Here’s how to navigate your way in one of the most isolated and beautiful countries on earth.
Nestled between the populous powerhouses of China and India, the much quieter Buddhist nation of Bhutan contains no traffic lights, focuses on the citizens’ happiness levels instead of the Gross National Product, and forbids smoking in public. You should consider a visit now before sizable road construction endeavors bring big city issues like pollution and potential culture loss to this incredible country.
Here’s how to prepare for an unforgettable trip.
Flying into Bhutan
Watch any documentary on Bhutan and you’ll notice the passengers clinging to their seats as the plane descends into the country. As one of the most challenging airports to fly into in the world, only 12 commercial pilots have a license to land at Paro Airport—the one international airport of the four in Bhutan. Pilots must fly under strict weather conditions and during daylight hours. In addition, visitors must board one of only three airlines, Bhutan Airlines, Buddha Air and Druk Air, to fly in or out of Paro, limiting your destination of origin. (Most people fly from Bangkok or Singapore.) You’ll also need to arrive with a visa secured ahead of time.
INSIDER TIPAsk for a window seat and open the shade. You will get rewarded with green, hilly views as you approach Paro.
The Hike to Tiger’s Nest
Tiger’s Nest, the top tourist destination in Bhutan, will provide breathtaking views. Located literally on the edge of a cliff, Tiger’s Nest requires a bit of physical prowess to reach. Expect to spend approximately four hours, depending on your fitness level, for a round-trip Tiger’s Nest hike. You will experience steep climbs, stairs, and possibly mud, but a walking stick can help ease the workout.
INSIDER TIPGo late in the day to pick up a walking stick left behind from other hikers.
You will need to shell out some cash to visit Bhutan. To limit the number of tourists, Bhutan requires each visitor to pay $250 per day. You also must travel through a tour company, as this also helps the country feel like they hold visitors more responsible for their behavior. Luckily, tour companies build the required tariff into their costs—you do not need to carry that money on hand. To start planning, the Tourism Council of Bhutan provides a list of registered tour operators.
What to Eat
Spicy food enthusiasts should try the main dish of Bhutan: chili cheese (known as “ema datshi” in Bhutanese). The food is exactly like the name: chilies mixed with a nacho-esque orange cheese. If you have a tame palate but still want to try the country’s most beloved dish, ask for tomatoes mixed in to lighten up the spice level. Other popular dishes include kewa datshi, similar to scalloped potatoes; shamu datshi, a cheesy stew; and phaksha paa, sliced stir-fried pork.
INSIDER TIPVegetarian? No problem. Plenty of dishes will meet your dietary restrictions.
When to Go
Located in the Himalayas, Bhutan experiences every type of weather, from snow to monsoons to sunshine. The rainy and high humidity season lasts from June to September; for trekkers, you will want to avoid these months for safety. Fall lasts from October to November, and with this season brings sun and slight snow in the mountains. The best time to visit is in the spring, from March to May, when you will find blossoming flowers, meditation retreats in abundance, and the Paro Tschechu—a well-known festival and largest springtime event in the country.
What to Buy
One of the Bhutanese culture’s main staples is its 13 traditional arts and crafts, which include textile weaving, paintings, and intricate wood carvings. Tourists interested in shopping for such local wares will find these products abundant throughout Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. For those looking for large pieces, you can visit artist studios in town.
INSIDER TIPThe National Handicrafts Emporium sells authentic, handwoven items by Thimphu women.
What to Wear
You should honor and stay respectful of this religious country in how you dress. However, you do need to feel comfortable too. Bring soft-soled shoes for the worn streets and hiking terrain. The evenings can get chilly up in the Himalayas, so bring a heavy jacket and a couple of wool sweaters. Depending on the time of year, layering your clothes helps as temperatures can vary widely from day to night.
Experience Community-Based Tourism Initiatives
A visit to a foreign country must include at least a taste of the traditional lifestyle of the citizens. My Gakidh Village allows visitors to see, feel, and hear the Bhutanese way of life. A community of 21 rural villages, Gakidh originated as a project designed to empower rural youth with sustainable skills in an effort to stop youth migration. Today, the program has revived the arts scene, as well as created community-based eco-tourism of which you can become a part.
There Are Phallic Symbols Everywhere
You should plan to see phallic paintings and symbols everywhere. These include wood carvings of every size, vibrant paintings on walls of homes and businesses, and key chains in the hands of locals. Why? These symbols represent the Buddhist teachings of Drukpa Kunley, an unorthodox saint who loved wine and attractive Tibetan women. The phallic obsession even has international reach: Women with fertility issues often visit Bhutan to pray and make a donation, all in hopes that this will encourage their baby-making abilities.
Staying Connected to Home
Phone and internet coverage remains hit and miss in this remote country. Visitors should consider buying a SIM card to make international phone calls. You can purchase one from any Bhutan Telecom counter. For internet access, most hotels offer free Wi-Fi, but you might find the connection slow and sporadic. Do not expect to find many Internet cafes, either. You might, however, find Wi-Fi at higher-end coffee shops in the big cities of Thimphu and Paro.