Fortresses. Monasteries. Steep mountains. Vast valleys. While it may sound like a backdrop from a Game of Thrones episode, what I’m really describing is the scenery from my recent trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan (my 114th country visited)! Last April I spent 10 days exploring Bhutan on G Adventures’ aptly named Bhutan Adventure group tour— and what a journey it was! It was a joy to discover this enchantingly beautiful country for myself. Just take a look at these views:
If you just scratched your head while muttering “Bhu-where?” you’re not alone, as Bhutan isn’t on most tourists’ radar (yet). This tiny, landlocked Asian nation is found in the Himalayas Mountain Range and is bordered by India and Tibet.
With only 700,000 inhabitants, Bhutan, which is geo-politically located in South Asia, is the region’s second least populous country after the Maldives.
While the capital of the Bhutan is Thimphu, you’ll likely touch down in the city of Paro, the site of Bhutan’s only international airport. Paro is an easy 90-minute drive from Thimphu.
Flights to Bhutan/ Getting to Bhutan by air
As I mentioned before, Paro Airport is Bhutan’s only international airport. It is serviced by two national carriers, Druk Air and Bhutan Air. You can fly into Bhutan from Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi, Kathmandu, and several other cities in the region.
Since I was already in Hong Kong for work, I arrived by plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, where I had had an overnight layover (sidebar: if you’ve never been to Nepal, I suggest coughing up the cash for a visa on arrival and popping into the city for at least one afternoon).
I also highly recommend flying into Bhutan from Kathmandu if you can swing it, as you get to fly right past Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet!
With that said, flights to Bhutan on Druk Air and Bhutan Air don’t come cheap, with round trip fares from the cities I mentioned ringing in at minimum $400 USD per person. Add that to the cost of flying into a connecting city in the first place (say, NYC to Bangkok) and you’re spending a pretty penny on airfare.
It gets cold! The Kingdom of Bhutan is mostly located at a high altitude. This high elevation means that, despite being in South Asia, the temperature in Bhutan can get quite chilly during the day and especially at night. Weather can also change in an instant depending on which part of the country you find yourself in. Pro tip: pack at least one fleece jacket and thick wool socks. Layers are key in this climate!
Bhutan has never been colonized. Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world to never have been colonized (take that British/French/Dutch 😂🙃), so it retains a unique cultural heritage rooted in its particular form of Buddhism. The architecture here is also unique, and the all the colourful textiles almost made me want to buy an extra suitcase so I could cart everything home!
Bhutan is/was a country of bans. The government in Bhutan has banned the use of plastic bags and the sale of tobacco. Television and access to the internet were also banned until 1999. Sidebar– internet connectivity is still pretty shaky so be prepared for that when you visit!
Bhutan is the only country in the world to officially measure national happiness. Instead of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the government places an emphasis on GNH– Gross National Happiness. There are four pillars of GNH: environmental conservation, preservation of and promotion of culture, sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, and good governance.
As someone who was raised in a capitalist society preoccupied with economic growth, the idea of measuring happiness in a national and official capacity is one that is both novel and refreshing!
Not quite an interesting fact, but– a small note on Traveling While Black in Bhutan. During my 10 days in Bhutan I only saw a total of three black people: a man and his two daughters. Of course, in true Oneika fashion, I approached them and found out they were from Switzerland. #blackacknowledgementmatters
But I digress. While the “lack of melanin” on my travels isn’t anything new, one thing that I found interesting is that NOT EVEN ONE PERSON stared at me in Bhutan or asked to take my picture. I cannot express how refreshing this is– much as I like to connect with folks and promote intercultural learning and all that jazz, sometimes a sista just wants to live her best black life without being treated like a specimen or a science exhibit.
You can’t travel to Bhutan independently– you must visit Bhutan as part of a tour. I repeat, you cannot visit Bhutan without a guide.
Hold up, say what now?! I’ve piqued your interest about travelling to Bhutan and now I’m saying you can’t go without a tour?! Alas, unless you hold Indian, Maldivian, or Bangladeshi citizenship, it is not possible to visit Bhutan without a guided tour. All other nationalities must enlist a tour company in order to get their tourist visas approved. What’s more is that once you’re there, the only approved way to get around the country and visit its various attractions is with a tour guide!
Bhutan has a mandatory daily fee that tourists must spend, and it’s not cheap. Bhutan is a leader in sustainable travel and has a “high value, low impact” policy when it comes to tourism– this allows for the protection of both the country’s environment and cultural heritage.
How does this manifest itself in real terms, you ask? Well, while the number of tourists permitted to visit the country is not restricted per se, imposing an expensive mandatory daily tourist fee means that visiting Bhutan is limited to those who can afford to (or really really want to).
So just how much does it cost to travel to Bhutan? Well, it’s a bit complicated. In most cases, visiting Bhutan will cost between $200 to $250 USD a day.
Per Bhutan’s tourism website:
“The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more is as follows:
• USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
• USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.”
Travelling with two people or solo? Expect to pay a surcharge in addition to the minimum daily package rates. Groups of two will pay an additional $30 USD a night, and solo travellers to Bhutan will pay an additional $40 USD a night.
The minimum daily package includes the following:
• A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the duration of your stay
• A minimum of 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star may require an additional premium).
• All meals
• All ground transport within the country (internal flights are not included)
• Camping equipment
Of course, this begs the question: is Bhutan worth up to $290 a day? If you can afford it, absolutely!
While planning a trip to Bhutan can be daunting, my experience was a breeze due to having signed up for a Bhutan tour with G Adventures. I did the 10 day Bhutan Adventure tour, which begins and ends in Paro. This comprehensive itinerary provides a great snapshot into the culture, attractions, and nature of Bhutan: we visited Bhutan’s famed fortresses, known as “dzongs”, met Buddhist monks, and did lots of trekking through mountain passes and scenic nature trails.
There are a ridiculous number of beautiful places to visit in Bhutan and we hit us many of them on the tour. Here’s a sneak peek:
Booking a Bhutan tour with G Adventures basically takes all the guesswork out of planning a trip to Bhutan. They arrange all Bhutan tourist visas, assist with flights into Bhutan, and essentially take care of all logistics so that you can focus on enjoying your trip.
My visit to Bhutan was filled with so many highlights that it’s difficult to choose one. But if you twist my arm, one experience stands out more than most: meeting the nuns of the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery in Punakha, Bhutan!
Don’t let the shaved heads fool you– these are indeed ladies in the picture. Despite not being able to really communicate with each other verbally (their English is limited, my Bhutanese is non-existent), they showed me their pose game was STRONG, boldly and deftly modeling when I asked to take their photo. I mean, peep the mean muggin’ sis on my right is doing. Doesn’t this look like a hip hop album cover? 😂
Besides the enthusiastic welcome, this visit was special because, while I’ve been to loads of monasteries in my travels, this is the first time that I can recall visiting a nunnery. I was surprised to learn that Bhutanese girls and women often choose to become nuns not because of religion, but because these training centers offer better chances for them to receive a quality education.
Why? Well, sadly, like in many places in the developing world, there is a gender gap in secondary schooling in Bhutan. Many parents living in rural areas cannot afford to send all of their children to school, so they prioritize their boys’ education, relegating girls to domestic labour. 😥😠
For this reason, over 50% of these girls join nunneries as a means of free, alternative schooling. Lack of funding and gender stereotypes remain the primary deterrents to girls’ academic development in Bhutan. Here’s hoping that time and greater awareness will fuel greater access to education for them in future.
Despite all this, meeting these ladies was the highlight of my tour of Bhutan with G Adventures, and a memorable interaction I’ll treasure for years to come!
Visiting the Kingdom of Bhutan can be expensive and difficult depending on where you’re flying in from. However, despite this, I think that Bhutan is an interesting and special country well worth your time!
Have you ever heard of Bhutan? What else would you like to know about it?