Bhutan is the last of the independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms. Most Bhutanese still live a long walk from the road in big, beautiful farmhouses with terraced rice fields out front, red chili peppers drying on the roof, and white prayer flags snapping in the breeze.
Because of its unique geography, getting to Bhutan used to be practically impossible.The first roads in the country weren’t built until the 1960s, and only a handful of adventurers made it to the central valleys before 1974, when the first hotels were built to accommodate dignitaries arriving for the coronation ceremony of the current King.
At first the government ran the entire business itself, but eventually private companies were allowed to operate. These companies are all obliged to charge the same daily visa fee of $250 per foreign tourist, or $200 in the low season.
All visitors must use a registered tour company. The biggest is Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited, owned in large part by the royal family. This is the company that organized our tour and I was extremely impressed by our guide, driver and the BTCL hotels.
The second biggest tour operator is called ETHO METHO, online at www.ethometho.com. You might also take a look at Lingkor, the website of a tour company owned by a reincarnate Buddhist holy man turned entrepreneur who seems to remember partying with my Mom in New York City in the 1970s.
It’s quite easy to arrange individually tailored trips geared around a specific theme, such as birding, rafting, trekking or Buddhist studies.
The flight to Bhutan has the best mountain views of any commercially scheduled flight in the world. Most likely jet-lagged into a daze, you’re suddenly jolted awake by adrenaline as you pass by the peak of Mt. Everest. Get a window seat.
Entering the country overland at Puenthsoling is an interesting option, because the 6 hour drive up the river valley gives you the experience of climbing through various eco-zones to the heart of the Himalayas. Visas are issued at this border as well as at the airport, but to get a visa you must be pre-registered with a tour. The cost is $20. Keep your ear to the ground regarding regulations at the new overland crossing between Southeastern Bhutan and Assam, which is exit-only for the time being.
The government mandated $250 daily fee must include everything except souvenirs and drinks, so you don’t need to worry about constantly bargaining. The Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, is pegged to the Indian rupee, at an exchange of about 44 ng to $1. Rupees are also widely accepted. A bottle of water costs around 15 ng in town and 35 ng in hotels. A ten minute taxi ride in Thimphu is around 60 ng. Bhutan produces excellent rums, and you can buy a liter of Dragon Rum for around 100 ng in shops, more in hotels.
Souvenirs are rather expensive, both because the Bhutanese are used to dealing with wealthy tourists and because the quality of local crafts is excellent. Bhutan produces some beautiful textiles, lots of Buddhist art and interesting metalwork. The Thimphu market (Fri-Sun) is a good place to shop. Remember that it is illegal to bring any object over 100 years old out of the country. Save receipts.
You can change travelers checks and foreign currency at the airport, major hotels, and banks in Thimphu. Visa cards are usually accepted in stores that cater to tourists, but not elsewhere.
International calls are possible but expensive at most hotels, but the local mobile phone network within Bhutan is extensive. Slow internet access is available in Thimphu at around 70 ng per hour and you can also get online at a few of the larger provincial hotels, where it’s more expensive.
Electricity is 220 volts, and the plugs are large and three pronged. Bring an adaptor.
Most meals in the hotels are served buffet style. At dinner, the first course is soup, which the wait-staff will bring to your table. A big pot of rice is standard, usually accompanied by dishes that include pork or beef, a curry of some sort, steamed vegetables and baked or fried fish (watch out for bones), At the end of the line, there will often be a bowl full of Bhutan’s national dish, ema-datsi, or hot chili peppers in cheese sauce. Wickedly spicy!
The food isn’t bad, but it does get monotonous. It’s a good idea to bring some granola bars or trail mix from home for day hikes or long bus rides. Brave diners can try ready made market food, but be careful with chogo, dried cubes of yak cheese hard enough to break teeth.
Because travel within Bhutan is so difficult, over the years each valley developed its own unique culture and distinct dialect. Over a dozen languages are spoken within the kingdom. The national language is called Dzongkha, as it is the language of the ancient fortress-monasteries, or Dzongs, which still function as the governing center of each province. Dzongkha is taught in schools, but the basic language of instruction is English, so nearly all young people are at least tri-lingual, speaking Dzongkha, English and the local language of their valley.
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and if you see a match in progress be sure to stop and watch. Two teams face off at opposite ends of a range that stretches for all of 140 meters, with a tiny target barely visible at the far end. The opposing team stands around the target, trying to distract the tiny figure off in the distance who is launching deadly weapons in their direction. The archer lets fly, and if it’s a hit, everyone does a dance and sings and drinks rice whiskey before the next round.
The Tantric Buddhism practiced in Bhutan includes a vast pantheon of demons, bodhisattvas and other deities. Practitioners believe in the karmic cycle of reincarnation and strive to accumulate merit through good deeds and the performance of rituals. It’s common to see elderly men and women walking down the street muttering mantras and turning prayer wheels, which are conveniently built into walls along the sidewalks in towns.
The importance of good deeds includes a deep respect for all forms of life, from the smallest ant to the earth herself. During my travels, I sometimes saw Bhutanese stop on the sidewalk, pick up insects, and move them out of harms way. Fishing and logging are heavily regulated and frowned upon, as is the killing of animals for meat, although most Bhutanese happily eat pork and beef that someone else has slaughtered.
Many Bhutanese become monks at a young age. It can be a stark life of chanting and mediation for these boys, especially in monasteries perched high in the mountains, but there is an otherworldly sense of purity and peace in such places. Here are some of the places to go in Bhutan:
Paro town is basically two streets running parallel to each other North of the airport. There are several local craft shops and a nice art gallery with original Bhutanese paintings and a terrific selection of black and white photographs.
The National Museum is in the old circular watchtower on a ridge above the Dzong. There are hundreds of beautiful Buddhist statues on the top floors and a dungeon downstairs where the first king of Bhutan was briefly incarcerated. There is also a display of medieval weaponry, but the doorway is heavily signposted with Buddhist texts preaching the virtues of pacifism.
There are several temples in Paro, including Kyichu Lhakhang, which dates back to the 7th century, when Buddhism first arrived in Bhutan. Your tour guide should be able to arrange a visit to Kyichu, which is located along the Paro River a short drive upstream from the center of town. With luck, the monks will allow you to view the original statues of the inner sanctum, long since dyed black by a millennium of smoke from butter lamps.
No visit to Bhutan is complete without a trip to the famous Taktshang Monastery, or “Tiger’s Nest,” which hangs from a sheer cliff thousands of feet above the valley floor, about 10 kilometers North of Paro town. Taktshang is actually a group of several monasteries, but Tiger’s Nest is by far the most dramatic.
Two lesser known destinations in Paro are Dungste Lhakhang temple and Dzong Drakha monastery. Dungste Lhakhang is located on the East side of the river upstream from the National Museum. When I visited, a funeral rite was in progress, and it was haunting to hear the monks chanting and beating drums as I climbed up worn wooden ladders to the upper levels of the temple. The wall paintings inside are breath-taking, but it’s very dark, so bring a flashlight.
Dzong Drakha is located a few kilometers up the road that leads West over Cheli La pass to the Haa Valley. This road has only been open to tourists for 3 years, so very few visitors know about the monastery. It’s sort of a Tiger’s Nest junior, perched on a less dramatic cliff about 40 minutes walk from the road. The views are magnificent, and you’re unlikely to run into other travelers.
The capital city of Thimphu is a dusty 2 hour drive from Paro. A growing population of around 70,000 people make their homes on the surrounding hills, making Thimphu the closest thing to a city you’ll find in Bhutan. Traffic can be thick along the main street, but there are still no traffic lights, just a white-gloved policeman directing cars at the central interchange.
Punakha is only about 40 kilometers from Thimphu as the crow flies, but the drive can easily take the better part of a day with a lunch break and a few photo stops. Be sure to bring your passport, because there is a checkpoint one hour outside Thimphu where soldiers can ask to see identification.
The road climbs up to Dochu La pass, an important spiritual place for the Bhutanese. Definitely make time to get out of the bus, stroll through the forest of prayer flags and take in stunning views of the Himalayan range.
Punakha valley is much lower than Thimphu, so once over the pass, the road goes down and down through thick green virgin forest. Keep an eye out for monkeys, red pandas, rare birds and beautiful tree lilies. The valley itself is carved by two wide glacial rivers that come together below Punakha Dzong, which many agree is the most beautiful fortress in all of Bhutan. Traditionally, the monks from the Dzong in Thimphu spend the winter at Punakha, taking advantage of the relatively mild climate.
I stayed for four nights in Punakha at Hotel Zangtho Pelri. Besides the Dzong, I highly recommend a day trip up the valley to the vast Jigme Dorji National Park. The road follows a roaring river through farmland, where you can get out and walk up to hillside villages. The National Park itself is a great place for spotting rare mammals and birds. It’s possible to drive all the way up to the border of Gasa Province and still be back at the hotel in time for dinner.
I visited Phobjika as a day trip from Punakha, but would definitely recommend staying there for one or two nights. The valley is well known as the winter home of Black-Necked Cranes, which arrive in mid-October after flying over the Himalayas from Tibet. The cranes are sacred in Bhutan, and the government has gone to great lengths to protect their habitat.
In past years, the only way to get to Phobjika was on foot, but a road has been built that branches off the main West-East high way just before the pass into Central Bhutan. It takes about 3 hours to make the trip from Punakha. There is a large temple on a hill overlooking the valley which is currently undergoing extensive renovations.
Those seriously considering a trip to Bhutan should get their hands on a real guidebook. Lonely Planet publishes a fairly comprehensive tome, but the best is probably Francoise Pommaret’s Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom.
Jamie Zeppa, a Canadian women who went to Eastern Bhutan to teach and ended up staying, has written a wonderfully personal account of her experiences entitled Beyond the Sky and Earth: Journey Into Bhutan.
Jeremy Bernstein’s In the Himalayas is one of my very favorite travel books. It’s mostly about Nepal, but also includes beautiful portraits of Tibet and Bhutan.
The news scene in Bhutan can be pretty quiet, but if you want to get the most recent intelligence check out the online edition of Bhutan’s weekly paper at Kuensel Online.
This article was originally published on October 20, 2007.