, hiking
Despite being known for the temples and its spiritual side, Bhutan’s Himalayan location offers a fair bit to those looking for a more active holiday. Although climbing the main peaks is not allowed as they are considered sacred, trekking and hiking through valleys and forests is a beautiful way to see the country. Most locations mentioned above will afford plenty of opportunities to hike or bike around. Most monasteries, holding the Buddhist philosophy of isolation from all material possessions, are located high up in hills and mountains so you can easily combine culture with hiking. Longer treks are also possible and your chosen tour operator will be able to provide routes and alternatives including overnights in local home stays or even camping.
In Punakha, white water rafting is a great way to experience the flowing river. Contrary to other white water destinations like Rotorua in New Zealand, Punakha’s rafting is peaceful and downstream so you almost don’t even need to paddle just let the water take you on a journey through the valley’s floor surrounded by rice fields and orchards.
Spirituality and wellness
Bhutan is a most enchanting and spiritual place. Buddhism is a way of life, not just a religion, and permeates everything. Spending time in the country is sure to make you feel at peace and rekindle yourself with those around you and with the world. Bhutanese approach life with acceptance of their destiny, kindness to those around them and all beings and a sense of spirituality that is unique in the world. Having traveled to many Buddhist countries like Thailand, Laos or Cambodia, I had a perception of the religion that was very different from what I experienced in Bhutan. Bhutanese follow a version of Buddhism that is closer to that of Tibet and, contrary to other Southeast Asian countries where Buddhism is followed, all aspects of their life are influenced and determined by religion. There are no double standards, no moral contradictions, just pure Buddhism in its most essential and bare form. Because the country was not Buddhist until the 7th century, animist or Bon practices are also delicately weaved into the culture and beliefs. Bhutanese believe in spirits of the forest, in magical tales and in superstition and such ideas flow naturally into Buddhism.
What is perhaps the most lasting and beautiful part of visiting Bhutan is that this spirituality and kindness is shared with the visitor. You do not have to participate if you don’t want to but there are many opportunities for you to partake in Bhutanese spiritual practices.
In Bhutan, blessings, offerings and gestures of gratitude are common. You can light butter lamps in a temple to make an offering or ask for a blessing. You can get blessed by a monk or participate in a ceremony. You can visit a monastery and help pay and cook a meal for the monks like I did in Gangtey. You can light incense in temples, make offerings of money or food and even sit still and peacefully at any of the temples and mediate like I did at Tiger’s Nest main shrine.
It is not only the mind and the soul that gets a treat in Bhutan but also the body. Although massages are not part of Bhutanese culture, hot stone baths are a tradition that can be enjoyed across the country. The hot stones are heated for a few hours on a wood fire then places inside a bathtub that is filled with water and Artemisia leaves, a medicinal plant that grows wildly, like most things in Bhutan. The therapeutic value of the bath is shared across the country and you are certain to be offered it through your journey. Mine was enjoyed at sunset, in Gangtey, in an open wooden hut atop a hill, with views over the valley and the flowing mist that retreated into the night, while my “therapists” if we could call them that, an old Bhutanese local man who had heated my stones for hours next to the hut and the lady from Amankora’s spa, were quietly chatting. The many butter lamps they had placed on the wall were tinkering in the soft breeze while I seeped in a massive wooden bathtub and smelled the peculiar mint-like aroma of the Artemisia as if I was in a giant teacup.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of the visit, regardless of how many offerings or blessings you participate in, is that the Bhutanese acceptance that this life is temporary does not get in the way or doing good and being kind, lest next reincarnation not be a progression to Enlightenment. And this feeling, is contagious.
Guide to Bhutan – Where to stay in Bhutan
Some international hotel chains own more than one lodge in Bhutan and can offer a stand alone itinerary with their properties only. The one with the widest coverage and longest tenure in the country is Aman Resorts with 5 Amankora lodges in Paro, Thimphu, Gangtey, Punakha and Bumthang. Just with their lodges you can make sure to see the best parts of the country but, of course, Aman’s hospitality and uber luxury standing is surely not for everyone. Estimate around $1500 per day for Amankora’s all in packages. An experience you will remember for life, I promise you.
Le Meridien and COMO have two properties in Paro and Thimphu or Punakha respectively, so if you are looking for a shorter trip you could contact them directly. Taj Resorts has a hotel in Thimphu as well. To me, a trip that focuses only on Paro and Thimphu is a shame because the most beautiful parts of Bhutan are the rural areas, despite most visitors finding the cities, void of any traffic lights or jams, nothing more than a village by Western standards.
If you want to keep the costs a bit lower but prefer luxury, you could contact a travel agency to combine some of the more affordable options in Paro and Thimphu where there is a lot of choice and then add COMO in Punakha and continue to the more remote parts with Aman in Gangtey and Bumthang. It would still be a luxury trip at more affordable costs than an all-Aman trip as COMO comes at around half the price of Aman and Le Meridien or Taj are even more affordable.
There are rumours that Six Senses is coming in with the same model as Aman and will start with a resort in Punakha. My guide even pointed at the exact location. I am a big fan of Six Senses having stayed at several of their properties in Chengdu, Oman and the Maldives among others and I know their philosophy and approach will suit Bhutan very well, so keep an eye on new openings.
Other than that, the country is filled with local hotels and home stays for the more remote areas and a reputable tour operator will be able to arrange the right trip for you at a closer price to the “minimum package” cost indicated by the Government. The Tourism Office of Bhutan has an extensive list of approved operators on their site and all international luxury tour operators will be able to put a package together.
What to eat in Bhutan
As a largely self-sufficient and isolated country Bhutan’s diet is simple and features the country’s most beloved ingredient: chilli. If you do not tolerate hot food you are in for a challenge as it is used in every dish. In fact, chilli is so important that the national dish is pure chilli and cheese. My guide even gave me the recipe for chilli and cheese to repeat at home.
Most Bhutanese meals include a selection of dishes, Indian style, with servings of various protein and vegetable choices and soup. Some of the nicest dishes to try are pork dumplings or momo, so common in Nepal, Mongolia and Tibet. Curry dishes with potatoes, sweet potatoes, yak meat, beef or chicken feature in almost every meal. Cheese is a common ingredient too, usually used in dishes in melting form. Green beans with cheese is a delicious example. Dhal, or lentils, tomatoes in various forms and potatoes feature in almost every meal. All meals are accompanied by red rice, the variety grown in the country, a fragrant, nutty and flavourful type of rice that is very different from the basmati or long grain rice of other Asian countries.
For drink, Bhutanese make their own rice wine, Ara, similar in taste and alcoholic level to Japanese sake. This is hard to buy in stores as most people make their own or buy from the neighbours. Ara is stored and served in weaved beautiful bottles that come with a handle for transport. This was the wine the Divine Madman requested, together with a beautiful woman, when someone came to him for a blessing.