Bhutan

Practical Travel Guide

Visas

Unless you’re a citizen of India, the Maldives, or Bangladesh, you need to be on a tour to enter Bhutan. This means all administrative work, including getting a tourist visa, will be arranged by your tour operator.

A visa costs USD$40 regardless of citizenship, but visa costs should be included in the tour price. The visa will be stamped into your passport at your point of entry.

If you’re still looking for a tour agency, we traveled to Bhutan on a sponsored trip with Gray Langur Tours and had a great time! We highly recommend them for travel to Bhutan.


Budget

Non-regional foreigners

Bhutan’s policy of high value, low impact tourism means the minimum rate for a tour starts at $250 per person per day in the high season of March to May and September to November. Bhutan’s tourist fee is $200 per person per day during all other months.

Solo travelers must pay an extra surcharge of $40 per day, while groups of two must pay an extra $30 per person per day. Note that if you want to go trekking with good quality gear, expect to pay more than the minimum tour fee.

This tourist fee includes:

  • Visa
  • A licensed Bhutanese guide(s)
  • Drivers and transportation
  • Food (not including alcoholic drinks)
  • A minimum of 3-star accommodation
  • Tourist entry fees
  • All internal taxes

If you prefer to be guided in your native language, guides with the necessary language skills can be arranged for an extra fee. All guides speak English and many speak Hindi.

Keep in mind that $200/250 per person per day is the minimum price for a tour, and depending on your wishes, prices may rise. Common reasons for increased prices are trekking, requests for 5-star accommodations, or tours requiring guides with special skills or languages.

It’s worth noting that from the total fee, $65 per day goes towards a sustainable development fund, which Bhutan uses to provide free healthcare and education to its citizens. Many people find this prohibitively expensive, but considering the value of the experience you get in return, we think it’s totally worth it.

If you’re frothing at the mouth demanding Bhutan allows free access to all, consider overly touristed places such as Manali in India or Vang Vieng in Laos to understand the harmful impact unbridled tourism can have on this part of the world.

If you are planning to visit Bhutan, we recommend Gray Langur Tours.

Indian, Maldivian, and Bangladeshi nationals

For those not traveling on a guided tour to Bhutan, expect prices similar to neighboring countries. Note that the Bhutanese Nu is tied to the value of the Indian Rupee. So, 1 Nu = 1 INR.

Food & drinks

  • Water and soda: 10 – 40 Nu
  • Tea: 10 – 20 Nu
  • Modest breakfast and lunch: 40 – 200 Nu
  • Dinner: 50 – 250 Nu

Accommodation

  • Budget hotel: 500 – 1000 Nu
  • Mid-range hotel: 2000 – 5000 Nu

Cultural sights

  • Historical sights: 200 – 500 Nu

Transportation

If on tour, all transportation within Bhutan will be arranged by your tour operator. Options range from a private car, 4×4 or Space Wagon, to coasters and buses, depending on the tour size.

If not on tour, public buses and shared taxis are widely available throughout Bhutan. It’s also possible to drive your own car, motorbike, or bicycle into Bhutan.

When entering with your own vehicle, you must prove the vehicle belongs to you. You’ll also need a road permit, which is only available from Phuentsholing, and only valid for Paro and Thimphu.

Motorcycle tours, primarily from India, are becoming an increasingly popular sight in Bhutan.

Road quality

Roads in western and central Bhutan are reasonable, though the current road widening projects mean a lot of roads are under construction. The highway running from the Paro region east to Punakha is brand new blacktop, which makes for smooth sailing. In the east and other more remote places, however, many roads are nothing more than a dirt track. Rest assured, the rewards at the end of bumpy roads are more than worth it.


Entering and exiting

By air

Bhutan has one international airport in Paro. Several flights a day come in from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, and now Singapore.

There are two airlines that fly to Bhutan: Bhutan Airlines, a private operator, and Druk Air, the government operated airline. Plane tickets can be booked online directly from the airline website or by your tour company (if applicable), but note that flights fill up very quickly in and around the festival seasons, especially October and April. Try to book as far in advance as possible.

It’s also possible to fly into Bhutan on a private jet. However, given the difficulty of landing planes in the valley around Paro, law requires that Bhutanese pilots must be used to fly any aircraft into Bhutan.

By land

There are three land border crossings with India. The main border crossing is at Phuentsholing, in West Bengal. Phuentsholing is about 170 km from Siliguri, and it takes about 6 hours to drive from Siliguri to Phuentsholing. This border is open from from 06:00 until 21:00.

The Gelephu land border crossing is a little used land border crossing in the middle of Bhutan which borders Assam. We left from Guwahati and used this crossing when we crossed into Bhutan.

Samdrup Jongkhar is another small border crossing in eastern Bhutan and Assam. As with Gelephu, it’s not frequented by foreign tourists.

When crossing into Bhutan from Assam, realize that strikes along the border can shut down all transport for the day. It’s also not advisable to drive off the main highways at night, as there are issues with uprisings and bandits along parts of the border between Bhutan and Assam.

Entering and exiting formalities

Entering and exiting formalities are straightforward, and, if on tour, you’ll have a guide on hand to smooth out the process. We entered via the land border at Gelephu and exited via the Paro airport without any surprises or issues.

When arriving, you’ll have to fill out an arrival card, and your fingerprints will be taken. The whole process takes about 15 minutes. When leaving, another arrival card has to filled out. Note that all cards at the airport say “Arrival Card”, even though they’re also used for departures.

Cooling off period

There is a two week cooling off period between visits to Bhutan. Though it’s unlikely that you’ll need to work around this restriction, if you know the right people, this might be waived.

When we traveled through Bhutan with Gray Langur Tours, we ended up staying longer than planned, and needed a visa extension. With some calls to the right people, we managed to extend our visas. Visa extensions do not run afoul of the cooling off period, but it’s not something any tour operator could pull off.


Culture

One of the reasons Bhutan puts so much emphasis on high value, low impact tourism, is the preservation of culture… and it shows! From colorful festivals celebrating ancient traditions, to stylish traditional dress and the uniformity of buildings all throughout the country, Bhutan is truly a place where culture comes alive.

Buddhism

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom, and as such, there are some behavioral norms to be observed:

  • Never point your feet at anyone, or towards any religious depiction.
  • Never touch people on the head.
  • Never point with your pointer finger at religious objects or buildings, or any depictions of the royal family. Always point with open palms pointing upwards.
  • Avoid PDAs (public displays of affection).
  • Remove headgear and sunglasses whenever you enter dzongs, monasteries, and other religious sites.
  • Never take photos inside the sacred chapels of monasteries and dzongs.

Royalty 

The country’s royals are the bulwark of Bhutanese culture, and the king is shown due respect. Never point at images of the king or other royals with pointer fingers—only open hands. If you’re lucky enough to meet anyone of the royal family, take off your hat and sunglasses if you’re wearing any. No photos of the king or other royals are permitted without prior permission.

Dress

You’ll find a healthy mixture of traditional dress and modern clothing in Bhutan. Elders in traditional gho and kira walk side by side with monks in red robes and youngsters in K-pop inspired clothing on Bhutan’s streets.

Practically speaking, you should dress with relative modesty. Girls can wear shorts and short sleeves if so desired, though shorts will likely earn you some stares, and tank tops aren’t a common sight. For the boys, you can wear shorts, though they’re not particularly common.

Neither gender can get away with short sleeves and shorts in religious buildings, so dress modestly if doing cultural sightseeing. On the other hand, feel free to wear whatever tiny clothes suit your fancy inside the nightclubs of Thimphu.


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