Bhutan, the Land of Thunder Dragon, used to be an isolated country that just opened its tourism industry to the outside world around 45 years ago, in 1974 to be exact. With all its unique travel rules, it has been dubbed as a “holy grail” in terms of travel destination- not the easiest country to go to but definitely worth at least a visit in your lifetime.
General Fast Facts
Country Name: Bhutan (locally known as Druk) and its citizens are called Drukpas. Nationality of the citizenry is Bhutanese.
Area: ~ 38,394 sq km
Number of Districts: 20
Population: ~ 779,666
Languages: Dzongkha is the official language and there are many local dialects. English is widely spoken and it is the medium of instructions in school.
Religion: 75% Vajrayana Buddhism, 20% Hinduism, the rest is Christians
Form of Government: Democracy
Current King: Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (5th King in Bhutan’s history)
Time Zone: One time across everywhere; +6 GMT
National Dress: Gho (men) and Kira (women)
National Tree: Cypress
National Flower: Blue Poppy
National Animal: Takin
National Bird: Raven
National Sports: Archery
Visa and Tours
Bhutan no longer restricts the number of tourists who visit their country but tourism is still highly regulated by the government under the “High Value, Low Impact” policy. This is to minimize overwhelming mass tourism and environmental & cultural impact to its society.
Everyone who comes to this country is required to book with a government-accredited travel agency to arrange both the visa (one-time 100 USD) and tour activities. In line with this, there is a government-set fee of 250 USD (high season- Mar-May & Sept-Nov) and 200 USD (low season- Dec-Feb, Jun-Aug) per day and a sub-charge of 40 USD per day if you’re traveling as a small group (traveling in a group smaller than 3 pax.)
Don’t worry though as the daily fee already includes the following below.
• Accommodation (minimum 3-stars)
• 3 Meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
• Licensed Tour Guide
• All transportation within Bhutan
• Entrance Fees to sights
So you actually don’t need to spend anything once you’re there (except if you want to buy some souvenirs, give tips, etc.) For your reference as well, 65 USD of the minimum daily spend actually goes to free education and healthcare of the locals.
Only citizens of three countries are exempted to both the visa and tour operator rule: India, Maldives, Bangladesh. To add to that, you can only opt to travel independently if you are either formally invited by a Bhutanese “citizen of standing” or by the Bhutanese government.
PS: For my trip, I booked with Bhutan Travel Club since I wanted to go with an agency that is vouched by a friend.
Getting to Bhutan
There’s only 1 airport in the whole country and it’s situated in Paro (IATA: PBH), the second biggest district of Bhutan. Currently, there are only 2 airlines that fly to Paro Airport: Druk Air, the national airlines and Bhutan Airlines, a privately- owned airline.
The two airlines only fly to and from 5 countries- India (Delhi, Kolkota, Mumbai, Bagdogra, Guwahati, Gaya), Nepal (Kathmandu), Thailand (Bangkok), Bangladesh (Dhaka), and Singapore (the most recently- opened route)
If you prefer land travel, there are three land border crossings to India across the country: East- Samdrup Jongkhar and Central- Gelephu (both are connected to India’s state of Assam) and West- Phuntsholing. Despite being side by side to each other, there are no open borders between China and Bhutan.
Banking and Currency
Bhutan’s currency is Ngultrum (BTN.) 1 USD = approx 69 BTN; 1 PHP= approx. 1.33 BTN.
There are ATMs for withdrawal in key towns such as Thimpu and Paro. Some of the bigger establishments accept cards as payment, but with subcharge added (Visa cards are more widely accepted than Mastercard and American Express.) It is best recommended to take some cash with you while going around.
The two biggest network provider in Bhutan are B-Mobile and Tashi Cell. Both offer Tourist Sim Cards (sim life= 1 month.) Network was quite stable all throughout the 4 districts I went to (Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, and Haa.) And most importantly- yes, hotels generally have stable and decent WIFI connection.
I hope this makes your Bhutan trip-planning easier! Coming up next is my 8-day detailed trip to this paradise.