Updated: Jan 7
A getaway into what the world should be: peaceful, responsible and kind.
Although most people probably won`t even know about it, Bhutan is one country which is truly special and which will occupy a special place in our hearts.
But now you will probably wonder what makes Bhutan so special?
Although there is an entire list of things, our answer is more simple than that: the people.
The people that respect nature and respect each other. The people that are simple and peaceful. The people that respect their king and the king that respects his people. The people that are responsible and kind. The people for which the peace of mind is more important than status. And all these people have one thing in common: the belief that nothing and no one lasts forever.
Why is Bhutan still out of this world?
Let`s start with an introduction. Bhutan is a tiny landlocked country, tucked in between two huge powers: China and India. It has a population of a bit more than 700,000 people and it`s the least corrupt country in the world.
Here, there are no traffic lights. Smoking and tobacco products are illegal, as well as hunting and fishing, except for catch and release. Also, there are no slaughter houses in Bhutan, although it is a bit unfair as they still import meat from India.
Bhutanese people must wear traditional clothing—a gho robe for men and kira dress for women—during work hours. Actually, this is what you will see your guide and driver wearing during your tour.
Years ago, Gross National Happiness was identified by the nation as being more important than Gross National Product (GNP).
In order to control the number of visitors and therefore, the impact on their culture and nature, the visitors are required to spend a minimum amount per day, which is around 250 $ or slightly more.
Here, there is no place for consumerism and Bhutanese people are encouraged to go visit countryside and monasteries instead of shopping malls. Also, the law promotes the welfare and happiness of the people.
The national sport is archery ( dha ). The bow and arrow play a significant role in many Bhutanese myths and legends.
The national bird is the raven. It represents the deity Gonpo Jarodongchen, one of the chief guardian deities of Bhutan.
The national animal is the Takin ( Burdorcastaxicolor ) that is associated with religion, history and mythology and looks like a mix between a goat and a cow.
The national flower is the Blue Poppy.
The national tree is the Cypress ( Cupressustorolusa ).
The national airline is Drukair, founded on April 5 1981, by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
The country has no carbon emissions.
The country was isolated from the world until the `70s. It was not until the 1970s that the first foreign tourists were allowed in, but the authorities still keep a close eye on foreign influences.
The internet and television have only been allowed since 1999.
Bhutan has been at the cutting edge of international trends: plastic bags have been banned since 1999 and tobacco is almost wholly illegal. However, we have still seen some plastic bags while there.
By law, 60% of the country must always be forested. Moreover, tree planting is popular in the country, where they are a symbol of long life, beauty and compassion: in 2015, Bhutan set a Guinness World Record by planting almost 50,000 trees in just one hour.
The King of Bhutan abdicated in favor of democracy.
The Bhutanese believe that phalluses protect them from evil. 😊
Bhutan was never conquered.
No animal is killed in Bhutan.
Bhutan is obviously not an ordinary country, therefore, getting here takes more than an ordinary trip. In order to reduce the impact of tourism on nature and their culture, the Bhutanese Government requires visitors to spend a minimum amount of money per day - in between 200 and 300$, depending on the time of the year and how big is the group. In order to ensure compliance, visitors must sign up with a registered Bhutanese tour agency before arriving. Additionally, going around the country on your own is not possible and every person requires a guide for visiting. The reason behind that? They simply believe that there are too many rules to consider in order to show respect for their culture and it would be impossible for a foreigner to know everything.
There are only two airlines that operate into Bhutan: Druk Air, their national airline and Bhutan Airlines. They don`t fly to many places, so, the actual places to get to Bhutan are pretty much limited to India, Nepal, Thailand and Singapore.
In summary, Bhutan is one of the most closed countries in Asia and visiting as an independent traveler is pretty much impossible. Therefore, an official tour is compulsory and you need to contact an agency that will organize everything for you: visa, plane tickets, accommodation, guide, driver etc. The good news is that, the fee I was talking about includes everything, apart from the plane tickets.
Personally, we think that is best to contact an agency that is from Bhutan or based in one of the countries where Bhutanese Airlines fly. There must be more travel agencies across the world that offer these kind of services but most likely, they will act as a third party.
We had the same agency we used for trekking in Nepal - Himalayan Leisure, which was ok. Also, we found a website which belongs to the Official Tourism Council of Bhutan and it might be handy to have a look.
As previously mentioned, the daily fee tax includes also a car with driver, therefore, you don`t need to worry about how to get from one place to another.
The same story, all the accommodation is included in the tour package and we must say that the standards are pretty high. At least in our case, all the hotels were 3 and 4 stars hotels.
When to go
Bhutan has four distinct seasons in a year.
Generally, the dry spring starts in early March and lasts until mid-April. However, we went there at the beginning of May and the weather was pretty good, no complaints.
Summer weather commences in mid-April with occasional showers and continues to late June. The heavier summer rains last from late June through late September which are more monsoonal along the southwest border.
Autumn, from late September or early October to late November, follows the rainy season. It is characterized by bright, sunny days and some early snowfalls at higher elevations.
From late November until March, winter sets in, with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall common above elevations of 3,000 meters.
In summary, anywhere in between late September and ideally October to December and from March to April, is a nice time to go. If you don`t mind the cold, winter should be fine, too.
Apart from weather, if you are willing and available, we suggest checking the list of events that happen in Bhutan and consider going while there is a festival there. You can check out the lis of events calendar here.
What to visit
Being located in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan has a lot of things to offer, from culture to nature and trekking. However, due to the high fee per day ( 250 $ ) and the fact that you are restricted to the agency fixed tours, the list becomes a bit limiting, but this is not a reason not to go.
Most of the people, including ourselves, opt for a 3-5 days trip, during which you will be shown the Western part of Bhutan: Paro ( the city where is the only international airport ), Thimpu ( the capital ) the Punakha ( the old capital ). Just a heads up, Tiger`s Nest, the most iconic monastery of Bhutan, lies just North West of Paro. 😊
Just to make things clearer, most of the tours consist mainly of monasteries and temples, which lie at the basis of Bhutanese culture.
Below is the list of the main cities and objectives.
1. Thimpu - is the capital and largest city of Bhutan. Thimphu replaced Punakha in 1955, and in 1961 Thimphu was declared as the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan by the 3rd Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
In Thimpu, the main things to be seen are Tashichho Dzong, National Memorial Chorten and Buddha Dordenma Statue.
Apart from these, it is nice to wander around the city and get the pulse of Bhutan. We must say, usually it`s only locals, no tourists and the feeling you`ll get is totally different than anywhere else.
2. Punakha - is the administrative centre of Punakha Dzonkhag , one of the 20 districts of Bhutan. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimpu. It is about 72 km away from Thimphu but it takes about 3 hours by car from the capital Thimphu, due to the rough terrain. Unlike Thimphu, it is quite warm in winter and hot in summer. It is located at an elevation of 1,200 metres above sea level ( lower ) and rice is grown as the main crop along the river valleys of two main rivers of Bhutan, the Pho Chu and Mo Chu.
Punakha is much smaller than Thimpu and ,here, the main objective is Punakha Dzong. However, the rural area around is pretty authentic and there is the famous Chime Lhakhang or Fertility temple a bit further away from the city.
3. Dochula pass - is a mountain pass in the snow covered Himalayas within Bhutan on the road from Thimpu to Punakha where 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as "Druk Wangyal Chortens" have been built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother. From here, if you are lucky to have clear weather, you can get a good view of the Himalayas.
4.Paro - is a town and seat of Paro District, in the Paro Valley of Bhutan. It is a historic town with many sacred sites and historical buildings scattered throughout the area. It is also home to Paro airport, Bhutan's sole international airport.
Fact: Paro airport has been described as "the most difficult commercial airport in the world". The airport has only one runway. Airplanes on approach pass by 5,500m Himalayan mountain peaks, and the 1,980m runway length presents a double challenge, due to the extremely low density altitude at the site. As a result, only 8 airline pilots ( as of December 2014 ) are certified to operate commercially there.
From here, actually 10 km outside of the city, you will be able to trek for 3 hours to the most iconic image of Bhutan: Tiger`s Nest or Paro Taksang. The place is highly sacred to the Bhutanese in that they believe Guru Rinpoche, the father of Bhutanese Bhudism, landed here on the back of a tigress. The trek to Tiger's nest monastery takes about three hours one way. A scenic view of the town of Paro can be seen from the Tiger's nest.
Here there is another dzong that you will visit: Rinpung Dzong, which is a fortress-monastery overlooking the Paro valley.
Here, we also got to a traditional farm house and had dinner in a traditional way and we tried their famous hot stone bath. But we would recommend trying this in a hotel, although it`s more expensive. You`ll see why below. 😊
Other than that, Paro city center is nice for wandering around and there are plenty arts and crafts shops where you can buy local products. We got some local fabrics from there, which are amazing.
If you have more time and money in order to afford more than 5 days, we`ve heard that the Central Bhutan and Eastern Bhutan are really worth experiencing, but we cannot tell from our experience. On the Tourism Council of Bhutan website, mentioned above, there is a list of all the destinations in Bhutan, are we must say, the website looks pretty organized, so you might give it a try.
Bhutan is a completely different destination and it`s expensive too. Therefore, it is difficult to experience it entirely, but few days will give you a glimpse of it.
We are still not sure if all the things we heard about Bhutan are 100% true or it is only what the government wants the tourists to experience, but we could definitely feel tranquility and peace of mind from the moment we stepped out of the aircraft. People are extremely calm and polite and we could feel everything was a bit out of the world we`re used to. In a positive manner.
We would say Bhutan can be a mix of Central Asia and Japan in terms of culture.
Speaking of happiness, we had a few words with some locals and they seem to be happy and grateful for all they have. They really love and respect their king and, at the same time, their king seems to be very thoughtful of his people. Education and healthcare is free for everybody and we could definitely feel that consumerism has no place over there.
In regards to "no killing" policy, we must say that we found a bit unfair the fact that there are no slaughter houses ( which is an amazing thing, don`t get us wrong ) but most of the people do eat meat and they import everything from India.
In order to visit Bhutan, you really need to want to do it! It is not just a tick in the box destination.
You will need to get in touch with a Bhutanese registered tourism agency and you need to do it a bit in advance. We would say at least a month. So, travel at short notice is not possible here.
Also, you need about 250$ per day /person to spend over there but this includes accommodation, transport, guide, full board meals, basically everything. You need to pay these money to the agency before hand, because they need to provide proof to the Bhutanese Government, in order to obtain the visa for you. Plane tickets are not included and they can be pretty expensive, too. ( around 400-500 $ per person, from Nepal )
Anyway, the good thing is that the agency will do everything for you.
A short Bhutan tour is pretty much about visiting monasteries and fortresses and the trek to Tiger`s Nest is definitely the highlight of the trip.
Food in Bhutan is ok but pretty basic and very spicy. They eat a lot of rice, cabbage, vegetables, mushrooms and meat and most of the dishes are really spicy. If you`re a vegetarian, the options can be a bit limiting but it`s not impossible to grab a bite.
A nice thing is that there are not so many tourists and this can be very refreshing. The few of them are mainly Indian, due to the friendly diplomatic relationship between Bhutan and India which allows either nationality to travel in the other country with their ID card only. Moreover, Indians are exempted from the high daily fee and this is understandable, as Bhutan is importing a lot of stuff from India.
- bring some cash with you, dollars would be good; we encountered issues in withdrawing money from 5 different ATM`s with 3 debit cards from 2 different countries; we managed in the end to pay by card in some of the shops and receive cash instead, but it is a lot of hassle; however, debit/credit cards can be widely used
- flying drones is completely forbidden in Bhutan, but there are no restrictions in bringing your drone with you
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