About this post: Do you want to visit Bhutan without signing up for a tour package? In this Bhutan travel guide, I have covered how to plan a Bhutan trip on your own, important things to know before you go, entry permits, where to stay in western Bhutan, best places to eat in Thimphu and Paro, how to get around and offbeat things to do in Bhutan.
In April 2018 we backpacked through western Bhutan – Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Haa valley for over a week and this has been one of the most memorable trips that we’ve done in recent past. That liberating feeling of walking down those clean lanes with human-directed traffic in Thimphu, spellbound by the architecture of dzongs and monasteries, indulging my taste buds in authentic Bhutanese dishes, hiking to mythical Tiger nest monastery, Warm welcome from complete strangers yet helpful Bhutanese people – it’s everything I experienced within those one week and was enough to refresh my mind & soul, catch up on daily work and get back to daily routine life (AGAIN!).
However, Bhutan is not a place to ‘Just see’ and cover like a ‘tourist trying to see everything’. It is a place to stay awhile, indulge in local flavor, experience what life is like there (Not as a tourist but as a traveler or as a local), and live a little. Trust me Bhutan has too many things to offer beyond a tourist’s imagination! Spend some time and discover Bhutan beyond the guidebook.
Bhutan Travel Guide: Essentials
Ngultrum (Nu.) and Indian Rupee (INR), both are pegged equal to each other. If you’re traveling from India, there is no need to exchange INR to Nu, as INR is widely accepted (except 500 and 2000 Rs. Note) in all over Bhutan. It was quite surprising that shop owners were actually happy when we paid them in Indian Rupees. So, for us, it was a win-win situation!
The problem here is, if you try to convert Nu. to INR post your trip, you’ll get a lesser exchange rate. This happened with us – we were left with 1500 Nu. and no one was willing to give us more than 1200 Rs. in exchange. So, the tip is, spend all of your remaining ngultrums during your trip or, if you are converting money, then convert rationally if you don’t want to lose money in exchange. Also, remember that Nu. has no value outside of Bhutan.
Permit to enter Bhutan:
One must know that only Indian, Bangladeshis and Maldivian nationals are issued permits, while all other tourists must obtain a visa clearance prior to entering Bhutan. So for Indian, Maldivian, and Bangladesh tourists, I recommend you to read ”The complete guide on how to obtain Bhutan entry permit”.
But, First things first, Bhutan tourism is now designed for group travels and you must have to be with at least one person while applying for an entry permit or the permit process may get stringent. However, I’ve come across some forum posts where people said they never faced any problem with traveling solo in Bhutan or getting their entry permit done. So, if you are traveling on your own and you’re not going through a guide or an agent, then my advice would be to mail the Bhutan consulate beforehand and ask them if you can travel solo.
Oh and another thing is, Bhutan consulate Kolkata office has stopped issuing permits. For further details, read the guide on how to obtain Bhutan entry permit – procedures, costs, extensions.
If you’re a solo female traveler, the officials usually try to assess if the solo traveler lady would be able to keep herself safe, and so they might ask you a few questions before issuing permits. You just have to take the questioning part as a viva and answer confidently.
For any solo traveler, the tip is before applying for the permit at the permit office, try to find someone like you who is traveling on his/her own and group up with that person. Once you obtain your permit, you don’t have to worry about the people you grouped up with and you’re absolutely free to explore the country on your own, as each permit is issued separately and there will be no mention of the group you were with. You may also opt for Online permit facility, which is recently launched by Bhutan Government.
Magic number four:
If you’re traveling in a group, then remember Four is the magic number. It works out cheaper if you’re hiring a taxi for a full day, taking a shared cab to travel between cities or, sharing hotel rooms and foods. For the fifth person onwards, you need to hire a second taxi and That’s the rule in Bhutan! However, if you’re traveling by bus from one city to another, then the number of people in your group doesn’t matter.
Student ID card:
It’s a piece of good news for students who’re visiting Bhutan is that all the main points of attractions ( museums, dzongs, monasteries including tiger nest) offer 50% discount on entry fees to valid student ID card holders. Unfortunately for us, we passed the ‘Student’ phase almost a year back. So, we ended up paying around 2000 INR for all attractions i.e. Museums ( Postal museum, folk heritage museum, royal textile museum, the national museum in Paro), Dzongs( Thimphu Dzong, Punakha Dzong, Paro Dzong), Tiger Nest Monastery, etc. However, a student carrying a valid Student ID can easily save 1000 Rs. On these unusually high entry fees and spend it on Foods or, drinks or, simply just hang out – There are so many options right?! 😊
Free Club Entry:
This one is for girls (Sorry Boys!).
‘’You should be staying here on Wednesday” – during our stay we heard this particular line numerous times from almost every single person we befriended with. When asked why we got to know that girls are allowed to enter clubs for free on Wednesday. However, Crazy party nights- that’s not our thing, but it could be yours!
If you’re into clubbing or simply want to hang out, ask your host to take you to the safest club in the city you’re staying in. After all, Safety comes first!
It is essential to bring an unlocked phone and buy a prepaid/tourist sim card in order to stay connected with others during your stay. Sim could be bought from any shop on showing entry permit and the process is really easy. Two main network operators in Bhutan are Tashi cell and B-mobile. We found B-mobile the most convenient one as their international calling charge is lower than other and we hardly had to face any network issue.
The cards we bought (‘B-mobile’ sim cards) were activated instantly and cost only 180 nu., with 100 Nu. talk time preloaded and 1 month of validity. Call charge to India was 4 Nu./Rs. Per Minute. One can recharge 1.5 GB data pack for Nu./Rs. 200 and enjoy an average internet speed.
- For Indians, Bangladeshis, Maldivians- 1 photocopy of entry permit
- For other country nationals – photocopy of passport & visa
Please note, all hotels in Bhutan offer free Wifi – Some throughout the property, some inside the hotel rooms or, some only in public areas. Don’t forget to check out the hotel Facilities before your booking.
ATM and cash withdrawal facilities :
Personally, I didn’t rely on ATMs in Bhutan and you shouldn’t either. There are more ATMs in main towns like Thimphu and Paro, but less traveled places like Bumthang has a few no. of ATMs which remain close or down most of the time. Also, bank charges are quite high on the amount you withdraw.
If you’re a foreigner (other than Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian) visiting Bhutan, your tour must be booked through an authorized tour operator and the payment has to be done by wire transfer in advance. Therefore, you only need money for your personal expenses (Shopping, drinking, etc.), which I’d advise to carry in cash ( A few hundred euro or USD would be enough to cover personal expenses), as Bhutan basically relies on Cash only.
For Indian nationals, you can check at the back of your ATM card it is clearly written that – “Not valid for payment in foreign exchange in Nepal and Bhutan’’. So, make sure to carry enough cash with you and not to rely on ATM cards, but if you do then please call your bank beforehand and confirm in advance to avoid inconvenience during your trip.
Best time to visit Bhutan:
Bhutan is a year-round destination as the country experiences cold to pleasant weather throughout the year. But the best time to visit Bhutan is either the Autumn ( September to November) or Spring (April to July) because of Tsechu Festival and pleasant weather. However, these two are considered to be peak season and one can expect the tariff rates to be double than it is during low season.
Winter ( October to Mid February) season is best for spotting black-necked cranes, the popular endangered birds that migrate to Bhutan during the winter season and fly back by early spring. Late spring is famous for blooming rhododendrons, flooding the valleys with color. I loved my time there in early April; it rained at evening that caused the temperature to drop by a few degrees during the night and remained clear and pleasant all day that allowed us to get the best views of mountains.
Where Did We Stay?
- Hotel Ghasel ( In Thimphu): Located just opposite the clock tower, Ghasel is among one of the low budget hotels in Thimphu. Rooms in this hotel are small but come with big airy windows, it is one of the few hotels in Thimphu that serve pure vegetarian foods. But the negative point is this hotel provides wifi in public areas only – and that’s the only con I found about Ghasel.
We got a really good deal on Booking.com and ended up paying a very reasonable price for our four nights stay in Thimphu. Thanks to Mr. Sonam Dorji, the owner of this hotel, a really helpful person and kind enough to give us an additional discount of 300 rs./Nu. However, it gets booked out weeks in advance, so contact them early.
- Samden Norzin (In Paro): Located at a few minutes walking distance from Town square and just across the Paro bus stand, Samden Norzin is where we stayed during our last 3 days in Bhutan. We felt totally pampered and a being home like feeling by their foods, hospitality and friendly behavior. We Paid a tariff rate of Rs. 1400/night for a double bedroom, which was spacious, airy, clean with a huge attached bathroom (Yes, I loved the bathroom more than the room itself :p ).
The tip is, online rates for this hotel are way too high than the usual tariff rates, so instead of booking via any hotel booking websites, mail them in advance and get your room booked.
Before booking on Booking.com, the best websites where we found a complete list of Bhutan hotels and homestays along with their contact details are –
You can browse Hotels and Guesthouses in Bhutan to get new deals and offerings. For travelers, who want to live locally and make local friends or find a host, Airbnb is the one-stop solution.
Top Tip: Book your hotels prior to your visit and ask the hoteliers to mail you a booking receipt, as it is mandatory to show your hotel confirmation receipt at Phuntsholing immigration office while applying for an entry permit.
Where To Eat?
During our visit we aimed to satisfy our taste buds with the authentic taste of Bhutan, and indulged in local delights ; from national dish of Bhutan- Ema Datshi and other Datshi dishes, to Red rice along with Jhasa Maaru, to a roadside soup that has a creamy texture and made with Paneer, rice and salt (I don’t even remember the name!). All of these foods were finger licking good; some tasted weird though!
Bhutan has countless no. of restos which serve delicious local cuisines especially Momos (Ohh! It’s a heaven for a momo lover like me :D). I don’t remember all of the restos’ name but only a few of them due to their deliciously flavourful dishes-
- Sinchula (In Thimphu): On our second day at Thimphu, we decided to take our chances and stop for lunch at Sinchula, which is famous among tourists for its authentic Bhutanese, Chinese and Indian cuisine. The first thing you notice about Sinchula is its relaxed ambiance and a dim lit dining hall that even has a buffet system in a corner. For the main course, we indulged in a delicately spiced Bhutanese Thali served with Red Rice, Roti/Chappati, along with a few flavourful local vegetable curries. Foods were finger licking good and quantity was huge enough to give our grumbling tummies some much-needed respite.
- Sonam Trophel Restaurant ( In Paro): On a desperate afternoon of unbearable hunger after returning from our half day Hike to Tiger Nest, we decided to have lunch at Sonam Trophel, which is considered as the best food institution in Paro, for an authentic taste of Bhutan.
The first thing is, one shouldn’t get confused between Sonam Trophel hotel and Sonam Trophel restaurant. This particular one is an independent restaurant with a small entrance on the first floor of a building, where the owners and staffs steal the show as they are very well behaved, welcoming and like to share their knowledge of local culture with customers (only if you indulge in a conversation with them). We ordered a bowl of Thukpa noodles and fried pork momo which took time to prepare (and we almost fell asleep :p), but were served piping hot and plausibly was the most delicious food we ate during our time in Bhutan.
- Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant (In Thimphu): Well, it is not an independent restaurant but an eatery in the Folk Heritage museum compound. They serve butter tea, both veg, and non-veg dishes and is considered to serve the best authentic Bhutanese cuisine in Thimphu. They have both inside and outside sitting area. Try to sit outside on cushions and enjoy your meal in the open air. A must try!
How To Get Around
- Public Transport: Shared cabs and Coaster buses – the most convenient, comfortable and budget-friendly ways to get around Bhutan. We opted for the bus for all inter-city travel and followed this itinerary during our visit. Shared cabs are available everywhere in the main cities, but bus options are limited. So, prior booking is needed. Refer to the resources listed below to find exact information on bus routes, timings, and fare.
- On Foot: My favorite way to get around and interact with locals, while exploring local markets and eat out at random eateries.
While in Bhutan, it never seemed like we were walking through busy cities. Disciplined traffic, breathtaking views of mountains, fresh air, friendly locals make the walk easy. We walked down the narrow but clean lanes in Thimphu and Paro, through the local markets, along the river and filled our lungs with fresh air – Sounds amazing right! Try it yourself, and experience that ‘More Than Amazing Feeling’.
- Motorbike & Self-drive cars: Yes, it is possible to visit Bhutan with your personal Indian vehicle. For that, you need to apply for vehicle permit in transport authority office, Phuntsholing. Though vehicle permit is valid for only Thimphu and Paro, both visit duration and routes can be extended on applying at RTO office, Thimphu.
- Private Taxis: My least preferred option, yet important when you need to go a long distance, like a day trip to Punakha en route Dochula Pass and Chimmi Lhakhang or, a half day trip to Chele La Pass or, back to your hotel after an exhausting hike to Tiger’s Nest.
The tip is, Always ask a few drivers to get an idea about the daily rate before hiring one. Bargaining is a must though.
We found both of our drivers to be friendly enough to share stories of living there, helpful enough to arrange a route permit and even booking our return bus ticket!
Offbeat Things To Do
- Hiking: Bhutan has some of the wonderful hiking trails in the world and countless no. of tourists set foot in the country to explore the same. Count it from the easy day hike to Tango Cheri monastery, to a moderate hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, to a challenging high altitude Snowman trek – all of these trails have its own beauty that every hiker should discover on their own, at least once in a lifetime. So, Put on your hiking shoes and take on these hiking trails, from short walks to multi-day treks.
Recommended Read: 17 Hiking trails in Bhutan every hiker should complete
- Bird Watching: Also known as the paradise for bird lovers, Bhutan is home to many species of birds that are in danger of extinction, including the Imperial Heron, and the rare Black Necked Crane. These cranes can be spotted in Phobjika valley, Bumthang and in Bumdeling during the month of mid-Sept. to February. If you’re into bird watching, head over to Bhutan during the specific time.
- Mountain Biking: I have seen a lot of people riding the bicycle on both smooth paved roads and off-road dirt trails, and I remember how much I wished to peddle the pads through the rugged, mountainous landscape of Bhutan at least once. Ohh! That sounds quite adventurous (I’m having goosebumps just by thinking about it)! But truth to be told I didn’t get the chance/time to experience mountain biking this time. It’s on my wishlist though, as I think biking is a great way of exploring a place and interacting with the locals as well.
There are a few bike rental shops in Thimphu from where you can rent bikes and roam around the city on your own. Alternatively, One can contact any Bhutanese tour agency to experience Bird watching, Mountain biking, Trekking, kayaking, rafting, etc. or, simply visit Tourism Council of Bhutan for the same. You might find their Bhutan travel guide quite helpful if you’re looking for a reliable and organized guided tour. They are committed to providing the best possible experience on your Bhutan trip.
- Local Events : There are a lot of things to try, learn and experience during your stay in Bhutan – explore as much as you can on foot; party nights with the clubs; sign up for a cultural tour; get to see a Tsechu(Bhutanese Festival) while dressing in traditional Bhutanese costume by choosing your favourite colour; relish festival meals like the locals and many more. Refer to the resources listed below to learn more about these opportunities.
Your Gift To Bhutan
Responsible Travel: How many times have you heard these words? Have you tried it yourself? Do you know these two particular words have the power to change the world?
Truth to be told, I started taking interest in ‘Responsible Travel’ only after reading Shivya Nath’s posts on The Shooting Star and trust me it gives immense pleasure doing our bit of protecting our planet in the simplest way possible :
- Say a BIG NO to plastic products: Plastic shopping bags are not banned in Bhutan, hence almost all groceries and small stores will give them freely. Just say a firm No; instead bring your own cloth bag that is easy to carry with, folds easily into the size of a fist and has enough space to comfortably carry all the items you buy.
Also, bring your own bottles, make sure they can hold both hot and cold liquids. I recommend buying a Water bottle with an inbuilt filter that can be filled with water from ANYWHERE or, carry your own Portable water purifier that removes 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria and Water purifying tablets to save money on mineral bottles.
I personally use LifeStraw Go bottles – it comes with 2 stage filtration that removes 99.9999% waterborne bacteria, parasites, and the best part is it can be filled with water from anywhere ( a regular tap or even a waterfall)!
- Hotel.bt: The hotels and guesthouses listed on this website come in handy while searching for accommodations in Bhutan. The only drawback is, tariffs mentioned on the website aren’t updated one. But one of the pros is contact details of those hotels are accurately mentioned and it was the only thing I needed to contact the hotels on my own.
- Tourism Council Of Bhutan: A list of events, activities, experiences, attractions, list of authorized tour operators, tour guides and trip planner along with their contact details may come handy while looking for a perfect Bhutan travel guide.
- Druk Asia Festival Calendars: Festivals in Bhutan never let you off the high of colors, spirituality, and vibrancy. I think every traveler should attend a Tsechu at least once in a lifetime. Updated annually, Druk Asia Festival Calendars provides a complete list of all Tsechus taking place in a particular year. You’ll find all the respective dates on the festival calendar and plan your trip accordingly.
- RSTA: Check out the complete list of all intercity bus routes, schedule, bus/taxi fare or, mileage for hire on the website of Road Safety and Transport Authority of Bhutan to get an idea of transport cost in Bhutan.
- Offbeat Explorer: A travel blog written by Anu and Amar, who backpacked through western Bhutan in 2016 summers. Their Bhutan travel guide through detailed posts on places they explored in Bhutan are really helpful.
- Lonely Planet: I purchased an LP Guidebook during my planning phase of Bhutan trip. Though you’ll find much detailed and updated information on the web than in the book, still I’ll highly recommend you to get one if you want some solid pieces of information on Bhutan’s history and culture.
Visiting Bhutan? Buy Your Bhutan Travel Guide :
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Are you planning a trip to Bhutan? Which places do you intend to visit and what’s your travel plan? Share with us.