Bhutan is a mysterious country famous for being shrouded by the Himalayan Mountains. Often considered to be a forgotten kingdom where Buddhist culture dominates, tourists are strictly controlled by a governmental tariff.
Costing visitors a couple of hundred dollars a day, Bhutan is famous for being expensive. However, by paying the price, tourists will unlock a stunning country that worships Buddha and maintains a pristine environment.
With better control over tourism, Bhutan is slowly opening its doors to the outside world and allowing visitors a chance to view their monasteries, festivals, textiles, and mountains.
Jen Pa Leg So – Welcome to Bhutan!
Thimphu is the country’s capital, which is entirely unique and holds the title of the world’s fourth-highest capital by altitude as parts of it sit at 8,688 feet above sea level.
In the capital, you will not see towering skyscrapers or busy highways. Instead, it focuses on honoring ancient Bhutanese culture by only using a traditional style of architecture. The landscape of the capital is also enchanting, as the city nestles in a valley on the west bank of the Raidāk River.
Another unique characteristic is that Thimphu does not have an airport. Instead, international visitors will fly into the Paro airport, which is 34 miles away.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Unlike other countries, Bhutan’s beginnings are not as clear. Rather, the early history has been left to mythology, with scientists estimating that the area was settled in 2000 BC.
It was not until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century that Bhutan’s own history became clearer. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced hereafter Tibet had its own problems, and monks began to flee toward Bhutan.
The country is also unique because, besides different tributary statuses, Bhutan has always maintained its independence. This means that in the history of the country, there has never been a foreign conqueror or government, and it has never been occupied.
While other countries like Tibet and Britain have tried to make a claim, they have ultimately been unsuccessful, which has left Bhutan as one of the uncolonized countries.
Now, Bhutan is ruled by a king and prime minister, though the political system has changed. The country was once under an absolute monarchy, which ended when the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck gave the majority of his political powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers.
He passed a law stating that the king could be impeached by the National Assembly with a two-thirds majority vote. The current king and prime minister of the country are Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Lotay Tshering.
The country’s culture strongly revolves around a form of Tibetan Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism. While Buddhism has reigned for centuries, the fact that Bhutan has kept itself preserved from the outside world has allowed its traditions to thrive.
The country famously focuses on Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product, which was a concept introduced by the current king’s father. Under this ideology, Bhutan focuses on the happiness of its own people instead of trying to gain riches from the outside world.
Visitors who do travel to the country will see that many men and women still dress traditionally with different outfit designs signifying social class. The elaborate dress may be witnessed during festivals, which is when people use ornate embroidered and beaded robes and dresses.
Furthermore, tradition is upheld in the national sports, which are archery and digor. With a more holistic lifestyle, Bhutan has also developed a culture that honors the country’s environment.
Many Bhutanese are conscious of the impact of modernization and have introduced a law that states 60% of the land must remain forested, though the statistic currently states the country is doing better with 70% of the land preserved.
For visitors, this makes Bhutan the last great kingdom where the Himalayas dominate and are free to showcase their pristine beauty with limited human impact.
Bhutanese, which is also called Dzongkha, is the country’s official language, which is spoken by over half a million people. The language is used by the government and is also taught in the majority of schools across the country. However, the unofficial languages of the country will include local dialects, which may be spoken in small villages.
You may be surprised to know that with their isolation, Bhutan still places heavy importance on English as a foreign language.
English is often taught as a secondary language in schools, and there are also media outlets that will publish all their articles in English. For English-speaking tourists, this is often a comfort and very helpful when they meet their official government tour guide.
Bhutan is a unique country because it’s often considered to be the most expensive country to visit in Asia. The government of Bhutan requires that all visitors pay a minimum daily tariff for their time spent in the country. The tariff is also called the minimum daily package, and it will vary by person and season.
Costing individuals a couple of hundred dollars a day depending on whether you travel in a group or solo, the tourist season runs from March to May and September to November. Solo travelers will have to pay more, so it’s recommended that you travel with others.
While the daily tariff is quite expensive for an Asian country, it’s important to know that this method of tourism is the government’s way of protecting the country’s culture and environment. While they are open to visitors and eagerly welcome them, they do want to uphold their policy of “high value and low impact.”
It’s also important to know that the minimum daily package really is a package deal and includes the basics like accommodation, food, transportation, and an official tour guide. It does not cover any airline fees, international or domestic. You can upgrade to different options at your own expense.
Flights to Bhutan are expensive, and they will only add to the overall expense of your trip. Direct flights are pricey, however, those with multiple layovers and connections can also rack up a bill.
Additionally, flights will be priced higher during the tourist high season. You can also save money by booking your flight immediately after getting your visa approved and not waiting.
As mentioned, you can upgrade your package options and most people will choose to do so. Tourists can only stay in government-approved hotels that are licensed to serve tourists.
These hotels are often three to five-star hotels, and there are some resort options that are included with the price of the minimum daily package. Upgrades can be made if you prefer to stay in government-approved luxury accommodations.
Much like hotels, you can also upgrade your meals. While your package will include plenty of dishes, you may want more luxurious options for a premium vacation.
Bhutan’s cuisine uses a lot of red rice, and they also enjoy eating buckwheat and various types of meat. Ema Datshi is a local dish, which is a stew of chilis and cheese. Jasha Maroo is a spicy chicken dish, and Phaksha Paa is pork with chilis. Bhutan also has its own version of momos, which are steamed dumplings.
For most of the country’s 770,000+ population (as of 2020), drinking in Bhutan is kept to a minimum. While tourists do drink, the most common beverage is beer. Beer will likely be offered to you, however, it will not be a part of your minimum daily package. You will have to pay for all alcoholic beverages with your own money.
Most drinks will be a few dollars but can be more expensive in luxury locations. Local drinks will also be much more affordable than import options.
How to Get Around
Most people, when they travel to Asia, expect to hop from planes, trains, cars, boats, and even rickshaws. In Bhutan, you won’t get those experiences because you will not be allowed to travel like a local. Tourists can only travel by private car and driver or plane. If you are part of a larger group, the tour will have appropriate transportation.
If you booked a solo tour, you will have a small car and a personal driver, along with your guide. You cannot drive yourself in Bhutan. The transportation is included with your minimum daily package price and will allow you to safely see the best of Bhutan.
Your driver and guide will be eager to show you the beauty of the country, but you can still gain some independence by asking for rest stops, photo opportunities, or snack breaks.
It’s also important to consider tipping your driver and tour guide. While tipping is not a custom in Bhutan, the tourism industry has made it a bit more widespread. Your tour guide and driver will be with you the entirety of your trip, and they will often go out of their way to ensure you see everything and have the best experience.
Aside from driving, you could try to take a domestic flight, but it’s not recommended. The domestic flight system is not reliable, and many flights are canceled last minute, which means that you would still have to rely on a car and driver. Domestic flights are also expensive and are not included in your minimum daily package.
Ultimately, the best way to get around is to stick to the tour’s plan and use their transportation options. The private car and driver will get you where you need to go while prioritizing your enjoyment and safety along the journey.
Top Cities to Visit
Bhutan may be small, but there are still a few different cities and districts that you can explore. Spread across valleys and into the mountains, each location has unique features and attractions worth visiting. Here are the top city destinations to add to your itinerary in Bhutan.
Thimphu is the unique capital of Bhutan, which doesn’t have an airport or traffic lights. While it may lack a few of modern cities’ most common features, it’s a stunning location worth visiting. The government calls this city home, and they work out of the impressive Tashichho Dzong.
Visitors can take a look inside the complex after 4 pm, which is when government workers finish for the day. Another big attraction is Buddha Point, which has a large golden statue of a sitting Buddha. Tourists can also experience more modern commodities like shopping, dining, and nightlife.
Paro is home to the only international airport in the country and is where tourists fly into Bhutan. Home to plenty of monasteries and temples, this city is one of the most visited specifically due to the Taktsang Monastery, which sits on the side of a mountain.
Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan and has a more temperate climate, making it a big destination for mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. The city sits near two flowing rivers and is known for being the place where the country’s famous red rice is grown.
The Punakha Dzong is the main attraction and is often the winter residence of the government and king.
Wangdue Phorang has a pristine landscape that’s been preserved, making it a nature lover’s paradise. Many people come to this area to trek in the national parks. The town is small with only 9,000 people, which has helped it stay hidden and off the map. Its most famous area is the Phobjikha Valley.
Bumthang is filled with Bhutan’s history, and it preserves the country’s oldest traditions. The area is also filled with historic, religious, and ancient sites.
Close to the border with India, Phuentsholing is bustling with trade, tourism, and international businesses. It’s also famous for its border gate. Most tourists will simply pass through the area, but those who stay will experience stunning architecture in the local lhakhangs.
Epic views make Trongsa a must-see city that was once crucial to the ancient kingdom’s control. The Wangchuck Dynasty held their power here before they were declared king.
Now, you visit the dzong and town to see history in action. The dzong has also been important in uniting the trade between west and east Bhutan.
Points of Interest
While cities are the main attractions, there are also many points of interest throughout Bhutan that are sure to entice you. Home to Buddhist temples, nature preserves, and national parks, there are plenty of outdoor activities to keep you entertained throughout your trip.
Located in the Paro District, the Ringpung Dzong is a 16th-century complex that is nicknamed the “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels.” The dzong houses various temples and shrines, as well as the annual Tshechu Festival. You can view the traditional architecture and customs that make Bhutan so unique.
Buddha Dordenma Statue
The Buddha Dordenma Statue is located outside of Thimphu, and it’s the world’s tallest Buddha statue with a height of 169 feet. The golden statue is the main highlight, but there are numerous smaller statues of Buddha, as well as praying wheels, paintings, and temples.
Chele La Pass
This is the highest road pass in Bhutan, and it’s located just to the west of the Paro Valley. Tourists can catch a glimpse of the Jomolhari Mountain, which is a sacred symbol of Bhutan. With an amazing view, tourists can get a taste of the Himalayas.
The Dochula Pass stupas were built to honor the fallen soldiers who protected Bhutan from insurgents from India. There are 108 stupas in total situated in an amazing location where you can see views of the sacred Himalayan Mountains. The area is also popular with locals as a small resort destination.
The dramatic cliffside location of the Taktsang Monastery only adds to its beauty and mythical tale. The monastery is considered to be the meditation location of Guru Rinpoche, who rode the back of a tigress to defeat a demon. He was said to have meditated here for three months, which makes this monastery the most sacred site in all of Bhutan.
The nickname “Tiger’s Nest,” was given, and now it has become a tourist hotspot. You will need a permit to enter, which would be arranged by your guide, and no photography is allowed once you are inside the monastery’s complex.
Bordering the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, the Phobjikha Valley is famous for its lush greens and towering mountains. The valley is one of the most visited places in Bhutan, and people are eager to hike its trails. Animals are also abundant in the area, and you may catch a glimpse of leopards, deer, foxes, boars, or bears.
Sometimes called Jomolhari, Chomolhari is a hotspot for trekking. The trek begins in Paro and takes 7-15 days to complete. It’s extremely challenging, and only intermediate or experienced mountaineers should attempt the journey.
The perfect months to trek are April and May, but you can safely pass from late March to June and September to November.
Motithang Takin Preserve
The takin is Bhutan’s national animal, and this Motithang Takin Preserve has been turned into a home for this amazing animal. While the animals are confined, it’s not exactly like a zoo. Instead, the takins have 8.4 acres to roam, and the government provides exceptional care.
If you want to relax, Gasa Tshachu is located in the Gasa District and offers tourists a variety of natural hot springs to ease their stress. The springs are the most popular in the country, and the area is also well known for being close to the Jigme Dorji National Park.
“Land of the Thunder Dragon”
While many are unaware of Bhutan or don’t know of its beauty, this hidden gem is filled with ancient traditions and culture. With a strict tourism policy, Bhutan has preserved its identity and kept itself mostly a secret from the outside world.
Traveling to this mysterious land will reward you with epic views and a glimpse into a different lifestyle. For those who want to visit the destinations less traveled, Bhutan will be the star that leaves you with lifelong memories.