Ian & David’s Bhutan Travel Tips:
random thoughts about Dragon Kingdom Travel from two guys in Seattle who are planning their fourth trip.
All flights into Bhutan are on Druk Air. (We love Druk Air!) With most
tour operators, you’ll need to arrange for your own
transportation (on the airline of your choice) to one of the four major
cities served by Druk Air; Bangkok, Kathmandu, Delhi, or Calcutta. Your
tour operator will arrange for your Druk Air travel between one of
those four cities and Paro, the location of Bhutan’s only airport.
Druk Air tickets need to be purchased by your tour operator on your
behalf. Your tour operator will need to send you the actual tickets
before your trip, so arrangements have to be made well before your
When flying into Paro, try to get a seat on the left side of the plane
for the killer view of Mt Everest. (Which the flight crew will refer to
as “Chomo Lungma.”)
Consider upgrading to Business Class for your Druk Air flights. The
cost difference is relatively negligible, and there’s every
chance you’ll end up sitting next to a member of the Bhutanese
royal family or high Rinpoche!
On the way to Bhutan, we like to fly through Bangkok, and love staying
at the Sheraton Royal Orchid. The location is incredible, right on the
river, central to everything. Highly recommended.
Your tour operator will arrange for your Bhutanese visa. Well before
your travel date, your tour operator should send you a copy of your
visa, which you will need when you get off the plane in Paro.
Guidebooks and tour operators will all tell you that (along with your
passport and visa) you’ll need to present the immigration people
with two additional passport photos. We always have some just in case,
but so far we’ve never been asked for them.
If you’re staying in the country longer than two weeks, (the
maximum duration of the regular tourist visa) you will need to get a
visa extension in Thimphu sometime during your trip. (This is an easy
process, and your tour operator should know all about it, but still
it’s good to be aware as you may suddenly be asked to give up
your passport for a few days while the extension is being arranged.
Those Twisty Roads
Many of the major roads in Bhutan are dirt or gravel--even paved roads
are far from smooth. They wind through mountains and valleys and there
are scary blind curves every few seconds. Both directions of traffic
share a width of only one lane. Usually, one side of the narrow road
will have a sharp drop-off. Guardrails are rare. Seatbelts are rare.
Cars, trucks, busses, farm vehicles, road workers, school children and
herds of cattle all share the same road. It can be hard to get used to!
1. People in Bhutan drive much slower than you’d expect.
2. Accidents are rare.
3. Since foreigners aren’t allowed to rent cars, most of the
people driving in Bhutan grew up here, learned to drive on these roads,
and think of these roads as normal.
4. Since there are so few roads, your driver has probably driven on
every road many, many times and is very familiar with every dip and
5. Betel nut is said to focus one’s attention and sharpen
one’s reflexes. (At any one time, there is a 95% chance that your
driver will be chewing betel nut.)
If you tend to get motion sickness pack some Dramamine or buy a pair of
those acupressure wristbands and put them on early – they worked
There are no ATM’s in Bhutan. Take LOTS of cash, and exchange ALL
that you think you will use for Bhutanese Ngultrum before leaving the
airport in Paro. (After clearing customs, go through the doorway. The
exit is to your left, but before you exit, turn right and go to the
unmarked counter. Hand them all of your cash and they will hand you an
enormous stack of Ngultrum.)
You can always go to a bank later during your trip, but you’ll
save a lot of time, and get the best exchange rate, if you do your
Despite the fact that tours are all inclusive, you will want to budget for the following expenses:
Souvenirs. Which are not cheap! A good kira may easily cost $400. A mask $100 or more.
Alcohol. Which is cheap, but almost never included in the tour cost.
Gifts. See below.
Tips. See below.
You can often US dollars for high ticket souvenirs, gifts, or tips but it’s easier to use Ngultrum.
Credit cards are not univeral But usually will be accepted in the
larger handicraft shops around Thimphu and Paro. Cash is easier and
takes much less time!
Food and Drink
Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, become a vegetarian for the duration of your trip.
Bhutan is a land-locked country with little refrigeration. Stay away from fish and meat
If you stay away from meat and fish, the food is great. The vegetables
are incredibly fresh. Almost everything is locally grown. Be sure to
try the national dish; emadatse -- chilis and yak cheese. (Ema =
chilis, Datse = cheese.) Also, kewadatse (potatos and yak cheese) and
shamudatse (mushrooms and yak cheese.)
If you like Bhutanese food let your guide know, otherwise most of what
you will get (especially at large hotels) will be Indian food.
Crow’s beak: An amazing, pod-like vegetable that is sautéed with yak cheese.
Red Rice. The local variant and quite delicious. Just a little nuttier than typical white rice.
Sip and Zow. Dried, flattened grains typically eaten as a snack with
tea. Gaza Sip is deep-fried, dried corn. Bhutanese Fritos.
Arra: Bhutanese moonshine. Hooch. Can be very strong. If you visit
someone’s house, it will be offered to you upon arrival and
departure. If it’s very well made it will be as smooth and
tasteless as water…but watch out!
“Bhutan Highland” Whiskey: Is your friend, especially if
you’re trekking in December, sleeping in frost-covered tents.
Stay away from the brand called “Changa.”
Tea is ubiquitous and you will be offered it at every meal and between
every meal as well. It is understood that tourists drink black tea
(Pekoe). If you want decaffeinated be sure to bring your own. Bhutanese
prefer Suja, the salty yak butter tea served out of tall Arabian Nights
style aluminum pots. Give it a try, especially if you’re very
cold or salt deprived.
Coffee. Forget it, unless you like instant, or bring your own. Western
drip coffee is called “bean coffee” in Bhutan but it is
available in very few places and is quite dear and as mediocre.
Our favorite restaurant: Bhutan Kitchen in Thimphu. They serve high
quality traditional Bhutanese fare in a serene and elegant setting with
You will be fed regularly and you will be offered a lot of food,
probably way more than you are used to eating at home. We always eat
quite a bit in Bhutan and never seem to gain an ounce. Is it the
quality of the food, the lack of sugar and bread? Who knows, but we
come back feeling like we’ve just been to a spa.
On Being A Good Guest
If you’re going to a Tsechu, consider dressing in National Dress.
(Gho for the gents, Kira for the ladies.) Bhutanese appreciate it when
tourists dress this way for formal occasions, (don’t do it
everyday or you’re in danger of going “more native than the
natives.”) Not all tourists make the effort, but by doing so you
are supporting both tradition and local craftspeople. The outfits are
beautiful and flattering. It’s fun, and the clothing makes a
If you’re going to a Tsechu, BE SURE to make a donation to the
temple. $20 per person is good. You will never be asked directly to
make a donation, so it does not occur to most tourists. But do it
anyway, it will REALLY be appreciated.
Imagine what you would pay for a program of traditional dance staged in
the city where you live. Your tour operator pays nothing to the hosts
of the Tsechu.
In general, spelling is highly arbitrary. You’ll see names of
villages, places and even people spelled in many different ways. And
since there’s no real standard for translating Dzongkha into
English, they’ll all be correct! For example, in the Bumthang
district’s main village you’ll see signs identifying the
town as Jakar, Chokkar, Chukar, among others! This makes map reading
quite a puzzle!
Almost everyone (under the age of 30 or so) speaks English. But, it’s good to know a few words of Dzongkha.
Kadinchey = Thanks
Tashi Delek = Good Luck
Kuzu Zangpo la = Hello, Greetings.
Give your driver a smile. Learn a little Dzongkha slang:
Zhugey MOOSH = Let’s get going. Hit the road, Jack. (If you say
this, con gusto, when your vehicle is heading out in the morning, it
will get a laugh EVERY time.)
Mishay Moosh = Don't know, eh? Kinda like "dunno" in English.
Use this bit of slang and you may be regarded as quite the
Mi zhu la = No, Thank You. This is about the only polite way to refuse
a third helping of food and it is much more effective than its English
Ja Dah = The Bhutanese F word. (“This flashlight doesn’t work, the batteries must be all Ja Dah.”)
Chillip= Tourist. (“That last temple was so crowded, too many Ja Dah Chillip!”)
No Chu = Little Brother. If your male guide is younger than you
(there’s a 95% chance your guide will be male, and that he will
be younger than you are) he will grin all day if you call him No Chu.
(For best results, say this only after you’ve known each other
for a few days, rather than when you first meet.) The word for
“little sister” is “noom.”
Bhutan is so small in population that everyone is “family”.
A stranger is an aunt, uncle, brother or sister as yet unknown, (pretty
There is a group of people who live in the eastern part of Bhutan. Most
guidebooks refer to these people as “Brokpa,” which means
“nomad.” To be polite, the term “Brokpa” should
only be used one is indeed a member of that group. Otherwise, the PC
term is “Neypo,” which means “host.”
Bhutanese handicrafts are realistically priced, and might seem
expensive compared to neighboring countries. Since there are so few
tourists, and so little export, most of the goods are made of very high
quality for actual day to day use. The prices reflect the quality.
Don’t try to haggle, or try to get a better deal. Pay what
you’re asked to pay and count yourself lucky! You’re
supporting traditional culture.
Most Bhutanese are not fans of the “hard sell”. In fact,
you may find yourself in the unusual traveler’s situation of
having to ask the merchants to sell to you.
Generally prices are lower in the east, but buying opportunities are
rarer. If you will be visiting a producer of traditional wares, prices
will be best there. Hotels have high priced items. Government
handicraft stores have better quality items at fair prices.
Enlist the help of your guide and driver in selecting good quality.
They know, but they are too polite to say anything unless you ask. Be
sure to ask subtly as they may not wish to say anything negative in
front of the shopkeeper.
A really great shop in Thimphu for really nice souvenirs and gifts:
Lungta Handicraft, directly across from the main post office.
Our very favorite cd of traditional Bhutanese temple music:
“Tibetan Buddhist Rites from the Monasteries of Bhutan.”
It’s a 2 disc set, originally recorded in 1972 and re-released in
2004 on the Sub Rosa label. It’s somewhat available in bookstores
and handicraft stores in Thimphu and Paro, but might be easier to find
at home through Amazon, Ebay, etc. (When you get home from your trip,
you can wake up listening to this cd every morning and feel like
you’re still there!)
Chances are likely that your tour operator will make the choice for you, but here are the hotels we’ve stayed in:
Hotel Olathang – Attractive, and historical (it’s from the
1970’s!) but a little convention-like. Big. Very average buffet.
Just before you head into the hotel’s restaurant, be sure to
check out the stuffed yak under the stairs. If you wake up early, take
a sunrise walk up the hill, away from town. Say “kuzu
zangpo” to the monks you pass along the way.
Hotel Jor-Yang’z – A little closer to the main part of
town. The scale is a bit more intimate. The paneled walls and abundant
horse-themed artwork will make you feel like you’re stumbled onto
a Wyoming dude ranch, pardner. Giddy up. Be sure to leave the water in
the sink running at a trickle so the pipes don’t freeze up
Hotel Druk – Great location. Right on the charmingly-named
“Jo-Jo Plaza” in the center of town. Built to house guests
for the King’s coronation in 1974, it’s one of
Bhutan’s first hotels.
Riverview Hotel – Nice view. Of the river, and of the town.
Dewachen Lodge-- Beautiful place with good facilities. New. No
electricity at night, so before you go to sleep, make sure you have a
supply of firewood. Know how to find your matches and flashlight.
Hotel Meri Phuensom – Pretty place, kind of tropical setting, but
not really walking distance to anywhere. The owner has a collection of
rocks on display.
Druk Zhongkar – Pretty much it’s the only show in town. The
rooms have aqua green painted walls, moss green wall-to-wall carpet,
seafoam green curtains and minty-green bedspreads.
Hotel Druk Deothjung. (The one that used to be called Kelling Lodge,
just north of the main part of town—not the Hotel Druk Deothjung
in the heart of town.) Yes, great place! We love it. Lively staff. Say
hello to Shogpo! Try to get one of the two “tower” rooms.
For some reason, they routinely keep the restaurant curtains closed. Do
yourself (and other diners, if any) a favor and open them. What a view!
Yangkhil Resort – One of the most western-style hotels in Bhutan.
Most of the rooms have killer views of the stunning Trongsa Dzong. Take
advantage of the excellent water pressure and hot showers here! If you
get a chance, walk into town and play a game of snooker at the
mysteriously-named “Oyster House” restaurant/snooker hall.
Kichu Resort – Nearby Wangdi Phodrang, in Chuzomsa. Beautiful location, alongside a roaring river. Good showers!
But, if you get a chance, the BEST thing is to be a guest in someone’s house.
We’ve stayed in private houses in:
Tamshing (in Bumthang)
Miseythang (in the Tang Valley)
Dungkhar (north of Lhuntse)
If you have connections, or are just very lucky, it can also be very, very interesting to stay in monasteries.
We’ve stayed in monasteries in:
Yinchoeling (south of Trongsa)
Dramitse (between Mongar and Trashigang)
We’ve slept in tents in:
Gifts and Tips
If you stay overnight as a guest in someone’s house, be sure to
give them a gift (a bottle or two of whiskey, or food items, your guide
can advise) upon arrival, and another gift (money, maybe $20-30 or so)
upon departure. Gifts of cash are always welcome and there is not the
same awkwardness in making or accepting cash gifts as there is in the
At the end of your trip be sure to tip your guide and driver. We like
the “hand each of them an envelope at the airport as you say your
goodbyes” method. The equivalent of $20-25 per day is a good
guide tip, and the equivalent of $10-15 per day is a good driver tip.
(This is for a private group of 2 people.) It’s great if you can
give them Ngultrum, but US dollars work just as well for tips.
During the trip, it’s nice to occasionally buy your guide and
driver little things like betel nut, cocktails at the hotel, etc.
It’s very nice, and very common, to also send your guide or
driver a gift after you return home. Something that represents your
home town. (For example, if you’re from Seattle, you might send a
few Seahawks caps and some Starbucks.)
Most important: If you visit a temple, always leave a donation. Even if
you aren’t Buddhist. Slap a few Ngultrum (20-100) onto the altar.
Altar donations go toward the everyday operations of the
temple—the butter lamps, incense, etc. If you want to make a
donation to help the monks (for food, clothing, transportation, etc.)
look for the Donation Box, or tell the caretaker you’d like to
make a donation to the monastery.
If you’d like to
help Tamshing Monastery through the US based “Friends of
Tamshing” (our pet project) please visit www.tamshing.org
Packing, Things to Bring
Postcards of your home town (These make good gifts to people you meet along the way)
A nail brush (for brushing off the day’s accumulation of mud off of your shoes and pants)
A flashlight (since electricity is iffy)
If you have an unlocked cell phone that can access the GSM 900 band you will be able to use it in the most surprising places!
A set of international adaptors. You are likely to run into every type of known outlet.
Bring a few small gifts if you like, for children of families that you may stay with (we usually bring a few finger puppets).
Bhutanese children are mostly unspoiled by tourists and Bhutanese would
prefer to keep it that way! So don’t respond to begging with
gifts. A little English conversation, or photo taking is just as fun!
Take it Easy
Enjoy what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. Don’t worry about getting to the next site before it closes.
Don’t do TOO much research before you go. If you arrive with a
list of places you MUST see, you might miss some of the
spur-of-the-moment places your guide suggests.
Be open to deviating from your itinerary.
Be prepared to overdose on beauty and charm. After a few days of the
non-stop scenery and magic you’ll find yourself saying something
like, “That’s really pretty,” to your traveling
companion and you’ll realize that what you mean is,
“That’s the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen in my
© 2006 Friends of Tamshing