Preparing for your trip to Bhutan
Bhutan is likely to feature in every travel lover’s bucket list but it’s a common perception that visiting the country requires too many procedures. While that was true at one time, Bhutan’s tourism ministry has made things much simpler now. Indian passport holders do not require a visa – thanks to the long standing good relations between the countries.
Stay and travel costs in Bhutan
Indian currency is accepted all over Bhutan and it’s the exact rate so no exchange is required. Do note however that most foreign tourists need to book a minimum daily package for staying in Bhutan – which amounts to USD 250 (about 16500 INR) a day in peak season and USD 200 (about INR 13200) at other times.
This cost includes staying at a 3 star hotel, a car and driver along with an English speaking guide. If you find this steep, take heart in the fact that out of the money you shell out, USD 65 (4300 INR) goes into maintaining Bhutan’s policies of free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and infrastructure maintenance. If the daily Bhutan visa fee is not applicable to you, accommodation at budget hotels costs an average of INR 4,000 per night (USD 60). The fancier ones can cost upwards of INR 44,000 (USD 652). Not an option for most!
Travelling to Bhutan
Bhutan’s airport is located in Paro, which is approximately 51 kilometres from the capital city of Thimphu. As there are no direct flights from many cities, tourists often travel via Kolkata, which is the closest to Paro. Most foreign tourists will need to take this route too since there are very select places that are directly connected to Bhutan, but this list gets updated every now and then so check which city suits your travel plans best.
You have options between Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines, among others, and you can opt for either depending on which one is offering the best deal at the time. Sign up for Skyscanner price alert on the route to keep an eye on prices.
It is also a good idea to book hotels or homestays online since there’s a high possibility of many being booked months in advance. Most budget hotels look the same and there’s little separating them in terms of amenities. Since you’re going to be spending most of your time outdoors, spending on a luxury hotel isn’t necessary.
Landing into happiness: Places to visit in Bhutan
If there’s one thing you notice as you land into Bhutan, it’s the unique runaway that looks straight out of a postcard. Considered as one of the scariest landings in the world, this paved strip of land is surrounded by 18,000 feet mountains and is 1.5 miles above sea level. But the intoxicatingly fresh oxygen that hits you when you exit the plane makes up for the temporary loss of breath! The hour long journey to the hotel in Thimphu (if that’s where you’re staying) doesn’t feel even remotely arduous, with perfect roads and exceedingly pleasant weather. Bhutan is very safe, and it’s best if you go about exploring the country on your own.
A guide is really not necessary but most tourists opt for one. There’s a lot to do in Bhutan and it’s home to some of the most beautiful monasteries, museums and natural parks in Asia. But if time is of the essence and your trip is tight, here are five of the best places to visit:
Dochu La Pass: At approximately 10,000 feet above sea level, Dochu La Pass takes your breath away – literally and figuratively. An architectural marvel, this structure is known for its 108, tightly knit stupas embellished with myriad prayer flags. There’s a café nearby and you can sip on traditional tea or coffee, while gazing into the sky and asking yourself philosophical questions like “What is life?”
Punakha Dzong: The second largest and oldest dzong in Bhutan, the Punakha dzong is the administrative centre of Punakha district. It literally translates to “the palace of great happiness or business.” Most names of places in Bhutan have a happiness connotation. As you can see, the Bhutanese take happiness very seriously! The Punakha Dzong was also the venue for the Royal Wedding between Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Jetsun Pema – the current king and queen of Bhutan.
Taktsang Lhakang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery): Delicately standing 900 metres above Paro Valley, The Taktsang Lhakang is considered Bhutan’s most revered structure. You will need to trek for a minimum of 3 hours (one way) to reach the top and there won’t be many places to snack so carry some fruits in your bag. There is a café around the half way mark but getting there takes considerable time. Don’t worry about enough water since it’s available in abundance thanks to the clear streams. And if you think water is tasteless, sample some of this sweet mountain water. Beats Evian any day!
Chime Lhakang: This is the whackiest and most fascinating place in Bhutan. The Chime Lhakang was built in honour of Drukpa Kunley, known as “the divine madman” for his unconventional teachings and outright rejection of religious dogma through behaviour that bordered (actually surpassed) bizarre! One of the most revered saints in the kingdom, he is worshipped in the form of a phallus (cue to google now) and phalluses are seen all across Bhutan souvenir stores – as keychains, paintings, and various other memorabilia. If you’ve read this piece before you visit Bhutan, you won’t mistake these shops for adult stores!
Buddha Dordenma: Overlooking the southern part of Thimphu sits a gigantic, meditative statue of Lord Buddha. At a height of 169 feet, it is the largest Buddha statue in the world and can be seen from practically anywhere when driving around Thimphu. Simply cranking your neck to see the statue in its entirety is a humbling experience. The cost of the project, including the under-construction interiors, exceeds USD 100 million. This is as close as you’ll ever get to Lord Buddha – in the physical sense anyway!
While these are some of the must-visit places, you are likely to find yourself stopping every few kilometres to enter an isolated monastery or a beautiful flower garden tucked away into obscurity. Bhutan isn’t a place for pubs and parties, but if solace is what you seek, get packing and make a trip to what is considered the last Shangri-La on Earth. Chances are that it’ll be the best place you’ve ever visited. And who knows? You may come back with the secret to happiness. Where better to find it than in a country that has a dedicated index to measure how happy its people are – Gross National Happiness (GNH). Move over, GDP.
Tips and hacks for the perfect Bhutan trip
Unless you’re not on a budget, don’t fuss over hotels. All the 3-star ones are similar and provide clean rooms, decent food, and airport pick-up/drop. It is best to book online.
Travel independently, so you’re not really tied down by the schedule of tour operators. But if you prefer to be guided, there are many Bhutan tour packages to choose from.
Book flights in Skyscanner way in advance since they operate on specific days and demand is high during peak season.
Carry ample cash since many places don’t accept credit cards and even the some that do only list MasterCard or Visa – rarely both. Thankfully, enough ATMs can be found.
Stock up your backpacks with fruits or other snacks from your hotel since there aren’t too many local eateries on the outskirts. Most importantly, don’t forget your prescription medicines. Definitely carry a few for possible altitude sickness.
About the author
Rohan Pasricha // @9wordsofwisdom
Rohan is a writer, editor, and award-winning researcher who is sought after by start-ups, corporates, and individuals on everything that involves the written word. He has worked for some of the top brands in his career spanning 7 years, which include Haymarket, PwC, the British Council, Expedia, and BankBazaar. You can see some of his work at [www.rohanpasricha.com](http://www.rohanpasricha.com).