Yes, Bhutan is a mystical country where Gross National Happiness is more important than GDP; yes – they have a population of just under 7 million happy Bhutanese who live in some of the most beautiful environs of the world and yes – it is a mythical land unlike any other, of monks, llamas, Gods, kings & a completely different reality. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t awestruck by the absolutely heartfelt experiences that I had in the few days I spent there, and you can read about them in my upcoming blog post.
However, what I want to talk about here is somethings that you should know before you plan your trip to Bhutan, things that are different about travelling to Bhutan and it would have been good if someone had told me earlier. I’m not trying to de-sell Bhutan (infact I want to go there again), I’m just making an attempt to make travellers more aware before they get there. So here goes..
1. Bhutan is not a backpackers destination – in fact they actively discourage both backpacking and solo travel. They believe in value over volume, with the idea of restricting damage to the environment due to over tourism. Its for this reason that they are famous as one of the most expensive destinations for Foreign Tourists (other than Indians). Their rule of spending $250 might seem a little absurd, but then it includes accommodation, food, transport and an official guide. This rule is of course not valid for Indians, however, if you are planning going backpacking to Bhutan its still not a good idea – they just don’t have a concept like that at all.2. Don’t try to DIY The travel industry in Bhutan is quite “managed”. There are the travel agents as usual, but here, its quite imperative to do your bookings through them, try searching accommodation on AirBnb and local transport options on any website and you will realize its really not an option. So don’t waste time, instead find a good travel agent based in Bhutan and plan your trip with them. And its not just about that, the agent will provide you with a car, trained driver and a trained guide for the trip!
3. Be a Guided Wanderer There is a concept of trained culture guides who are mandated to travel with all tourists (other than Indians). These guides are really your friends and hosts in their country and not just fact tellers. And they look extremely cool in their traditional attires (Gho for men and Kira for women) which they are mandated to wear. In the beginning it seemed like we should do the trip on our own, but once we had a guide, we realised that our experience of Bhutan was enriched atleast a 100 times over. So as much of a DIY, self research traveller you are, in Bhutan you get a guide!
4. Don’t ignore the itinerary! I know it sounds a little funny, but having done many trips in the hills in the past, we landed in Bhutan thinking it will be similar – you do a few “to-do” things and you skip some and instead sit by the river reading a book or just dozing off, so while our agent sent us an “itinerary” we happily ignored it and decided to do the trip in our way. It took us 4 days, a few arguments, a calming down session with a very learned man to realise, you don’t change itineraries in Bhutan – decide exactly what you want to do with your agent before hand and then just follow it. If that sounds too bad, well, some small manipulations may be allowed.5. Please carry cash with you! We were told before we left that there should be no problem using cards in big towns like Paro and Thimpu and ATMs will be easily available. Well, that didn’t turn out to be really true, most restaurants, shops and hotels accept only cash and atleast we had bad luck with the ATM, so highly recommended that you carry enough cash with you.
6. The food can get monotonous. In Bhutan food is probably the epitome of “simplicity”. Their main dish is Ema Dashi which is eaten for all three meals and the other dishes on the menu are usually variants of it. Its essentially made of cheese and chillies and is eaten with boiled red rice. I must say I quite liked the mushroom version of it, but the problem is you can’t eat it everyday. Some ideas to get some variety – in main towns like Thimpu & Paro, keep an eye out or ask for Cafe’s or multicuisine restaurants – they are far and few but you will find them. Or you can ask your guide to give a special order to the restaurant in advance (this is quite a norm in Bhutan, otherwise they take a long time to get your order), ask them what vegetables they have and get a few dishes made. Other than Bhutanese food, some basic Indian and Tibetan food is available in most places. 7. Get a local sim card. Even if you have roaming services, you may not get network in Bhutan. Internet and mobile networks are a recent 2000’s phenomenon in Bhutan, and I must say the penetration has been fast – almost everyone owns a smartphone & usage of Facebook & Instagram is quite common. There is internet in all hotels & restaurants and pretty good speeds too. However, if you need to stay connected, local sims are quite inexpensive and easy to get – just ask your guide to help you with getting one.8. Bring Your Own Smokes. Sale and production of cigarettes is banned in Bhutan and you obviously cannot smoke in public places. As travellers you are allowed to 200 cigarettes into the country, so if you must have your smoke you carry it with you, but be careful before lighting it – always check with your guide to let you know a place to light up. If you don’t care so much about a smoke, try their local stimulant called Dolma which I think is consumed by all men and women. Its basically betel leaves with some areca nut and a paste. Everyone carries small plastic bags of this concoction and I believe its a cultural thing to keep sharing it with others. Alcohol of course is available in every nook and corner and apparently Bhutan has one the highest penetration of alcohol shops. They make very good quality whisky and beer, and the wine and vodka are also worth a try! 9. Dressing at Dzongs & Temples. Religion is a way of living in Bhutan and they take everything about it pretty seriously. When you enter a Dzong (one part temple, one part municipal office) or a temple, make sure you are dressed properly. You can of course wear jeans or pants, but ensure you are well covered. You will not be allowed to enter these places with short sleeves – so better to carry a jacket around. 10. Getting the Permit (For Indians). We drove into Bhutan to the border town called Phuensholing & got our permits made there. It seemed like it would be a quick process, but please budget for atleast 4-5 hours for this process to get over. So be prepared for it and plan your travels accordingly. The permit office is shut on Sundays, so if you land up there on a Saturday evening, there is no choice but to wait till Monday morning. Best to ask your travel agent to help you out with the process. The permit is valid for only 7 days, so if you are there longer, get it re-issued in Paro or Thimpu. Another thing to remember is that the first permit you get is only valid for Thimpu & Paro, so if you are going anywhere else in Bhutan, please ask your agent to get your permits made, again in Thimpu or Paro.
Last but not the least you get a lot of things for free in Bhutan – amazing fresh air, a sense of spirituality and simplicity all around you, some amazing conversations & lots of Bhutanese good luck! So don’t wait , make your plan to get to this mysterious land!