Last Updated on November 10, 2022 by Audrey Scott
Have you ever dreamed of traveling to Bhutan or wondered what it’s like to visit this remote kingdom tucked away in the Himalayan mountains? From Buddhist temples and fortress visits, to Bhutanese cuisine to trekking in the Himalayas — all with the Buddhist mysticism and legend that surrounds it — we cover the essential Bhutan travel experiences, things to do and places to visit. In addition, we address all the questions about traveling to Bhutan including best times to visit, how to get a visa to Bhutan, Gross National Happiness and more.
Prior to our visit, Bhutan was a destination that, for us, held the space of the protected, the preserved, the unknown.
Upon landing in Bhutan, we grasped how our experience would reflect that notion. We were removed physically but also mentally from the day-to-day, tucked away in this mysterious place. It is perhaps rather fitting that Bhutan was the last trip we took prior to the pandemic so that we were able to take away some of its lessons regarding the value of a community approach that by protecting others we protect ourselves and everyone benefits.
Covid-19 Update for Bhutan Travel: Bhutan opened its borders on 23 September, 2022 for all tourists without mandatory quarantines (check for updates). We know people who have already traveled there since this opening and had a very good experience.
Known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon because of the alpine storms which sweep in from the Himalayas, Bhutan understands the value of protecting itself — just as it did when marauding Tibetans historically rolled in from the plateau seeking coveted Buddhist relics. The Kingdom of Bhutan, forged from fortress-bound kingdoms, was for much of its history off limits. In fact, international tourism only began in the 1970s and there are still limits on the number of visitors allowed per year to manage this.
Even now, open yet careful, Bhutan feels somehow out of reach — yet it’s not. It’s accessible. But it is one-of-a-kind with all the cultural facets one might expect from a place flush with a complicated royal family history, monasteries stitched into Himalayan hillsides, and a pervasive mysticism which does not find distinction from the state.
That’s the allure of visiting, especially as the country and its people define their place in the world and teach others through its example as the first carbon-negative country in the world and its focus on prioritizing community.
This is what we encountered in Bhutan. And why you may want to consider adding Bhutan to your travel wish list when it is safe to travel again.
The following experiences are highlights from our Bhutan Tour with G Adventures and are presented in chronological order as we experienced them. If you are considering a similar tour to Bhutan and want to know what to expect, here’s a taste of the itinerary, activities and destinations you'll experience. Our tour included the Druk Path Trek, but this trek has been replaced by an exciting new hiking option – the Trans Bhutan Trail – that is the same path used by royals, monks, and traders for thousands of years that has been revived for hikers to enjoy. Not all G Adventures tours to Bhutan include hiking so if you are a big hiker you might want to choose either the Camp the Trans Bhutan Trail (11 days) or Highlights of the Trans Bhutan Trail (12 days) that include some hiking as well as many of the experiences highlighted below. Disclosure: This tour was sponsored and provided to us in conjunction with our partnership with G Adventures as Wanderers
Table of Contents
Bhutan Travel: 20 Things to Do, Places to Visit and Experience
1) Hike up to Bhutan’s oldest nunnery, Kila Goempa
Spend any time in Bhutan and you’ll quickly realize that many of the country’s temples, monasteries and meditation centers are perched on cliff or stuffed into a mountain’s edge. Kila Goempa, located near Paro and believed to be Bhutan’s oldest nunnery, is no exception. But, you have to work a bit —i.e., hike for several hours — in order to see it for yourself.
Our hike began at Chelela Pass at 3,810 meters/13,500 feet, a layer of snow and frozen prayer flags reminding us of the season: winter. The hike follows a relatively easy trail through the forest, though with snow it becomes a little tricky and slippery. After a couple of hours you emerge from the trees below Kila Goempa and its compound of meditation cells and residential halls perched above.
It’s believed that this has been a place for meditation since the 9th century, but that the temple and monastery was built in the 17th century. Today, it is home to around 50-70 nuns who live and study there, including a few in the process of doing a 3 year, 3 month, 3 week silent and solitary meditation retreat. Respect.
Bonus: This is good acclimatization hike. It also exercises some of your gear if you plan to do the Druk Path Trek. (link)
2) Immerse yourself in Bhutan’s mountains on the Druk Path Trek
If you know us, you’ll know we take every opportunity we can to go trekking and get into nature. We specifically chose our tour because it included trekking in Bhutan on the Druk Path Trek — four days exploring Bhutan’s mountains, disconnecting and getting away from it all.
Each day of the trek included a diversity of landscapes and trails – through the forest, along mountain ridges, up rocky inclines, over mountain passes. As we chose to do a winter trek we also experienced the thrill of occasional snow, which turned out to be both beautiful and peaceful. Evenings and nights could get quite cold, but a sense of “invigorating” adventure pervaded as we camped in the Himalayas in winter.
3) Celebrate at the highest point of the Druk Path, Labana Pass (4,200 meters/13,800 feet)
One of the highlights of the Druk Path Trek was reaching Labana Pass, with its views of the nearby Himalayan sub-ranges and surrounding valleys. Not only was this a challenge to reach because its elevation at 4,200 meters/13,800 feet, but during our winter trek we also had to make our way through a considerable amount of snow and ice to reach this pass.
All worth it though.
4) Admire the temple cats…and understand their symbolism
Buddhism, the primary religion of Bhutan, asks its devotees to care for all sentient beings, including all animals. This is why you’ll often see food left out for stray dogs and cats near Buddhist temples and monasteries, as well as in chosen spots in towns and cities. It was no different at the Thujidrak Goemba temple on the third day of our Druk Path Trek. Water and food was left out for local cats and dogs. Signs were posted about caring for animals, too.
It’s also worth noting that in Bhutan there are four levels of prayers for devotees entering a temple. The first is for animals since they do not have the ability to pray for themselves. Then comes prayers for society and the nation, followed by prayers for family. And last, are the prayers for oneself. A very fitting – and deliberate — order.
5) Circumambulate around Memorial Chorten in Thimphu
Built in remembrance of Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the Memorial Chorten (or National Memorial Stupa) is a popular place for locals to hang out. The tradition now is that family members drop their elderly parents off on the way to work so they can spend the day with their friends, take time to pray, do circumambulations of the Memorial Chorten and nearby prayer wheels, and have some fresh air.
(Note: circumambulations – movements around a sacred object – in Bhutan are always done in a clockwise direction.)
Although the Memorial Chorten is painted white and may appear plain on the outside, the three-story interior is flush with color, imagery and idolatry — paintings, statues, shrines, mandalas and more. Our CEO (tour leader) walked us through each floor, explaining the meaning of and stories behind the different deities, Buddhas, incarnations and shrines.
Note: It is forbidden to take photos inside any Buddhist temple in Bhutan, which is why you see only exterior images here. This restriction is minded out of respect to sacred destinations and to avoid disturbing or distracting praying visitors. We like it.
6) Get your fill of Bhutanese food, especially ema datshi (chili and cheese)
We didn't know what to expect of Bhutanese cuisine before our trip, but were pleasantly surprised. It’s tasty, generally pretty healthy and distinct yet influenced by its neighbors (India, China and Nepal).
Also pictured in the image: mixed veggies, Bhutanese chili sauce “Ezay” (yes, you read that right), pakshaa paa (greens or green beans, chili peppers and hefty strips of pork fat), buckwheat noodles, carrot ginger soup, and Jasha Maru (Bhutanese chicken curry).⠀
A typical Bhutanese meal will consist of several, mainly vegetarian, dishes like you see in the image below. One traditional dish that stands out and is a nearly ubiquitous favorite: Ema Datshi — chili and cheese (pictured top right in the image). In this dish, the chili peppers are the vegetables. Each version we tried featured varying levels of heat, but they all gave a kick and served as a welcome side or condiment.⠀
Our recommendation for eating in Bhutan: focus on the veggies. Almost all vegetables you find in meals in Bhutan are organic and grown locally. All meat is imported from India. This is because killing animals is outlawed in Bhutan for religious purposes.⠀
7) Admire traditional Bhutanese archery at a local competition.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Yes, it’s much more difficult than it looks. (We know as we tried it later in the trip.)
Traditional Bhutanese archery employs a bamboo bow in an effort to strike a tiny 90 cm/3 feet tall and 30 cm/11 inches wide bullseye from 145 meters/475 feet away. Yes, that’s almost 1.5 football or soccer fields away. It’s insanely far.
And yet, when we crashed an archery competition in Thimphu, we saw an occasional arrow strike the target. When it did, the shooting team would do a short dance and sing in celebration. Silence returned soon after as deep concentration was needed to repeat.
8) Try to count the 100,000 statues inside the giant golden Buddha Dordenma
Overlooking Thimphu sits the massive golden Buddha Dordenma, the second largest seated Buddha statue in the world (the largest is in Hong Kong). Although this Buddha is impressive from the outside, what’s inside is even more remarkable: an estimated 100,000+ small Buddha statues, all of gilded bronze.
In addition to several shrines and a large meditation area, the interior also features several photos of the Bhutanese royal family which tell the succession of kings and queens over the centuries. An in-depth visit here will outline the role of and relationship between the royal family in Bhutan and Buddhism, the country’s primary religion by constitution.
9) Visit the open air market to learn about local spices, chilis and incense
While in Bhutan, take all opportunities to visit local markets and strings of local vendors on the street. We suggest this not only to learn about the ingredients of and culture around local food, but also to engage with and meet local people in Bhutan. The Centenary Farmer’s Market in Thimphu is definitely worth a visit, with its piles of dried and fresh chili peppers (why Bhutanese food has such a kick to it), Sichuan peppers, chopped bitter gourd and much more. (Note: we picked up some Sichuan peppers and roasted chili flakes and they definitely have a kick!)
We were also impressed also by the endless varieties of incense, of varying colors, textures and blends. Incense is a bit of an art in Bhutan and is used to purify air in temples, homes and markets.
10) Check out some live rock music for a taste of modern Bhutan
You wouldn’t think a visit to a venue featuring rock music cover bands should make a top travel in a destination list. In Bhutan, it’s different.
While much of what you’ll see and experience in Bhutan is connected to traditional culture, it’s worthwhile to spend a night out at live rock music bar to get a feel for the flip side of modern day Bhutan and its youth culture.
The highlight at Mojo Park in Thimphu isn’t hearing a live band cover songs from Coldplay to David Bowie. Instead, it’s being in a bar — one that could be anywhere in the world — and watching young Bhutanese interact, dress in both traditional and non-traditional Bhutanese clothing, drink, sing along with western rock songs, but sing even louder and more passionately to Bhutanese rock songs.
If you happen to spend a night or two in Thimphu, hop on over to Mojo Park for a craft beer, a fun night, and a little insight into Bhutan’s future.
11) Admire the phalluses (in sculptures and paintings) en route to Chime Lhakhang, The Temple of the Divine Madman
Yes, you are seeing these photos correctly. Phalluses of all sizes, colors and designs are painted on the sides of homes in Bhutan. They symbolize power and are thought to ward away evil spirits and protect against gossip. As a side benefit, they also shock – and sometimes delight – visitors.
The prevalence of painted and sculpted phalluses is especially high around Chime Lhakhang, or Temple of the Divine Madman, dedicated to the lama Drukpa Kunley of the 15th and 16th century. He was a rather unconventional lama who preached in an unorthodox way which shocked traditional Buddhist priests and the hierarchy of the day. He is known to have subdued a demon with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” and advocated for people to display the phallus symbol on walls and to hang it from the four corners of their homes.
To no surprise, the Chime Lhakhang temple is also known as a fertility temple. Visitors travel there from all over Bhutan and the world to be blessed and to have special prayers said for them in their hopes of having offspring. The temple even maintains a photo album of photos sent by parents who’ve borne children after their visit.
12) Take in the rituals and living history at Bhutan’s Temples
All of Bhutan’s temples and fortresses are alive, active with monks, nuns, and devotees. None, it seems, are static. Few if any serve only as museum. This means that as a visitor you are a guest, respectful of the local people, and the rituals, blessings and silence happening around you.
For example, it’s common for locals to make offerings — of food, money, incense, etc. — for blessing and to pay respect. For those who have made them, these offerings don’t serve as pretty displays. Instead, offerings like the fruit bowl above are used to feed and support the monks studying at the attached monastery school. Often, these young monks come from poorer families who rely on the monastery to educate and support their children.
13) Admire Punakha Dzong (Fortress) in Bhutan’s old capital
Punakha Dzong is among a series of fortresses built across Bhutan in the 17th century to protect the country from invaders (mainly from Tibet) as it formed a union of the country’s various kingdoms. The fortress is strategically built between the Pho Chhu (Male) and Mo Chhu (Female) river in the Punakha–valley. In lore, it draws on the strengths of both genders.
Although it has suffered several fires and invasions, Punakha Dzong stands as Bhutan’s second largest and second oldest fortress, and is widely considered the country’s most impressive. It remains home to the same holy Buddhist relic — Ranjung Karsapani, the “self-created” statue — that attracted Tibetan invaders all those centuries ago, and is flush with local mystique and legend.
14) Turn the prayer wheels at Kyichu Lhakhang Temple in Paro
Prayer wheels are ubiquitous in Bhutan. Used to accumulate good karma (which is often equated with wisdom to combat ignorance) and to rid oneself of impurities (bad karma), prayer wheels are always spun clockwise, typically while reciting prayers or mantras.
At Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan's oldest temples located in the town of Paro, an elderly nun spins the prayer wheels during a visit to the temple with her family.
As anywhere, a moment or two of people watching in Bhutan tells a good deal about the importance of belief and the role of devotion in Bhutanese society.
15) Soak your muscles in a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath
Think of the hot stone bath as the traditional Bhutanese farmhouse spa. River stones, supposedly mineral-laden, are collected and heated on hot coals for several hours until they are glowing red (and around a temperature of 300 Celsius). They are then deposited into a wooden tub filled with water in order to heat it, thereby releasing minerals. This process is what local people historically used for bathing prior to in-house plumbing taking over.
The way it works here is that you are in a hot tub of your own, on the other side of the wooden tub holding the hot stones which heat your water. While you share the water warmed by the hot stones, you are protected from accidentally touching them by a secure divider. The idea: you get to enjoy privacy and the warmth and minerals from the stones, but you don’t risk burning yourself.
Should you require more heat or warmer water, there’s no switch or tap. Instead you call out “more stones” and another glowing hot stone will be deposited on the other side of your tub. You keep doing this until your desired temperature, which we found to be about 3 or 4 stones (in the middle of winter). You can also ask for cold water if you find that you’ve been overly ambitious along the way.
Then, you soak in the mineral-laden hot water. The water is relaxing and therapeutic. Particularly after four days of trekking in the mountains on the Druk Path Trek, this experience is well-timed and just about perfect.
Note: While many hotels and spas offer hot stone baths, we did ours at a family farmhouse outside of Paro. It was a nice family-run operation and we know that the money we paid went directly to the family.
16) Visit a local family farmhouse for a home-cooked Bhutanese meal
As much as we enjoy eating in restaurants, we’ll opt for a home-cooked meal in a family home any day. These opportunities not only often result in delicious meals, but they also provide an opportunity to meet a local family, see how they live and know that your tour money is truly staying local.
This was the experience we had at a local family farmhouse our CEO (tour leader) took us to outside of Paro on one of our last nights in Bhutan. We enjoyed a hearty meal featuring several vegetable dishes, pork, ezay (Bhutanese chili sauce) and homemade rice wine in a pleasant living room adorned with paintings and symbols.
The 5-year old granddaughter played host, making sure we were well fed and that we possessed all the right utensils. Unwittingly funny and entertaining, she also practiced her English with us. Despite only being five years old, she’d already figured out how to manage everyone and had assumed full control of the house. We wouldn’t be surprised if she’s prime minister one day.
17) Join the pilgrims on the hike up to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest)
Before arriving in Bhutan, we’d come across plenty of Tiger's Nest temple images. It’s the de facto symbol of the country. What those photos often don’t convey is what an enjoyable and challenging experience it is to get up there, including sharing the path with local pilgrims along the way.
Our G Adventures group set out early in the morning. The idea: to capitalize on the crispness of the early morning light and air and to avoid the crowds. If you look closely in the photo above you might be able to spot the tiny Tiger's Nest tucked high (3,120 meters/10,240 ft) into the mountain in front of us as we set off on what would be three miles (or five kilometers) of winding uphill.
On the way up, you’ll encounter prayer wheels and prayer flags at different turns. You’ll find all manner of contemplation, including locals reciting mantras, saying prayers. The arrangement, tone and color of this particular scene really struck us.⠀
While a visit inside the monastery itself is worthwhile, it was the journey up for us that made the Tiger's Nest experience so memorable.
18) Admire Tiger’s Nest from across the canyon
After hiking for several hours up some steep hills you finally reach a turn and a short descent. From there, Tiger’s Nest finally appears in full view across the canyon. It’s a remarkable sight; the 17th century temple is built right on the mountain’s edge.
Tiger’s Nest is placed at the location where the Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) is believed to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century and is said to have meditated in a cave for 3+ months. This direct connection to Guru Rinpoche has made Tiger’s Nest one of the most sacred temple sites in the country. It is not only popular for foreign visitors, but also for Bhutanese visitors who come as part of a pilgrimage to pray and to receive blessings.⠀
After a short descent back into the canyon and a short hike back up again we finally reached the entrance to Tiger’s Nest. Due to the early hour we had much of the temple to ourselves, sharing it only with a few monks providing blessings. By the time we began our descent, most others were just beginning their hike up. Perfect timing for us.
Note: Upon arrival at the monastery at the top, you’ll be required to secure your phone, camera and any other bags or electronics in a locker at the entrance to the temple. This is to prevent any photos from being taken inside the temple, as well as to avoid distraction and bumping into things with bulky items.
19) Get all dressed up, Bhutanese-style
On our last night we got decked out in the traditional Gho (for men) and Kira (for women). While traditional dress such as this is required for official visits, in official buildings and at festivals, you’ll find men and women throughout Bhutan continuing to wear similar clothing in everyday life.
While the outfits are attractive and surprisingly comfortable, like any traditional outfit of its kind, there’s a sort of magic to cinching and securing it.
We’d like to think we cleaned up pretty well.
20) Take a spin during a Bhutanese mask dance
Bhutan is a country of festivals and dances, each having its own special symbolism and purpose. Many are connected to Buddhist traditions, beliefs and legends, and the planting and harvest cycles of the agricultural calendar. Some are also connected to the universal themes of love, life, and death.
Although our visit didn’t coincide with festival season, we managed to experience some traditional and mask dances on our last night. Some were light and comical (the two guys who dressed as the self-deprecating yak had us howling!), while others more serious and spiritual. Most impressive, however, were the spins and jumps.
In this way, Bhutanese dance reflects the ups and downs, the contours of daily life and the passage of the seasons.
How to Plan Your Bhutan Travels + Common Questions about Visiting Bhutan
During our travels in Bhutan, we fielded a lot of excellent questions about visiting Bhutan, including some of the practical considerations regarding traveling there, organizing a tour, and all you need to know for your trip.
How to get a visa to Bhutan?
Getting a visa to visit Bhutan is not difficult in terms of submitting a lot of documents to an embassy and waiting for a visa to be issued. However, you must book a tour with the required minimum daily spending requirements (see #3 below). Then, the tour operator will coordinate your visa for you based on the dates of your trip. Although we’ve heard the visa costs $40, this was included in the price of our tour so we did not pay for it separately.
We received our Bhutanese visa by email from G Adventures about a week prior to our tour departure. We printed out the PDF document and showed it when we checked in for our flight to Bhutan and at immigration upon arrival. More information on visas to Bhutan here.
Note: This visa information applies to all nationalities except Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian. Citizens from these countries do not require a special tourist visa dependent upon a tour.
Must I take a tour to visit Bhutan?
Starting from June 2022 an authorized tour is not a requirement of obtaining a tourist visa to Bhutan and it is possible to book your trip independently and pay the required SDF ($200/day) to the Bhutanese government.
However, if you choose to take a tour you have the choice whether you want to book a small group tour (e.g., similar to our tour with G Adventures) or an individual or private tour. You have full flexibility to decide your Bhutan travel itinerary, length of your tour, and your activities.
How much is the minimum daily package for a tour in Bhutan? Why is Bhutan so expensive?
The Bhutanese government tourism policy for over 40 years has been that of “High Value, Low Impact.” The goal: to minimize the potential negative impacts of high-volume tourism while maximizing the potential positive impacts and focusing on sustainability from high value or “high quality” tourism.
In June 2022, the Bhutanese government its increased the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) — the amount that goes to the government from tourists for development project — from $65 USD per traveler per day to $200 USD per traveler per day. All other travel costs are on top of that SDF amount (e.g., accommodation, food, transport, guiding services, etc.). The SDF fee is included in the price of all Bhutan tours.
The idea: a high daily SDF will automatically filter out the large number of budget travelers who do not want to spend that much, yet it will not deter those who really want to visit Bhutan and have no issue spending the required amounts. Note: This fee does not apply to citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
If you are price sensitive then the least expensive option for Bhutan is to travel in a small group in the low season. This is what we did by taking a G Adventures small group tour (we had 7 people in our group) during the low season (late January to early February).
Bhutan also limits the number of tourists who can visit Bhutan each year (currently at around 100,000 people/year) so as to avoid overcrowding. Even if you travel in the high season you shouldn’t face loads of tour groups and travelers, which could negatively impact your travel experience.
What is included in a Bhutan tour? How is the money used?
Essentially, a tour to Bhutan is pretty much all-inclusive. This means that the price and tour includes accommodation, local guide, transport, entrance fees, activities, support services for trekking, and all meals. What’s not included are things like additional drinks (alcohol, sodas, etc.), souvenirs/shopping, personal activities (e.g., spa treatments) and tips.
In addition, $65/day goes to the government as a Sustainable Development Fee. We were told that this money is allocated towards providing free healthcare and education to Bhutanese people. This is an example of how tourism money is invested directly back into the country and its development.
How do I travel to Bhutan? What airlines fly to Bhutan?
We won’t lie, Bhutan is not the easiest or cheapest destination to reach. There is only one international airport, Paro (PBH). Only two airlines, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines, are authorized to fly there, and only a limited number of airports links are available in Asia for inbound and outbound flights.
Since neither Druk Air or Bhutan Airways is connected with other international airlines or systems, you often need to overnight in the departure destination (and possibly sort out a visa there) to be sure you don’t miss your fight into Bhutan. In addition, the price of the flights to Bhutan are exceptionally high considering the distance and the general price of flights across the rest of Asia.
However, since don’t have much of a choice flying to Bhutan, you make the best of the situation and try to find the most convenient flights and connections. For us, that meant flying into Delhi, India and overnighting there before getting a flight to Paro on Druk Air. On the return we flew directly from Paro to Bangkok, Thailand on Bhutan Airways. Most of our group flew in from Kathmandu, Nepal.
The price of flights is pretty much the same between Druk Air and Bhutan Airways. We tried both airlines just to see if there was a difference. Although they are pretty similar we’d suggest Druk Air as being a bit more organized and put together. You can book your tickets and pay online with both Druk Air and Bhutan Airways.
Note: The price of flights to and from Bhutan depends on whether you are a Bhutanese citizen, a citizen from a SAARC country (e.g., India, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc.) or a non-SAARC foreigner (i.e., rest of the world). The latter group has the most expensive tickets. If you think you can trick the system regarding your country of origin, note that Bhutan airline websites will ask for your visa type in advance and warn that they can cancel your ticket if you provide incorrect information.
Which is the best side of the plane to sit on when flying into Paro, Bhutan?
When flying from Kathmandu to Paro, the left side of the aircraft offers the best views. A window seat on the left side (try to get one that’s not directly over the wing, of course) will provide the best views of the high Himalayan mountains, including Mount Everest.
When is the best time to travel to Bhutan?
Many people say that the best time to visit is in the spring months of mid-March to early May when the rhododendrons and other flowers are in bloom and the weather has begun to turn warm. Another good time from September to November, in autumn when skies are supposed to be clear so you should have good views of the mountains. Festival season seems to be mostly in March/April and September/October (you can see a list of all 2022 festivals in Bhutan here).
The monsoon rains usually arrive late May and last through the summer until late August. Although the fields and hills would be super green during this time, I don’t think I’d recommend doing a trek then because of the rain, mud and clouds (no views).
We visited Bhutan in late January/early February, meaning the heart of winter. We chose this time as we usually enjoy visiting places in the shoulder or off season. Although we had to be prepared for some cold weather, especially during the Druk Path Trek with camping in snow, we found winter a good time to visit Bhutan. It was usually sunny and relatively warm during the day, which was quite pleasant.
In addition, we encountered almost no other tourists the whole time we were in Bhutan, and that also included having the Druk Path Trek trails and campsites to ourselves. Almost all the temples, fortresses and other sites were also quite empty, save an Indian tour group from time to time. This also meant that our walk up and visit to Tiger’s Nest Temple was pleasantly empty.
Are there ATMs in Bhutan?
Before we proceed to the long and somewhat complicated story of using ATMs in Bhutan, we note that carrying U.S. dollars($) or Euros(€) cash is wise. You’ll find this money useful in making exchanges in a pinch and also using in many shops. Exchange rates vary widely between currencies, as well as the denomination of bill (i.e., higher denomination = better rate), and from hotel to hotel and shop to shop, but they are usually based on the Bank of Bhutan rates.
Although there are ATMs in Bhutan (in major cities like Paro and Thimphu), the machines are fickle. We and others in our group made several failed ATM withdrawal attempts before figuring out what steps to take and which types of available ATM withdrawal requests to make in order to see money emerge from the machine.
If you wish to use an ATM card to make withdrawals of local Bhutanese currency (the Ngultrum), you should notify the bank associated with your ATM or debit card that you will be traveling in Bhutan. When withdrawing money from major banks (e.g., Bank of Bhutan, a.k.a. BOB), the “fast cash” withdrawal options (e.g., 5000, 3000 or 1000) were the only ones that seemed to work for us. Selecting the regular withdrawal from a current or savings account did not work. When we needed more money than those options offered, we simply made multiple withdrawals. (Note: ATM fees are less a concern for us because we bank with Charles Schwab Bank, which refunds to us any ATM fees at the end of each month.)
Even if you notified your bank in advance of your trip to Bhutan, might still fail in getting money out at the Bhutanese ATM and then need to call your bank again…as we did. When inquiring as to why we were experiencing difficulty, we discovered that while there was no issue or block with our bank, there was an issue with the interbank network (Visa, Maestro, Cirrus, etc.). In our case, our bank had to have a conversation with Visa to request that they allow withdrawal transactions from Bhutan to proceed. Again, try your ATM card first and the fast-cash option might work. If it doesn’t, call the bank and make sure that neither they nor the intrabank network are in the way.
Finally, although you should officially be able to exchange any leftover Bhutanese currency back into a major currency, we would not recommend piling up cash and expecting the exchange to be easy at Paro airport. Perhaps because it was low season (or the coronavirus pandemic was just underway), money exchanges were empty. Even they were open, I would not be particularly confident that they would be adequately supplied with the proper denominations of currency you prefer or require on your way out of Bhutan.
What is Gross National Happiness in Bhutan?
While most countries in the world gauge their progress using a measure known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), one based ostensibly on output as a measure of collective wealth, Bhutan uses something different called Gross National Happiness (GNH). The idea: that there is a more holistic or multi-dimensional approach to development and measuring “success” than just GDP and financial yardsticks.
The idea of GNH originally came from Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s. Since then it has evolved into measurement device which attempts to quantify whether or not the country is meeting its happiness development goals. The four pillars of GNH include:
- Sustainable Socioeconomic Development
- Environmental Conservation
- Preservation and Promotion of Culture
- Good Governance
While we are not particularly big fans of the “Gross National Happiness” title (it’s a bit gimmicky and reductive) we do respect and appreciate making a more holistic attempt to understand and measure progress and development. It’s admirable that any government, national or otherwise, might attempt to elevate and somehow quantify social, environment, cultural and governance factors – in pursuit of a more sustainable development model. More on GNH here.
As for Bhutan being the “happiest country” and its people being “the happiest in the world” that also strikes us as a gimmick and art of marketing. It’s interesting to note that many of the articles I read authored by Bhutanese people highlighted that “happiness” is personal and what makes one “happy” is often based on a variety of subjective factors.
Bhutan struggles with development and the rush of modernity as many societies do and have. That will likely be apparent to any visitor to the country. And while there’s no one way to make anyone “happy”, there’s arguably some benefit to a people when its government makes an effort to elevate the importance of the environment, culture, social issues and transparency.
Disclosure: Our tour to Bhutan was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. This article includes affiliate links — that is, if you book a G Adventures tour by clicking on one of the links above the price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission to support this website and stories like this. Check out all the different G Adventures tours we've taken and recommend. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.