Are you a city person? The kind that needs hot showers, clean rooms, and food that won’t cause too much of tummy problems? Well, I am. Before I went Bhutan less than 2 weeks ago, I had difficulty finding answers to my ‘first-world concerns’ about how it’ll be like to go Bhutan. So now, I’ve put together an article to help you have a better idea of the Land of the Thunder Dragon!
All the first-world questions you have about visiting Bhutan!
Is it dangerous to fly into Bhutan?
Paro Airport is considered one of the most challenging and dangerous airports to land at, for good reason. The airport is located in a valley at 2235m above sea level, surrounded by high mountains about twice of that height. Only a select few pilots (between 8-11 in total) in the world are certified to land in Bhutan. This means you’re in good hands with these aviation experts 🙂
Due to the challenges in the surroundings, the pilot will use manual methods (his eyesight and skills) to judge and land, instead of relying on high-tech navigation systems. All flights landing in or leaving Bhutan can only happen in daytime, in good weather. (So I read that sometimes, strong winds at the valley will cause turbulence.)
The original flight plan for us was to refuel at Kolkata, before continuing to Bhutan. Close to dawn, sleepless, I was staring out of the windows and thinking wow, Kolkata has such beautiful views too?!? Then it dawned on me that our plane had skipped Kolkata altogether (the reason was that the flight was full), and we were gonna land in Bhutan soon omg! If not for that, we would never get to see this light at sunrise. I was thoroughly captivated by the mountain summits so close and at eye level with our plane, and the turns the plane was making.
The landing was amazing! Very beautiful, dramatic, smooth and may I add, too soon, it was over.
Taking off was equally magical and impressive! All thanks to the expertise of the captains on Druk Air!
Would I have difficulty acclimatizing in Bhutan?
It depends on the individual. My brother and Mum had no issues, while I struggled to inhale normally at higher altitudes initially. Our first spot on the first day was Buddha Point in Thimphu and I was walking very slowly, mildly panicking internally, trying to breatheeeee deeply into my lungs. My Dad got giddy pretty often in Bhutan.
My guide mentioned that your body takes the very first few days to acclimatize. After that, you’ll be fine. Being Singaporean where patience isn’t my virtue, later on, I ate some TCM tablets recommended by my GP (called 龙井天, you can buy a bottle from a TCM shop) a day before and on the day that we’ll be going to higher altitudes (such as Dochula Pass, Chele la Pass and Tiger’s Nest – all above 3000m), and breathing became easier. It’ll be useful to keep some mountain sickness pills at hand.
No matter what, breathe deeply and take your time to adapt in Bhutan.
What kind of food would I eat in Bhutan?
It’s always buffet-style of rice + several dishes, which you take as you want. It’s either white rice or red rice (it really doesn’t taste too weird). Sometimes, a few dishes might be a little spicy, but often not. We also got chances to try Bhutanese chilli-cheese dishes (long beans or mushroom in chilli-cheese) – very delicious but so spicy! Tell your guide you wanna try ema-datshi and he’ll get the restaurant to include it.
Vegetable dishes are always the majority, with 1 or at most 2 meat options. As my family doesn’t eat beef, I’d specified this ahead of our trip. The only meat we ate in Bhutan was chicken, pork, fish, with fish being the least frequent. The food feels rather Chinese-style to me – assorted vegetables sauteed in various ways, plus the meat dish. As a Singaporean, the food is actually pretty tasty for all our meals, definitely not awful nor overly-processed in strange-tasting sauces. Bhutan’s veggies should be healthily-grown (organic)!
I didn’t get any tummy problems in Bhutan.
In fact, my tummy felt quite cleansed somehow. You won’t eat a lot but soon you’ll feel full. I also avoided raw veggies, salad, and fruits, especially if they looked as if they’d been left on the buffet table for some time. It’s something I do everytime I travel.
There were Caucasian travellers at restaurants and hotels and they ate the same dishes too. Again, this might not paint the entire picture, as the groups of people we saw are also likely using the same agency as us, thus eating the same things at the same places at the same time with us.
As a Buddhist country, the Bhutanese don’t eat a lot of meat. In fact, killing (including fishing) is not allowed in the country, so all the meat you eat are mostly imported from India. You also won’t find international chains like McDonald’s or Starbucks. Neither will there be seafood.
Lunch will mostly take place at restaurants elsewhere of hotels, while breakfast is always at hotel restaurants. Often, dinners are at hotel restaurants too. At Paro, my guide will ask if we prefer to eat dinner at restaurants in town or at the hotel. For convenience, we always chose to eat at the hotel. He’ll then call and make the arrangements. If you wish to eat beyond the arranged venues, you can always discuss with your agent/guide and swap accordingly at your own costs.
How are the hotels? Clean? Hot water for shower? Bed comfort? Blackouts?
The hotels we were assigned were actually better than I thought. They were spacious (spacious enough for me to do yoga on my travel yoga mat) and clean. All of them come with in-room heaters, hairdryers, electric kettles and bottles of mineral water. We didn’t experience any blackouts in Bhutan if you’re wondering! Some of the in-room heaters might not be very strong, but the duvets/comforters should suffice. I slept in my thin cotton tees and loose pants. If you worry, you can bring thicker versions of sleepwear.
In Bhutan, you need to strategize exactly when to strip off your clothes when hot water arrives, and also master the art of very quick showers.
Also, not all hotels provide the equivalent standard shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body lotion, so it’s safer for you to bring your own. Bring your own toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as bedroom slippers if you need.
Here’s a quick summary of our hotel stays:
• Osel Hotel (Thimphu) – Good beds and good pillows. Room has TV. Hot water suddenly stopped coming in the later part of the day when my brother was in the shower! We could get the hotel staff to take a look, but as we were just staying for one night, I decided to shower in my parent’s bathroom next door. You can hear dogs barking in the middle of the night. Good dinner and adequate breakfast. Hotel staff are polite.
• Punatsangchhu Cottages (Punakha) – Spacious room, pillow’s not as comfortable for me personally, room has TV. No problems with hot water for showering. In-room heater was not very effective (but Punakha wasn’t too cold for us). The room’s quiet for sleeping – we barely heard dogs barking. My room comes with a small balcony facing the river – a delightful place to sit at in the morning. Breakfast has limited options. Dinner food is tasty.
• The Resort at Raven’s Nest (Paro) – A very thoughtful hotel. Cosy, spacious room with sofa and coffee-table, no TV, extension power cords for multiple-plugs, huge bathroom, mattress comes with heating pads. The very spacious bathroom has heated flooring. Hot water for shower was a little tricky to manage for my room (no problems for my parents’) – either too hot or not warm enough. On my 2nd night, the hot water ran out for me halfway, brrr! On the 3rd evening, it went back to being fine. Food is served to tables at the restaurant instead of buffet style, and they took care to change the dishes every night for all 3 nights. Restaurant staff is thoughtful and polite. You can see Tiger’s Nest from outside your room.
Are the toilets clean?
At hotels and restaurants, yes. There’re toilet bowls and taps, even at the cafe halfway up Tiger’s Nest, or the cafe at Dochula Pass. In fact, I never came across any gross toilet in Bhutan on my short trip. There was one restaurant in Thimphu where the washroom was as clean and luxurious as a hotel’s in Singapore! One time in Punakha, we had outdoor lunch at big tents set up. It was a charming picnic spot for locals. There was a small building with a few toilet cubicles and they were all squat-type FYI, but still not dirty.
Yes, the toilets are flushable – you don’t need to dump water manually to flush them. Be smart and not put in too much toilet paper at one time. Yes, there will be toilet paper most of the time (I still always bring tissue-paper with me).
Still, I would advise you not to drink too much water during the day. Hydrate with strategy. If you know you’ll be taking a long ride from Paro to Haa, minimize your water intake hours before the journey. I always rehydrate at night and straight after waking up.
The most primitive toilet we had to experience was a wooden shed at Chele La Pass (almost 4,000m above sea level). Inside, there’s a small rectangular hole for you to squat over and aim into, then scoop & pour sand-dust into it. There’s no tap to wash hands, lol. It wasn’t that bad, actually. Just bring something to cover your nose (and have a quick glance before squatting, in case of unwelcome things like snakes?!? I don’t know!)
Another au naturel toilet worth mentioning was at the checkpoint while driving to Punakha from Thimphu – in the bushes out in the open. Men can pee turning away from the roadside, while ladies will go up a little slope, away from being seen. I didn’t have to go, thankfully. There was a cow staring though, hahaha!
Is there WIFI? How’s the internet and mobile data?
You’ll likely get free WIFI from your hotel. The WIFI might get spotty in rooms, depending on your hotels. At some restaurants (rarely though), you might get free WIFI, but don’t count on its reliability!
As I wanted to post on the go to my Instagram, I bought a Tashi Cell prepaid simcard from a shop in Thimphu on the first day. The initial charge cost 350nu (S$7.35 / USD$5.45), which includes some local call-time and 400MB of mobile data. Later on, I paid 100nu to top up another 400MB of data at the later part of my trip. Connectivity was pretty okay most of my trip – except for the hike up Tiger’s Nest. Can’t give you any insight about doing work on laptop as I didn’t bring it.
Whether you’re using free WIFI or from the tourist simcard, be prepared that the internet won’t be as fast and stable as fibre networks in developed cities.
Well, when in Bhutan, take it as a chance to disconnect!
How are the Bhutanese people like?
I’ve only met polite, gracious and friendly locals in Bhutan, even the police officers at Druk Wangyel Festival. No one was ever hostile or rude. Kids are curious and cheeky. Everyone was respectful towards one another – a very admirable culture!
What languages do they speak?
Locals will speak to one another in Dzongkha, their national language, and to you in English. You might feel surprised at how many Bhutanese actually speak good English! In fact, Bhutan’s school lessons are conducted in English from a very young age. Road signs and shop signboards are in English.
What language will your guide speak?
Tours are conducted in English by default. If you have elderly parents who prefer guides that speak Mandarin, you’ll need to top up a significant amount of money for that request.
Which kind of activities are arranged for travellers in Bhutan?
Mostly sightseeing for places of nature, or visiting huge dzongs (fortresses that now operate as administrative offices and religious temples), temples, and learning about the cultures. A trip to Bhutan will involve quite a bit of walking (more like strolling) and also some hiking, especially Tiger’s Nest at the end. We went a few dzongs and they often have steep, narrow staircases to climb. In Paro, you’ll get to explore the town a little, where shops sell lots of stone necklaces, bracelets, and souvenirs.
We decided to do rafting in Punakha and it was the most beautiful ride down the river and rapids! Will write a post about the experience too! (Rafting will incur additional costs.)
Will I spend a lot of time in the car, getting from place to place?
Yes. Due to the winding and bumpy roads, a responsible driver will not speed, instead, drive with caution to minimize danger and car-sickness. My driver kept to about 30-35kmh max. The roads are often slightly larger than one lane, but has to fit bi-directional vehicles. You’ll see many ‘slim’ cars that operate as cabs, which they’d imported from India. I’ve never been stuck in a traffic jam in Bhutan at all, there’s really not that many cars.
It’s one main road from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha and the same way back.
Road conditions in Bhutan?
Our journey by road: Paro – Thimphu – Punakha – Paro
Due to the mountains that exist in Bhutan, they cut mountains to build the main roads. The roads are always winding, and often bumpy. On my first day, just sitting for an hour in the car to get from Paro airport to the hotel in Thimphu, I was so close to throwing up, from a combination of fatigue (I didn’t sleep properly for 2 nights straights), mountain sickness, and motion sickness. Thankfully we reached soon and I quickly popped ginger pills and drank some hot tea. At the higher altitudes, there might even be frost on the roads.
Ginger pills and peppermint essential oil helped greatly (especially ginger pills – I used Blackmores) to alleviate my car-sickness for the rest of the trip.
Why are there so few tourists in Bhutan? Is it because no one wants to go there?
Ahahaha nope. With only so few pilots in this world qualified to fly into Bhutan, and limited flights only allowed in the daytime in good weather, this automatically reduces the number of flights and thus tourists. The other method to reach Bhutan is overland from India – even so, they’re a long distance away from Thimphu, Paro, Punakha. Which means it’s never crowded in Bhutan, yay!
Bhutan is also not the cheapest destination to visit due to the daily minimum tariff.
Can I visit Bhutan on my own?
If you mean flying into Bhutan and then exploring it on your own a la backpacker style, no. It’s required by law to engage a guide and driver for your trip from a government-approved tour operator, and also to pay the minimum daily tariff.
For citizens from India, Bangladesh, and Maldives, there are exceptions, which you can read about here.
Is Bhutan safe?
We move in a group and I’ve never felt any form of acute danger. Everyone strolls in Bhutan, even the animals on the road, with cars approaching. Vehicles will thus drive at a slow speed everywhere and give way to pedestrians and animals.
Regardless, crime happens, no matter where you go. Regardless you’re travelling solo or not, always practise a good level of awareness about your surroundings. And keep your room doors locked, of course.
Is it safe to visit Bhutan as a solo traveller?
Your guide will be with you most of the time during the land tours, even hiking all the way to Tiger’s Nest, so don’t worry.
Isn’t it annoying and intrusive to have strangers (the tour guide and driver) with you all the time?
Not at all. The tour guide will be with you while bringing you to places, explaining the origins and stories. He will help to protect you from the mules and cows when you’re out in nature. They will help you translate when you want to buy stuff from shops. The driver will get you to places safely. Sometimes, they’ll leave you to explore places like Dochula Pass and tell you where they’ll be waiting once you’re done with photos and such. During meals outside, they’ll discreetly disappear after arranging your seating and stuff, then appear again when you’re ready to leave.
If you’re a solo traveller, your guide will also be your meal companion, something I noticed. Maybe the Bhutanese don’t enjoy dining alone 😉
The Bhutanese people value personal space and are well-mannered. This translates to how they treat visitors too.
Will I join other groups of tourists?
If you book independent agencies like Druk Asia, it’s a private tour, meaning your guide and driver will be responsible for just you and your group’s well-being during your time in Bhutan. I really appreciate this as we can explore Bhutan at our own pace, and also modify the itinerary according to our preferences and needs.
There’re other established tour agencies (for eg. Chan Brothers in Singapore) which organize group trips to Bhutan, but they have a minimum number of participants (like 10 or more) before a trip is fulfilled. You’ll thus be joining other groups/strangers and sitting mini-buses on probably a fixed itinerary.
Are the tours long? Rushed?
Our tour guide typically picked us at 9am every morning, and we’ll be out till about 4+, sometimes 5+pm. We’ll then rest and shower and get ready for dinner which mostly will be ready from 7pm. After dinner, it’s winding down in rooms and going to sleep!
We’ll also not be rushed during tours, unless there’s a certain timing that we need to keep in mind (some temples close early). Your tour guide and driver will do all these background arrangement work for you!
Is Bhutan clean?
The hotels and restaurants are always clean. You won’t really see litter dumped haphazardly in Bhutan. In the open and tourist spots, they have rubbish bins and collection points for things like plastic bottles. The locals value and respect their natural environment a lot, and will do what they can to protect it. This again is another admirable trait of the Bhutanese.
Are there cockroaches? Or exotic/dangerous animals to look out for?
Hahaha. Yes. I saw one cockroach in Punakha, not in the room though. Earlier, I was reading a book and there was a discussion on whether the locals (being Buddhists) should kill cockroaches (the conclusion is No).
Bhutan’s most exotic animal is its national one – Takin, which looks like a mix of different animals. I didn’t see this animal though, we didn’t visit the Takin preserve. There are indeed tigers in Bhutan, and also farm animals like horses, cows and bulls. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t do stupid things.
Is Bhutan commercialized?
Not at all. There won’t be touts hounding you to buy things from them (you’ll probably only get someone asking if you wanna ride a horse halfway up to Tiger’s Nest), or a child asking you for donation (we experienced this once).
Will shopping in Bhutan be cheap?
Not as cheap as the Asian countries like Bangkok. A commemorative T-shirt (those that has the country name written on it) costs like 600-700 nu (USD$10), my second-hand book 850 nu (USD$13), a packet of dried chilli for cooking was 700 nu (USD$10) too.
Goods sold in Bhutan did not come easy due to the difficulty in obtaining them. *For example: cars. They have to import the cars into India, then send the cars into Bhutan by land. For goods, cargo planes don’t fly into Bhutan. Local shopkeepers are limited by the baggage limit for commercial flights when they fly back into their own country from overseas, or they’ll just import from India.
* Information from my tour guide
Will you see monks everywhere? Will they pose for you?
You might see just a few at dzongs or temples or groups at special praying occasions. As a form of respect, we didn’t approach any monks for photos.
Is Bhutan boring?
Not to me! You’ll only find Bhutan boring if you can’t appreciate nature, crazily beautiful sceneries, or a more laidback kind of travelling style, or if you love lots of alcohol, night-life, music and entertainment in your travels.
Bhutan’s uniqueness is truly not something that every kind of traveller will appreciate. Being in Bhutan comes with its set of challenges due to its climate and country conditions, a little something like visiting the outskirts of Myanmar (but I’ll say Bhutan is more uncomfortable).
How’s the weather in Bhutan?
(I was there in mid-December.) We landed in Paro at -2 degrees at 7am (our flight had reached way ahead of schedule because it skipped Kolkata). In the afternoon at Thimphu, it was more than 20 degrees – a stark contrast from the morning weather. We never had rain, it was always bright and sunny in the day. For most of the trip, it was 10+ in the daytime I think. The temperature can differ a lot across different districts (Punakha is always warmer). Always have a jacket with you!
Paro was more bitingly cold at night, especially after the sun has set.
| Also read: How to stay healthy and not fall sick for your winter trip |
Is Bhutan suitable for children?
Unless you’re a super tough parent, I won’t encourage bringing young children, especially toddlers. Firstly, the food might be a little spicy sometimes, though the restaurants already try to serve non-spicy food for foreigners. Secondly, the climate is pretty harsh. From the first landing at Paro Airport, you’re already at >2000m above sea level, and the lowest you’ll go is probably Punakha – > still 1000m above sea level. As mentioned above, I for one had issues breathing deeply, not to mention if your small kids cannot articulate this to you.
Using strollers in Bhutan is close to impossible, that’s why all the Bhutanese have their small kids strapped to their back. Medical facilities are very limited in Bhutan. There’s a quality hospital in Thimphu.
The youngest kid we saw from a Singaporean family during our trip was about 9-10 years old.
Can the elderly visit Bhutan?
In winter, the weather gets cold (less cold in Punakha when the sun is shining brightly). Add that to challenges in acclimatizing, the elderly might have problems adapting. My elderly mother (almost 70 years old) had no issues at all, not even breathing difficulty. My Dad (almost 75 years old), on the other hand, had breathing problems, struggled with giddiness and low energy, flu, cough and he also opted out of hikes. The cold also affected him, giving him a stuffy nose.
Visiting Bhutan, as mentioned above, involves quite a bit of walking, even uphill.
However, if you want to skip the physically-taxing activities, you can always discuss with your agency or tour guide ahead so they can modify otherwise.
Can everyone hike Tiger’s Nest?
It depends on your physical health. My amazing Mum hiked all the way to the monastery with my brother and me, not even using the horses to shorten the journey, while my Dad opted out totally after hiking the simple ones in Bhutan. My Mum is very fit to begin with (she hiked Mt Takao and also to Chureito Pagoda in Tokyo to see Mt Fuji – very easy hikes compared to Tiger’s Nest).
Hiking Tiger’s Nest is not easy, from the sheer height elevation (you’ll ascend 900m to reach 3100m), constant uphill terrain, and also the many steps to go downhill then uphill to reach the monastery. Also, remember how you get there will also be how you return.
| View my post & guide on hiking Tiger’s Nest! |
How much will a trip to Bhutan cost?
Minimum daily tariff:
• Off-peak months: USD$200/day per person.
• Peak months: USD$250/day per person.
On top of that, solo and duo travellers will need to top up USD$40 and USD$30 per person respectively, daily.
This daily tariff includes your hotel stays, three meals, tea & coffee throughout your stay, all entrance fees, bottled mineral water, a planned itinerary, all entrance fees in your itinerary, tour guide+driver+vehicle fees. Basically, you really don’t need to bring much cash into Bhutan.
So, what happens is, tour agencies will quote you a land tour price higher than that minimum daily tariff. If yours doesn’t, that agency’s breaking Bhutan’s law.
Other than that, you’ll need to pay for flight tickets, the international tourist visa (USD$40), and don’t forget to get travel insurance.
To give you perspective, for my family’s trip (4 of us) in mid-December (6 nights – departing on the seventh early morning), my family member each paid S$3110 (flight ticket S$1320, visa S$55, land tour S$1735) to Druk Asia.
On top of that, consider tipping USD$5/day/pax for your tour guide, and $3/day/pax for your driver. For my group of four travellers staying six nights, we can also pay a lump sum of USD$100 to guide and USD$50 to driver. Tipping is completely up to you but it’ll be a nice gesture. We tipped slightly more than the recommended amount.
We used about USD$90 worth of Bhutanese currency for things like simcards, some shopping like souvenirs or fruits, temple offering etc. Our rafting experience which we wanted of our own accord, was another USD$150 in total.
Is a trip to Bhutan worth it?
Bhutan has always been a country that’s out of reach to me, like Mongolia, so I was glad to finally experience this Land of the Thunder Dragon in person. Bhutan’s significantly different from any other countries I’ve visited. However, this kind of question is always subjective. You might find Myanmar not worth visiting at all no matter how much or little you pay, but I find it a blessing to have visited Myanmar. Same goes for Bhutan – it might not suit you, but I appreciate what the trip was.
If you enjoy luxury and relaxing vacations, Bhutan is not an ideal destination for you (unless you stay at COMO Uma Paro resort).
How do I book a trip to Bhutan?
Only approved tour operators are allowed to do tours. I chose Druk Asia after reading plenty of good reviews, and would definitely recommend it! My travel agent (Sangay Dorji) was prompt to answer my countless questions and emails before the trip. I didn’t have to go down to the agency in person – everything was processed online. The visas were also handled by the agency with no problems. Druk Asia is also DrukAir’s official sales agent in Singapore, so getting air-tickets will not be an issue too.
My family and I also appreciated the care and professionalism of our assigned tour guide (Namgay Tenzin) and driver (Sigay Hi Roof) during the trip.
We paid 50% of the trip costs as deposit to book, then the remaining 50% a month before the trip.
Did I miss anything out? Any other questions about Bhutan? Feel free to ask via the Comment box below!
Read my next Bhutanese teaser: Should You Ride A Horse Up to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan? and
How We Got to Tiger’s Nest Without Using A Flying Tigress
Visited: Mid-December 2017
Districts: Thimphu, Punakha, Paro
Disclosure: Druk Asia covered my land tour (daily tariff); I paid for my return air-tickets and visa. The rest of my family went as fully-paying customers. All opinions remain my own.
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Check out Druk Asia’s website for tours and testimonials and its Facebook Page.
Information sources: Tourism Council of Bhutan • Druk Asia
Additional image credits: Photos with me (wearing grey jacket) were taken by my brother.
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