Bhutan travel is very unique. It is situated on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Surrounded by the Himalayas, it offers dramatic landscapes and some of the world’s most exotic trekking and hiking, like the month-long Snowman Trek, or the half-day Tiger’s Nest hike (see our post on Tiger’s Nest). Tourism is restricted, with less than 300,000 (as of 2018) tourists granted visas each year.
You must first walk around a bit before you can understand the distance from the valley to the mountain – Bhutanese proverb
Logistics: Flying into Bhutan as an international visitor requires you to fly into Paro’s modest airport from one of these countries: Nepal, India, Thailand, Singapore and Bangladesh. We flew from Kathmandu, Nepal. Only 2 airlines service these routes: Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. You will need an official guide in order to obtain a visa to enter Bhutan (unless you are a national from India, Bangladesh, or Maldives) and a minimum daily spend of $250 USD per person per day is imposed on international tourists, which must be paid prior to arrival in Bhutan.
TIP: Let your travel operator (sanctioned by Bhutan tourism board) arrange everything including flights. You can choose one of the many pre-made itineraries online, but we would recommend a custom tour based on your specific interests, because although the distances between towns are small, the roads are bad and driving times are long. You’ll want to avoid a long drive just to see something you’re not interested in. There isn’t that much variety in architecture, for instance, so if Dzongs aren’t your thing, you might want to skip Punakha.
Politically, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy, with a king as head of state. Religious freedom is accepted but Vajrayana Buddhism is the official religion. Bhutan is one of the few countries that has never been colonized in its history. It has fostered a relationship with India in order to protect itself from Chinese Communism expansion with which it has a disputed border.
The Bhutanese are big on phalluses. These multicolored genitalia are found in handicraft shops, and displayed on rooftops and painted on homes, all in honor of a 15th century Don Juan character known as The Divine Madman (Lama Drukpa Kunley) who is said to have helped spread Buddhism (and his seed) throughout Bhutan.
GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS: Bhutan’s GNH Index is measured nationally every 5 years, using a survey that takes respondents from about 8,000 households about 3 hours to complete. It assesses hundreds of variables drawn from categories ranging from physical and psychological well-being to good governance, spirituality and ecology. Unemployment among youth is over 10%, but Bhutan offers all of its citizens free education and free health care.
The GNH was conceived in 1972 by Bhutan’s king soon after he attained the throne, and eventually the GNH concept became a national objective and guiding principle to ensure that economic development was in harmony with Bhutan’s culture, institutions, and spiritual values.
Mindfulness practice in Bhutan is well adopted historically because of its Buddhist tradition, but it has recently started (2018) to also be implemented in schools, government departments public agencies within Bhutan, using teachers trained by SIYLI and Google’s neuroscience based methods. Very unusual.
Why – does Bhutan rank 95th in the 2019 World Happiness Report (WHR)? We think it’s because the framework used for the WHR ranks countries on variables like income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity, which are perceived and valued differently within a Buddhist country. There is also the philosophical issue of whether the aggregate happiness of a nation can be measured with what Plato called ‘false metrics’ like leisure, wealth and pleasure.
Itineraries less than 5 days: typically only include visits to 3 towns: Thimphu, Paro and Punakha, and most upscale hotels (Aman Resorts, Taj Resorts, Le Meridien) are clustered around these towns.
Itineraries more than 5 days: If you add an extra day and night plus lots of driving you can visit Phobjika/Gangtey, which is 3 hours drive from Punakha, and then 6+ hours drive from Gangtey back to Paro. If you add another 3+ nights, you can also visit Bumthang, which is religiously significant since it is where Bhudism was introduced to Bhutan, and the area from which the royal family traces its lineage. Aman Resorts has lodges in both Punkha and Bumthang.
TIP: there isn’t a straight road in the kingdom. To drive 40 miles (75 km) can take 3 hours on roads with tight curves, cliffs and the occasional cow. If you’re prone to motion sickness come prepared, or fly when possible.
Paro‘s biggest attraction seems to be the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Monastery). See separate post here for more about it. There is also the Ta Dzong national museum with its ancient watchtower, and the displays and artifacts preserve a reminder of Bhutan’s rich cultural traditions (the museum was closed for repair when we were there). Another historical landmark is the Fortress of the Victorious Bhutanese (Drugyel Dzong), but there are also over 150 temples and monasteries in the area, some dating to the 14th century.
As mentioned, the country’s first and only international airport is also located here, as are most of the luxury tourist resorts. The central plaza in Paro is adorned with a large prayer wheel and a small amphitheater where events are held throughout the year.
TIP for photographers in Paro: Visit during harvest season (October). Paro lies in a valley that is wider than most others in the country. Get out of Paro town and into this picturesque landscape, dotted with spectacular rice fields and the river. The surrounding hills have gorgeous traditional-style houses. And the people are friendly.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is less than 2 hours away by road from Paro. It is a quiet, clean city without a single traffic light. Located on a hilltop overlooking the Thimphu Valley is a gigantic statue of Buddha. At 51.5 meters (160 feet), the giant Buddha is one of the largest figures of Buddha worldwide. The Buddha houses over one hundred thousand smaller buddha statues, each of which is made of bronze and gilded in gold.
Thimphu is also home to the Memorial Stupa (see above), also known as the Thimphu Chorten. Unlike many stupas, it is not domed or bell-shaped and has no remains or relics inside. Also in Thimphu is Tashichho Dzong, a fortified monastery and government palace.
Punakha is reached by winding road from Thimphu, with ever changing landscapes, quaint villages, rolling agricultural fields and sudden steep gorges. En route, at 3100 meters altitude, is the famous Dochula Pass and the Druk Wangyal Chortens which consists of 108 Buddhist shrines and a monastry (see below).
Punakha is known for the impressive 17th century fortress at the juncture of the Pho and Mo Chhu rivers, the Punakha Dzong. This Dzong (fortress) architecture is specific to Bhutan and Tibet and is characterized by towering exterior walls with a complex of courtyards, temples, offices and accomodation for monks. The Punakha Dzong was the initial government administrative building until 1955, after which it moved to the capital, Thimpu.
Mondisti’s Bhutan Trip Tips:
- Most tourists visit in March, April, October and November;
- There are week-long trekking activities but also much shorter treks.
- Roads are very windy and it can take hours to travel short distances. If you are prone to motion sickness, make provisions.
- Make sure that you hire a tour company that can make all the travel arrangements as Bhutan has many restrictions on where and how you can go there.
- Visits to the countryside are not included on most itineraries but they should be. We found that the visits to the local rural villages were most interesting and provided great photography opportunities.