The first time I learned about Bhutan was back in 2010. I was visiting Delhi for a SAARC cultural exchange program and met a couple of fantastic fun-loving Bhutanese students. That planted the seed to the idea of traveling to Bhutan. Finally, in 2015 the stars aligned and I skyped my Bhutanese friend Namgay to plan a trip to this wonderful country. Although she was studying outside Bhutan at that time, she still gave me wonderful suggestions with a complete must-do list! There are not many online resources about traveling to Bhutan, so I thought it may be helpful to others to share my Bhutan travel experiences with all of you.
There are several flights per week from Kathmandu via Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines from Delhi, Singapore, and Bangkok, either direct, or via Dhaka or Kolkata. We flew with Druk Air from Dhaka directly to Paro.
Paro International Airport is considered one of the most challenging airports in the world for pilots. So much so that only a handful are certified to land at the airport. The runway is in a deep valley with surrounding peaks as high as 18,000 ft. The flight itself is quite an exhilarating experience with brilliant sights. When approaching to land, it feels like you can almost touch the nearby hills. I recommend watching this video to get a virtual feel of the land
Thimphu is the capital city of Bhutan, and is also the largest, with a population of around 92,000. After landing in Paro, we got a taxi and began our journey to Thimphu. The road is very scenic, passing vast hills, and overlooking lush vistas. There is almost no traffic on the road, which makes the journey even more enjoyable. It took us around 2 hours to reach our hotel in Thimphu, and we spent most of that time chatting with our amazingly friendly driver.
We stayed at Hotel Norbuling, which was conveniently located and decently priced. The staff was also very courteous and friendly and welcomed us with a complimentary cup of tea. Throughout our stay for 3 nights in Paro, it was a great experience, and I definitely recommend Hotel Norbuling for future visitors.
Places to Visit
According to the website of the National Tourism Organization of Bhutan: “This massive statue of Shakyamuni measures in at a height of 51.5 meters [169 feet], making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The statue is made of bronze and is gilded in gold. 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the Buddha Dordenma statue, 100,000 8-inch-tall and 25,000 12-inch tall statues respectively. Each of these thousands of Buddhas have also been cast in bronze and gilded. The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall.”
During our trip, the complex was under construction. However, since it is located high above the city, the panoramic views of the Thimphu valley alone make it a must visit!
Dochula Pass is a range of 108 stupas built in memory of martyred Bhutanese soldiers. Located at an elevation of 10,200 ft, the panoramic view of Himalayas can be seen from the top of the pass on a clear day. The weather at the pass is generally quite foggy, which adds another layer of mysticism to the place.
There is quite a lot to see in Downtown Thimphu, ranging from local cafes and restaurants to various retailers and souvenir shops. If you want to shop in Bhutan, this is the place! Thimphu is the only capital city in the world that does not have any traffic lights. Instead, elaborately dressed traffic police guide vehicles with hand motions. While it may not be a big deal for many of us who have lived in developing countries, many westerners find it very amusing. Just in the center of downtown, there is a beautifully decorated junction where you can witness this in action.
Paro is a much smaller and cozier town compared to Thimphu and is home to over 155 temples and monasteries. We didn't really get the chance to explore Paro as we only spent one full day there, but I'm sure there are lots to see and explore. After traveling from Thimpu to Paro, we spent the night at the Khangkhu Resort. The Khangkhu Resort is a cottage style resort just above the hills by the airport. The rooms were massive, and since we went off-season, we got a fantastic deal as well.
Ever since I had planned the trip, Bhutan’s most iconic landmark Taktsang Monastery/Tiger’s Nest had been on my bucket-list. So the next morning we rented a taxi and headed down to the base of the Tiger's Nest trail. At an elevation of over 10,000ft, the temple lies at the edge of a precipitous cliff 3,000ft up from the start of the trail. For those of us living at sea-levels, it is well advised that we start the trek slowly to get adjusted to the much thinner air at this altitude. The trail is marked and well maintained and starts off with a gradual climb. You can also take horses to the halfway point, but we decided to travel on foot. Halfway into the trail, there is a cafeteria which serves some delicious buffet. Throughout the trail, there are some jaw-dropping views, so we made frequent stops to take it all in.
So why is it called the Tiger’s Nest? Legend has it that in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche, one of the holiest figures in Mahayana Buddhism, flew to this exact spot from Tibet on the back of a tigress. He came to tame a demon and took residence in a cave where he meditated for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days. It is said that he then started Buddhism in Bhutan. The Monastery was built in 1692 on the site where the guru meditated and has since become the cultural icon of Bhutan.
Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest was by far my most memorable experience of Bhutan and is an absolute no-brainer if you are visiting the country (so much so that when Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Bhutan, they also made the trek up to the temple!).
Bhutan has some delicious food, especially if you love spices. The national dish of Bhutan, the Ema Datshi, made up of local chilies and cheese is a culinary delight! Moreover, there is a wide variety of curried meat and vegetable dishes that go wonderfully with the red rice. In every street corner, you can also find freshly steamed Tibetan style dumplings, or momos, which quickly became our go-to snack. The food is generally very affordable and full of flavor. If you are a foodie, putting everything else aside, just the culinary adventures in Bhutan will surely make your trip worth it!
Unlike most of the world, the Bhutanese love their rulers. The current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema can easily make the cover photo of Vogue or any other fashion magazine. Our driver even had their photo as his wallpaper on his phone. The entire governance is based on public happiness, and it is the only country in the world to use Gross National Happiness (GNH) as its performance indicator. The four pillars of GNH philosophy are sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.
In the short time I spent in Bhutan, this was evident in my wonderful interactions with the locals. People seemed very happy and welcoming to visitors, even going out of their way to help me put on a gho, the traditional Bhutanese dress for men. The traditional dresses are rich in colors and textures, and I couldn't resist myself from buying one.
Before my trip, I had read a book called "A Baby in a Backpack to Bhutan: An Australian Family in the Land of the Thunder Dragon". It was a wonderful first-person account of filming, traveling, and living in Bhutan from an outsider's perspective, and I highly recommend it if you are planning to visit. You can also watch the movie Travellers and Magicians, which is the first feature film shot entirely in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Bhutan is also the first and only country that is officially carbon negative. This captivating TED talk by Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay is a must watch about this topic!
Less than 45 years ago, Bhutan opened its doors for the first time to the outside world, and since then it has been considered by many as the Shangri-La of the modern world. It is perhaps one of the few places in the world where you can truly feel the essence of being a traveler rather than being a “tourist”. The Bhutanese people are warm, welcoming, and friendly and have held onto their distinct culture in the midst of today’s age of globalization. The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is definitely one of my favorite places that I have had the privilege of visiting, and I can’t wait to go back there again!