Monasteries on cliffs, prayer wheels, and colored prayer flags: these are the enduring images of the “Last Shangrila.” Bhutan’s images are as iconic as the country itself. Its relative inaccessibility, this perception that it is cut from the rest of the world even if it is landlocked by its bigger neighbors India, Tibet, and China, also gives it that added air of mystery. If you’re finally ready to execute that long-ago dream to visit the land of monks and monasteries, here are a couple of travel tips for Bhutan to help you prepare before you go.
Entering the Kingdom of Bhutan
Unless you’re a resident of India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives who can get a visa at their port of entry, you will need to obtain a visa prior to entering Bhutan. Additionally, you will need a licensed Bhutanese tour operator to take you around the kingdom. Do-it-yourself traveling isn’t allowed here because the government strictly regulates where outsiders can and cannot go. The tour operator will apply for a visa on your behalf online. It is the Tourism Council of Bhutan who will process the visa once all requirements have been submitted. There is a 40 USD visa fee that has to be transferred to the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s account so that your visa will be processed within 72 hours. You will then be given your clearance letter and your visa, which should be presented at your port of entry.
Getting a Visa for Bhutan
Address: Post Box 126 Thimphu, Bhutan
Price: 40 USD
Opening Hours: 24 hours online
Duration: Around 3 Days Processing
Access: Go to their website or ask any accredited Bhutan Tour Operator
Website: Bhutan Tourism
Going by plane, by bus, or by car
Most tourists and travelers will pass through Paro International Airport, the only point of entry by air. There are only two flag carriers that services Paro International Airport, and these are Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. Direct flights are available from Bangkok, Thailand, Kathmandu, Nepal, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Kolkata and Mumbai, India, and Singapore. On land, you can also arrive by bus from Kolkata where the government has a bus service that will take you to Phuentsholing, the second biggest town in Bhutan, which is near the border shared with Indian. The bus departs at 7 PM every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. From Phuentsholing, you can transfer buses to Thimphu, the capital city, where a lot of the tours start. Should you happen to take a car, your point of entry will only be through India. There will be no legal passes coming from Tibet or China. You can cross to Phuentsholing in the West and Jongkhar in the East.
Paro International Airport
Address: Airport Road, Paro, 12001, Bhutan
Opening Hours: Open 24 hours
Access: From the Bank of the River Paro Chhu by tour bus
Dressing for the weather
So what’s the climate in Bhutan like and how should you dress for it? Like many destinations, it’d be best to bring a wide variety of outerwear. Bhutan’s weather varies drastically from north to south. If you’re going to western Bhutan where the capital city is, you’ll find that it typically is seasonal. Bring light sweaters that you can layer with heavier outerwear as needed. This isn’t just for protective purposes but because of cultural implications as well. You must also remember that the Bhutanese are very conservative and are not used to showing a lot of skin. Leave those tank tops and shorts at home, and opt for jeans, leggings, or long skirts with a blouse, cardigan, or light sweater. Even in the eastern and western parts of Bhutan, you’ll experience winter starting from November to March where weather can drop to -25 ℃. Weather is bound to get colder when you travel north where Bhutan shares a border with Tibet.
Where to Buy a Bhutanese Dress
Address: Shop.Bhutan at Molithang, Thimphu
Price: 50,000 BTN and up (747 USD)
Opening Hours: 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Access: Online through website
Contact: 17119075 / 77100394
Website: Shop Bhutan
Money matters: the average cost in Bhutan
As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, Bhutan is not the type of place for DIY travel. The average cost per tourist in Bhutan is dictated by the government. They call it a tourist tariff, which is between 200 USD to 250 USD per day. The tariff is tantamount to your tour package though as it already includes accommodation in a 3-star hotel unless you specify you want to stay in a farm-stay or home-stay, all meals, the tour guide, transport all over Bhutan, camping equipment, and a 65 USD royalty. The 65 USD will go to Bhutan’s poverty alleviation, free health care, and free education programs for their citizens otherwise known as the sustainable tourism policy fee. Do not expect shops to accept cards. Bhutan completely operates on a cash economy. You can have your US dollars exchanged for Bhutanese ngultrums at the airport. The airport should have the same exchange rate as banks. You can also ask your tour guide to assist you as most foreign exchange counters will have long queues and even longer waiting times. Indian rupees are also accepted in Bhutan. They more or less have the same rate.
Bank of Bhutan
Address: Phuentsholing, Thimphu, Paro, and Other Major Bhutan Hubs
Opening Hours: 9 am - 5 pm. Closed on public holidays.
Website: Bank of Bhutan
Basic words or phrases to remember
The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. While you will have an English-speaking guide at all times, it always helps to learn a couple of phrases so that you can interact with the locals on your own. ‘La’ is a great word to remember when you’re in Bhutan as it is a sign of respect to the person that you are talking to, whether man or woman. When greeting someone, you say ‘Kuzoozangpo La,’ which means ‘Hello.’ When you’re at the market or in bazaars where there are many items that’ll attract your interest, you can use ‘Ani Ga Chi Mo’ for 'What is this?’ and ‘Dilu Gadem Chi Mo’ for 'How much is this?’ This will be very useful when you’d like to know more about that beautifully woven cloth or those handmade wooden bowls. Don’t forget to end your conversations with a ‘Kaandinchey La’ which means 'Thank you.
English Dzongkha Translator on Android
Access: Via Google Play
Prepare for your trip to Bhutan
Research is the best tool that will turn any tourist into a traveler. Bhutan is not the easiest place in the world to visit, but its inaccessibility gives it added mystery. It also most certainly makes your careful planning on logistics worthwhile in the end.
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