Approximately the size of Switzerland, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan issues only around 30,000 visas a year. The country has only one international airport, at Paro, served exclusively by the national carrier Druk Air.
Bhutan is miraculously unspoiled, and yards beyond the airport perimeter fence, you enter an exquisite landscape that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries: milky mountain torrents are overhung by weeping willows; rice paddies give way to rhododendron forest; and occasionally you catch a tantalizing glimpse of gleaming snow on the Himalayan peaks to the north.
Everywhere, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism is apparent in the brightly colored prayer flags flutter in the breeze; and the golden-roofed fortified monasteries (dzongs) dominate the idyllic scenery. The roads are narrow and winding and the drives long, but are consistently colorful and endlessly fascinating, with mountain vistas.
Bhutan is truly unique is its government’s pursuit of measured development ,rather than the straightforward aim of economic growth: the modern world is held at arm’s length. Traditional clothes are compulsory; new buildings are constructed in an indigenous style; and nearly all of the country’s 2.5 million people are engaged in agriculture. An enchanting break from the overdeveloped world.
Bhutan has a rich cultural heritage, interlaced with religion, folklore and history. Indeed as a mark or respect, the people still wear traditional national dress. Men wear ‘gho’, a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, whilst women wear ‘kira’, which is an ankle-length dress worn over a blouse and tied up with a brooch.
Before the introduction of Buddhism, a form of animistic worship, called Bön, was prevalent in the region. Bön was an oral tradition that revered the natural world, particularly the sun, moon and sky.
The natural world has been at the heart of the history of Bhutan. The introduction of Buddhism drew on and incorporated some of the ancient beliefs around nature.
Spirits, manifestations, medicine men, yetis and reincarnation are all still part of the story of Bhutan. Aspects of life that may appear fantastical to western minds are regarded as commonplace here.
All visitors to Bhutan are required have a visa in advance of arrival, which VeloAsia will arrange. However, all travelers are ultimately responsible for confirming they have the necessary visas and entry paperwork.
US dollars are accepted in most tourist areas, with top hotels offering foreign exchange facilities. Major credit cards are accepted at the larger hotels (including Uma Paro and Uma Punakha), handicraft shops and some places in Thimphu.
There are very few ATMs in Bhutan. Those that are available in Thimphu accept Mastercard and Visa, with a daily limit.
Travelers’ cheques can be cashed at all the usual places—banks, hotels and at the airport.
The local currency unit is ngultrum (Nu). There are 100 chetrum in one ngultrum, and 60 ngultrum = approx. US $1.00
There are banks in Paro and Thimpuwhere you can exchange foreign currency as well as the airport and larger hotels. When changing money, request a mix of denominations. Carry smaller notes with you when riding, it will be difficult to change larger notes outside cities.
Allow about $20-40 per day for personal expenses.
Please also make sure you have access to an additional US$400, to be used when unforeseen incidents or circumstances outside our control (eg. a natural disaster, civil unrest or an outbreak of bird flu) necessitate a change to our planned route.
It is worth noting that tips are discouraged by the Bhutanese government, but have come to be expected. Hotels & Restaurants: USD$ 0.50 $1 for porters and restaurant staff. Drivers: You may have a range of drivers on your trip. Some may be with you for a short journey while others may be with you for several days. We would suggest a higher tip for those more involved with the group however a base of US$5 per person, per day is generally appropriate. Local transport: For a city tour we US$ 1 per person, per day. Guide: US$10-20 per person, depending on your satisfaction and service.
At the time of booking please provide VeloAsia with your full name, sex, date of birth, nationality, passport number & date of issue / expiry, plus a picture of your passport detail page, email address and emergency contacts. If you have not booked flights to Bhutan with VeloAsia, please submit your flight details to finalize the visa process. We will then forward you the scanned copy of your Bhutan visa about two weeks prior to your trip. You must show the copy of your visa at the check-in for your flight to Bhutan and on arrival at the immigration in Bhutan where you will have your Bhutan visa stamped into your passport.
Druk Air Notice
Bhutan's national carrier Druk Air, the only airline permitted to fly into the country, is renowned for last-minute changes to the timetable for flights in and out of Bhutan, mostly due to weather. VeloAsia bears no responsibility for delay, cancellation or unavailability of flight or missed connections. Flights into and out of Paro Airport are restricted to daylight hours and are dependent on weather conditions. Passengers are advised to allow at least 24 hours' transit time for connecting flights to and from Paro Airport and to travel on non-restricted air tickets so that they can be rebooked on the first available airline if a connecting flight is missed. Passengers transiting through India will need a transit visa if they intend to leave the airport or spend a night in India. Druk Air has rigid restrictions on the amount and size of luggage passengers may carry into the country, with a weight limit of 20kgs (44 pounds).
Please note this VeloAsia trip is operated by our experienced local government licensed partner.
Passengers with special meal requirements must ensure they or their travel agent inform VeloAsia of this at the time of booking.
There is limited space available in the vehicle for luggage storage so please only bring essential items on the trip. See ‘What to Take’.
Bikes. We use in Bhutan is KTM mountain bikes. Please make sure that you let us know your height in cm’s so that we can properly size you to the correct frame size. The bikes that we provide are 21 speed mountain bikes with front suspension and have a single water bottle carrier cage. There are no racks and we advise bringing a handlebar bag to carry personal items.
During the high season, Druk Air may not be guaranteed that your bike will arrive at the same time you do on the flight into Paro. We can then carry the box in the truck once in Bhutan. Please note that while every effort is made to maintain all the bikes in good condition on each trip, we cannot guarantee that some small damage such as scratching will not occur as a result of the loading and unloading of bikes into and out of the support vehicle. Please note If you are bringing your own bike and it has disc brakes, hydraulics, rear suspension, oil units or special pumps for adjusting the suspension pressure, please make sure that you bring the necessary spares and parts with you.
You should pack as lightly as possible. Your main luggage will be transported for you on all cycling days in the support vehicle. You will only need a day pack to carry your personal items when cycling. You are expected to carry your own luggage on & off the bus and though you will not be required to walk long distances with your luggage we recommend keeping the weight under 12kg. Suitcases are not recommended as they are awkward to store in the support vehicle.
Most travelers carry their luggage in a backpack, although an overnight bag with a shoulder strap would suffice if you travel lightly. Smaller bags with wheels are acceptable, although we recommend your bag has carry straps as well.
Bring clothes that are comfortable, appropriate for varied weather conditions, including light rain, and activities for your trip. For protection against cold, a number of relatively thin layers are better than fewer thick ones, and easier to add or peel off as you move from lower to altitudes to higher and back down again. Wide variation in temperature is a feature of travel in Bhutan.
By all means pack older, well-worn clothes rather than rushing out to buy new ones since they will probably get fairly rough treatment in Bhutan. You may have to wash & dry clothes in less than ideal conditions, such as trekking, so wicking fabrics like wool may be best for your trip. Women travelers should pack at least one skirt or sarong for temple visits.
1. Travel insurance, air ticket
2.Credit card & spending money
1. Re-hydration salts and any personal medication you use
2. Alarm clock( optional) and head torch/flashlight
1. Water bottles or Camel Bak system
2. Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses
3. Comfortable daypack
4. Waterproof bags for putting any wet clothes / dirty laundry in
1. 3 T-shirts (lightweight quick drying fabric) / long sleeved T-shirt
2. 2 pairs Cycling shorts (padded)
3. 1 pair of comfortable shoes for cycling
4. pair of sport sandals
5. socks (for cycling)
6. 1 pair of knee length shorts
7. 1 pair lightweight long trousers
8. Lightweight waterproof top
9. Sweater/fleece for evening
10. Sun hat
11. Long underwear top and bottom
12. Water bottles
14. Lip protection. Minimum of SPF 20
15. Insect Repellent.(only for trekking)
16. Swiss knife/Leather man (come in handy for opening wine)
17. Ear Plugs. (dogs bark)
18. Toiletry Items: toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving set, etc
2. 1 water bottle or ‘Camel Bak’ hydration pack
3. Handlebar bag / small day pack for carrying items when cycling
4. Thermal cycling gloves
5. Wind vest
6. Wind/rain jacket
1. Optional: 2. Multi-tool (allen keys) for minor adjustments to your bike
3. Your own saddle or gel seat cover
4. Your own SPD pedals
5. Mini bicycle pump
6. Favourite snacks for cycling energy boost e.g. ‘PowerBars’, sports gel (a concentrate carbohydrate that delivers immediate energy when you feel tired or flat), dried fruit or nut
2. Adapter for recharging digital camera (Can be bought locally)
3. Spare batteries
4. Reading / writing material
5. Penknife (put in main luggage at airport)
7. Small calculator (when out bargaining!)
8. Photos of family or postcards of Home (great way to have fun with locals you meet)
9. Phrase book, map and Lonely Planet guide
10. Small padlock for securing your luggage during flights
"Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get" —Mark Twain
Though you may be traveling at a warmer period of the year, you will be traveling over high-mountain passes which can be dramatically You may expect 68 to 86 °F (20-30 °C) at lower altitudes in Bhutan, but at night the temperature can drop below 50 °F (10 °C). Long underwear and light fleece layers are recommended. Being in the high mountains you should prepare your day pack for all varieties of weather, including at the higher altitudes when passing over summits passes where it will be typically cool and damp if overcast.
Travel insurance is compulsory for all our trips. We require that, at a minimum, you are covered for medical expenses including emergency repatriation. We strongly recommend that the policy also covers personal liability, cancellation, curtailment and loss of luggage and personal effects. Upon arrival, you will be asked to provide evidence of travel insurance and the insurance company’s 24-hour emergency contact number has been seen by your guide. If you have credit card insurance your tour leader will require proof of purchase of the trip (a receipt of credit card statement) with a credit card in your name. Contact your bank for details of their participating insurer, the level of coverage and emergency contact telephone number.
All VeloAsia travellers need to be in good physical health in order to participate fully in the group travel experience. If, in the opinion of our group leader, any traveller is unable to complete the itinerary without undue risk to themselves and/or the rest of the group, VeloAsia reserves the right to exclude them from all or part of a trip without refund. Please let us know of any medical conditions on the registration form and if you are currently taking prescription medicine as it is important that our leader is aware of your circumstances. We therefore ask that you read the itinerary in these trip notes thoroughly and then realistically self-assess your physical ability to complete the trip as described. Please consult with your doctor if you have any doubts.
There are no specific health requirements for entry into Bhutan. However, you should consult your doctor or travel clinic for up-to-date information and prescriptions for vaccinations and anti-malarial requirements. We would suggest that you are up to date with immunisation protection against typhoid, polio, tetanus and hepatitis. Lowland Nepal also a malarial risk area and we recommend that you take a course of suitable malarial prophylactics. As some vaccinations require a course over weeks or months, contact your doctor as early as possible prior to departure. Generally, six to eight weeks’ notice is adequate. We recommend that you carry a First Aid kit as well as any personal medical requirements (such as a spare pair of prescription glasses). Please be aware that for legal reasons our leaders are prohibited from administering any type of drug including headache tablets/antibiotics etc.
Your first aid kit should include:
diarrhoea treatment (both a blocker to bring relief from the symptoms and an antibiotic)
antiseptic for cuts & scrapes
high factor sunscreen
bringing some sachets of an oral rehydration solution (available at any pharmacy) which aids recovery following riding and dehydration and also helps replace lost body salts. Just add a sachet to your water bottle each day. Please scroll down to the Special Safety Notes below for information on dehydration.
If you are 65 years or older a completed Medical Certificate is required. Please let us know and we can post you a copy which then needs to be signed by your GP and posted faxed
The main hospital, the National Referral Hospital, is situated in Thimphu. It has a very high standard of care. Health care is free to citizens in Bhutan.
Most people remain well at altitudes of up to 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). Most of your trip will be below the height where Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can begin to effect people, except for brief periods when we are crossing mountain passes. The capital, Paro, for example is located at 7,300 ft (2,200 meters). AMS is caused by going too high too fast and, in extreme cases, can be fatal. It is important to take care and allow your body time to adjust to the smaller quantities of oxygen. Acclimatization varies from person to person, but to accelerate the acclimatization process, please follow the guidelines below:Altitude sickness does have the potential to affect all cyclists and trekkers from 2,500m and higher. During your trip, you should plan to ascend slowly trekkking, giving your body time to adapt to limited oxygen. On the bike trips you will likely descend quickly back down to under 2,500 meteres to alleviate and symptoms of altitude. Normal altitude symptoms that one may eexperience include sleeplessness,l loss of appetite, vivid dreams, m shortness of breath, dry cough, mild headache.
However, if you are feeling nauseous and dizzy be sure to let your guide know.
During your trip, Increase water intake. At altitude, your body loses moisture at a much higher rate, primarily through breathing in cold dry air and breathing out moist air. This must be replaced by drinking up to five litres per day—and is the number one rule of acclimatization.
Do not over exert: Make sure you keep a slow and steady pace with plenty of rests on uphill sections. Anyone gasping for breath is going too fast. Importantly, take it easy the first few days you are in Bhutan.
Note that our itineraries are designed with easy days at the start. Some become more challenging towards the end, after acclimatisation has occurred.
Bhutan uses 230v/50hz electrical system. Energy here is clean and green, generated by hydropower.
International dialing code for Bhutan is 975. Most of Bhutan has mobile phone coverage, although the mountains do mean the signal drops frequently during travel. Some PDAs such as Blackberrys do not yet receive a signal in Bhutan. Check with your mobile phone provider.
B-Mobile (the local mobile phone company) has agreements with most Asian and European mobile phone companies to allow calls to be made. B-Mobile SIM cards are available for purchase.
There are some Internet cafes in Thimphu. Hotels typically offer wireless internet access in all areas. Computers with complimentary internet are available in the hotel library. Wireless internet access is also available at Uma Paro and Uma Punakha.
The postal service in Bhutan is excellent. Bhutan Post offers an Expedited Mail Service, which is a fast international mail service. Parcels are usually sent via airmail.
Travelers are advised to drink only bottled water, or treat water before drinking. Do not drink tap water. It is also advisable to avoid fresh fruit juices, which may have been watered down. The water supplies in hotels are generally considered to be safe.
The time zone in Bhutan is GMT+6 hours. There is only one time zone across the whole country.
Bhutan has a very low incidence of crime. Petty crime is very occasionally reported and violent crime is extremely rare. However, it is common sense to keep money and valuables out of view whenever travelling.
Transport & Support
A private support vehicle and cycling guide on bike accompanies the trip throughout.
Trip Difficulty & Riding Conditions
There are certainly extremely challenging climbs over pass roads above 3,200 meters in Bhutan, but we will mostly be cycling at lower elevations in the broad, flatter valleys. As a private tour, any and all cycling is per each rider in your group's preference, even if only climbing into the support vehicle for a lift over the next hill.. The majority of our trips travel on good-condition, paved roads with short distances on dirt roads and trails. If you prefer more rugged riding, we can also organize mountain biking itineraries.
Cycling and hiking in Bhutan's high elevations provides additional rigor. Although we may organize your trip to be a more about leisurely cycling, to enjoy your trip to the fullest you should be in excellent shape arriving into Paro your first day. Leading up to your trip you should be training regularly with mix of hill climbs and endurance rides, and although we are roads, you should include some technical riding drills.
Despite perceptions of Bhutan as a Shangri-La, in actuality much of the population is impovershed. You will be exposed to poverty wherever we travel and access to modern services is limited. English is not widely spoken. Food in Bhutan is simple and quite different than we are accustomed to. The Bhutanese are a highly conservative and religious culture and we must be carefule not to offend. Respecting the local culture also includes never photographing anyone without explicit permission, including children.
Bhutanese are by nature friendly and have no strict, regimented customs. It’s a silly notion of the travel press you must adhere to local customs or risk causing offense, but observance of the following will make your visit more sensitive to local customs:
- Bhutanese practice typical Asian courtesy and behavior in respect for religion, Monarchy, modest dress, and no public display of affection.
- Bhutanese use their right hands or both hands to receive and give things and avoid using fingers to point at somebody, statues of deities, or important persons or pictures of such but use their open palm facing upwards (sky wards) to point.
- When visiting temples, monasteries, and official building, hats should be removed and umbrellas closed. Trousers, not shorts, and skirts with shirts that do not expose skin should be worn. For both genders, a “polite shirt” or one with a collar is appropriate. For some places carry a light jacket that covers up to your wrist before entering. It is customary to remove shoes at the door. Photos may not be allowed inside, but ask your guide. It is also customary to leave a small offering of money at the altar as an offering. Bhutanese circle religious structures clockwise.
- Like in so many other Asian countries, feet should be kept on the floor. While sitting if you cannot sit cross-legged like the Bhutanese kneel down with your feet folded backwards, or if that is difficult sideways so that your feet are not pointing directly.
In Bhutan, there is a deep respect for religion, elders and the monarchy. Their cultural customs are complex and not easily understood in a short visit to the country. A good rule of thumb is to follow appropriate Western standards of courtesy.
If you would like to photograph a Bhutanese person, please ask them first. It is considered a sign of respect to use the word ‘la’ at the end of a sentence. The head is regarded the most sacred part of the body. Patting someone on the head is a bad omen. The feet are considered impure. You should never have your feet extended in front of you. In most temples and monasteries, it is customary to remove your shoes before entering. Many people follow this practice in their homes as well. Do not point at people or beckon with your hand facing up; it is thought to be the height of rudeness.
When visiting temples, monasteries and sacred sites please dress conservatively in long skirts or trousers and tops with sleeves. On entering a monastery, speak softly. Remove your shoes. It is also customary to leave a small offering of money on the altar. Having done so, a monk may pour holy water from a sacred vessel (bumpa) into your hand. Make the gesture of sipping this water and then spread the rest on your head. There are no restrictions on photography outside sacred sites. However, photography is strictly prohibited inside monasteries and temples. Inside temples, always move in a clockwise direction. The same applies when spinning a prayer wheel: rotate the wheel clockwise.
During festivals, please avoid the use of flash. When attending a festival, dress your best (the Bhutanese don their finest attire). Many guests like to purchase a gho (for men) or kira (for women) before the occasion.
When visiting sacred sites like goemba (monasteries) or lhakhang (temples), when passing chortens (Buddhist stone monuments) or mani stone walls (stoned carved with the Buddhist mantra, ‘om maani padme hum’ which means ‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’), always circle clockwise or pass to the left.
When we are cycling children may ask you for pens, money or other things. It is hard to resist giving, but we ask you not to do this as it encourages a culture of begging and this is not what any parent desires for their children. Ask your leader what is the best way to give usually through Schools or local NGO’s.
No hats or umbrellas are allowed at the tshechu: please carry sunscreen. There are no water facilities, so please carry bottles as well as snacks. A light weight poncho is useful if rain rolls in. Carry lots of small change to donate to clowns. Keep all valuables and documents at your hotel.
Bhutan has silver and gold jewelry that can be bought or ordered within a week’s time. Carpets are also highly regarded as are traditional textiles which can be expensive. If you are buying anything that looks antiquated or is expensive, make sure to obtain receipts to avoid customs problems at the airport. Textiles are recommended in Thimphu or in eastern Bhutan. Woolen fabrics are recommended in Bumthang (central Bhutan)
Photography & Other Taboos
Please note there may be times during your visit to Bhutan when the use of video and / or still cameras may be inappropriate. Local people may consider that filming is too intrusive and in these circumstances we will request that you do not film.
At all times be aware and sensitive to the impact of photography and seek permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse.
Medical facilities in the populated areas in Bhutan such as Thimphu and Paro are available but may be limited or unavailable in rural areas. General road conditions outside urban areas are poor, and emergency services generally are not available. Because of the mountainous terrain, roads tend to have steep drop-offs and blind curves. During heavy rains there is a risk of falling rocks and landslides which can block roads.
When visiting sacred sites, including dzongs, the Department of Cultural Affairs advises that men should wear trousers and a shirt with a collar. Women should wear a dress or long trousers. Shorts, hats, T-shirts, umbrellas, smoking and alcohol are not allowed.
Visas are the responsibility of the individual traveler. The visa requirements for your trip vary depending on where you are from and where you are going. As a general rule most countries expect that you will have at least 6 months' validity on your passport. On arrival visitors may be asked to present return tickets and evidence of means to cover your intended stay.
We recognize that there may be times when your group leader/local partner may not be able to resolve a situation to your satisfaction if this is the case, please ask the leader to speak to their direct manager.
You may also choose to provide details in your online feedback, which we ask you to complete within 30 days of the end of your trip. But we do ask you to be aware that it is very difficult for us to provide any practical help after the trip is complete.
Most travelers carry their luggage in a backpack, although an overnight bag with a shoulder strap would suffice if you travel lightly. Smaller bags or backpacks with wheels are convenient although we recommend your bag has carry straps. You'll also need a day pack/bag to carry water and a camera etc for day trips.
You can find VeloAsia's Ultimate Packing List on our website. It should be used as a guide only and isn't intended to be a complete packing list.
Please be aware that local laws governing tourism facilities in this region differ from those in your home country and not all the accommodation which we use has a fire exit, fire extinguishers or smoke alarms.
Travel insurance is compulsory for all our trips. We require that, at a minimum, you are covered for medical expenses including emergency repatriation. We strongly recommend that the policy also covers personal liability, cancellation, curtailment and loss of luggage and personal effects.
When traveling on a group trip, you won't be permitted to depart until evidence of travel insurance and the insurance company's 24-hour emergency contact number has been seen by your leader.
Readings, Media & Photos
Tomas Belcik's Bhutan Cycling slideshow on Flickr
Odyssey Guide Bhutan, by Francoise Pommaret
Vivid guidebooks by Odyssey, as with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand guides, the Bhutan edition is loaded with graphics and photographs that make the book a great souvenir as well as guidebook material.
The Raven Crown: The Origins of Buddhist Monarchy in Bhutan, by Michael Aris
HISTORY • 2005 • HARD COVER • 160 PAGES (RARE)
“The definitive account of the modern history of Bhutan as seen through the 20th-century Wangchuk dynasty, which has ruled the kingdom since 1907. Based on Bhutanese chronicles, this gorgeously produced, informative book features 106 rare historic photographs from archives in Bhutan and the United Kingdom. Originally published in 1994. The late Michael Aris lived in Bhutan from 1967 to 197 as a historian and tutor of the children of the royal family.”
The Blessings of Bhutan, by Russ and Blyth Carpenter
CULTURAL PORTRAIT • 2002 • PAPER • 192 PAGES
“Not a travelogue, this is instead an introduction to Bhutan -- its people, customs, religion and history -- as interpreted by a husband-and-wife team who has made Bhutan their second home.”
So Close to Heaven, The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, by Barbara Crossette (NYT Journalist) • TRAVEL NARRATIVE • 1996 • PAPER • 297 PAGES • FAVORITE
“A New York Times Asia correspondent writes of Bhutan and neighboring kingdoms of Ladakh and Sikkim in the Himalayas, strongholds of Tantric Buddhism in an increasingly homogenized world. It's part travelogue and part history -- a personal portrait of the region.”
Beyond the Sky and the Earth • Jamie Zeppa • TRAVEL NARRATIVE • “Zeppa's memoir of her time as teacher in a remote village shows her growing love and commitment to the people and culture.”
Buttertea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya, by Britta Das
TRAVEL NARRATIVE • 1996 • PAPER • 297 PAGES • FAVORITE
CHILDREN In Search of the Thunder Dragon, by Sophie Shrestha (Illustrator), Romio Shrestha (Illustrator),
Travellers and Magicians • Khyentse Norbu • FILM • The first feature shot on location in Bhutan, this film, directed by a respected lama, follows a young official on his odyssey across the country. Along the way he is joined by a mischievous monk, an elderly peddler and an old man with his daughter.
• FILM • 1999 • Humorous story of a monk determined to watch a match of the World Cup on TV, despite disciplinarians at his monastery. Film features real monks, not actors.
Similar Trips & Extensions
The Many Splendors of Yunnan
The Laotian Alps (Hanoi to Luang Prabang)
QUESTIONS? Call us in San Francisco at (415) 680-3788 or Email us. We are happy to answer questions or inquiries.