21 Things to Know Before You Go to 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.

BYO smokes. 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.

Dolma is an addictive mixture of betel nut and lime paste, enjoyed in a similiar fashion to snuff. Dolma acts as a warming agent, social lubricant, and buzz-giver. Photo by: Kara Fox

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.

Feel the burn. 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.

The national dish: ema datse (chilis and cheese) with red rice. Photo by: Kara Fox

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.

Don’t disrespect the royals. Bhutan reformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2007, but the royals are still perceived as incarnations of gods. Criticizing them as akin to blasphemy. Other no-gos include the Nepali “issue”—when more than 100,000 Southern Bhutanese (ethnic Nepalis) were deported in the early 1990s—and disrespecting religious figures. If you want to try for a meatier dialogue with your guide, start by reading Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan before you get there. Your guide will be impressed you’ve done your research, and it might lead to a more honest conversation about current Bhutanese development and politics.

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