Things to know while planning Bhutan trip
When to visit Bhutan?
Bhutan can be visited all year round and the best time to visit Bhutan can vary from person to person. Some factors such as season, weather conditions and nature of tour can influence your best time to visit Bhutan.
Some may like to travel during cold winter season, some hot wet summer and some on calm spring and fall season. Some may visit Bhutan considering their festival dates and some considering their trekking trails. Some may travel considering the cost to visit Bhutan since summer ( June, July and August) and winter seasons (December, January and February) are cheaper compare to Spring and Autumn due to the difference in minimum daily tariff set up by government of Bhutan.
Though it is the personal perspective that creates the best time to visit Bhutan but during spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, November) seasons, Bhutan receives higher number of tourists. It may be because visitors avoid heavy rainfalls of summer months and cold nights of winter months.
If the season to visit Bhutan are to prioritize from best to good, it will be spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, November) months tie at the top followed by winter (December, January, February) and Summer (June, July, August).
If at all to avoid visiting Bhutan; it would be the peak summer season (Mid July to mid August) during which Bhutan receives heavy rainfall resulting in landslides and mudslides causing road blocks.
Where to go in Bhutan?
Almost 90 percent of tourist visits western and central region of Bhutan annually. This might be because of following 3 reasons:
Bhutan’s main tourist attracting sites such as Tiger nest monastery, Capital city (Thimphu), Gangtey valley, and Bumthang are all located in western and central region.
II. Location of the International Airport
With Bhutan’s only international airport located at western part of the country (Paro) and most visitors visiting Bhutan for an average of 5 to 7 days are only able to make it till western and central region of the country.
Compare to southern and eastern, western and central regions of the country are far developed in terms of tourist infrastructures such as hotels, restaurants, and transportations thus making it favorable for tourist arrival.
Bhutan’s 3 best attractions are as follows:
1. Taktsang Monastery
Located 900 m above Paro valley on the face of a rocky cliff, about two and a half hours’ trek from the road point, Taktsang is perhaps the most famous monastery in the country. The monastery was named Taktsang after Guru Rimpoche flew there from Kurtoe Singay Dzong (Eastern Bhutan) riding on a tigress to subdue a demon. Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the secular head of the country (1680-1694) has begun the construction of the monastery at this site in 1692 and completed it in 1694. The monastery houses many temples that contain sacred statues of eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, Tshepame Yabyum and Bone relic of Pelgi Singay.
Today it has become the must visit sites for all the tourist visiting Bhutan and its included in every tour itinerary, be it single day or a month long tour to Bhutan. Some tourist even started visiting Bhutan just because of Taktsang monastery.
Taktsang to Bhutan has become like an Eiffel Tower to Paris.
2. Phobjikha Valley
Located at 3000m above sea level, under Wangduephodrang district of western Bhutan, Phobjikha valley is a very beautiful, if not the most beautiful glacial valley in Bhutan. It is located 200km east of Paro international airport.
During the winter months (November, December, January and February), this valley receives its unique visitors, the globally threatened black necked crane (Grus nigricollis). Once in a year during December month, people from this valley gets together to celebrate black necked crane festival as a gesture of welcoming these majestic birds.
The valley is covered by lush green pasture lands, where you will witness herds of cattle and horses grazing on it. Villagers in this area grow potato as their main cash crops. It is a perfect place to mingle with local villagers and get chance to know their way of living.
3. Bumthang Valley
Bumthang is a gorgeous valley located at northern-central region of Bhutan. Known as cultural heartland of Bhutan, it is the birth place of Buddhism in Bhutan. In the year 746 AD, a great Buddhist saint known as Guru Rimpoche, visited Bumthang from Nepal and meditated for months, subduing demons that were bringing chaos to the valley and spreading Buddhism in the country. Bumthang has the highest number of monasteries and sacred sites than any other places in Bhutan.
Since it is located 330km away from Paro international airport, most tourist are not able to make it till Bumthang and instead they visit nearby places such as Paro district, capital Thimphu, Punakha district and phobjikha valley. But if you have enough time, it is definitely worth visiting Bumthang.
The two must visit sites in Bumthang are Kurje Lhakhang (monastery) and Mebar Tsho (Lake).
Kurje Lhakhang: Located in Kurje in the Chokhor valley, around 15 minutes’ drive from Chamkhar town (Bumthang), the site of the three temples has a body impression of Guru Rinpoche left behind after he meditated there and subdued evil spirits the chief of which was Shelging Karpo. Kurje means body impression. Guru Rinpoche visit Bumthang in 746 AD at the invitation of the local king, Chakhar Gyalpo.
The oldest temple was built in 1652 by Chogyal Migyur Tenpa, the first Choetse Chila. The second temple was built in 1900 by the first King Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck on the spot where Guru left his body imprint, and the third temple was built in the 1990s under the commanded of Queen Mother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck. The first, second, and the third temple contain respectively the three Buddhas (the past, present, future), a 12-metre tall statue of Guru Rinpoche, and Khenlop Chosum (Guru Rinpoche, King Thrisong Duetsen, and Pandit Santarakshita).
Mebar Tsho: Also known as the burning lake is located east of Bumthang about 30 minutes drive from Chamkhar town at the foothills of Tang valley. It is just a pool formed in the river but has a wonderful history behind it. This pool got its name Mebar Tsho (the burning lake) because a treasure discoverer named Pema Lingpa from Tang valley as prophesied by Guru Rimpoche has jumped into the pool holding a butter lamp and came up with some treasures hidden by Guru Rimpoche himself with the lamp still burning.
What kinds of tourist activities are available in Bhutan?
Bhutan opened very late to tourism; only in the year 1974 and hence the industry is very young. Due to this very reason, tourist activities in Bhutan are very limited compare to other parts of the world.
Some of the activities that are available for tourists visiting Bhutan are as follows:
1. Cultural Sightseeing tour
Due to its rich and unique culture, Bhutan has become an important cultural destination. More than 80 % of its visitors come for cultural sightseeing. Isolated by its natural barriers throughout its course of history and opening very late to outside world, Bhutan’s culture and tradition has remained intact and undisturbed. Its culture hugely influenced by Buddhism, Bhutan a place of myth, where past and present, man and nature live together harmoniously is a perfect destination for cultural sightseeing.
2. Trekking in Bhutan
Bhutan is a perfect destination for trekking. Be it days hike or a month long trek, Bhutan has all. What makes trekking in Bhutan so unique is it’s so natural and will bring you very close to nature. Few of these trails are still in use by local people and are the only means of reaching to those faraway places in Bhutan. With more than 20 trekking trails available in Bhutan but with only around 2000 trekkers visiting Bhutan annually is what makes trekking trails in Bhutan so unique, quiet, calm and natural.
3. Witnessing festival
Bhutan has amongst some of the most unique festivals in the world. Influenced by Buddhist culture, unique mask dances are showcased during annual festivals in different districts throughout Bhutan which attract thousands of visitors both local and tourists.
4. White water rafting
Bhutan offers perfect destination for white water rafting. With numbers of river in Bhutan, it’s yet to explore more rafting destinations. At present, rafting services are only available in Punakha district for two rivers the Pho chhu (male) and Mo chhu (female).
5. Bird watching
With over 670 species of birds recorded and still counting, Bhutan is a destination for bird lovers. Over 26 species of birds found in Bhutan are listed endangered.
6. Mountain biking
Bhutan with its natural terrain makes a best destination for both on road and off road mountain biking.
Note: Luxury tours and motor cycle tours are also available and arranged by See Bhutan Travels. To find more tour itineraries visit Bhutan Tour Information- www.bhutantourinformation.com , a sister concern company of See Bhutan Travels.
What kinds of accommodations are available in Bhutan for tourist?
Accommodations for all the tariff paying tourists are covered by their minimum daily tariff paid prior to their arrival in Bhutan. These accommodations are arranged in 3 stars rated government approved hotels and guest houses.
For those tourists who wish to upgrade their accommodations from 3 stars to luxury hotels (4 stars and 5 stars) have to pay the extra premium. However luxury hotels are limited to only few western and central districts of Bhutan.
5 stars rated hotels are limited to following districts:
4 stars rated hotels are limited to following districts:
For regional tourist (Indian, Bangladeshis and Maldivians), who have the flexibility of choosing accommodations can choose either star rated hotels or budget hotels. Budget hotels are available in most parts of the country.
What kinds of food are available in Bhutan for tourist?
There are no McDonalds, KFC or Subways in Bhutan. The foods that you will get in Bhutan are pure authentic Bhutanese cuisine spiced with lots of hot chilies. Proper meal for a Bhutanese is always a plate full of rice and a curry. Curry can be of either vegetables or meat items. Meat items include chicken, pork, beef, yak meat and lamb. Vegetables include potato, turnips, radish, beans, spinach, pumpkins, cauliflowers, tomatoes and onions.
Amongst all the curry items available in Bhutanese dish, one unique item is Ema Datshi. Prepared from the mixture of Chili and Cheese, Bhutanese people even referred to it as their national dish for its uniqueness.
Other than rice and curry, Momo is a popular snack that one will enjoy in Bhutan. Momo is a Tibetan originated dumpling stuffed with cabbages and onions along with beef, pork or cheese.
Popular drink one must try while at Bhutan are Suja, the salted butter tea, Ara the locally brewed wine from rice, maize or millet and Bangchang the rice, millet or maize beer. It will be quite a task to get Ara and Bangchang at western parts of Bhutan but are easily available if you are visiting some of the far away villages in eastern parts of Bhutan; they will even offer to you for free as a gesture of hospitability.
Other than Bhutanese cuisine, restaurants in Bhutan also serves Chinese and Indian dish such as noodles and Roti.
Can tourist smoke and drink in Bhutan?
Cultivation, harvest, manufacture, supply, sale and purchase of tobacco products are prohibited in Bhutan; it is the first country to do so.
However consumptions of tobacco are not altogether prohibited in Bhutan but one should refrain from using tobacco products (smoking) in public areas, recreational centers, cinemas, playing fields and public transportations. Smoking is permitted in non public areas such as hotels with designated smoking rooms.
Genuine smokers can bring up to 200 cigarettes on payment of 200 percent import duty at the port of entry.
Unlike smoking, drinking is not prohibited in Bhutan unless you are below 18 years of age. Some of the drinks that you can try while in Bhutan are locally brewed wine named Ara and Bhutan’s strongest beer Druk 11000.
What kind of dresses can tourist wear while visiting Bhutan?
There are no compulsory dress codes for tourists visiting Bhutan but it is advisable you wear a proper dress avoiding shorts and skirts while attending festivals, visiting Dzongs, Monasteries and communities.
Can tourist take photos and record videos in Bhutan?
Do always check with your guide before taking any photos or recording videos in Bhutan because it is forbidden to do so in few monasteries, festivals and sites. Flying drones for taking photos and recording videos are allowed in Bhutan but special permits are required from Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA).