Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Bhutan

I got countless of quizzical looks when I told my friends that my next adventure will take me to Bhutan. I was asked over and over again, "Where is Bhutan?"
Bhutan fortress
Gawking at the Punakha Dzong.
Bhutanese monks
Buddhist monks living in one of the fortresses. 
With only a population of 700,000, it is no surprise that some Westerners and even Asians don't even know that there is such a country that measures with Gross National Happiness instead of the regular Gross Domestic Product.

After a visit to the Chimi Lhakhang fertility temple, we soaked in this view of the rice paddies.
How to get there?
Bhutan is a land-locked country sandwiched between the two world's giants, China and India. There are only 4 entry/exit points: Paro International Airport, and the land border with India at Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar. Bhutan closed all borders with Tibet when the later became part of China.

For most, the easiest way is via a flight from Druk Airlines or Bhutan Airlines departing from Bangkok or Singapore. In order to get in the country as a tourist, you must have a local travel agent to accompany you for your entire stay. In order to confirm and process your visa, you would need to wire transfer the lump sum via Standard Chartered, if you're in the US. This process is legit so rest assured that your monies are in good hands.

Tip: On your way to Paro International Airport, sit on the left-hand side window to clearly see the magical Himalayan ranges.

mountain
Majestic airplane view to Paro.
My group of 3 travelers was escorted by Thinley Dorji and our driver also named Dorji of Bhutan Travel Routers. Both of them are the most gracious and, not to mention, funniest hosts and even went to a karaoke and a club with us on our last night, ensuring that we all got home safe. Yes, there is nightlife in Bhutan!

Our guide, Thinley, is highly knowledgeable and answered all our questions thoroughly. He was also flexible in adding activities that were not in our itinerary, such as archery and visiting a local market to buy persimmons and Bhutanese alcohol, including rum, whiskey and wine.

What to expect?
After contacting more than a dozen travel agencies, I realized that a 5-day itinerary is similar among travel agencies with prices ranging between $900 to $1200, depending on the hotel and season. We had perfect sunny weather (50s to 70s Farenheit) all throughout our stay. The only differences that my travel buddies and I noticed are a tour to the Takin, Bhutan's national animal, Conservatory and an optional day to wear Bhutan's national costume. There are also longer trekking tours, such as the snowman trek, which is apparently the most difficult hike in the world. For this blog purposes, I will focus on the 5-day tour, which combined sightseeing, light hiking, food tripping and lots of photo ops, covering three towns, namely Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.
grandpa
Get the bokeh ready because there are tons of portraiture opportunities in Bhutan. And the locals don't ask a penny for taking their picture.
bhutanese dress
A must do! Wearing the traditional Bhutanese dress, kira and tego. At Dochula Pass.
Bhutan is the only country that has embraced Tantric Buddhism as its national religion and the first and only country that is officially carbon negative. Therefore, expect a lot of crystal clear lakes, large phallus paintings on houses, and fortresses with multiple temples, including the most iconic Tiger's Nest, which you've probably seen on postcards or magazines, located on the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. In order to get to this sacred site, we hiked 6 hours roundtrip with a lunch pitstop at their cafe that serves a vegetarian buffet. It is an intermediate level hike with some steep rocky staircases so be prepared with good hiking shoes. Fret not, your guide will carry items that you don't want to carry. #lazyhiker


fertility temple
If ever you are wondering what a phallus is :) 
How're the hotels?
Having lived in a hotel in Nepal for 3 months, I can say that hotels in Bhutan are a notch better. Their sheets and bed are always comfortable. The only time I got the surprise of my life is when I saw a small roach inside my luggage after checking in, but the terrace view in the morning compensated for that. Another boo boo I made is that I fell into the canal gap at our last and nicest hotel, Khangkhu Resort in Paro, while walking back to my room at night. The electricity also went out for a few hours, but it is incomparable to 8 hours of blackout in Kathmandu.

How's the food?

I am a bad food blogger if I tell you that Bhutanese cooking is very similar to Filipino-Chinese cuisine because I know most of you can't relate. #foodbloggerproblems

The country serves many types of Asian vegetables and meats that are stir-fried or roasted. It tends to be on the oilier and saltier side, but it does remind me of home-made food back in the Philippines, sometimes with hints of oyster sauce and a dash of sugar. Their staple red rice makes a meal healthier plus milk tea, which is not as sweet as authentic Indian chai, for palette cleansing is always a happy meal ender.
vegetables
Bottom to top (L-R): fish fry, rice noodles, fried chicken, squash and mixed veggies.
Puffed rice snack. 
Cheese that is very hard for me to eat!
The Bhutanese love cheese! The must-try dishes are chilies with home-made cheese and chili salad, which pairs well with fried meats. These chili dishes don't score very high on spiciness since the Bhutanese use medium-sized chilies dried on top of their rooftops. Just be sure to have a bottle of water to chug or ara, the Bhutanese version of soju. Another option is a bottle of local white peach wine and the red Takin wine, both of which are sweeter wines. Don't forget to slurp creamylicious Bhutanese ice cream.

chili with cheese
Bhutan's national dish: red chilies with cheese.
cheese dumplings
Bhutanese vegetarian momos with cheese.
cornflakes
Adding a unique twist to fried chicken with cornflakes. So crunchy and tasty with chili salad.
What's the highlight of my trip?
If you ask my compatriots, they will say that the hike to the Tiger's Nest is the best experience in Bhutan. We definitely ticked that hike off of our bucket list.

For me though, the highlight of my 5-day trip is a traditional farm-to-table dining, sitting on a bed of foam cross-legged without a table at a Bhutanese home. We were fed with authentic Bhutanese dishes and bottomless (!!!) ara aka rice wine after an hourlong hot stone bath. Together with genuine conversations and laughter with our hosts and tour guide, this made my trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan most memorable. Sometimes all the goodness in life comes in a simple, no-frills package.
ara rice wine
This is as simple as it can get. Cheers to ara wine!
Is Bhutan safe?
Yes! Never in my traveling escapades have I felt that no one was trying to rip me off as a tourist.

Lastly, how's the internet connection?
Plan to unwind while in Bhutan. Although I was able to check some emails, it came with some heartache to reply or post on social channels. Hence, this country is not for digital nomads.
Bhutan travel agency
To contact Thinley Dorji of Bhutan Travel Routers, simply email btravelrouters@gmail.com or call/Whatsapp at +975 17814514. Don't forget to tell him that I sent you :)
Disclaimer: As part of my collaboration with Bhutan Travel Routers, I was provided a media rate for my 5-day tour in Bhutan.

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2 comments

  1. OMG!Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a filipina and based in Dallas now and I have been wanting to visit Bhutan, just soooo mystical to me. I am wondering though if it is safe for kids and if kids will like it there.... food problem is addressed now since you mentioned food is more like Phil-Chinese (yummy).... Thank you and I will be following your journey on instagram:) Regards....

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    Replies
    1. Hi fellow pinay,
      Yes, Bhutan is definitely safe for kids although the activities are geared to more cultural stuff. You can add more adventure activities, such as white water rafting or go during the summer where they have their national festivals which are quite colorful and entertaining.

      Thanks for the follow on IG!

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