One of the most isolated destinations in the world, Bhutan is a land of culture, heritage, mystery, and natural beauty. Snuggled in the Himalayas, this place is also known as “The Last Shangrila” owing to its wonderful landscape, decent social norms, and steady traditions. Before you pack your bags and head straight to explore this land amidst the mountains, you must know of a few important things about this mysterious place.
It is next to impossible to explore Bhutan on your own. You must hire a guide or a tour company. Once you step in Bhutan, you would not be allowed to roam freely in between cities without your guide. Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians would not have to face such limitations.
You need a visa to enter Bhutan if you are not an Indian, Bangladeshi or a Maldivian. Otherwise, you just need a passport with at least six months' validity or your voter card (if you are an Indian) and just like that, you could get a permit for 7 days at Phuentshouling. However, you can only visit Paro and Thimpu with this permit. For visa clearance, you just need to send your passport’s photo page and apply for a visa. Upon reaching Bhutan, you would be required to show your visa clearance letter and then immigration will stamp your official visa in your passport.
You obviously are well aware of the fact that you can’t smoke in public places or in conveyances though that is not strictly followed. Did you know that in the entire globe Bhutan is the only country that completely bans both the sale and the production of tobacco? However, there is an allowance of 200 cigarettes which tourists and the Bhutanese elite can bring along with them to the country with a duty of 200%. Make sure to ask your guide about a place to smoke. Hotels, certain bars, and restaurants do have the facility of indoor smoking rooms. If caught smoking, you would have to pay a hefty fine or worse, go to jail. Smuggling tobacco could take someone to jail for 3 years. Beware and try to keep from smoking!
Your visa fee would cover most of the things but for spending money, you need cash. ATMs are present in larger towns, not everywhere and these are about 70% reliable and the drawback is that you can withdraw small amounts only. No currency conversion is needed here since 1 INR is the same as 1 Bhutanese Ngultrum. Besides, INR is accepted everywhere with open arms in Bhutan but notes of 2000 might not be accepted. So, you need to carry in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 to travel without hassles.
It is compulsory for the locals here to wear the national dress of Bhutan. You read it right, for women it is 'Kira' and for men, it is 'Gho'. The Bhutanese have a great deal of affection for their national dress. As a tourist, you need not worry about it. However, while visiting Dzongs, make sure to get dressed in full pants paired with a formal shirt with collars and full sleeves, else wear the traditional dress. You also need to take off your cap or hat when you are near the national flag.
Do you love spicy food? If so, then you will be in heaven since Bhutanese people love chili peppers and believe that a meal is unworthy without the heat. The national dish of the country, 'Ema Datshi' is a simple yet spicy curry of chilies and farmer’s cheese. There are different dishes to try out. Some of them like 'Dole' is even one notch higher than 'Ema Datshi'. For people who can’t tolerate spicy food, these dishes could appear as an assault to your tastebuds. Beware of the spice!
Bid adieu to your loved ones and switch off your phone as soon as you reach Bhutan. Otherwise, you would have to pay a heavy charge of 70 rupees/ minute. Getting a SIM card here is a pretty smooth process as well. You just have to provide your photo and a copy of your ID proof. The call charges to India is approximately INR 5/min. However, the internet is quite costly here.
From an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, Bhutan underwent a reformation back in 2008. However, the royals are still respected and seen as incarnations of God. Criticizing a royal is the same as blasphemy here. Also, be mindful and dress appropriately if you don’t wish to pay a fine of INR 500.
Bumthang, also referred to as mini Switzerland, makes European style cheese along with Emmental and Gouda, organic raw honey, 'Chogdan' (buckwheat pancakes) and 'Putta' (bitter chewy hand-rolled noodles). This delightful food paradise is located in central Bhutan and you could have a hearty meal here and wash it down with local Red Panda lager or apple cider (which is also spiced).
Bhutan’s Himalayan climate could turn out to be really harsh on you. The 'Dotsho' is a traditional hot bath prepared by heating river stones over an open firehouse. When hot, these stones are submerged into the water, hence releasing heat and minerals into the bathwater. Bhutanese use this technique to relieve their joint pain, boost up blood circulation and fight the cold. The water is often topped with mugwort and it is just a perfect way to relax after a long day.
The tattoo parlors and getting tattoos is illegal here yet they are increasingly popular amongst the youth. A government ban has forced the tattoo business to go underground here. The tattoo artists now work in private homes and are dependent upon social media and local connections to keep their business alive.
The government has fixed the taxi tariff and bargaining is a big fail here. This step had been taken to end the monopoly enjoyed by the taxi drivers. It is recommended to hire a taxi for your complete tour or for the complete day. The taxi charges for the complete tour or a day would be comparatively less than the hourly basis.
Bhutan has a different time zone than India. India’s time zone is GMT+05:30 and that of Bhutan is UTC+06:00. Hence, it is clear that India is 30 minutes behind Bhutan. Once you cross Phuentsholing, the time displayed is according to the time zone of Bhutan. Don’t get confused else you will end missing your bus or flight. Be smart and make the required changes to your watches.
You could go for a hike but only up till the height of 6000m. Peaks under that altitude are trekking peaks here. Anything above will be deemed as mountaineering and that is not allowed since mountains are sacred for Bhutanese. Peaks clad with snow are considered as the domain of Gods and Goddesses. It is believed that if you go mountaineering then they would feel disturbed and bring hailstorms, droughts, etc. in return.