Bhutan travel guide
Bhutan

Bhutan Travel Guide: 20 Things to Know Before Visiting Bhutan

Are you planning a trip to Bhutan? Bhutan is a small landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas and is often called the Last Shangri-La or the Land of Thunder Dragon. Known for its Gross National Happiness index and its commitment to sustainability, Bhutan offers a truly unique travel experience. 

However, due to its remote location and strict tourism policies, visiting Bhutan requires prior knowledge and preparation. In this Bhutan travel guide, I share with you all the tips that you need to know before planning a visit to Bhutan.

Table of Contents

1. History of Bhutan

masks and history of Bhutan
masks and history of Bhutan

There are three sets of people who played a great role in Bhutan’s history and formed it into what it stands currently. The first one is Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche), a tantric Buddhist Vajra Master who came to Bhutan from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country.

The second one was Zhabdung Ngawang Namgyal (also known as the Unifier of Bhutan) who founded Bhutan and unified it into a single state.

The third is the Wanghuk Family (the current kings of Bhutan) – The Wanchuk family has ruled and united Bhutan since 1862. The first king of Bhutan was Gongsaw Ugyen Wangchuk and the current king is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk who has been ruling since 2006.

Based on this you might already think Bhutan is a Monarch country, but that’s not true. Bhutan is a constitutional monarch and a democratic country. 

2. Bhutan travel restrictions and new rules

Thimphu Valley
Thimphu Valley

Before COVID, Bhutan had slowly started moving towards “High Value and Low Volume Tourism”. This means that they started to regulate the number of people entering the country, which would help them reach their goal of Carbon negative by 2030. In 2022, Bhutan introduced SDF(Sustainable Development Fees) for all its visitors. 

Another important thing you need to know before visiting Bhutan is its mandatory to book your package with the help of a local tour operator and you need also to have a guide for your complete trip. 

Here are the details of the tour operator I did my Bhutan trip with

Bhutan Druk Adventure: https://bhutandrukadventure.com/

Contact Number: +975 7760 8671(Rinzin Dorji)

3. Bhutan entry permit for Indians and other travelers

Bhutan implemented SDF fees for all its visitors, due to its ties with its neighbor India, they have to pay a lower SDF than other travelers across the world. The SDF for Indians is ₹1,200 per day.

Tourists from other countries have to pay an SDF of  $100/day. (Since Sep’23, earlier it was $200/night)

Apart from the SDF, a guide fee is generally included in your tour package with your local tour operator.

4. How to reach Bhutan

There are two ways to reach Bhutan, either by air or by land. 

How to reach Bhutan by air

Flight landing at Paro Airport
Paro Airport, Bhutan

To reach Bhutan by air, you have to fly into Paro International Airport, the only international airport in the country. Several airlines operate flights to Bhutan, including Drukair, the national carrier of Bhutan, and Bhutan Airlines.

Due to the country’s unique geographical location in the Himalayas, the approach to Paro airport is considered to be one of the most challenging in the world. Only a handful of pilots are qualified to land at the airport, which requires navigating through narrow valleys and often turbulent winds. 

There are international flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Bangkok, Bagdogra, Bodh Gaya, Kathmandu, Singapore, Guwahati and Mumbai.

How to reach Bhutan by road

There are three main land ports through which you can enter Bhutan: Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar. The most popular amongst them is Phuentsholing which is the gateway for Indians to enter this beautiful country. 

Crossing through the land border is also cheaper than flying because of limited air connectivity and expensive flights.

5. Best time to visit Bhutan

Do Chu La Pass enroute Thimphu to Punakha
Do Chu La Pass

The best time to visit Bhutan is during the spring and fall seasons. 

Bhutan during the Spring season

From March to May, the weather is pleasant in the spring, with blooming flowers and clear skies. It is a great time to explore the beautiful landscapes and attend cultural festivals.

Festivals from March to May

  • Paro Tshechu – 21st to 25th Mar’24
  • Rhododendron Festival – 13th to 14th Apr’24

Bhutan during the Fall season

The fall season, from September to November, offers comfortable temperatures and clear views of the majestic Himalayan mountains. The autumn foliage in Bhutan is also a sight to behold.

Festivals from September to November

  • Tour of the Dragon(Mountain Bike race) – 2nd Sep’24
  • Thimphu Tshechu – 13th to 15th Sep’24
  • Gangtey Tshechu – 16th to 18th Sept’24
  • Black Necked Crane Festival – 11th Nov’24

Bhutan during the Winter season

The Winter season is also the shoulder season to visit Bhutan, December to January is a great time to explore the country. It is also the season to witness the famous black-necked cranes which can be spotted in Phobjihkha Valley during this time.

Festivals during December and January

  • Trongsa Tshechu – 9th to 12th Dec’24

The monsoon season is the only season one should avoid visiting Bhutan as you can’t do any treks during this season and there are possible chances of landslides and floods.  

6. Places to visit on your Bhutan itinerary

Bhutan is known for its stunning landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and unique traditions. There are numerous places to visit in Bhutan that offer a glimpse into the country’s beauty and spirituality. A few of the must-visit destinations in Bhutan are:

Thimphu

Buddha Doderma, Thimphu
Buddha Doderma, Thimphu

Thimphu has been the main capital of Bhutan since 1961. It currently serves as the political, economic, and cultural center of Bhutan and is home to the royal residence. The city offers a unique blend of traditional Bhutanese charm and modern development.

Visitors to Thimphu can explore its numerous dzongs (fortresses), monasteries, and museums, which showcase the rich cultural heritage of Bhutan. You can also visit the Tallest Sitting Buddha statue here.

Paro

Paro Dzong
Paro Dzong, Bhutan

Paro is known for its stunning natural beauty, with picturesque landscapes, lush green valleys, and majestic snow-capped mountains. It is also home to several historical and religious sites, including the iconic Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery, which is perched on a cliffside and offers breathtaking views.

Punakha

Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

Punakha is a small town located in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It is known for being the former capital of Bhutan and is home to the magnificent Punakha Dzong, a fortress monastery that is considered one of the most beautiful dzongs in the country.

Punakha is also famous for its stunning natural landscapes, with the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers adding to its scenic beauty. Visitors to Punakha can explore its historic sites, enjoy trekking in the nearby mountains, and experience the rich Bhutanese culture.

Bumthang

Bumthang is often referred to as the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and is home to several ancient Buddhist temples and sacred sites. It is also famous for its traditional festivals, or tshechus, where masked dances and religious rituals are performed to honor Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan.

Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha Valley
Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

Phobjikha is renowned for its natural beauty, unspoiled landscapes, and unique ecosystem. The valley is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including the endangered black-necked cranes. It is also famous for its stunning monastery, Gangtey Goenpa, which is an important religious site in the region. Visitors to Phobjikha Valley can explore its scenic trails, enjoy birdwatching, and immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of Bhutan.

Gelephu

Gelephu is known for its scenic beauty, with lush green landscapes and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The town is also famous for its agricultural produce, particularly rice farming. Recently the king has also announced the development project of Geluphu Mindful City which aims to promote biodiversity.

Phuentsholing

Phuentsholng Monastery at night
Phuentsholing Monastery

Phuentsholing is Bhutan’s gateway for Indian tourists. It is known for its vibrant cultural diversity and bustling trade. The town offers a unique blend of Bhutanese and Indian influences, with a mix of traditional Bhutanese architecture and Indian bazaars. Phuentsholing is also one of the best destinations for shopping for souvenirs in Bhutan. 

Apart from these destinations, Bhutan is also famous for its treks, here are some of the most popular treks in Bhutan

  1. The Jhomolhari Trek
  2. Snowman Trek (The most famous trek in Bhutan)
  3. Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek
  4. Owl Trek

7. Things to do in Bhutan

Bhutan is famous for its picturesque landscapes, ancient monasteries, vibrant festivals, and beautiful hikes. Here is a list of some of the best things to do in Bhutan to have a memorable experience.

Hiking Tiger Monastery

Tiger nest monastery(Paro Taktsang)
Tiger nest monastery(Paro Taktsang)

The biggest highlight of your Bhutan trip has to be hiking the tiger monastery (Paro Taktsang). Located in the remote mountains of Bhutan, this ancient monastery is perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys and forests. The trek to reach the monastery involves navigating narrow and steep trails and traversing through dense forests. Hiking to Tiger Monastery is not only a physical challenge but also a spiritual journey

Visiting the Dzong

Punakha Dzong at night
Punakha Dzong at night

Visiting the dzong in Bhutan is a must-do experience for anyone traveling to this enchanting country. Dzongs are fortified monasteries and administrative centers that are unique to Bhutan. These majestic structures showcase the country’s rich cultural and architectural heritage. Some of the most famous Dzongs you should visit on your trip to Bhutan are

  • Punakha Dzong
  • Tasichho Dzong
  • Paro Dzong
  • Trongsa Dzong

Visiting the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan

Punakha Suspension Bridge in Bhutan
Punakha Suspension Bridge, Bhutan

The longest suspension bridge in Bhutan is situated in Punakha and is 180 meters long. The bridge gives you a spectacular view of the Po Chuu River. You can find colorful Buddhist prayer flags draped across the bridge. The bridge is a great spot for photography and one should not miss this place on their trip to Bhutan

Visit Bhutan during a festival

Dance performance at Simply Bhutan
Dance performance at Simply Bhutan

Bhutan has several different festivals, but the most important among them is the Tshechu. Tshechu is also known as the Mask Festival and is celebrated annually in every district. They are celebrated to honor Guru Rinpoche(Guru Padmasambhava). Visiting Bhutan during these festivals is a special highlight on your Bhutan trip as you can experience the mask dances being performed in the Dzong.

Try archery

Locals enjoying a friendly archery competition shooting 100ft away
Friendly archery competition between the locals

Archery holds a special place in Bhutanese culture and is their national sport. You can find a lot of locals enjoying this sport with their friends and shooting arrows even from a distance of 100m. If you want to try this sport you can either join the locals or try it on the Simply Bhutan tour in Thimphu.

These are some of the most amazing things to try in Bhutan. You can also try hiking in Bhutan.

8. How many days are needed to visit Bhutan?

To fully experience the beauty of Bhutan it is best to spend at least 7 to 10 days in the country. This allows you to explore the most prominent places like Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, and Phobjikha, as well as engage in activities such as hiking and visiting monasteries

However, if you have a limited time of 4-5 days it’s best to visit just Paro and Thimphu.

9. How to plan your Bhutan trip with your local operator?

Bhutan Druk Adventure
Bhutan Druk Adventure

Based on all the information above you know that having a local guide is mandatory and so is booking a package with a local tour operator. When you contact your operator it’s best to ask them about the inclusions and exclusions in your package. 

Generally, the Bhutan tour package includes your stay and breakfast, transport within Bhutan, SDF, and the guide charges. Some packages include all your meals so do check with your tour operator.

I did my 8-day trip to Bhutan with Bhutan Druk Adventure and their service was top-notch. They were happy to show us around Bhutan and experience the best of the country and they went one step beyond by including more activities in the itinerary than the ones decided at the time of booking. 

Bhutan Druk Adventure: https://bhutandrukadventure.com/

Contact Number: +975 7760 8671(Rinzin Dorji)

10. Bhutanese Cuisine

Ema Datshi and Kewa Datshi
Kewa Datshi & Ema Datshi(Bhutanese Cuisine)

Bhutanese cuisine is a reflection of the country’s unique culture and traditional beliefs. The cuisine is centered around rice, which is considered a staple food in Bhutan. Traditional dishes often feature fiery spices, cheese, and fermented vegetables. Some popular Bhutanese dishes include ema datshi (a spicy chili and cheese stew), momo (dumplings), and phaksha paa (pork cooked with vegetables)

Ema datshi and the momos were my most fav and I had ema datshi almost every day in meals. The food is cheap in Bhutan and a meal would cost anywhere between ₹100 – ₹300 per person(~$1-$4).

11. Bhutan currency

The currency of Bhutan is called the Bhutanese ngultrum (BTN). It has been the country’s official currency since 1974.

The best thing for Indian travelers is that 1 Bhutanese ngultrum is equal to one 1 Indian Rupee and they also accept Indian currency in Bhutan so you don’t have to worry about exchanging currency. 

For other travelers $1 = ~83 BTN or £1 = ~105BTN. (as of Jan 2024)

As for withdrawal, the banks charge a minimal fee. Credit cards are also widely accepted in Bhutan and they charge 3-5% transaction fees. 

12. Bhutanese language

The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha and is spoken around the country. Due to tourism they also understand English and Hindi. But as a tourist in another country, it’s nice to know some of the words in the local language and converse with the locals.

Sharing with you some of the common words in Dzongkha

  • Kuzuzangpola – Hello 
  • Kadrinchhey – Thank You
  • Me Zhu – No thank you 
  • Tashi Delek – Good Luck
  • Zhimbay – Delicious
  • Ani gadem chi mo? – How much is it?

13. Bhutanese culture and tradition

Renting the gho in Paro
Renting the traditional Bhutan costume in Paro

Bhutanese traditions are deeply rooted in the country’s rich cultural heritage and provide a unique window into their way of life. These traditions encompass various aspects of Bhutanese society, including religious practices, arts and crafts, festivals, cuisine, clothing, and social customs. Sharing with you some of these customs and traditions that will be helpful before your Bhutan trip

  • You can either bow or do a handshake to greet people in Bhutan.
  • All the buildings in Bhutan follow a set of rules and thus you’ll notice all the buildings look similar
  • When entering a monastery make sure to remove your shoes and cover your knees and shoulders.
  • Another thing that you need to know is the rule of “No shoes no photos” ie. when you have removed your shoes you aren’t allowed to click any photos
  • The birth of a child is as good as a festival in Bhutan and no outsider is allowed to step inside the house for the first 3 days until the purification is done.
  • Driglam Namzha is the official dress code behavior of Bhutan. “Gho” is the national dress for men and “Kira” for women.
  • An uncommon cultural tradition in Bhutan is to worship the phallus, thus you’ll see a lot of buildings with phallus drawn outside or handicrafts in the shape of a phallus. 

14. Nightlife in Bhutan

Mojo park in Thimphu
Mojo Park, Thimphu

While Bhutan might not be as famous as the other countries for their nightlife, they surely do know how to enjoy themselves! The locals in Bhutan like to drink and sing and thus they have a lot of karaoke in the major cities.

The nightlife is only active on certain days of the week and they are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. It’s not like they don’t party on other days but on these days there is a larger crowd in the clubs and karaoke. 

Here are some of the clubs you can visit to enjoy the nightlife of Bhutan

  • Mojo Park (Thimphu)
  • Park 76 (Paro)

15. Shopping in Bhutan

Shops across the streets in Paro
Paro Main Shopping Market

The country’s rich culture and heritage are beautifully reflected in its markets and shops. From traditional handicrafts to exquisite textiles and intricate woodwork, Bhutan offers a wide range of products that showcase the country’s skilled craftsmanship. The bustling markets in cities like Thimphu and Paro are a delight for shoppers, with a variety of items available, including souvenirs, clothing, and local produce. Here are a few of the places you can go for shopping in Bhutan

Places for shopping in Bhutan

  • Thimphu – Handicraft Market
  • Paro – The main street with shops on both sides
  • Phuentsholing – Shops near the border (Cheapest place to shop in Bhutan)

16. Bhutan entry fees by bike/car

Are you someone who is planning to visit Bhutan by bike or car? Bhutan does let you travel with your vehicle, but you still need to get a tour package and a guide. There are additional costs of ₹4500/night whether it’s a bike or a car and here is the list of documents you need to bring for your entry:

  • Original driving license
  • Original registration certificate
  • Vehicle insurance
  • Vehicle emission
  • The owner of the vehicle must be the same person or an authority letter from the owner.

17. How to plan a budget trip to Bhutan

You might be wondering with all these SDF and guide charges Bhutan will be expensive. Well, the answer is No! An average 7-8 days package in Bhutan will cost you 40-50k per person which is similar to how much you’ll spend in other countries.

If you still want it cheaper the best option is to join a group trip. Niyati from Migrant Musings organizes group trips to Bhutan.

18. How to enter Bhutan without paying the SDF

Scenic view of Punakha
Scenic view of Punakha

Yes, you read that right, you can enjoy Bhutan without paying the SDF but there’s a small catch. You can only stay in Phuentsholing for as many days as you want without paying the SDF and are not allowed to go any further places in Bhutan.

19. Gold cheap in Bhutan

If you’ve seen the news of how gold is really cheap in Bhutan and want to travel there just for that reason. My advice would be please don’t. Gold is not cheap in Bhutan and you can find the live gold rate here: Official Bhutan Duty Free Gold

I will be writing a detailed guide on this soon!

20. Is Bhutan safe for women travelers?

On my trip to Bhutan, one thing that I noticed was the majority of the tourism industry was run by women. Even the nightclubs and Karaoke were run by women. In terms of safety, I would say Bhutan is very safe for women no matter if you are a local or traveler.

Bhutan travel tips: Things to know before traveling

  1. Travel to Bhutan during festivals
  2. Both USD and INR are accepted in Bhutan
  3. Don’t disrespect the royal family
  4. Cheap liquor is found in city shops than in Duty-free shops.
  5. Phuentsholing is the best and cheapest place for shopping in Bhutan
  6. Do try the Ema Datshi(Chili Cheese) dish
  7. You can get a sim at the port of entry airport or land border for 250BTN
  8. You can enter Bhutan without paying the  SDF but can’t go any further than Phuentsholing.
  9. Expect to see a lot of phallic symbols
  10. Try archery and different hikes in Bhutan

FAQ about traveling in Bhutan

Q1. How much will the Bhutan trip cost

Ans. The average Bhutan trip tour package will cost you 40-50k per person which would include your stay, SDF, and guide fees. 

Q2. How many days is enough for Bhutan?

Ans. 7-8 days is an ideal amount to stay in Bhutan and experience the most prominent places

Q3. Can Indians go to Bhutan?

Ans. Indians can travel to Bhutan and it’s also visa-free, but you have to pay a fee of ₹1,200/day as SDF. 

Q4. Do you need a guide to enter Bhutan?

Ans. Yes, according to the recent change in tourism laws, it’s mandatory to have a local tour guide who will accompany you for the complete trip length

Q5. Why is Bhutan difficult to visit?

Ans. Bhutan is difficult to visit because of limited and expensive flights

Q6. Is Bhutan visa-free for Indians?

Ans. Yes, Bhutan is visa-free for India but all Indian travelers are requested to pay ₹1,200/day.

Q7. Can I go to Bhutan without a passport?

Ans. If you are an Indian traveler you can visit Bhutan by just showing your passport or voter ID card. So yes. If you have just a voter ID card you can still travel to Bhutan.

Q8. Is food expensive in Bhutan?

Ans. Food is really cheap in Bhutan and a meal for a person would cost as low as $2-$4(₹100 -300)

Q9. What is the daily fee for Indians in Bhutan?

Ans. Because of Bhutan’s ties with India, Indians have to pay a lesser fee of ₹1,200/day when compared to $100 for travelers from other countries.

Q10. Is Indian currency accepted in Bhutan?

Ans. The best reason to visit Bhutan is that they accept Indian currency so you don’t have to be worried about Forex cards or currency exchange.

Q11. Can I enter Bhutan with my Aadhar card?

Ans. No, you can not enter Bhutan with your Aadhar card. You either need to have your passport or voter ID card.

Q12. What is the cheapest way to reach Bhutan?

Ans. The cheapest way to reach Bhutan would be to take a train to Hasimara which is just 16 km away from the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing border.

Q13. What is the best time to visit Bhutan?

Ans. Bhutan has two best seasons to visit, Mar-May and Sep-Nov. If you want to travel on budget you can also visit it during Dec, but do pack some layers of winter clothing.

Hope this Bhutan travel guide answers all your questions. If you have any other questions about Bhutan or need help in planning a trip to Bhutan drop a comment or message me on Instagram: stories.of.raku and I’ll try my best to answer them.

4 Comments

  • Vismay

    Nicely written. Glad to have joined you on the trip to Bhutan. Bhutan Druk Adventure did a great job in organizing everything. Highly recommended.

  • Dhanush Nk

    What a great blog, this has all the information required for people who are looking forward to travel to Bhutan. Very well written and the details in the blog is really helpful.

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