Bhutan: 10 Things to Know Before You Go

Bhutan is a spectacular place to travel, a land of wonderous forests and mountains …

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… endless reminders of deep Buddhist devotion …

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… and mysterious temples high up in the hills:

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But getting to Bhutan requires a bit of extra effort for the average traveler. Here are few tips if you’re thinking about planning a trip:

1. You must travel with a licensed tour operator. In the interest of limiting the number of visitors and reducing their environmental impact, the government keeps tourism well-regulated (this is a country that only opened to tourists for the first time in 1974). Your tour operator will take care of your bookings, procure your visa, and escort you around the country; you get to choose where you go, and they’ll do the rest. Our school group used Bhutan Tours and Travels, which we loved. Here are two of our guides, Rabten and Pasa (on the left), along with our van drivers:

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Note that you do need to travel with your guide throughout your trip. You can walk around on your own — it’s not quite like having a minder — but if you want to go someplace that requires a car, your guide will be with you. So if you’re someone who’s used to traveling entirely according to your own whims and fancies, this might feel a bit restrictive.

On the other hand, traveling with these guides is highly educational — they know a ton and can answer questions on topics ranging from history and religion to agriculture and ecology. Chatting with them is a wonderful opportunity to learn more than you ever would on your own.

2. Traveling to Bhutan is expensive. You’ll pay a minimum of $200 USD per person, per day, to visit the country, and you’ll pay even more in the high season (at least $250 USD per person, per day) or if you’re traveling with a smaller group. (Side note: travelers from India, Bangladesh, or the Maldives have a special exception). This price covers your visa, your guide, transportation, most meals, and a stay in a three-star hotel. The hotels range in quality (“really cold with no central heating” seems to be a theme in winter), but we loved this one in the far-western Haa district  …

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… both for its coziness and for its location:

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The daily tourist fee doesn’t just curb the number of tourists; it also helps the people of Bhutan. Sixty-five dollars of each tourist’s daily fee goes toward free country-wide healthcare and education.

 

 

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A boarding school for military kid in Haa

$200 a day is not a crazy price, but if you’re trying to backpack your way through Asia, it’s a steep fee. So this is a trip for which you have to plan your budget.

3. Religion is at the heart of the nation. Having a rudimentary understanding of Buddhism is fundamental, though the Buddhism of Bhutan is more complex than some others (I’ve heard the practice variously described as the Dragon School of Buddhism, Vajrayna (Esoteric) Buddhism, and some blend of Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism). It can be as lively and colorful as this deity …

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… or as elegant and unembellished as these flags …

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… which flutter in a wind that takes the prayers for the deceased to the far corners of the world.

You will find prayer wheels, prayer flags, and temples in abundance (just note that once you’re inside any temple, photos are off limits). You can’t go far without running into chorten (also known as stupas, which are Buddhist shrines) both grand …IMG_9772

… and simple:

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Prayer is a daily ritual, and your guides will teach you how to take part if you are interested. At the very least, they can offer translations …

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4. It is worth noting that the Bhutanese revere their rulers with a near-religious fervor. There have been five kings (handily known in English as K1, K2, K3, K4, and K5) since the monarchy was founded in 1907. Their pictures are everywhere, from hotel lobbies to the airport:

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And while K4 instituted a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the king remains the head of state. There aren’t any laws about criticizing the monarchs that I know of, but I didn’t hear a single bad thing about them while I was there.

5. The food is spicy. Really spicy.

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Chilis aren’t just an addition to curries and sauces (though they play that role, too); they are also made into dishes of their own. The most iconic Bhutanese food is ema datshi, or chili cheese — think chili peppers (sometimes fresh green ones, sometimes of the dried red variety you see above) stewed and then mixed with a sort of queso fresco. It’s served with nearly every meal. Start with just a little bit; the power varies from one preparation to the next, and some are incredibly hot.

Also, note that there are not many western food options outside of the capital city of Thimpu (and even there, the options are few). There are certainly no chain restaurants or coffee shops anywhere in the country. It’s all very local, which I loved, but the flavor palette does not change a whole lot.

6. This is a cash economy, and the shopping options are limited. If a shop says “we accept Visa” on the door, chances are high that once you’re inside, they’ll tell you that their credit card machines are all broken. You won’t need much cash — there is not much to buy — but do make sure to have a few Bhutanese ngu around (the tourist shops may also take US dollars).

If you do want to shop, shops in the main cities offer a variety of souvenirs, from mandalas (sometimes painted on locally-produced paper) to prayer flags to statues of the Buddha. But for the closest thing to something authentically Bhutanese, you are best off going with textiles. Shops offer scarves, bedspreads, and bolts of fabric galore. Many of these are made in nearby India, but I did find a few places with hand-woven pieces…

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… and even hand-dyed silk thread:

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Hand-woven scarves and hangings won’t come cheap, of course, but it’s still fun to look!

7. Bhutan is best for visitors who want to see things outdoors, or who are at least willing to spend a good deal of time outside. There is only one shopping mall in the entire country with an escalator, and museums are few and far between. This is a place to visit fortresses …

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… temples …

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… fields (though they were bare when we visited) …

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… traditional homes in tiny villages …

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… and mountains …

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… and more mountains (there’s all sorts of trekking):

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Over 70% of Bhutan is forested, and the country’s constitution mandates that at least 60% of the land is under forest cover at all times. So there’s a lot of wildlife (especially if you go further south). If you’re in the western part of the country, which is where most tourists tend to go, keep your eyes out for grey langurs:

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8. It’s worth getting off the beaten path. Most tourists take one week to cover what is known as Bhutan’s “golden triangle” — the cities of Thimpu, Paro, and Punakha. There are reasons to go to each: Thimpu is the closest thing Bhutan has to a big city, Paro boasts the Tiger’s Nest trek (and the airport), and Punakha offers a giant fortress that many consider to be the country’s most impressive building. But there’s a different kind of wonder to be found in Bhutan’s rural villages.

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I can’t say enough about the quiet beauty of the Haa district:IMG_0626.jpg

You may not be able to see everything, but if you like the outdoors, it’s worth venturing beyond the expected.

9. The weather is all over the place. It can be really cold at night and pleasant during the day in February (though we never saw what I would call t-shirt weather). Pack accordingly — lots of layers. If you’re going in winter, bring a hat.

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If you’re brave, you can try corn milk candy!

10. Don’t expect life to move too quickly.

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It’s indicative that two of the more popular pastimes in Bhutan are archery …

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… and darts …

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… both of which involve a lot of methodical walking up and down long fields. In archery, for example, each time you change sides, you walk about 140 meters, which takes you all the way from the prayer flags at the shelter on the bottom left …

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… to the flags you can barely see in the shelter near the top right. Also, when people are shooting arrows using metal “compound” bows (as opposed to bamboo), as they are two pictures up, they hide behind that green wall when an arrow is launched. An arrow loosed from a compound bow is the only thing that moves at a terrifying pace in Bhutan. Otherwise, things are pretty relaxed. And when you’re paying a visit to a new country, that can be really nice.

 

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