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29 Interesting Things to Know Before You Go to Bhutan

Tucked away on the eastern part of the Great Himalayan Range between Tibet, an autonomous region of China and the Indian states of Sikkim, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, is the kingdom of Bhutan, known locally as Druk Yul, or ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Often referred to as the world’s ‘last Shangri-La’, Bhutan wears its deep-rooted cultural identity with pride while taking a careful, nuanced approach to embracing modernization. With a rich cultural heritage, spectacular landscapes, warm, kind-hearted people, and a palpable sense of spiritual energy permeating through the land, Bhutan is an immensely rewarding destination for travelers who dare to venture beyond the usual in search of something deeper. 

I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Bhutan on my recent trip to Bhutan in springtime with Druk Asia. The dragon on the yellow-red wing of my Drukair flight pierced through the clouds to reveal farms and village homes surrounded by swathes of verdant forest, narrow mountain roads adorned by colorful prayer flags snaking across the landscape, clouds that hung low as if to reverently greet clifftop monasteries, and emerald valleys and canyons with contours so deliciously deep that I wished I could touch them with my fingertips.  

View of Paro

With just 130,000 international visitors in 2023, and a target of 300,000 tourist arrivals each year, Bhutan attracts a special kind of traveler. If you’re planning a trip to the beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, here’s what you should know before you go.        

The best way to get there is to fly to Bhutan

While two airlines fly to Paro International Airport (PBH) in Bhutan, flying on the national airline Drukair Royal Bhutan Airlines is undoubtedly the best way to reach Bhutan. Drukair flies to Paro from Kathmandu, Dhaka, Bangkok, the Indian cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Bagdogra and Guwahati via direct flights, and Singapore (with a connection in Guwahati). In operation since 1981, Drukair’s fleet includes the Airbus A320neo, Airbus A319, ATR 42-600, and a helicopter H-13072. 

To get to Bhutan from Dubai, we flew to New Delhi and took the Drukair flight from Delhi to Paro. From my recent experience, the planes were in great condition and well-maintained. Flying with Drukair felt safe and the service and food surpassed my expectations, especially if I were to compare it to most Indian airlines. With an inflight magazine and an inflight entertainment solution to pass the time during the 2 hour 20 minute duration from Delhi to Paro, Druk Air certainly met the standards of an international airline.   

Paro, Bhutan

To explore Bhutan, go with a company that is a true local expert

While I love traveling independently to new countries, I quickly realized that Bhutan is the kind of country where going with a local expert such as Druk Asia really turned my trip into an invaluable, life-changing experience and freed me of the pressure of organizing an itinerary. Our Bhutanese guide Yuden Tenzin was knowledgeable, truly passionate, and exceptionally kind, so much that were it not for our conversations and interactions, we’d have come away barely scratching the surface when it came to understanding the unique aspects of Bhutanese culture and the way of life. Skip independent travel if it’s your first time in Bhutan and go with a local guide instead.    

Going with a local expert company like Druk Asia made all the difference

A part of my trip with Druk Asia included their Neykor experience, or a spiritual journey led by His Eminence Khedrupchen Rinpoche, an accomplished spiritual teacher from whom we learned lessons that both Ankit and I think of as our spiritual awakening. These took place during meditation sessions, talks, hikes, and casual conversations over meals in an easy, light-hearted setting. As we left Bhutan after this Neykor trip, our spirits felt lighter, as if something special had been set into motion. We would have never had access to an experience like this without the support of Druk Asia, a company that is truly invested in the responsible development of tourism in Bhutan.  

Neykor trip with His Eminence Khedrupchen Rinpoche

The all-inclusive package at Druk Asia meant that I didn’t need to worry about anything, whether it was what sights we’d be visiting, where we’d be stopping for meals, or which hotels (notoriously hard to research online) were the best ones in a particular city. 

Their itineraries are customizable, so when I said I was keen on doing the Gangtey Nature Trail, they easily added Gangtey to my itinerary, switching it with another activity that was aligned with my interests. Our guide Yuden added a nice little surprise with a picnic lunch while we were road tripping to the Haa valley on our last day. Thanks to their expertise, we stayed at some unique hotels around Bhutan, including a glamping resort overlooking the beautiful Phobjikha Valley. 

Views on the Gangtey Nature Trail

Surprise picnic on the way to Haa!

Gangtey Tent Resort

While it is now possible for tourists to visit Thimpu and Paro independently, you’ll need a guide to visit elsewhere. If I’m being honest, guides in Bhutan play the very important role of acting as cultural educators in what is a unique part of the world. Without them, I fear that many tourists would not know about appropriate behavior, dress, or would miss the depth of traditions and spirituality that are an integral part of the Bhutanese way of life.     

In Bhutan, guides are culture educators

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Bhutan

It’s possible to visit Bhutan around the year, with every season adding its unique charm. But if you prefer mild weather, plan on making the most of the country’s sublime landscapes, and doing a fair bit of trekking or multi-day treks (such as the Trans-Bhutan Trail), then spring or autumn is the best time to visit Bhutan. 

Punakha Dzong with jacaranda blooms

I visited in May and enjoyed driving past landscapes adorned with the bright reds and pinks of blooming rhododendrons and seeing the pretty violet flowers of glorious jacaranda trees around Punakha Dzong. While visiting Thimpu, Gangtey, Punakha, Paro, and the Haa Valley, the temperature ranged from 9°C to 16°C with bright sunny days, some warmer than others, and cool, breezy evenings. 

Springtime blooms in Bhutan

I was keen to do the hike to Paro Taktsang, the monastery more commonly known as Tiger’s Nest, perched upon a rock at 2,950m above sea level, and knew I’d be miserable doing it in rainy weather on a slippery trail. Thankfully, it was a bright sunny day, and the effort of hiking there got me warm enough to peel off the layers I was wearing and finish the hike in a cotton t-shirt!

hiking to Tigers Nest in spring

Phobjikha valley

Spring and autumn are also high season in Bhutan on account of tshechu celebrations around the country. A tshechu is a 4 or 5-day religious festival when visitors can expect to see traditional dances and monastic rituals, with the tshechu for each town taking place on a different date. Many tourists come in spring to attend the Paro tshechu while others coming in autumn try to attend the Thimphu tshechu or the Bumthang tshechu

Traditional dance in Bhutan

If I’m being honest, when I first planned to visit Bhutan in 2018, with plans that eventually fell through, I too wanted to attend a tshechu. But a local tour operator advised me to avoid that period, confiding that there were far too many tourists coming specifically for the festival and contributing to the usual problems of overtourism. While things might be different now and you’re free to come for a tshechu, I can confirm that Bhutan is just as magical even if you visit outside of that busy time. One of the things I appreciated was having beautiful places, such as the Gangtey Nature Trail, almost entirely to ourselves.

The monsoon season in Bhutan lasts from June to August during the summer months. While sightseeing is still possible, conditions are not always ideal for hikes.

 

Bhutan is the world’s first carbon-negative country 

Absorbing more carbon than the economy emits annually, Bhutan is the first carbon-negative country in the world and the only one in South Asia. The country’s constitution mandates that at least 60% of its area shall always remain under forest cover – currently 72% of its 38,000 sq km is forest. 

Bhutan is green

Bhutan’s focus on environmental conservation isn’t just about laws and mandates; the realization that humans and nature are interconnected runs deep on a cultural level. The Bhutanese people’s respect for nature is obvious everywhere – in how green the landscape appears when you peek out of the flight window arriving into Paro, in how the guides stop to pick rubbish should a stray wrapper appear on the trail, in how the architecture never imposes itself upon the surrounding landscape, in the signs in tourist spots that remind you to leave the place as pristine and beautiful as you found it, and in the many national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and nature reserves around the country.    

Bhutan’s rivers also generate enough hydroelectricity to not only meet the needs of the country, but also to be exported to neighbors like India. 

Bhutan’s landscapes are beautiful

The kingdom of Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy 

Everywhere you go in Bhutan, from local restaurants and resort lobbies to cultural museums, you’ll see framed photographs of the fifth and reigning king of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is also the head of the state. He comes from a family that has been ruling Bhutan for the last 100 years. 

Gangtey, Bhutan

Largely credited with spearheading and continuing initiatives that advance the wellbeing of Bhutanese people, the country’s responsible and sustainable development, and environment and climate action, the king of Bhutan is revered by the people of Bhutan. From our conversations with people in Bhutan, it was obvious that they viewed the monarch as a visionary leader whom they could trust for matters of their welfare and security.  

It was under the leadership of his father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck that Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Since then, it is a parliamentary democracy with the executive power held by the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister, currently H.E. Tshering Tobgay. 

Paro valley

Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure Gross National Happiness

Bhutan first appeared on my radar when I read that the country has an index that measures Gross National Happiness, a concept that was introduced in the 1970s by Bhutan’s fourth king His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and later adopted in the country’s constitution in 2008. In fact, the idea of happiness as the goal of governance isn’t a new concept or a modern-day marketing tactic with countries being ranked on a Happiness Index; as per the ancient 1629 legal code of Bhutan, “The purpose of the government is to provide happiness to its people. If it cannot provide happiness, there is no reason for the government to exist.”

Prayer wheels at a temple in Bhutan

Today in Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is defined as “a multidimensional development approach seeking to achieve a harmonious balance between material well-being and the spiritual, emotional, and cultural needs of society.” True to this belief, policies and development initiatives in Bhutan aim to create conditions that contribute to the happiness of the Bhutanese people. 

Dinner at a homestay in Bhutan

The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.

Perhaps it is these motivations that are responsible for things such as free education for 11 years and free healthcare in Bhutan, something that isn’t common in Asian countries.

There’s something extraordinary about a culture that places wellbeing over profit and a monarch who understands that making one set of people richer in the country or rising GDP doesn’t equate to real progress.  

The Ngultrum is the Bhutanese currency

Known as the Ngultrum, and often referred to simply as ‘Nu’, the Bhutanese currency has the same value as the Indian Rupee being pegged to it, which is also widely accepted around the country. In cities such as Paro and Thimpu, many shops will also accept USD, but you might have to accept change back in Bhutanese Ngultrum. 

Paro town, Bhutan

Most hotels, big restaurants, and many shops in main cities like Thimpu, Punakha, and Paro will also accept debit and credit cards but they might charge you a small percentage as a fee. It’s best to have cash handy, whether in the local currency or the Indian Rupee for donations at temples, monasteries, nunneries, any small purchases such as tea or snacks from a stall or to pay the 10Nu fee to use the toilet at popular tourist spots, as well as tips for waiters, guides, and drivers. 

Bhutan’s tourism strategy is designed to attract high-value tourists

Seeing as sustainable socio-economic development is one of the pillars of the country’s Gross National Happiness, it makes sense that Bhutan’s approach to developing tourism has been focused on sustainable tourism development, since Bhutan opened to international tourists in 1974. 

To combat overtourism and attract high-value and low volume tourism, Bhutan imposes a daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) on all international tourists. As of May 2024, this fee is USD100 (as a 50% discounted rate on the original USD200) per night for all international tourists (until 31st August 2027) and Nu1200 (or INR1200) per night for Indian visitors. Children under six are not subject to SDF, while kids between six and under 12 years of age are required to pay 50% of the applicable SDF. 

The SDF is used by the government to fund projects in social welfare, developmental, environmental conservation and preservation, cultural preservation and promotion, infrastructure, including tourism and hospitality projects.

Bhutan values high value low volume tourism

Bhutan is the first country that I visited where I paid a tourist tax, and even though this means that Bhutan is not a cheap destination (I’ve talked before about how much I hate the idea of promoting places as cheap destinations), I’m all for a model of tourism that doesn’t turn tourists into entitled visitors that come to a country, and take more than they give back. But since the SDF considerably hikes up the cost of a trip to Bhutan, there are mixed feelings in the tourism industry about its impact on the recovery of tourism after the pandemic. 

In Bhutan, a country of 777,224 people (projected population for 2024), you see the impact of the SDF in free education and healthcare, general cleanliness, well-maintained roads and buildings, the offsetting of the carbon footprint of visitors, and decently developed tourism infrastructure (though there is more work required in that area).  

Foreign tourists need an e-visa or e-permit to visit Bhutan

Foreign tourists can apply for an e-visa online on the official website of the Department of Immigration before they arrive or ask their tour company to do this on their behalf. While Indian nationals only require a permit to enter Bhutan, all other nationalities require a visa to do so. A visa costs $40, and you’ll also need to pay the SDF for your trip duration through this portal. Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders are eligible for visa on arrival. Foreigners can stay in Bhutan for a maximum of 90 days. 

Indian nationals will need to show their Indian passport or an Indian voter ID card (or a birth certificate if they’re under 18 years of age) for a permit to be issued. This permit can be issued on arrival, but you can also apply for it online to be issued in advance. 

If you’re an Indian tourist planning to get the permit issued on arrival, bring cash in INR to pay the SDF. Be prepared to queue for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes as most other Indian tourists have the same idea. 

You don’t need to be afraid of flying into Bhutan

“Is it dangerous to fly into Bhutan?” I was asked this a few times, thanks to Paro International Airport being featured in numerous articles as one of the world’s most dangerous airports to land in. This is due to the airport’s geographical location in a valley between 18,000ft peaks and dense forest terrain, a short 6,445 ft runway that requires planes to adhere to strict speed and altitude guidelines, and the need for pilots to maneuver planes at a 45-degree between the mountains and onto the runway manually using visual landmarks in the absence of a radar. 

Our flight into Bhutan was smooth

Planes are allowed to land and depart from Paro International Airport only during daylight hours, and can be diverted or delayed if there are clouds obstructing the views. That being said, if you’re a nervous flier like me, it’s reassuring to know that only 24 pilots in the world are certified to land at Paro International Airport, which means they’re likely to be highly skilled.  

Kanchenjunga, India’s highest peak as viewed from our Drukair flight while flying into Paro

My own experience flying into Paro on Drukair was better than expected. Shortly before landing, the pilot warned us about the approach through the mountains and the turbulence expected, reassuring us that it was not unusual while landing in Bhutan. But I’m grateful there was no turbulence at all. The approach was thrilling, the flying smooth, and at no point did I feel alarmed, anxious, or afraid. The pilots at Drukair know what they’re doing and have some serious skills, so you can relax in the knowledge that you’re in good hands.     

Hike to Tiger’s Nest monastery at the end of your trip

You might not experience any altitude sickness while visiting cultural sites in towns such as Thimpu and Paro, unless you’re hiking in the high mountains or driving through Chelela Pass (3,988m) or high altitudes. Even so, considering that the altitude of most towns in Bhutan is above 2,000m, it’s best that you give your body a few days to acclimatize and schedule the hike to Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest monastery, located at 2,950m above sea level, towards the end of your trip. The elevation gain during the 3 hour hike up is about 700m, with several steep stairs descending and ascending towards the end, making this a challenging hike.

Tigers Nest monastery

We did this hike on our second last day in Bhutan, and it took us about 8 hours round-trip, with an hour-long lunch break on the way back and a nearly 40-minute tea break on the way up, plus a few leisurely stops for photographs. It’s best to wear layers, drink lots of water, regulate your breathing, take frequent rest stops when you need them, and be comfortable with going slowly. 

Tigers Nest

On the way to Tigers Nest

The Bhutanese are an exceptionally kind people

I’m fortunate to have experienced the kindness of people in the far corners of the planet, but believe me when I say that the Bhutanese people are extraordinary in their ability to show compassion and kindness. I believe it has to do with the Bhutanese way of life, where my Druk Asia guide Yuden explained on our first day, “Buddhism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life.” 

Over the next week, Ankit and I found ourselves dumbfounded at the extent to which the locals we met went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and included. We’d simply never been treated with so much compassion before, as tourists and as strangers in a new place. 

These guys made our trip to Bhutan extra special

I could go on in the hope that my words would be able to convey the warmth we felt, but I know I’ll fail; it’s something you’ll have to go visit Bhutan to experience yourself.  

Learn a few words and phrases in the national language Dzongkha

Bhutanese, the national language of Bhutan is officially called Dzongkha, which translates to “the language of the fortress”. The only official language in Bhutan, it is written in the Tibetan script and widely spoken around Bhutan. 

Ankit and Yuden, our guide, at Tigers Nest

Today English is widely spoken in many parts since it is the language of instruction in schools and also in monastic schools. But it helps to know and learn a few words and phrases in Dzongkha to break the ice with any locals you might meet and want to speak to, and to show respect and appreciation to the guides and drivers who will make your trip around Bhutan comfortable.

Kuzuzangpo la is ‘Hello’ and is often accompanied by a respectful bow rather than a handshake

Kadrin Chey la is ‘Thank you’

‘La’ is the suffix added to any phrase as a mark of respect

Tashi Delek is ‘May all good things come to you’ (used to welcome, wish someone luck, or bid them farewell)

Dzong is a fortress that serves as a principal seat of a Buddhist school

Lhakhang is a temple

Goenpa is a monastery

Gomchen is ‘great mediator’ used to refer to a monk

Chhu is a river  

Bhutan, where Buddhism is a way of life, is like no other place in the world

Around 75% of Bhutan’s population follows the religion of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. As our guide Yuden told us on our first day, “in Bhutan, Buddhism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life.” Of course, we didn’t fully understand at first, but over the course of the next week spent in Bhutan, we began to understand and be amazed by a way of life that has, rather unusually, managed to protect itself from the moral decline that plagues societies corrupted by western influence in the name of modernization. 

Natasha at Dochula Pass

In Bhutan, people pray for all sentient beings and respect nature. There is a cultural understanding of human interconnectedness with nature and sentient beings beyond those in human form. Acts of kindness and compassion stem from the belief in karma, the law of cause and effect that comes from our intentional actions that promise to bring consequences in this or a future life. The adoration of nature and sentient beings and these beliefs are prominently represented in paintings, thangkas (scroll paintings) and murals in monasteries and temples, in handcrafted jewelry and textiles, carved as stories in architectural facades, and depicted in the music, mask and other traditional dances. 

Buddha Point, Thimphu

Murals in Bhutan

You might wonder how this could all have affected us. You might wonder if I’m the kind of person who views the world through rose-tinted glasses. But I’ve always believed that it’s the people that make places, and it’s the raw, unfiltered human interactions that we take away with us when we leave after having visited a country. 

Bhutan, to me, will always be a special place for how kindly, respectfully, and compassionately I was treated by its people, how accepted and included I was made to feel, how easily people went out of their way for my comfort. It was where the locals smiled at me easily, where conversations felt natural and not transactional, where honest truths were often spoken without the facades of suspicion, where people generously shared the stories of their culture and tradition, and where we were often fed with love. 

Bhutan will always be where my guide Yuden instinctively left his meal halfway to go bring me a glass of water before I’d finished saying the word “water”. Bhutan is the land where His Eminence Khedrupchen Rinpoche, a spiritual teacher I’m convinced was sent my way by the forces of the Universe, generously shared his time, ancient wisdom, stories, and extraordinary sense of humor.  

Bhutan will always be special

Learning to meditate in Bhutan

Bhutan is a land of legends and deep-rooted traditions

In Bhutan, while gazing up at murals, paintings, and thangkas, in monasteries, temples, nunneries and other religious sites, guides will share stories of legends depicted in them. These are fantastical tales of powerful deities and dakinis, of Yeshe Tsogyel, the flying tigress consort of Guru Rinpoche who is regarded as the second Buddha, and stories of the Divine Madman, a monk in the 15th century, in whose honor you’ll find sculptures, murals, and paintings of phalluses (symbols of fertility and protection) around the country. Often, these are shared as fact and most Buddhists in Bhutan believe them to be so. It’s common to see guides ritualistically offering prayers and donations at every place of worship and spinning prayer wheels.

Buddha Point

Learning to listen in Bhutan

Phallus sculptures in a store close to the Temple of Fertility

To non-believers, it might be tempting to counter or challenge these beliefs, to exoticize the culture, or to push forth with intrusive questions, but resist the temptation and simply observe and absorb. A trip to Bhutan is an excellent, and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to broaden your cultural and spiritual horizons and educate yourself in other ways of life. 

For me, as someone who has spiritual leanings but struggles with the idea of religion, the Neykor experience with Druk Asia opened my (heart and mind) eyes to a new way of life where I did not need to live in a way that was disconnected from my spirit or my soul, where I did not need to know for certain to believe. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity to listen and learn. All this to say: if you’ve always wanted to embark upon a spiritual journey, then Bhutan is the place to do it, and what better way than this Neykor trip with Druk Asia

Bhutan, a place of life-changing moments

Hanging prayer flags in Bhutan

You’ll eat very well in Bhutan

Rest assured, you will love the local food in Bhutan – it’s flavorful, delicious, and usually spicy, but you can ask for it to be prepared with a mild spice level. Expect to eat a lot of fresh cooked vegetables such as asparagus, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower, spinach, and potatoes, in addition to chicken, fish, and pork, as well as red rice, noodles and momos, which are meat or vegetable dumplings popular in the Himalayan region. 

Meals in Bhutan were feasts

The national dish of Bhutan is ema datshi, a stew made from cheese and hot chili peppers, eaten with rice. The chili can be red or green, and fresh or dried. Depending on preference, the stew can be runny or rich and creamy (we preferred the latter), and can be mild, medium hot, or hot enough to make you tear up! We enjoyed a delicious version of ema datshi at the Resort Thim Dorji in Paro on our last night. Other mild variations of the stew are kewa datshi with potatoes and shamu datshi with mushrooms.

Ema datshi, the national dish of Bhutan

Shamu datshi

Besides local food, Indian food is widely available in Bhutan, seeing as a majority of tourists in Bhutan are Indian. I wasn’t aware that there are many Indian chefs working at the restaurants and hotels in Bhutan, so we were surprised but pleased to find hearty homestyle Indian food from India’s different regions across Bhutan. For us, most meals felt like a feast of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, curries, and lentils, along with rice and chapatis – even on a roadside picnic where we would have been happy with sandwiches. 

Our last meal in Bhutan was fantastic

Homestyle Indian food in Bhutan

fish

asparagus datshi

Western-style breakfasts with eggs, toast, French toast, and cereal were available at all the hotels we stayed at.   

The agricultural produce in Bhutan is mostly organic

In a marked contrast to its neighbors where the agricultural industry is like the wild west, over 80% of the farms in Bhutan are traditionally organic and do not use synthetic agro-chemicals and fertilizers. The quality of the produce is high, and the difference is obvious when you taste the food in Bhutan.   

Produce market in Paro

Bhutanese love red chilies

Take some notes on cultural etiquette

As should be the case everywhere, do not take photos of Bhutanese people without seeking permission, no matter how regal they look in their traditional attire. The same is true for any monks that you might want to photograph. If you ask for permission, most will oblige. Taking photographs is prohibited inside temples, monasteries, and nunneries – don’t even try to sneak a candid photo.

We asked these monks for a photo and they obliged

Prayer wheels must be spun clockwise and are believed to bring good luck and karma. When walking around a temple or stupa, be sure to do so in the clockwise direction as counterclockwise is considered inauspicious. Shoes and hats must be taken off before entering a place of worship. 

If you’d like to seek blessings from a monk, request your guide to communicate this with the monk. After the blessing, leave a small donation in the donation box – the amount depends on you and can be as little as 100 or 200 Nu.    

Wearing the traditional dress in Bhutan makes you feel like a royal

When our Druk Asia guide Yuden told us, on our first day in Bhutan, that he’d bring us a set of traditional clothes to wear the next day, I was excited. Everywhere from the airport to the streets of Thimpu, I’d seen Bhutanese men and women of all ages and professions wear these elegant clothes crafted out of colorful striped and patterned textiles, and wondered if we’d be able to carry them off. The staff at our hotel in Thimpu kindly helped us put them on and draped them securely, and off we went on our second day in Bhutan.  

Dressed in the traditional clothing in Bhutan

Women wear an ankle-length dress or skirt wrapped around the body called the kira, that is fastened at the shoulders with hooks and at the waist with a cloth belt. Underneath, is a long-sleeved blouse called wonju layered on top with a short jacket called toego. My kira was a pretty striped maroon skirt, while the wonju was cream-colored with a subtle design. With the sleeves of the blouse folded out of those of the complementary maroon toego, the traditional kira looked absolutely elegant, far more than the standard clothing of our times. I tied my hair back in a bun and put on some pretty pearl hoops, and felt like a total queen! 

While visiting temples and monasteries or at formal gatherings, Bhutanese women also add a ceremonial scarf called rachu over their left shoulder to appear more respectful.  

Men wear a knee-length robe-like dress called the gho secured at the waist by a cloth belt called kera. With a plaid or striped pattern, the gho is likely to remind you of the Scottish kilt. With the belt secured tightly, the upper half of the gho becomes what is often called “the world’s biggest pocket” in Bhutan, and it might just be true, given that Ankit was tasked with carrying two bottles of water and our cellphones in it quite often when he wore his! Traditionally, men carried a dagger and a bowl in it.

In summer, men usually wear shorts underneath the gho along with knee-high socks, while jeans or pants may be worn in winter. In spring, Ankit wore a short-sleeved t-shirt and denim shorts under his gho, and he was comfortable even when we went up to Dochula Pass where it was slightly cooler.    

Us at the Gangtey Monastery wearing the Kira and Gho

Similar to women, men drape a ceremonial scarf called a kabney over their left shoulder to show respect while visiting places of worship or official buildings such as dzongs. 

Our guide Yuden wearing the ceremonial scarf in Punakha Dzong

Thanks to how comfortable and cozy it was and how sophisticated it made us feel, we wore the kira and gho all day on our second day, visiting Dochula Pass and the Gangtey Monastery. Yuden also convinced us to keep them on while hiking the Gangtey Nature Trail, which I’m very proud to say I did rocking the kira and hiking boots look!  

Hiking the Gangtey Nature Trail in the kira and gho

Gangtey nature trail

Introduced in the 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel as a symbol of national identity and heritage, the traditional costumes are required to be worn by men and women in school, while on their jobs, at government offices, celebrations, and festivals. 

At the Textile Museum in Thimphu, surrounded by spectacular textiles that showcased the glory of the traditional craft of weaving, our guide Yuden explained about the different types of textiles. These included pieces with rare patterns and designs and expensive fabrics usually worn on special occasions, even if it meant that a person would own a limited number of dresses. They’d wear them repeatedly with pride, something that’s much more sensible and meaningful than our mindless overconsumption of clothing in western society today.      

You’ll appear respectful if you dress modestly

Considering how modestly the Bhutanese dress, both when they’re wearing the traditional dress, or when they’re wearing jeans, it’s obvious that foreigners who dress modestly will appear more respectful. While short-sleeved tops and long dresses are okay, I do not recommend wearing tank tops, spaghetti straps, short dresses and skirts or shorts. 

I did see tourists in Bhutan wearing cami tops and shorts, but as an Indian who grew up in the Middle East and someone who likes to err on the side of caution, I’d never wear anything that wasn’t ankle-length and covered my shoulders, knees, back, and cleavage. Transparent and mesh clothing is a no-no, and doesn’t feel practical given the weather in Bhutan. 

While visiting temples and monasteries, the dress code requires both men and women to wear opaque clothing that covers the arms and legs, and hats or caps must be taken off. I wore a cotton t-shirt with hiking pants while hiking up to Tiger’s Nest, but layered up with my jacket and took off my cap when we got there. 

Hiking to Tigers Nest

Packing layers is the smart way to pack for a Bhutan trip

In spring, we each traveled with a light down jacket, two woolen sweaters or jumpers, a pair of hiking pants, two pairs of jeans, and a couple of t-shirts (mix of long and short-sleeved), and hiking shoes. We layered up and down as needed, even during hikes and road trips. Hiking shoes are a must in Bhutan, especially if you plan to do the hike to Tiger’s Nest, where the trail can be slippery when wet. Bring warm socks as you’ll need to take off your shoes while visiting temples and monasteries where the floor can be cold. A hat or cap to walk around when it’s sunny is a good idea as well.   

Trying butter tea in Bhutan

The jaw-droppingly beautiful traditional architecture is everywhere

On our first day in Bhutan, we went very slow while visiting sights around Thimphu because as a woman obsessed with ornate windows and doors, I couldn’t stop myself from taking photos of the beautiful architecture. Over the next week in Bhutan, everywhere I looked, intricate designs in blue, red, yellow, green, and gold were painted or carved around windows and doors and on the edges of roofs, sculptures of dragons with piercing eyes peered from the edges of facades, and grand murals telling of complex legends stood at entrances. Golden-tipped temples and monasteries stood out overlooking verdant farmland under blue skies, exuding quiet power. 

Haa valley

Punakha Dzong

details in the architecture

Bhutan’s architecture is unique

Bhutan’s cultural interconnectedness with nature, sentient beings, and legends is apparent in its traditional architecture, a style with origins in the 6th century, much which continues to be preserved in modern constructions as well. The use of natural materials such as stone, timber, and mud is common with buildings designed to blend into the pristine landscape. 

The whitewashed buildings are often decorated with belt-like designs running around the edges with specific colors, elements, and structures with specific meanings. Symbols are most often for protection, for establishing a connection to the divine, and to signify purity, spiritual awakening, and auspiciousness.

You’ll also see the phallus in painted and sculpture forms displayed outside the entrances of homes and shops, especially close to Chimi Lhakhang, the Fertility Temple in Punakha. In Bhutan, the phallus is a symbol of fertility and protection.     

Symbols in Bhutan have meaning

the phallus is a symbol of fertility and protection

While not expected, tipping is appreciated in Bhutan

Tipping is not expected in Bhutan, but considering the seasonal nature of jobs in tourism and how much the pandemic impacted the tourism and hospitality industry, it certainly is appreciated by guides and drivers who go out of their way to ensure that visitors have an enjoyable trip in Bhutan from the moment they arrive. For a group of two, a tip of USD15 per day for the guide and USD10 per day for the driver is a fair amount. Cooks and porters on a trek should also be tipped. 

Buddha Point in Thimphu

Television came to Bhutan only in 1999 but these days TikTok is huge 

I was surprised to learn from Yuden that he did not watch TV as a very young child growing up in Bhutan, since television came to Bhutan only in 1999, the same year the internet came to Bhutan. Bhutan was the last country in the world to allow TVs. It was banned before that in the fear that external influences would endanger cultural preservation in Bhutanese society. Today, Bhutanese people watch Hindi films and TV shows, and according to Yuden, most people in the cities are familiar with Bollywood actors. 

Beautiful Bhutan

Tiktok is big in Bhutan, especially among the younger generation and millennials. We saw GenZ Bhutanese recording videos while dancing or performing cultural rituals in beautiful landscapes and monasteries around the country, while millennials were creating content that showcased daily life in Bhutan. I was surprised to learn that many monks in Bhutan are also active on Tiktok during their monastic education. This eagerness to adopt a platform like Tiktok tells me that the youth of Bhutan yearns for connection with the world outside Bhutan. Since this two-way exchange today is most easily accessible through social media, it stands to reason that social media is likely to impact Bhutan’s social values in the next few years.   

At the Simply Bhutan living museum in Thimphu

Bring motion sickness pills for winding roads

With roads winding through the mountains and valleys and high passes with scenic views, a road trip around Bhutan is likely to make you dizzy if you usually suffer from motion sickness. In the last few years, I tend to get motion sickness so I carried these non-drowsy natural motion sickness pills that helped. Thanks to taking these every day before we began driving, I had zero motion sickness, making our road trips relaxed and enjoyable.  

Roadtrip views

Paro International Airport looks like an art museum

When we arrived in Paro, I was at once wonderstruck by the beautiful architecture and design of Paro International Airport, complete with intricate traditional details, colorful murals and plants. Throughout the airport and in the departures area, you’ll find artworks available for purchase by Bhutanese artists supported by the Voluntary Artists’ Studio of Bhutan (VAST), turning the airport into what feels like a huge art gallery, complete with luxurious sofas and chairs to sink into. 

Paro Airport

While flying out of Paro, we spent a little over an hour at the airport, admiring these spectacular works of art and picking up a final few souvenirs and a whole bunch of books at the stores in the departures area. There’s also a corner where visitors can paint traditional masks, postcards, and canvases, after seeking permission, while they wait to board.   

Paro Airport

Paro Airport

Paro Airport art corner

Save some money for souvenirs

I love bringing home souvenirs from my trip and unexpectedly, I found that the shops in Paro had so many things I loved. So if you’re like me, save some of your budget for souvenir shopping in Bhutan. 

We picked up the purest Himalayan incense (that smells better than any other incense we’ve found, and we’re Indian!) and some fragrant fresh tea from the fresh produce market in Paro. We also picked up a whole bunch of books (like eight of them) from the bookstore in Paro, close to the fortress, and the bookshop at Paro Airport.

Incense at the market in Paro

Teas in Paro

I’m obsessed with traditional handcrafted jewelry, so I could not resist buying an elegant jade necklace. And lately, I’d much rather splurge on local handwoven textiles and designs than pay large retailers who rip off the work of indigenous designers, so I picked up a pretty colorful yak wool jacket that I’m sure to use on my spring/fall/winter travels. 

I have zero regrets about splurging on this jacket

All of these stores in Paro accepted USD and Indian rupees in addition to Bhutanese Nu, and most accepted cards as well. 

You can use an e-sim in Bhutan

While you can get a local SIM in Bhutan, these days, I prefer the convenience of an e-sim that can simply be activated once you land instead of physically switching out SIM cards. I used Airalo and it worked well with decent coverage for the duration of our trip, except in some of the high passes that we road-tripped through. 

Village scenes in Bhutan

Smoking is prohibited in public places 

You can’t smoke and vape in public places – you must do so discreetly behind buildings or away from other people.  

Views over Phobjikha

I traveled to Bhutan as a guest of Druk Asia. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent