We learned about Bhutan after reading some articles about the least visited countries in the world. It is a small land locked country between China and India that controls many of the Himilayan passes and was only recently opened to tourist travels. They have heavy regulations regarding tourism so the only way to get in is to book a “tour” with a government approved agency- the agency will then book flights, make hotel arrangements, provide a guide and transportation and even take care of meals! There is a government minimum spend which is ever-changing but currently $280 per person per day. I suppose this is so they can influence the number of people in the country. This was a lot of money so we only stayed 3 days (and in that time, spent the same as a whole month in Thailand)!
It was great because there were so few tourists there- in fact, most places we saw there were only a few other people there and sometimes, it was just us. Our guide was Kinga, he picked us up from the airport, escorted us everywhere giving us a great history of Bhutan and the things we were seeing- he taught us a great deal about Buddhism. It really felt like a friend was taking us around showing us the best stuff and telling us about the history which helped to make this one of our favourite trips.
There is only one airline that flies into Bhutan, Druk Air, which is owned by the Bhutanese government. The airport is a tricky one and relies on visual approach without instruments (much like Lukla) and with the weather off the mountains, it can be tricky. We were meant to arrive on March 13 but even between the time we took off from Kathmandu and 20 minutes into our 30 minute flight we had to change course due to weather. We landed in Kolkata, India to wait out the weather. We waited all day in the transit lounge but in the end, went back to Kathmandu.
The next morning, we tried again and luckily, the weather cooperated and by 9am we were in Paro, Bhutan! I should mention that the view of the mountains were spectacular – we could see Everest and tried to identify Island Peak without success but it was amazing to fly at the same altitude as those mountains.
Kinga met us and we spent the first day exploring Thimpu after a lovely 2 hour drive from the airport. We stopped along the way at a beautiful old iron bridge and monastery. Our lunch spot was the only place we ran into other tourists- most of whom we knew from the flight! The food is excellent and our favourite dish was roasted chili in a cheese sauce which is quite spicy but very delicious and a traditional Bhutanese dish.
Our accomodation was really nice- very spacious, clean and comfortable. This felt especially good as we had become accustomed to much less:)
Day 2 was spent on visiting Punaka Dzong (a 3 hr drive) which is a huge dzong built in 17th century where Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers come together and is the country’s most beautiful zhong.
We really appreciate being able to walk around these historic buildings which are still very much in use- after taking these pictures, we walked into the dzong among the monks the Kinga spent a couple hours teaching us about the principles of Bhuddism which is really interesting (and complex) and so different from the religion we know.
Day 3- We got an early start and despite me feeling a little rough made the jourey to Paro to start our hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). It was a fairly good hike to get to the top but the sun was shining most of the way and the view was inspiring so it was enjoyable. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top where we had to surrender our cameras, bags and phones (all electronics as this is a holy place) then went into all 3 shrines. The first shrine was very small and inside housed the usual Buddhas and offerings but there was a monk inside who blessed me and John with white scarves which we took with us. Kinga explained that when we get married, we are to exchange scarves with each other. We have kept our scarves separate throughout all our travels and just mailed them home to London for safe keeping but we intend to exchange them on Dec 8!
Our first good view of the monastery after 45 minutes hiking.
The view improves after 2 hours- we round the corner to the left and hook around to enter which takes another 15 minutes.
Us in front of the town of Paro.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built in the 17th century but destroyed in a fire and re-built in 90’s. It was originally built over a cave where an Indian Bhuttist guru meditated for 3 months in the 8th century. We saw this cave which is basically a small, dark and cold hole in the floor which is in one of the shrines. The legends and stories of how the monastery was built and why it is named after the tigers liar is interesting but complex and with many versions- the wikipedia link covers both stories we heard and is worth a read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paro_Taktsang
All in all, Bhutan is at the very top of our list of best places so far. As we travel, a popular question people often ask. Our answer varies of course but often includes Bhutan. It is beautiful with an interesting history. The people are friendly and easy-going and there are few if any tourists. Bhutan is led by a young king who recently married and they are progressive, supporting innovative things like hydro-electricity. Bhutan earns 60% of their government revenues from exporting hydro electricity to India. This especially stands out next to Nepal who have a similar landscape and capacity to generate energy but can’t even manage enough for their own needs (12hr blackout scheduled regularly) nevermind exporting any!
Given the chance, I would definitely return to Bhutan and I might do some hiking and explore the other parts of the country as we only saw 2 villages (the most popular bits).