Do you dream of visiting somewhere that few people have seen or even heard about? I completed my round the world trip when I was 22 and although I had an amazing time and met some fantastic people, I sometimes felt I was treading a well-trodden route and I wondered if I had missed something when I arrived home. Skip forward a few years, and I had the opportunity to visit the elusive and mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan, well off the ususal tourist track.
There is a limit on the number of tourists that can visit Bhutan and there are no McDonalds! The more I read and learned about it, the more I wanted to go. Friends and I decided we would visit both Bhutan and Nepal in a two week trip, so we set off.
You can only fly into Bhutan via Delhi or Kathmandu, so it’s likely you’ll need to stop over for a night in Delhi. We stayed in a local homestay not far from the airport, and I thoroughly recommend it.
The next day we flew from Delhi to Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport. This is without a doubt one of the most scenic flights you’ll ever take; it’s all about the views, so make sure you get a window seat. You will fly over the Himalayas and sometimes you can see Everest, before descending into Paro through a stunning valley with green lush land, mountains and over pretty villages.
On our arrival, we met with our guide Yadop and driver Kinga, both wearing traditional Bhutanese dress; like a fancy dressing gown, with knee-high socks and smart shoes. This dress code is required by all Bhutanese nationals throughout the daytime.
From here, we took a scenic drive towards Thimphu, the country’s capital, where we stayed for 2 days. Thimphu is a lovely city; clean and beautiful, with enough shops and entertainment for the evenings as well. (Fun fact: it’s also the only capital city without any road traffic lights. One was installed a few years ago but it was promptly removed as it was deemed to be too unfriendly!).
Yadop and Kinga introduced us to the only nightclub in Bhutan; a bar in the basement floor of a local hotel. We had a great time meeting the younger locals here and they insisted on walking us back to our hotel safely, despite the fact it was only a few metres down the street. The whole place feels very safe.
Most of your sightseeing in Bhutan will involve visiting’ Dzongs’, which are essentially existing or ex-government/royal buildings. These are extraordinary structures, normally with white walls and impressively decorative ceilings. Nearly all are attached to a Buddhist temple or monastery, so be sure to dress conservatively and be prepared to take your shoes off at each one.
It’s so helpful to have a local guide as we did; Yadop explained what each building was for and its importance to Bhutanese people. He also translated for the monks which meant we could engage with them rather than just observing what they were doing.
Next, we were driven to Punakha Dzong, by far the most impressive of all the Dzongs we visited because it’s the largest and it sits on the confluence of two rivers in a beautiful valley.
On route, you can make a stop at the most incredible viewpoint at the top of the Dochula pass, from where you can see the whole of Bhutan. I still remember thinking how amazingly blue the sky was, and how fresh the air was when you breathed it in. There’s hardly any pollution here as very few people own cars or run machinery..
After a night in Punakha we returned to Paro for two nights. Our guide took us around the local markets to pick up some ethical souvenirs, before taking us for a meal with his friends who own a local restaurant in the town. The food was excellent; lots of red rice, local vegetables and potatoes, and their national dish - Chillies and Cheese - which is red hot chillies mixed in with a Yak cheese sauce. It may sounds unappetising, but it’s delicious and helps to spice up what is otherwise a fairly bland meal.
Our last full day in Bhutan was spent in Paro, visiting the most famous sight in Bhutan. The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is an impressive working monastery, perched on a cliff face 900m up from the valley. It’s only reachable by a 2 hour trek which isn’t easy, but it’s a scenic hike, with fascinating views the whole way. Having a guide means you’ll be properly prepared for the hike – Yadup suggested we get up early to beat the crowds (which we did) and we were all grateful for the extra bottle of water he insisted we carry with us.
The next day we said our sad farewell to Bhutan, and to our guide Yadop and driver Kinga who had been excellent throughout the journey. From Paro we boarded our flight on to Kathmandu.
You will need to fly to Paro, Bhutan via either Delhi or Kathmandu.
To visit Bhutan, you must book on to a group tour or private tour as you are not allowed to enter the country without a booking with an authorised touring company. You also have to prove a minimum spend of $250USD pp/per day while in Bhutan. The cost of any tour we offer will include accommodation on full board basis (this is compulsory), plus a guide, driver and transport and most entrance fees. This more than meets the minimum required spend, so you won’t have to spend much more than this, other than for tips and souvenirs.
The couple of times we went exploring in the town, we were regularly and politely asked where our tour guide was – so there is no getting round this. However, once you’re here, you realise this minimum spend is what makes a visit to Bhutan so good; all the money directly benefits the local economy and this discourages crime and scams.
I travelled to Bhutan in a group of six friends so we split the cost of a private van and driver, which gave us ultimate flexibility, and allowed us to follow our guide’s itinerary. For this reason, I recommend putting together a private tour.
If you’d like to plan a tailor-made holiday to Bhutan, or combine it with Nepal or India, I can help. I can arrange all aspects of the trip, including flights, organised group tours and private cars and guides. Contact Graham to plan a similar trip.