How to Travel to Bhutan from Singapore
A small kingdom in the Himalayas, Bhutan lies between India and China, with Tibet on its northern border. Isolated for centuries, the Kingdom of Bhutan opened its doors to tourism in 1974, and has become a popular destination for discerning travelers. Ranked as the second smallest notion in the world in terms of population, Bhutan is a country with a rich cultural history that goes back thousands of years.
Bhutan is a historically Buddhist country, with more than three quarters of its population following the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is widely believed that Buddhism was brought to Bhutan by Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) in the 8th century, and legend tells of how he arrived in Bhutan flying on the back of a tigress that was his former consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. He landed in Bhutan on a cliffside in the upper Paro Valley, where he spent three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours meditating in the caves on the cliffside, before fighting the demon of the Kingdom. Now known as the Taktsang Monastery, which lies on the site of the caves, it is revered as the holiest place in Bhutan.
Taktsang Monastery is revered as the holiest place in Bhutan
The Bhutan government fiercely guards its local traditions, and there is a local philosophy of Gross National happiness within the country. The local name for the country, Druk Yul, means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, and it is often referred to around Asia as the “Forgotten Land”. Historically, the Kingdom of Bhutan was ruled solely by the Royal Family, until the previous monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, gave up some of the powers to the government, after which he ruled in conjunction with the government until he abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2006. Nowadays, the country is run by the King, the government, an assembly, and a royal advisory council, following the first elections in the country in 2008.
While Bhutan may have been a secular nation for centuries, it is now a modern country that protects its traditions in a way that ensures it is both ancient and modern at the same time. Buddhist monks can be seen carrying smartphones, and giant protective penises can be seen painted beside doorways. Bhutan is a place where rice is red, and where chili is a common ingredient in almost every dish. The Bhutanese people are a mix of traditional and modern, and are well educated thanks to the government’s free education system.
The kingdom holds many surprises for foreign travelers expecting to see a backwater country full of farmers and herdsmen, and the environmental protection policies of the kingdom far outweigh those of any other nation on the planet. Under Bhutanese law, a minimum of sixty percent of the country must remain forested at all times for the benefit of future generations, and it is the only country that has a negative carbon footprint, meaning it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits. A pristine land of outstanding natural beauty, the Kingdom of Bhutan could well be the last natural paradise on earth.
Tourism in Bhutan for Singaporean Tourists
Bhutan has a tourist industry that has been strictly controlled by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), and is dedicated to sustainable tourism. While travel to Bhutan is not limited in numbers, there are some strict controls in place that make it a destination for those who can afford the high fees for traveling in the country. The policy of sustainable and environmental tourism means that independent travel in the kingdom is not permitted, much like in Tibet, and the entire trip needs to be pre-planned and pre-booked through a registered Bhutanese tour operator.
The currency of Bhutan is known as the ngultrum
The currency of Bhutan is known as the ngultrum, and is around the same value as the Indian rupee. However, there is no way to exchange Singaporean Dollars for Ngultrum outside Bhutan, so all currency exchanges must be done inside the country. American dollars, however, are widely accepted in the kingdom, and there are plenty of places where you can exchange them for local currency. Bhutan does not have ATMs anywhere in the country, and credit cards are normally only accepted by the largest hotels. It is a good idea to make sure you have enough currency in US dollars before traveling to cover the entire trip.
Despite not having any UNESCO World Heritage sites within the kingdom (there are eight tentative sites that are yet to be listed), Bhutan has a growing tourist industry as a high-value destination. It is well known as a mountain adventure trekking destination, and has some famous hikes such as the Jhomolhari Base Camp trek, the Masagang trek, and the Snowman trek, which are all popular with the visiting hikers.
Getting the Visa and Permits for Singaporean Tourists
In order to get a visa for Bhutan, travelers from Singapore must first book their tour through the registered Bhutanese tour operator, who will make the arrangements for the visa on your behalf. Visa applications cannot be made personally through the Bhutanese Embassies, and there are only three embassies outside Asia. Only passport holders of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives can enter the country without a visa and pre-booked tour.
Getting the Visa and Permits is quite necessary in advance
Before traveling to Bhutan from Singapore, tourists must first book their tour with the registered tour operator, and confirm the booking. Once that has been done, the tour operator makes the application on behalf of the tourists for their visas. The visa application requires a scanned (color) copy of your passport, with at least six-month’s validity remaining at the time of entry. Once it has been approved, the visa clearance letter is sent to the tour operator, who will provide you with a copy to present at the immigration desk on entry to the country. The clearance for the visa is also sent to the immigration department for use at any of the entry ports, and the visa is then stamped into the passport on entry.
The entry permit that is issued to foreign tourists on arrival is valid for 7 or 14 days, and can be used only for travel in Thimphu and Paro. To travel to other areas of the Kingdom, a “Restricted Area Permit” is required, and immigration checkpoints are located at strategic points on major roads to check foreign travelers for the correct permits. For visiting temples and monasteries, the tour operators will also apply for the Temple Permit from the Ministry of Culture.
Strictly controlled, tours in Bhutan require travelers to book through a registered Bhutanese tour operator, and have a private guide, vehicle, and driver for the entire tour. Independent travel in Bhutan is strictly prohibited, and tourists found traveling without their guide and driver will be subject to fines and deportation, with a ban on further travel to the kingdom. Booking the tour can be done through the tour operator direct or through one of their international partners around the world.
As well as the requirements for the visa, permits, and private guide, etc., tourists to Bhutan are required to pay a daily fee for each day of their stay, which is what makes the tours so expensive. This fee is known as the Minimum Daily Package, and amounts to around USD 250 in the peak season and USD 200 in the low season. While it does cover the cost of the guide, driver, vehicle, food and accommodation, a part of it also goes towards the free education system in Bhutan, and the cost of providing free healthcare to its people, as a way of alleviating poverty within the kingdom. This goes hand in hand with the Bhutanese ideas of sustainable end environmental tourism, and makes the holiday in Bhutan beneficial to everyone.
How to Get to Bhutan from Singapore
Traveling to Bhutan from Singapore is not as hard as from some places around the world, as there are direct flights from Singapore to Bhutan, although they are limited to just three flights per week. There are only five nations in the world that are permitted to allow flights to Bhutan - India, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, and Indonesia (seasonal service only) - and all flights are operated by the two Bhutanese airlines, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines.
Getting to Bhutan by Air
Bhutan only has one international airport, at Paro, and only the two Bhutanese airlines are permitted to land there, except in emergencies. Flights from Singapore cost from around USD 435 per person, and fly direct except for a short stopover in Kolkata to refuel. The flight takes around 5 hours, and as of this time, Druk Air runs the only flights from Singapore. With a very small runway surrounded by mountains and hills, the pilots normally have to land by line of sight only, which can cause delays in the arrival and departure of flights during times of poor weather when they are unable to visually find the runway. During these times, incoming flights are diverted to airports in India and Nepal and outgoing flights can sometimes be delayed for as much as a few days.
It is possible for travelers to get to Bhutan overland from India, and there are three international border-crossing points along the India-Bhutan border to the south. However, to travel overland is a massive journey, even taking into account the immense Indian rail network that can take you right through the border into Bhutan. Traveling across country from Delhi to Bhutan or Nepal to Bhutan takes 3-4 days, and requires several visas and permits. For travelers from Singapore, it is more trouble than it is worth.