Tips

Inspired by Kwai Yin’s example, here’s my brain dump of little tips for a fresh off-the-plane foreigner in Thimphu.


Utilities

  • Telephone Line: There was already an existing line in place when I moved in. I just had to take care of the monthly subscription and usages bills. If your place does not have a line, ask if the landlord can help with applying for one.
  • Water, electricity and telephone bills are paid at their respective offices in town. If you find it a little too much trouble to make the trip every month, ask a friend if your bill can tag along with theirs, or if the office driver can help.
  • Cooking Gas (LPG): You can either purchase a tank at the petrol station in town, or a call for the delivery service 17653665 (you will need to figure out how to give directions to the house because Thimphu does not have a street address system). I think it costs about 400-500 Nu to refill the tank, extra charges probably if you don’t actually have an empty tank in the house to swap.

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Banking

  • There are two banks. Bank of Bhutan (BOB, state-owned) and Bhutan National Bank (BNB, semi-privatised). I banked at BOB so I do not know much about BNB procedures. You will need your ID and two passport-sized photos when you open up an account. A letter from the office explaining who you are and what you’re doing in Bhutan is also needed. A USD-denominated account is probably is probably the most convenient option, and you can still make withdrawals in Ngultrums easily.
  • You will be issued a cheque book which you can use to make payments or withdrawals (write cheque to self). At BOB, withdrawals from your USD account is relatively simple now even if you do not have an ATM card. Just go straight to counter 13 with your account and cheque books. The lady at the counter will help you sort things out.
  • You may want to apply for a ATM card (have not tried this myself but I hear it takes a month). BOB has an ATM (not 24 hours, closed weekdays between 5-7pm) on its premises. BNB has one on its premises and another in the Motithang area.
  • Telegraphic Transfer (TT) details can be found on the bank websites.
  • Credit card usage is very low. I have only used it once within Bhutan.

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Post

  • The General Post Office is located in the same building as BNB. Thimphu does not have a working street address system. To receive mail, you will need to lease a PO box. To save yourself the hassle, direct your mail to the office PO box address. It works fine.
  • Fedex operates out of the Post Office building while DHL has its office in Motithang. The Post Office offers EMS and if I remember correctly, a package to Singapore costs roughly S$60 for a 4 or 5 kg package. Arrives in days.
  • Bhutanese stamps are pretty cool, check them out as the philatelic shop.

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Mobile

  • There are now two local mobile operators, Bhutan Telecom (former monopoly) and Tashi Cell (new). BT has better coverage throughout the country, but Tashi has more aggressive rates/promotions.
  • Tashi offers a VOIP service to a couple of countries (India, Canada, China, Thailand, Japan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Hong Kong, USA and Malaysia) at 8Nu/minute, which is way cheaper than anything Bhutan Telecom offers. If you have broadband, Skype would probably offer the best deal. US$20 lasts me almost a whole year.
  • It is way more convenient to pick up a pre-paid SIM card from the shops (ID required) then to go through the hassle of signing up for a post-paid one. Re-charge/top-up cards can easily found in denominations of 50, 100 and 300 Nu.

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Internet/Broadband

  • Bhutan Telecom (BT) has free dialup but you will have to pay for telephone charges. Dialup is, as expected, painfully slow.
  • BT has relatively affordable broadband plans. You pay a significant premium for higher speeds and all plans have bandwidth caps. I think there is a 6 month contract. Check the BT/Druknet website for the latest price plans. Expect to pay installation and equipment charges. DrukCom offers broadband packages too, but I’m not sure about the pricing.
  • BT has also recently introduced 3G mobile broadband.

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Cable TV

  • Depending on your neighbourhood, you will subscribe to either one of two cable operators in Thimphu, Norling or Etho Metho. I paid about 1500 Nu for the installation and 300 Nu monthly. The Etho Metho bill collection guy comes by monthly to collect payment. You can pay ahead or monthly.

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Medical

  • There are a few pharmacies in town and you pick up India-manufactured medication cheaply. Cheap does not always equate to effective. I suggest that you pick up your medicine from Bangkok if you have to transit there. Get your usual, but I would not forget to get a good bottle of cough mixture, strips of lozenges, and some Clarinase (or similar). Cough and cold is very common in winter. Stuff spare luggage space with tissue packets, it will come in handy.
  • Insect bites are common during the summer months so bring a strong insect repellent. I recommend the 50% Deet gel insect repellent from Boots in Bangkok. Way more effective than anything you can get in Thimphu (I learnt this the hard way). Oh and if you’re a light sleeper, pick up some ear plugs (3 pairs a pack) from Boots. It is relatively better now, but dogs tend to make quite a ruckus at night.
  • There are no private clinics in Thimphu, so the only way to get medical attention is to go to the national hospital. Expect exceedingly long queues. I managed to avoid the hospital all year, so I really can’t tell how things are. If you are so inclined, you can check out the traditional medicine institute where herbal remedies are dispensed for your ailments. There is an English-speaking doctor who takes care of foreign patients. Public health care services are generally free.

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Getting Around Town

  • Thimphu is a large town by Bhutan standards, but small by most other measures. You can easily cover the main town areas by foot.
  • Limited bus routes ply the town’s main thoroughfares, but I haven’t taken them thanks to the generosity of friends who often give me rides.
  • Taxis are also easily available, and are generally inexpensive. Communicating where you want to go would be the main challenge.

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Miscellaneous

  • Pick up candles and matches at the local supermarket. There will be blackouts every now and then, so unless you’ve got night vision, get some.
  • The water takes a while to heat up in the water heater (more commonly known as a “geyser”) especially during the winter. I had an external geyser for my bathroom, so during winter nights, the water would sometimes freeze. Takes a good hour or two to get it hot enough to shower. Also, the water pipes can freeze overnight in winter. Keep some water in the bathroom to at least clean up in the mornings.
  • If you need to make your own air travel arrangements out of Bhutan, make your booking at DrukAir‘s (Bhutan’s national airline) office located at Chang Lam Plaza. You have up to 2 weeks’ grace (this policy varies, check at the counter) before you lose your booking without payment. To get around it, go back before the two weeks are up, and get your booking “extended”. All foreigners must pay in USD (cash/local cheque), the airline does not take credit cards.
  • For most of 2008, and even now, poultry imports are still banned from neighbouring India due to bird flu fears. As a result, eggs are rather expensive. Expect to pay between 150-180Nu for a dozen.

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