Everyone knows how difficult it is to get visas for the US, UK and Canada, but few people know that Bhutan is just as strict, albeit for completely different reasons. Unlike the above countries, Bhutan does not discriminate based on the country of your passport. Instead, its strict visa policies are aimed at controlling tourism and protecting the environment. Bhutan is the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism in the world and is home to countless revered religious sites. In order to protect its beliefs, culture and spirit, Bhutan does not allow anyone to enter its space. You must be chosen.
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Bhutan is paradise on earth and no one can tell us otherwise. If you’re lucky enough to be allowed into the country, you’re in for the trip of a lifetime. To get into modern Shangri-La, here’s a complete guide to Bhutan for Filipino passport holders.
1| Find a registered travel agency.
Bhutan only allows a certain number of tourists into the country at any given time.To complicate matters, Bhutan encourages tourists to pass by Registered Tour Operator into the country. The country has only recently opened up to the DIY traveler, but it’s extremely difficult to arrange or book anything yourself. Therefore, if you use a registered operator, the chances of your visa being approved are fairly high. To make things easier, find a registered Bhutanese travel agency and choose your preferred package.
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2| Figure out your itinerary.
Your itinerary will determine your daily minimum package, which is the government-set price for tourists. The money includes accommodation, meals, transportation, tour guides, porters and cultural programs, and is used for social services in Bhutan such as free education, healthcare and poverty alleviation. Prices range from US$200 (10,900 pesos) in low season to US$290 (15,900 pesos) in high season. For a 7-day vacation, you need at least USD 1,400 (P76,700). Discounts are available for students and children, and you can ask a hotel for a lower minimum daily package or better accommodation.
3| Pay for accommodation.
Unlike some countries that require a show fee, Bhutan requires you to pre-pay for your travel and prepare it before you start your vacation. Payment should be made directly to the Tourism Council of Bhutan which will pass the payment on to the operator.
4| Apply for a visa.
For $40, you can get a visa without the need for a binder like a Schengen visa. Instead, the only documents you need are your passport, proof of travel insurance and a recent passport-sized photograph. No need to prepare your assets, bank statements, educational background, or worse, yearbooks.
5| Receive your visa.
You will receive a visa clearance letter by email, which you will need to present at the airport to enter Bhutan. You will receive the actual visa printed in your passport at the airport. Fun fact: Every country in the world requires a visa to enter Bhutan, regardless of their economic status. The only countries that can enter Bhutan visa-free are its closest neighbors and friends: India, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
6| Book your flight.
Once you’ve got your visa, it’s time to actually book your flight. Flights to Bhutan are only offered through its two national airlines: Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. These flights are only from Bangkok, Kathmandu, New Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Yangon and Singapore, so unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Manila. Of the four airports in Bhutan, only Paro International Airport accepts international flights.
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7| Get ready for your holiday.
Given Bhutan’s remote location, there are only a few ATMs in the country. So you need to prepare cash in advance. Ngultrum is a currency of Bhutan. Logistics aside, the most important thing to remember when you visit Bhutan is to respect its traditions.
8| Enjoy Bhutan.
There’s a reason the country tightly controls tourism – to avoid falling into its trap. You won’t find crowded tourist traps or huge tourist dumps. The Bhutanese government website clearly states: “As we welcome you to our kingdom, you may tread lightly on our land and holy sites.”
Here are some important traditions to follow to avoid committing a major faux pas:
- Be quiet and pay respects at holy places.
- Don’t take photos or videos of everything unless you have people’s permission.
- Take your hat off when visiting secret locations or meeting elders.
- Sit cross-legged in front of monks, nuns, elders and masters.
- Please wear long sleeves and cover your legs when visiting temples.
- Take off your shoes in a secret location.
- Do not sit on any thrones or touch religious or former objects.
- No hunting or fishing without permission.
- Don’t venture out into the wild without a guide.
- Respect people’s privacy.
- When people smile at you, smile back.
Remember these are not just recommendations, these are clearly stated on the Bhutan Tourism Board website. When it comes to mindful tourism, Bhutan is no joke.