Tucked away between India and China, Bhutan is easily overlooked. But time to dig out your map and pinpoint this mountain kingdom. There are so many reasons to visit Bhutan. It’s one of the most untouched and pristine locales in Asia. Worthy of a travel memoir, Bhutan is best known for its ancient monasteries and fortresses (Dzongs). The country has additionally stunning landscapes etched with sharp ravines and thick subtropical forests. This mountain kingdom has an incredibly dynamic and diverse scenery. And its size makes Bhutan easy to explore. Many points of interest concentrated around the towns of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.
However, what really sets this mountain kingdom apart from the rest of Asia is the government’s commitment to ecotourism. Although there are some strict guidelines to protect its natural beauty, this country and the people who call it home are thriving from a form of regenerative tourism. We’ll touch on that later.
Most visitors to Bhutan will arrive in the enchanting Paro Valley, home to the country’s only international airport. It is a historic town with many sacred sites and historical buildings scattered throughout the area.
It’s worth staying a few days in Paro to check out the sights. The Dungtse Lhakhang (a 15th-century temple), the Ugyen Perli Palace and Rinpung Dzong form the three main tourist sights. Visitors will also enjoy the National Museum of Bhutan.
If you are tired after a long day of sightseeing then stop by Paro’s Champaca Cafe. This charming cafe serves up traditional food and drink, as well as some Western comforts for anyone feeling homesick.
Trek to Takysang Monastery
About 10 kilometres (6 miles) outside Paro is one of Bhutan’s most well-known sites, the Paro Takysang.
Perched on the edge of a cliff around 800 metres above the Paro Valley, the monastery is believed to be the meditation centre of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). Legends tell that the Guru landed on the mountain riding a giant tigress. Thus began the birth of Buddhism in Bhutan.
Built in 1692 the the Takysang Monastery is a cultural and religious icon for the Bhutanese people. It’s the end point of the most famous pilgrimages in the country and is well worth a visit. The trek takes about three hours each way and affords some stunning views from the top!
Go Wildlife Watching in Phobjikha Valley
Drawing a ‘U’ shape across the heart of central Bhutan, Phobjikha valley is a unique spot to observe rare species of flora and fauna. The valley is best known for the migratory black neck cranes that nest here throughout the winter. The Jigma Singye Wangchuk Park is a great place to observe them. If you’re lucky you might also spot Sambar Deer, Barking Deer, Himalayan Black Bear, Red Foxes and Leopards.
Phobjikha Valley is also worth a visit for the Gangteng Monastery. Gangtey treks are a popular tourism attraction. Hiking enthusiasts can start from the Gangteng Gonpa, passing through Kumbu, Khebayathang and Kilhorthang villages before finishing in the Kungathang Lhakhang. A shorter trek (1 – 2 hours) known as the Gangte Nature Trail, starts from the Monastery and ends in Khewa Lhakhang.
Hike to Jomolhari Base Camp
Nestled against the edge of the Himalaya, Bhutan boasts almost as many mountains as its more famous Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian neighbours. Standing tall at 7326 metres is the Jomolhari mountain, forming a natural barrier between Tibet and Bhutan. It’s the second-highest unclimbed peak in the world.
Also known as the “Bride of Kanchenjunga”, the mountain is home to the springs that eventually become the Amo and Paro rivers as they flow to the north and south down the slopes. For those of you who can’t get enough of adventure, hiking to Jangothang base camp affords stunning views. On the trek, you can also explore the Jomolhari temple and Bhutan’s highest lake Tseringma Lhatso, or the “Spirit Lake.”
Explore Rinpung Dzong
Moments after setting foot in this Himalayan kingdom, visitors are greeted with views of a series of Dzongs, perched on the hilltops.
The construction of these majestic buildings spans the 17th century. They were initially built as military bases to combat Tibetan invasions from the north. They even remained functional against British-Indian strikes from the South in the 19th century. Now serving as religious, military, administrative, and social centres, Dzongs are the heart of each district.
Rinpung Dzong (Paro Dzong) is considered by many to be the finest example of Bhutan architecture. This Dzong is built right on the edge of a hillside overlooking one of the most scenic section of Paro Valley and the Paro-Chu River. It houses fourteen shrines and chapels and also plays host to the annual festival of Tshechu each year. It’s currently being considered for UNESCO heritage status!
Get your dose of culture in Thimphu
Thimphu, on the banks of the Waang Chu river, is the capital and largest city of Bhutan. It’s the fifth highest capital in the world by altitude at 2,648 metres high! Yet it remains fairly young, having replacing the ancient capital of Punkaha in 1955.
Recommended is the Tasciccho Dzong; a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city. The National Textile Museum is also worth a visit for those who wish to behold the finest brocade handicrafts on display. For those of you looking for something a little out of the ordinary, one quirky thing to do is to visit Bhutan Post Office HQ, a museum in which tourists can design their own stamp to mail a postcard home.
Visit the Buddha Dordenma
Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains of Bhutan. This colossal gold-encrusted likeness was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fourth Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Waangchuk. Set against a mountain backdrop, the site is visible from almost every corner of Thimpu.
Although impressive, the Buddha Dordenma is by no means the largest Buddha in the world, standing proud at just fifty-two metres. However it’s the 125’000 tiny Buddha statues inside that make it truly worth a visit. Combined with the serene scenery and peaceful views over Thimpu, there’s a reason this is the number one sight in the city.
Pick up some souvenirs on Norzim Lam Street
For shopaholics, Thimphu’s Norzim Lam street is the best place to purchase authentic Bhutanese woollens, overcoats, ornaments and Thangka paintings. Whilst perusing the wares, why not try a platter of fingerlicking Bhutanese cuisine. Recommended are; Ems Datsi (a dish made of fresh yak cheese and chillies) and Hoentoe (buckwheat dumplings made with cheese, turnip and spinach).
Drive through Chele La Pass
Sitting 3,988 metres above sea level, Chele La Pass is the highest motorable point in Bhutan. The pass offers some of the best views in the kingdom, with spectacular waterfalls, forests and alpine valleys.
Bhutan's 'Tourist Tax' Explained
A land of deep valleys and dzongs perched on precarious peaks, Bhutan is one of the most isolated nations in the world; its traditional culture is strictly protected and visitor numbers are carefully regulated. This, in itself, is one of the many reasons to visit Bhutan.
“Is it expensive to visit Bhutan?”
This is a very frequently asked question. Bhutan certainly has a reputation for being difficult to get to, with a myth floating around that the government only offers a limited amount of visas to tourists each year (this is false). The Government of Bhutan has placed a minimum fee of around $200 to $250 USD per person per day for most visitors to Bhutan and anyone who can afford to visit can do so. Bhutan makes great efforts to adhere to sustainable tourism standards and this system helps protect Bhutan’s culture and environment and combat overtourism.
Before we get into where your money goes, let’s touch on Bhutan’s tourism policy. Situated in the Himalayas, it’s a small, Buddhist nation of around 800,000 people (around one tenth of the size of London). Much of the country’s population is poor, and 8% live below the international poverty line. The tourism policy is “High Value, Low Impact”. They want visitors to have the best experience while respecting the culture and environment. Compare this to neighbouring Nepal, which does not have a hefty tourist tax and experiences many more tourists and an increasing number of problems.
So how much does it really cost to visit Bhutan?
Paying $200 to $250 a day seems insane. But your daily fee covers everything. Once you are in the country you do not pay a single penny. That daily fee includes your visa, all accommodation, food (excluding alcohol), in-country transportation, entrance fees for museums and cultural sites, and a private guide/driver for your entire trip. Your tour can be tailored so that you get the most out of your experience, whether you want to go hiking, wildlife watching, or soak up some culture.
But the money you’re paying isn’t only covering your personal costs. $65 per day goes towards paying for the country’s infrastructure, education, health care and repairs. This form of regenerative tourism actually means tourists leave Bhutan and its people happier and healthier than when they arrived. If this isn’t one of the reasons to visit Bhutan, I don’t know what is.
In the end, a trip to Bhutan works out about the same price as a mid-range holiday in Western Europe or a cheaper safari in South Africa. If you’re still upset about the daily cost of traveling in Bhutan, remember that travel is a privilege, not a right. It’s well within the country’s rights to stem the flow of mass tourism using whatever means works best.
Know before you go
Getting there & around
Bhutan’s only international airport is located at Paro, just over an hour drive from Thimpu. Most tourists will require a guide throughout their duration in the country. So there’s no need to worry about how to get around, you’ll be chauffeured between sites in style. For the lucky few nationalities able to visit Bhutan without a chaperone, taxis and buses bounce between cities and tourist sites.
Bhutan’s geographical biodiversity and large altitudinal ranges see the country experiencing a variety of weather patterns. The west experiences heavy monsoon rains whilst the the south has hot and humid summers. Whereas the eastern and central part enjoy a temperate climate with warmer summers and cooler winters. The best time to visit Bhutan is any time that’s not summer (September – May) as the country experiences hot weather and a monsoon climate.
Bhutan’s official currencey is the Bhutanese ngultrum (BTN). Each ngultrum is subdivided into 100 chhertum. Being closely related to India, the Indian Rupee is readily accepted in Bhutan. The exchange rate is 1 Rupee to 1 Ngultrum. This small Himalayan Kingdom does not have very advanced ATM services and limited bank services. Most shopkeepers do not accept credit cards or cheques, preferring cash. We recommend you exchange your currency at the airport upon arrival or grab some Indian Rupees before crossing any land borders. Remember to use both hands while giving and taking money. This is a part of Bhutanese traditions.
Amazing! With this list of reasons to visit Bhutan, you’re now equipped with all the inspiration you need to start planning your journey.
To make the most of your trip and for more detailed information, we recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet. It makes great plane or train reading and when you’re done, you can pass it on or leave it in your guesthouse/hostel.