Bhutan Travel Guide
Bhutan is one of Asia’s most exciting holiday destinations. It has wonderful mountains, forests and valleys, an unhurried atmosphere and a society still deeply rooted in its traditional way of life.
In many ways, Bhutan is a perfect choice for senior travellers. Because visitor numbers are strictly controlled and backpacking isn’t allowed, the country is geared towards older visitors. And they won’t have seen anything like it before, with its distinctive culture and otherworldly feel. Even widely travelled visitors are likely to fall under its spell.
This tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of just 700,000 people lies squeezed between two giants, India and China, but for centuries has gone its own way. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the first tourists were allowed in.
Today visitors have to pay a large daily tariff in advance. This restricts the number of visitors and effectively excludes budget travellers. All visitors must travel with a guide.
Visitor numbers, though still relatively small, are growing steadily. Over 250,000 foreign visitors entered in 2017 – more than double the figure for 2013. In 2017, 44 percent of them were aged 56 and over.
Bhutan’s only international airport is in Paro, in the west of the country. It’s the entry point for almost all international visitors. From here they’ll go to nearby Thimphu, the capital. Many will then journey east along Bhutan’s primary road, the east-west highway, with side trips along the way.
How far east they reach depends on how much time they have. If they’re spending around a week in Bhutan, they’ll probably get as far as the delightful Bumthang Valley in the centre of the country. Areas east of here see far fewer visitors.
For most of the journey, the highway is a narrow, winding mountain road with spectacular views. Road widening has been going on for the past few years, which leads to delays at times. The occasional landslide or rockfall can also disrupt traffic.
Bhutan famously measures its well-being by Gross National Happiness – an index based on sustainable development, environmental conservation, preservation of culture, and good governance.
It’s considered an exceptionally safe and scam-free place for visitors, including women travelling on their own. English is widely spoken. Travelling with a guide adds to the sense of safety. And his presence need not become an intrusion. Visitors who have reached their destination for the day can simply tell their guide they’d like some time on their own. Female guides are available for those who ask for them.
Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, lies in a valley in the western part of the country. With a population of just over 100,000, it feels more like a small town than a city. It’s a relatively new entrant to the modern world; television arrived only in 1999. Today the traditional and the modern exist side by side. Thimphu has many attractions that guides will be eager to show the visitors under their care.
The Trashi Chho Dzong, popularly known as the Thimphu Dzong, is among several dzongs – a combination of fortress and monastery - located across Bhutan. This large complex built in traditional style houses the king’s offices, the government secretariat, and the ministries of home affairs and finance. It’s also the summer residence of the country’s religious leader, the Je Khenpo.
The National Memorial Chorten is one of the main religious sites in Thimphu. A chorten is a memorial to a distinguished Buddhist; this one was built in Tibetan style in 1974 to honour a former king. Near the entrance is a shelter housing five large prayer wheels that local visitors like to spin.
The Motithang Takin Preserve, in the hilly outskirts of Thimphu, is a wildlife reserve for Bhutan’s national animal, the takin. This gentle, unusual animal looks a bit like a combination of a goat and a cow, with a moose-like snout. Takin were once kept in a zoo in Thimphu, and when the king ordered them released, they refused to leave the city. So this forest preserve was created for them.
Atop a hill outside Thimphu stands a massive statue of Buddha, the Buddha Dordenma Statue. Completed in 2015, it’s made of bronze covered with a thin layer of gold and is more than 50 metres tall. Inside are 125,000 small Buddhas made of the same material. The statue’s three-storey base contains a chapel.
Thimphu is the ideal place to experience Bhutanese food, especially the national dish, ema datshi, which translates as chilli and cheese. The Bhutanese love their food spicy, and chillies and yak cheese are staple ingredients. They go with almost every dish, and are also served on their own over a bed of rice.
Most of Bhutan’s major towns have a dzong or fortress. These enormous complexes, located on mountainsides or beside important rivers, serve both as the local religious hub and as the centre of local government. Most were built in the 17th century and have undergone extensive rebuilding over the years. Each is different but all have huge exterior walls, a complex of courtyards and temples, and usually a central tower. The dzongs are open to the public and visitors should set aside plenty of time to explore them.
The Punakha Dzong is a majestic fortress in a stunning location. It stands at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother). Visitors reach it by crossing a long, covered suspension bridge. Built in 1637-38, it served as the seat of Bhutan’s government until the capital moved from Punakha to Thimphu in 1955. Bhutan’s chief abbot and his entourage spend their winters here.
The Trongsa Dzong, on a mountain ridge overlooking the town, is the largest in Bhutan. Built in 1648, it has superb views of the valley and surrounding mountains. It includes 25 temples, dedicated to various lamas and deities, and is home to around 200 monks during the winter months. On a mountainside above the dzong is an old watchtower that functions today as a museum.
The Paro Dzong is built on a mountainside and has excellent views of the surrounding area. Like all the dzongs, it contains many religious paintings, murals and artefacts.
Dochula pass is one of the best stopping points on the road from Thimphu to Punakha. It offers spectacular panoramic views of the Himalayas, including Bhutan’s highest peak, Gangkhar Puensum, near the border with China. It’s also the site of 108 memorial stupas built in honour of 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died in a 2003 military operation against insurgents from India’s Assam region.
For visitors keen to do some walking, the mountain trails above the pass offer wonderful forest scenery and are not too strenuous.
The Phobjikha Valley is a wide valley in central Bhutan that’s considered one of the most beautiful places in the country. It’s also known as the Gangtey Valley because the Gangtey monastery is located here. Among the biggest attractions for visitors in late autumn and winter are the migrating black-necked cranes that spend the winter here. More than 300 of them arrive from the Tibetan plateau, north of the Himalayas, in late October and stay until mid-February, nesting in the wetlands in the centre of the valley.
The nearby Black Necked Crane Information Centre has telescopes for watching the birds. An annual festival to welcome them is held at the monastery in early November, with singing and dancing, including performances by local children in crane costumes. The valley is also an excellent place for walks, both long and short.
Tiger’s Nest monastery
If there’s a single place that captures the essence of Bhutan, it’s the Tiger’s Nest monastery, or Paro Taktsang, perched on a cliff high in the mountains outside Paro. Climbing to this famous monastery will provide memories that last a lifetime. The only way to reach it is on a mountain trail that begins in the valley far below. The trail is steep in places and the climb is tiring, but senior travellers in reasonably good health should be able to manage it without too much trouble.
The climb can take three hours or more. Many climbers take a rest stop at a cafeteria about half-way up. The full climb to the monastery and back is likely to take at least six to seven hours, so visitors should allocate a full day for it. The round trip is about 8 kilometres (5 miles). Some visitors choose to climb as far as the cafeteria before turning back; it has excellent views of the monastery and this too is a memorable experience.
The monastery is known as the Tiger’s Nest because the man who brought Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan, Guru Rinpoche, is said to have journeyed to a cave at the site on the back of a flying tigress in the 7th century.
Best months to visit Bhutan
Autumn (late September to the end of November) and spring (March to May) are considered the best times to visit Bhutan. The autumn temperatures are pleasant and the days clear after the monsoon rains. In spring the weather is good, there are many festivals and the flowers are in bloom. During the summer, the rains can turn some roads muddy and travelling can be difficult. Winter is cold but sunny and the skies are generally clear, offering great views of the mountains.
December to February are the coldest months, with temperatures in Thimphu ranging from -1 to 14 °C. June to August are the warmest, with temperatures of 15-25 °C, and also the wettest.
How the tariff works
Each visitor has to pay a daily tariff of US$250 during the high season, and $200 during off-peak (December-February and June-August). Only visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are exempt. On top of this is a daily government surcharge of $40 for a single traveller and $30 each for a couple. There’s no surcharge for groups of three or more.
This may seem steep but the tariff includes hotel accommodation up to three star, entry fees, all three daily meals and all local travel with the guide and driver. Only visitors who choose luxury accommodation have to pay more.
As the tariff and surcharge are pre-paid, visitors have few expenses while in the country, other than spending on items like drinks and snacks, souvenirs and tips.
Bhutan’s stated aim is to ensure low-volume, high-value tourism. All visitors have to travel with a guide and driver, with the itinerary pre-planned, and all tours must be booked through an approved tour company and paid for in advance. There’s some flexibility in the itinerary if visitors see something along the way that they’d like to check out.
Currency and exchange rates
The local currency is the ngultrum. It’s pegged to the Indian rupee, which is also legal in Bhutan. Indian rupees in denominations of 500 and 1000 are no longer accepted in Bhutan.
Visitors can exchange cash at the foreign exchange desk at Paro Airport and at Bank of Bhutan branches in major towns. There are also ATMs in the towns but banking facilities are limited elsewhere and visitors should always carry some cash. They can pay by credit card at most hotels and handicraft shops.
Header image: Karen Lim