How to Plan a Trip to Bhutan — A Complete Guide

How to Plan a Trip to Bhutan — A Complete Guide

By CarolUpdated Jun. 11, 2021

A trip to Bhutan is an exciting adventure that will include incredible views of the Himalayas, diverse national parks such as Jigme Dorji, and incredible religious sites like the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery.

Bhutan is not only a joy to explore because of what you can see, but is also incredible because of what you can experience. Enjoy the country's famous low impact tourism, abundance of cultural experiences like festivals and celebrations, and gorgeous mountain treks.

To get a full experience out of your trip to Bhutan, you will want to spend around 10 days in the country. Most travelers will start their journeys in Paro and then visit the cities of Punakha and Thimphu. Nature lovers can also make a stop at Jigme Dorji National Park.

3 Reasons to Go to Bhutan

Traveling to Bhutan can be more difficult than visiting other countries because Bhutan only allows a certain number of travelers to enter each year. But because of this limit on travelers, Bhutan is an incredible place where you can have authentic cultural experiences in a country where the Gross National Happiness index is considered to be more important than GDP.

Here are the 3 main reasons everyone should go to Bhutan.

1. Eco-Friendly and Low Impact Travel

The Bhutanese government has recognized the value of sustainable tourism and has implemented a policy of "high-value low impact" travel. In order to achieve this, the country only allows 70,000 international tourists to enter a year making it the least-visited country in the world.

Because of this, Bhutan is full of opportunities to have authentic local experiences with important parts of Bhutanese culture like traditional festivals and religious rituals. This rule also means that Bhutan is not crowded and travelers can hike trails or explore monasteries like the Tiger's Nest almost entirely alone, especially when visiting in the offseason.

2. Incredible Mountain Trekking

Bhutan is particularly famous for its abundance of hikes and treks. One of the most famous in the country is the Tiger's Nest Monastery trek. This monastery sits on the edge of a 3120-meter-tall cliff and the hike to the top is challenging but rewarding when you get to take in the sweeping views at the end.

The snowman trek is one of the most difficult but famous in the country and takes travelers through the Himalayans near the Bhutan-China border. For shorter treks lasting three days, travelers can try out the Bumthang Cultural trek or the Gangtey Winter trek.

3. Happy People and Colorful Festivals

It is a joy to travel in a country where the people are so welcoming and full of smiles. In Bhutan, the happiness of the local people is taken seriously by the government and is considered to be more important than GDP. When exploring this country, you'll meet plenty of friendly locals who are more than willing to talk about their lives and share their culture with you.

This is especially great when it comes to the nation's many festivals when the locals welcome travelers to join the celebrations and get some first-hand cultural experience. Thimphu Tshechu, Paro Tshechu, and Punakha Drubchen are some of the best festivals to experience as a traveler.

Best Time to Visit Bhutan

Bhutan has four distinct seasons but each of them has relatively pleasant weather conditions and temperatures making this a great year-round destination.

Autumn and Spring are often said to be the best times to visit Bhutan because they have the driest and most pleasant weather. Winter is cold in most areas of the country but offers travelers the chance to explore Bhutan without any other travelers around. Summer is the monsoon season, but Bhutan doesn't get as much rain as most other South Asian countries.

Spring

Spring in Bhutan typically lasts from March until May and is a beautiful time to see the country as the wildflowers start blooming and animals become more active. This is also a great season for hiking because temperatures at higher elevations are more manageable.

In March the average temperatures during the day are around 6 °C (43 °F) and drop to freezing at night. The weather warms up by May with an average daytime temperature of 16 °C (61 °F).

As spring is right before the monsoon season, the country experiences a few showers in the south and some snow in the mountainous regions.

Summer

Summer is from June to August and is the monsoon season. The average temperature in this season is 13-15 °C (55-59 °F) during the day and each month sees about 15 rainy days.

If you aren't interested in trekking or outdoor activities, then summer can be a good time to visit. The rains bring out the country's beautiful green vegetation and cause a lack of crowds at top attractions.

Autumn

Autumn in Bhutan is from September to November. This season is also called the post-monsoon season as it is the shoulder between the monsoons and the cold winter. Autumn is one of the best times to visit Bhutan because the weather is mostly dry and pleasant.

This time of year, the temperatures are comfortable with highs around 21 °C (68 °F). Autumn is the harvest season and when some of the biggest festivals take place such as Thimphu Tshechu, the largest celebration of the year.

Winter

Winter lasts from November to March and can be very cold. If you plan to visit in the winter, it is a good idea to avoid December and January as those are the coldest months with nighttime temperatures in major cities dropping below freezing.

In the northern mountain regions, average daytime temperatures are around -2 °C (28 °F). Trekking is not possible in the winter because of the likelihood of snowfall in regions above 3,000 meters.

If you are an animal lover, winter is a good time to visit the country's national parks.

Top 4 Places to Go in Bhutan

Most people who visit Bhutan will explore Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. Travelers can choose to either start in Thimphu or Paro. Travelers who have more than 10 days to spend in Bhutan can consider visiting other areas such as Jigme Dorji National Park or the Himalayas. 

1. Thimphu

Thimphu is the largest city in Bhutan and is located in the country's central valley and is famous as the city that has both modern technology and ancient customs. Thimphu is a great starting point when visiting Bhutan as here you can access an ATM to stock up on currency and also explore some of the city's religious and cultural sites.

The Giant Buddha Dordenma is a large bronze statue that stands at 177 feet tall and looks down over the Thimphu valley below. Not only is this one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, but it is also typically not too crowded making for a more authentic and spiritual experience.

While in Thimpu, guests can learn more about the local culture at the Folk Heritage Museum, explore the 13th-century royal fortress of Tashicho Dzong, or take in the beautiful golden spire of the Memorial Chorten. 

2. Punakha

After exploring Thimphu, guests can travel to Punakha via the Dhocu La Pass which offers incredible views of the Himalayas and is marked by 108 memorial stupas along the way. Punakha is one of the most impressive cities in Bhutan and is often a favorite among travelers for its stunning scenery and abundance of religious sites.

The Chimi Lhakhang is a famous Buddhist temple of fertility that was built by the monk Lam Drukpa Kuenley who is also known as the "Divine Madman". He was called this for his reverence of phallic symbols which can be seen painted on the walls of houses in the city.

In Punakha, travelers should also explore the Punakha Dzong, the main government building of the city that sits between the area’s two major rivers (Mo and Po, or mother and father). Also make sure not to miss the Punakha Suspension Bridge which offers gorgeous views of the river below. 

3. Paro

Paro is the capital of Bhutan and is a small and quaint city that is full of sacred sites and historical buildings.

Paro is particularly famous for the Tiger's Nest Monastery which is only about 7 miles from the city. The Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of the major highlights of a trip to Bhutan and famously sits right on the edge of a large cliff offering stunning views of the surrounding area. 

While in Paro, travelers can also explore the National Museum and the Rinpung Dzong which is not only a monastery but a government fortress. Spend time in the Himalayas by driving across the Chele La Pass which is the highest mountain road in the country sitting at 3810 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level.

4. Jigme Dorji National Park

Jigme Dorji National Park is the largest protected area in all of Bhutan and contains diverse landscapes and wildlife. The altitude in this park ranges from the lowlands at 1000 meters above sea level to the snowy mountain peaks sitting at 7,000 meters above sea level. 

This park is home to many sacred mountains such as Jomolhari, Tsherimgang, and Jichu Drakey and animals such as snow leopards, Bengal tigers, black bears, sheep, and red pandas. 

Here you can take wildlife safaris, trek through the meadows to see blue poppies and edelweiss, visit high elevation forts like the Gasa Tashi Tongmon Dzong, or just take in the views of the sacred mountains.

Top 4 Things to Do in Bhutan

Bhutan is an exciting place where you will never run out of options for what to do during your journey whether it's exploring striking forts and monasteries, trekking through the Himalayas, celebrating a festival, or learning archery.

1. See the Famous Tiger's Nest Monastery

The most famous thing to do in Bhutan is to visit the Tiger's Nest Monastery which is located a few miles outside of Paro and can be reached with a 3-hour hike. Although the hike up can be grueling, the reward is sweeping views of the surrounding area and great photos of this gravity-defying structure. 

For those who can't make the hike, it is possible to hire a horse to carry you and your things up to the top. Once at the top, you can also explore the monastery which is considered to be one of the most sacred locations in the country.

2. Trek at Your Own Pace

Bhutan is well-known for its world-class trekking and people from all over the world come to experience its beautiful and grueling trails. Some of the most famous include the Jhomolhari Trek, which takes around 9 days and is moderately difficult, and the famous Snowman trek, which takes around 25 days to complete. 

But don't worry! Not all treks in Bhutan are multi-day grueling experiences. There are plenty of hikes for trekkers of all levels. One of our favorite day hikes is Dochu La to Lungchutse Lhakhang which takes around 3 to 4 hours roundtrip and winds through mountain forests all the way to the Mungchutse Monastery. 

Other great hikes to check out include the Gangtey Nature Trail, the Ngang Lhakhang to Tahung route, and the Khamsun Chorten hike. 

3. Celebrate a Local Festival

Festivals, or tschechus, in Bhutan are big, raucous, and colorful events that bring everyone together in a dazzling display of local culture. Festivals are great to attend for travelers who are often immediately welcomed into the celebrations.

If you are looking for a more simple festival experience, try to catch a dzong or fortress festival. Bhutan is full of fortresses and every one has its own celebration.

The biggest festival of the year is Thimphu Tshechu which occurs in September and involves men dressing up in traditional costumes and masks to perform dances. Travelers can watch these dance performances to learn more about the history of Buddhism and local culture.

4. Learn Archery

Archery is Bhutan's national sport and the country has a long tradition of using these weapons for hunting and war. To experience Bhutanese archery, travelers can attend an archery tournament or take archery classes to get some hands-on experience. 

Bhutanese archers still use traditional bows and equipment that are often made from natural materials such as bamboo. During archery tournaments, whenever a target is struck the team breaks out in traditional song and dance to celebrate. 

Festivals of Bhutan

Festivals or tshechus are religious holidays that are held throughout the year in different regions of the country. A Tshechu is meant to honor Buddhism and its teachers and bring luck and merit to those who celebrate.

Two of the most famous festivals to take place in Bhutan are Thimphu Tshechu (September) and Paro Tshechu (March). These two festivals involve men dressing up in traditional costumes and masks to reenact important stories from the history of Buddhism. 

During Punakha Drubchen (February) travelers can watch as actors wear ancient armor to reenact a famous 17th-century battle with the Tibetan army. Punakha Tshechu is held immediately following Punakha Drubchen making this a great time to be in the city if you want to celebrate. 

Haa Summer Festival (July) is a beautiful celebration where visitors can gain an in-depth understanding of the culture of the nomadic herders of Bhutan. During the festival, travelers can watch performances centering on culture, sports, and religion and try a bunch of delicious Bhutanese food. 

Bhutanese Food

Bhutanese food is not internationally well-known, but is absolutely delicious and consists of a large variety of hearty and spicy meals. Bhutanese dishes often include red chilies, yak cheese, diverse veggies, and rice.

Bhutanese food is delicious, complex, and completely different from that of Nepal, Tibet, and India although it has been influenced by all of its neighbors. The most popular Bhutanese dish is called ema datshi which is a red or green chili stew that is cooked with local cheese and lots of butter. 

Another great dish to try is kewa datshi which is potatoes and yak cheese. Kewa datshi is similar to scalloped potatoes but includes a few red chilies for good measure.

Lastly, when in Bhutan, you have to try momos. Momos are a type of dumpling that originates from Tibet and is often stuffed with pork, beef, cabbage, and cheese. Momos are delicious and filling making them a great meal before a day of trekking or exploring.  

How to Travel to Bhutan

The best way to travel to Bhutan is by air to the country's only international airport in Paro. There are international flights to Paro by Drukair and Bhutan Airlines that come from Bangkok in Thailand, Kathmandu in Nepal, New Delhi and Kolkata in India, Yangoon in Myanmar, and Singapore.

Because there are no international direct flights to Bhutan from western countries, many travelers choose to include their Bhutan journey into trips to other countries like Nepal or India. 

How to Travel Around Bhutan

Because all visitors to Bhutan must visit through a travel agency, the only way to travel around Bhutan is with a private car and driver. The price of your private car will be included in the cost of your tour making it a convenient and affordable way to get from one place to another.

When traveling by private car, guests have the ability to have a flexible schedule and choose when they want to leave or stop along the journey. Traveling by car also allows visitors to see some of the country's most incredible views from high mountain passes like the Dhocu La Pass between Thimphu and Punakha.

Cost of a Private Tailor-Made Tour

Private tailor-made tours to Bhutan for around 11 days will cost around 5000USD. This cost includes hotels, private cars, drivers, private guides, and two meals a day. Non-peak season prices are likely to be slightly more affordable than peak season. 

The non-peak season in Bhutan includes the winter months from November to March and the summer monsoon months from July to August. For those who don't want to trek and don't mind the cold weather, November and December are good months to visit for more affordable travel without the crowds. 

How to Get a Visa

Everyone traveling in Bhutan (except for nationals of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives) needs a tourist visa.

Visas must be applied for through a tour agency as all travelers are required to visit Bhutan with a guide. Visas are approved by the Tourism Council of Bhutan once the full payment of the trip has been received by the tour agency.

Typical tourist visas cost around 40USD and there is a sustainable tourism fee of 65USD per day. 

Bhutan Travel and Safety Tips

Bhutan is an extremely safe country to visit and doesn't have problems with scams, begging, or theft like many of its neighboring countries. The biggest dangers in Nepal are altitude, wild animals, and bad weather. Following the tips below can help you have the best time possible when visiting Bhutan.

  • There are ATMs that accept international cards in Bhutan but most of them are only in major cities and towns. It is also possible to pay with a credit card at most major shops and hotels. 
  • Consuming tobacco is prohibited in Bhutan meaning that smoking cigarettes is not allowed in public places. If you need to smoke while in Bhutan, you'll have to bring your own cigarettes and ask your guide where you can go to legally smoke. 
  • Tuesdays are Bhutan's "dry day" when the sale of alcohol is prohibited.
  • Your guide will know the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and take you on treks with enough time for you to adjust to the altitude. However, if you do feel nauseous, have a headache, or shortness of breath while hiking it is important to let your guide know immediately. 
  • Most cities in Bhutan don't have much as far as things to do at night so make sure to bring any books you'll want to read or movies you'd like to watch with you.

Explore Bhutan with Asia Highlights

Visiting Bhutan is the trip of a lifetime full of exciting cultural experiences, great food, and incredible mountain views. Need help planning your Bhutan travels? At Asia Highlights, we specialize in creating tailor-made trips that suit the individual preferences of our travelers. Let us do the planning for you, so you can just relax and enjoy the journey.

Why Travel with Asia Highlights

  • Tailor-made experience: All of your ideas/needs will be carefully considered to create your ideal trip.
  • Worry-free planning: Every step of your trip, you will be looked after by your 1:1 travel consultant based in Asia.
  • No-risk booking: We refund as much as we can and adapt flexibly to unexpected changes.

12-Day India and Bhutan Tour

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