Touring Bhutan is a challenge for a traveller with physical disabilities, but you'll have a guide, driver and vehicle at your disposal, so this is possible with some planning. The Bhutanese are eager to help, and agencies should be able to arrange a strong companion to assist with moving about and getting in and out of vehicles.
Mobility impaired travellers will find that roads are rough and pavements, where they exist, often have holes and sometimes steps. Hotels and public buildings rarely have wheelchair access or lifts, and only a few hotels at the top end have bathrooms designed to accommodate wheelchairs.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Bargaining is not a Bhutanese tradition, and you won't get very far with your haggling skills here, except with trail-side vendors on the hike to Taktshang and in the local handicrafts section of the Thimphu Weekend Market. Almost all shops have fixed prices, and these are typically high compared to other countries in the region.
Dangers & Annoyances
Bhutan is a remarkably safe destination, but note the following:
- Some treks climb to elevations where Acute Mountain Sickness can be a risk; take time to acclimatise.
- Street dogs make a lot of noise at night and rabies is a risk; always be cautious around guard dogs in the hills.
- Rain, cloud, snow and rockfalls can affect travel by road and by air; double-check departure times the day before you fly.
- Roads are rough and winding; anti-motion medication such as Dramamine can help with carsickness symptoms.
- Theft is rare but keep an eye on your belongings as a precaution.
- Indian separatist groups are active across the border from southeastern Bhutan, so check the latest news before visiting the far southeast.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories)
- German Federal Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de)
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (www.mofa.go.jp)
- Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.rijksoverheid.nl/ministeries/ministerie-van-buitenlandse-zaken)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)
Embassies & Consulates
Visas are not available from Bhutanese embassies abroad. All tourist visa applications must be channelled through a tour company and the Tourism Council of Bhutan in Thimphu, and from there through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Embassies & Consulates in Bhutan
Emergency & Important Numbers
|Bhutan's country code||975|
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entry procedures are generally simple because your tour guide will meet you on arrival. You'll need your visa authorisation form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to board your flight into Bhutan and you should present it again to get your visa stamped into your passport on arrival.
You will receive a baggage declaration form to complete when you arrive in Bhutan. For tourists, the main purpose of this form is to ensure that you re-export anything you bring into the country. List any expensive equipment that you are carrying, such as cameras and laptops. Don't lose the form as you must return it when you leave the country.
Duty-free allowances include 1L of liquor. You can bring in just one carton of 200 cigarettes and these attract a 200% duty upon arrival. A packet or two is normally allowed in gratis. There are no restrictions on other personal effects, including trekking gear, brought into the country.
Departure formalities are straightforward, but you'll need to produce the form that you completed on arrival and may need to show all of the items listed on it. A lost form means complications and delays. If you lose the form, let your guide know as soon as possible so that special arrangements can be made to avoid any inconvenience.
The export of antiques and wildlife products is prohibited. If you wish to purchase a souvenir that looks old, have your guide clear it as a non-antique item with the Division of Cultural Properties, part of the Department of Culture inside the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. Customs authorities pay special attention to religious statues. It would be prudent to have any such statue cleared, whether old or not.
With the exception of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) tourists, visitors to Bhutan must arrange a visa through a tour agency as part of a prepaid all-inclusive tour.
Obtaining a Bhutan Visa
Unlike in most countries, visas for Bhutan are issued only when you arrive in the country, either at Paro airport or (if entering by road) at Phuentsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar. You must apply in advance through a tour operator, as part of a prepaid all-inclusive tour, and receive visa approval before you travel to Bhutan.
Applications for tourist visas must be submitted by a Bhutanese tour operator for approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu. The agency will submit an online visa application with a copy of the photo page of your passport to the Tourism Council of Bhutan in Thimphu. They in turn will check that you have completely paid for your trip (including the US$40 visa fee) and then issue an approval letter to the tour operator. With this approval in hand, the tour operator then makes a final application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which takes up to three days to process the visa.
You may be asked to fill out the visa form yourself, but many agencies will do this stage for you. What you will need to do is send a scan of your passport photo and your passport information pages to the agency. You may also need to provide your permanent address and occupation.
Once the visa clearance is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it sends a visa confirmation number to the tour operator and to Druk Air/Bhutan Airlines. The airline will not issue your tickets to Paro until it receives this confirmation number, and check-in staff will recheck the visa information before allowing you to board your flight.
The actual visa endorsement is stamped in your passport when you arrive at one of the permitted ports of entry for tourists. You will receive a visa for the exact period you have arranged to be in Bhutan; if some unusual event requires that you obtain a visa extension, your tour operator will arrange it.
The system is surprisingly efficient considering all the time, distance and various levels of bureaucracy involved. While your details will all be on the computers of immigration officials, it's very helpful to have a printout of the scanned visa authority to aid the immigration officials and airline to find your information quickly.
Special types of visas are available for people volunteering in Bhutan, and occasionally for journalists, but these require additional paperwork and must be applied for by the organisation bringing you to Bhutan.
Indian Travellers in Bhutan
Indian nationals (and citizens of Bangladesh and Maldives) are allowed to travel independently in Bhutan without a visa, either with or without the services of a Bhutanese tour operator. On arrival at Paro or Bhutan's land border crossing at Phuentsholing, Indian travellers can obtain a seven-day entry-cum-stay permit from the immigration office upon presentation of a passport or government-issued ID such as a voter's registration card.
This permit allows travel only to Phuentsholing, Thimphu and Paro, but it can be extended at the Immigration Office in Thimphu up to a maximum of 30 days. Indian tourists can also request a route permit here to travel beyond the three aforementioned towns. If you are driving yourself, you will need a route permit from the Royal Safety Transport Authority (RSTA; www.rsta.gov.bt), based at the bus station at Phuentsholing.
Indians without stay permits can wander freely in Phuentsholing and go 5km into Bhutan during the day, but must return to India before 10pm.
Visas for Neighbouring Countries
Nationals of most countries need a visa to visit India. If you are travelling overland to or from Bhutan via Phuentsholing, Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar, you will need an Indian visa.
The government of India strongly prefers that you obtain your Indian visa in the country that issued your passport. Citizens of most countries can apply for an e-visa online at www.indianvisaonline.gov.in. These visas allow two entries and are valid for 60 days, but you must enter India via one of 26 approved airports (you can leave via any immigration checkpoint, including at land border crossings).
If you need a 'regular' six-month tourist visa, you can file an application on the same website and then take the paperwork to your local Indian embassy (or its approved visa application centre) along with your passport, passport photos and supporting documents.
Tourist visas are generally issued for six months, are multiple entry, and are valid from the date of issue of the visa, not the date you enter India. This means that if you first enter India five months after the visa was issued, it will be valid for one month.
Visas for Nepal are available on arrival at Kathmandu airport and at all of Nepal's land border crossings, including Kakarbhitta, the crossing nearest to Bhutan. The fee for a 15-/30-/90-day visa is US$25/40/100. If you fly into Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport, you can scan your machine-readable passport into a visa registration machine, which will take your photo, and fill out the form digitally. At other crossings, you'll need to fill out the form manually and provide a passport photo.
If you are making a side trip to Bhutan from Kathmandu, you can get a multiple-entry visa the first time you arrive in Nepal. However, you can also simply get another visa on arrival when you return to Nepal. You can also obtain a visa for Nepal in advance from embassies abroad.
If you are simply transiting through Kathmandu, you can get a 24-hour transit visa for US$5.
All of Bhutan outside of the Paro and Thimphu valleys is classified as a restricted area. Tour operators obtain a 'road permit' for the places on your itinerary, and this permit is checked and endorsed by the police at immigration checkpoints strategically located at important road junctions. The tour operator must return the permit to the government at the completion of the tour, and it is scrutinised for major deviations from the authorised program. In general you won't be aware that any of this is going on in the background.
There are immigration checkpoints in Hongtsho (east of Thimphu), Chhukha (between Thimphu and Phuentsholing), Rinchending (above Phuentsholing), Wangdue Phodrang, Chazam (near Trashigang), Wamrong (between Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar) and in Samdrup Jongkhar. All are open from 5am to 9pm daily.
Permits to Enter Temples
Outside of festivals, tourists are allowed to visit the courtyards of dzongs and usually the tshokhang (assembly hall) and one designated lhakhang in each dzong, but only when accompanied by a licensed Bhutanese guide. This provision is subject to certain restrictions, including visiting hours, dress standards and other rules that vary by district.
The TCB has a small list of places tourists cannot visit, with the assumption that all other places can be visited. You can generally visit any lhakhang that is private or village run. Dzongs are open to all during the time of a tsechu, when you may visit the courtyard, but not the lhakhangs. Your tour company will deal with all the necessary paperwork, so let them know in advance if there are specific goembas or chapels you wish to visit.
If you are a practising Buddhist, you may apply for a permit to visit certain dzongs and religious institutions that are usually off-limits. The credibility of your application will be enhanced if you include a letter of reference from a recognised Buddhist organisation in your home country.
Ensure that your passport has more than six months of validity remaining as many countries in the region will not issue visas to anyone whose passport is about to expire.
Keep your passport safe. No country other than India has the facility for issuing a replacement passport in Bhutan. If you lose your passport, you must travel 'stateless' to another country to get it replaced. You should carry some additional form of identification and a photocopy of your passport to help in such an event.
Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian travellers do not need a passport to visit Bhutan, but will need some form of (photographic) identification, such as a voter's registration card.
Bhutan is a deeply traditional society and certain codes of conduct apply.
- Visiting temples & monasteries Shoes should be removed before entering any dzong, goemba or religious building. Photography is banned inside chapels, but is usually permitted in temple courtyards. Walk around chortens and shrines in a clockwise direction. Avoid revealing clothing – locals dress modestly so follow their lead.
- Physical contact It is considered rude to touch anyone on the head, or point your feet towards someone. Shaking hands is becoming common in urban areas, but the traditional Bhutanese greeting is a bow with the arms low and outstretched.
- Social etiquette When dining with a group of people, wait till everyone has been served before you start. If you offer something to a local person – for example a tip for your guide or driver – it is customary for them to initially decline the offer before they accept.
Although few people have problems in Bhutan, a travel insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is always recommended. Most policies will cover costs if you are forced to cancel your tour because of flight cancellation, illness, injury or the death of a close relative. This can protect you from major losses, given Bhutan's prepayment conditions and hefty cancellation charges.
Some insurance policies specifically exclude 'dangerous activities', and these can include motorcycling, rafting and even trekking. Read your policy carefully to be sure it covers ambulance rides or an emergency helicopter airlift out of a remote region, or an emergency flight home. Keep in mind that if you can't afford travel insurance, you certainly won't be able to afford to deal with a medical emergency overseas.
You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation. Some insurance companies ask you to call them (they suggest reversing the charges, an impossibility from Bhutan) at a centre in your home country, where an immediate assessment of your problem is made.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
There are very few internet cafes in towns, but free wi-fi is offered in most tourist hotels and many cafes and restaurants in larger cities. Bhutan Telecom and Tashi Cell offer 3G and 4G networks that are constantly expanding, and buying a local SIM is an inexpensive way to use data on your mobile phone.
Although you will probably notice cannabis growing in any bit of spare dirt, even in the towns, there is not a tradition of use and possession is illegal. Littering is prohibited, as is urinating in public; both incur a fine of Nu 1000.
Smoking in public places is prohibited, except in the dedicated smoking rooms found in some bars and restaurants; the fine for violating the ban is Nu 500. You can bring in up to 200 cigarettes for your own use but be prepared to be taxed 200% at customs. Don't sell any cigarettes brought into the country as this is illegal.
If you are arrested in Bhutan, contact the nearest embassy for your home country (this may be in Nepal or India). Note that embassy officials may not be able to do much more than put you in contact with a local lawyer.
In June 2019 Bhutan's National Assembly approved a bill to decriminalise homosexuality, repealing two sections of Bhutan's penal code. There are growing calls for gender recognition for transgender people. Like most Asians, the Bhutanese believe that what one does in private is strictly a personal matter, and public displays of affection are not appreciated. Everyone, regardless of orientation, should exercise discretion.
A good map can be hard to source outside the country. Bookshops in Kathmandu are the best bet for finding a map. International Travel Maps produces a 1:345,000 Bhutan & Northern India, and Nepa Maps produces a 1:380,000 Bhutan, and Bhutan Himalaya Trekking Routes.
In Bhutan, bookshops sell Thimphu and Paro city maps as well as country maps produced by the Survey of Bhutan. The Survey publishes a large 1:250,000 satellite country map overlaid with roads and major towns and district boundaries, as well as several specialised maps showing historical places and points of interest. However, many Survey of Bhutan maps are restricted and cannot be sold to visitors.
- Magazines Glossy magazines come and go, but the most successful magazine in Bhutan is Yeewong (www.yeewongmagazine.com) aimed at Bhutanese women. The free in-flight magazine Tashi Delek, provided on Druk Air flights, has some interesting articles on local culture.
- Newspapers Kuensel (www.kuenselonline.com) is the daily (except Sunday) national newspaper of Bhutan. Private newspapers include Bhutan Today (www.bhutantoday.net, biweekly), Bhutan Times (www.bhutantimes.com, Sunday), The Bhutanese (www.thebhutanese.bt, Saturday) and Business Bhutan (www.businessbhutan.bt, Saturday).
- Radio Bhutan Broadcasting Service (www.bbs.com.bt) broadcasts English news at 11am and 2pm on 96FM. Kuzoo FM 105 is a private English- and Dzongkha-language station with a mix of music and chat, or try Radio Valley at 99.9FM.
- Smoking Officially prohibited in public places, except designated smoking rooms at some bars, restaurants and hotels. The sale of tobacco is banned in Bhutan, but travellers can import a single carton of 200 cigarettes subject to a 200% tax at customs. Selling cigarettes brought into the country is illegal.
- TV BBS TV broadcasts evening news in English. Most tourist hotels have Indian satellite TV packages including international channels such as the BBC and CNN.
- Weights & measures The metric system is used throughout the country. In villages, rice is sometimes measured in a round measure called a gasekhorlo. There is a scale called a sang that is used for butter and meat.
Tours are prepaid so you'll only need money for drinks, laundry, souvenirs and tips; for this, bring cash as ATMs are not always reliable.
The unit of currency is the ngultrum (Nu), which is pegged to the Indian rupee. The ngultrum is further divided into 100 chetrum. There are coins to the value of 25 and 50 chetrum and Nu 1, and notes of Nu 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. The Nu 1 coin depicts the eight auspicious symbols called Tashi Tagye, while each note depicts a different dzong.
Indian rupees may be used freely anywhere in Bhutan (don't be surprised if you get change in rupees). Officially 500 and 1000 Indian rupee notes are not accepted due to large amounts of counterfeit notes; however, in practice 500s are usually accepted. Ngultrums cannot be used in India.
It is OK with the Bhutanese if you bring a reasonable amount of Indian currency into Bhutan, though Indian regulations officially prohibit currency export. Unspent ngultrums can be changed into US dollars on departure from Paro airport.
Bank of Bhutan (BoB), Bhutan National Bank and Druk PNB Bank ATMs accept some foreign credit cards, but ATMs in Bhutan use the magnetic strip rather than digital chips, and some foreign banks do not permit withdrawals via this method. The government also periodically blocks international ATM transactions for short periods to combat fraud. It always pays to carry cash in case you have problems. ATM transactions are limited to Nu 10,000 or Nu 15,000.
Banks in Bhutan exchange US, Canadian and Australian dollars, UK pounds, euros, Japanese yen and some other Asian and Scandinavian currencies. Note that the exchange rate for US dollar bills of lower denominations than US$100 is much lower than for large bills.
If you plan to make a major purchase, for example textiles or art, consider bringing US dollars in cash. Most shops will accept this, and it can save you the hassle of exchanging a large quantity of money in advance and then attempting to change it back if you don't find the exact piece you were looking for.
Cards are accepted at major handicraft stores and some of the larger hotels in Thimphu and other towns, but a surcharge of up to 5% often applies to cover the fees levied by the credit-card companies. PINs have to be four digits.
Tours are fully prepaid, so you could in theory manage in Bhutan without any local money at all, though you'll probably want to change at least US$50 to US$100 to pay for laundry and drinks, plus whatever you need for souvenirs and tips.
The exchange counters at the airport, larger hotels and the banks in Thimphu and Phuentsholing can change major currencies, and some smaller currencies from Asia and Scandinavia. Indian rupees are used interchangeably with ngultrums and are not officially exchanged at banks.
If you are heading to central and eastern Bhutan, you will do better sticking to US dollars. The exchange rate for US-dollar bills in denominations less than US$100 is around 10% lower than for large bills. US-dollar bills that are pre-1993 are generally not accepted.
You may change your unused ngultrums back into US dollars on departure at Paro airport (including in the airport bookshop). Travellers departing overland didn't have this facility at the time of research. You may need to produce your original exchange receipts. Ngultrums are useless outside of Bhutan (except as a curiosity).
Bhutan has two major banks, the Bank of Bhutan (www.bob.bt) and the Bhutan National Bank (www.bnb.bt), each with branches throughout the country. Smaller banks with forex include T-Bank and Druk PNB, with branches in larger cities. In addition, you can change money at many hotels and some shops.
For those paying their own way, most hotels charge 10% Bhutan Sales Tax (BST) and a 10% service charge (or less commonly 5%). These taxes are included in the prices listed for hotels. Most restaurants will charge the same.
Hotels At your discretion, but hotel staff will appreciate a small tip for carrying your bags.
Restaurants Restaurant bills include service tax, and tipping is not common.
Taxis It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
Tour guides It is customary to tip your guide and driver at the end of an organised trip. Allow US$10 to US$15 per day for guides, and US$8 to US$10 per day for drivers.
Tipping on an Organised Tour
You will usually be accompanied throughout your visit to Bhutan by the same tour guide and often the same driver. While it is not official TCB policy, both your guide and driver will expect a tip at the end of the trip. Most people allow US$10 to US$15 per day for guides and US$8 to US$10 per day for drivers.
Many leaders on group tours take up a collection at the conclusion of the trip and hand it over in one packet. With a large group this can be a substantial amount and the practice has created high expectations on the part of Bhutanese guides. If arranging tips yourself, hand them over in individual envelopes the evening before you leave, as things get rushed and easily forgotten on the day of departure.
If you've been trekking, it's appropriate to give a smaller tip to your guide, cook and waiter. Horsemen also expect tips, but these can be minimal if they are the owners of the horses or yaks and are making money by hiring out their animals. The stakes go up, however, if they have been especially helpful with camp chores and on the trail.
Travellers cheques can be exchanged at larger banks, but these are increasingly falling out of favour with travellers. Banks charge a 1% commission to exchange travellers cheques. You should carry only well-known brands such as American Express. There is no replacement facility for lost travellers cheques in Bhutan.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Banks 9am to 5pm (4pm winter) Monday to Friday, 9am to 11am or 1pm Saturday
Bars Close at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesday – the national 'dry' day.
Clubs Generally close at midnight most weekdays, and at around 2am or 3am on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
Government Offices 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm summer, until 4pm winter, Monday to Friday
Shops 8am to 8pm or 9pm
Memory cards are available in Thimphu and you will have no problem finding an internet cafe in Thimphu or Paro that can burn digital images to a CD. There are colour-printing facilities in Thimphu and Phuentsholing.
Bear in mind that there will be little or no opportunity for photography inside buildings, so you don't need to carry a flash and tripod for that purpose. Many of the dzongs and mountain peaks are best photographed at a distance with a telephoto lens. Be sure to carry spare batteries, as these are hard to find when in rural Bhutan.
Grab a copy of Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography for more tips and advice. Photography enthusiasts should check out the expert-guided itineraries of US-based agency Rainbow Photo Tours (www.rainbowphototours.com).
Bhutan is generally liberal about photography by tourists. There are a few places, though, with signs prohibiting photography, such as the telecommunication tower above Thimphu. It would also be prudent to refrain from taking pictures of military installations and around border crossings.
There are no restrictions on photographing the outside of dzongs (fort-monasteries) and goembas (monasteries), but photography is strictly prohibited inside goembas and lhakhangs (temples). There are several reasons for this. One is that in the past tourists have completely disrupted holy places with their picture taking. Another is the fear that photos of treasured statues will become a catalogue of items for art thieves to steal. And thirdly, some early tourists made photographs of religious statues into postcards that were then sold, offending local religious sensibilities.
During festivals you can photograph from the dzong courtyard where the dances take place. Remember, however, that this is a religious observance and that you should behave respectfully. Don't photograph a member of the royal family, even if you happen to be at a festival or gathering where they are present.
There is an extensive set of rules and restrictions for filming in Bhutan, including payment of additional royalties for commercial movie making. See the website of the Bhutan InfoComm & Media Authority (www.bicma.gov.bt/bicmanew) for details.
The mail service from Bhutan is reliable, and no special procedures are necessary.
Bhutan Post (www.bhutanpost.bt) offers both outgoing and incoming Expedited Mail Service (EMS), a reliable and fast international mail delivery facility that is cheaper than using a courier. There is also a Local Urgent Mail (LUM) service for delivery within Thimphu.
If you have made a purchase and want to send it home, it's easiest to have the shop make arrangements for you. Keep the receipt and let your guide know what you are doing so they can follow up in case the package does not arrive. Send all parcels by air. Sea mail, via Kolkata (Calcutta), takes months and items can go missing. Alternatively, DHL has an office in Thimphu.
- Airmail Letter Rates Letters up to 20g cost Nu 20 for domestic, Nu 25 for Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and Nu 30 for most other countries.
- EMS Rates 500g documents cost Nu 1505 to India, and Nu 1725/2800/2190 to Australia/USA/UK.
Public holidays follow both the Gregorian and lunar calendars and are decided by the Royal Civil Service Commission (www.rcsc.gov.bt) – dates are posted on its website.
Birthday of the Gyaltse (crown prince) 5 February
Birthday of Fifth King 21–23 February
Birthday of Third King 2 May
Coronation of Fourth King 2 June; also marked as 'Social Forestry Day'
Coronation of Druk Gyalpo 1 November
Constitution Day/Fourth King's Birthday 11 November
National Day 17 December; the date of the establishment of the monarchy in 1907
The following holidays are set by the traditional lunar calendar and Gregorian dates vary:
Losar January/February, New Year
Zhabdrung Kuchoe April/May; death of the Zhabdrung
Buddha Parinirvana/Saga Dawa May/June; enlightenment and death of Buddha
Birthday of Guru Rinpoche June/July
First sermon of Buddha July/August
Dashain September/October; Hindu celebration
Several major festivals are considered local public holidays, including Thimphu's dromchoe and tsechu (dance festival) celebrations in September or October. Note that dates for festivals can vary by several weeks each year, especially if they are adjusted to conform to auspicious dates. Before you schedule a trip around a specific festival, check with a tour operator or the Tourism Council of Bhutan for the correct dates.
In the Bhutanese lunar system, months have 30 days, with the full moon on the 15th. The eighth, 15th and 30th days of the month are auspicious and you'll notice increased activity and prayers in monasteries across the country.
Bhutan's festival dates are fixed according to the lunar calendar and so the Western date varies every year. Check www.tourism.gov.bt for the latest dates.
- Smoking Officially prohibited in public places, except designated smoking rooms at some bars, restaurants and hotels. The sale of tobacco is banned in Bhutan, but travellers can import a single carton of 200 cigarettes subject to a 200% tax at customs. Selling cigarettes brought into the country is illegal.
Taxes & Refunds
Value-added tax of 50% is added to many items sold in Bhutan, but there is no official scheme for VAT refunds for travellers, and goods are more expensive in Bhutan than in most neighbouring countries.
Public call offices (PCOs) are becoming rare throughout the country, as the mobile service is generally excellent. Most hotels can arrange local and international calls for a premium, though few have in-room direct-dial facilities.
Local calls cost Nu 1 per minute, or Nu 2 per minute long distance. International calls cost Nu 15 to 35 per minute to most destinations, or Nu 4 to India. Call 1600 for domestic and international directory enquiries.
As long as your phone is unlocked you can buy a B-Mobile or Tashi Cell SIM card for both local and international calls, and top up your credit at phone shops across Bhutan.
Bhutanese Mobile Phone Companies
B-Mobile (www.bt.bt/tourist-sim) has the best coverage; its numbers start with 17. A B-Mobile SIM card for tourists is available from telecom shops in Thimphu for Nu 150. This includes talk time worth Nu 100 and is valid for one month. Further top-ups are available from phone shops across Bhutan. Show your passport at the time of purchase.
Tashi Cell (www.tashicell.com) has similar rates but more limited coverage; its numbers start with 77. A tourist SIM costs Nu 250, including Nu 200 worth of calls. Package deals with larger call and data bundles are available at Paro Airport.
Local mobile call charges vary from Nu 0.40 to 0.70 per 15 seconds, depending on the time of day and network called. Some tour operators have satellite phones or they can rent them but the charges are significantly higher than for normal mobile calls.
Bhutan time is GMT/UTC plus six hours; there is only one time zone throughout the country. The time in Bhutan is 30 minutes later than in India, 15 minutes later than Nepal, and the same as the time in Bangladesh. When it is noon in Bhutan, standard time is 6am in London, 4pm in Sydney, 1am in New York and 10pm the previous day in San Francisco.
Most hotels provide Western toilets and toilet paper, though there are some exceptions, particularly in local hotels in eastern Bhutan. There are very few public toilets, so take full advantage of hotel and restaurant facilities before that long drive. Most public toilets are of the Asian squat variety and toilet paper isn't provided, though a container of water should be present.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan has a comprehensive website and it can refer you to tour operators who can assist with arrangements to visit Bhutan. The TCB office in Thimphu is not really set up to answer tourist questions – you are better off speaking to your guide. There is no official government tourist office outside Bhutan.
Travel with Children
Children aged under five are exempt from the minimum daily tariff and five-to-12-year-olds get a 50% discount, so travelling with children in Bhutan doesn't have to be financially crippling. However, kids may become bored with long, monotonous drives, steep walks to monasteries, hotel buffet food and the general lack of entertainment. On the other hand, they will be immediately accepted by local kids and their families. Lonely Planet's Travel with Children has lots of useful advice and suggestions.
Despite the welcome exemptions from the daily tariff, Bhutan is not well set up for travel with children. Child car seats are hard to find, and the minivans used for transporting tourists may not have seat belts to anchor a seat to if you bring your own. Some parents have reported being able to secure child car seats with straps brought from home. Most tourist-class hotels can arrange an extra bed, but cots are harder to find; bring a travel cot from home for younger children.
Upmarket restaurants in larger cities may have high chairs; they are non-existent elsewhere. Imported disposable nappies (diapers) are sold in larger cities, but nappy-changing facilities are very rare. Bhutan has one of the highest rates of breastfeeding in the world, but breastfeeding is done discreetly; local people would be surprised to see a tourist breastfeeding in public.
Bhutan is highly selective about the type of projects it wants in the country, and opportunities for volunteer work are limited. The UN has numerous programs in Bhutan, all coordinated through the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and many different agencies feed into the program.
Smaller agencies that operate programs in Bhutan include ACB (Austria), Danida (Denmark), GTZ (Germany), Helvetas (Switzerland), JOCV & JICA (Japan), Save the Children, SNV (Netherlands) and VSA (New Zealand). Lonely Planet does not endorse any organisations we do not work with directly, so research any project throughly before signing up to make sure that it takes appropriate steps to protect and benefit local people.
Volunteers are not subject to the normal rules for tourists and the agency employing you will arrange your visa. Volunteers are allowed two visitors a year; the visitors must be close relatives and are not subject to the tourist tariff.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The metric system is used throughout the country. In villages, rice is sometimes measured in a round measure called a gasekhorlo. There is a scale called a sang that is used for butter and meat.
While Bhutan has some patriarchal traditions, women are rarely subject to harassment and do not need to take any special precautions over and above the general behaviour you might follow at home. Men have a reasonably liberated attitude towards their relations with women and female travellers rarely report any problems in Bhutan.
However, female travellers should be aware that romantic liaisons between tourists and Bhutanese guides are not uncommon, so be cautious about being over-familiar in case this is misinterpreted. Visiting the home of a guide by yourself, without the rest of your group, might be interpreted as a sign of romantic interest.
Women are generally not allowed to enter the goenkhang (protector chapel) of a monastery or lhakhang, but these chapels are often closed to male visitors as well.
The popular Teach in Bhutan (www.teachinbhutan.org) program is run by the Bhutan-Canada Foundation (www.bhutancanada.org) and it places qualified teachers at schools in Bhutan. The program is not limited to Canadian citizens, and English-speaking, qualified teachers from other countries can apply. Salaries are paid by the Bhutanese government.