What currency is accepted in Bhutan?
Bring dollars. Or rupees. Your visa fee covers most things, but if you want spending money, you’ll need cash. There are some ATMs in the larger towns, but they’re about 70 percent reliable and you can only withdraw small amounts. You can spend US dollars, or change them into the local currency, Ngultrum (Nu for short). Or, skip the lines by changing money with your guide. Indian Rupees are accepted almost everywhere too: India is Bhutan’s closest trade and foreign policy partner, and the Nu is pegged to the Rupee.
What you should not do in Bhutan?
Bhutan is the only country in the world that completely bans the sale and production of tobacco—and naturally, smoking is banned in public places. Tourists and the Bhutanese elite can bring in 200 cigarettes, but ask your guide to find a place to light up. Hotels will accommodate smokers, some local bars and restaurants have indoor smoking rooms, and many nightclubs informally allow it after dark. Importing cigarettes overland from India (for personal use) is allowed, but they’re slapped with up to 200 percent duty. Smuggling tobacco can net someone three years in prison, but the black market is flourishing. Because it’s not feasible for most Bhutanese to go on expensive cigarette runs, local smokers buy them from ‘dealers’ at market stalls. Don’t count on doing the same: dealers will only sell to people they already know. Bring your own.
What is Dolma and why you should try?
Try the legal stimulant. Dolma, an addictive mixture of areca nut, lime paste and betel leaf, is deeply woven into the cultural landscape. About one third of the country’s population chews the nutty snuff daily, including women, the elderly, monks, and young people. You’ll find friends sharing a bag after meeting; as an offering at religious ceremonies; placed alongside plates of candies at events and passed around before and after meals. If you don’t notice it by sight—red stains cover most streets and its users’ teeth are covered in a red sticky residue—its pungent aroma will soon assault your senses. (Don’t be fooled by its natural-looking appearance. Sold in small plastic bags or cone-shaped papers, this seemingly benign combination of leaf, lime, and nut contains many unnatural chemicals that are extremely bad for your health). Trying it won’t kill you, but it will most likely give you the spins. For me, altitude is enough.
What is Bhutanese cuisine?
The Bhutanese believe a meal is unworthy without chili peppers. If you agree, you’ll be in heaven. The country’s national dish, ema datse, is a simple, fiery curry of chillies and farmer’s cheese, always paired with a generous helping of nutty red rice. Often topped off with ezay, a salsa made from (what else?) dried chillies, this dish can feel like an assault on your senses. But if you can’t get enough, go to the subjee (vegetable) market and ask for dole, a small red circular chili ranked one of the hottest in the world. To eat dole like a local, dip the chili into salt, take a bite and then shove a handful of rice into your mouth. In Thimphu, Ama Restaurant (and karaoke joint) is a good place to ease into ema datse and its other incarnations. In Paro, try Dagmar.
Bhutanese food is essentially ema datse three times daily, with slight variations: sometimes a piece of dried meat is thrown in, or the occasional root vegetable. There is a small but growing number of other options: In Thimphu, Cloud 9 is a burger and shake joint that serves quarter-pounders, creamy milk shakes and gluten-free vegetarian options. San Maru is a Korean BBQ overlooking Thimphu’s handicraft market, dishing out the best/only kimchi around. In Paro, eat momos at Sonam Trophel.
What you must try in Bhutan?
Cool off with dhachu. If you need a break from the burn, a glass of dhachu, the milky by-product of strained cow or yak cheese, will bring some relief. Also, hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners often cook a modified version of Bhutanese dishes to accommodate the chilip (foreigner) palate.
Why you should take local SIM?
Get a local SIM. Your cell phone may or may not get service in Bhutan, which has been cautiously embracing tech and telecoms being the last country in the world to legalize TV—in 1999. The Internet arrived soon after that, and now a majority of the population has a cell phone—usually with data—so Facebook, WhatsApp, and the Chinese WeChat are just as big here as in other places. Wi-fi is available at most hotels, and at higher-end coffee shops in Paro and Thimphu. If you need to stay connected, ask your guide to buy you a Bhutanese SIM card.
Know where your meat comes from. With the state religion a strict interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism, the Bhutanese—officially—won’t kill and butcher animals, but they do like to eat meat. They get around this quandary by outsourcing butchering to India. A lot of the meat you eat was probably driven into Bhutan from the India-Bhutan border. You’ll see locals preserving meat such as shakum (beef) and sikum (pork) in sun-dried strips on laundry lines. This is especially useful during auspicious months, when the government implements a meat ban, closing all shops for religious reasons. (It’s tough to stay up to date on when exactly those days will be: it depends on the predictions of religious astrologers and the advice of lamas—high priests.)
Why you should try Hot Stone Bath?
Chill out in a hot stone bath. The dotsho is your answer to staying warm and healthy in Bhutan’s harsh Himalayan climate. Bhutanese of all ages use this traditional bath for joint pain and to boost circulation. It’s prepared by heating river stones over an open fire for hours. Once hot, the stones are submerged in the bathtub, releasing deep heat and minerals into the water. Often it is topped off with locally grown artemesia (mugworts). It’s awesomely hot, and perfect after a long, winding drive or a scramble up a mountain. In Paro, hit up the Rinpung Valley View. The family who runs it will serve home-cooked snacks and ara (fermented rice wine) when you need a break from the bath’s intense heat.