How to Plan a Trip to Bhutan

The name Bhutan conjures up images of a distant land filled with spiritual temples, billowing prayer flags and majestic mountains.  Although I have lived in and traveled throughout Asia, I knew only a few people who had been to Bhutan. I had always just heard things like, ‘They limit the number of tourists that can visit’, ‘You have to spend a certain amount of money per day if you visit’, and ‘They are the happiest country on earth, with a Gross National Happiness index’.  It wasn’t until a few girlfriends and I started discussing a trip last year that we began considering traveling to this Himalayan Kingdom and exploring the logistics involved.   Then this past November we spent 8 nights visiting this beautiful country, and it was a dream trip (see link at bottom of the post to view our full trip itinerary/photos). 

Since I’ve returned, in addition to the traditional ‘how was it’ and ‘what was your favorite part of the trip’ questions, a unique inquiry from friends has been ‘HOW do you plan a trip to Bhutan?’.  

Here are the things you need to know about planning a trip to Bhutan and some additional helpful info for once you are there, as well as recommended books to read ahead of time and items to pack. Some were things we found out during our (very detailed) research process and other things we found out while there, and wish we’d known before we went. We can’t recommend this trip enough.

  Bhutan: Overall Things to Know When Planning a Trip   Trips must be booked via a tour operator and you must have a guide while you are in the country (unless you are a citizen of India, Bangladesh or the Maldives – this blog logistical info does not apply to these residents who should check their own visa needs). We used one of the oldest tour companies in the country – Yangphel – who are terrific. They are also used by tour operators such as National Geographic and GeoEx.  Book ahead of time. To ensure you can get the trip you want and stay in the lodgings you want, best to book ahead of time. We booked six months out and were not able to get some of the lodgings we wanted. And if you are, for instance, wanting to book around a specific festival then that may cause even more crowding of lodging options.  Choose whether you want to go on a group tour or a private tour. Many companies offer group trips. We had 4 women and opted to book a private tour that came with a guide and van/driver. This offered us a lot of great flexibility throughout our visit.  Some 5-star hotel chains such as Aman can also act as a tour agent if you stay at their properties throughout the trip. Do your research and decide where you want to go and what you want to do while in the country. Research top attractions and activities (including festivals if you want your trip to coincide with one) and make sure your group trip offers these, Or, if using a private guide be sure to communicate clearly with them so they can set up the best itinerary for you. Do you want to go to a particular festival? Do you want to trek? Do you want to visit more remote locations? Do you want to raft/mountain bike? Do you want to do a hike every day? We told them that we didn’t want to be ‘over-templed’ and that we wanted to have some hiking each day, as this was a balance that worked for our group. If you want a spiritually focused trip, a trekking trip or a cultural trip you can get it – but each of those itineraries will look very different. Also know what part of the country you want to visit. The eastern area is less touristed/more ‘authentic’ (and harder to get to) so if that’s your interest be sure to indicate that. It’s also very different having a trip that stays in 5-star hotels vs one that includes homestays in small villages. Once your itinerary is set it is NOT easy to change it after you have arrived (location/hotels in particular – daily activities have flexibility). THIS IS KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL TRIP as there are lots of ways to visit/experience Bhutan so be sure your trip reflects your interests in both activity and type of accommodation. Trekking. Bhutan is known for its incredible mountains, there are lots of trekking options available. These can range anywhere from doing a moderate hike each day (but staying in hotels), going on a one to two-night camping trek, to the famous 28 day Snowman trek, which some say is the most difficult trek in the world. Remember you are dealing with serious altitude as well. Be sure to look for a trip that offers the activity level you desire. Let your travel agent know what level of accommodation you want. The country has everything from top-end 5-star options (Aman resorts have a property in most major cities in Bhutan…and Six Senses has amazing properties, some of which you can helicopter between) down to homestay options. The budget for the trip can vary drastically based upon lodging choices.  If planning a private trip, let your tour operator know what additional activities you are interested in, such as hot stone baths (a must!), massages, archery, meditation lessons, festival visits, cooking demos, school visits, etc.  Your tour operator will be in charge of organizing your visa (which you get upon arrival), all your hotels and your transportation. They will obtain ‘road permits’ for your travels outside of the main towns of Paro and Thimphu and you may have to stop at immigration checkpoints along the way to check that your paperwork is in order (your guide handles this). If you are planning on traveling on to a neighboring country like India or Nepal after your time in Bhutan, you should check on getting those visas yourself before you leave your home country vs trying to get them while overseas. Cost: Via your guide service you must spend $250/day per person (price decreases to $200/pp from Dec – Feb and June-Aug – details here). There is a surcharge if you are traveling in a group of one or two people. Kids get a discount with a family trip. This daily amount covers hotel/transportation/guide/entrance fees. So once you land you are only paying potentially for things like hot-stone baths, rafting/biking/horseback riding, cultural shows, tips, and shopping.   Book a seat on the LEFT side of the plane when arriving in Bhutan and the RIGHT side when leaving for the great views of Everest and the Himalayas. Those on the left side of the plane have an incredible view (weather depending) as you enter Bhutan and it really is worth making sure you secure a window seat if possible. The landing into Bhutan is quite dramatic!    Additional ‘good to know’ info:   – Dollars are accepted at some places and bigger bills are preferred rather than smaller notes (you can usually get change in dollars as well). Make sure dollar notes you bring are in good condition and not too old as otherwise they will not be accepted. Don’t plan your cash around using an ATM there (not reliable), so bring cash for any spending you will need (including tips for your guide and driver at the end and for your hotel staff).  – Tipping: We were recommended the following: guide $100/week per person, driver $5/day per person, hotel $5/day per person (leave at the desk at checkout). $5/day for possible temple donations. Overall about $20/day per person/per day excluding the main guide tip. All in US dollars is OK. We also brought some knee-high black ‘gold toe’ socks for our driver and guide as this type of socks are part of the national dress that men wear daily (we had a male guide and driver). – Adaptor. Most hotels used the two-prong English outlet or our US items were able to plug into the regular outlet at some locations. Some hotels had power strips. Bring a universal adaptor to be safe, and maybe even power cord if you have lots of stuff to charge (and room to pack it). – If you get motion sick bring meds for the long drives. – ‘Chilip’ refers to a white foreigner. – Be prepared to deal with high altitude – with meds, cocoa tea or whatever you prefer. It’s an adjustment the first day or two as it’s high…. Thimpu is at 7709′, Paro is 7300′, Ghangty is 9842′ (and the pass to get there is 10,000′ ) and Punakha is 4100′. Tiger’s Nest is over 10,000′, with a 2000′ elevation gain during the hike up. Plan accordingly, especially for the first day or two when you are adjusting. – Meds. Chances are you will do a lot of driving, and many of the roads are windy. Be sure to pack Dramamine (or equivalent) just to be safe. Also pack sleeping meds (as needed), as well as meds for altitude adjustment. Better to be prepared with meds and not use them than not have them on hand as it’d be tough to find them there. – Bring layers for dressing. We didn’t need anything fancy where we stayed, but check if you are at the 5-star resorts like Aman or Six Senses. – Shopping: baby yak scarves, between $6-$15 depending on size, are beautiful and are great gifts. Prayer Beads are also great and prices really vary depending on material/quality/age. Don’t believe that all prayer beads are made of Bodhi wood (the real Bodhi wood ones are upwards of $150 to $1000 and if you cup them tightly in your hand and shake them you should hear a rattle inside the beads). Paro has the most shopping but if you see it and like it along the way….get it, as you never know if you’ll see the same thing again. You may also want some prayer flags after seeing them everywhere you turn! – Helpful to read up on Bhutanese Buddhism before you go. – We had been advised to bring bars in case the food wasn’t agreeable but we never ate them as our food was all great, with the exception of only a meal or two. We had also been told there was MSG used in cooking so our guide made sure to ask that no MSG was used (although all the hotels and restaurants said they did not use it). – We recommend, if coming from far away, that you have a day in Bangkok (or elsewhere) to adjust and rest a bit before you hit the ground running in Bhutan. We extended our trip on the back end as well elsewhere in Asia. – For Tiger’s Nest (a MUST) try to arrive early to miss the crowds and the hot sun. We started hiking by 7 am. Plan for at least 5 hours round trip including stops, tour, etc. Leaving in the early morning does not provide the best light for photo ops on the way up however – afternoon provides those. But as we came down the light was better.  – For temples you need your knees and shoulders covered. Ideally, wear a collared shirt or put a sweater on as you go in. Shoes off and no photos inside. – Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world. By law, Bhutan has to have at least 60% of the country covered in forest and currently it is at 72.5%.   – There are no stoplights or Starbucks in the country, but we did have wifi at all the hotels! – Dogs are everywhere, sleeping or wandering, but none were ever aggressive. They can howl at night and, depending on your hotel, you may want earplugs if you are a light sleeper. – Be ready to flexible. Expect the unexpected. – Do a hot stone bath, and do it outside your hotel at a local spot for a more authentic experience. – If you have a private guide feel free to ask for extra experiences such as hot stone baths, massages, home visits, meditation lessons, school visits etc. – You can request home stays as part of your trip if that’s of interest. – Save Tiger’s Nest until the end of the trip so you are acclimated to the altitude. But apparently, if you are going on a trek some companies do this at the start to assess the fitness level of the group! They rent walking sticks at the start of the hike so no need to bring your own unless you feel you’ll want it throughout the trip. – Smoking is banned in public – only allowed in private confinements.  – Tuesdays are ‘dry’ nationwide.  No alcohol is sold on Tuesdays, even at major hotels, to reduce alcoholism.   Books to Read Before You Go:   Lonely Planet Guide to Bhutan – Lonely Planet guides are always full of great info! Married to Bhutan –  The story of an American woman who moved to Bhutan Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan – About a woman who chose to relocate her life to teach in Bhutan   Items to Consider Purchasing For Your Travels:    Away Suitcase: I bought a new suitcase before the trip, wanting a Carry On suitcase that could fit a lot and expand as well. My Away ‘Expandable Bigger Carry-On’ suitcase was perfect for the trip. I threw in a small nylon duffle for any extra space I needed for purchases I made during the trip. Once home, my husband has stolen the suitcase for his longer work trips and loves it as well. Trtl Neck Pillow: I always tout this product because it saves me on long flights!  The Turt neck pillow keeps your head propped in a soft, comfortable way that lets you sleep on planes without a neck ache afterward.  Good small, lightweight, compact backpack: to have in the car for ready access to items as well as to take on any hikes (including up to Tiger’s Nest).  Water bottle: To keep in your car, to have in your hotel and to bring on hikes – basically to have on you at all times. You can refill it with purified water as you go. You are at a very high altitude and are drinking a TON of water.   The view our full trip itinerary, and photos, please click here  

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Picture of Chrissie Kremer
Chrissie Kremer

I am a mixed bag traveler - I go the budget route on some things and splurge on others. I love family adventure travel, trips with girlfriends, or solo trips with my kids. I like urban exploration but prefer it coupled with outdoor activity (and when traveling with my kids it's more outdoor activity coupled with a dose of urban). I have been to 62 countries... and counting.

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Picture of Chrissie Kremer
Chrissie Kremer

I am a mixed bag traveler - I go the budget route on some things and splurge on others. I love family adventure travel, trips with girlfriends, or solo trips with my kids. I like urban exploration but prefer it coupled with outdoor activity (and when traveling with my kids it's more outdoor activity coupled with a dose of urban). I have been to 62 countries... and counting.

JOIN THE COMMUNITY!

and receive the “Carry On Only Packing Guide”, free. 

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