Bhutan travel guide: everything you need to know before you go

Nestling in the Eastern Himalayas, between India and Tibet, Bhutan is a stunning destination for the intrepid traveller. It is home to a beautiful and varied landscape, a wealth of cultural sights, and a diverse people. Here’s everything you need to know, from the capital of Bhutan to visa rules.
Young monks standing by the religious prayer wheels at Paro Rinpung dzong, Paro, Bhutan. Photo: Shutterstock
Young monks standing by the religious prayer wheels at Paro Rinpung dzong, Paro, Bhutan. Photo: Shutterstock

Introduction to Bhutan

Bhutan is a remote landlocked kingdom, stretching for 90 miles (145km) north to south and 186 miles (300km) east to west. Snow-capped peaks reach over 22,965ft (7,000 metres) in the west and north, petering down to rugged hills in the east. In the subtropical south, jungle-clad hills lead down to the flood plain on the Indian border. Along the central strip are highland laced in steep forested slops and bucolic valleys dotted with market towns and isolated farms. Bhutan’s capital city, Thimpu, has a population of 105,000, and sits in the west of the country. Fast-flowing rivers carve their way north to south; the east-west highway, or lateral road, is a spectacular roller coaster of high passes, deep valleys and dramatic gorges. 

Where to go in Bhutan

Bhutan can be divided into three sections: west, centre and east. Most visitors fly into Paro in western Bhutan and those on a short tip will venture as far as Punakha. Two weeks or so will allow time to explore the central valleys and appreciate the spectacular scenery along the way. The eastern reaches may seem close on the map but bearing in mind the mountain road, the high passes and stunning panorama, the journey requires a leisurely pace to take it all in. The southern lowlands claim a few cities but tourism is still in its infancy here. Of special interest are the wildlife sanctuaries along the Indian border, but be prepared for basic facilities. Our trip – Family Adventure in Bhutan – goes from Paro, to Thimpu, and onto Punakha. Alternatively, our Bhutan's Mountains and Monasteries trip covers the country's mountainous regions and cultural attractions.

When to go to Bhutan

Bhutan welcomes tourists as a year-round destination, though the climate varies with the altitude and the time of year. Summer brings the monsoon, particularly heavy in the south, while autumn tends to have clear skies and the best mountain views, ideal for trekking. Winters can be sunny but cold until spring returns, with masses of flowers splashing colour on the slopes. Only the highest peaks are covered in snow year round. But whatever the season, no visit to Bhutan is complete without attending one of the spectacular religious festivals held across the country throughout the year – check dates when planning a visit.

Taktshang Goemba, Tiger nest monastery, BhutanBhutan's iconicTaktshang Goemba, better known as Tiger Nest monastery. Photo: Shutterstock

Is Bhutan set up for tourism?

Over the last decade or so, efforts have been made to increase tourism, although the tourist infrastructure very much varies depending on where you go. New hotels have popped up alongside restaurants and coffee shops in Thimphu and beyond, the road linking Paro airport to the capital has been improved, cutting transfer time down to an hour or so, and Druk Air, the national carrier, now has to compete with the private Bhutan Airlines.

At the moment, all trips must be arranged through registered tour operators – of which there are more than 100 operating in the country, alongside many overseas agencies. All apply the same principle of pre-booked fully inclusive tours, for group or private trips, which can be tailored to accommodate customers’ requests. Options range from cultural and special interest to adventure and trekking for all abilities. 

Bhutan visas

‘High value, low impact’ is Bhutan’s attitude to tourism values. As such, trips must be pre-booked through registered operators. It is not possible to obtain a visa without doing so. Visas, sorted out by the agent or operator, cost $50 at the time of writing. This is not included in the cost of the trip.

Budgeting for Bhutan

Prices fixed by the government start at US$200 per night per person (US$250 in high season), including standard accommodation, meals, entrance fees, guides, private domestic transport and taxes. Supplements for small groups and luxury accommodation apply, while there are discounts for longer stays. All things considered, it offers excellent value compared to a ‘room only’ deal in a western capital.

As trips are prepaid and all inclusive, the main expense is likely to be souvenirs, ranging from collectors’ stamps to textiles and other handicrafts. The price depends on quality: for instance, a ready-made gho in Thimphu can cost $25 to $90 for a silk-like item, while real silk can hit the roof. Allow for sweet treats in the bakery shops and soft and alcoholic drinks not included in the package. A beer costs from $2.30 to $3.85. Then remember temple donations and tipping for the guide and driver at the end of the trip.

Where to stay in Bhutan

Accommodation will be reserved by your tour operator in hotels or homestays approved by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. All included accommodation is of a good standard in Western Bhutan and fast improving in the rest of the country. New hotels are popping up at an impressive rate, though this is still limited in the East. You find rustic but cosy mountain lodges, pristine farmhouses and homestays, boutique hotels edging towards four-star levels and luxury resorts.  

Is Bhutan safe?

Bhutan is a safe destination where the vast majority of people are honest and respectful. Scams have no place in traditional Bhutanese culture and the worse you might encounter is petty theft. However, even this is still a rarity and common sense precautions will suffice.

Cham dancer or mask dancer performing the ritual dance at Paro Tsechu in Bhutan, one of the biggest Buddhism festivals held in spring. Photo: ShutterstockCham dancer performing a ritual dance at Paro Tsechu in Bhutan, one of the biggest Buddhist festivals. Photo: Shutterstock

Ready to take a trip to Bhutan with Insight Guides?

If you are planning a trip to Bhutan, Insight Guides can help with the planning, organizing and booking of your trip. Simply contact us with details of the length of your trip, budget and places you would like to visit and we will put you in touch with a local expert who will plan a personalized itinerary for you. Alternatively, browse our existing Bhutan trips. Just remember that all these trips are fully customisable, just ask!