Ian & David’s Bhutan Travel Tips:
random thoughts about Dragon Kingdom Travel from two guys in Seattle who are planning their fourth trip.

Getting There

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 travel date.

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 Visa

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!

BUT remember,

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 curve.
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 for us.


Money

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 transaction here.

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 great views.

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 great souvenir.

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.


English, Dzongkha


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 linguist.

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 equivalent.

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 cool, huh?)

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.”


Shopping


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!)


Lodgings

Chances are likely that your tour operator will make the choice for you, but here are the hotels we’ve stayed in:

Paro:

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 overnight.

Thimphu:

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.

Phobjika Valley:

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.

Punakkha:

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.

Mongar:

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.

Trashigang:

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!

Trongsa:

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.

Wangdi Phodrang:

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:
Nga Lhakhang


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 west.

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 life!”


© 2006 Friends of Tamshing