10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Bhutan

Flying into Bhutan isn't easy, but with chaotic roads, high altitudes and spicy dishes, these obstacles make traveling around Bhutan the adventure you're craving. Here's what you need to know before you go.

Photo © Dat Vu/Winner of World Nomads Travel Photography Scholarship 2010

In a country where high-altitude peaks are forbidden to climbers and Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, Bhutan is a harmonious society, where culture and traditions remain intact.

1. Flight Facts

Flights into Bhutan are heavily weather-dependent, and conditions can be quite unpredictable. All take-offs and landings at Paro Airport are by visual flight rules, which means pilots can only take off or land if they are able to see the runway and surrounding hills. Flights do not operate at night or in poor conditions, so flights can be delayed – sometimes for a few days. Keep basic necessities in your carry-on baggage to get you through any potential delays or unexpected stop-overs.

This airport is particularly dangerous due to its location in a deep valley, which is surrounded by mountain peaks as high as 18,000ft (5,000m).

If you're flying internationally and require a connecting flight to Paro, your luggage will not be checked in all the way to Paro via your first flight. You will need to recheck your luggage at the counter before you catch a connecting flight. This is important to note if you've got a connecting flight and require the time to go through immigration, collect your luggage and check-in again.

Search for flights to Paro with Bhutan Airlines or Druk Air.

2. Chaos on the Roads

Car accidents are very common in Bhutan. To avoid any major injuries, always wear a seatbelt and avoid driving at night; mountainous roads are poorly lit and there are many blind corners.

If you're traveling by car or 4WD, never leave valuables inside the vehicle when parking near tourist sites or villages.

Mountainous landscapes in Bhutan. Photo credit: Dat Vu

3. Spotty Internet Connections

There are two mobile network providers in Bhutan: B-Mobile SIM and TashiCell. Ask your local guide to help you purchase a SIM on arrival, but make sure you unlock your phone before you insert the SIM card. 2G and 3G connectivity are available throughout the country, and WiFi is available in most hotels in major cities.

Connectivity might be touch-and-go, but in a country that is still largely disconnected from the outside world, this is one of the best things about traveling in Bhutan. 

4. Dress Appropriately in a Dzong

A dzong is an ancient fortress with towers, courtyards, temples and administrative offices. Before entering a dzong you need to dress appropriately. You can't wear jeans, wrap your jacket around your waist, or have your jacket unbuttoned or unzipped. No hats, shorts, short skirts, flip-flops or t-shirts can be worn inside. Travelers aren't expected to wear the traditional gho or kira, but you should cover your arms and legs with long-sleeved clothing.

Here are a few other quirky laws and customs in Bhutan.

Inside a monastery in Bhutan. Photo credit: Dat Vu

5. ATMs and Cash in Bhutan

ATMs are available in major towns around Bhutan. The three banks that accept foreign credit cards are Bank of BhutanBhutan National Bank and Druk Punjab National Bank. Travelers can withdraw money using a Visa or MasterCard, but beware of the fees.

Your best option is to get cash out in Thimpu or Paro before you venture further afield. Although Bhutanese Ngultrum is only circulated in Bhutan, foreign currencies can be exchanged for Nu when you arrive. If you're carrying USD, 100 USD notes have a higher exchange rate compared to notes in lower denominations.

6. Tackling the Tiger's Nest

Constructed in 1692, the Tiger's Nest is a sacred Buddhist site sitting 10,000ft (3,000m) above sea level, perched on the side of a cliff. To reach the Tiger's Nest travelers must drive (via taxi) 20 minutes north of Paro, and start the four to five- hour hike up to tour the monastery from the car park. The 4mi (6.5km) return trip has an elevation gain of 1,700ft (520m), which is not too difficult for a single day trip if you have spent time acclimatizing in the town of Paro (7,220ft/2,200m above sea level). 

Wear sturdy hiking boots and use hiking poles to give your knees extra support on the ascent and descent. Drink lots of water before and during the hike to stay hydrated, and remember to bring cash if you plan to have lunch at the cafeteria when you reach the Tiger's Nest.

Taktshang Monastery, Paro, Bhutan. Photo credit: Getty Images/takepicsforfun

As a side note, it's not uncommon for travelers to get Bhutan belly – whether you're used to eating chili in every dish or you've accidentally drunk unfiltered water, Bhutan belly will get you somehow.

7. Guided Tours Only

Traveling around Bhutan can only be done with a registered guide, which means you'll be accompanied by a local on your journey.

For all the nomads out there that hate the idea of a "guided tour", hear us out.

In such a remote location, having a local guide to tell you stories and translate to connect with locals along the way is essential to understanding this alluring destination.

Walking around the dzong. Photo credit: Dat Vu
Prayer flags in Bhutan. Photo credit: Dat Vu

8. Bhutanese Food

The most famous dish is ema datshi – rice and spicy chilies topped off with a delicious cheese sauce. Kewa datshi is made up of sliced potatoes and cheese – usually with chilies, too. Try shakam paa, dried beef cooked with (you guessed it) chilies and radish.

If you love dumplings, momos are everywhere in Bhutan. Fried or steamed inside a flour dough, these meat, cheese or vegetable filled snacks are best enjoyed with a chili sauce. You'll find momos at almost all restaurants and street food stalls.

If none of this sounds appetizing, try fried fern stalks or a tasty yak curry.

9. Beverages in Bhutan

Ask the locals you meet along the way if you can try ara – a hot, highly alcoholic treat.

While World Nomad Chris Potter was traveling through Bhutan, an elderly gentleman cooked him up a cup of the local drink. First, he popped some yak butter into a hot pan, broke in some eggs and scrambled them with the butter. He then proceeded to pour a full bottle of rice whiskey over the top, heated it all through and then ladled it into large mugs.

"I looked down at the steaming potent brew with its eggy oily topping and closed my eyes while taking a large gulp – not to look like a complete wimp or disrespect this kind gentleman's cooking. And, to my surprise, it was delicious. Although, after a nine-hour hike to a 13,100ft (4,000m) peak, then descending through a leech-infested, water-logged forest, I could have eaten anything and it would have probably tasted as good."

Candles in Bhutan. Photo credit: Dat Vu

10. See the Eastern Side of Bhutan

Most travelers fly directly into Paro and take trips from here to Thimpu, Punaka and then back to Paro.

Instead, get off the tourist trail by making your way southeast from Paro to the town of Samdrup Jongkhar. From there, you can cross the border into India via the Assam plains.

Eastern Bhutan is rarely visited by travelers, and there is much to see on this side of the country. Discover secluded valleys and nature reserves, home to the very rare black-necked cranes. Local festivals in this region will provide an authentic experience of the local culture, far different to the touristy festivals that occur in and around Paro.

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