Bhutan Travel Guide
Nestled between China and India, the Kingdom of Bhutan is a hidden gem of the Himalayas. A realm where Gross National Happiness is more significant than Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan stands as a testament to the harmonious balance of tradition and progress.
Known for its stunning landscapes, rich culture, and spiritual essence, this country offers travelers a chance to disconnect from the chaos of everyday life and reconnect with nature and inner peace.
Capital city: Thimphu
Currency: Bhutanese Ngultrum (BTN) – 1 USD = 83 BDT. Indian Rupees (INR) are widely accepted – 1 BTN = 1 INR
Electricity: Power voltage is 230 Volts. Power sockets type D, F, and G.
Languages: The national language is Dzongkha (Bhutanese), but there ae around 20 languages and dialects spoken in Bhutan.
10 Handpicked Highlights of Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang)
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, famously known as Paro Taktsang, is more than just a religious monument – it’s a symbol of Bhutanese faith and endurance. Perched precariously on a sheer cliff’s edge, the legend says that Guru Rinpoche, an 8th-century spiritual master, flew to this location on a tigress’s back to subdue a local demon.
Today, the monastery stands as a testament to architectural prowess and spiritual dedication. As travelers ascend the winding trail, prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the surreal view of the monastery against the vast sky make the challenging trek incredibly rewarding.
Lying majestically at the meeting point of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, Punakha Dzong is often considered Bhutan’s most beautiful fortress. Its name translates to “The Palace of Great Bliss,” and true to its moniker, the dzong is an architectural euphoria with intricately carved woodwork and magnificent artistry.
Every spring, the courtyard blooms with the Punakha Tshechu, a vibrant festival where monks perform traditional dances, keeping alive the country’s rich cultural legacy.
Thimphu, the capital, is a vibrant city that gracefully merges the old and the new. A unique blend of modernity and tradition, you’ll find cars rushing by ancient temples and monasteries like Tashichho Dzong, which houses the throne room of the king.
The city’s beating heart is its weekend market, where one can buy everything from handwoven textiles to organic Bhutanese produce. Don’t miss the Folk Heritage Museum for an immersive experience of rural Bhutanese life.
Standing at 3,100 meters, the Dochula Pass offers visitors spellbinding vistas of the Himalayan range. But it’s not just the mountains that captivate; the site is adorned with 108 chortens, built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers.
Each chorten tells a story of valor, making the pass a blend of natural beauty and national pride. On clear days, the view stretches to encompass a panorama of the Himalayan peaks, making it a photographer’s paradise.
Draped in myths and legends, the Bumthang Valley is the spiritual nucleus of Bhutan. Home to some of the nation’s oldest and most venerated temples, such as Jambay Lhakhang and Kurjey Lhakhang, the valley is often referred to as Bhutan’s “mythical heartland.”
With its apple orchards, dairy farms, and numerous sacred sites, Bumthang provides a harmonious blend of nature and spirituality.
Phobjikha, with its sweeping grasslands and dense forests, is a sanctuary for the rare black-necked cranes. These elegant birds migrate from the Tibetan Plateau every winter, making the valley their temporary abode.
The Gangtey Monastery, overlooking the valley, is another highlight, offering spiritual seekers a serene refuge. Every year, the valley celebrates the Black-Necked Crane Festival, marking the crane’s migratory arrival with dance, song, and merriment.
Bhutan takes its archery seriously. So much so, that it’s not just the national sport but an intrinsic part of social life. Traditional bows and arrows are used in vibrant competitions that are as much about skill as they are about festivity.
Local songs and dances punctuate the event, with each hit target being celebrated with vibrant cheers and jests. It’s a cultural spectacle, offering insights into the Bhutanese spirit of camaraderie and celebration.
Hot Stone Baths
Bhutan’s traditional hot stone baths are an age-old wellness practice. Large wooden tubs are filled with water, into which river stones, heated until they are red-hot, are placed. As the stones slowly release their heat, they also discharge key minerals, believed to have therapeutic benefits.
Surrounded by nature’s tranquility, sinking into such a bath after a day’s trek is an unparalleled experience of relaxation and rejuvenation.
Overlooking the Mangde Chhu river, Trongsa Dzong is a grand structure that once played a pivotal role in controlling the kingdom due to its central location. With its labyrinth of courtyards, corridors, and over 25 temples, the dzong is a repository of Bhutanese history and culture.
The annual Trongsa Tshechu festival here is a major draw, with mask dances and traditional rituals taking center stage.
Jigme Dorji National Park
Encompassing an area of over 4,300 square kilometers, Jigme Dorji National Park is a biodiversity hotspot. From snow-capped peaks to alpine meadows and dense forests, the park is home to an array of flora and fauna.
Snow leopards, Bengal tigers, blue sheep, and the elusive red pandas are just a few of the many species that reside here, making it an essential destination for wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Bhutan's Geography & Landscapes
Bhutan, often referred to as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, is a Himalayan kingdom known for its dramatic landscapes that range from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys. The country’s topography can be broadly divided into three main geographic regions:
- Consists of the foothills and the Duars Plains.
- Subtropical climate with dense forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and meandering rivers.
- Features the Black Mountains that separate Western and Eastern Bhutan.
- Valleys like Punakha, Wangdue, and Trongsa fall in this region, which have temperate climates and fertile soils ideal for agriculture.
- Constituted by the lofty Himalayas with peaks soaring above 7,000 meters.
- The region is mostly alpine with snow-covered landscapes and is home to several glaciers.
The richness of Bhutan’s landscapes is reflected in its protected national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, which cover over 50% of the country’s land area, making it one of the world’s most bio-diverse nations.
Best Time To Go To Bhutan
Bhutan’s climate varies significantly with elevation, but broadly, the country experiences three distinct seasons:
Spring (March to May):
- Vibrant and colorful with clear skies.
- Temperatures are mild, and the valleys come alive with blossoms of rhododendron, magnolia, and wildflowers.
- One of the most favored times for tourists.
Monsoon (June to August):
- Characterized by heavy, consistent rainfall especially in the southern regions.
- The northern and central regions receive less rain, making them still accessible.
- While the landscape is lush, some trekking routes might be challenging due to mud and leeches.
Autumn (September to November):
- Offers clear blue skies and crisp air.
- The entire country experiences cool and pleasant temperatures.
- A popular time for festivals and treks.
Winter (December to February):
- Cold, especially in the north with snowfall on higher altitudes.
- The southern regions remain pleasant, and it’s an ideal time to spot the endangered black-necked cranes in the Phobjikha Valley.
For travelers looking for clear skies, vibrant festivals, and ideal trekking conditions, the best times to visit Bhutan are during the spring and autumn months. However, each season offers its unique charm, and the less crowded monsoon and winter months can offer an equally enchanting experience for the intrepid traveler.
Traveling in Bhutan
Bhutan, widely recognized for its Gross National Happiness index, is also one of the safest countries for tourists. That said, like every travel destination, there are safety considerations to keep in mind:
- Travel Restrictions: Ensure you’re accompanied by a local guide as it’s mandated for international tourists, barring Indian, Bangladeshi, and Maldivian nationals.
- Mountain Safety: When trekking, be cautious of altitude sickness. Ascend slowly and keep hydrated.
- Wildlife: While the country boasts diverse fauna, be wary of encounters with wild animals during treks.
- Road Safety: Mountain roads can be winding and narrow. If you’re prone to motion sickness, come prepared.
- Local Etiquette: Show respect in religious places. It’s best to follow the dress code and avoid loud conversations.
- Weather Awareness: Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. Pack appropriately and stay informed about the forecast.
- Stay Informed: Always inform your guide or accommodation about your whereabouts if you decide to explore on your own.
- Emergency Numbers: Familiarize yourself with local emergency numbers or the location of the nearest medical facility.
- Limited Connectivity: Some areas, especially during treks, might have limited mobile connectivity. Carry a local SIM for better coverage.
- Respect Local Customs: Bhutan has preserved its traditions. Engaging in activities that disrespect their norms might lead to misunderstandings.
Getting to & Around Bhutan
- By Air: Paro International Airport is the sole international gateway. Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines are the two carriers that operate here, connecting to cities like Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, and Kathmandu.
- By Land: You can enter Bhutan through its border town, Phuentsholing, which is adjacent to the Indian town of Jaigaon. Another entry point is Samdrup Jongkhar, used mainly by tourists traveling from Assam.
- In-Country Travel: While there are no domestic flights for tourists, Bhutan boasts a decent road network. Minivans and SUVs are popular modes for tourist transport, with buses serving locals. Due to the mountainous terrain, travel can be slow, but the scenic beauty more than compensates for it.
Accommodation in Bhutan ranges from luxurious five-star resorts to humble farm stays. Major cities like Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha have a variety of hotels, with many offering traditional Bhutanese architecture and hospitality. For those willing to splurge, the likes of Amankora and COMO Uma provide unparalleled luxury.
On the other hand, for travelers looking to immerse in local culture, homestays in rural areas come highly recommended. Prices can vary widely, with luxury resorts costing upwards of $1000 per night, mid-range hotels between $150-$300, and budget accommodations and homestays between $30-$100. It’s worth noting that for most tourists, a daily fee is charged, which includes accommodation, food, guide, and transport.