Our recent trip to Bhutan was going to be two-weeks long but got shortened unexpectedly (more on this post the wife vs. the mother). Still, in a week, we drove over 500km of mostly bumpy roads, hiked about 15hours of trails, crossed 3 overpasses at 4,000m altitude. It was amazing. Our jaws dropped at every change of scenery and at every temple on the way. This is a place well worth visiting with teenagers who will certainly appreciate the great outdoors and learning about the rich history of this small buddhist country.
Yaks live high up in the Himalayas, above 3,000m..
This boy was a young yak herder, living with his aunt and uncle in a remote corner of the mountains…
Bhutan is a small country roughly the size of Switzerland, squeezed between China (sharing a border with Tibet) and India high up in the Himalaya. Kathmandu in Nepal is not too far although the countries do not share a border. The population of 700,000 is mostly composed of farmers. The vast majority practises a form of Buddhism called Vajrayana and the country is dotted with thousands of beautiful temples and peaceful monasteries, sometimes perched high up in the mountains. The most visited one is Tiger’s Nest near the city of Paro where the main airport is.
School children on their way back home with their lunch boxes…
Bhutan’s young king (he’s only 33) is much loved and respected. He recently married a very beautiful young girl named Jetsun Pema.
And from here, you have the plot for a BozAround bedtime story: in the highest mountains in the world, a red dragon on the flag, a peaceful and smart king (ready to stand against the great devil China next door!) who always did his homework (and studied at Oxford!). The daughter of an airplane pilot, one day she got caught in a thunderstorm. She was so beautiful the dragon turned blind, and the king saved her life. He married her by a sacred river in the Punhaka valley. And they’ve been living happily ever since.
Another interesting characteristic of Bhutan is the fact that the government pursues Gross National Happiness instead of economic growth. It sounds like a great marketing tool. However, Bhutanese people are known to be amongst the happiest in the world despite the harsh climatic conditions they live in and the altitude. So it works! Overall, as small as Bhutan is, it made a huge impact on me not only for the beauty of the country, its history, the kindness of its people, but also for the way the whole country is branded and run. A very interesting case study.
The enormous Buddha statue erected two years ago on the mountains above the capital Timphu…
Oh, and one more interesting fact! Bhutanese farmers (70% of the population) barely use herbicides and pesticides, allowing the country to be organic by default. There has been lots of talks lately about Bhutan becoming the world’s first 100% organic nation. Really, how smart is that.
The highlights of our trip:
Every travel agent (and every tourist must use one by law) will talk to you about what’s important to visit depending on your length of stay. This is what I enjoyed the most:
– The dzong of Punakha in Western Bhutan, not too far from the capital. It seats right where two rivers meet, which is considered an inauspicious place hence the monastery and the buddhist flags to send the bad spirits away. Very impressive, truly majestic.
Life inside the dzong…
– The dzong of Trongza in Central Bhutan mysteriously hangs on the mountains, dominating a beautiful green valley.
– The Ura valley festival, where we spent a day with the villagers all dressed in their best costumes. They gather once a year for 4 days of divine festivities. There are many festivals in Bhutan, we had planned our trip around this one, the only one scheduled at this time of the year.
At the remote Ura valley festival, boys playing with plastic guns, just like any other child in the world…
– The Gangte valley, on the Western slope of the Black Mountains. It is famous as the seasonal home of the rare black-necked cranes who spend the winter months there and can be obersved from the last week of October to mid-February. We did not see any but still the hikes were sumptuous and the valley so still, so serene. Our hotel The Dewachen was a wonderful base.
What you should know:
– You can get into Bhutan by road from India but entries are mostly by plane. Only the national airline Druk Air can get you there, with the easiest & shortest routes from Delhi, Calcutta and Katmandhu. There are also direct flights from Bangkok and Singapore. Many people pair a trip to Bhutan with a visit to Darjeeling or Sikkim in North India.
– The altitude never seemed to affect us but Do not travel to Bhutan if you easily get car sick! Luckily we weren’t. First, you will spend lots of time on the road because there is no other way to see the country and they are very bumpy (there are two new airports in Central and Eastern Bhutan respectively). Second, the roads are notoriously windy. Read: scary!!! I cannot find words to describe the national highway number 2 (the only road going from East to West). In those moments, close your eyes and pray, whether you believe in yourself, the driver or a god high up above the clouds!!
Yep. this was the highway where I cried…The depth below us was probably 2,000meters??!
– You cannot travel as an independent tourist in Bhutan. You must pre-arrange your trip with a local agent, or via a third party in your home country. There is a seemingly hefty fee per person / per day to visit as a tourist (between US$165 and $200 depending on the season, of which $65 goes to the government). However, this daily fee entitles you to 3 meals, a night in a 3-stars hotel, a driver and a guide. So it’s not so bad in the end and this upfront cost preserves the country from mass tourism.
– A trip to Bhutan must be planned several months in advance as it’s not easy to find flights (not many of them), there are quotas of tourists and accomodations can be scarce during the festivals. Also, you will need a visa that only your travel agent can apply to and it takes 2 to 3 weeks.
– Each province of Bhutan has its own dzong, a fortress with a stunning and very particular architecture that is part administrative, part religious. The most beautiful ones are those of Paro, Punakha and Tronza. It’s wise to plan a visit to Bhutan according to the calendar of festivals held in the dzongs, the most famous one being the festival of Paro.
– It’s not a good idea to travel during the monsoon (Jun-July-August) as the roads can be closed due to landslides. The best times of the year are said to be Mar-April-May and Sept-Oct-November.
– There are few very nice guesthouses throughout the country. We particularly enjoyed our stays at The Swiss Guesthouse in Bhumthang, Central Bhutan. And the wonderful room and views at the Dewachen Hotel in the Gangte valley. Everywhere the rooms were clean, warm at night with a cozy stove to light fire when the temperatures drop.
– In the luxury category, interestingly, small Bhutan also has five Aman resorts (with prices as high as the mountain peaks). And the very stylish Uma Hotels (really nice, not as exclusive / smart / expensive as Aman) has 2 properties, including the much-talked about Uma Paro where many visitors decide to rest a nigth or two at the end of their stay.
– You can bring lots of interesting handicrafts from Bhutan. We got some yak bells that I might use in the kitchen to call the children for dinner. Some yak tails that I might use to tie the curtains at home. Some buddhist flags to hang around our little garden and send all the inauspicious city vibes away. Beautiful carpets ( I should literally open a carpet shop by now. I have never been to a country where I have not fallen in love with a carpet!). Hand woven silk scarves. Beads, buddha statues, necklaces, hand-made paper stationary…. I am glad we had an empty bag with us.
– Our trip was organized by Guides of Bhutan, run by Phil an English man who spends half his year in London and the rest in Bhutan. He used to run the Uma Hotels there and knows the country very well. He has a very good local partner called Ugyen based in Paro.
A young monk studying at a temple in Central Bhutan…
The beauty of spring coming in the Ura valley…
And since we could not visit the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery near Paro because we had to fly back home early, we have a reason to go back. With the children. When they’re old enough. Til’ then, I am not ready to leave them alone and travel so far anytime soon again!