Buddha dordenma statue with monks and tourists in Thimphu, Bhutan

6 things to know before visiting Bhutan

Sep 20, 2022
Reading time: 6 minutes

The Land of Thunder Dragons is a gorgeous, remote and culturally distinct nation that’s been attracting ever more tourists in recent years. It’s a truly remarkable destination, worthy of all the fuss. But here are six things to know before visiting Bhutan.

1. You can now travel in Bhutan on your own

Up until 2022, you couldn't travel independently within Bhutan. You were required by the Government of Bhutan to submit your proposed itinerary in advance for approval. And then you had to be accompanied by a Bhutanese tour guide throughout your time in the country. You would also have a driver assigned to you.

As of September 2022, however, you can travel without a tour guide (and driver) in Bhutan! This is a big change.

You no longer need to be accompanied by a guide and driver when travelling within Bhutan.

This makes your options for the type of travel you'd like to do within Bhutan more varied.

Traditional homestead in Punakha, Bhutan

A traditional homestead

If you're interested, we explain the Government's reasoning for this change in A tourist visa for Bhutan now costs more (2022 update).

2. Bhutan's tourist visa is different from others

The Bhutanese visa works differently from other tourist visas. First off, you have to buy a visa for every night you spend in Bhutan. This is different from most other countries, which let you pay a standard fee per fortnight, month, three months or more. 

The daily visa fee is also relatively expensive. In fact, it has become even more expensive as of September 2022.

As per the Government's press release, visitors must now pay US$200 per person per night in Bhutan. For those familiar with the previous visa system, please note that this money no longer includes any services (such as accommodation). Instead, it's purely a sustainable development fee (SDF). This means all other expenses for your trip are for your account.

Haa district, Bhutan

Locals sit outside a shop in the Haa district

Bhutan's high visa fee has always meant that most visitors don’t spend terribly long in the country. This is actually part of the Government's tourism strategy of "High quality, low volume tourism".

In other words, the Bhutanese Government is eager to avoid the perils of mass tourism. They want to have only a few visitors at a time, and to offer those visitors an exceptional experience. There is, in fact, a cap to the number of tourists that can be admitted to the country each year. 

Follow-Alice-to-Bhutan-11-1024x683.jpg

When travelling in Bhutan with Follow Alice, you'll have a local tour guide with you

At Follow Alice we believe there's immense value in being hosted by a local guide (what we call a "local leader"). Local guides are invaluable in many ways, such as:

  • keeping you safe (even in an already very safe country like Bhutan!)
  • being someone local whom you get to know well and have meaningful conversations with
  • removing any possible stresses to do with admin and navigation
  • translating things for you and facilitating engagements with other locals
  • ensuring you don't miss out on special places and lesser-known experiences!

3. There are behaviours to avoid in Bhutan

Here are a few rules you should endeavour to follow when visiting Bhutan:

  • You shouldn’t play loud music in public, which includes inside religious sites and national parks.
  • It’s considered impolite to take photos or videos of individuals without first asking their permission. Also, ask for permission from the attending authority before taking any photos or videos inside places like monasteries. You’ll have a tour guide with you at all times who can serve as your translator. 
  • In Bhutan, Tuesday is ‘Dry Day’. This means locals don’t drink alcohol on Tuesday. So it would be respectful to avoid alcohol on Tuesdays too.
  • On a similar – though in fact stricter – note, it’s illegal for tobacco to be sold in Bhutan. Tourists can bring cigarettes into the country, but you should only smoke them in designated places. 
  • It’s disrespectful to wear revealing clothes when visiting religious sites like monasteries and temples. Also be prepared to take off your shoes in religious sites if requested to do so.
  • The Bhutanese are very eco conscious. If you can, avoid using single-use plastic bottles, cans and the like.
Pur. Trongsa Dzong, biggest fortress in Bhutan, October 2018

When visiting religious sites, you should dress conservatively and ask before taking photos

4. Bhutan doesn’t offer micro SIM cards

Bhutan has two mobile network operators, namely B-Mobile and TashiCell. Roaming fees in Bhutan are pretty expensive, so many visitors opt to buy a cheap local SIM card. Both 3G and 4G SIM cards are available, and cost only 200 Ngultrum (around €2.50). Data is also very affordable. Note that you’ll need to fill in a form and let the dealer photocopy your passport in order to purchase the SIM card.

The main thing we pointed out here, however, is that you cannot buy a micro (or nano) SIM card. So check your mobile device for SIM compatibility before visiting Bhutan if you’re wanting to go the SIM card route.

5. You can get altitude sickness in Bhutan

Bhutan is a landlocked nation that sits tucked up against the Himalayan mountain range. As such, much of the country sits at a very high elevation. The northern half of the country, specifically, is very mountainous and high. This means that visitors to the north of the country can sometimes experience symptoms of altitude sickness. This is especially the case if you go trekking in the mountains of Bhutan.

The highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum, which is 7,570 m (24,836 ft) above sea level. This mountain sits on the country’s northern border with Tibet, and incidentally is a contender for the highest unclimbed mountain in the world! When someone who doesn’t live at a high altitude ascends above 3,000 to 4,000 metres, there's a good chance he or she will experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness. These symptoms include nausea, headaches, dizziness and poor sleep. 

Many of the most popular touristy places in Bhutan are in the northwest of the country, which is a mountainous region. It might therefore be a good idea to stop by your GP before visiting Bhutan to discuss altitude meds.

Mountain, visiting Bhutan, Jogme Dorji

Kang Bum (6,526 m) mountain in Bhutan's Jigme Dorji National Park

6. Bhutan’s place names can be confusing

Bhutan’s district and town names can be pretty confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the country. The important thing to note here is that most of the capitals of Bhutan’s 20 districts have the same name as their district! So the capital of Punakha District is Punakha, for instance, and the capital of Thimphu District is Thimphu. The capital of Paro District is …? You guessed it: Paro

To make matters worse, districts are often referred to without the word district. So if someone speaks of Paro, you need to look for the context or ask for clarity to determine if they’re talking about the district or its capital. We hope this helps you to avoid some confusion in your Bhutan travel planning!

 

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