Discover a country with physical and spiritual beauty (ctsnow)

Bhutan: travel blueprint

Bradley Mayhew helps you experience the awe-inspiring treks and temples of the Himalayan hideaway, Bhutan

Issue 100 | December/January 2009

There’s nowhere on earth quite like Bhutan. The last remaining Himalayan kingdom is a land apart, where Bhutanese men stroll the streets clad in traditional robes and knee-length Argyle socks, and local astrologers still guide people through life’s major decisions.

In Druk Yul – poetically translated as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ – the sale of tobacco is illegal, plastic bags are outlawed, and the country’s first traffic lights were scrapped after locals complained that the machines were too impersonal.

At times a trip to Bhutan feels like travel into the medieval past.

Yet this is not a land stuck in time. You’ll find houses with satellite dishes, monks with mobile phones and students who can debate development models with you in perfect, pukka English. Bhutan has famously decided to chart a fine line between development and the preservation of its traditional culture, ultimately stressing Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.

But some things are changing. The year 2008 will go down as a turning point in Bhutan’s history. While the monarchy celebrated its centenary with the coronation of the young King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the country’s first ever elections ushered in the novel concept of democracy. As the crack in the door widens over the next few years, the pace of change and development is bound to accelerate. Now is the time to experience Bhutan.

With its strict travel and tourism laws, Bhutan is known as one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit – so is it worth the money?

What you get for your tourist surcharge is a guided tour of the country’s unique and dramatic dzongs (a cross between a monastery and feudal fort), pilgrimage sites, ancient Tibetan-style temples and spectacular festivals. Add on a trek through pristine forests to stunning eastern Himalayan views and you can be pretty sure this will be the trip of a lifetime.

More than this, a trip to Bhutan offers a peek at an admirably alternative vision of what’s important in life, and a last bastion of pristine Tibetan-influenced culture that few other travellers have experienced. As travel becomes more homogenised, Bhutan stands out for being unique; the kind of place that, long after you’ve returned home, you start to think was all a dream.

If Shangri-La exists today, Bhutan is your best hope of finding it.

Western highlights: top temples & valley views

DURATION: 4-5 days

Paro – Kyichu Lhakhang – Taktshang Goemba – Thimphu – Paro

 

The flight from Kathmandu to Paro offers fine views of Mt Jhomolhari (get a seat on the left
if the plane for the best Himalayan vistas) but the excitement really builds as you approach the terraced fields around Paro.

Spend this and the next day in the Paro Valley, visiting the impressive Paro Dzong. The fort’s circular former watchtower now houses the excellent National Museum, where you can take a crash course in Bhutanese culture and art. Dinner will be your first chance to tuck into the Bhutanese national dish ema datse (chillies and cheese), served with red rice and washed down with a Red Panda, Bhutan’s only locally brewed beer.

On day two head for the upper Paro Valley to visit the ancient Kyichu Temple and the ruined Drukgyel Dzong, built in the 17th century to defend the country against Tibetan invaders. Dedicate the afternoon to hiking up to the dramatic Tiger’s Nest (Taktshang) Monastery, rebuilt after a tragic fire in 1998. The sage Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown here on the back of a tiger. Back at your hotel, soak your weary bones in a soothing traditional Bhutanese dotsho (hot-stone bath).

The drive to Thimphu takes only a couple of hours and it’s worth stopping en route at the 600-year-old private temple of Tamchhog Lhakhang. Arrange to be in Thimphu on the weekend to visit the colourful market, lined with everything from fresh betel nut and fried ferns (a local delicacy) to antique prayer wheels. Weekends are also the best time to catch some archery, Bhutan style. Traditionally robed team-mates perform a victory twirl whenever a competitor hits the mark, while the Bhutanese equivalent of cheerleaders perform traditional dances to the side.

If you are into arts and crafts don’t miss the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, where you can watch students honing their skills in the13 traditional Bhutanese arts – which range from painting to papermaking. The National Textile Museum showcases Bhutan’s world-class weaving tradition, a skill apparent in the kira (dresses) worn by all Bhutanese women.

Saturday night is the time to rub shoulders with hip young Bhutanese in one of the city’s bars but don’t stay out too late; flights out of Paro leave early in the morning, necessitating a pre-dawn start from Thimphu.

Into central Bhutan: the path less travelled

DURATION: 6 days

Thimphu – Dochu La – Punakha – Phobjikha Valley – Trongsa – Bumthang Valley

If you can afford more time in Bhutan, add this six-day itinerary through central Bhutan onto the previous one for an in-depth 11-day trip. Heading east from Thimphu, the one-and-a-half-lane national highway climbs to the Dochu La pass (3,140m), covered with hundreds of stupas, prayer flags and rhododendron trees. If you’re here between October and February (when the days are most likely to be clear) consider heading up to Dochu La at dawn for Himalayan views that stretch all the way to Tibet.

A popular stop on the far side of the pass is Chimi Lhakhang, the monastery dedicated to Bhutan’s ribald saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley, who sprinkled the ‘crazy wisdom’ of his Buddhist teachings with liberal amounts of sex and debauchery. The flying phalluses you see painted on thresholds across Bhutan are a symbol of both fertility and the saint.

A short drive north of the temple is Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s most beautiful, which commands an impressive location at the junction of the Mo (Mother) and Pho (Father) rivers. Continuing east through deep valleys and pristine forests, it’s worth detouring south for an overnight in the Phobjikha Valley. The valley offers great scope for walks to local villages and you can spot black-necked cranes here between October and March.

From Phobjikha you cross the Black Mountainsvia the Pele La (3,420m) and pass from western to central Bhutan. Tourists are far fewer here. Stop for a circumambulation of the charming Nepali-style Chendebji Chorten stupa and lunch at the crossroads town of Trongsa, home to a dramatic dzong and the excellent new Ta Dzong Museum. From here it’s a 2.5-hour drive over the Yotong La (3,425m), past charming monasteries into the Bumthang Valley.

Factor in two days for Bumthang. For the first day concentrate on the Chokhor Valley, around Jakar, visiting the Jampey Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s oldest chapels, and joining the pilgrims as they ‘test their sin’ on a circuit of Kurjey Lhakhang, where the saint Guru Rinpoche battled demons and left his body print.

On the second day, head out to the miracle lake of Membartsho, another popular pilgrimage site, and then add on a 45-minute walk to the Ogyen Chholing Palace, a restored country manor that offers insights into the life of Bhutan’s privileged nobility. From Bumthang, it’s a two-day drive back to Paro, overnighting en route in Wangdue Phodrang.

Yaks & yetis: Bhutan’s wildlife

Bhutan boasts a pristine Himalayan environment of great biodiversity, ranging from steaming jungle to glacial peaks. Low population density and the Buddhist aversion to taking life have given wildlife the space it needs to thrive.

The high mountains are home to yak, snow leopard, blue sheep and musk deer, while the temperate forests shelter langur, red panda and incredible rhododendron forests. There are even a few rhino, elephant and tiger in the Royal Manas National Park, bordering Assam.

Botanists should look out for the 1m-high blue poppy, Bhutan’s national flower. The national animal is the takin, said to have been created from the head of a goat and the body of a cow.  Far more elusive is the migoi, the Bhutanese yeti, for whom the far eastern Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary was allegedly created in 2002.

Snake demons & flying tigers: Spiritual Bhutan

Apart from its pristine natural environment, Bhutan is also imbued with a uniquely spiritual landscape. To the Bhutanese, their land is alive with spiritual ‘power places’: mountain tops, lakes, passes and river junctions all hide spirits that need to be pacified and placated. Follow a band of pilgrims and they will point out hand and body prints left in boulders by lamas, and rocks lined with the marks of flying tigers or the staffs of saints. Caves form the lairs of snake demons and lakes hide sacred texts left behind by enlightened treasure-finders.

Bhutan is also covered in man-made marks of religious devotion. Chorten (stone monuments) and kani (gateway stupas) mark the entrances to villages, alongside long walls of prayer stones carved with the Buddhist mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’.

Prayer flags flutter in all corners of the kingdom, attached to vertical wooden poles in contrast to the long strings found in Tibet. It’s this harmonious blending of religion and landscape that makes the Himalaya such a remarkable place.

Bhutan unmissables

The Tiger’s Nest (Taktshang Goemba) Hike up to Bhutan’s most famous monastery and pilgrimage site, clinging to the cliffs high above the Paro Valley

Kyichu Lhakhang, Upper Paro Valley 1,300-year-old Tibetan-style temple, built to subdue a troublesome demoness and packed with religious treasures

Paro Tsechu Spectacular costumes, masked monk dances and unrivalled photo opportunities characterise this wildly popular springtime festival

Thimphu Browse the weekend market, take in some archery, touch a takin (the national animal) and explore Bhutan’s only ‘city’

Punakha Dzong, Western Bhutan The country’s former winter capital and its most beautiful dzong. Visit in spring to see the purple jacaranda flowers in bloom

Bumthang Valley Leave the car behind and hike from monastery to monastery in this charming valley of saints, miracles and pilgrims

Trekking Follow a train of yaks though ancient forests to high-altitude pastures and chat with the locals over superb Himalayan views (see p120-121 for ideas)

Getting there

Arranging a trip to Bhutan Bhutan tightly controls tourism, adopting a philosophy of low volume, high value. While this means there’s little flexibility in the price you pay, most people don’t realise that you can still create your own personal itinerary, within certain limits.

The rules All foreign tourists need to have their trip to Bhutan pre-planned, prepaid and accompanied by a local guide. You can plan your own itinerary or let your agency suggest one for you, do a wilderness trek or stay in the towns – the costs will be the same, raised in 2009 to $250 per person per day in the high season ($200 low season). While this certainly isn’t cheap, it does include almost everything – all transport (probably a private car), food, accommodation, guides, trekking staff and entry fees – so it’s actually not a bad deal.

Booking in the UK Joining a group tour departure from the UK keeps the logistics simple. Trips range from hardcore treks to cultural tours, or consider a grand pan-Himalayan tour that tacks a trip to Bhutan onto the highlights of Tibet or Sikkim. Many operators also offer tailormade itineraries if you want more say over your route/travel companions.

Booking locally You must have your Bhutan trip booked before arrival but, if you don’t mind investing some time playing email ping pong with a Bhutanese agent and arranging fiddly international bank transfers, then customised itineraries can be created for you by local operators. Groups smaller than three pay a premium of US$30 (two people) or US$40 (solo traveller) per person per day, but there’s no reason why you can’t organise your own private Bhutan tour for much the same cost as an organised group tour. Choose a Bhutanese local travel agent from the government’s approved list (see www.tourism.gov.bt), email them an itinerary and off you go.

Once you and your Bhutanese agent have agreed the itinerary and price, you need to wire the cost of your trip to the Bhutan National Bank. With this receipt, the agent will arrange visa confirmation and book your flight ticket into Bhutan. This will generally be issued at the Druk Air office in the city you fly from, normally Kathmandu or Delhi.

The tourist experience Tours in Bhutan are generally very comfortable and hotel accommodation is good. You’ll be accompanied by a guide most of the time, which can be very useful for learning about Bhutanese culture. Your hotel will be full of foreign tourists rather than Bhutanese, so some travellers miss the local interaction they get from individual travel.

Most tours involve a lot of car travel, so it’s a good idea to mix a couple of short hikes in to your itinerary to get a sense of the country on foot. Foreigners are treated with great respect in Bhutan.

Getting started

Visas Visas are only issued on arrival at Paro airport or at the Phuentsholing overland border crossing with India. Your Bhutanese agent will apply for your visa once you’ve paid for your tour. Without this visa clearance you won’t be able to book an air ticket into Bhutan.

When to go Autumn (Sep-Nov) is the most popular time to visit for clear mountain views, while spring (April) brings spectacular rhododendron blooms. Monsoon rains hit hard in summer (June-Sep). Try to time your trip with one of the many festivals such as the Paro Tsechu in March/April or the Thimphu Tsechu in September/October.

Getting there The Bhutanese national carrier Druk Air (www.drukair.com.bt) flies to Paro from Kathmandu, Delhi, Kolkata, Bihar, Dacca and Bangkok. It is also possible to cross overland from India’s Assam province at Phuentsholing.

Getting around Your agent will provide a car or minibus as part of your tour. There are no domestic flights or railway lines in Bhutan.

Cost of travel From 2009, travel in Bhutan is fixed at US$250 dollars per person, per day, all included. Off-season travel in monsoonal July and August is US$200 per day, though weather-wise this isn’t the best time to visit. Discounts are also offered for trips longer than ten/20 nights (10/20% off), young children (under sixes go free), children aged 6-12 (50% off) and students under 25 (25% off).

Health & safety Recommended vaccinations include hepatitis A, polio and typhoid. Trekkers should take precautions to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) – acclimatise to the altitude slowly, stay well hydrated, eat high-carb meals and avoid alcohol. Drink only purified water. Bhutan is probably the safest country in Asia.

Bradley Mayhew spent six weeks travelling the breadth of Bhutan while researching the current Lonely Planet guide to the country. When in the Himalaya, he can normally be found hiking out to some obscure Tibetan monastery.

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