Beautiful Bhutan: where quaint and quirky is quite quotidian
We visited Bhutan in October 2016, which fortuitously was also the best month to visit, particularly due to the weather – post monsoon, pre-winter. It also coincided with the tsechu or mask festival. Furthermore, this year was special for Bhutanese – the first prince born to the (5th) King and Queen in February and 60th birthday of the previous (4th) King.
10 days in Bhutan gives you a good flavor of the country. A large amount of time is taken up in driving across the country to the different districts on pretty basic roads, but the landscape changes quite dramatically across these regions – from hilly Punakha to the sun drenched valleys of Phobjikha, and the city life in Thimphu.
All tourism is via travel agents but this works well. Whether going in a group or individually, tour guides are very helpful to have with you – they will plan your trip, drive you around, explain the sights, and can give you great background about the history/ culture/ beliefs of the Bhutanese people.
The itinerary we followed is as below. Absolute must dos are:
- Paro (if you have only 3-4 days)
Phobjika valley is beautiful and different but the drive from Thimphu takes 6 hours or more given the bad roads, so should be included only if you have the time. We visited Haa Valley (western part of Bhutan) towards the latter part of our stay, and it was raining all through, so we did feel that Haa is avoidable.
A lot of the sightseeing in Bhutan is done by visiting its many valleys. And as you traverse from one valley to the next, you go over high mountain passes, cross raging glacial rivers, and see beautiful vistas. Of course, there are other ways to experience Bhutan: you could hike, trek, ride a bike, or visit far-flung glaciers or the mountains to the north. We chose the "mainstream experience", visiting the places most often visited and by a very comfortable mode of transport!
Day 1: Thimphu
Arrive at Paro Airport; Drive to Thimphu
Visit Kuensel Phodrang to see the gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue at a height of 169 feet. Visit the Centenary Farmer’s Market and the National Textile Museum. Stroll along the marketplace and check out cafes.
Day 2: Thimphu > Punakha
Drive to Punakha, driving through Dochula Pass (3140m) with its 108 Chortens (stupas).
In good weather, it is possible to see from the pass the Himalayas that separate Bhutan from Tibet.
After lunch at Lobesa, we had an easy 20-minutes hike to the Divine Madman's Temple (also known as Chhimi Lhakhang).
He had a very unorthodox way of teaching people, often shocking and vulgar in nature which has led to phallic symbols being painted as an auspicious icon all over Bhutan.
Finally, arrival at Punakha, with a visit to the magnificent Punakha Dzong set on an island at the confluence of two rivers.
Punakha was the capital of Bhutan till 1955. All important state and royal events are performed at the Punakha Dzong.
Day 3: Punakha > Phobjikha
Drive to Phobjikha Valley
The road was in very bad shape due to ongoing roadbuilding work taking place across large parts of Bhutan. On the way there, we saw yak, and as the altitude became higher, lichen (old man's beard) could be seen hanging from tall trees.
Visit to the crane centre.
Phobjikha Valley has a Swiss feel to it. Black-necked cranes migrate to Phobjikha Valley every winter as they escape the cold conditions further north.
Visit to the Khewa temple in the middle of the valley where we spent time with the lama.
The Gangtey Goemba is a beautiful private monastery. We stayed in a rest house next to the monastery.
Day 4: Phobjikha > Thimphu
Long drive back to Thimphu, with lunch at Wangdue Phodrang
Day 5: Thimphu
A visit to the Thimphu Dzong to see the Tshechu Festivities (Mask Festival). A visit to the National Takin Reserve. Shopping. Beautifully prepared dinner at the home of our gracious hosts and travel agents.
The Takin in the national animal of Bhutan. Among other things, we also got postage stamps printed with our pictures on them! Video of a mask dance.
Day 6: Thimphu > Haa
Visit the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Drive to Haa with beautiful scenery everywhere. In Haa, we went for a ride as far as the civilian road could take us to the west: we finally reached a point where the road led to an Army camp, and we turned around from there.
It was raining all through and so the journey took longer than usual.
Day 7: Haa > Paro
Our plan was to go to Paro via the Chele La Pass. However, due to incessant rain, landslides had blocked that road and so, we came back the same way as we had gone there the previous day.
The Chele La Pass is the highest motorable road in Bhutan. Check out the video at the Chele La Pass below.
A visit to a hot stone bath.
Dinner at a rural home near the Kichu Lhakhang
It was a delightful, simple, homemade meal and we loved it! The Kichu Lhakhang is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan. A video of the temple bell there is shown below.
Day 8: Paro
Hike to the Tigers Nest Monastery
This was a superb hike and we enjoyed it! To find a waterfall at the very top was a beautiful surprise (video below)! Should do this towards the end of your visit to Bhutan as it will allow you to acclimatise to the altitude.
A visit to the Paro Dzong and National Museum.
Drive to Chele La Pass.
Since the weather had improved, and we had the time, our guide, Lakey, drove us all the way to Chele La Pass and back. The scene at the Pass was spiritually superb, with prayer flags fluttering.
Day 9: Paro > Hong Kong
Our return was delayed due to technical snags in the plane. But overall, we had a great trip!
Why was Bhutan a completely different tourist experience for us
One of the few countries where Indian passport holders benefit – no visa required and fewer formalities compared with any other nation. As a tiny Himalayan kingdom bounded on three sides by the Indian border, Bhutan and India have a very strategic relationship, and this manifests itself in practical ways also, in making it very convenient for Indians to visit Bhutan. That said, while there is a minimum day spend for all travelers, the rationale behind it is quite sound: as a small country, Bhutan does not have the capacity to cater to an overflow of tourists, so has to maintain a few entry barriers in order to ensure the quality of the experience is good. Furthermore, it appears that most of the tourist funds go directly to the people in the industry – you can be assured that your dollars are improving the quality of life of the general Bhutanese people.
In Bhutan, we felt that we were able to connect with the people at a level beyond plain tourism: firstly, our travel agent and guides – Jamyang and Sonam at GumarAdventures & Lakey Wangchuk - were very well informed, service oriented and took care of all our needs, making for a very pleasurable experience. Secondly, there are numerous opportunities for homestays and farmstays, which allows you to see how people live their daily lives. Our travel guide invited us to their home, which gave us a further peek into the lives, concerns, thoughts and general culture of the Bhutanese.
Bhutan is a small country but definitely punches way above its size in the international space. It managed to get international attention through some of its wise and forward thinking approaches to governance. Indeed, Bhutan is probably one of the few countries that truly mean what they say about sustainable development and caring for the environment, and not just now, but for many years. It is currently the only country that is carbon negative. Our guide Lakey Wangchuk in fact is deeply passionate about trash management and is doing a lot to educate the youth in Bhutan about this aspect - check out their page on Facebook. Furthermore, the wisdom and generosity of the Buddhist spirit and way of life is truly embodied in the King’s approach to governance: the 4th King set up a democratically elected government in the face of reluctance amongst his people, abdicated the throne in favour of his son (the current King), defined and constantly measures progress on “Gross National Happiness”, investing in improving the lives of the disadvantaged, insisting on development at a sustainable pace, etc. What is truly amazing is the reverence that every single person bar none have for their rulers and their government, of course more than justly deserved. For more information, don’t miss the TED talk given by their Prime Minister.
Simple (but clean) living and high thinking: even the most modest bathrooms in airports, hotels, shops and restaurants are uniformly clean. Décor may be basic but spotless. At the same time, the people all seem spiritually highly advanced, having fully imbibed the Buddhist way of life.
Beauty and charm in the fresh smell of the air, the eloquence of the surrounding Himalayas, the traditional façade of all buildings, the mystical charm of the Buddhist symbols: Bhutan truly represents nature’s bounty well protected and preserved.
Easy to find vegetarian food. We spent a happy afternoon soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the wholesale markets, and ate a variety of vegetables including bitter gourd, turnips, okra, potatoes among others. They also seem to have a wide variety of locally grown rice, including red and brown and beaten rice varieties. That said, the Bhutanese use quite a lot of cheese and chillies in their cooking, which got to us after a while.
Bhutan is textile nirvana. The textile museum in Thimphu showcases the staggering variety, beauty and colour of the textiles produced. Intricate handwork, bright and vivid colours and geometric patterns characterize some of the most beautiful and high quality work we have seen in the world. The Bhutanese take full advantage of this by having the most unique style in the way they dress – men in Ghos and women in Kiras, making the act of people watching a delight here. We were lucky to be in Bhutan during the time of the Tshechu, where people were dressed in their best as they visited the local dzong to witness the mask dances: the costumes are graceful and stylish. Textiles are something to consider taking back as a memory of your visit here, and can be converted into anything you please: cushion covers, bedsheets, throws, or even garments.
The pictures from our trip can be viewed with this link (Tip: view in Slideshow mode).
Mask Dance at Thimphu Dzong
Prayer Wheel bell at Kichu Lhakhang
Waterfall at the top of the Tigers Nest Monastery
Prayer flags at Chele La Pass
If going via Bangkok, ensure there is enough time between connecting flights – not possible to transit directly, and visa on arrival (if needed) takes time.
Try to time your visit to Bhutan so that it coincides with the festivals that Bhutanese people celebrate.
For currency, try carrying larger, say USD100 notes and those issued after 2000. Smaller notes get converted at a lower rate of BTN56 vs. BTN65 for UD100 (as an indicative example).
Visit the Vixabs Wanderlust page for other trip descriptions.