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If you aren’t familiar with Bhutan, get ready for this post! Laura Yurincich initially planned to provide us with a simple packing list for Bhutan, but it quickly evolved into the Bhutan travel guide that you see before you… because you can’t know what to pack for Bhutan if you don’t know your itinerary, and you can’t plan your itinerary if you don’t know everything else. Enjoy!
A few years ago, I heard about a little-known country called Bhutan. Landlocked in between India and China/Tibet, Bhutan is a mysterious country that didn’t open its borders for tourists until 1974.
Even now, tourists must pay a minimum of $250 US per day to travel the country.
So what did I do when I learned about the most expensive country in the world to visit? I told my boyfriend we were going there, and started saving.
Bhutan Travel FAQs: Know Before You Go
Here are five common questions about Bhutan travel that you need to know before you (can) go:
1. How do I plan a trip to Bhutan?
In an effort to protect their culture, the Bhutanese government has made it illegal to travel independently, so all visitors must obtain a visa beforehand, and travel with a registered tour operator (unless you are from India, Bangladesh or the Maldives).
Finding a tour operator is easy. They are all listed on the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s Website. We used Gray Langur (legally called Amuse Tours and Treks), as our tour operator. I found them when researching the Laya Royal Highlander Festival, as they are one of the few tour operators who currently take visitors to the festival. Overall, I would highly recommend them.
2. How do I plan my Bhutan itinerary?
Once you’ve found your preferred tour operator, you can decide whether to travel with a group on a pre-set tour, or create your own agenda. If you plan your itinerary with your tour operator, ask them how long you can expect to be in the car each day.
Do not pack too much into your itinerary. I say this because Bhutan is not an easy country to drive through. The whole country is basically a mountain which means traveling from one location to another takes a lot of time.
3. What is the minimum daily fee to travel to Bhutan?
The minimum daily fee is mandatory, but it covers your hotel, three meals a day, transportation and guide. Aside from tips, alcohol, your flights, and souvenirs, Bhutan is basically an all-inclusive country.
The daily fee is:
- $250 US/day during high season if you are traveling in a group of three or more
- $280 US/day during high season if you are traveling in a group of two
- $290 US/day during high season if you are traveling alone
Interesting Fact: $65 from the daily fee is allocated to the government’s “sustainable development fee” which contributes to health care, education, and infrastructure projects in Bhutan.
4. When is the best time to visit Bhutan?
We traveled to Bhutan in October (2019) which is high season, but it still wasn’t a busy place to visit. The large majority of people we met traveling there spent 3-5 days in the country, visiting the highlights in Thimphu and Paro, then left to visit the less expensive, neighboring Nepal.
If you want to experience an authentic Bhutan, plan to spend a little longer in the country, and ask to include some homestays in your itinerary.
There is a discount if you travel outside of high season, in December-February, which is shoulder season, or June-August, low season. The discount is $65US/day less than normal. If you are planning on going in shoulder season, pack some warmer clothes. If you are planning on going in low season, know that it’s monsoon season so pack accordingly.
5. What do people eat in Bhutan?
Bhutan is not a culinary destination. Although they fed us well, the cuisine is not an attraction there and we left hungry. In fact, I asked eight Bhutanese people what their favorite food was and only two could give me an answer since most people eat rice with chilis for their three meals a day.
Plan on eating a lot of rice and avoiding meat, as it is illegal to kill animals in Bhutan. Any meat is shipped over from neighboring countries.
When you are in the capital, stock up on some snacks such as granola bars and chips to bring along for the rest of your trip. I even purchased instant ramen noodles and asked our host for some hot water to make them.
Trekking and Tipping in Bhutan
Choosing Treks in Bhutan: What to Consider
Bhutan is known for trekking, and in any guidebook you will find a range of treks that are offered along with their difficulty level. The trek to Laya was difficult, as we ascended very quickly.
When looking at different trekking options make sure to discuss them with your tour operator and ask about:
- the success/fail rate
- who carries your luggage (porters? animals?)
- how many hours a day you will be hiking
- what altitude you will be hiking
- what equipment they provide
- what equipment you should bring with you
For the Laya trek, we asked them to supply us with trekking poles, and they naturally provided us with tents, blankets, water and food (along with donkeys who carried all the supplies).
Make sure to ask about the success rate as there is one trek in Bhutan, the Snowman trek, that has a success rate of only 50%.
How to Tip When Trekking in Bhutan
It is customary to tip your guide and driver around $10-15US/day, and you will want to tip them, as they take amazing care of you. If you are trekking, ask your tour operator in advance how many extra workers will be on the trek with you, and how much you should plan to tip them (you can obviously customize the amount based on their service).
One thing to keep in mind is that it can be difficult for foreigners to take out money when in Bhutan, so ask your tour operator if you can provide everyone with a tip after your trip, via e-transfer or wire transfer.
We ended up doing this, and once I got home I sent a wire transfer of $900 Canadian to cover the tips of our guide and driver, along with the trekking “helpers,” including the chef, the two chef’s assistants, and someone we referred to as the donkey boy, who took care of the donkeys.
Our 2-Week Bhutan Travel Itinerary
Your packing list will depend on the activities you chose when you are in Bhutan, so I am sharing my itinerary and some activities we did as a reference for what I packed. We created our itinerary in advance, in conjunction with our tour operator, Gray Langur. However halfway through the trip we made a few changes, so here is what our final itinerary was:
|Day 1 – Paro/Thimphu||– Fly to Paro (from Bangkok)|
– Drive to Thimphu
– Explore Thimphu
|Day 2 – Thimphu||– Vegetable market|
– Buddha point
– Craft shops
– Dinner with local Bhutanese people
|Day 3 – Thimphu/Punakha/Rukha||– Watch archery/have an archery lesson|
– Visit the wildlife preserve
– Drive to the Dochula Pass “gateway to Bhutan”
– Have lunch in Punakha
– Drive to Rukha, a very remote village for a homestay
|Day 4 – Rukha/Punakha||– Visit the fishing area in Rukha (the only village in Bhutan allowed to fish)|
– Explore the countryside
– Drive back to Punakha
|Day 5 – Punakha||– Walk through the rice fields, meet locals, explore the city|
|Day 6 – Punakha/Army Base Camp – Camping||– Drive to Gasa|
– Drive from Gasa (in an off-road vehicle) closer to Laya
– Trek from the road to campsite, an army base camp
|Day 7 – Base Camp/Laya||– Trek from the base camp to homestay in Laya|
|Day 8 – Laya||– Enjoy the Laya Royal Highlander Festival!|
|Day 9 – Laya/Base Camp||– Trek from Laya down to the base camp|
|Day 10 – Base Camp/Punakha||– Trek from base camp back to the road|
– Take the off-road vehicle back to Gasa
– Drive from Gasa to Punakha
|Day 11 – Punakha||– Visit Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge|
– Visit the Fertility temple and Dzong
– Tea with the head Monk of the District
|Day 12 – Punakha/Phobjikha Valley||– Drive to the Phobjikha Valley|
– Hike around the valley
– Visit the black-necked crane museum
– Dinner/homestay with the locals
|Day 13 – Phobjikha Valley/Paro||– Drive to Paro|
– Hot stone bath
|Day 14 – Paro||– Hike up to Tigers Nest|
– Explore Tigers Nest
– Hike back down
|Day 15 – Paro||– Depart Paro|
So based on this itinerary, here is…
The Ultimate Female Packing List for Bhutan
I packed all of my things in a 44L backpacking bag and my 15L Pacsafe day bag. Your itinerary will probably have you moving around a lot, and potentially trekking to some locations as well, so I recommend packing light in a comfortable pack.
Bhutan is a conservative country, so much so that locals are required to wear their traditional dress most of the time. However, visitors are only required to wear certain clothes when entering dzongs or monasteries, but since this occurs most days in Bhutan, it’s best to be prepared.
- Two pairs of lightweight, quick-dry trekking pants
- One pair of yoga pants/leggings
- Two t-shirts
- One long sleeve shirt or thin sweater
- Six pairs of underwear
- Six pairs of blister proof socks
- A conservative dress – I only wore my dress one day, since foreigners are required to wear pants when entering a dzong or monastery, I was asked to put on my leggings underneath when entering the dzong. But if that doesn’t bother you, then just make sure the dress covers your elbows as well!
- One raincoat
- One cardigan
- One packable down coat – October is autumn in Bhutan and can get cool at altitude.
- One large hoodie – for warmth at night while camping
- Running shoes
- Flip flops
- Broken-in hiking boots
- One pair of cozy pajama pants
- One buff – I used mine as a headband to cover my hair when showering wasn’t available
Hygiene & Personal Care
Bhutan is still a developing country, so pack accordingly.
- Solid shampoo bar – I prefer Lush brand
- Solid conditioner bar – Again, I prefer Lush brand
- Solid face wash
- Sunscreen – I prefer Raw Elements zero-waste and reef-safe sunscreen
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush – I prefer to use an environmentally friendly toothbrush as well
- Hand cream/body lotion
- Diva Cup – feminine products are impossible to find outside of the main cities.
- A little baggy with hand sanitizer and toilet paper in it – carry this with you at all times. Even in the capital, most bathrooms do not offer you toilet paper and instead provide you with a bucket of water and a cup to rinse off.
- Baby wipes – these saved me when I had the stomach flu in a village two hours from the nearest road.
- Any prescription medication you take
- Travelers diarrhea medication
- Hair ties
- Laundry detergent– for handwashing your clothes
- Earplugs – I read before I went that dogs in Thimphu sleep all day and bark all night. I cannot stress enough how true this is.
Wifi is limited in Bhutan, and when it is available it’s spotty at best. Plan ahead and let your loved ones know not to worry; you won’t be able to check in as regularly as usual.
- iPad/tablet – Pre-download any tv shows or movies you like before you arrive in Bhutan
- Headphones – don’t be the jerk who thinks that everyone wants to listen to their music
- Power adapter
- Power bank
- Camera – I bought a good quality DSLR camera years ago for traveling, which I am very thankful for. Every turn in Bhutan had a great photo opportunity.
- Extra memory cards
- Camera battery charger
- Trekking poles (we rented ours from our tour company)
- Day bag – although Bhutan is a very safe country, I still use my Pacsafe backpack as a day bag and trekking day bag.
- Camel bag – The altitude hit me hard during the trek, so the extra water was key to my success.
- Water bottle – with a big enough mouth for your Steripen
- Headlamp – even if you are not trekking, I recommend bringing a headlamp. One night in Paro our hotel (and the entire surrounding block) lost power for three hours. We were incredibly grateful to have our own light source during that time.
- Steripen – your tour company should provide you with bottled water daily, but I recommend being environmentally friendly and bringing your own purification system.
- American currency – we tried two ATMs in Bhutan and neither one accepted our Canadian debit cards. We were happy that we always had extra American currency on us that we could exchange for the Bhutanese ngultrum.
- A copy of your visa and itinerary – Whenever we tried to enter a monastery without our guide, we were kindly asked to produce a copy of our visa.
- Travel insurance – Several people got altitude sickness and needed to be airlifted out of the Laya Highlander Festival. Be prepared in case that’s you.
- A book to read
- Small notebook – I like recording my day to day activities when I am traveling, so that I remember everything that happened.
- Inexpensive gifts for homestay hosts – we bought a variety of cheap reading glasses as gifts for our homestay hosts. We were glad we brought these as I got the stomach flu in Rukha and my first introduction to our host family was me running out of their house to vomit all over their front steps. I hope giving them the glasses before we left gave them a better impression of Canadians (we were the first westerners that they had ever met). If you want other ideas for gifts for your hosts, I recommend asking your tour operator for ideas.
Things to Leave Behind
- Makeup – I haven’t worn makeup since 2012, but Bhutan is a very casual country and in most homestays you may not even have access to a mirror.
- Travel towel – a towel was provided to us in each hotel, and showering wasn’t an option in each homestay.
Book Your Trip to Bhutan!
About the author: Laura Yurincich is a Torontonian who loves hiking and all outdoor activities. She has a Masters degree in political science and currently works as a bureaucrat. She doesn’t have any social media, but you can find her blogging about her low waste lifestyle at bareblog.
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