10 Things Travellers Should Know Before Visiting Bhutan

It has been a few weeks since I got back from the Land of the Thunder Dragon. During this period, friends and workmates have been asking me “How’s your Bhutan trip?”. After a short pause, I often found myself replying “it was wonderful, but it was also tough”. Puzzled as to why this ended up as my post-Bhutan ‘slogan’, I started trying to figure out why this trip was different to the other trips I’d taken in the past… and that’s how this post came about.

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Just prior to landing in Paro

In the end, I think that as much as I’d like to make it like it was a perfect holiday, I think it’s more useful just saying things as it is – both the good and the bad. Hopefully, my thoughts and observations will help other travellers level their expectations and be better prepared for their own trips to this extraordinary (but slightly exasperating) country.

Date Travelled: Nov 2014
Tour Group Size: 13 persons
Length of Trip: 10 days

1. Pricing’s steeper than an equivalent trip elsewhere

First up, be prepared to pay more for this trip than a similar holiday in another country. That’s mostly because the Bhutanese government mandates a minimum spend of US$250 per person per day for all tourists (US$200 during low season). This allows for low impact tourism whilst giving visitors a low volume / high quality experience. And unless you apply skilfully in writing to the government, you’ll almost have to visit Bhutan via a licensed Bhutanese tour operator (or an international partner). You can’t just grab a visa, fly in and explore the country on your own. This is why Bhutan’s considered one of the world’s most exclusive tourist destinations. Only 44,000 tourists visited in 2013, that averages at 120 visitors a day…!

The land cost for our 10-day trip in Bhutan was US$2200 pax (discounted because we were a largish group of 13). By comparison, my 8-day Myanmar trip back in 2011 cost us US$977 pax (including domestic flights) for a private group tour of 10. But before we start moaning, take note that out of this minimum spend, US$65 per person per day will be given to the government as a ‘sustainable tourism royalty’ to help fund for free education, healthcare, poverty alleviation and the building of infrastructure in Bhutan. I took a bit of comfort in the fact that a portion of our tour cost is being used to help the country and its lovely peoples.

With this minimum daily spend, you’ll be provided with all your meals, accommodations, a dedicated tour guide and driver, entry to all the places in the itinerary, and all transportation except domestic flights. So you end up spending not that much during your trip, actually most of my money was spent on booze to go with our meals and tips for the guide and driver.

2. Half the time, you’re about the only tour group around

One of the loveliest things about this trip will have to be how rare it was to see fellow tourists. On our very first evening when we visited Tashi Cho Dzong in Thimpu (the nation’s capital city), I was stunned that there were only a small scatter of a few other tour groups there. Even the most celebrated tourist destination in Bhutan, Tigers Nest in Paro, had at most 30-50 tourists inside the temple at any point in time. There were even some nights where we were the only tourists staying in our hotel!

Compare this to a visit to the Louvre in Paris, where getting near enough to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa without needing binoculars can be a Herculean task, and you’ll start to really appreciate Bhutan’s focus on low impact tourism. This was also one of the few countries I’ve visited in Asia where the children don’t ask for ‘photo money’, and begging is almost non-existent here (it only happened to us once in Bumthang).

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Tashi Cho Dzong, Thimpu

In a nutshell, I was absolutely enchanted by how unspoilt this country was from the effects of tourism, and amazed at how happy the people of Bhutan were. Tips aren’t expected in restaurants and hotels, and I was also surprised to see that it’s the Bhutanese women who’d (with a big smile) offload our luggage from the bus and carry it to our rooms. Talk about culture shock!

3. Everything runs on Bhutan time

You’ll have to be patient in Bhutan. Even credit card machines need to go ‘ermmm…’ and think like crazy before accepting transactions… ha ha ha! When some of us wanted to change money in Paro, it took us ages filling up forms at the office counter. Our lovely tour guide’s bus ride estimates were also way off. We’d ask how long it’d take to get to a destination and he’d reply ‘3 hours’… in the end we’d discover that it’s more like 6 hours!!

More often than not, our guide did not give us curfews or time limits unless we had to be at a crossing at a very specific time of day. He’d just wait and let us take our time, allowing us to move on only when we’re ready. What this means is: in order to enjoy Bhutan, you may need to let go of your OCD timekeeping tendencies (on this front, I’m guilty as charged). Go at your own pace, follow the flow of the group, and don’t expect to see everything that’s listed on the itinerary.

4. Your tour is fully escorted, but very customisable

Continuing from the previous point, I’d like to point out that because you’re already engaged with a tour operator via the correct channels, you can actually tweak your itinerary to suit your preferences. Seeing that timekeeping may not be the Bhutanese people’s strongest suit, it may be useful to discuss with your guide which places in the itinerary you’d really like to see and which ones you’re happy to skip. For the most part, the suggested itinerary is a bit packed and you tend to miss out on a few places each day unless you move quickly and don’t take photos. So it’s better to establish with your guide which places you’re more keen on seeing.

For instance at around day 7, we actually veered away from the itinerary and visited a couple of places that only our guide knew about, including a visit to a local Bhutanese home in a village near Bumthang district. That was the highlight of my trip… for me, being able to glimpse into the daily lives of the locals is a lot more precious than constantly seeing impressive temples and fortresses. Likewise, we also asked our guide to let us roam the townships of Chamkar and Paro for an hour or so instead of seeing sights because we enjoyed having some free-and-easy time exploring settlements and watching the Bhutanese way of life.

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Thangbi village, Bumthang (loved visiting a local’s home here)

5. You could be walking lots and at high altitudes

Perhaps it was my lack of reading the tour itinerary on my part, but one thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for with this trip was how much walking / trekking it involved. Well… okay maybe only 3 out of the 10 days involved difficult uphill treks. The first one happened on day 2, where we climbed up a mountain towards Tango Goemba monastery. The hike was meant to take only an hour but we took nearly 2 hours because some of us suffered from altitude sickness and burning lungs.

But the toughest climb for most visitors in Bhutan will probably be the 900m ascent up to Tigers Nest – 3100m above sea level, which normally happens at the end of your trip as the (orgasmic) highlight. Fortunately, the entire group of us realised that we aren’t the fittest tourists around. So aside for Fakegf and The Angmoh, the rest of us all chickened out and rode horses up to the temple… ha ha!

Bottom line is, be prepared for a bit of hiking during your Bhutan trip even if your tour itinerary does not necessarily describe it to be so. And understand that a one hour hike may end up taking longer because of the high altitudes you will be trekking in. And most importantly, be medically prepared… bring altitude sickness pills and travel sickness pills (see below). It will make your trip a lot easier!

6. Driving in Bhutan is slow, windy and bumpy

I’ll come out and say it: THIS was the main reason why I had mixed feelings with my trip to Bhutan.

If you take a look at Bhutan on Google Maps… it is pretty much all mountains mountains mountains! Once you’re outside of Paro and Thimpu, the quality of the roads goes downhill very quickly. Some segments between cities were unpaved, and even travelling on sections of paved roads won’t guarantee a smooth ride. Considering it’s traffic in two directions, the roads looked only slightly wider than the bicycle paths back in Melbourne. There’s plenty of hairpin turns, bumps, potholes and scary vertical cliff drops. Cousin trouble and geek hubby who sat at the back of the bus flew a foot or two off their seats during the bumpiest parts of the ride. While the government is trying to upgrade the roads between towns over the next few years, I believe it will still be slow going because of the harsh terrain.

Out of our 10 days in Bhutan, almost 4 to 5 days were spent on these crazy roads from sunrise to sunset (albeit including stops to visit places). Our average bus speed was around 20-25km/hr. By day 6 to 7, I was pretty much over it and boarded the bus each morning with a feeling of dread. And even though I’m normally good with car sickness, I actually had to ask cousin trouble for travel sickness tablets a number of times because spending so many hours on these roads really did take its toll on me.

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Road between Punakha to Bumthang. Our luggage is stowed and tied up on the roof of the bus.

Personally speaking, my concept of a good holiday doesn’t exactly constitute cramming yourself into a small bus and traversing these impossibly tortuous roads for hours on end. But unfortunately, these are things that you don’t realise you’ll be experiencing on your holiday until you’re actually in the middle of the trip! The larger, more comfortable tour coaches that’s normally used in other countries are too large for the narrow twisty roads in Bhutan.

In retrospect, I’ve probably not travelled in a country that’s more mountainous than Bhutan aside for Nepal (where I did more trekking and had no bus rides anyway). We had a pretty similar type of smallish bus on our Myanmar trip, but the bus rides were shorter and the roads much straighter. So the combination of mountainous terrain, high altitude and long bus rides really made this trip to Bhutan tough. Looking back, I’m starting to think that Bhutan may be a wonderful country to go trekking in, where the bus rides will be kept to a minimum and the beautiful landscapes cranked to a maximum.

7. Smaller tour groups may be better

After a bit of post-holiday research, I learnt that in 2013, 81% of the tour groups visiting Bhutan consisted of groups of 4 or less people. The government’s minimum daily spend requirement means that the group size does not really change the per person cost of the tour that much (unless it’s a group of one or two persons where a US$30-40 daily surcharge applies). But what does change dramatically is the type of vehicle you’ll be travelling in. We got a bus while the smaller groups rode SUVs / Landcruisers.

The other thing about smaller groups is it’s much easier to reach a quorum with where you’d like to go and what you’d prefer to see in the itinerary. The tour pace will also be quicker because a SUV will travel faster than a 22-seater bus. The time saved can then be used to give yourselves a bit of itinerary “breathing space” (which I really missed in this trip), or you can use it to see more sights.

Again, I’d like to stress that these are things that you’d realise only after you’ve embarked on your trip to Bhutan. I am, in no way, complaining to cousin trouble… who worked so hard organising this trip and bringing 13 family members and friends together to experience this beautiful landlocked country. If we were travelling together in a different country, many of the unique challenges that are specific to Bhutan wouldn’t have even surfaced.

8. Consider taking domestic flights

Continuing with my thoughts around stomaching Bhutan’s arduous roads, how about travelling one way by road and the other way by plane? This helps cut down the travel time on the difficult roads, allowing you to see more places and at a more relaxed pace.

For my trip, our start point was Paro, where Bhutan’s only international airport resides. We rode the bus all the way to Bumthang and then rode the bus back to Paro. Seeing that there’s actually a thrice weekly domestic flight between Bumthang and Paro, you may want to (if your funds permit it) look into a tour itinerary that includes a one-way flight between Paro and the furthest point you’d be travelling to.

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Gangtey Goemba

9. A trip length of 7 to 8 days may be enough

Another unusual thing I observed about Bhutan was how the architecture stayed very consistent across its districts… with colourful wood frames mathematically placed against white walls, thin intricate windows and square, gently sloping roofs. This traditional architectural style becomes strikingly recognisable across the entire country, but it also means that aside for spectacular changes in landscape, the dzongs (fortresses), lhakhangs (temples) and houses can start to look a bit repetitive.

By day 6 to 7, some of us were pretty much “dzonged-out” to the point where we’d rather just wander about a town, observing the Bhutanese way of life instead of visiting another architecturally impressive (but all too familiar) fortress or temple.

Again this is a retrospective observation, but Fatbee and I agreed that unless there were less bus journeys and more free / exploration time, a trip length of 7-8 days would’ve been perfect for us. It’s a time frame where you can still have that sense of awe and wonder with visiting the dzongs and lhakhangs in Bhutan. And you can leave the country with that intangible feeling of wanting to see juuust a little bit more.

10. Most of your meals will be buffet-style

This final dot-point about Bhutan is a cheeky tribute to cousin trouble’s biggest trouble with Bhutan – the food… OMG the food… ha ha ha! She may have survived the crazy crazy roads much better than myself, but by day 5, she started having problems with the meals that were provided for us.

All our meals in this trip were included in the tour cost, and 95% of them were buffet-style, with the lunches and dinners usually featuring about 6-8 different types of vegetable dishes and one meat dish… all sitting in bain marie trays. (Breakfast was more Western but again served as a buffet). We’d normally have our dishes with steamed red rice and chilli cheese (pickled chillies in a light cheese-based sauce). Problem is, due to Bhutan’s cold climate, there’s a tendency for the cuisine to have quite a heavy presence of butter and oils in many of the dishes. And in terms of seasoning, it usually revolves around soya sauce and oyster sauce, and at some places it can be crazy salty!

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Buffet lunch selections at Rinchenling Lodge (Bumthang)… one of the better lunches we had out of the whole trip

I was fine with the food at first, but once a few of us made some observations about the monotony of the dishes, a group cascade effect soon followed. I eventually started avoiding the ubiquitous trays of (often overcooked) broccoli / mustard leaves / carrots /cauliflower fried in loads of oil and soya sauce. I also started to miss being able to go a la carte with my meals. It reached a point where we ended up taxiing into town and buying Bhutanese pizzas (unfortunately with truckloads of cheese) for dinner on day 8 and had Malaysian food on day 9!

All that said, our tour guide was wonderful enough to allow a small menu change request, and some of our meals further down the track also included a platter of raw peeled carrots (ie. oil and salt-free)… which many of us savoured like it was the best thing in the world!!

Conclusion

Before I end, I’d like to emphasize that this post isn’t about pinning the blame on the country or anyone in particular. It is more about seeking to understand why I found this trip frustrating. To put things into better perspective, let me say that I treasured the time that I spent with my cousins (and friends) on this trip. And I’m deeply thankful to cousin trouble for organising the trip and looking after the well-being of the entire group right through the 10 days. I also appreciated how attentive and responsive our tour guide was to our needs and how skilful our driver was. I admit that I started getting quite cranky from around day 6-7, but that’s mostly to do with the long, uncomfortable bus rides than the people I was travelling with.

I acknowledge that my recent experiences with luxury travel in Bali this year could have turned me into a bit of a more difficult-to-please holidaygoer. Cousin trouble even gave me a metaphorical slap in the face when I spoke (without thinking) and compared the discomforts of this trip to backpacking. Whoops… ha ha ha!

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Cheeky Bhutanese kids wobbling a suspension bridge like crazy while I was trying to cross it

In the end, I think it all boils down to the dollar value that you put into having a unique experience in an unspoilt country with its idiosyncrasies, its happy residents, and with very few fellow tourists. Your satisfaction will also depend on your ability to tolerate some pretty tough drives and the occasional mediocre hotel (Bhutan’s version of 3-stars isn’t quite international standard).

I still think it’s definitely worth visiting this perplexing country, just do so with an open mind and a bit of extra planning. Hopefully this post will help you with some of the decisions for your trip. If your budget permits it, I think going as a smaller group, adding a domestic flight into the itinerary and perhaps upgrading to better hotels will help a lot.

It has now been a month since my visit, and I’m starting to forget the discomforts of the trip. Meanwhile, beautiful insights from what I’d seen are starting to come to the surface… and I feel ready to start collecting these memories and turning it into a trip journal.

Other Bhutan photo-series:

Mystical Bhutan
Journeying Bhutan
Faraway Bhutan
Turnabout Bhutan