A trip to Bhutan is an experience in itself. It’s one of the most isolated countries in the world (Bhutan certainly ranks near the top) . Breathtaking scenery, thousand year old monasteries, gross national happiness, a different way of life – the country certainly has a lot to offer.
So if Bhutan is in your travel checklist, let me share some tips. I’m not claiming to be an expert here, but I reckon I can shed light to some things. I suppose there aren’t really a lot of other people around who can give tips for Bhutan so here goes.
Arranging the trip
All trips to Bhutan (unless you’re Indian or Bangladeshi) have to be arranged with a Bhutan-based travel agency who also handles the visa application. All agencies charge the same. The country is famous for its USD 200 per day fee which is set by the government to “filter out” low value tourism. It sounds expensive – not denying that – but this fee is inclusive of all meals, 3-star accommodations, transport, the service of a guide plus entrance fees to all attractions. It’s possible to choose the cheapest hotels but visitors will still have to pay the same daily fee. On the other hand, it’s also possible to stay in 5-star hotels but it comes with a surcharge.
By now, it’s quite obvious that there’s no backpackers scene in Bhutan, except probably for the small number of Indian and Bangladeshi tourists who go there for backpacking trips.
How to get there
There are only two airlines that fly to Bhutan, and that is DrukAir, the flag carrier and Buddha Air. The former flies to Bangkok, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Gaya and a couple more destinations in Eastern India while the latter flies to Kathmandu. Bangkok and Kathmandu are the most popular routes. It is also possible to get to Bhutan overland via the southern border with India.
US Dollars are widely accepted in Bhutan but don’t expect to get a favorable rate outside – the spread ranges from 5 to 10%. The money changer in the airport offers quite a good rate, as well as the banks in Thimphu. Indian Rupee is also widely used, and accepted on a 1:1 basis with the Ngultrum (Bhutan’s currency).
Most of the major travel destinations within the country lie at an altitude of about 2,200 meters above sea level. This does not cause altitude sickness for most people. There are notable exceptions on the altitude – Tiger’s Nest Monastery and Dochula Pass are both at 3,100 meters above sea level. Most people still don’t feel altitude sickness at this height. Nevertheless, if you’re planning to trek up the monastery, it’s advisable to do so during the last leg of the trip after getting somewhat acclimatized to the altitude.
All meals are included with the daily fee. Typical meals would include red rice, vegetables cooked with cheese and the occasional meat dish. Traditional Bhutanese food is often spicy but those served to tourists are most likely blended with international cuisine. We even had Tom Yum Soup for dinner during our first night!
How many days should you spend in Bhutan?
This really depends on your budget, interests and the presence of a festival during your travel dates. Our trip lasted 5 days / 4 nights and we were able to cover Paro, Thimphu, Dochula, Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang. This is probably the minimum number of days that visitors are recommended to stay in Bhutan. For a more comfortable trip, 7 days / 6 nights is suggested – and this would give visitors more leeway to venture into Central Bhutan (Phobjika Valley, Gangtey and Bumthang). For those visiting to witness a festival, allow an extra day aside from the itineraries described above.
When to go?
October to November and April to June are the best times to visit. This is when sunshine and blue skies are at their peak and the temperatures are more comfortable for getting around. December to Feb will be too cold (though also blue skies) while July to September will be too dull and grey, not to mention rainy. It used to be possible to get a $40 discount on the daily fee for travel during these off-peak months but word is that the government is doing away with that for 2011 and just charging the fixed $200 fee for travel at any time of the year. There are also plans to increase the daily fee to $250 per day by 2012.
For more info on Bhutan — do check out my entries on my amazing Bhutan trip here