Bhutan, Druk-Yul, is the land of the “Thunder Dragon”, that appears on its flag and the Druk-pa are its inhabitants. It was one of the most isolated countries in the world until tourism was allowed into the 70’s while many areas of the country are still restricted. This fact has preserved its traditions and culture from western influence, while it has become the main attraction for tourists. And Bhutan has been able to take advantage of it with a good tourist organization and rates that are not suitable for all budgets. Bhutan is a relatively expensive and exclusive destination. This allows its battered trade balance to begin to recover in a country where 80% of the people lives from agriculture.
Their traditions and culture have survived quite unchanged for centuries and, in fact, many of them are regulated by law, from clothing in certain situations to the way houses are built.
With a small population of about 700 thousand inhabitants, it stands out for wanting to take its own path between its powerful neighbours, India and China. Bhutan became famous for its GDH, the Gross Domestic Happiness Index, as opposed to GDP, included in its constitution and proclaimed in 1974 in the coronation speech of its fourth king. For the rulers of Bhutan, it does not make much sense to live and work just to produce more (GDP) but to live to be happier (GDH). It has been a democracy since 2008, but curiously it is because of the determination of its monarch and not for the will of the people who did not consider it necessary. A king or, we could say better, a royal couple, revered and loved by the population.
Lush forests and high peaks of the Himalayas to the north define a majestic landscape, almost undisturbed by the few existing roads, friendly and quiet people will welcome the traveller who sets out on the road through the so-called last Shangri-La on earth.
Here are some brief travel notes and useful information for your trip to Bhutan, but since you have to do a short stay in Nepal, which is the gateway to and from Bhutan, we also add some useful information about Nepal.
Entry VISA in Nepal
To enter both Nepal and Bhutan, the passport must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry into the country.
There are three ways to obtain a visa to enter Nepal. Currently, they are US$ 30/50/125 for 15/30/90 days stay respectively.
- Our advice is to apply online. It is easy, fast and secure. Go to https://nepaliport.immigration.gov.np/ where it says “VISA Pre-arrival” or “VISA On-arrival” (either one or the other). From there, fill in the information requested. You will need a photo and passport in jpeg, jpg or png. When you finish the process, you will end up with a document with a barcode to print. You can do this 15 days before you arrive in Nepal. If you have any problems, let us know and we will give you a hand.
- You can also apply in advance at the nearest Nepalese consulate, but it is usually more expensive and you will have to send the documents and wait to receive your passport back in time. You can also apply to the consulate online at the same link above.
- There are terminals in the immigration hall where you can scan your passport and get the visa application form. But we think it is always best to have it ready before you leave home, especially as you may be asked for it when you board the plane.
In any case, you will have a paper with your visa application. Once in the immigration room, you will have to fill out another small form and go to the counter where the fee is paid. Then access the windows where the visa will be processed, which are differentiated according to the duration of your stay.
You can pay in euros and other currencies, but the fixed rate is in US dollars, so paying in other currencies may have a “rounding”. If you have dollars, pay in dollars, but if you do not have, do not change expressly.
You can read more information at: nepalimmigration.gov.np
Bhutan entry VISA and customs formalities
The visa is processed before travelling to Bhutan, and we apply for it. You simply must provide a scanner of the main page of your passport with which we will request the visa permission letter and other paperwork to the Bhutan Ministry of Foreign Affairs from where they will send us the authorization.
Upon your arrival in Bhutan immigration control, they will request the visa permit that we have provided to you, and they will issue the visa stamp in your passport. You must also fill out a form with a list of what you enter the country, where you must consign your valuables and electronic material basically. Do not lose this document since you will be asked at the exit. In the case of loss, communicate it as soon as possible to your guide since it will involve problems and some steps will have to be taken.
On the other hand, they are very strict with antiques, especially when it comes to religious figures. If you buy a handicraft that looks old, you must obtain a document where the seller is clearly detailed and it certifies that it is not an ancient item. Ask your guide in case of doubt.
Notice about smoking (IMPORTANT)
Smoking on the street and in public is strictly prohibited in Bhutan and the sale of tobacco is not allowed. So, you must bring tobacco with you. The maximum allowed is 200 cigarettes, but keep in mind that you will be charged with a tax while entering a package or two is usually tax-free.
In any case, the ban on smoking in a public place should not be taken lightly. Every year several people are caught smoking in public places and must pay a fine for it. You can smoke -without ostentation of it- on the balcony or window of the hotel … or in the middle of the forest.
Money / currency
The currency of Bhutan is the Ngultrum (BTN) and the exchange rate is usually around 75 ngultrums per euro. Actually, most of the expense will already be paid, since Bhutan’s tourism policy is organized according to “all-inclusive”. You will only have to pay for your extras, such as drinks, souvenir purchases, etc. so you are not going to need a lot of cash. Make sure of the prices before buying.
You can change at the airport, in banks that you will find in Thimphu and Paro basically. Also, in some shops in Thimphu you can get change, which will generally be somewhat better than in banks. The Indian rupee is also accepted, which you should carry in small bills. Certain amounts, such as the tip to the guide, can be paid directly in dollars.
In Nepal is used the Nepali Rupee (NPR) and in general you will only use notes, which go from 5NPR to 1000NPR. In some remote areas or during the treks it may be difficult to get change for big notes, so it is advisable to bring small notes as possible, but in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Patan or Bhaktapur there will be no problem and even some restaurants accept payment with Dollars or Euros, although we always recommend that you pay in the local currency. You will pay the real price and it is respectful to the country.
There are innumerable small bureaux de change in Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and Pokhara, which you will see for their street panels where they indicate the exchange rate applied on the day for each currency. There is almost no difference between them and they are reliable. Naturally at the airport you have a change office with worse change value, while changing at the banks always means a small saving, but it is so small that it does not compensate the time invested. Many hotels offer exchange rates like those of small offices, but they usually charge a commission.
In Bhutan there are ATMs basically in Thimphu and Paro, but do not trust your trip to get cash in them, since they may not work with your card or any other problem. Think of them just for emergencies. Western credit cards are accepted in Bhutan, in theory at least, but not debit cards. Most craft shops accept payment by card.
In Nepal there are more and more ATMs and many of them are in the so-called “ATM lounge” where you will find ATMs from different banks. It is probable you discover that your card does not work in a cashier, or the next, or the …. but don’t be afraid, will end up working in some. I any case we recommend you do not trust your trip to the use of ATM. Nepal is a relatively safe country by which we usually move with a certain amount of cash.
In Bhutan, tipping is supposed to be optional, but the truth is that in recent years it is something that most guides, drivers, hotels and others involved in tourist services expect.
Overall, we can say that for a guide about $10 per day per group; for drivers about $6 per day per group; In the case of treks, same for the guide and for the other staff involved in the trek think about $8 per day per group in the case of short treks and $5 for the long ones.
In hotels, you will find the “tip box”. The tip is usually delivered in an envelope.
In Nepal the tip forms a large part of the final income of a worker, so they will expect the tip as part of their salary. For a tourist guide as an orientation level are usually 300 or 400 rupees per day of travel and person. Drivers get a little less.
Some local service providers or assistants can also expect tip but it will not be significant, between 50 and 300 rupees is more than enough. In most accommodation and some restaurants there are “tip boxes” that are shared among the workers. It is optional for each one.
As for restaurants is usually round up. In addition, the invoice usually carries the concept of “service”. Otherwise it is between 10% to 15%. With taxis you have already fixed a price so it is not necessary to leave a tip.
Mobile and internet
Two phone companies operate in Bhutan, B-Bhutan which is owned by the government and Tashi Cell which is private. B-Bhutan has better coverage as Tashi Cell has been implanted later. They can be easily bought in Paro and Thimphu with a photocopy of your passport. There are different pricing plans, one day, one week or one month and some data amount. You can check them here for B-Bhutan www.bt.bt/data/ and here for Tashi Cell www.tashicell.com/ussd/dataplan-ussd. The cards are already loaded but it is convenient that you recharge them according to your use and forget about it during the trip.
In general, there is 3G and 4G in the most common areas of the country, while naturally in the most remote and mountainous areas it is unlikely to get a data connection. There is WIFI in most establishments, but the mobile connection is usually much faster and more reliable.
In Bhutan the power is 230v and according to the government, all the energy in Bhutan is free of carbon emissions since it comes from hydroelectric sources.
The most common plugs are the European round plug, the three-round prong plug that is also found in Nepal and the UK three-prong plug, so in most places, you will not need an adapter, although it is always convenient to carry it. As in Nepal, carrying small multiple sockets to be able to plug in more than one device will be very useful.
In Nepal the power is 220V and almost all the sockets you will find are multiple, which means that probably you won’t have any
problems with your own plug format, either thin or thick, flat or round, although it is true that sometimes they are not very well held. UK sockets are more difficult to find. Be sure the switch is in “on”, and check that your device gets power.
Bhutan food is usually spicy and chilli is a common denominator in all dishes, most of which are made based on rice with vegetables, meat or both cooked in a different way or with different spices, quite like Nepal.
Of course, there is also Western and Indian style food available in most places.
Nepalese cuisine has a strong accent from the Indian subcontinent, and this means that it is quite spicy. But don’t despair, you can always ask for it to be less spicy … normally.
In Nepal, you can find all kinds of meals, especially in Kathmandu, Pokhara and other tourist areas. In roadside restaurants or small villages, you will have fewer choices.
The national dish is dal-bhat (literally lentils-rice) white rice accompanied by various vegetables (what they call “curry”) and a lentil soup that is generally mixed with rice. At home it is practically the dish that is cooked day in and day out, morning and night.
The climate in Bhutan depends on the elevation, as we go from alpine areas at high altitudes in the north to subtropical areas in the south. While in the northern part of the high mountains the temperatures will be cold all year round (freezing in winter) in the south the temperatures will range from an average of 15 degrees in winter to 30 degrees in summer.
However, it will be in the intermediate areas of the centre where we are going to move during most of our journey. We can expect some rare snowfall in winter when temperatures can drop below zero at night and be cool during the day, between 10 and 17 degrees maximum as a rule. During the spring it does not usually rain too much. We can expect temperatures between 5 degrees of minimum and 20 or something more than maximum.
From July to September, and getting longer each year, we will find the monsoon rains. They can be heavy rains, but they do not usually prevent the completion of the trip since most of them happen in the afternoon or at night, but they can affect the road tracks. The mornings are usually clear, with somewhat less long-distance visibility, but with clouds that will make our photographs more spectacular. Indeed, it is not a highly recommended time to do mountain treks.
From October to December we will find temperatures like those of spring.
Keep in mind that these temperatures are average, which means that it can be colder or hotter in certain places or on certain days.
Nepal is a subtropical country, so the climate in the most inhabited areas is usually from warm to hot and the sun at noon tightens. Summer is the rainy season and the monsoon visits Nepal normally from June to mid-September (getting longer some of the last years). The rain causes the temperatures to be a little softer and it usually rains in the afternoon or at night, not causing very serious damage in general terms. During July and August, you can travel to Nepal perfectly, just keep in mind that it can rain. You will see the whole lush and very green landscape, with abundant water, small and big waterfalls everywhere. Even you will have less chance to see the summits of the Himalayas, the clouds surrounding them will give you amazing pictures. Although it is cold in winter, it is not an extreme cold in the cities. In Kathmandu it is very rare to see snow, although frost can be common on winter mornings. Obviously in mountain areas we notice the difference and from 3500m is quite cold at any time of the year and especially during the nights.
General equipment recommended
Keeping in mind what is described about the weather in both Bhutan and Nepal, we recommend some stuff to include in your personal equipment and / or luggage. Naturally, the final decision is yours, evaluating the season you are going to travel and your sensitivity to cold or heat:
- Comfortable short-sleeved shirts and light pants.
- A light sweater for the fresh mornings or evenings.
- A sweater, warm jacket, anorak or light down jacket for more severe cold.
- Umbrella or raincoat for occasional rains … Or not so occasional.
- A small flashlight will be very useful in streets with poor (or no) illumination at night and for possible power outages.
- Replacement of batteries and multiple sockets to plug in several devices at the same time, remember that there are few sockets in the rooms.
- Sunglasses and sun protection for the skin and lips if you go to mountain areas. At noon the sun can be intense anywhere.
- Small first aid kit, with scissors, tweezers, plasters, antiseptic, and a little of the basic medicines: paracetamol, ibuprofen, antihistamines and antidiarrheal.
- A small sewing box is always usefull-
- If your itinerary includes trekking or sleeping in private houses, a thin cloth bag can make you feel more comfortable.
There are currently no medical and vaccination requirements to enter either Nepal or Bhutan. Both countries are relatively safe and malaria-free for many years. While there is no zero risks, it is not an issue to obsess over.
As usual, we recommend that you obtain medical insurance that covers both countries in which they cover any medical expense, large or small, and repatriation if necessary. Also, as always, it is something that we hope you do not have to use at all. From the agency, we will facilitate you in all the management, the accompaniment and the obtaining of the necessary papers to recover the amounts paid, but we recommend that always the first thing you should do in case of vicissitude is to contact your insurance.
There are pharmacies where you can find most of the basic medicines that you may need on your trip, although you will need to know the generic name. They are safe medicines, at a good price and sold by “blisters”, not by boxes.
TREKKING IN BHUTAN
The pricing policy for trekking in Bhutan is the same as for travel. There are government-set rates and if travelling to Bhutan is already suitable only for some pockets, trekking is even more so. However, there are affordable treks, where the daily rate is the same as for general tours, and there are itineraries that don’t involve many days. However, if you want to do “the Snowman”, you’ll have to dig deep into your pockets.
Compared to Nepal, Bhutan has more snowfall in winter, often blocking the mountain passes on treks further north and at higher altitudes. Therefore, it is quite important to look at the recommended season of the year for each trek. In fact, out of season agencies do not use to work on certain routes.
There are certain stages on some treks where the paths can be quite muddy if it has rained the previous days.
Almost all treks in Bhutan are camping treks with all that that entails. There are some lodges in a few villages and some community halls that can be used for shelter, cooking or other purposes.
In Bhutan, loads are carried by mules or yaks; there are no porters. They are hired in the area and travel along established stretches of the route, so there are locations where animals are changed. Normally the mules work at lower altitudes and the yaks at higher altitudes, but this is not strict.
All treks into the Himalayas in the northern part of the country are through rugged and isolated terrain, with no other means of communication than footpaths. For this reason, you must take out mountain accident insurance valid for Bhutan, including helicopter rescue.
That said, the treks in Bhutan are quite spectacular and not very crowded. There are the big treks that will be your main objective in your trip and will probably take up most of the days in the country, but there are also smaller treks that can complement a trip around Bhutan that includes visits to some of the interesting places in the country.
Here is a list of general trekking equipment. But as everyone and every trek are different, feel free to add or delete items.
Pay special attention to the issue of rain, snow and mud, depending on the route you are taking.
Towel (best fast dryer one)
bag or backpack for mules/yaks
Short sleeve T-shirt
Long sleeve T-shirt or light fleece
Headlamp/flashlight and spare batteries
Down jacket or similar
Water bottle/flask/camel bag
Poncho or umbrella
Water purifying system
Light pants, long/short
Clothes washing soap
Thicker pants and/or waterproof pants
Leggings (also as pyjama)
Sunglasses 3 or 4 level protection
Socks (watch out blisters)
Sun cream high level protection
Lips balm sun protection
Pyjama (or clothes for sleeping and other use)
Main walking shoes (mountain shoes/boots)
Sleeping bag is included, but it may be convenient to bring a thin silk or cotton bag.