Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Get Your Bhutan Visa Sorted
One of the most important things to arrange before visiting Bhutan is getting your visa sorted. Unlike many destinations, you can't just show up in Bhutan and get a visa on arrival. The visa process is a bit more involved, but it's absolutely worth taking the time to do it right so your trip goes smoothly.
All foreign visitors to Bhutan require a visa, which you can obtain in advance through a licensed Bhutan tour operator. They will take care of securing the visa on your behalf and will provide all the necessary documents for your trip. Be sure to use a reputable, registered tour operator. The visa process can take up to 15 days once your forms and payment are submitted.
When applying for your Bhutan visa, you'll need to provide a color scan of your passport, a passport-sized photo, and a completed visa application form. There's a $40 visa fee per person. Your tour operator will walk you through completing all the visa paperwork and submit everything to the Tourism Council of Bhutan on your behalf.
One of the unique things about Bhutan visas is that the government sets a mandatory minimum daily package tour price, which varies by season. This "tariff" covers your accommodations, food, guide, transportation, and $65 sustainable development fee per day. In the high season it's $250 per person per day and in the low season it drops to $200 per day. This tariff rate will be included in your visa approval letter.
Once approved, your original visa will be couriered to your tour operator in Bhutan, so you won't have the visa in-hand until you arrive in the country. Not to worry - your tour operator will show airport immigration the visa approval letter, which is sufficient to let you enter Bhutan while the original visa makes its way to your guide.
What else is in this post?
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Get Your Bhutan Visa Sorted
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Fly into Paro Airport
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Explore Thimphu, the Capital
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Hike to the Iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Visit Punakha, the Former Capital
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Cross the Dochula Pass
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Shop for Handicrafts in Wangdue Phodrang
- Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Indulge in Bhutanese Cuisine
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Fly into Paro Airport
The only international airport in Bhutan is Paro Airport, set in a deep, forested valley surrounded by towering Himalayan peaks. Flying into Paro is an experience unlike any other — some say it’s the most dangerous commercial airport approach in the world. Don’t let that deter you though. It’s absolutely worth it for the dramatic views as you descend between snowcapped mountains to land at this tiny airport in a far-flung kingdom.
Drukair is the national airline of Bhutan and operates flights between Paro and major hubs like Bangkok, Singapore, Kathmandu, Delhi, and more. You’ll likely connect through one of these cities. The flight from Delhi is less than 2 hours. Coming from farther abroad, I connected from Bangkok on my trip to Paro.
As your flight nears Bhutan, be sure to grab a window seat on the left side of the plane for the best views of Mt. Everest. On a clear day, you can spot the tallest peak in the world poking above the clouds. Soon you’ll start the steep descent into the Paro Valley. With no instrument landing system, pilots must make a visual approach, carefully maneuvering around 5,500m high peaks.
Touchdown is followed by reversers and heavy braking as the runway is just 2,225m long. After exiting the runway, you’ll see the terminal — a traditional Bhutanese building with intricately painted woodwork and upturned eaves. Inside, the departure and arrival halls feature massive photographs of Bhutan’s monasteries and iconic structures.
As you make your way through the quick & easy immigration and customs process, keep an eye out for your guide who will be waiting with your name on a sign. They will take you the hour drive to Thimphu, the capital. This spectacular drive winds along rivers and through terraced farmland and forests, with mountain views for days.
For departures, Drukair recommends arriving 3 hours prior for international flights. The check-in and security process is very smooth. Before your flight, check out the traditional handicrafts shop near the gates. It’s an excellent opportunity to use any spare Ngultrum, Bhutan’s currency. There are also cafes where you can grab a light meal or snack before your flight.
Pro Travel Tip: To reduce likelihood of delays departing Paro, avoid booking the last flight out for the day as late afternoon weather in the mountains can interfere with takeoffs occasionally. Build some buffer room into your itinerary when flying out of Bhutan.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Explore Thimphu, the Capital
As the largest city and capital of Bhutan, Thimphu deserves at least a couple days to take in the highlights of this fascinating place. With its mix of traditional and modern architecture set in a valley surrounded by terraced rice fields and pine forests, Thimphu has a laidback vibe unlike most capital cities.
Start your exploration of Thimphu downtown at the celebrated Changangkha Lhakhang, a 12th century temple perched on a ridge overlooking the city. This serene spiritual site hums with locals circumambulating the central chapel, murmuring mantras, and spinning prayer wheels. Soak up the tranquil atmosphere before heading back down the hill to see more of Thimphu.
Make time to visit the National Memorial Chorten, an important monument honoring the late Third King of Bhutan who unified the country. Bhutanese continuously circle the white structure, wearing down the path around it over decades of use. Visitors can join locals to walk clockwise along the exterior, pausing to watch devotees prostrating in the main entrance.
An absolute must-do is enjoying a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath, found at places like Lhaki Herbal Health Spa. River stones heated over a fire are then lowered into wooden tubs filled with artemisinin herbs. Soaking in this muscle-relaxing bath is blissful. For about $25 you get a private wooden tub, changing room, scrub, and post-bath tea.
When hunger strikes, don't miss the chance to sample Bhutanese cuisine in Thimphu. Local favorites like ema datshi (chilies and cheese), phaksha paa (pork cooked with vegetables), and red rice are mouthwateringly delicious. Try a lunch buffet at hotels like Le Meridien or restaurants like Bhutan Kitchen in the city center.
To understand more about Bhutan's rich cultural traditions, visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, where students learn the 13 traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts like painting, embroidery, and sculpting. Watching young apprentices at work preserving these specialized skills is fascinating. The intricate detail of Bhutanese art comes alive.
No visit to Thimphu is complete without experiencing a local festival or market. Time your visit to coincide with celebrations like the Thimphu Tshechu in the fall or Bhutanese New Year in the spring. Or spend a morning browsing the Weekend Market where vendors sell everything from handwoven textiles to fresh produce brought in from the countryside.
As Bhutan's largest city, Thimphu offers plenty of accommodation choices. For a luxurious stay, hotels like Le Meridien Thimphu and Taj Tashi blend local style with 5-star amenities. Or overnight at one of Thimphu's many comfortable mid-range hotels like Namgay Heritage or Kisa Hotel. Bhutanese-owned Hotel Norbuling is a longtime favorite with tourists.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Hike to the Iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery
Perched on a granite cliff over 10,000 feet above the Paro Valley, Tiger’s Nest Monastery exemplifies Bhutan's timeless allure and natural splendor. This remote Buddhist monastery seems to defy gravity, clinging precariously over a sheer drop. For centuries, pilgrims and visitors have hiked to this iconic landmark for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The steep hike to Tiger's Nest takes 2-4 hours round trip, depending on fitness level. Hundreds of steps built into the mountain make the uphill climb more manageable. Take it slow and watch your step along some of the more narrow, rocky stretches. Carry plenty of water and snacks to refuel. Stopping to rest at the teahouses along the way allows you to soak up the scenery. The thin air at altitude may make breathing more difficult, so pace yourself.
As you gain elevation, the sprawling monastery complex comes into view – an incredible sight. The finale is crossing a bridge over a waterfall with Tiger's Nest looming directly above. At the entrance, put on traditional robes provided for free. Inside, you’ll discover temples and meditation caves linked by tunnels and stairs carved into the rock face. Marvel at the relics inside while soaking up the spiritual ambiance.
Photography is prohibited inside the monastery to avoid distraction. But outside you'll have countless opportunities to photograph the gravity-defying structure seemingly growing out of the mountainside framed by blue skies, white clouds and prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The scale is immense when you stand at the edge of cliffs and look down at the tiny Paro Valley in the distance.
While visitors can explore parts of the monastery, some areas are restricted to protect the sanctity of this holy site that has become an international attraction. Learn more about the history from your guide. The founding of the monastery and temple is connected to the legendary "Guru Rinpoche" who is said to have arrived here on the back of a flying tigress and meditated in a cave for three months in the 8th century, hence the name Tiger's Nest.
After working up an appetite on the demanding uphill hike, stop at the cafeteria near the entrance for tea, snacks and lunch with sweeping views. Revive weary legs before beginning the hike back down, which is easier but still requires caution on the stone steps.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Visit Punakha, the Former Capital
Nestled in the verdant Punakha Valley, the former capital city of Punakha offers a serene counterpoint to busier Thimphu. This picturesque valley cradles the confluence of two important Himalayan rivers and is home to breathtaking dzongs that exemplify classic Bhutanese architecture. Punakha's milder climate and slower pace provides a pleasant change of pace, allowing you to immerse yourself in the peaceful natural beauty surrounding this historic capital city.
Crossing the Dochula Pass enroute to Punakha, stop at the collection of 108 chortens adorned with colorful prayer flags. On clear days, this high pass grants panoramic views of the Great Himalayan Range stretching along the horizon. Descending into the valley, acres of rice terraces cascade down mountainsides. Roadside stalls sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
At the heart of Punakha lies its emblematic dzong, arguably the most majestic fortress-monastery in all of Bhutan. Constructed in 1637, Punakha Dzong's stately whitewashed walls stand sentinel over the valley. Reflecting on the mesmerizing jacaranda trees in full bloom out front, you can understand why old Punakha served as Bhutan's capital and the seat of government until 1955.
Spanning six floors, Punakha's dzong comprises multiple courtyards and temples showcasing exceptional Bhutanese artistry. The monastery still serves as the winter home for Bhutan's spiritual leader and monks. Visitors are welcome to respectfully wander through interior temples and quarters accented in gold, though some ceremonial spaces remain off limits.
While touring Punakha Dzong, don't miss the opportunity to view a century-old relic - the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the Bhutanese unifier who constructed this very dzong. His mummified body rests inside a gilt chorten in the monks' quarters. This rare chance to see such an important historical and religious artifact is a one-of-a-kind experience exclusive to Punakha.
Another highlight is crossing the towering cantilever footbridge over the Mo Chu River at the south end of the dzong. Gaze down upon the convergence of two rivers while strolling over this arched wooden bridge stretching longer than a football field. Look for locals spreading rice grains along the footpath - a spiritual offering which birds promptly flock to eat.
Beyond the dzong, the verdant valley invites scenic excursions by bike or hike. Follow dirt tracks and trails through rice paddies to hilltop temples like Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten's gilded dome gleaming in the sunlight. Back in town, don't miss Punakha's lively local market spilling onto the roadside with vendors under umbrellas selling chilies, incense and more.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Cross the Dochula Pass
The scenic drive crossing Bhutan's Dochula Pass treats road-trippers to a bonafide wonder of the world. This high mountain pass soars to 10,000 feet and grants passage over the Himalayas between Thimphu and Punakha. Crossing the "Many Rocks" pass has become a must-do road trip for any traveler exploring the Bhutanese heartland. Beyond boasting Himalayan panoramas, the Dochula area has emerged as a cultural attraction in its own right.
As your vehicle climbs the snaking mountain road, forested hillsides dotted with colorful prayer flags signal your ascent toward the heights of Dochula. Rounding a corner, the verdant pass suddenly comes into view. The eye is immediately drawn to the collection of chortens adorning the grassy pass. These whitewashed shrines exhibit fine craftsmanship, their brick bases morphing into intricate layered spires symbolic of rising to Nirvana.
During clear weather, the Dochula viewpoints look out over an astounding panorama of Himalayan peaks marching along the horizon. From here, keen eyes can count no less than 25 snowy summits exceeding 20,000 feet in height. Perhaps the most humbling view features Masang Gang (23,184 ft), Tsendagang (21,960 ft), and Teri Gang (23,860 ft) soaring heavenward in a stunning line.
When thick fog or storms obscure the panorama, Dochula's decked-out chortens still warrant a stop. Some 108 chortens of varying styles populate a meadow here. Constructed by Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, these shrines honor Bhutanese soldiers lost during military action to evict Assamese insurgents from southern Bhutan in 2003.
Prayer flags strung between the chortens flutter in the mountain winds. During religious festivals, locals flock here burning juniper incense amidst sacred masked dances. The colorful tsechu dances reenact Bhutan's victory against Tibetan invaders in the 17th century. Visitors are welcome to experience the festive atmosphere and culture playing out at Dochula.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Shop for Handicrafts in Wangdue Phodrang
Beyond Punakha Valley's famed dzong, the evocative capital of Wangdue Phodrang beckons craft lovers to its lively weekend market. Every Saturday and Sunday, townsfolk lay out Bhutanese handicrafts to entice tourists heading east from Punakha or west from Bumthang. For those keen to bring home meaningful souvenirs, Wangdue's market proffers the perfect opportunity to peruse handicrafts while interacting with passionate local artisans.
Handwoven textiles rank among Bhutan's most iconic crafts. Yathra hand-painted wool textiles, widely produced in central Bhutan, frequently appear draped over market stalls in Wangdue. Bold Himalayan motifs like fluttering prayer flags, mythical creatures, and snow lions pattern these woolen blankets. Before synthetic dyes arrived, all yathras featured subdued colors from natural pigments. Ask vendors to share stories behind traditional designs.
Brilliant bamboo baskets add pops of color contrasting neatly folded yathras. Intricately woven baskets serve utility in Bhutanese homes. Look for coiled fern leaf containers and the large bangchung bamboo baskets. These practical keepsakes impress as sustainable suitcase stuffers.
While strolling through market aisles, admire displays of exquisitely carved wooden masks depicting Bhutanese deities and heroes. Though not antiques, these masks echo traditional motifs and exemplify superior craftsmanship. Invite artisans to explain backstories behind familiar characters from Bhutanese culture and Buddhist mythology. Masks invoking the protective deity Mahakala guarantee when hung prominently in homes.
When Bhutanese stir hand-carved bamboo spoons through steaming ema datshi chilies and cheese, they're using kitchen tools crafted locally by specialized artisans. Sturdy bamboo spoons and ladles, found at Wangdue's weekend market, deliver elegant Asian minimalism to home kitchens abroad. Seek out spoon carvers to elucidate nuances of this niche handicraft – the perfect personal souvenir from your Bhutanese culinary experiences.
No market in Wangdue would be complete without stacks of handmade incense wrapping paper to satisfy spiritual shopping. These small sheets bear intricate geometric patterns painstakingly incised using small metal tools. Incense wrapping papers bless offerings and rituals. Watching artisans demonstrate how they're produced proves hypnotically meditative.
Himalayan High: 23 Essential Tips for Visiting the Mystical Kingdom of Bhutan - Indulge in Bhutanese Cuisine
If your mouth waters for authentic adventures, Bhutanese cuisine satisfies with fiery flavors, hearty comfort and spiritual significance. This unique Himalayan fare developed over centuries of cultural exchange along the Silk Road and in isolated mountain valleys. Beyond ever-popular ema datshi chilies and cheese, traditional Bhutanese meals traditionally incorporate rice, meat, vegetables, and spices reflecting values of sustainability, hospitality and Buddhism.
Start your day like locals stirring salted yak butter tea known as suja. This hearty brew provides warming nourishment to counter Bhutan's chilly climes. Savor its rich, salty taste accented by a hint of smoke from the homemade wood stove. Proper etiquette calls for noisily slurping each sip - don't be shy! Refill your wooden bowl with hot tea poured from a bamboo thermos. Your host will top off your bowl until you clap it closed with your hand, signaling satisfaction.
With over 200 domestic rice varieties, Bhutanese culinarians craft specialty red rices to please discerning palates at meal times. Look for Kalizi or Bajay, prestige high-altitude rices reddened by pristine glacial mineral waters. These subtly nutty whole grains make perfect bedfellows for spicy curries ladled on top. Or try kinay - cracked rice cooked with butter and sugar for breakfast. Bhutanese zombies and thukpa noodle soups also use this staple starch as their canvas.
Now we arrive at the main event - ema datshi, Bhutan's national dish. This fiery favorite stars local chilies stewed in melted yak cheese. Every cook tweaks their own version, playing with the ratio of big green chilies versus petite red peppers. Beyond heat, savor datshi’s nuances - smooth, satiny cheese contrasting crunchy peppers. Is your mouth on fire? Bhutan's trick is scooping up a forkful of red rice with the ema datshi to temper the thermometer-shattering heat.
Once your taste buds acclimate to the fiery chili-cheese combo, explore regional rotations on the theme. In eastern Bhutan, an already complex dish called jasha maru tops the chili-cheese stew with crunchy pork cracklings for textural intrigue. Western Bhutan's datshi shaphaley adds tangy dry cheese curds to the dynamic duo of chilies and melted cheese. For visiting gourmands, each datshi variety ups the ante on irresistible authentic savor.
Meat dishes like chicken, pork or beef spiced with garlic, ginger and chili and cooked with onions, mushrooms and tomatoes also feature at traditional Bhutanese meals. Or sample vegetables like pumpkin, radish greens, beans and ferns that grow bountifully in Bhutan's fertile river valleys. Side dishes always hold surprise - hand-pulled buckwheat noodles or crispy rice crackers to crunch on.