Bhutan, Land Of The Thunder Dragon

There are many reasons why to travel to Bhutan and there is at least one why to skip. It is not cheap country to travel to. Besides timber and electricity export, tourism industry is the third biggest income source for the country. Unbelievable $200 tourist tariff per day imposed by government is quite often the single  and only deal breaker for many.

Bhutan, officially the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a landlocked country in South Asia located at the eastern end of the Himalayas. It is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India. Farther west, it is separated from Nepal by the Indian state of Sikkim, while further south it is separated from Bangladesh by the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. Bhutan's capital and largest city is Thimphu. (Source: Wikipedia)

Bhutan is relatively young on the map of tourist destinations. It opened to the world just recently. All trips to Bhutan are organised by registered travel agencies. There is no way to independent travel in the country. This will put many of the free spirit souls off. Honestly, I would love to move around country on my own, choose where to go and what to see, where to eat and where to sleep. On the other side, $200 daily rate includes everything from guide, driver to food, accommodation, entrance fees and other expenses. Technically there is no need for pocket money unless shopping or extra alcoholic drinks are desired. Visitors driven around in a nice car and everything is done for them. I guess this kind of holiday may appeal to many while discourage the others.

As for me, I wanted to visit the country badly for quite some time but I never really bite the bullet until this year. I figured if I don't do it now I will never do it and even if I decided to go for it later, the face of the country might change rapidly in next few years. Also I decided to spend part of the holiday on the trek. I was hoping to get away from traditional destinations and visit some rural parts. Not many are willing to sleep in a tent in the winter when temperature drops around zero degrees Celsius during the night. This proved to be a good choice and trek was definitely the best experience of the whole trip. December is considered “off season” in Bhutan. Most of the trek routes are closed for winter but I was able to do Samtegang trek, which is one of the easier ones. Although countryside in December is not lush green as during the spring and summer but it is also beautiful in some way and there is definitely less “touristy”.

At first I found it little strange when people always call me sir, carry my backpack or open the car door for me. I told them several times that this is not necessary but I guess they have to do it. First two days I spent in capital Thimphu and Punakha, visiting several places of interest, mostly dzongs. Weather was quite bad, in fact very gloomy. Passing the Dochula pass in 3050m altitude was quite tricky as we faced real winter weather with thick fog, snow and very slippery narrow road. Traffic was moving in a snail pace and we got jammed. Looking at smooth tyres of most of the trucks I wondered how could they say on the road at all. Those things should not have any traction by law of physics.  At the end we made it safely to Punakha.

At this point the prospects of sleeping next three nights in the tent were I would say rather “cold”. We got lucky on the first trek day. Nice and warm sun rays welcomed us in the morning. Following the pattern of handling the tourists, even the trek was kind of “luxurious” by my standards. There was a crew of four which seemed to me as lots of overhead. Team consisted of my tour guide, cook, driver and helper. I didn't even have to carry my backpack, which was driven to the destination by car while we were on the trek. Most of the trek route went through rhododendron or pine forest. By law at least 60% of Bhutan has to have forest coverage at any time. That is pretty awesome and more countries (especially around Amazon river) should follow this example. I didn't see a single tourist during whole 3 days. Hallelujah. I enjoyed walking through countryside, villages, rice paddies and forests. People were very kind and always greeted me with smile.

First campsite was in small village where people worked on monastery restoration that was damaged in 2011 earthquake. All houses and monasteries share similar style and are built in a same way. From clay (in cities they use brick). They form the shape of wall with wooden planks which are then filled with clay and trampled down by wooden clanks and body weight until clay compresses and hardens. This way they go layer by layer until the wall is constructed. I took part myself in this process just to try it out. Great fun. We were invited into a house for their traditional butter tea in one of the villages. To be honest, I didn't like the taste but I appreciated their hospitality. They even offered me to stay over for the night which would really give me great insight into rural bhutanese way of life but we decided to carry on to our camp. I am quite humbled by the warmth I was welcomed in that village, and all other places for that matter. The camp life was also great fun. Temperature dropped to zero during night but I never felt that cold in sleeping bag. Our cook, mr Nima was excellent. I wish I could participate more in camp life as setting up tents or cleaning but I was told only to “enjoy”. I felt like rich guy who is trying to convince himself that he is on adventure trip while everything is done for him. I figured, this is the way how they do treks and all the tours in Bhutan so I had no choice only to accept it. Needless to say that all of them did excellent job.

After the trek, trip continued in car again. We visited Gangtey and Valley of black neck crane. It was wide open grassy valley with creek in the middle where all the cranes stay. Unfortunately they were too far to photograph and it is forbidden to go close to them. That place felt like little piece of Mongolian step in the middle of the mountains. Very picturesque though.

I am not known to be a party animal but my guide and driver took me to the local disco/dance bar to experience how young Bhutanese like to spend their free time. This is completely out of itinerary but we decided to go. Concept of dance bars is simple. There are girls there who will dance for a guest for a small fee of Nu 100. The more often the girl can get on the stage the more money she makes. I have to admit we had one beer too much that night but I enjoyed the experience a lot.

Next day we drove to Paro, passing Dochula Pass one more time. The Bhutanese Himalayan range was clearly visible in the distance. After 4 hours of driving we reached Paro, the city with only international airport in Bhutan.

The most iconic place of Bhutan is located in Paro valley. Tiger's Nest monastery built in rock face in altitude of 3100m is one of the most visited places in Bhutan. It certainly lived up to expectations. There is roughly 2hrs hike all the way to to the monastery. It is well worth the effort and view is really stunning. Although it is not allowed to take camera inside, the outside views are good enough.

Trip to Bhutan wouldn't be complete without trying out archery, their national sport. For tourist, there is only traditional bamboo made bow available but it is sufficient and quite fun. Even target is just 15-20 m away as bamboo bow is not that strong. Still it is not easy to hit the board. Wish I had more time to do this. It was fun.

I can't leave this without word about The Royal Family. In my oppinion the Bhutanese king  and royal family enjoy popularity that is unprecedented among the rest of royal families around the world. Maybe with exception of king of Thailand, young Bhutanese king  Jimgme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is very popular as was his father who brought some significant changes into bhutanese public and political life. Their "palace" looks very humle compared to other royal palaces and I was told they are leading humble and ordinary life as any other bhutanese.

As the time in Bhutan draws to the end I do feel little sadness that I have to leave this beautiful country. I had a great time during my 10 days visit. The highlight was definitely the trek and the villages with incredibly hospitable people. The downside, at least for me are the resort style hotels we stayed in when not on trek. These are usually quite luxurious by my standards and I have absolutely no complains about rooms, food, cleanness whatsoever. However they are usually far from town or points of interest. So it is almost impossible top drop to town for a walk unless you have a driver available. For me there was too much wasted time there that I could spend roaming on the streets and taking pictures. Next time if I visit I try to organise things differently. Definitely will try to spend more time trekking than driving around.

Is there going to be a next time? If time and finances allow I say definitely yes. Although expensive trip but I think it was worth it and I am already looking forward returning to Bhutan.