Thursday, September 20, 2018


Bhutan was the second portion of our trip and the abrupt change to quiet, clean and peaceful was most welcome. Unfortunately we could only afford to be there for a 7 day/ 6 night tour.  For all intents and purposes, Bhutan can only be visited on an organized tour, all prepaid and organized before arrival and carefully regulated by the government. During high season it is a minimum of $250US/person per day and in low season $200. Bhutan pioneered the concept of "high quality, low impact" tourism and it has kept  the  country free from a lot of negatives of mass tourism seen in neighbouring countries like Nepal and India.
The good news is that it is actually a very good value for most vacations as it includes minimum 3-star hotel, food, guide, transport and driver, activities and entry fees. The best part is that the minimum group size at that price is 3 people (with a supplement for fewer), so basically you end up on your own private guided tour through the country.  Because it is a car or van and your guide, they can be reasonably flexible with figuring an itinerary before you book, and even to make small adjustments while you are there.
Bhutan is a small Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, geographically similar to Nepal with the similar attractions of trekking and visiting temples. The scenery is stunning and it all feels a bit more mysterious and magical because of the more exclusive reputation. That is not to say it is devoid of tourists. Coming from Bangladesh it felt like there were tons but the reality is that tourist  numbers are measured in the thousands still and other than all congregating at the major attractions, you don't really see each other.
There is only 1 international airport, at Paro. Flights are limited and expensive because of the difficult approach in, descending between the mountains and up a valley with low-level turns and little room for error. The shortest tours  (which I suspect are the most popular) stay in the Paro valley area and visit the capital, Thimphu, and hour away in the next valley over. There is some great stuff but we wanted a little longer so we could get a little further out as well. We also intentionally chose to visit in the first week of December because it was the start of the low season and would still have good weather.  We were lucky, days were sunny and warm, up to about 20C with nights just above freezing. Far better than home at that time. On arrival we were picked up by our guide and driver (brothers) and spent the first two nights in Thimphu.

On arrival

On the way to Thimphu

Prayer flags like Nepal

On the way to Thimphu

As the capital, Thimphu is the most "international" and the largest town in the country.  It still doesn't have a traffic light and the country has put an emphasis on maintaining traditional culture and architecture as much as possible, even going so far as making traditional dress mandatory when entering public buildings and banning public smoking entirely in the country. I liked Thimphu well enough but it is not the best part of the country. We were on a "cultural" tour as opposed to a "trekking" tour but we still hiked a couple hours each day to visit different hilltop temples and their amazing views. It's the comparative simplicity and purity of the Bhutanese culture that was the most appealing.

Central Thimphu

Archery is the national sport

Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

The dzong

Inside the dzong

Hiking up to Tango Monastery

Tango Monastery

Tango monks

The national animal, a Taksin

On day 3 we went over the Dochula Pass and down into the Punakha/Wangdu valleys for two nights. Punakha is at a lower elevation than Thimphu and the governing body relocates the capital to Punakha every winter for the better climate. It was definitely worth the extra couple days to get to visit Punakha. The view of the Himalayas from the pass is great and the Punakha valley was the most beautiful we saw. There are many traditional fortresses throughout the country called dzongs and we visited the ones in Thimphu and Punakha. The one in Punakha has a very pretty setting between the junction of two small rivers. The Wangdu valley is most famous for its temple of the Divine Madman, a wandering monk who managed to convince everyone that he had a magic phallus which he used to fight demons...  Needless to say, the town and temple had a lot of phallic symbolism and decor.

Dochula Chorten

View from Dochula Pass

Wangdu valley, looking at the temple of the divine madman

Punahka valley from the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple

View from the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple
Punakha Dzong

Inside the Punakha Dzong

Days 5 and 6 were back in the Paro valley close to the airport. We finished our visit with a trek up to the Tiger's Nest Monastery, easily the most famous sight in the country. It is a monastery precariously built on a cliff at over 10,000ft. Sasha had been sick the day before so we were a little worried about her making it through the couple hour climb to get there but fortunately the first half can be done by horse and the $10 to do so was worth ensuring she'd have the energy for the rest.
It is a stunning, unforgettable place. The sheer drop off from the walls of the monastery and the views on the approach make up for all the exertion to get there. Like the rest of the monasteries, temples and dzongs in Bhutan, photography is not allowed inside but it doesn't matter. We loved it and our whole experience in the country. I hope I get another chance to go back.

Heading to the Tiger's Nest Monastery (in the distance).

Almost there.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Paro valley

Paro airport and dzong from our hotel



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