Bhutan is a tiny mountain kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas between India and China to the west of Nepal. It was an absolute monarchy until 2008 when the King decided it was time it became a democracy. It has only been open to tourists for a few years and is still very much a medieval society – although that is beginning to change. We think we got there just in time as in a few years it will have changed forever.
Booking a holiday in Bhutan is very different. Tourism is carefully controlled by the Government so as not to have a negative impact on the culture and life of the Bhutanese.
Unless you are an Indian national, you are only allowed to enter if you have a prepaid and pre planned itinerary with a Bhutanese Tour Company. You need visas to enter Bhutan. Local agents arrange these and sent to you a few days before you are due to travel. A driver and guide accompany you throughout your time in Bhutan.
You pay a set tariff per day which is set by the Bhutanese Government. This covers cost of car, driver, guide, accommodation and all meals. If you are trekking it also includes horses, porters, camping equipment and cooks. From 2012 prices are $250 per person per day. There is a surcharge of $30 per person for groups of two. This sounds expensive but once in Bhutan all you need is spending money for postcards, gifts and drinks.
You have to fly at least one way – a way of controlling tourist numbers. The main airport is at Paro, in the west of Bhutan. Smaller airstrips have recently been opened at Bumthang and Youngphula, near Trashigang, which are served by 12 seater planes from Paro.
By road, you can enter or leave at Phuentsholing in the south or at Samdrup Jonkar in the far east.
It is possible to book direct with a local agent in Bhutan. There is a government recommended list of tour agents. Many of these are small and email contact can be slow if they are out guiding, or if there is a local festival when all work stops. In this case you need to send payment for the trip by a money wire transfer to the address provided by the tour operator.
There is only one road across Bhutan so the route is fairly fixed. If you are planning the visit yourself, the tour operator will design an itinerary specially for you. It is important that you let them know what sort of things you want to do and see and how long you want to spend in the different places. Don’t try and cram too much sightseeing into a day. This is particularly important in Thimphu where there is a lot to see.
Once in Bhutan, the relationship with your guide is crucial. Let them know what you want to do and see and they will flex the itinerary to suit you.
Roads are narrow and winding and average speed rarely exceeds 20-30km/hr. In places the road is cut out on a narrow ledge on the side of the mountain. This can mean long hours in the car driving between overnight stops.
Accommodation is more basic than in other countries and gets more basic the further east you travel, unless you pay extra (and I mean serious money – $1400 per night for a double room ) to stop in 5-star resorts like Aman Kora. Most of the hotels used for foreign tourists do have ensuite bathrooms although in the east these can be very basic with dodgy plumbing. The Bhutanese people are delightful and the attitude of the staff more than makes up for lack of facilities.
It is possible to organise a homestay however conditions of family life in Bhutan are still very basic by western standards (lack of plumbing and a mattress on the floor) and this may not be for everyone.
I have written a series of reviews on the main site with details of our holiday in Bhutan. We booked through Audley Travel in UK who we use for all our tailor made trips.
They use Druk Executive Travel in Thimphu.