What to Know Before Traveling to Bhutan
Once I found out about the Kingdom of Bhutan, I was determined to get myself here to experience the world’s last “Shangri La” – a country that makes most of its social and political decisions on Gross National Happiness.
But traveling here requires a little bit of work. Here are a few things you need to know before traveling to Bhutan:
The Only Way to Travel Here is with a Tour Company
Independent travel to Bhutan is forbidden, unless you’re a citizen of India or Nepal. For everyone else, you’ll have to go through a tour company approved by the Kingdom of Bhutan. I went with used Rainbow Tours and Treks, and they were fantastic.
The government also has a cap on the amount of tourists they allow into the country per year, and to curb the effect of tourism on their nation, they mandate that tourists pay the following fee, per day.
High Season Tariff – USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.
Low Season Tariff – USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
To Travel Here:
- Use this list of Bhutan tour companies approved by the government.
- Send out emails to these companies with your desired dates
- To confirm, you’ll need to either wire or deposit the funds into their accounts. This feels kind of sketchy, but it’s the way it goes.
- Print 2 copies of the visa they will issue you for customes.
Now that you know how to make it happen, here are other things you should know:
After the Fee, Your Expenses Are All Covered
That $200 per-day mandate by the government sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that the expense is then applied to everything—hotels, meals, transportation and your guide.
Once paid, you get here and don’t spend a dime other than what you’ll tip your tour guide and driver (most recommendations say $3-5 per day, but I think that’s way too low and would instead shoot for more like $10-20).
That’s pretty in line, or less, than what you’d spend for a day of accommodation and eating in most European countries.
One weird thing I found was that while your meals include tea or coffee or water, if you want a soda, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for it (roughly 100 BTM).
Personally, I changed $100 in Thimpu and spent nothing else.
You Will Be Hiking and Climbing A Lot
Bhutan is a mountainous country and as such, almost everything you visit will involve you climbing stairs or hills to get there. Most tourists come here for the Tiger’s Nest, which is of course, a 5-hour hike that you really don’t want to miss. So to prepare you for that, many tour companies will build hiking into your daily itinerary.
I’ve been joking that Bhutan is fat camp in disguise because it is literally impossible to gain weight here between how much you move and what they feed you.
The Food Ain’t Great
Since your meals are all included, you can expect to eat the following over and over again. Your meals will look a little like this:
Breakfast: You’ll have tea or coffee and then an egg, cooked to order with toast. There might also be porridge or cereal, and definitely fruit.
Lunch and Dinner: Will almost always consist of rice, vegetables (steamed or cooked in melted cheese) chicken, served in small chunks on the bone, which make it difficult to eat. Also cabbage or spinach or potatoes, and for dessert you’ll have fruit. Tea and coffee and water included, but no sodas.
At this point, I’ve been in Bhutan for 7 days and I’ve eaten chicken and rice 14 times. I am properly sick of chicken and rice—if the prince of England asked me out for chicken and rice, I’d say no.
None of the meals have been bad, per se, they’ve just been the same. Only one I walked away saying, yum!
Do Not Expect The Internet to Work
I knew from what I had read that internet in Bhutan is spotty. But I didn’t realize how spotty, as I’d just traveled through Tibet where I expected it to be rough and yet was connected almost all of the time.
The infrastructure here just isn’t quite reliable yet—power cuts happen often and wifi connections often say they’re connected, when they’re not.
So, if you’re traveling here, don’t expect to be able to get anything done online—that way you’re pleasantly surprised if/when it works.
Since my job relies on internet, my tour company helped me get a Bhutanese SIM card, which cost me 100 BTM (same as a can of coke) and gave me service online for the week I was here.
Can You Get Around the Fee?
In short, no. If you’re a travel writer or member of the industry, you may be able to work with a tour company to attend on a FAM visa, but you’ll likely still have to pay something per day—it most likely won’t be free.
This, however, is one of the few examples I can think of where your tourism dollars are really put to work. Every dollar helps to build roads, create jobs, pay for education, etc.
Traveling solo through Bhutan is incredibly safe. More or less, no one will pay you any attention which means no uncomfortable stares like you get elsewhere in the region. Still, it’s best to dress modestly as the Bhutanese do in their national dress.
For feminine products, your best bet is to bring them from home as your access here will be far less. You’ll likely be able to find sanitary pads, but that might be it.
The Best Part About Bhutan
Is having the chance to experience a country where almost everyone is genuinely happy with their government. They may not have a lot in their personal lives, but almost everyone seems to live more or less comfortably. I don’t recall seeing a single person sleeping on the streets. Drugs are not a problem. Crime is incredibly low and even then, prison is seen as a way to reform oneself into a better person. This Buddhist country is run based on Gross National Happiness, which seems to make everyone, more or less happy. And that’s a really beautiful and refreshing thing to see.
Have you ever been to Bhutan?