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Bhutan Guide & Travel Advice

Getting there

Bhutan has one airport at Paro and all services are regional with no direct link to the UK. Druk Air is the national state-owned airline and has a comprehensive air network offering flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Gaya and Guwahati, Bangkok, Dhaka and Singapore. Druk Air’s rival, the privately-owned Bhutan Airlines currently serve Kolkata, Kathmandu and Bangkok. Bhutan has two overland borders both with India – Phuentsholing in the west and Samdrup Jongkhar in the east.

Flying times from UK

Direct flights to Paro from India and Nepal take between 1 and 3 hours depending on the point of departure. Flights to Bangkok take 3 hours and between Paro and Singapore 5 hours. Some Druk Air flights stop en-route and on these services flight durations are longer.

Time zone

Bhutan is +6 hours ahead of GMT.

Visa requirements

Visas are not required prior to travel. However, pre-authorisation needs to be obtained and this is confirmed with a ‘visa approval letter’ which will be sent to you prior to departure. On arrival in Bhutan you must present the visa approval letter and the visa will then be stamped in your passport.

Do’s and don’ts

Dress modestly when visiting Dzongs, monasteries of temples. A long skirt or trousers are acceptable for women and men should avoid shorts. The same advice applies during festivals and tsechus.

Always ask permission before entering a shrine or temple and remember to remove your shoes. Please note that photography is rarely permitted within a temple or monastic complex.

When in a temple you should always walk in a clockwise direction with the main building to your right.

Permission should always be asked before taking a person’s picture.

When eating, only the right hand should be used. Bhutanese culture considers the left hand to be unclean.

Money

Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) and is pegged to the Indian Rupee. Money can be exchanged in hotels and at the Bank of Bhutan with branches in Paro, Thimphu and most other districts. Credit cards are generally only accepted in the larger luxury hotels. There are ATMs throughout the country but they should not be relied upon and not all machines will accept foreign cards. Indian Rupees and US Dollars are also widely accepted.

Tipping

Tipping is left to your discretion. It is not common practice to tip in hotels and restaurants, however, if you receive good service the gesture is appreciated. For drivers, guides and hotel staff, the following amounts should act as a guideline:

Tour driver                          Nu/300 per person per day        

Tour guide                          Nu/350 per person per day

Hotel porter                       Nu/50 per suitcase         

Food and drink

Chillies are a staple of Bhutanese cuisine and are used in nearly every dish. Rice, both red and white, yak or cow’s milk cheese and buckwheat are also very popular. Ema datse, spicy red chillies in a cheese sauce, is a common dish and eaten throughout the country. Small steamed momo dumplings, dried yak cheese, Tibetan style noodles or pork with chilli are also favourites. Asparagus and mushroom usually accompany meals, depending on the season, and at lower altitudes apple orchards are widespread. Aside from imported beer, wine and spirits, drinks include tea (either sweet or salted) and the local spirit ara which is distilled from rice.

Holidays, festivals and celebrations

Two of the most important public holidays in Bhutan are Losar, the Bhutanese New Year which this year falls on the 19th and 20th February, and National Day on the 17th December which celebrates the establishment of the monarchy in 1907. Other holidays mark the King’s birthday, his coronation day and various other auspicious Buddhist dates. Bhutan is also famous for its colourful festivals, or tsechus, which take place all over the country throughout the calendar year. Held in the dzongs, the best established of these are February’s Punakha Tsechu, the Paro Tsechu of mid-March, Thimphu Tsechu at the end of September and October’s Jakar Tsechu in Bumthang, central Bhutan.

Shopping

Bhutan has an extensive range of hand-crafted goods on offer. The country is best known for its vibrant and highly decorated woven fabrics with shawls, blankets and hangings popular purchases. Local and traditional artwork, statues and masks (similar to those used during tsechus) can also be found throughout Bhutan. Weekend markets are good places to find simple jewellery with a few silver and goldsmiths in Thimphu. It should be noted that bargaining is not common practice in Bhutan.

Suggested reading

Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Footprint and Bradt all have very good Bhutanese guide books. Nelles Himalaya map includes Bhutan and the topography of the wider region. There is also a range of literature on the country and suggested books include:

‘Bhutan’ by Françoise Pommaret

‘Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom’ by Françoise Pommaret

‘Raven Crown’ by Michael Aris

‘A Splendid Isolation’ by Madeline Drexler

‘So Close to Heaven’ by Barbara Crossette

‘Treasures of the Thunder Dragon’ by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck

‘Beyond the Sky and the Earth’ by Jamie Zeppa

‘Buttertea at Sunrise’ by Britta Das

‘Bhutan: The Land of Serenity’ by Matthieu Ricard

‘Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon’ by Katie Hickman

Health

Although it is recommended that you consult your doctor, current recommended vaccinations for Bhutan are Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Tetanus and Diphtheria. Yellow Fever is compulsory, but only if you have visited an affected Yellow Fever area within 5 days prior to your arrival. In some instances anti-malarial tablets may also be needed. Please also note that altitudes in parts of Bhutan exceed 3000m and you should consider with your doctor the possible risks of altitude sickness. For current information on health advice you may wish to visit the Medical Advisory Services for Travellers Abroad (MASTA) Web Site on www.masta.org. The NHS ‘Fit for Travel’ website (www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk) is also a useful resource.

Travel advice

For current information on Bhutan the best resource is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice) which is a comprehensive resource and updated regularly. We would also recommend visiting the Safer Tourism Foundation website (https://safertourism.org.uk/) before you travel and will be happy to address any questions or concerns you may have.

Bhutan Holiday Ideas

Nepal & Bhutan Holiday Review

This was a wonderful holiday. Bhutan is a land that I have never before experienced. It seems an anomaly surrounded as it is by India and China. Culturally it is quite different to its neighbour to the south. It is modernising quickly and trying to hold on to its religion and traditions.

CB - Nepal & Bhutan - November 2017

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