Perched in the Himalayas between India and China, tiny Bhutan, with cliff-hanging monasteries, golden-roof temples and colorful prayer flags strung along trails and peaks, stands as the last Buddhist kingdom on earth.
Its careful tourism policy has allowed it to slowly open to the outside world without compromising its culture and traditions or degrading its pristine natural environment – two pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a unique philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan.
Having traveled extensively in Bhutan on assignment, I’ve come to embrace its diverse seasons and activities, from horse trekking in Bumthang to rafting down the purple-jacaranda-lined Punakha River to learning how to make hoentey (a specialty buckwheat dumpling eaten during Lomba, the New Year) in the semi-remote Haa Valley.
This quick guide navigates Bhutan's cultural landscape, highlighting its local customs and quirks, as you plan your journey to the country known locally as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
1. Independent travel is finally possible, but a tour operator is still the way to go
Since reopening in 2022, Bhutan has scrapped its all-inclusive tour-package minimum, and initially raised the Sustainable Daily Fee (SDF) to US$200 before reducing it to US$100, valid now through September 2027. There is a 50% discount for kids ages six to 11, with no SDF for those under six. A one-time US$40 visa-application fee also applies.
Fees are significantly lower for travelers from India, who can visit with a special permit. Indian travelers need to have a passport or voter ID card. Indian Aadhar cards are not accepted. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals are eligible for visa upon arrival, but must pay the SDF.
The good news is that adventurous travelers planning a trip can now independently book accommodations, guides (mandatory for any journey beyond Thimphu and Paro) and transportation. You can also, for the first time ever, extend your visa while you’re there, and you can even drive your own car – for a fee.
However, for activities like trekking, attending festivals or engaging in more specialized interests, such as birding, horse trekking or cycling, using a tour operator will undoubtedly enhance your overall experience – and is generally required. Lists of certified tour operators, guides and accommodations, including hotels and homestays, can be found on the official Bhutan Travel website.
2. Book early for festivals and trekking in the high season
Since reopening, there are no longer incentives for offseason travel, except for occasional hotel deals. This means you may as well time your trip with autumn and spring, when the most famous tsechus (monastic festivals) take place and the leaves change or rhododendrons bloom, respectively. Book far ahead if you’re considering attending a celebration or going trekking.
That said, locals argue that anytime of year is wonderful to visit Bhutan – and that summer and winter are just as wonderful, with plenty of lesser-known festivals. But these seasons are not ideal if you’re planning a multiday trek, due to muddy trails and chilly camping.
Still, the winter holiday season is auspicious, offering crisp air, clear skies and perfect light for photography, with few travelers. Plus, if you go for the December 17 National Day celebrations at Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu, you may even get the chance to meet the king!
3. Travel insurance is mandatory
Per Bhutan’s Tourism Rules and Regulations 2022, you must have travel insurance that covers accidental death, permanent disability due to accidents, emergency medical evacuation and hospital charges in case of sickness. You’ll need your proof of insurance coverage – in English – in order to apply for your visa.
If you do find yourself feeling unwell during your trip, consider a visit to Thimphu’s National Institute of Traditional Medicine. A doctor will assess your pulse, temperature and ask about your bowels. In turn, you’ll receive a prescription for ayurvedic medicine crafted from local plants, all at no cost. (A small donation is appreciated.) Another moniker for Bhutan is “Menjong,” which aptly means “Land of Medicinal Herbs.”
Alternatively, head to the nearest hospital or health clinic for treatment geared towards Western medicine. The Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, also known as the National Referral Hospital, is the biggest in Bhutan and located in Thimphu.
4. Only two airlines fly to Bhutan
Bhutan is served by two national airlines: Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. Because of the challenging landing conditions at Paro International Airport, surrounded by peaks as high as 5500m (18,000ft), only a select few pilots are authorized to fly there.
Direct flights to and from Paro connect you to various destinations, including Bangladesh (Dhaka), India (Bagdogra, Guwahati, Kolkata and New Delhi), Nepal (Kathmandu), Singapore, Thailand (Bangkok) and, from March 2024, the UAE (Sharjah). While Bangkok and Delhi are common entry points, Kathmandu promises the most epic route, with glimpses of Mt Everest on clear days. Request a window seat on the left-hand side when flying to Bhutan.
Note that it’s not possible to check your luggage through to your final destination, so you’ll have to claim it before boarding your Bhutan connection.
You can also reach Bhutan overland via India. (Bhutan has border disputes with China. Transit is not possible.)
5. Bhutan is the world’s first carbon-negative country
Bhutan gained global attention for being the world's first carbon-negative country. Aside from its relatively underpopulated and underdeveloped status (being roughly the same size as Switzerland with only 10% of its population), a key factor in sustaining this achievement is a landmark constitutional mandate requiring the country to maintain a minimum of 60% forest coverage at all times. This is further supported by the environmental conservation pillar of GNH.
Plastic has also been banned since 1999, though it's not regularly enforced. Nevertheless, do your part to keep the environment clean. There’s plenty of signage to remind you along the way: “Clean & beautiful environment is a feast to the soul,” says one placard en route to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
6. Bhutan is exceptionally safe
Bhutan, a happy and devout Buddhist nation, maintains a low crime rate, with violent crime being scarce. One of the safest countries you’ll ever visit, it’s ranked the 25th-least-corrupt nation out of 180 countries by Transparency International.
As a single woman, I never felt unsafe on any of my trips to Bhutan. I was also never truly “alone” since I was always under the watchful eye of my guide or local friends. In recent years, the number of female guides has increased, which is more good news for solo women travelers.
7. Save the hike up to Tiger's Nest for the end
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can occur when travelers are above 2500m (8202ft). Given that the most commonly visited cities Thimphu and Paro are just 200m to 300m below that threshold, and that several treks in the Bhutanese Himalayas traverse mountain passes reaching heights of 5000m, AMS is a risk in Bhutan.
Ascend slowly, take rest days when needed, and if you begin to feel ill, stop. If it's not managed carefully, AMS can develop into life-threatening forms of altitude sickness, so pay close attention to how you're feeling. If your symptoms don’t ease, descend right away. Helicopter rescue is always an option in case of emergency.
Note: Due to the altitude, acclimatization may be necessary. I recommend waiting a few days or until the end of your trip – saving the best for last! – before embarking on the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery trek, which ascends about 1000m (3000ft). Make sure to schedule a traditional hot-stone bath afterward as well.
8. Stay current on your vaccinations
No vaccines are required for entry into Bhutan. This includes the COVID-19 jab, although you may need proof of it if you’re traveling via India.
That said, you should stay up-to-date with your vaccines and consult a healthcare professional at least eight weeks before your departure in case you need any boosters. Standard recommendations include vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus, and typhoid, in addition to childhood vaccinations for measles-mumps-rubella and polio.
For longer trips, including travelers who are moving to Bhutan, you may wish to consider vaccinations for Japanese encephalitis and rabies. Rabies is particularly noteworthy since friendly animals, like monkeys and dogs, can all transmit the virus, and untreated infection is fatal. If you are bitten by an animal, such as a stray dog, immediately go to the nearest health clinic and get a postexposure prophylaxis shot (you’ll need a total of four).
9. Pack a few medical essentials
Be wary of mosquito-borne illnesses when visiting in the summer months and in the southern regions. Because of climate change, Bhutan had its first nation-wide dengue epidemic in 2019. Dengue is deadly, and there is no vaccine to protect against it. (Malaria, which can be prevented with drugs, is rare and – fingers crossed – anticipated to be eliminated by 2025.)
You’ll need sunscreen too. Bhutan's average elevation is 3280m (10,760ft), making it one of the highest countries in the world. It also shares the same latitude as Texas, Egypt and the Bahamas, so the sun is strong. Protect your skin – and your eyes.
There are no tunnels in Bhutan, which means the mountain roads are windy. You may want to consider bringing Dramamine for car sickness and Diamox for altitude sickness – consult your healthcare provider before you travel to discuss whether they're right for you. Pack your own diapers and tampons, if you use them; you can, however, find menstrual pads in stores and at select hotels and restaurants. And don’t forget earplugs – at night, howling dogs can be disruptive to sleep, especially in downtown Thimphu.
10. Bhutanese food is surprisingly delicious – and spicy!
For decades, Bhutanese cuisine suffered in reputation because travelers were mostly exposed to mediocre buffets at their three-star hotels, featuring Indian, Chinese and continental dishes tailored precisely to their palates.
Thankfully, those buffets are slowly being phased out. The local cuisine, emphasizing fresh and seasonal ingredients, is on the up and up and proving to be extremely tasty, if you know where to go. Ask your tour operator or guide for recommendations.
And while Bhutanese cuisine is defined by hot chili peppers, such as with ema datse (chilies with cheese) and kewa datse (potatoes, chilies and cheese), dishes can be modified according to your taste if requested in advance. Still, you may need antacids.
11. Don’t drink the tap water
Tap water isn’t safe to drink in Bhutan unless it has been boiled or purified. Ask your hotel or guesthouse for boiled water, or purchase bottled water to have on your person.
Do, however, drink the local whiskey and lager (Bhutan has a flourishing craft-beer scene).
12. Learn local etiquette
“Kuzu zangpo la” means “hello” in Dzongkha, a Sino-Tibetan language and the national language of Bhutan, most commonly spoken in the western part of the country. Recite this while bowing (shaking hands is less common). The deeper the bow, the greater the respect.
Aside from Dzongkha (and the many other local languages and dialects), English is widely spoken because it is the language of instruction in schools. When Bhutanese converse in English, it is common to hear the word “la” at the end of a sentence or question as a sign of respect; for example, “Thank you, la.” Feel free to reciprocate.
If you find yourself invited into someone’s home and offered food, tradition dictates that you say the words “meshu meshu” while covering your mouth with your hands. After two or three offers, it is customary to accept. Similarly, if you are the one making an offer, or even giving a gift or tip, expect similar resistance. (Do consider giving a small tip if someone has invited you into their home and served you food or arra, a local spirit distilled from rice.)
13. Tipping is appreciated (but not mandatory)
Even if you’ve paid in advance for your all-inclusive trip, show appreciation to your guide and driver by tipping them at the end. On a trek, extend this gesture to the crew – ie the cook, any helpers and the horsemen. While 10–15% is normal, the amount and currency are up to you.
Tipping is not necessary at restaurants and hotels. A 10% service charge is already added to your bill when you dine out.
14. Bhutan has nightlife
While most people are drawn to Bhutan for its serene landscapes, peaceful Buddhist monasteries and imposing fortresses (dzongs) such as Punakha Dzong, the country is hiding a buzzing nightlife and music scene that is equally worth exploring.
Thimphu's nightlife centers around Chang Lam near the stadium, featuring diverse options like the Zone (a popular bar hangout), Mojo Park (a fantastic music venue, where the band Misty Terrace got its start), the Grey Area (Bhutan’s first gastropub) and nightclubs Space 34 and Viva City, which are open to the wee hours.
Note: Bhutan has ended dry Tuesdays and bars ars are now open throughout the week.
15. It is finally legal to smoke in Bhutan, but be discreet
Bhutan was long known for its drastic yet visionary health law that forbade smoking and the trade of tobacco products. While the law was recently reversed, smoking must be done “out of sight,” ie behind buildings. The same goes for vaping.
Despite cannabis growing prolifically throughout the country, it remains illegal. Possession can land you in jail for up to one year. The only “drugs” produced in the country are traditional medicines.
Note: While vaping products are sold in a few places in Thimphu, they’re not widely available. It’s advisable to bring your own.
16. Keep an open mind
Whether it’s migoi (yeti) sightings in Bhutan’s wild east, the significance of phalluses as symbols of protection or the flying tiger bringing Guru Rinpoche to the cave where the gravity-defying Tiger’s Nest Monastery now stands, folktales, myths and legends are an integral part of Bhutan’s culture and national pride – and believed to be true.
Approach Bhutan with an open mind. Westerners may find it challenging to suspend logic and reason, but be kind when pushing back, and consider setting aside your own preconceptions. Do as the new tourism tagline says: Believe.
17. Pack layers
You’ll want layers for fluctuating temperatures and varying terrains, and modest clothing for entering temples and monasteries, including socks for cold temple floors. Aside from a good pair of hiking boots, bring a nicer shoe to wear with a gho or kira (Bhutanese national dress for men and women, respectively), should you decide to buy an outfit – highly recommended if you’re attending a festival or meeting with a dignitary. For inspiration, follow Bhutan Street Fashion on Instagram or Facebook.
18. Carry small change
Cash is necessary for buying souvenirs, leaving small donations at monasteries, nunneries and temples (particularly if you’d like a blessing from a monk), and giving tips to your guide, driver and trekking crew, as mentioned earlier.
If you’re an independent traveler, you’ll want to have small bills on hand to pay for entrance fees to sites and museums. Few – as in almost zero – businesses accept credit cards.
19. Stay connected
SIM cards used to be challenging to obtain, but now you can easily get them upon arrival at Paro International Airport. You can also rent a pocket Wi-Fi device there – useful if you’re planning to visit remote regions and need to be online.
20. Bring cash and download these apps
It’s easier to bring your own money (make sure the bills are crisp) rather than rely on and seek out ATM machines in the country. The official currency in Bhutan is the ngultrum, which is pegged 1:1 to the Indian rupee. Do exchange at a bank or hotel so that you can have some small ngultrum notes for butter-lamp offerings and such.
Most Bhutanese businesses accept cash or payments through either goBoB or the BNB MyPay app. Foreign visitors can activate the app by downloading it from Google Play or Apple's App Store, inserting a local SIM purchased at the airport and funding the digital wallet with their credit or debit card. While goBoB is more popular among locals, some tour operators argue MyPay is better for foreigners because it is linked to more international card networks and is powered by Stripe.
21. Spin prayer wheels clockwise, and other temple tips
When visiting Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and temples, observe proper etiquette: remove shoes and hats, wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees, refrain from photography in altar rooms, avoid pointing, never lean against a stupa and consider leaving a small donation on the altar or with a monk. If seeking a blessing, it's customary to offer a small donation.
Be it in a car or on foot, circumambulation of a Buddhist temple or shrine, such as a stupa or chorten, must always be clockwise. To go counterclockwise, whether it’s out of ignorance or on purpose, is seen as offensive, culturally insensitive and unlucky. Similarly, prayer wheels, which help purify karma, should be spun in a clockwise direction.
22. Don’t bargain hard
Unlike some other places in Asia, like India or Vietnam, where you’re expected to haggle, Bhutan’s market scene is a lot more straightforward. You typically pay the price that’s listed – aggressive negotiating tactics are a foreign concept.
That said, be prepared to spend a pretty penny if you plan to shop. Your eyes will be undoubtedly drawn to abundantly colorful textiles crafted from natural fibers, like silk and cotton. These can take months to assemble, and the prices – which can top four figures – reflect the meticulous work and cultural richness woven into each piece, often done by women.
Note: Geometric yathras, textiles made of yak wool and commonly found in central Bhutan’s Bumthang region, are more budget-friendly.)
23. Consult the lunar calendar
The Bhutanese calendar is based on Tibet's, which follows the lunar calendar. Buddhist festivals, like tsechus, follow the lunar calendar, meaning the dates change from year to year. There are other cultural festivals, like Bhutan National Day and the Black Necked Crane Festival in Phobjikha Valley, that follow the Gregorian calendar and therefore stay the same.