Bhutan is a country I truly believe everyone should visit at least once in their life. It’s amazing to see how everyone is so satisfied and happy with what they have got. No one tries to mug you because you are a tourist, no one takes advantages of your vulnerabilities, and you feel so safe that there is just nothing to worry about. Here are a few things you need to know if you are travelling to Bhutan.
Bhutan has a complicated system of visa and permits. I have written a detailed post on only Bhutan and its permit situation. Read it here.
The official currency of Bhutan is Bhutanese Rupee also abbreviated as “Nu”. It’s almost the same as the Indian currency in terms of value. Other than this, almost everywhere in Bhutan, they accept the Indian Rupee as well. Since both currencies have the same value, it’s easy to trade in any of them.
The two major networks in Bhutan are Tashi cell and B-Mobile. Tourist SIM cards are available at most of the shops in the main cities. Tashi Cell is considered with the best availability as you move out of the main city. I bought Tashi Cell as well; you can get a tourist SIM in 250 Nu/INR and you have to get a data plan separately, which costs 299 Nu for 1.5 GB or 100 Nu for 400 MB data.
The official language of Bhutan is not Bhutanese, it’s Zonka. Thanks to the English-based education system and free education policy of the government till 10th standard, almost everyone understands English—even the young kids. In the main cities like Paro, Thimpu, etc., everyone understands Hindi as well. Since most of the tourists in Bhutan are Indians, so they make sure you have no difficulty in communicating. Further, from the main cities, people are less comfortable with English but that’s where the young kids come in. You can clearly see the effect of education on the next generation. I stayed in a homestay in a very remote village and the 8-year-old spoke fluent English whereas his father was barely able to speak a few words.
When To Visit:
There are two seasons to travel to Bhutan. The main seasons are from September to November and March to April. The off-season is from December to February and June to August. For non-SAARC travellers, the price of the tour differs in both seasons. Check out more about visa and permit in my last post here.
You thought India is the home of spicy food? Wait till you get to Bhutan. Bhutanese people love two things: red chilli and red rice. Three times a day, rice is a mandatory part of the meal. Other than hotels and restaurants, there is no concept of bread. They have this special kind of rice called Red Rice. Markets are full of different varieties of chilli and people line up to buy them. The main dish of Bhutan is Ema Datshi, it’s a spicy dish made of long green chilli peppers in a hot sauce. Almost every Bhutanese has it and you can find it at any place. I stayed at two homestays in my trip and both served me the same dish.
Other than Ema Datshi, other local dishes are also made from red chilli. Red chilli is the main ingredient in any food they cook, so you better be ready for a spicy feast.
Accommodation varies in Bhutan based on where you are travelling. Main cities like Paro and Thimpu are full of hotels. Thimpu is based on two parallel roads Changlam and Nordzim. Both the streets are flooded with all sorts of budget hotels. 99% of this hotel is not listed on any booking website, so do not book hotels in advance other than for the first day. From the second day onwards, find the hotels locally. Outside Thimpu and Paro, you will find the concept of homestay more popular. Hotels can cost about 1000–2000 per night for a single person, but if you can share, it can reduce the price massively. Homestays also cost about same, but the food is usually separate and more expensive than a restaurant. However, eating home-made food with a local family makes it worth while.
There aren’t many options in Bhutan when it comes to public transportation. Buses are there, but the whole country relies on taxis. Don’t worry, there are a plenty of them all over the Bhutan.
Taxis in Bhutan have a unique feature: The name of the city they are registered to is written on the taxi in big black words. How this helps is if you have to go to Paro from Thimpu, it’s more likely that the taxi with Paro written on it will go because his car is registered there and more likely his home is in Paro as well so he will be returning there anyway. Almost all the taxi drivers speak Hindi and English perfectly and rates are usually fixed. But if you are hiring a private taxi, then you can bargain a little bit.
There are two ways taxies can be used.
- Private Hire: You can hire a whole taxi for yourself and agree on the price and route you want to follow. For example, if you want one taxi to take you to all the sightseeing in Thimpu only for one day, it may cost you 1,500 Nu; if you want to take the taxi to other cities, it may cost you more. In some areas, a private taxi is the only option because shared taxis don’t go via that route. Try to avoid hiring a whole taxi for yourself because it’s expensive and there is no official rates fixed: You may end up paying a lot.
- Shared Taxi: These taxis ply on a lot of routes on a sharing basis, with a maximum of four people. This is a time-taking process because he won’t move without having enough people going to the same route, so you may end up waiting for 20 -30 mins. Most of the main cities like Thimpu, Paro, Punakha, Wagner, etc., are connected via shared taxi. Few off-route areas like HAA Valley, Phobjika valley, etc., were not possible in shared, so we had to hire a full taxi. But always tell the taxi driver you want to be shared, otherwise they will push you to hire a whole taxi.
This is the first time I am including this section because I think this is important. Almost all over Bhutan, you will see a few things very common, and questions will keep popping in your head that what they mean. Let me list some of them and their importance in Bhutan.
- Coloured Prayer Flags: Five coloured flags will be seen all over the mountains and bridges especially. These are called prayer flags because there are prayers written on them and these are not the prayer to gods. Bhutanese believe that air and water are strong carriers of energy and mantras written on these flags will bring positivity and wisdom to the human mind. It creates a positive environment around us, and I can assure you it really works. You will feel the positivity in the whole country.
- White Flags: Other than coloured ones, you will also notice some white prayer flags on random locations in the mountains placed in groups. These flags, unlike coloured ones, are there for the peace of a dead person. When someone dies in a family, family members put these flags up there so that the mantras on the flag can bring peace to the dead.
- Butter Lamp: Every temple and monastery will have tonnes of lamps full of butter. Bhutanese believe that the after life is very dark and by lighting a butter lamp you can give yourself some light in their after life.
- Prayer Wheel: The most common and famous thing found in every temple, monastery, house and even on streets is prayer wheels. These wheels have mantras written on them in the ancient language called Pali. The idea is same as coloured flags: Rotating them is believed to send out positive energy into the environment. So, it’s considered a good practice to rotate them when you see them.