Luxury Bhutan Holidays
Secretive and seductive, a visit to Bhutan is like stepping back in time. Bhutan is a hidden and exclusive gem that few others can claim to have visited. Tourists were only allowed to visit from 1974. Even then, it was for only those travellers wanting to visit Bhutan on luxury high-end tours and treks. As a result, this has meant Bhutan has retained all of its magic and authenticity. Bhutan is the Himalayan Kingdom sandwiched between India and Tibet, preserving this distinct Buddhist way of life.
Traverse rolling Himalayan foothills under snow-capped peaks, past fast-flowing glacial rivers and meander through alpine meadows. Bhutan is above all, staggeringly beautiful. The local culture and customs revolve around time-old Buddhist beliefs. You will explore fortified monasteries (or Dzongs), complete with chanting monks. Moreover, a highlight is to visit a colourful festival with masked-dancers. Above all, Bhutan has a distinct architecture that luckily hasn’t embraced modern western monstrosities. There is one road that leads from Paro in the west. This road leads from the capital Thimphu to lush valley of Punakha, onto the glacial valley of Gangtey towards ‘mini Switzerland’ of Bumthang in the east and beyond.
For those wanting a fantastic luxury holiday to Bhutan, the hotels that have opened are superb. For an indulgent holiday, opt for the top-end Amankora lodges or Uma or Six Senses hotels. Alternatively, stay in boutique and characterful hotels and lodges in remote locations. Bhutan makes for a magnificent honeymoon, possibly combining Bhutan with the beaches of Thailand. Families will love getting off-the-beaten-track on a family adventure to Bhutan. For those who want a walking holiday to Bhutan, we are experts in knowing the best day-walks. These include short day treks or longer multi-day hikes in the mountains. Many come for a cultural tour of Bhutan, taking in the views and the remoteness of it all.
Why Millis Potter?
At Millis Potter, we will tailor an itinerary to suit your particular interests. This allows you to immerse yourself in the destination. As a result, we provide exclusive experiences from the best guides in Bhutan. We use our extensive first-hand knowledge to give you honest and practical travel advice to Bhutan.
This is just an overview of the hotels and lodges we feature, from characterful boutique lodges to luxury hotels. We do have a range of other hotels that we use, so if you don't see from our portfolio what you are looking for, we almost certainly know about it and can help plan an itinerary using it.
This is a selection of experiences that allow you to see the destination in new and interesting ways. Almost all our experiences include a private guide, and can be then tailored to your particular interests. Indeed, many of the experiences we offer are created individually for our guests, so this list is by no means conclusive. In fact, we leave a couple of our best ideas up our sleeves for when you enquire with us.
Bumthang is located to the east of Gangtey, and is generally the furthest you get along the road in Bhutan before turning back or flying to Paro (although you can continue to Tashigang and Mongor and finish in Assam in India).
Gangtey is a small village located overlooking the stunning Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan and is between the towns of Trongsa and Punakha. Gangtey is one or the more rural places you will stay at on a tour of Bhutan
Punakha is located between Thimphu and Gangtey in Bhutan, and is located at a lower altitude of 1,250m on the intersection of the Mo Chhu River (meaning Female) and Po Chhu (meaning Male). The proximity to the river and low altitude has made the valley exceptionally fertile, with sweeping paddy-fields rising up from the river, terraced into the side of the valley.
Thimphu is Bhutan’s capital city, but only has a population of about 100,000 meaning that it is more like a town and still retains the unique Bhutanese architecture rather than allowing modern western styles to take over. It is located just a short drive away from Paro where you find Bhutan’s International Airport.
Paro is where Bhutan’s International Airport is located, and as such acts as either a starting point or end for a tour of Bhutan. It has a hugely impressive Dzong, as well as having the National Museum located in its watchtower, Ta Dzong.
Official Language: Dzongkha
Religion: Buddhism (74.8%), Hinduism (22.6%), Bon (1.9%), Christian (0.5%), Others (2.1%)
Currency: Ngultrum (BNT)
Time Zone: GMT + 6 hours
Dealing Code: +975
Flying Time: Only Bhutanese Airlines fly into Bhutan, and they fly from Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore. It usually means having a night or two either side to ensure you make the connection.
Our Suggested Tours in Bhutan
- Tiger’s Nest and Highlights of Bhutan
- Mountains & Monasteries – Classic Bhutan
- Luxury Bhutan with Aman Hotels
- Luxury Tour of Nepal and Bhutan
- Walking in Bhutan
- Land of the Thunder-Dragon: Comprehensive Bhutan
- Bhutan & Thailand
- Bhutan & Oman
- Druk Path Trek and Bumdra High Camp
- Hidden Bhutan
- British Foreign Office Advice for Bhutan
- US State Department Advice for Bhutan
- Australian Advice for Bhutan
- Bhutan Tourist Council
- Bhutan Wikipedia
- BBC Profile
- Lonely Planet Bhutan
Much of Bhutan’s early history is re-told through the many stories that still used in Bhutanese society to this say. It is all about daring-do, tied together with supernatural powers that every Bhutanese child grows up knowing about. The oldest of which is that Guru Rinpoche arriving on a flying tiger (hence Tiger’s Nest Monastery). Throw in demons, ghosts, angels and spirits, and you can see that walking around the various monasteries and temples of Bhutan will reveal such amazing stories! These are still widely believed and accepted as historical truth, and it’s best to just run with them rather than question the accuracy!
What we do know, is that Tibetan Buddhism came to Bhutan in about the 9th Century, when many monks were forced to flee Tibet. The Drukpa Kagypa School of Buddhism was introduced in the 12th Century and remains in force to this day. Under Ngawanag Namgyal, Bhutan successfully defended itself against three invasions from Tibet in the 17th Century. He consolidated power (both religious and political – and combined the two), into essentially a Theocratic Government. Just so things didn’t deteriorate after his death, the authorities kept this secret for 54 years.
The Bhutanese were strong allies with the principality of Cooch Behar, in what is now West Bengal. They considered it to be a dependency of Bhutan, but when there was a dispute over who should succeed as Cooch Behar Maharaja, Bhutan favoured one candidate, and some seemingly alien upstarts called the British East India Company favoured another. The EIC drove the Bhutanese from their garrison in Cooch Behar, and invaded the country in 1772-3, forcing them into a treaty forcing them back to their pre-1730s borders, and allowing the Company to harvest timber, and allowing Bhutan its own land in Assam, known as the ‘Duars’, but having to pay an annual tribute to the Company. The trouble was that Bhutan quickly fell into arrears for the payment of these tributes, and the British invaded again in 1834. Another quarrel happened in 1864, again over the Duars, with the British winning and taking many of these lucrative Duars off Bhutan at the Treaty of Sinchula. A resulting power struggle ensued between the pro-Tibetan/anti-British ruler of Paro and the pro-British ruler of Trongsa. The Trongsa Wangchuck’s won, and as such Bhutan since then has always looked towards British India, and later Independent India, for its a strong partnership, rather than Tibet, and later China. The Wangchucks formed a hereditary monarchy that lasts to this day (rather than relying on reincarnation selection like the Dalai Lama).
Bhutan’s pro-British stance helped to ensure their continuing independence, and in 1910, the British agreed “to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan.” This was mostly to create a buffer against China. The Wangchucks established a policy of isolationism. It was not until the leadership of the third king that Bhutan emerged from its medieval heritage of serfdom and seclusion. Until the 1960s the country had no national currency, no telephones, no schools, no hospitals, no postal service and certainly no tourists. Development efforts have now produced all these – plus a national assembly, airport, roads and a national system of health care. Despite the speed of modernisation, Bhutan has maintained a policy of careful, controlled growth in an effort to preserve its national identity. The government has cautiously accepted tourism, TV and the internet and is set to embark on perhaps its biggest challenge – democracy.
Bhutan’s northern and western boundary with the Tibet Autonomous Region (part of China), although undefined, generally follows the crest of the Great Himalayas. In the Duars Plain to the south of the Himalayan range lies Bhutan’s boundary with the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Bhutan borders the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh to the east and Sikkim to the southwest. The northern part of Bhutan lies within the Great Himalayas; the snowcapped peaks in this region reach an elevation of more than 24,000 feet (7,300 metres). High valleys occur at elevations of 12,000 to 18,000 feet (3,700 to 5,500 metres), running down from the great northern glaciers. Alpine pastures on the high ranges are used for grazing yaks in the summer months. To the north of the Great Himalayas are several “marginal” mountains of the Plateau of Tibet that form the principal watershed between the northward- and the southward-flowing rivers. A dry climate is characteristic of the Great Himalayan region.
Until about 1960 the tempo of life in the Great Himalayas continued much as it had for centuries. Long relatively undisturbed in their ways, Bhutanese traders carried cloth, spices, and grains across the mountain passes into Tibet and brought back salt, wool, and sometimes herds of yaks. The occupation of Tibet by China, however, necessarily pushed Bhutan toward ending its isolation; the event brought major changes to the way of living in those high regions, as military precautions were taken to guard against the potential danger of a Chinese incursion from Tibet.
Spurs from the Great Himalayas radiate southward, forming the ranges of the Lesser Himalayas (also called Inner Himalayas). The north-south ranges of the Lesser Himalayas constitute watersheds between the principal rivers of Bhutan. Differences in elevation and the degree of exposure to moist southwest monsoon winds determine the prevailing vegetation, which ranges from the dense forest on the rain-swept windward slopes to alpine vegetation at higher elevations. Several fertile valleys of central Bhutan are in the Lesser Himalayas at elevations varying from 5,000 to 9,000 feet (1,500 to 2,700 metres). These valleys, notably the Paro, Punakha, Thimphu, and Ha, are relatively broad and flat, receive moderate rainfall (from 40 to 50 inches [about 1,000 to 1,270 mm] or less a year), and are fairly well populated and cultivated.
Spurs from the Great Himalayas radiate southward, forming the ranges of the Lesser Himalayas (also called Inner Himalayas). The north-south ranges of the Lesser Himalayas constitute watersheds between the principal rivers of Bhutan. Differences in elevation and the degree of exposure to moist southwest monsoon winds determine the prevailing vegetation, which ranges from the dense forest on the rain-swept windward slopes to alpine vegetation at higher elevations. Several fertile valleys of central Bhutan are in the Lesser Himalayas at elevations varying from 5,000 to 9,000 feet (1,500 to 2,700 metres). These valleys, notably the Paro, Punakha, Thimphu, and Ha, are relatively broad and flat, receive moderate rainfall (from 40 to 50 inches [about 1,000 to 1,270 mm] or less a year), and are fairly well populated and cultivated. Bhutan’s mountainous territory is dissected by numerous rivers.
The main rivers from west to east are the Torsa (Amo), Wong (Raidak), Sankosh (Mo), and Manas. All the rivers flow southward from the Great Himalayas and join the Brahmaputra River in India.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Bhutan’s flora is notable for its great variety and its continuous transition from tropical through temperate to exclusively alpine forms. The moist zone of tropical deciduous vegetation occupies the south, in the Duars Plain and adjoining hills. Tall, dense grasses used in the manufacture of paper and pulp are an important plant resource in the lower elevations. Forests of pine, with some oak, dominate the slopes between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (900 and 1,800 metres). At higher elevations, the forests contain a mixture of many species—pine, oak, walnut, rhododendron, ash, poplar, willow, aspen, and magnolia. The most valuable forests are located between 6,000 and 9,000 feet (1,800 and 2,700 metres); these magnificent forests contain cypress, fir, spruce, and juniper. Birch can be found up to the timberline at 14,000 feet (4,200 metres). Alpine shrubs and grasses grow on the higher slopes of the Great Himalayas.
Sambar deer, gaurs (a type of wild ox), rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers, and other animals are found in Bhutan, particularly along the Manas and Sankosh rivers in the central and eastern regions and in the country’s forest-covered hills. To preserve this wildlife and its natural environment, the government of Bhutan has established a number of protected areas, including the Royal Manas National Park (1966), which adjoins India along the banks of the Manas River and is home to the rare golden langur (a slender long-tailed monkey). The extensive Jigme Dorji National Park (1974), in northwestern Bhutan, is unique in spanning all three of the country’s climate zones.
About three-fourths of Bhutan’s population follows Buddhism, primarily of the Tibetan variety; formerly the official state religion, it is now described in the 2008 constitution as the “spiritual heritage” of the country. Of the four major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma (Rnying-ma-pa) and Kagyu (Bka’-brgyud-pa) are practised in Bhutan. Nyingma is the older of the two sects, and it has existed in both Bhutan and Tibet since about the 8th century. The Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, founded in the 11th century, has many subsects, of which Drukpa Kagyu is the strongest in Bhutan. Since its establishment in the early 17th century, the Drukpa subsect has become increasingly prominent in Bhutan’s political and religious life, and most Bhutanese are now adherents of it. Although the Nyingma and Kagyu groups have maintained their separate sectarian identities, historical relations between the two traditions have been close, stemming largely from commonalities in doctrine and lineage of leadership. Bhutanese Buddhism, though belonging to the larger family of Tibetan Buddhist traditions, has a unique character. Although monasteries are ubiquitous, neither the monastic organisation nor monastic scholasticism dominates Bhutanese society. Rather, the spirit of Bhutanese Buddhism is captured by the ideal of lamas (spiritual leaders), who by the practice of meditative disciplines have attained siddha (perfection, miraculous powers) but otherwise remain inconspicuous in everyday life. Aside from Buddhism, Hinduism commands a significant following in Bhutan, particularly within the Nepalese community. Hindus constitute nearly one-fourth of the population. There also is a tiny Christian population, although proselytization is illegal in Bhutan.
There are three major ethnic groups in Bhutan: the Bhutia (also called Ngalop), the Nepalese, and the Sharchop. The Bhutia are the largest ethnic group and makeup about half of the population. They are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who came southward into Bhutan beginning about the 9th century. The Bhutia are dominant in northern, central, and western Bhutan. They speak a variety of Tibeto-Burman languages, and the most common of these, Dzongkha, is Bhutan’s official language; the written language is identical with Tibetan. The Bhutia dominate Bhutan’s political life.
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu.), with 100 Chetrum = 1 Ngultrum. The Ngultrum is fixed to the value of Indian rupee on 1:1 ratio. Tourists are advised to carry their money in the form of traveller’s checks (preferably American Express) and cash (US dollars would be best), which might be used for incidental purchases/expenses. There are bank branches in all major towns. A few hotels and shops in Thimphu accept payment by credit card, but with a surcharge added. Visas cards are more widely accepted than MasterCard or American Express. Daily expenditure varies from person to person, but in general, you should allow US$5-10 daily for laundry, drinks, phone calls overseas, small souvenirs, postcards and stamps. ATM’s of Bank of Bhutan are the only ones which allow withdrawal of local currency (both debit & credit) in Thimphu and Paro. The maximum amount per withdrawal is Nu. 18,000. There is no limit on the transactions per day except the maximum limit as stipulated by the card issuer. USD 2.5-3 will be charged per withdrawal.
Banking hours at most commercial banks are:
Mon – Fri 09h00 – 15h00
Sat 09h00 – 12h00
Major hotels have foreign exchange facilities and most shops, lodges and travel agencies take travellers cheques.
Bhutanese cuisine employs a lot of red rice like brown rice in texture, but with a nutty taste, the only variety of rice that grows at high altitudes), buckwheat, and increasingly maize. The diet in the hills also includes chicken, yak meat, dried beef, pork, pork fat, and mutton. Soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils, and dried vegetables, spiced with chilli peppers and cheese, are a favourite meal during the cold seasons.
Ema datshi, made very spicy with cheese and chili peppers (similar to chili con queso), might be called the national dish for its ubiquity and the pride that Bhutanese have for it. Other foods include jasha maru (a chicken dish), phaksha paa, thukpa, bathup, and fried rice. Popular snacks include momo(Bhutanese dumplings), shakam eezay, and liver. Dairy foods, particularly butter and cheese from yaks and cows, are also popular, and indeed almost all milk is turned into butter and cheese. Popular beverages include butter tea, black tea, locally brewed ara (rice wine), and beer. Spices include curry, cardamom, ginger, chili peppers, thingay (Sichuan pepper), garlic, turmeric, and caraway.
Most of the local restaurants have various combinations of Bhutanese food while some others have other international cuisine in their menu’s. There are pizza restaurants in the capital city of Thimphu and some fine dining ones too in Paro too. However, while hygiene is generally good and it is fun to try the local cuisine as part of travel experience, yet we recommend caution.
Most 5 star or high category hotels have a mix of European, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Bhutanese cuisine available for residents as well as walk-in customers.. Most of such hotels have fine dining options and cater to individual tastes and requirements. Since Bhutan is remote, sometimes it is not possible to accommodate all dietary demands.
We strongly recommend that you send information about your individual allergies – whether food based or drug based – to your contact in And Beyond, well ahead of your travel to Bhutan, so that the information can be shared with the hotels and adequate precautions are put in place before you arrive. However it is advisable that you check with the chef of the hotel, prior to your meals, that your allergies are known to them.
LOCAL CUSTOMS & ETIQUETTE
There are a number of small things to think about when travelling to Bhutan. They do make allowances for foreigners but here is a general rule of thumb:
- Take off your shoes before entering a Dzong or Temple
- Remove hats, and sunglasses when entering a Dzong or Temple
- Never take photos inside a Dzong or Temple (but you can in the courtyard), and especially not at the main Buddha Statue. Sometimes they will allow photos of other areas, but only without flash. Always ask your guide if you are unsure.
- Always ask permission of a person to take a photo of them
- Always move around chorten, prayer wheel or temple in a clockwise direction. Also turn a prayer wheel that way (right to left), using your right hand.
- Always leave a small donation when you leave. If a monk offers holy water into your hand, drink it (or pretend), then spread the rest on your head from front to back
- Don’t touch the head of a Bhutanese person (it is deemed as sacred)
- Don’t point your feet at someone if you are sitting on the floor (best to cross your legs, or kneel)
- Bhutanese people love to see visitors wearing their local dress – have a go!
Note that smoking, and the sale of tobacco, is banned in Bhutan. Sale and the use of Tobacco products without a receipt from Customs showing proof of paying the import duty is prohibited in Bhutan. You will have to carry with you the Customs Receipt at all the time as you may be asked to show the Customs Receipt by the local police if seen smoking in public areas. Kindly bring your own and declare at the airport in Paro or if travelling by road at the Immigration checkpoints in Samdrup Jongkar and Phuentsholing. The permitted amount is 200 cigarettes/1 carton and you will be charged a 200% import duty. If you do smoke, ensure that you do this within a private section of a hotel, or far away from any public area!
You are allowed one litre of alcohol-free of any import tax. Any amount in excess of this must be declared and a 100% import duty will be charged at the airport in Paro, or if travelling by road at the Immigration checkpoints in Samdrup Jongkar and Phuentsholing.
Visiting Bhutan in January
January is a good month to visit Bhutan, although it can get chilly in the evenings and at higher altitudes. The views of the mountains are clear, and by day, they are perfect for taking day walks.
Visiting Bhutan in February
February is one of the most popular months as the temperatures are starting to get a little warmer. However, it is still fairly cold at night.
Visiting Bhutan in March
March is the most popular month to visit Bhutan. This is partly due to the Paro Festival that takes places this month, or in early April. Temperatures are lovely, and the views are good. However, it starts to get a little cloudy in the afternoons. The flowers start to bloom.
Visiting Bhutan in April
Firstly, April is another great month to visit Bhutan. with warm days and night-time temperatures. Above all, the rhododendrons are still in full bloom.
Visiting Bhutan in May
May starts to get a little warmer, and as a result, you will experience cloudier mountains views and short afternoon showers. It is still very much possible to visit Bhutan, and many of the hotels lower their prices.
Visiting Bhutan in June
The monsoon generally arrives towards to middle and end of June in Bhutan. As a result, in this part of the Himalayas, it really rains hard!
Visiting Bhutan in July
July is another month for the monsoon, leaving the country green and lush. It is certainly possible to visit Bhutan in July, but expect rain and poor views.
Visiting Bhutan in August
August is still a monsoon month. However, historically the rains ease off a little meaning you might have two or three days when it pours (usually at night anyway) with a chance to explore by day (but remember the raincoat). Some of the treks won't be possible. On the other hand, seeing the culture and monasteries certainly will be fine.
Visiting Bhutan in September
The monsoon starts to ease off in September. However, this only really happens towards the end of the month. As a result, if you are rain-shy then try and move your travelling plans into October. Needless to say, the country is wonderfully green and lush, and many festivals take place.
Visiting Bhutan in October
October is a perfect time to visit Bhutan. You can expect lovely day-time temperatures in the mid-20s. However, it is incredibly popular, so aim to book your Bhutan holiday at least six months in advance to ensure you get the first-choice of your hotels. The trekking is great, given how green it still is after the monsoon. The views are clear of the high mountains.
Visiting Bhutan in November
November is another wonderful month to visit Bhutan. The black-neck cranes arrive into the Phobjikha Valley near Gangtey. In addition, they even conduct a festival to welcome them each year.
Visiting Bhutan in December
It starts to get chillier in December in Bhutan, but it is still a great month to visit. Above all, in the lower valleys like Punakha when temperatures still reach the low 20s in the daytime. As it's not too hot, the walk up Tiger's Nest Monastery isn't too challenging due to the heat.
The ideal time for trekking and for travelling throughout the country is the autumn, from late September to late November, when skies are generally clear and the high mountain peaks rise to a vivid blue sky. Autumn is also the time of the popular Thimphu tsechu (dance festival) and heralds the arrival of the black-necked cranes to their wintering grounds in central and eastern Bhutan. The winter is a good time for touring in western Bhutan, bird-watching in the south’s subtropical jungles, and whitewater rafting. The days are usually sunny, cool and pleasant, but it’s quite cold once the sun sets and you will need to pack warm clothing. From December to February, there is often snow in the higher regions and occasional snow in Thimphu.
Spring, from March to May, is recognised as the second-best time to visit Bhutan for touring and trekking. Though there are more clouds and rain than in the autumn, the magnificent rhododendrons, magnolias and other wildflowers are in bloom and birdlife is abundant. Spring is also the time of the magnificent Paro tsechu.
Summer, from June to August, is the monsoon season. During these three months 500mm of rain falls in Thimphu and up to a metre falls in the eastern hills. In the mellow monsoon light, the vivid green rice paddies contrast with the dark hills and the stark white dzongs to produce picture-perfect vistas. And the markets are bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Bhutan is at the same latitude as Miami and Cairo. The climate varies widely depending on the elevation. In the southern border areas, it is tropical; at the other extreme, in the high Himalayan regions, there is perpetual snow. Temperatures in the far south range from 15°C in winter (December to February) to 30°C in summer (June to August). In Paro, the range is from -5°C in January to 30°C in July, with 800mm of rain. In the high mountain regions, the average temperature is 0°C in winter and may reach 10°C in summer, with an average of 350mm of rain.
Rain occurs primarily during the southwest monsoon season from June to early September. Bhutan bears the brunt of the monsoon, receiving more rainfall than other Himalayan regions – up to 5.5m a year. During the monsoon, heavy rain falls almost every night; in the day there may be long periods without rain. Low clouds hang on the hills, obscuring views and, if they are too low, forcing the cancellation of flights at Paro airport.