In early March, Ms B was invited by the brilliant people of Bhutan Norter to spend one week in Bhutan, well six days and six nights, to be precise. I joined her on a special rate. What better way to reach a destination than by flying on an airplane past Mount Everest and some of the other highest mountains in the world.
This post and the related posts are intended to give you a good feel for what our trip to Bhutan was like and what yours could be like. We do not try to replicate guide books that have often been written by experts following months of research. Neither does this post include descriptions (or even only mentions) of every temple and sight we visited. We also opted for a lean schedule giving us plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere, to relax, take photos, and enjoy our meals. Would it not have been for the fact that I had broken my arm in three places while skiing in Austria two weeks earlier, then we would have possibly opted for more hiking and walking.
Beyond giving you a good impression about what to expect from a trip, we have also included bits of information you won’t typically find elsewhere, such as the heights of the mountains around certain sights, which we discovered from painstakingly analysing topographic maps, anecdotal information and trivia we gathered first hand, from our guide, other travellers or through the study of regional online publications. Hope you enjoy the read.
Day 1 – Thimphu
Arrival at Paro Airport
Our flight from Kathmandu arrived at 11am right on time. The landing approach to Paro is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world and only 23 pilots are licenced to do it at the time of writing. The mountains around the airport are up to 5,500m high. It feels like the bottom of the plane is brushing over the tree tops when the plane crosses over the last ridge, followed by an aggressive left turn and then an equally adventurous sharp right turn, before touching down on the runway smooth as a feather.
Paro airport, at 2,250m altitude, must be the cutest main airport of any country the Barbarians have ever visited (with Port Moresby and Male pretty close runner-ups). It is so small and the terminal building is in traditional Bhutanese style. On a busy day there might be one other plane at the airport. Only two airlines service the destination, and even they do not fly every day. Bhutan’s population is only 750,000. Their government policy of sustainable low-impact high-value tourism and very limited outside interference leads to even lesser traffic than would be warranted by its size, obviously, good on them. Their model has found worldwide praise and attention and many countries are looking into copying at least aspects of it.
We were immediately taken in by the smiley, friendly, relaxed, and truly beautiful local people. 15 minutes after we had landed we were already through customs and our guide and the driver were greeting us warmly, wrapping us in the traditional scarves we were presented as welcome gifts.
We drove the 50km to Thimphu (2,350m above sea level, 120k residents) in about 1.5 hours in our brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser. No one is rushing it here in this Himalayan kingdom, and sometimes you might be stuck behind a very slow-moving truck for a while. In order to make the most of our time, we just had a quick buffet lunch before dropping our luggage off at the hotel.
Our afternoon started with a visit to the Memorial Chorten, a large stupa built in 1974 to honour the third Dragon King (Druk Gyalpo) Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who had died two years earlier. Different from other stupas, it does not enshrine any relics. While still alive, the king had announced that he wanted to build “a shrine to represent the mind of the Buddha.” The hall with the giant prayer wheels on the site also serves as unofficial old people’s day care home. The chorten is adorned with three dozen sculptures of wrathful male deities with their female consorts in close encounters depicting the primordial union of wisdom and compassion. The worshippers make their clockwise ceremonial circumambulations around the stupa.
Our final stop of the day was at the Tashichho dzong, the late 18th Century Buddhist monastery and fortress, which traces its history back to a predecessor dzong on the mountain ridge above it from the 12th Century. Like all dzongs it is split in half between the monastery and government administration. When the monarchy was established in 1907, the role of the head of civil administration was merged with the role of the king, who resides in a relatively humble palace next to the dzong. The parliament building is located right on the opposite side of the river.
We were lucky to make it on time for the daily flag lowering ceremony. A procession of monks and soldiers took down the national flag for the night, accompanied by traditional marching music. When they had finished, we made our way into the dzong. It being our first visit to such a fortress, we were rather excited, and we were not going to be disappointed. Like with all local places of worship, you are not allowed to take any photos inside buildings. While the central courtyard and the magnificent structures around it left a deep impression on us, the inside of the main temple was the absolute highlight. Everything is covered in gold with very colourful adornments. When we left the temple and went back out onto the courtyard, the sun had set and the windows were all gleaming in red light.
For dinner our guide, our driver, and we were joined by the president and founder of Bhutan Norter, the charismatic Sonam Phuntsho, and his right-hand man Tshering, who had been our calm and competent contact during the run-up to the trip.
It would probably be easier to list the things that Sonam has not done in his life rather than the ones he has done. To mention just a few, he has over 15 years industry experience, initially as travel agent and then later as entrepreneur. He is also an award-winning singer, bodybuilder, ultra-runner, mountaineer and master of Bhutan’s national sport: archery. He spends a good part of his time jet-setting around the globe. Bhutan Norter also organises the country’s first International Marathon which will take place in November. Plenty of beers and anecdotes later, we called it a night and fell into our hotel beds.
Day 2 – Thimphu and Punakha
After a delicious traditional Bhutanese breakfast (a Western option was available too) we were picked up by our guide and our driver and arrived at our first sight of the day, the giant Buddha statue on a hill overlooking Thimphu. From town it already looks pretty big, but it is only when you get to the parking lot next to it that you realise its enormous proportions.
The steel statue, also called Kuensel Phodrang (Buddha Point), is 51m tall and sits on a massive three-storey base that houses a large chapel full of thousands of donated Buddha statuettes. The statue was made in China, cut into pieces, and then shipped and trucked to its current location.
One consequence of the low-impact tourism policy is that there are no proper safaris available in Bhutan and many regions of the country are virtually untouched by humans (the tallest mountain in the country has never been climbed, because the government refuses to grant any expeditions permission to do so, good on them).
So, if you want to see Bhutan’s national animal, the takin, the best place to do so is the Takin Reserve just outside Thimphu. Initially the animals were held in a zoo at this location, but then the king decided that zoos are not in line with the Bhutanese respect for animals and had the zoo dismantled and the Takin released into the wild. However, the takin had grown accustomed to humans and preferred to stay near them, roaming Thimphu’s streets for leftover food and to graze. That is when the preserve was set up for them.
For mountain sheep the animals are extremely large and muscular. They have been compared to muskox. There is some evidence to suggest that the ‘golden fleece’, searched for by Jason and his Argonauts near Georgia 3,300 years ago, was inspired by the magnificent fur of the so-called golden takin, a variety only found in China today. Takin live at elevations of up to 4,500 metres and are great climbers, able to jump from rock to rock. When they need to, they can stand on their hindlegs to reach leaves further up from the ground.
Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant
After a short but very interesting and informative visit to the Institute for Zorig Chusum, a school that teaches local kids in the traditional arts and crafts, it was time for lunch. Our typical, tapas-like meal at the restaurant was the tastiest we enjoyed during our trip. It was also the most upmarket and in that regard perhaps less authentic than some other meals at small teahouses along the roads where even locals seemed to feel the enormous heat of the national dish, Ema Datshi, chillies with cheese, and prices were a fraction.
Right after lunch we were on our way to Punakha. The Dochula Pass peaks at an elevation of 3,100m ASL, where you can see over a hundred memorial chortens that have been set up there. The road leads through Bhutan’s first botanical park and the fog-covered dense vegetation interspersed with the occasional field of prayer flags and rock cliffs kept our eyes glued to the windows of the Land Cruiser.
Chimi Lhakhang – the Temple of Fertility
Less than 10km away from Punakha we stopped for late lunch at the tiny village of Lobesa. We had heard about the phallus obsession before, so came prepared. It is still a very… unusual, I guess… experience… to see giant, erect, ejaculating penises painted on most of the buildings we passed by, often half a dozen per building. Especially a busload of female Chinese tourists seemed to have the best time of their lives.
The tradition appears to go back to the Divine Madman, also known as Saint Drukpa Kunley. He had walked across Dochula Pass and just arrived in the valley, when a demon was giving him some serious trouble. Well-equipped in more than one way, he used his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” (your guess is as good as mine, really) and trapped the demon in a rock near the location were Chimi Lhakhang (Lhakhang means temple) now stands. The monastery is very small. However, we came at a great time and witnessed the monks and students, many of whom just kids, perform rituals accompanied by hypnotic music.
Day 3 – Punakha Festival & Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
After a hearty breakfast at our hotel overlooking Punakha Valley, we drove down to Punakha Dzong (1,200m ASL) for the Punakha Festival. Completed in 1638, the fortress is the second oldest and second largest one in the country. Without any doubt the dzong in Punakha is one of the country’s most magnificent buildings.
Three Days of Dance
We arrived early, but the dancers had already started and the courtyard and balconies inside the courtyard were filling up quickly. Each dance or sequence of dances involved its own unique colourful traditional costumes and accessories like weapons, shields, baskets, or instruments. And each dance was very different from the others in terms of choreography.
Sometimes just two or three dancers were shooting across the wide-open performance floor, fast like bullets, in frantic movements, at other times groups of twenty and more dancers would prance very harmoniously in a large circle, perfectly coordinated. We wrote a separate post just about the Festival.
After two and a half hours, we did a quick tour of the dzong. The architecture is mind-blowing in its beauty and sheer size. The main temple contains beautiful paintings of Buddha’s life and three giant statues depicting the actual Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, and Zhabdrung.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
After a quick lunch we drove the 8km to the foot of the hill that carries Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, where a few rubber boats were just setting off. The temple was completed in 2004 by orders of HM the Queen Mother to bring peace to all living things. It was created using only traditional materials and techniques and took nearly ten years to build.
The 30-minute hike from the parking lot across the river, through the paddy fields, past some horses and cows, and up the steep hill was great fun and the views from the top of the temple were out of this world. On the way back we stopped at the very long suspension foot bridge and had a quick look around the crafts village on the other side of the bridge before returning to our hotel for dinner and an early night.
Day 4 – Lawala Pass, Gangteng Monastery & Phobjikha Valley
On our fourth day we drove the 78km to Gangteng Monastery in the picturesque Phobjikha Valley, which, including a one-hour lunch break and a few shorter stops to take pictures, took about four hours. The drive across the Lawala Pass (3,300m ASL) was breath-taking but thanks to the well-built roads and the skills of our driver luckily not heart-stopping. Unfortunately the monastery had closed its doors because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The first case in the country had occurred the day before.
You pass by plenty of mountains above 5,000m. The closest six-thousander (and also the closest seven-thousander) is 125km to the north/northeast, so we only caught glimpses of them on a couple of occasions. The problem is not so much clear visibility, but the simple fact that there are too many five-thousanders right in front of you blocking the view. A pretty cool problem to have, so no complaints from our side.
When we arrived in Phobjikha Valley, we had a quick look from the outside at the majestic Gangteng Monastery, which looms on a hill above the valley and is often compared with dzongs, due to its enormous size and splendor.
Then we went on a two-hour hiking tour along the valley, through the marshlands with the famous dwarf bamboo and the giant blue pine forests. We felt very lucky to spot several of the sacred black-necked cranes and a Himalayan vulture, even though you can hardly spot the cranes on our pictures (and we were not able to get a proper photo of the vulture). There are plenty of other wild animals in the valley, such as leopards, but hardly anyone ever sets their eyes on them. They avoid humans.
After a quick visit to the crane information centre, where you can watch a black-necked crane, which the centre found with a broken wing and nurtured back to good health, we made our way to the nearby three-star Dewachen Hotel. We had heard good things about this place from other bloggers, but we were still blown away by this true gem of hospitality. We had our own wood-fired oven in the room and a perfect view of the whole valley beneath us.
Day 5 – Drive back to Paro
Our fifth day was spent mainly in the Land Cruiser, as anticipated, while we made our way back to Paro. The weather and hence the views were even better than on our initial leg. We stopped plenty of times for short walks and to take photos and still arrived in Paro early, at 3:30pm. This left us with enough time to explore the fabulous National Museum, take in the views from there towards the dzong and a number of temples, and buy some snacks in town for our hiking trip the following day.
Day 6 – Tiger’s Nest
On our last day in Bhutan, we did the one thing that every visitor to this country, bar none, does: we visited the world famous Tiger’s Nest, just 10km north of Paro, which has been an important place of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years, long before the first temple was built.
The ancient sacred Buddhist site is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (locally better known as Guru Rinpoche, the “precious one”), who lived and meditated here in the thirteen caves about 1,250 years ago. The monastery was built in 1692 and clings to a precarious cliff edge 900m above Paro Valley at an elevation of 3,120m.
The hike is easy/moderate. The 6.5km round trip to the top and back takes four to five hours on average, plus one hour at the monastery and one hour for lunch at the halfway house, allowing for plenty of short breaks along the way. So if you leave your hotel in Paro at 8am, you should be back by 4pm.
This excursion will without any doubt be the highlight of your trip. The views are completely out of this world and every rock breathes ancient history and mythology. You full well expect flying tigresses and dragons to enter the scene at any moment, read more about it in our separate post about Tiger’s Nest.
Day 7 – Should you choose to do a whole week
Most six-day schedules are very similar to ours, from what we have seen and heard, unless you book a tour focused on a specific area of interest like trekking, cycling, or bird-watching. Seven-day tours usually simply include an additional day in Trongsa, where you get to see the country’s biggest dzong.
We can highly recommend Bhutan Norter. Ellie’s trip was sponsored and I travelled on a preferred rate. Nonetheless, we always vet our collaboration partners very thoroughly and only ever work with the best of their trade. Usually we find plenty of great reviews. In this case, just like with nearly all other Bhutan travel agencies, there are hardly any, simply because the government intentionally limits travel to a few high-value travellers, and by nature, only a tiny percentage of these will bother to write a review.
What gave us great confidence about Bhutan Norter from the beginning is that it was endorsed by a blogger-friend of ours and the few reviews we found were all very positive. The agency is very well established, regularly exhibits at trade shows worldwide, and is not merely serving the small inbound Bhutanese market, but countries as far abroad as Russia or Sri Lanka. The 30-person strong team has gone from strength to strength and is currently expanding into the hotel business.
During our stay, we were regularly impressed by the perfect timing. Often other tourist groups had been waiting for a while, but we arrived just before the respective event in question would take place. Nothing was ever rushed, our guide always estimated the travel times correctly, depending on weather and traffic. Most of all, he never failed to give us an insightful and comprehensive tour of the sights we visited, sprinkled with personal anecdotes. Not least of all, our driver made us feel safe at all times.
We will return to Bhutan as paying customers (we pay full price for most of our trips), and for us there will be no question which tour operator we will choose.
Bhutan is perhaps the most fascinating country we have ever visited. Maybe Papua New Guinea is slightly more exotic, but Bhutan is super-safe compared with PNG, where you always have a good chance of getting yourself killed. As a matter of fact, Bhutan is super-safe compared with most every country. Everything is focused on sustainability and happiness. All hotels and roads we saw are of good quality even by Western standards. People drive very carefully and will go out of their way to assist you.
What’s most amazing to visitors, including us, is not that the country is safe, but the abundance of raw nature, the Himalayan mountains, the wildlife, the ancient monasteries, the fact that the country to this day remains so secluded and relatively untouched.
The government-stipulated USD 250 fee per person per day (USD 200 during the off-season) is a lot of money, but it is the only way bar a lottery system to keep Bhutan the way it is: pristine and authentic, a home to its people, and not an amusement park for hordes of selfie-snappers. It should also be noted that the price usually includes nearly all expenses except for the visa (USD 45 per person for the whole stay), alcohol, any personal purchases (souvenirs, gifts, hygiene articles, snacks, soft drinks), and tips. Your hotel, your food and drink, your car, your driver, your guide, and admission fees are all covered.
If you are looking for more travel advice, feel welcome to check out our separate post on this topic. Want to dive into the curious and outright weird and wonderful? Read our post about Bhutan travel trivia. As mentioned above, we have also written separately about Tiger’s Nest, Punakha Festival, and our two-day trip to Nepal. For more travel inspiration, eyeball our group collaboration post where some of our favourite travel bloggers write about the favourite holiday destination in their respective home country.