So You Want to Go to Bhutan…
There are countless reasons to visit Bhutan. The tiny country retains much of the culture and traditions purged from Chinese-annexed Tibet. The mountainous terrain is largely unspoiled by modern life, and yet still seems comfortable and infinitely peaceful. The people are friendly, well-educated, courteous, and really well-dressed, and getting there is getting easier every year. Here’s the low-down on how to actually plan your trip to this jewel in the Himalayas.
Understand the Bhutan Tourism Industry
After hydro-electric power generation, tourism is the number 2 industry in the country, contributing to free education and health care for its 700,000 citizens. But does tourism really bring that much to the nation? Just like in most places, don’t the tourist dollars fall into only a few well-lined pockets?
The basic answer is no – tourism in Bhutan is different.
Guided tours are mandatory, so that jobs are created for thousands of Bhutanese guides and drivers. Most importantly, a tariff is applied to each tourist’s daily fee, and this money goes straight into government programs for services and development. At present, each tourist contributes $65 USD per day, though this number is decreased in the low season (winter) to $55-60.
Tourism is still a new experiment, begun in the reign of the 4th king of the current dynasty as recently as the early 1970s. Prior to that decade, few foreigners visited and most of these were personal guests of the royal family. Then, slowly and surely, the gates were open but people didn’t exactly flood in. In early years, visits were capped to keep numbers low and transportation was difficult. Only recently has that cap been lifted and tourist visits are increasing every year. Over 40,000 people visited Bhutan in 2010.
The most relevant recent change is that the government has rolled back its control of the tourism industry. In years past, every tourist had to book a tour for a daily minimum cost set by the government. The idea was to keep numbers down and income high, with the last required minimum fee set at $250 USD / day. Again, $65 / day of this was paid directly to the government as a tariff.
Now set prices are no more, and some tour companies are offering tours for as little as $200 USD / day. However, with the government tariff, fuel, guide and driver fees, car rental, accommodation and meals, margins are still slim for tour companies. Don’t expect to find a decent tour for less.
Choosing a Bhutan Tour Company
Deregulation of tour fees is a recent phenomenon and so most companies were already established when that change came about. However, all companies are seen as representing the country and are still tightly controlled. Licensing is strict, and tours must bring guests to overnight and eat at registered hotels and restaurants. Both drivers and guides are required.
Therefore, there are really only 5 factors left to influence your choice of a tour provider:
1.Luxury: The more luxury you want, the more you’ll have to pay, so make sure to know your standards before looking for a tour company.
2. Tour Type: With more and more companies starting up, a wide variety of tours is now available. You can choose from walking, trekking, cultural, photography, and even wildlife tours to choose from and some companies specialize in only one or a few types.
3. Duration: Tours are possible for anywhere from 3 to 30 days, or more if you can possibly afford it, so knowing what it costs, include duration as a factor when looking for a tour.
4. Guide: Guides are people and therefore come in many shapes and sizes. The majority are young men, from 20-40 years old, though some are older and some are women. Most guides are freelancers who may be hired regularly by a tour company, which means the company is flexible on who they can choose for your tour. Be specific in what you want (age, personality, specific knowledge, good looks). After all, you’ll be with this person for the whole of your stay.
5. Communication: Good communication by email is evidence of good organization within the company. If someone’s not answering your questions appropriately or writing back to promptly, expect their tours also to be poorly organized.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Go to Bhutan?
According to our guides, spring and fall are the best times to come for a visit. Summer (June-September) is also the rainy season and is hot and wet, making travel difficult on twisty mountain roads. Winter is dry and dusty, and cold to extremely cold at altitude – many treks are also closed off due to heavy snow in the mountains.
Following on the heels of the rainy season is the time for festivals, and a fall visit can allow you take in several in a short time. Fall weather is still quite warm during the day and pleasantly chilly overnight.
Similar weather in spring also makes it a great time to visit, especially with blooming rhododendrons covering the high forests.
How do you Actually Get To Bhutan?
Docking your yacht is a touch difficult in this land-locked alpine country, but you can still fly to Bhutan or travel there over land.
Two boys in Bhutan
By land there is only 1 port of entry allowing foreign nationals into the country, from India in Darjeeling and another port allows exit only into Northern India’s Assam state.
By air, there is only one currently operating airport in Bhutan, located in the western city of Paro. Flights to Paro are operated by the national carrier, Druk Air, and originate in Bangkok, Thailand; Delhi, Kolkota, Bodhgaya, Bagdogra, and Guwahati in India; Kathmandu, Nepal, and Dhaka, Bangladesh.
In the near future, airports will open in Central (Bumthang) and Eastern (Tashigang) Bhutan, though initial plans are for only domestic connections from Paro to these locations. Flights from Hong Kong and Singapore are also in the works, though these will have stops in Thailand, India, or Bangladesh along the way.
Nevertheless, your tour operator will give you a selection of locations from which to fly and then will book your trip based on your choice. As a special note, the Paro International Airport has only one runway which is difficult to land on in the best of conditions. In poor weather, flights are quickly cancelled so plan your onward connections with some built-in flexibility!
What to Prepare
Since you have to arrange a tour, the company you hire should also give you a comprehensive packing list. However, here are a few key tips to take to heart:
Remember to check weather reports for the month you’re visiting so that you don’t get stuck with too many or too few layers. Remember that Bhutan is completely covered by mountains so weather can change quickly and without warning so be prepared.
As for visas, unless you’re Indian or Bangladeshi and visiting on a free 30-day permit, your tour company will prepare this for you and give you papers to present on arrival. There is a small visa fee which will be incorporated into your overall tour package fee.
American currency is the easiest to exchange at banks and hotels and can even be used at some shops. Capital Thimphu and second-city Paro have internet cafes, but most hotels now boast wireless connections as well as photo shops where you can print or dump your memory cards to DVD. Souvenirs, though somewhat costly, are a must, so be sure to carry out a large suitcase to bring back stuffed.
Finally, it’s nice to bring small gifts for your guides and drivers, or anyone else you meet. Something from your country is a nice touch and something they’ll truly appreciate.
So that’s it – choose a time to visit, select the type of tour you want, pick a company, and let them do the rest of the work for you. After all, you’ll pay them a good deal to make sure that Bhutan adventure is second to none!