The land of the thunder dragon, the land of happiness, the last Shangri-La; whatever you wish to call Bhutan, this remote land-locked country is quite unlike anywhere you have been before.
Bhutan is known as a country that does everything a little bit differently from the rest of the world. Having been open for tourism for less than 50 years, recently Bhutan has seen an influx in tourism even with measures in place that restrict Bhutan travel tours to private and group tours only.
With a distinct focus on ecology over the economy, a tour of Bhutan is regulated to places where you can leave nothing but footsteps, so expect well-trodden trails! From the unique national animal, the Takin that looks like something a toddler would draw in a game of Exquisite Corpses to the plethora of temples and houses adorned with phallic images; well-trodden trails should not be a reason to rule out a Bhutan holiday. This country is one that will continuously surprise you in strange ways!
Enshrouded in Buddhist religion, Bhutan’s only second religion is nature. The country has a strict rule that this mountain-filled country never has less than 60% of forested land making it the only carbon-negative country in the world. With this in mind, Bhutan’s trekking routes are second-to-none with an abundance of wildlife and literally the freshest air in the world to enjoy, as well as pilgrimage sites that are truly unlike any other.
This Bhutan guide will show you the top highlights of the kingdom that any Bhutan tour guide will take you to;
When to Go to Bhutan
The best time to visit Bhutan is from October to December when this tiny country welcomes pleasant temperatures and fresh air for trekking. If you want to do a Bhutan tour from Nepal, then this is a perfect time. While January and February are a little colder, it’s still a good time to visit as there is little rain. From then on through to May, you’ll be blessed with sunny skies before the rain starts in June, monsoon season.
As we are in Southeast Asia, monsoon season is the worst time to travel as you may be forced to stay inside with the rain often lasting days on end. At this time, you will also find many attractions and landmarks are closed while everyone takes a break in the bad weather.
Tip: Bhutan’s national dress code has been in place since the 17th century, men and women wear the traditional ‘gho’ and ‘kira’. Tourists are expected to respect this with long-sleeve collared shirts, trousers and a skirt or trousers for women.
Places You’ll Visit in Bhutan
With a select few places to visit, we have brought together a mix of significant sites, treks and cities to show you where you will visit in Bhutan;
Paro and Rinpung Dzong
Sitting in the heart of a valley of the same name, Paro is a city that puts itself at the heart of the action with some of Bhutan’s most famous attractions such as Tiger’s Nest and the National Museum of Bhutan, which is set in a former fortress which you will visit on just about any Bhutan travel tour.
Paro has a distinguished character that sets a framework for the rest of your Bhutan vacation; with over 100 temples and monasteries, the presence of religion prevails in a way that is humbling and sincere.
Of all the structures in Paro, Rinpung Dzong is one that you will somehow always be able to see. Designed in a way that is typically Bhutanese, Rinpung Dzong is considered to be the finest of the architectural style. A bastion of the kingdom in the 17th and 18th centuries, today Rinpung Dzong is just as important, with offices for all governing and monastic bodies.
Punakha and the Suspension Bridge
Centred by the masterpiece that is Punakha Dzong, Punakha is a historic town surrounded by beautiful mountains and fronted by the convergence of two rivers. As the former capital of the country, Punakha is known for its central role in Bhutanese history, it’s home to some of the oldest structures in the country and holds several sacred relics.
To add to Punakha’s riches, the suspension bridge found here is one of the oldest in Bhutan. An essential stop on a Bhutan hiking tour like on this 7-day Bhutan happiness tour, Punakha’s suspension bridge is lined with Tibetan prayer flags. With its impressive 520-foot length, the bridge is surprisingly stable due to the horizontal beams and stabilisers that have ensured its longevity.
Thimphu and Tashichho Dzong
Home to the royal family and capital of the Kingdom, Thimphu is the only city in Bhutan to hold a stark contrast of modernity and tradition. Although, as you would expect, tradition prevails with the presence of monasteries, festivals, music and literature, and the ever-present national dress code.
As with all Bhutanese cities, at the centre of everything is Tashichho Dzong, which has been the seat of the government since the 1950s and was built according to traditional Bhutanese plans – no rules, no nails! Having expanded over the years, Tashichho Dzong’s presence is felt throughout the city. To grasp what this city is all about on a Bhutan travel tour, you have to visit the Centenary Market like in this 9-day Bhutan like a local tour.
Druk Path Trekking
One of the easier Bhutan trek tours, the Druk Path is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the country. Discover just how remote Bhutan can be while following an ancient trading route where yaks and sheep will be just about all you will see.
Perfect for those who are only able to afford Bhutan for a few days like in this 8-day Bhutan Druk Path trek tour, the Druk Path trek connects Paro to Thimphu over a mountain pass through orchards and pine forests.
Hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyel
One of the newer temples of Bhutan, Khamsum Yulley Namgyel was built in the traditional ‘no rules, no nails’ Bhutanese style and was finished in 2004 under the order of the Queen Mother. Sitting on the outskirts of Punakha, the only way to get to the temple is to hike, which takes a leisurely two hours there and back after you cross the aforementioned Punakha Suspension Bridge like in this 7-day journey through the hidden Shangri-La tour.
To complete the hike, it’s advised that you go to the top floor of the temple for sweeping views of the rice terraces and rolling hills of Punakha Valley. You’ll be surrounded by flowers and the colourful Tibetan prayer flags in celebration of your arrival.
Phobjikha Valley and the Black-Necked Cranes
One of the few glacial valleys in the country, Phobjikha Valley is also known as Gangte after the monastery of the same name. From the monastery, you’ll have unrivalled views of the valley which is a relatively flat plain filled with nature trails.
One of the best places for Bhutan hiking tours, the Phobjikha Valley has a unique ecosystem that is just waiting to be explored. The valley is protected by Bhutan’s many conservation projects and remains untouched and thriving because of them. A sight that attracts many visitors every year, the Phobjikha Valley is also the winter resting place for black-necked cranes from the Tibetan Plateau. The species is endemic to the region and is celebrated annually as you will see in this 8-day dancing with the cranes trip.
A symbol of Bhutan and a must-see on all Bhutan travel tours, Tiger’s Nest, also known as Paro Taktsang, sits precariously on a cliff edge 500 metres above the ground. Central to the temple is a cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have first meditated, an event that introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. It is also said that Guru Rinpoche found this spot on the back of a tigress which gave the temple its better-known name.
The hike to Tiger’s Nest is the most famous of all Bhutan’s hiking tours despite not being the easiest. As you will see in this 6-day mystical Bhutan tour, it will take you an entire day to complete the pilgrimage. Once you get there, you will see what the hype is all about.
Bumthang and the Sacred Pond
Said to be the most historic and sacred of all of Bhutan’s districts, Bumthang is a picturesque little area that has remained remote and untouched, so much so that the roads to access Bumthang were only made in the 1970s. An essential stop on your Bhutan tour is Mebar Tsho, a stream where a saint found the treasures of Guru Rinpoche.
Avid nature enthusiasts will revel in all that Bumthang has to offer. While most would only stay the night, hikers will no doubt prefer to make this a Bhutan tour for four days to cover all of the trails.
You may have been curious about the mention of phallic images before, Chime Lhakhang is your answer. Located on the outskirts of Punakha, you’ll visit the temple before you enter the city like in this 7-day cultural adventure of Bhutan tour.
This quite fascinating temple is the Temple of Fertility, marking the exact location where Drukpa Kunley, also referred to as the “Divine Madman”, reportedly trapped his ‘thunderbolt of wisdom” and thus built this curious-looking temple.
Drukpa Kunley was somewhat of a vigilante during his time; fighting demonesses while teaching Buddhism in questionable ways through singing and sexualising things in an often obscene manner. However preposterous this may seem, his teachings prevailed; Drukpa Kunley is one of the most highly revered saints in Bhutan.
Locals use the phallic symbol of a penis because Drukpa Kunley advocated for the symbol as a way to ward off gossip and evil. You will not only find penises plastered across the walls of this temple, you’ll start to notice them on the corners of buildings across Bhutan too.
How to Get Around Bhutan
As group and Bhutan private tours are the only options while travelling to the kingdom, the following transportation methods are available.
If you opt for a Bhutan private tour, you’ll have a private driver and tour guide for the duration of your trip. If you enjoy the freedom of travelling by yourself then you will like the added luxury of not having the hassle of organising anything. You just have to show up on time!
While Bhutan has four airports, you’ll only really use one. Paro International Airport is the only international airport and the one with the most frequent flights to Bhutan. If you are looking to do a Nepal to Bhutan and Tibet tour, then flying will be the easiest way.
Minivan for Group Tours
A cheaper way to organise your Bhutan tour guide is with a group. You’ll follow the same processes as above but with the company of other travellers. While the minivan may fill up quickly, Bhutan is a small country, so you’ll never be sitting for long.
Where to Stay on Your Bhutan Travel Tour
Hotels are predetermined based on what travel agency for Bhutan tours you go with. If you travel with Designer Journeys, that’s our Local Designers. The range of accommodation available is based on what package you choose, the minimum daily package starts with 3-star accommodation, with premium packages available for 4-star and 5-star accommodation as add-ons.
Homestays and Farmstays
Locally-run homestays and farm stays are available with the minimum daily package. Choosing this type of accommodation offers a more authentic living experience with the chance to learn about farming life and the daily lives of Bhutanese people; an experience you would otherwise not get with other Bhutan hotel bookings.
As the title would suggest, you are staying with a local family who will be your hosts and will cook your meals on your Bhutan travel tour. Despite being a more local experience, homestays and farm stays also have to go through Bhutan regulations to receive tourists, so you are guaranteed a comfortable and enjoyable stay.
Hotels in Bhutan
The hotels in Bhutan are as you would expect, available in all cities and smaller locations, you’ll quickly notice that there are no mass chains to be found in Bhutan. However, hotels meet international standards and are well equipped with all of the amenities you will need for your stay. Due to the strict regulations, you’ll rarely find that hotels slip up.
Bhutan’s history of spa rituals brought about the birth of resorts across the kingdom. Available with the premium packages, resorts fit into the 4-star and 5-star categories, however, you will also come across the odd 3-star resort. This type of accommodation tends to be located a little further outside of the city, nestled on hillsides in quiet locations with additional spa services and larger rooms or independent chalets.
Food & Drink in Bhutan
The most common thing you will hear about Bhutanese food is that chilli is used as the main ingredient, not just as a spice. Chilli is the main focus of just about every dish in Bhutan, however, if you choose to eat in the hotels, you will not be served this. Instead, you’ll receive a dulled down version that you will probably still find a little spicy.
While those who are not good with spice will be hesitant, to really experience the flavours of Bhutan, going to a local restaurant in the centre of the towns comes highly recommended.
Almost all tours will take you to Simply Bhutan like this 7-day Thimphu festival tour. A blend of a museum, souvenir shop and restaurant, Simply Bhutan is often referred to as a ‘living museum’, where through dining, you’ll be submerged in Bhutanese culture as you are walked through traditional life in Bhutan with food, clothes, songs and activities. One thing is clear; things haven’t really changed here!
About the equivalent of a pie in Australia, many say that if you don’t eat ema datshi while in Bhutan, you haven’t really been. Ema Datshi is made up of chilis and cheese, the dish is a bit of a cross between a soup and a curry that is typically eaten with red rice, a staple across the country. Good at all times of the day, there’s something about the dish that is addictive.
Bhutan Travel Cost
Calculating your budget for Bhutan is easier than any other country as there are no hidden costs or nasty surprises when you get there.
All Bhutan tours and treks have to be completely paid for before you arrive; it’s part of an all-inclusive package deal that must be purchased to enter the country. Your standard tour with a private guide or group tour, transportation and accommodation comes at roughly US $250 per person per day depending on the time of year you choose to travel.
To protect and conserve Bhutan and its verdant forest, you’ll then be asked for a US $65 per person per day sustainable development fee. Your tour may or may not include this price, however, it is also compulsory.
Take a look at this 7-day culture adventure of Bhutan tour which costs US $2,039 per person. The price includes;
- 6 nights accommodation
- 6 breakfasts, 5 lunches and 6 dinners
- 17 activities
Note that this does not include the sustainable development fee.
Dependent on the time of year you choose to travel, you’ll find that any Bhutan tour or trek will not vary much outside of this unless you opt for the additional Bhutan luxury tour packages with 4-star or 5-star accommodation. By contacting one of our Local Designers in Bhutan, you can create a trip to Bhutan based on your interests, travel style and budget. Alternatively, browse our range of fully-customisable Bhutan trips and be inspired by this truly unique country!
Festivals in Bhutan
The term tshechu means ‘ten’ which refers to the tenth day of the Bhutanese calendar month which is the day that festivals are held on in Bhutan. Many of Bhutan’s spiritual tours look to integrate festivals as they can be found throughout the year.
Celebrating the start of the mushroom season, the Matsutake Festival will teach you everything about the Matsutake mushroom, which is endemic to Bhutan’s Ura Valley, although it is regarded as a prize mushroom in Japan.
Taking part in the Matsutake Festival will see you learning about foraging techniques and tasting delicious recipes they are used in while being surrounded by singing and dancing. Taking place in the picturesque Ura Valley, this festival is a great way to get in touch with Bhutanese culture.
Taking place over three days in Thimphu Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu Tshechu is regarded as the largest festival in Bhutan, as you can see in this 7-day tshechu and heritage tour. Dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and is celebrated throughout the year. Expect masks, vibrant costumes and dancing throughout the festival.
Jambay Lhakhang Tshechu
Held at the oldest monastery in Bhutan, Jambay Lhakhang Tshechu is in celebration of Tibetan King, Songtsen Gonpo, who built 102 monasteries in 24 hours to suppress an ogress. The temple, Jamaby Lhakhang, is one of them. There are masks, singing, colourful costumes and dancing in celebration.
Quick Tips & Important Facts about Bhutan
Language: The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha.
Green: Bhutan is the ONLY carbon-negative country in the world.
Currency: The currency is the Bhutanese Ngultrum (73BN to 1 USD as of October 2020)
Happy: Bhutan’s GDP is measured in happiness.
Visa: Visa fees and travel permits for Bhutan are between US $200-250 depending on when you travel, this must be cleared before you enter. This is inclusive of your accommodation and guides.
Fees: Sustainable development fees to maintain its carbon-negative status are an additional US $65 per day.
No Plastic: Plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999!
Dress: The national dress for women in Bhutan is a ‘kira’ which is made up of a rectangular piece of fabric. For men, it is a ‘kho’ which is a robe-like jacket. All citizens of Bhutan are obligated to wear them.
Ready to Pack Your Bags to Bhutan?
No matter what package you choose, your time in Bhutan will be life-changing. As a country that has a strong grip on its culture, you’ll be given an insight into a land of happiness and outstanding hospitality.
To start thinking about your next trip, browse our gallery of fully-customisable Bhutan tours or take the leap and click ‘design your own trip” and our Local Designers will start creating your ideal tour for you!