Travelling in Bhutan

Some things to expect when travelling through Bhutan

BEGGING
You may come across some begging in Bhutan. We highly discourage you giving anything to beggars, even simple gifts to children as it promotes a begging culture.

Your leader can give you more information about various charities and other options.

COMMUNICATIONS
Internet access
There is internet available almost everywhere in Bhutan, although intermittent power supply, particularly in the more remote areas may limit your connectivity. Hotels have wifi available in public areas and sometimes in guest rooms.

You may wish to purchase a local SIM card for your smart phone, iPad or notepad for internet connectivity. Bring a photocopy of your passport photo and visa pages, and a passport size photo to apply for a local sim card connection.
Mobile coverage
If you need to use your phone whilst travelling in Bhutan, there is mobile/cell phone coverage and phones with global roaming generally work well.

If you have an unlocked mobile phone, bring an international calling Sim with you (much cheaper than international roaming rates from your home country), or you may find it far more cost effective to purchase a local Sim card to use whilst in Bhutan. Bring a photocopy of your passport photo and visa pages, and a passport size photo to apply for a local sim card connection.

CULTURE

Bhutanese society does not have a class or caste system. Gender equality is fairly good. Traditional codes of etiquette are rigorously followed including dress code as well as formalised greetings.
Marriages may or may not be arranged by the family and the couple can choose to live with either set of parents or may set up their own household separately.
Education is poor by western standards and attendance at school is not compulsory. Bhutan has only one college.
Bhutan adheres to a unique philosophy termed Gross National Happiness and measures progress of the nation in these terms, not by GDP. The main pillars of GNH are

  1. Equitable and equal socio-economic development
  2. Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage
  3. Conservation of environment and
  4. Good governance

CUSTOMS
Customs in Bhutan are tied up with their highly refined system of etiquette.

Bhutanese generally eat with their hands, and as the LEFT hand is used for going to the toilet, it is considered unclean and impure. Therefore only use the RIGHT hand for eating (and indeed for passing anything, particularly money to anyone). Of course, if someone is left-handed, it’s OK to use the left hand for eating.
When sitting on the ground (i.e. inside someone’s home or in a temple), never point the soles of your feet towards any religious deities.
Do not pat children on the top of their head as it is considered an insult unless you know the family very well.
Bhutanese wear their national dress in public, particularly if they are at work or going to temples or Dzongs.
It is illegal to buy or sell tobacco products in Bhutan and smoking is banned in public, although it is permitted to carry a small amount of tobacco or cigarettes for personal use.
Stemming from the myth of a spiritual figure from the Punakha valley, known as the Divine Madman, you will be surprised by paintings of giant phalluses on the outside of homes, particularly in Punakha, but elsewhere as well.
The King and royal family are very much respected in Bhutan to the point of some locals wearing badges with their pictures or carrying photographs of the royals.

FOOD – REGIONAL CUISINE / BEVERAGES
Traditional Bhutanese food has been influenced by its neighbours, particularly China, Tibet, and India. But like the country itself, the local cuisine has been able to maintain its unique character. It’s less oily than Chinese or Indian food and spicier than most Tibetan dishes. Vegetarians won’t find it too hard to eat well. As a Buddhist country, the Bhutanese traditionally eat a mainly vegetarian diet with some meat. Although meat is commonly served to tourists, there is always plenty of vegetable dishes on offer.

All meals are included on tours in Bhutan. Generally we eat at the hotel restaurant, however where possible we will try to find good local restaurants for more authentic dishes.
Beverages
With meals, you will be offered tea, and beer and wine will be on offer.  Local alcohols like chang (local beer) and ara (a fermented white spirit) are available if you’re lucky

More popular than sweet tea, the Bhutanese prefer salted butter tea. It is certainly an acquired taste, but should be tried at least once on your trip.
Regional Cuisine
Ema Datshi. Not for those who can’t handle the heat of chilies. Bhutanese consider the chilli to be a vegetable rather than a seasoning and this dish of chilies cooked in a cheese sauce is served at all meals.

Maru. This dish of chicken and spices is more of a brothy stew than curry. It is occasionally made with beef.
Momos. Like the Tibetan and Nepalese varieties, these steamed dumplings are a favourite and are either filled with vegetables, or meat.
Red Rice. This is the staple of the Bhutanese diet. A very healthy rice grown in mineral rich waters of the Paro Valley, red rice is the accompaniment to all Bhutanese meals.

HEALTH
Hygiene
Hygiene is a subject of great concern to everyone who travels to the Indian Subcontinent. While travelling with us we will ensure that the hotels we stay and restaurants we eat in will have very high levels of hygiene and cleanliness, but that does not guarantee you will remain healthy. There are however some simple rules that should keep you out of harms way most of the time. A little common-sense goes a very long way to staying healthy on the road.

First and foremost is PERSONAL hygiene. ALWAYS carry hand sanitiser or wipes and use them religiously, after handling money, going to the toilet and especially every single time you are going to eat anything. As a general rule, be mindful of anything you might put in your mouth, including postage stamps!
Food
Do not eat uncooked vegetables or fruits that cannot be peeled. Do not eat food from road-side eateries  that is not freshly cooked and still hot. DO eat confidently from street stalls that have freshly cooked food on offer and are well frequented.

Drinking Water
Do not brush your teeth with tap water. Do not accidentally inhale or swallow water in the shower. Do not drink tap water, or water from a jug or carafe left in your room, even though you may be told that it has been boiled and filtered. Stick to bottled water and soft drinks or water that you have treated yourself. Bhutan produces a wide variety of carbonated drinks including international brands such as Coke and Pepsi. Bottled water is available nearly everywhere and is very inexpensive, costing usually from 40c-60c per litre. It may not always be possible to get chilled water however. Even if the water is not ‘mineral’ water, it is usually referred to as such. It simply means that the water is treated and will be safe to drink. Check that the seal is intact while buying bottled water, especially at railway stations and in small towns.

Precautions
Remain very well hydrated at all times.

A travel probiotic is most useful. Recommended is SB Floractiv (BioCeuticals), available in Australia from Health food stores. For other countries, check with your local health food store.
Vitamin C, Echinacea & Olive Leaf Extract or similar may be useful in helping keep you immune from colds and flu.
Should you require any medication whilst in Bhutan that you did not bring with you, most medicines are readily available over the counter without a prescription.
Carry a first aid kit with adhesive bandages, thermometer, water-purification tablets, antibiotics, antiseptic creams and mosquito repellents.
If you believe in vaccinations, get whichever your travel doctor recommends. Cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, meningitis, and typhoid are the potential risks here. To avoid malaria and dengue, carry mosquito repellents and wear clothes that cover the legs and arms.
Overall, remember that common-sense and good hygiene practices whilst travelling in Bhutan generally keep most people healthy for the duration of their trip.
Toilets
Public toilets outside of hotels and tourist restaurants may be Asian-style squat toilets. They will be in varying states of cleanliness! There may be no toilet paper so you should always carry your own. It is highly recommended to carry hand wipes to maximize hygiene and a bottle of hand sanitizer gel is also useful.

LANGUAGE
Fortunately for English speakers, basic English is commonly understood in amongst those people you will be dealing with in hotels, restaurants and tourist sights. You will always have your local guide there to assist.

You may however wish to learn a few words of Dzongkha which will enhance your interactions with locals.

MONEY MATTERS
All of your meals are included in Bhutan, however you will still need some cash for drinks and souvenirs.

Changing travellers cheques is less convenient these days and can be a long and painful process and only available at some banks. You may wish to obtain a small amount of USD for changing up into local currency. Local currency can be easily obtained at money changers and ATMs on arrival at the airport. Usually, the most convenient place to change money is your hotel, or money exchange offices. ATMs are easily accessible in main cities and towns.
Having your funds accessible through an international travel Cash Passport Credit Card is highly recommended. See www.cashpassport.com.au if travelling from Australia.
Credit card
A credit card is useful in Bhutan for high end restaurants and buying expensive items. The major cards are Visa and MasterCard.

Exchange rates
The unit of Bhutanese currency is the Ngultrum, which is divided into 100 chetrum. The Ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee so the exchange rates are the same. There are coins in the denominations of 20, 25, 50ch and 1nu. Currency notes come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000. As of April 2018, the exchange rate is approximately:

AUD$ 1 = Nu 50
CAD$ 1 = Nu 51
Euro€ 1 = Nu 80
GBP£ 1 = Nu 93
NZ$ 1 = Nu 48
US$ 1 = Nu 65
Tipping
Tipping is not necessarily the norm in Bhutan. If you are part of one or our organized group tours, hotel porters, drivers and guides tips will come out of the group tipping kitty that is part of your tour cost.

Tips for hotel room attendants and/or porters, if they have gone over and above the call of duty can be given $1 or Nu50.

PHOTOGRAPHY
Cameras are not allowed inside Bhutanese Dzong monasteries, however elsewhere, photography is fine.

Sensitivities
Bhutanese people generally don’t mind having their photo taken. If you do take someone’s photo and they ask for you to send it to them, ensure you get their correct address written down in English (ask another Bhutanese to translate if required).

It is not recommended to pay money for taking someone’s photo. This encourages a ‘Begging Mentality’ which turns normally self-sufficient human beings into beggars (even if they do not realise it themselves).
Backing up your images
With the advent of Digital photography, it is very easy to download your photos and burn them onto CDs/Flashdrives while in Bhutan.

Make sure you bring a spare camera battery as you’re sure to be using your camera far more than you’d expect.

RELIGION
Seventy-five percent of Bhutanese practice Buddhism, whilst the remainder are Hindus with tiny smatterings of Christians and Muslims. When you travel Bhutan you will visit many temples and monasteries. Always remove your shoes before entry. In a Buddhist temple or monastery, remember to follow a clockwise direction while performing any sort of movement – from spinning prayer wheels to walking around the stupa or even the exteriors.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL
Responsible Travel is travel in a way that shows respect to the people, to their culture, economy and of course the environment. What may be acceptable in your own country, may not be suitable behaviour in Bhutan.

Do’s and Don’ts
Be considerate of Bhutans religions, customs, culture and traditions. Always dress respectfully and modestly.

Always dispose of litter in bins, or carry with you to throw away later.
Shop in small, locally run stores and purchase locally made goods.
Always ask before taking photos of locals, particularly in villages and less touristy locales.
DO NOT hand out money or small items such as pens and chocolates to children, particularly in villages and tribal areas as this creates/perpetuates a begging mentality.

SHOPPING
Although not famous for it’s handicrafts, there are likely to be some gifts or souvenirs that you will want to take home with you. Some do come from Nepal, so check first. Woven textiles are one of the best buys, but can be quite pricey. Other buys are jewellery and woven cane and bamboo goods. You might like some of the Buddhist paintings and wooden or bronze carvings or other goods.

It’s a good idea to check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to bring certain items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand generally have strict quarantine laws.

TRANSPORT
Bhutan is a landlocked and mountainous land and all travel is generally by road with some internal flights.

As a foreigner, you will be booked on a group tour or an independent ‘tour’ with all of your transport included. Depending on the size of the group you will be in a comfortable air conditioned car or SUV or a minibus of varying size.
Roads can be in varying states of disrepair and travel times can be long, even if distances are not huge.