Co-authored by Brighde Reed and Wendy Werneth.
Bhutan Vegetarian and Vegan Guide
Is Bhutan a vegetarian or vegan-friendly destination? Most people don’t know that much about Bhutan, and they certainly don’t know much about Bhutanese cuisine.
Admittedly, I have not yet been to Bhutan myself, although it’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit for many years. So in addition to connecting with Bhutanese people online and thoroughly researching the cuisine, I’ve also teamed up with Brighde Reed of World Vegan Travel to co-author this article.
Brighde and her partner did travel to Bhutan as vegans just a few months ago, and in this article you’ll find her trip report detailing what they did and what they ate.
But first, I want to address the question of eating meat in Bhutan, because it’s a bit confusing and contradictory.
On the one hand, Bhutan is the only country in the world where the slaughter of animals is banned. Yep, you read that right.
This is primarily for religious reasons, as Bhutanese follow the Buddhist teaching of showing compassion and non-violence to all sentient beings.
Except that actually, they don’t. Since animals can’t be slaughtered inside Bhutan, they just import animal flesh from neighboring countries, mainly India. In fact, Bhutan has the highest per capita meat consumption of any South Asian country.
The justification seems to be that it’s OK to eat an animal that’s already dead, as long as the animal wasn’t killed specifically for you.
However, some Buddhist religious leaders -- referred to as the “vegetarian right” -- are calling for a ban not just on the slaughter of animals but also on the sale and consumption of their flesh in Bhutan.
And some Bhutanese towns now have bans on the sale of animal flesh during the first and fourth months of the Buddhist calendar, which are holy months.
Pretty intriguing, huh? So let’s hear now from Brighde Reed, co-founder of World Vegan Travel, as she shares her experiences of when she and her husband traveled as vegans in Bhutan.
Vegan Bhutan Trip Report
Why Go to Bhutan?
Bhutan is a beautiful but rarely visited destination. It’s an isolated Himalayan kingdom nestled between Tibet and India, with incredible Himalayan mountains, amazing biodiversity and 70 percent of the country still covered in forest. One would think that tourists would be flocking there in droves.
Cost of Travel in Bhutan
But the fact is that Bhutan has taken serious steps to limit some types of tourism. Independent travel is not allowed (except for nationals of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives). This means that you must use the services of a travel agency in Bhutan to arrange your trip and pay at least $250 a day ($200 in the off-season).
These prices apply when you travel in a group of three or more people. If you’re traveling as a couple or a solo traveler, the price is a bit higher. In fact, as from July 2020, nationals of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives will also have to pay a daily sustainable development fee, although the price is much lower for them.
While $250 probably seems expensive, it does include all meals, entry fees, accommodation (3-star hotels), transportation, insurance, a guide, and a driver.
And you don’t need to travel with a big group, either. You can be just you and your partner in a car! This amount also covers the $65 per day sustainable development fee which the government of Bhutan uses to pay for social services for its citizens.
It’s one of the main reasons the Bhutanese people have high rates of literacy and healthcare.
While it is significantly more expensive than a backpacker’s budget, the price is not unreasonable for what you get, and you are really contributing to the development of the country when you travel in Bhutan.
The Expectation of Vegan Travel in Bhutan
So, what is it like to travel as a vegan in Bhutan?
All the reading we did ahead of time concerned us a little. We had read that Bhutanese people eat a lot of meat and dairy. We also thought that, with Bhutan being a mountainous place, perhaps there would not be a lot of vegetables and fruit. A look on HappyCow did not show a single vegan restaurant in the country!
The Reality of Vegan Travel in Bhutan
Despite all of these concerns, we actually ate really well! Not as well as in Thailand or Italy, but we had a wide range of tasty foods that included fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and we were more than full for the amazing trekking and cultural holiday we experienced!
So, what did we do to advocate for ourselves, what did we bring and what was just there that we didn’t know about before we traveled? How does food even work when it is all included?
Vegan Hotel Meals in Bhutan
Most of the time, hotels are half-board. That is, breakfast and dinner are included, so you eat them at your hotel, and they are buffets.
At three-star hotels, expect just toast and jam with a slice of watermelon and some cereal with cow’s milk for breakfast. If you’re staying at more upmarket hotels, you will have a huge buffet breakfast including a number of Indian breakfast items like idli, rotis, puri, biriyani and chutneys.
These hotels also have a wide range of salad items. The hotels in Paro and Thimphu (Le Meridien) had soy milk, which we were pleasantly surprised about!
Dinner was usually a buffet too, featuring primarily vegetarian dishes. More than half of the tourists who visit Bhutan are from India, and many of them are vegetarian.
As an example, one of the buffets at a fancier hotel in Punakha valley included semolina with green spinach, chickpea stew, spaghetti pomodoro, and roasted broccoli and cauliflower.
The chef knew we were coming and had created some very creative vegan dishes for us. Dessert will not be much more than fruit, but you will have plenty to eat otherwise.
Eating Vegan on the Road in Bhutan
Lunch is usually eaten on the road in a tourism-approved restaurant and is also a buffet. This will usually include some sort of potato dish, a thin dhal and stir-fried vegetables. Because many of the visitors are vegetarian, there will usually only be one meat dish.
Your guide will ensure that you have enough to eat. Our guide kindly asked for extra dishes to be made, and they were brought to our table too with no fuss.
Let Your Tour Operator Know You’re Vegan
Tell the tour company you book with that you are vegan. You will probably need to explain exactly what that is. Ask them to let the hotels know ahead of time.
The guide will be the person that will liaise with the hotels and restaurants that you will be visiting, and they will be an advocate for you. Our tour operator was able to get the most delicious vegan momos ( with cabbage) and hot sauce for one of our hikes.
Always Bring Snacks
Bring nutrient-rich snacks and non-dairy milk. We brought three liters of milk (for two of us for six nights). We also brought a small cool bag and freezer block to keep any chilled items cool when we were traveling between locations. Alternatively, you could bring powdered soy or coconut milk.
The snacks we brought were portable for our hikes, and a few squares of chocolate was a super dessert option for those times when fruit just wouldn’t cut it.
The Bhutanese are Vegans at Heart
Know that Bhutanese people will really respect your veganism. For Buddhist folks, it is a sin to kill other living beings. We had many conversations with people where we suggested that paying someone else to do it for them did not absolve Buddhists from sin, and they admitted this was true.
Even our guide at the end of the trip said that humans’ relationships with animals was something he needed to think more about. A vegetarian Buddhist nun was open-minded to our little chat about dairy and expressed gratitude for the information.
Finally, know that Bhutanese people are very hospitable. They genuinely want you to have a good time in their country. Happy tourists mean more services and infrastructure for their country, so it is in their interest to keep tourists happy. Ask and they will do anything they can to make your stay in this amazing country an unforgettable one.
Vegan and Vegetarian Bhutanese Dishes and Foods
The Bhutanese Obsession with Cheese and Chilies
The truth is, there’s loads of traditional Bhutan vegetarian food, but relatively few of those Bhutanese vegetarian dishes are vegan. Dairy is widely consumed in Bhutan, especially the local cheese known as “datshi” in Dzongkha, the local language.
And chilies! Bhutanese eat chili peppers, called “ema”, at virtually every meal, as it helps them to keep warm during the cold winters.
Since chilies and cheese are the two most popular foods in Bhutan, I guess it’s not surprising that the Bhutanese national dish is ema datshi -- literally “chilies and cheese”.
You will see the word datshi come up time and time again in the names of local dishes. Kewa datshi is potatoes and cheese. Shamu datshi is mushrooms and cheese. Nakey datshi is fiddlehead ferns and cheese. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
The good news, though, is that potatoes, mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns -- the other ingredients in these cheese-based dishes -- are all widely available in Bhutan. So while it’s customary to eat them with cheese, there’s no reason you can’t have them sautéed on their own and served with rice.
And, if you’d like to recreate these cheesy dishes in vegan versions, here’s a recipe for vegan datshi that you can make at home!
Vegan Bhutanese Foods
Even though cheese may seem to be everywhere in Bhutan, there are a few traditional Bhutanese dishes that are actually fully vegan. If you'd like to try local Bhutanese foods, ask your tour operator to inquire with your hotels about serving these dishes.
While you may come across white rice or brown rice in Bhutan, the most popular variety by far is Himalayan red rice, or eue chum. It’s actually more of a pinkish color than a true red, and it’s more coarse and chewy than white rice.
Unlike basmati and other popular rice varieties, the red rice of Bhutan can grow at high altitudes. It’s served as an accompaniment to most meals.
This is simply rice served with whatever leftover vegetables happen to be on hand. The Bhutanese are very resourceful and try to avoid wasting food, so you can expect to see zow shungo incorporated into hotel buffets.
This is a light salad of cucumbers, tomato, onions, cilantro, chili flakes, Sichuan pepper and usually cheese. But restaurants should be able to make it without the cheese if you ask.
These dense, savory pancakes are made from buckwheat flour and eaten as an accompaniment to other savory dishes. Buckwheat is grown in the higher altitude regions of Bhutan where rice can’t grow. Khulee is thus especially popular in the northern Bumthang district.
Like khulee, these noodles are also made from buckwheat. They are similar to the soba noodles eaten in Japan.
This is a puffed rice snack, kind of like Rice Krispies cereal. Bhutanese families always keep some zow on hand to serve to guests. You can expect to be offered this if you ever visit a Bhutanese home.
It’s usually eaten with tea and is sometimes even stirred into the tea. But if it’s eaten dry then butter and sugar is sometimes mixed with it, so watch out for that.
No list of Bhutanese foods would be complete without the ever-present ezay. This chili sauce is added to pretty much everything, at every meal. Two warnings here: (a) it’s very spicy; and (2) some traditional recipes contain cheese. But you can find it without cheese too, as each cook has their own way of making ezay.
Vegetables that Grow in Bhutan
I’ve already mentioned that potatoes, mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns are all widely available in Bhutan and are used in local dishes. But these aren’t the only edible plants that grow here.
Despite the high altitude and cold climate, Bhutanese farmers manage to produce a decent variety of vegetables, at least during the warmer months. Some of these will be familiar to you, and others you may never have seen before.
For example, there’s dumroo, a wild forest plant that’s prized for its medicinal properties and is said to smell like root beer. Both its leaves and its young shoots are edible. And then there’s hantshey, a spinach-like leaf that is often boiled and used in soups.
More familiar vegetables you may come across are broccoli, asparagus, carrots, bok choy, bamboo shoots, and bitter gourd. Turnip leaves, known locally as lhom, are dried and eaten year-round.
The Centenary Farmers' Market in downtown Thimphu is a great place to see the variety of produce available in Bhutan. It’s a large market and very clean, open only on the weekends.
Tibetan, Indian and Nepali Dishes that are Common in Bhutan
In addition to the local Bhutanese dishes, many dishes from neighboring Himalayan countries are also commonly eaten in Bhutan. These include:
- Thukpa -- noodle soup, often eaten for breakfast in Bhutan
- Tsampa -- roasted barley flour, mixed with tea or other liquid to create a thick dough
- Momos -- dumplings, usually non-vegan but sometimes you can find vegan ones with cabbage
- Ting Momos -- steamed bread, swirled in the shape of a cinnamon roll (but not sweet)
Be aware that there’s a Bhutanese dish that looks similar to momos, called hoentay. This specialty from the Haa Valley is made with buckwheat flour, but unfortunately it contains butter and is therefore not vegan.
- Sabji -- veggies stir-fried in turmeric
- Dhal -- a lentil stew/soup
- Channa -- chickpeas
- Aloo Palak -- stir-fried spinach and fried potatoes in turmeric
- Pakora -- battered and deep-fried vegetables
Vegan Activism and Animal Rescue Efforts in Bhutan
You may be wondering if there’s a local vegan community in Bhutan. There certainly is! Here are some great local initiatives to protect animals and encourage people to live more compassionately.
The Green Monster Vegan Club
Green Monster is the first vegan club in Bhutan. They organize vegan meetups and popups and also encourage local students to become “green monsters” by taking a vegan pledge.
Their most recent vegan popup, held in October 2019, was in conjunction with Vegan Dairy Nepal, which you can read more about in this article on animal-friendly tourism in Nepal.
Maya Foundation -- Barnyard Bhutan
This vegan animal rescue and sanctuary in Paro began in 2007 when the owner adopted her first stray dog. Over the years, the family has grown, and there are now about 400 rescued animals living here
Barnyard Bhutan relies entirely on donations to feed and care for the many pigs, cows, goats, donkeys, horses, dogs and cats they rescue. They will accept any animal in need, including snakes, birds or mice.
Inspired by Meatless Monday campaigns in other countries, a local journalist began a Bhutanese version of the initiative, called Jangsem Monday. The name can be translated as “Compassion Monday”.
The founder and other volunteers conduct outreach to hotels and restaurants and also visit local schools to encourage students to not eat meat for at least one day a week.
Where to Eat in Bhutan as a Vegan
As Brighde mentioned in her trip report above, you will probably eat breakfast and dinner at your hotel. And, if you are hiking during the day, your packed lunch will likely be catered by your hotel as well.
Nevertheless, there are some pure veg restaurants in Paro and Thimphu. If you would like to include these in your itinerary, let your tour operator know in advance.
Keep in mind that I am using the term “pure veg” in the Indian sense of the term. That is, these restaurants may not serve eggs, but they do serve dairy products. Currently, there are no fully vegan restaurants in Bhutan.
The vegan options at these restaurants will typically be Indian or Nepali dishes, as most of the traditional Bhutanese dishes contain cheese, butter and/or milk. But it’s also possible to order the Bhutanese dishes without dairy on request.
Veg-Friendly and Vegetarian Restaurants in Thimphu
Ambient Café - serves international dishes like hummus and spaghetti, and sometimes has vegan carrot cake or other desserts
Gashel - a good option for inexpensive Indian food in Bhutan, including dosas, pakoras and various curries
Fu Lu Shou - the chef at this Chinese restaurant is of Chinese Malaysian origin and makes authentic Chinese and Nyonya cuisine, including several veg dishes
Ga-Wa - this gourmet restaurant offers a few veg dishes, including a delicious-looking tofu in teriyaki sauce
Veg-Friendly and Vegetarian Restaurants in Paro
Mountain Café - offers lots of veg options, and the vegetables come from their own organic garden