The Complete India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan Travel Guide
South Asia covers a large area of land that contains several incredible countries all with rich cultures, great food, and unforgettable sights. It is possible to visit many South Asian countries in just one trip. Exploring India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka in one trip gives travelers a chance to experience the region's variance in culture and history.
When planning a trip to South Asia, we recommend that travelers travel for at least 20 days in order to get the best out of each country. Most travelers first land in India as it is the most connected via international flights. We recommend starting your journey in India or taking a quick flight from Delhi to Nepal to begin your journey.
A recommended itinerary of this trip includes seeing the Taj Mahal and palaces of the Maharajas in India, exploring the ancient ruins and tea plantations of Sri Lanka, viewing Everest and Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, and checking out the Tiger's Nest Monastery and trekking in Bhutan.
Why Visit All Four Countries in one Trip?
Hopping around to four separate countries during your travels may seem like a lot. But spread out over a period of 20 days, a trip like this becomes the experience of a lifetime.
There are plenty of benefits that come with seeing India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan together. For more convincing check them out below!
1. Geographic Proximity
The biggest reason to visit all four countries at once is their geographic proximity. When starting in the United States or Europe, South Asia can be surprisingly difficult to reach as there aren't many direct flights and most travelers will experience at least one layover. So, if you have the time and are in the area, why not see as much as possible?
Once you reach South Asia, flying between India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka is relatively easy. Visiting them all at once means you can check them off your list without having to endure 4 separate long haul flights, most of which will require layovers in India anyway.
2. Ability to Compare Cultures
South Asia is a culturally diverse region with each country full of ancient beliefs that have been influenced by different religions and cultural values. In India, travelers can see how some of the world's major religions like Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism come together to create beautiful monuments like the Taj Mahal, the ghats, the palaces of Rajasthan, and the Golden Temple.
In Nepal, learn about a different variation of Hinduism and see large Hindu temples like Pashupatinath. In Bhutan, explore incredible Buddhist monasteries like the Tiger's Nest which is perched on the edge of a cliff.
In Sri Lanka, traverse ancient ruins like the Sirigyia Rock Fortress and explore important spiritual sites like Adam's peak which Christians believe is the location of the footprint of Adam, the first man.
3. Some of the Best Natural Scenery in the World
India, Bhutan, and Nepal all contain sections of the Himalayas, a mountain range that's beauty and awe is so incredible that you just have to see it for yourself.
Travelers can view the Himalayas by taking an Everest flight from Kathmandu in Nepal or hiking to base camp. In Bhutan, take in the mountains from a nearby city or head out on one of the country's world-class treks like the Snowman or Jhomolhari Trek.
In India, besides seeing the Himalayas near Leh, travelers can instead save the mountains for Nepal and Bhutan and take in the impressive desserts of Rajasthan or life-giving rivers like the Ganges and Yamuna where daily religious rituals take place.
In Sri Lanka, catch a break from the cold crisp air and head into the tropics where you can see lush green rainforests, tea plantations, and beautiful beaches like Bentota and Trincomalee.
What Makes Each Country Unique?
Some people may feel that they don't want to see every country in South Asia because they have similar cultures, but the truth is these countries not only differ greatly in culture but also in travel experiences.
India is unique because it has closer ties to the Islamic world. In Delhi and Agra, travelers will see incredible monuments that were built by the Mughal Empire and have a chance to try Mughal food like lamb kebabs and creamy Butter Chicken. India is also larger, more chaotic, and has more ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic diversity.
What makes Nepal special is that while its people may be poor, they are still full of happiness and life. In fact, the country is often cited as being the "friendliest country in the world". This allows travelers to communicate with locals and really dive into the culture. Nepal is also great for adventure sports and, of course, views of Everest.
Bhutan is one of the only countries that doesn't measure a GDP but instead focuses on its National Happiness Index. The Bhutanese government only allows a specific number of travelers into the country every year in order to protect the environment and deliver "high value low impact" travel experiences.
Although Sri Lanka is often grouped together with India, the travel experience here is completely different. In Sri Lanka, the food is spicier and the rainforests are thicker. Spend a few days at the country's tea plantations to take in the lush deep green of the hills and then head to the ocean for colonial forts and tropical beaches.
The Best Time to Visit South Asia
All four countries can be visited year-round, but when you visit can determine what area of the country you can see. Overall, the best time to visit South Asia is in the spring (from February to March). To help you decide when is the best time to go on your trip, we've listed the best times to visit each county and the most important times to avoid.
The best time to visit India is during the winter from October to February. This is when the temperatures in the country are the most comfortable. It is still possible to visit India in the spring from March to May, although it is the hot season. During the hot season, temperatures can reach up to 40°C (104°F), but the heat can be avoided by arranging tours in the early morning or evening.
India's monsoon season is from June to August. The northmost areas of the country like the Golden Triangle and Himalayan regions don't get as much rain as the center and south, but the rains can disrupt flights and delay travel plans.
The best time to visit Nepal is in the spring from February to April and the in the autumn from September to November. These months have the best and dryest weather in the country. It is also possible to visit Nepal in the winter (December to February), although temperatures are too cold for trekking.
It's best to avoid June to August because of monsoons.
The best time to visit Bhutan is similar to Nepal. The country experiences its best weather from March to May and from September to November. Bhutan experiences its monsoon season from June to August.
The best time to visit Sri Lanka is a little complex. To see the southwest section of the island which includes Kandy, Colombo, and Galle you should go from December to March. You can also visit the country any other time of the year except for October and November when the whole country experiences monsoons.
Top Places to Visit in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka
In India, most people visit an area of the country called the Golden Triangle. This area includes the cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur which together contain some of India's most historic monuments and colorful culture. In Delhi, travelers can see the colonial buildings left over from British India alongside the impressive red sandstone forts of the Mughals.
In Agra, spend sunrise taking in the Taj Mahal and then explore the impressive Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. In Jaipur, the Pink City, travelers can explore the sandy pink buildings of the old markets and check out the Amber Fort and Hawa Mahal.
In Nepal, the best places to visit are Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Patan. Kathmandu is where travelers will land and where you can take off for an Everest flight. It also has some of the country's most beautiful temples including Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath.
Pokhara is located near the Annapurna region and is a great jumping-off point for treks and adventure activities like mountain biking and boating. Patan is usually the last stop on a Nepal trip and contains the ruins of an ancient city dating back to 250 BC.
In Bhutan, the best places to visit are Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. Thimphu is where most travelers start and is the city with plenty of ATMs as well as the Giant Buddha Dorenma, the largest Buddha statue in the world standing at 177 feet tall.
Punakha is a city full of religious sites and surrounded by stunning scenery. The road to Punakha offers amazing views of the Himalayas and has 108 stupas along the way. Paro is where you'll find the famous gravity-defying Tiger's Nest Monastery.
In Sri Lanka, the top places to visit are Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and Galle. Colombo is the nation's capital and where most travelers will start their journey. Here you can check out ancient churches, mosques, and temples as well as crowded markets.
Kandy is the cultural hub of the country and the only area of Sri Lanka that was able to fight off European colonizers until 1815 making it full of incredible historical tales and culture. From Kandy, it's easy to reach the tea regions of Nuwara Eliya where travelers can sip tea and take in beautiful views.
Galle is the location the famous Galle Fort which is a large colonial rampart that contains part of the city with operating schools, homes, and offices still in use inside. Galle is also near the sea and surrounded by some beautiful beaches.
Top Things to Do in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka
In India, the most famous thing to do is to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, but besides this, there are plenty of other things to keep you busy. Explore ancient forts like the Red Fort in Delhi and Amber Fort in Jaipur. Shop in chaotic markets like Delhi's Chandni Chowk and Jaipur's countless jewelry sellers.
You can also take a cooking class in Jaipur, stay in colonial-era hotels in Delhi, and check out photogenic ancient stepwells.
In Nepal, the most famous thing to do is to see Everest. This can be done by taking the Everest flight, hiking to basecamp, or catching views from cities like Nagarkot and Duhilikel. Nepal is also known for its world-class trekking (including the Manaslu trek, Ama Dablam, and Island Peak or Mera Peak), there are also easier and shorter treks available in the Annapurna region.
In Nepal, you can also see tigers and one-horned rhinos at Chitwan National park, explore Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples, and experience a festival celebration.
In Bhutan, the most famous thing to do is to see the Tiger's Nest Monastery which sits on the edge of a clifftop and is one of the most sacred locations in the country. Travelers can also trek (some of the best being Jhomolhari and the Snowman), celebrate a local festival, or practice archery.
In Sri Lanka, the most famous thing to do is to visit the Sigiriya Rock Fortress which is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Travelers can also visit the Temple of Tooth in Kandy which is rumored to contain a real tooth of Gautama Buddha.
Sri Lanka is also a great place to tour tea plantations, lay on the beach, or visit a national park.
Festivals in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka
South Asia is well-known amongst travelers for its vibrant and raucous festivals. In India, the two most famous celebrations are Holi, the festival of colors in March, and Diwali, the festival of lights that falls in October or November.
Holi and Diwali are also celebrated in Nepal and Sri Lanka. In Nepal, Diwali is known as Tihar and also includes events where crows, dogs, and cows are all thanked for the benefits they've brought to the lives of humans.
The most important festival to take place in Nepal is Dashain which takes place before Tihar and celebrates the goddess Durga with feasts, shows, and events.
In Bhutan, festivals are known as Tsechus and each city normally has its own specific one. The most famous of them all is the Thimphu Tshechu which takes place in September and involves traditional costumes as well as masked performances.
In Sri Lanka, the most famous festival is Escala Perahera in Kandy which is that takes place at the Temple of the Tooth where the sacred tooth of Buddha is believed to be held. Every year, this celebration kicks off with parades of drummers, dancers, acrobats, and elephants.
South Asia Food Comparison
Out of the four countries, Indian food is probably the most well-known. Indian food is famous for its flavorful and mouthwatering gravy dishes that are packed with spice and often eaten with rice or bread. Some of the most famous Indian dishes include Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Biryani, Dal, and Chana Masala.
Nepalese food is a mixture of influences from its neighboring countries including India and China. The most famous Nepali dish is Dal Bhat which is a lentil and rice soup complete with various spices. Other famous dishes include dumplings, yak curry, and samosas.
Bhutanese food is probably the least well known of the bunch but is surprisingly delicious and absolutely unique. Bhutanese dishes are often hearty and quite spicy including ingredients like yak cheese, red chilies, veggies, and rice. The most famous dish is Ema Datshi which is a hot chili stew that includes plenty of cheese and butter.
Sri Lanka shares a lot of similarities to the cuisine of nearby South India and especially to that of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan cuisine tends to be spicier than Indian cuisine and many of its gravy dishes include seafood. Sri Lanka is particularly famous for its hoppers which are a pancake-like street food snack.
How to get to South Asia and Where to Begin
Out of the four countries, India is the most well-connected to North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia and is the most convenient to fly to. For most travelers, it is probably more convenient and affordable to first fly to India and start your journey there.
Most people flying to India will arrive in Delhi at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. There are direct flights to Delhi from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in the U.S. and from London and Paris in Europe. Flights from the U.S. will take around 14 to 17 hours and flights from Europe will take around 8.
Another option is to fly into India and then take a short flight to Nepal and begin your journey in Kathmandu. This allows travelers to start with the incredible nature and scenery of Nepal and Bhutan, then take in the monuments and palaces of India, and then explore the jungles and tea plantations of Sri Lanka.
The flight from Delhi to Kathmandu takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes.
How to Get Around South Asia
Once you've arrived in South Asia, the best way to travel between the four countries is by air. Flying saves time and allows travelers to see more of each destination. All four are well connected via local airlines such as Air India, Bhutan Airlines, Drukair, Jet Airways, Sir Lankan Airlines, Spice Jet, and Emirates.
When traveling within a country, the best way to go is via private car. Traveling by private car with a chauffeur is the most convenient way to travel for visitors who want to be comfortable and relaxed during their entire journey. Traveling by private car is also often the fastest and safest way to get from one place to another.
In Nepal and Bhutan, a private car is the only way visitors can reach certain scenic destinations.
South Asia Suggested Itinerary
We recommend the itinerary of Nepal - Bhutan - India - Sri Lanka because this allows for the most convenient and quickest travel between countries.
The total trip is likely to take around 20 days. The first 3 days will be spent in Nepal in Kathmandu and the nearby cities to explore incredible temples, ruins, and of course views of Everest. After Nepal, guests will spend 4 days in Bhutan exploring the cities of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha where you will get sights of incredible temples including the Tiger Nest Monastery.
After Bhutan, guests will spend 7 days in India where they will see the sprawling markets, Red Fort, and Jama Masjid of Delhi then head to Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur for its pink fortresses and mansions. Next, guests will head to Sri Lanka for 5 days and explore the incredible culture of Kandy and its Temple of Tooth, the beauty of the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya, and the colonial fort and beaches of Galle.
How to Get Your Visa
Almost everyone from Europe and North America who visits India will need to first apply for a tourist visa. Visas are currently quite easy to apply for online on the official government website. The options for visas include 30 days, one year, and 5 years. The cost of a 30-day visa depends on nationality and can range from USD 25 to USD 80.
You will also need a tourist visa when traveling in Nepal. Nepal offers visas on arrival at the Kathmandu airport. In order to get your visa, you will need to bring passport-sized photos and enough USD to pay for the visa. You can also fill out a short form online 15 days before you arrive to make your visa process at the airport even faster.
For Bhutan, the process is a little different. Bhutan only allows a certain number of travelers into their country each year. In order to get a visa to Bhutan, you will need to hire a travel agency to plan your trip and apply for your visa through them. Visas to Bhutan cost around USD 40 and there is a tourism fee of USD 65 per day.
Getting a tourist visa for Sri Lanka is also relatively easy and can be done online. Travelers are required to fill out the online ETA application at least 3 days before arrival. The visa fee is between 15 and 35 USD depending on nationality.
South Asia Safety Tips
Traveling in South Asia, especially with a guide in a private car, is quite safe. However, make sure to pay attention to the following safety measures while you are traveling to make sure that your trip goes as smoothly as possible.
- The biggest complaint that travelers have in India is being stared at. This can be uncomfortable for travelers but often happens out of sheer curiosity. To minimize staring, travelers should make sure to dress conservatively especially when visiting crowded areas or famous monuments.
- Poverty and beggars are both common in India and travelers should be prepared to see more poverty than they are used to. It is not recommended to give money to beggars as begging has become a lucrative industry in India and it is best not to encourage it.
- Nepal is an extremely poor country and often struggles with basic necessities. It is normal for the country to experience power outages and travelers should expect one to occur every day. Along with this, Nepal also has spotty and slow internet.
- It is extremely important to be careful when trekking in Nepal and to only go trekking with a knowledgable guide. Make sure you know the signs of altitude sickness and tell your guide if you are feeling dizzy or short of breath.
- Smoking tobacco is prohibited in Bhutan and cigarettes are often not allowed in public places. If you are a smoker, you will need to ask your guide where you can legally smoke on your tour.
- There are ATMs in Bhutan that accept international credit cards, but they are only in larger cities.
- One of the biggest dangers in Sri Lanka is the traffic. Traffic rules in Sri Lanka are much different than those in North America and Europe and it is always important to be careful when walking near or crossing a street.
- Another danger to look out for in Sri Lanka are strong currents and rip tides. Many beaches in the country have problems with strong currents and most also don't have lifeguards so it is important to be cautious when swimming.
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