Bhutan is a mysterious country that is shrouded by the famous Himalayan Mountains. It’s often considered to be a forgotten kingdom, where Buddhist culture dominates, and tourists are strictly controlled by a governmental tariff.
With a minimum price of $250 US dollars per day, Bhutan is famous for being expensive. But by paying the price, tourists will unlock a stunning country that worships Buddha and maintains a pristine environment. With better control over tourism, Bhutan is slowly opening its doors to the outside world and allowing visitors a chance to view their monasteries, festivals, textiles, and mountains.
Jen Pa Leg So – Welcome to Bhutan
Thimphu is the country’s capital, which is entirely unique and holds the title of the world’s fourth highest capital by altitude as parts of it sit at 8,688 feet above sea level. Here, you will not see towering skyscrapers or busy highways. Instead, the capital focuses on honoring ancient Bhutanese culture by only using a traditional style of architecture. The landscape of the capital is also enchanting, as the city nestles in a valley on the west bank of the Raidāk River. Another unique characteristic is that Thimphu does not have an airport. Instead, international visitors will fly into the Paro airport, which is 34 miles away.
Culture and Language
Unlike other countries, Bhutan’s beginnings are not as clear. Rather, the early history has been left to mythology with scientists estimating that the area was settled in 2000 BC. It was not until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century, that Bhutan’s own history became clearer. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced here after Tibet had its own problems and monks began to flee towards Bhutan.
The country is also unique because besides different tributary statuses, Bhutan has always maintained their independence. This means that in the history of the country, there has never been a foreign conqueror or government and it has never been occupied. While other countries like Tibet and Britain have tried to take a claim, they have ultimately been unsuccessful, which has left Bhutan as one of the uncolonized countries.
Now, Bhutan is ruled by a king and prime minister, though the political system has changed. The country was once under an absolute monarchy, which ended when the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck gave the majority of his political powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and passed a law stating that the king could be impeached by the National Assembly with a two thirds majority vote. The current king and prime minister of the country are Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Lotay Tshering.
The country’s culture strongly revolves around a form of Tibetan Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism. While Buddhism has reigned for centuries, the fact that Bhutan has kept itself preserved from the outside world has allowed for its traditions to thrive. The country famously focuses on Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product, which was a concept introduced by the current king’s father. Under this ideology, Bhutan focuses on the happiness of its own people, instead of trying to gain in riches with the outside world.
Visitors who do travel to the country will see that many men and women still dress traditionally with different outfit designs signifying social class. Elaborate dress may be witnessed during festivals, which is when people use the ornate embroidered and beaded robes and dresses. Furthermore, tradition is upheld in the national sports, which are archery and digor.
With the more holistic lifestyle, Bhutan has also developed a culture that honors the country’s environment. Many Bhutanese are conscious of the impact of modernization and instead have introduced a law that states 60% of the land must remain as forested, though the statistic currently states the country is doing better with 70% of the land preserved. For visitors, this makes Bhutan the last great kingdom where the Himalayas dominate and are free to showcase their pristine beauty with limited human impact.
Bhutanese, which is also called Dzongkha is the country’s official language, which is spoken by over half a million people. The language is used by the government and is also taught in the majority of schools across the country. However, the unofficial languages of the country will include local dialects, which may be spoken in small villages.
But you may be surprised to know that with their isolation, Bhutan still places a heavy importance on English as a foreign language. English is often taught as a secondary language in schools and there are also media outlets that will publish all their articles in English. For English speaking tourists, this is often a comfort and very helpful when they meet their official government tour guide.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Bhutan, you will need to obtain a tourist visa before you travel to the country. But Bhutan is a unique place to visit because they strictly control visitors to the country in order to preserve their traditional culture. All visitors to the country will need to book a tour through a local and licensed tour operator. The tour operator will then apply for a tourist visa on your behalf. You cannot obtain a tourist visa without booking a tour.
The visa will be applied for in the capital of Thimphu, which will then issue your clearance and allow you to travel to Bhutan. The visa should be processed in about 7 days and you will need it to purchase your airline tickets. You will not be allowed to purchase airline tickets without first having clearance and a valid visa. Once you arrive in Bhutan, you will need to provide two passport photos and pay a fee of $40 US dollars.
Other requirements include having a US passport with 6 months validity and one blank page for your entry stamp. There is a $10,000 US dollar currency restriction for entry to and exit from Bhutan. It is also suggested that you are up to date on all your vaccinations.
Tourists will also be required to pay a minimum daily tariff, which we will discuss in depth, below.
Bhutan is a unique country because it is often considered to be the most expensive country to visit in Asia. The government of Bhutan requires that all visitors pay a minimum daily tariff for their time spent in the country. The tariff is also called the minimum daily package and it will vary by person and season. The minimum fee is $200 US dollars per person, which is effective during the low season and for travelers who are in a group. Solo travelers will have to pay $240 US dollars per day and per person in the tourist off season. Couples in the off season will pay $230 US dollars per day and per person.
Most people will pay $250 US dollars per day and per person, as this is the current rate during peak tourist season. Tourist season runs from March to May and September to November. People who are traveling alone will have a higher fee because there is a $40 US dollar additional charge, bringing the total minimum daily package to $290 US dollars. For couples traveling together, you will need to pay $280 US dollars per person.
While spending $250 US dollars per day or more is quite expensive for an Asian country, it is important to know that this method of tourism is the governments way of protecting the country’s culture and environment. While they are open to visitors and eagerly welcome them, they do want to uphold their policy of “high value and low impact”.
It is also important to know that the minimum daily package really is a package deal and includes the basics like accommodation, food, transportation, and an official tour guide. It does not cover any airline fees, international or domestic. You can upgrade to different options, at your own expense.
Flights to Bhutan are expensive and they will only add to the overall expense of your trip. The average cost of a direct flight to Bhutan from the United States is $1,200 US dollars. If you take layovers or connections, each flight may cost up to $700 US dollars. Flights will also be more expensive in the tourist high season. You can also save money by booking your flight immediately after getting your visa approved and not waiting or wasting time.
As we mentioned, you can upgrade your package options. Most people will upgrade their accommodations. Tourists can only stay in government approved hotels that are licensed to serve tourists. These hotels are often three to five-star hotels and there are some resort options that are included with the price of the minimum daily package. The upgrades can be made if you prefer to stay in the government approved luxury accommodations. Luxury accommodation prices will usually range from $300-$600 US dollars per night.
Much like hotels, you can also upgrade your meals. While your package will include meals and plenty of dishes, you may want more luxurious meals for a premium vacation. Meals apart from your package will cost about $30-$50 US dollars per meal and per person. Bhutan’s cuisine uses a lot of red rice and they also enjoy eating buckwheat and various types of meat. Ema Datshi is the local dish, which is a stew of chilis and cheese. Jasha Maroo is a spicy chicken dish and Phaksha Paa is pork with chilis. Bhutan also has their own version of momos, which are steamed dumplings.
For most of the population, drinking in Bhutan is kept to a minimal. While tourists do drink, the most common beverage is beer. Beer will likely be offered to you, but it will not be a part of your minimum daily package. You will have to pay for all alcoholic beverages with your own money. Most drinks will be about $4 US dollars but can be more expensive in luxury locations. Local drinks will also be much more affordable than import options.
While Bhutan is not the most affordable Asian country to visit, it can be made more affordable by choosing to stick with the minimum daily package options instead of going for luxury. With the package options you will still have an amazing trip and you’ll be able to travel safely and securely. While most people will only spend the minimum daily package price, you can choose the luxury options but be prepared to spend $500 US dollars or more per day on your vacation.
How to Get Around
Most people when they travel to Asia expect to hop from planes, trains, cars, boats, and even rickshaws. But in Bhutan, you won’t get those experiences because you will not be allowed to travel like a local. Tourists can only travel with a private car and driver. If you are part of a larger group, the tour will have appropriate transportation. If you booked a solo tour, you will have a small car and personal driver, along with your guide. You cannot drive yourself in Bhutan.
The transportation is included with your minimum daily package price and will allow you to safely see the best of Bhutan. Your driver and guide will be eager to show you the beauty of the country, but you can still gain some independence by asking for rests stops, photo opportunities, or snack breaks.
It is also important to consider tipping your driver and tour guide. While tipping is not a custom in Bhutan, the tourism industry has made it a bit more widespread. Your tour guide and driver will be with you the entirety of your trip and they will often go out of their way to ensure you see everything and have the best experience. A tip of $15-$20 US dollars per day for your tour guide and $10-$15 US dollars per day for your driver would be a nice gesture. For those on a budget, $10 US dollars per day for your guide and $5 US dollars per day for your driver is also acceptable.
Aside from driving, you could try to take a domestic flight, but it is not recommended. The domestic flight system is not reliable, and many flights are cancelled last minute, which means that you would still have to rely on a car and driver. Domestic flights are also expensive with the average cost being $200 US dollars and they are not included in your minimum daily package.
Ultimately, the best way to get around is to stick to the tour’s plan and use their transportation options. The private car and driver will get you where you need to go, while prioritizing your enjoyment and safety along the journey.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Bhutan may be small, but there are still a few different cities that you can explore. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Bhutan.
Thimphu is the unique capital of Bhutan, which doesn’t have an airport or traffic lights. But while it may lack a few of modern cities most common features, it makes up for it in beauty. The government calls this city home and they work out of the impressive Tashichho Dzong. Visitors can take a look inside the complex after 4pm, which is when government workers finish for the day. Another big attraction is Buddha Point, which has a large golden statue of a sitting Buddha. Tourists can also experience more modern commodities like shopping, dining, and nightlife.
Paro is where tourists fly into Bhutan, as the area has the only international airport in the country. This city is one of the most visited because of the Taktsang Monastery. But there are plenty of other monasteries and temples in the valley, which only add to the Pari District’s beauty.
Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan and it has a more temperate climate, which makes it a big destination for mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. The city sits near two flowing rivers and is known for being the place where the country’s famous red rice is grown. The Punakha Dzong is a main attraction and is often the winter residence for the government and king.
Wangdue Phorang has a pristine landscape, which has been preserved and is a nature lover’s paradise. Many people come to this area to trek in the national parks. The town is small with only 9,000 people, but that has helped it stay hidden and off the map. But its most famous area is the Phobjikha Valley.
Bumthang is filled with Bhutan’s history and it preserves the country’s oldest traditions. The area is also filled with historic, religious, and ancient sites. The Buddhist master, Padmasambhava once called this area home and it is the birthplace of guru, Pema Lingpa. With such religious importance, Bumthang is a key destination for many travelers.
Close to the border with India, Phuentsholing is bustling with trade, tourism, and international businesses. It is also famous for its border gate. Most tourists will simply pass through the area, but those who stay will experience stunning architecture in the local lhakhangs.
Epic views make Trongsa a must-see city that was once crucial to the ancient kingdom’s control. The Wangchuck Dynasty held their power here, before they were declared as king. Now, you visit the dzong and town to see history in action. The dzong has also been important in uniting the trade between west and east Bhutan.
Points of Interest
While cities are main attractions, there are also many points of interest throughout Bhutan that are sure to entice you for a visit.
Located in the Paro District, the Ringpung Dzong is a 16th century complex that is nicknamed the “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels”. The dzong houses various temples and shrines, as well as the annual Tshechu Festival. Here, you can view the traditional architecture and customs that make Bhutan so unique.
Buddha Dordenma Statue
Buddha Dordenma Statue. Photo: Robert GLODThe Buddha Dordenma Statue is located outside of Thimphu and it is the world’s tallest Buddha statue with a height of 169 feet. The golden statue is the main highlight, but there are numerous smaller statues of Buddha, as well as praying wheels, paintings, and temples.
Chele La Pass
This is the highest road pass in Bhutan, and it is located just to the west of the Paro Valley. Here, tourists can catch a glimpse of the Jomolhari Mountain, which is a sacred symbol to Bhutan. With an amazing view, tourists can get a taste of the Himalayas.
The Dochula Pass stupas were built to honor the fallen soldiers who protected Bhutan from insurgents from India. There are 108 stupas in total and they are all situated in an amazing location where you can see views of the sacred Himalayan Mountains. The area is also popular with locals as a small resort destination.
The dramatic cliffside location of the Taktsang Monastery only adds to its beauty and mythical tale. The monastery is considered to be the meditation location of Guru Rinpoche, who rode the back of a tigress to defeat a demon. He was said to have meditated here for three months, which makes this monastery the most sacred site in all of Bhutan. The nickname, “Tiger’s Nest”, as given and now it has become a tourist hotspot. You will need a permit to enter, which would be arranged by your guide and no photography is allowed once you are inside the monastery’s complex.
Bordering the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, the Phobjikha Valley is famous for its lush greens and towering mountains. The valley is one of the most visited places in all of Bhutan and people are eager to hike its trails. Animals are also abundant in the area and you may catch a glimpse of leopards, deer, fox, boars, or bears.
Sometimes called Jomolhari, this is a hotspot for trekking. The trek begins in Paro and takes 7-15 days to complete. It is extremely challenging and only intermediate or experienced mountaineers should attempt the journey. The perfect months to trek are April and May, but you can safely pass from late March to June and September to November.
Motithang Takin Preserve
The takin is Bhutan’s national animals and this preserve has been turned into a home for this amazing animal. While the animals are confined, it is not exactly like a zoo. Instead, the takins have 8.4 acres to roam and the government provides exceptional care.
If you want to relax, Gasa Tshachu is located in the Gasa District and offers tourists a variety of natural hot springs to ease their stress. The springs are the most popular in the country and the area is also well-known for being close by to the Jigme Dorji National Park.
Get Out and Go
While many are unaware of Bhutan or don’t know of its beauty, this hidden gem is filled with ancient tradition and culture. With a strict tourism policy, Bhutan has preserved its identity and kept itself mostly a secret from the outside world. But traveling to this mysterious land will reward you with epic views and a glimpse into a different lifestyle. For those who want to visit the destinations less traveled, Bhutan will be your star that leaves you with lifelong memories.