Many friends have asked me how much it costs to travel to Bhutan. I did not realize that a lot of people are really interested in this corner of the world, and keen to visit. So here’s a breakdown of all the main costs, and some tips to travel to Bhutan.
As I mentioned in my first post, you need to join a tour to get a visa to Bhutan. The Bhutanese Government publishes a tour operator directory on their website. Make sure that you double check whether your agency is on the list.
The visa fee is reasonable ($40/pax) and not included in tour price. It takes only a few days to get it.
The standard tour price is $250/pax/day (inclusive of all domestic transportation, meals, tour guide, accommodations, and activities stated in your itinerary). If you travel in a group of less than 3 people, you’ll have to pay a surcharge of $30/pax. The best thing about tours in Bhutan is that they are all private, you don’t join other people in a big group. You travel with your own group, and your own group only.
We chose Bhutan Excursion because the owner is Vietnamese, and she gave us a very good discount. Our tour guide was inexperienced and not very knowledgeable, but we got a great driver-cum-medicine man. They took us to their hometowns to have lunch with their own families and relatives. You do not typically get this personal touch with big tours.
There is currently only 1 international airport in Bhutan. Nestled among Himalayan mountains with unpredictable gusts and a very short runway, Paro International Airport is so dangerous that only a handful of pilots in the world are qualified to land here. It is no surprise that tourists can fly to Bhutan from a very limited number of places – Bangkok (Thailand), Singapore, Kathmandu (Nepal), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and a few other cities in India. So do not forget the return tickets from wherever you are to one of these cities. Our Vietnam Airlines tickets from HCM City to Bangkok costed ~$250/pax, and we spent one night at Oneday hostel in Bangkok ($16/pax).
We then took Bhutan Airlines from Bangkok. This airlines has a very small fleet (1 flight per day from Bangkok) of medium-size planes (Airbus A320 I think). It has only 2 ticket classes – Economy (return ticket $688/pax) and Premium Economy ($816/pax). The difference is minimal, so book early to get your preferred date and save your money.
Your tour operator can help obtain your visa and book your flight, but it can take while to discuss back and forth. We started 2 months in advance, and got the visa and tickets sorted out 1 month before our departure. We ended up with Premium seats on our less preferred dates.
Ah, and don’t forget your travel insurance. We bought a basic one from AIA for $26/pax.
Souvenirs in Bhutan are quite expensive. Worse, most of them are made in China, India, Nepal or neighboring countries (hence the additional import tax I guess). There are only a few items locally made in Bhutan such as traditional wooden wine containers (I got one in Bumthang) and cups, or handmade papers (I bought a few sheets from the paper factory in Thimphu). I spent >$200 on souvenirs, which is a lot compared to my other trips.
–> In total I spent $40 (visa) + $1,935 (tour) + $816 (tickets Bangkok-Paro-Bangkok) + $250 (tickets HCMC-Bangkok-HCMC) + $26 (travel insurance) + $16 (hostel in Bangkok) + taxi in Bangkok (can’t remember the cost but should not be too much as we traveled in a group of 4) + $200 (souvenirs) + $25 (tips for driver + tour guide) = about $3,300
Bhutan is probably one of the most mountainous countries in the world. The roads are small, and rough in some places, with endless hair-raising hairpin bends. It can take a long time to travel short distances, so it is important to be NOT over-ambitious with your itinerary. All tourists start in Paro in Western Bhutan, some make it to Central Bhutan, and only a few reach Eastern Bhutan.
We had 9 full days in Bhutan. Below is our itinerary:
- Day 1: arrive in Paro in the morning, lunch in Thimphu, then drive to Punakha (~3h). Homestay in Punakha
- Day 2: start the day early, drive from Punakha to Trongsa (~5h), visit Trongsa in the afternoon. Stay at Yangkhil Resort.
- Day 3: start early, drive from Tsongsa to Bumthang (~2h), attend a local festival. Overnight at Mountain Lodge (Jakar). Super spacious and clean rooms.
- Day 4: sightseeing in Bumthang. Overnight at Mountain Lodge (Jakar).
- Day 5: drive back to Punakha from Bumthang via Phobjikha Valley (whole day). Visit Gangtey Monastery. I can’t remember the name of our hotel in Punakha, but it’s not the best one, so it doesn’t matter.
- Day 6: sightseeing in Punakha in the morning, drive back to Thimphu in the afternoon. Overnight at Amodhara Hotel. Good location in the city center, poor foods. But across the alley, you can find a local restaurant with sensational grilled ribs and sauteed asparagus. Believe me, after a week on more or less the same diet every lunch and dinner, we all agreed ribs and asparagus could not have tasted any better.
- Day 7: sightseeing in Thimphu. Overnight at Amodhara Hotel.
- Day 8: drive from Thimphu to Paro in the morning, sightseeing in Paro in the afternoon. Stay at Gangtey Palace Hotel. This particular hotel is amazing!!! Make sure you ask your agency to get you a room there. It’s super popular, so book early.
- Day 9: visit Taktshang Lhakhang. Stay at Gangtey Palace Hotel.
- Day 10: depart from Paro
6. Other tips
Local festivals are very colorful and entertaining, so try to attend one if you can. Ask your agency to lend you some Gho or Kira (Bhutanese traditional costumes) to show your respect to local customs (it’s like wearing your Sunday best to church).
Hot stone bath is actually a very cool experience in Bhutan. You can try it in most big resorts/hotels I think, some homestays also provide this service. You need to tell your guide early so that he/she can make the arrangement. It takes 2-3 hours to fire the stones and prepare the water. The charge is not included in tour price.
Foods in Bhutan are simple with limited variety. Homemade meals are the best. You are very likely to find beef or chicken as main dish, but not much of pork or fish, and no seafood at all during your whole trip. Beef is tough and chewy by default. Chili is a staple in Bhutanese diet, but restaurants make much less spicy foods for tourists.
Nightlife is definitely NOT what Bhutan is famous for. However I highly recommend you to make the effort at least once just for an eye-opening experience. What we saw at a local night club in Jakar was so entertaining, hilarious, and surprising at the same time.
Clothing – if you travel across the country in late spring (Apr/May) like we did, bring both light and warm clothes. High altitude passes and central valleys like Bumthang are really cold, while Western Bhutan (Paro, Thimphu, Punakha) can be quite hot. Bring your walking shoes even if you don’t plan to go trekking/hiking, you’ll need them for Taktsang Lhakhang for sure.
Entrance fees to all places on your tour itinerary are covered, but if you want to visit other places (eg: we went to the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu), you have to pay the entrance fee.
Tips for tour guide + driver are not compulsory, but now that trekking in Bhutan is getting more and more popular, and big trekking groups can give significantly large sums (by pooling from all members), I guess all guides and drivers expect some tips at the end of the tour. We ran out of money, so we gave our guide and driver a minimal $50 each. I personally think it’s a reasonable amount given how much money we already paid for the tour, and how unsatisfied we were with the tour guide.
Driving from Thimphu to Paro
First sight of Paro Dzong
View from Gangtey Palace Hotel
The hotel has a beautiful garden with magnificent views and an amazing variety of flowers
View from the Dzong
Young novices selling bracelets
A tour guide helping tourists to read their birth chart (~horoscope)
Young novices washing half-nude statues
A souvenir shop’s window display
The target is ridiculously far
We started early (~7.30am) and chose to ride horses for the first half of the route to Taktsang Lhakhang instead of walking for the whole route. This saved us ~1-2 hours, hence we managed to arrive at the temple before the majority of tourists and back down to town at lunch time when it started getting really hot.
Halfway to Taktsang Lhakhang – horses are not allowed from here. You can see the temple nested in the sheer cliffs
To get to the temple, tourists must go down a series of steps before walking uphill again
View from the temple – cameras are not allowed inside
A perfect place for meditating
View of the temple from a coffee shop on the way back