Bhutan!

Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan

We’d been considering a trip to Bhutan for some time, but hesitated because of the requirement that western tourists only visit with government-approved tour guides. The minimum cost for travel to Bhutan is a set $250pp/day, a not insignificant amount for the constant presence of a guide, something we generally don’t like and actively avoid. But still, we heard great things about Bhutan and we’d be in neighboring Nepal, so why not?

I decided a relatively short 4-night stay would be a good way to dip our toes into Bhutan and see how we liked the mandatory guide set up. If the country really entranced us, we could always come back for a longer stay another time. Government-approved guides were an unknown quantity, so I decided to book through kimkim, a company founded by the creators of TripAdvisor and other travel apps. Kimkim brokers local guides and I felt comfortable using them. Kimkim put me in touch with Pelden who was generally good about communicating with me and tailoring a trip to our interests, which meant adding a visit to Bhutan’s first craft brewery/brewpub, coincidentally founded by a former classmate of Pelden.

Our 1h20m DrukAir flight from Kathmandu to Bhutan gave us our second flight past Mount Everest and it was spectacular. A seat on the left side of the plane is the way to go for this special experience.

Flying past Mount Everest is an experience of a lifetime

As promised, we were met in the modern, but traditionally-styled, Paro airport by our guide, Kezang (Pelden’s associate), who took us to a waiting SUV and our driver, Tashi. In no time, we were at our first stop, Tachogang Lhakhang iron chain bridge across the Paro River to a nearby monastery and hermit cave. Foot traffic was no longer allowed across the old bridge, so we used an adjacent newer bridge. The bridge and buildings were interesting, but I have to say that, after Nepal, we were most struck by the wonderfully clean river and fresh air. Such a welcome change!

Tachogang Lhakhang iron chain bridge

From the bridge, we drove to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan for lunch at a tourist restaurant. This turned out to be one of the downsides of the whole curated experience in Bhutan: buffet restaurants geared towards tourists. They’re over-priced considering how very cheap things are when you can finally break free of you “handlers” and just kind of boring, although clean and modern. Our hotel, Thimphu Towers, sits on the main square in Thimphu and we had a great view of the square and central clock tower.

View of the main square in Thimphu from our hotel room

The room was large and comfortable, our only complaint with the room had to do with the extremely loud Indian family that arrived next door and proceeded to stand in the hall talking loudly, all while the father of the clan talked above the din on his phone. Good grief, go into your room! [India has greatly helped Bhutan develop and the Bhutanese clearly admire their benefactors. We visited a very interesting museum highlighting the relationship between the two countries and Kezang explained how most Bhutanese who get college degrees do so in India. Indian citizens, unlike most of the rest of the world, can visit Bhutan freely and without guides. They sometimes descend in large numbers and seem to really congregate around Bhutanese rivers. We decided they must be even more enchanted by the novelty of clean running water than we were.]

Thimphu Towers hotel room

We wanted to try local beer, and were happy when Kezang led us to a nearby grocery store for locals where we bought a couple of bottles for a fraction of the price asked at our hotel. After wandering the streets a little, we enjoyed the bottles in our room, windows open to enjoy the view. Dinner was another uninspiring restaurant in our hotel. Nice, but hardly “authentic.” We needed to talk to Kezang about dining options.

Bhutanese beer in our room

Our first full day in Bhutan started out at the gleaming white memorial Chorten Stupa, a white structure, circled clockwise by a constant stream of worshippers. We were amused when Kezang, a young married man with a small child described how he lived with his parents and his in-laws and, when he worked at a prior job, he would drop off the two sets of parents at this stupa on his way to work, leaving them there until he headed home at the end of the work day when he’d pick them up again. We asked how they felt about his arrangement, and he indicated a group of older people under an open-air shelter to one side of the stupa and said they liked it. Apparently, this is social time for retired Bhutanese.

Later, we visited the 169 ft. tall Buddha Dordenma statue (which holds 1000 Buddha statues and a temple inside) before hiking the adjacent Kuenselphadrang Nature Park. The hiking trail was well-groomed and easy and we trailed along behind Kezang in his traditional clothes, or visited with him, when the path widened, about life in Bhutan. Kezang was particularly knowledgeable about Buddhism and was a font of stories and legend. His English was good, if not great, with an accent that sometimes caused confusion. David had a hard time, in particular, understanding the words “sentient beings”– which came up a lot in Kezang’s explanations– and which had me whispering the phrase to him repeatedly.

Note: I’m pasting our itinerary and quote as I received them from kimkim verbatim at the bottom of this post. Most things we did as outlined. Occasionally, we swapped timing and we changed one destination entirely, swapping a monk village for a hike to the mountaintop Tango Buddhist University which we really enjoyed.

David and I with Kezang (left) and Tashi (right) (and a group of Buddhist monks and friend to the far left) at Tango Buddhist University
The path and wooden rail cart track to Tango Buddhist University

At our request, Kezang tried to choose restaurants with a bit more local feel, but he was clearly restrained by the parameters of the whole Bhutanese foreign tourist set up. We did share one dinner with him and Tashi in an otherwise empty restaurant which remained open just for us since we’d gotten in late. Since David and I usually ate alone, that dinner gave us a chance to visit more with the two men. Tashi spoke very little English, so Kezang translated.

As with all things travel, I think, some things exceeded expectations and some were less exciting or interesting than they sounded. A much-anticipated visit to see the national animal of Bhutan, the takin, at an animal reserve was fun and interesting, but the rare animals remained at some distance from the fence separating us.

The legend explaining the takin has its oringins in the 15th century when Lam Drukpa Kunley also referred to as “The Divine Madman” arrived in Bhutan from Tibet. After preaching to local people, they asked him to perform a miracle. He agreed, on the condition that they would feed him a massive lunch of a whole cow and a whole goat, which they did. The Tibetan saint devoured the flesh of both the animals, leaving the bones. He then affixed the head of the goat to the body of the cow and uttered a mantra. The animal instantly sprung to life and began grazing on the meadows. He named the animal “Dong Gyem Tsey” (takin).

The Divine Madman is even more famous for his outrageous behavior and sexual exploits. Because of this, large, explicit phalluses adorn many public buildings and homes across Bhutan. The practice raises Western eyebrows and had us laughing and snapping lots of photos. We found it hard to imagine coming home to a front door framed, by giant “spouting” male organs… all in the name of religion, no less.

Special artwork frames the front door of a Bhutanese home

We moved from Thimphu to Metta Resort in Paro for the last night of our stay. The grounds were nice and new and the staff lovely, but the room was a little on the motel side, although new and pleasantly decorated in the local style. The place felt remote, down a long dirt road, seemingly an odd place to house us. It seemed part of a planned new tourist area that wasn’t built out yet. The walls of our room were thin, too, and we listened with aggravation to the people next door to us literally scream, apparently in the course of a phone call.

Particular highlights for us included a stop by Bhutan’s first craft brewpub where David and I enjoyed a long visit with the brewer. David’s been transcribing his recorded interview and I hope he’ll get it posted soon. (We’re behind on all of this, obviously, since we’ve been traveling so much, both for the 3 months of this trip and subsequent trips that now (10/20) have us in Europe for another few months.)

David and brewer Dorji Gyeltshen at Namgay Artisanal Brewery

Another favorite stop for us was at the local archery field. Archery is hugely popular in Bhutan and it’s an activity local men participate in much as Frenchmen spend their time playing boules or petanque. When Kezang saw how interested we were, we adjusted things to linger on the small bleachers watching groups of men shooting at targets placed on opposite ends of a long field. After everyone in the group shot, they’d cross the field en masse to shoot back at the target from which they’d just come, sipping beer and chatting between rounds. Kezang told us he enjoyed this pastime as well, had an expensive bow… and had to cut back once the baby came to appease a wife less-than-happy with his frequent outing with the boys given their new family responsibilities.

The absolute highlight of our Bhutan visit was a hike to iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery. (See top photo.) This steep hike was saved for last to allow our bodies to adjust to the elevation. We’d also been taking medication to guard against any altitude sickness ruining our trip. Unfortunately, weather forecasts called for rain on that final day, our one and only shot at Tiger’s Nest. I went to bed resigned to the possibility –and actually expecting– the hike would be canceled. Kezang remained positive and seemed to think the whole idea of me checking weather forecasts was funny (even the one made specifically by and for Tiger’s Nest).

Happily, we woke to a gorgeous day the next morning. (I guess Kezang knew what he was talking about.) Tashi drove us to a sort of “base camp” where we passed through vendor stalls and crossed a field of horses and donkeys for hire to begin our hike. The hike took hours, with one stop at a café along the way for a light lunch before going on. Tiger’s Nest sits over 10,000 above sea level and the thin air was noticeable. My muscles felt the steep climb, but it was more a matter of getting lungfuls of air that seemed to have nothing to it. Give me oxygen! Still, the view along the way was spectacular and we made the ascent more quickly that Kezang expected.

At the top, we were treated to one of those unforgettable travel moments. Upon entering one of the many little temples contained in the monastery, we discovered a musical ceremony just beginning. When Kezang whispered to ask if we wanted to stay longer, we nodded, kneeling on the floor with “front row” seats to the chanting of monks and the playing of traditional instruments including long horns, propped on the floor. Clouds of incense perfumed the room. Magical. I would have loved to have a video to share, but no photographs are allowed inside Tiger’s Nest… and I’m glad to have been able to simply focus on the moment.

Our final night held a final treat; we spent the evening at a restored traditional farmhouse. Our hosts were a young couple with an adorable baby and a friendly cat. The home had been in his family for generations. We began our evening with a hot bath for two in an outdoor shed built for the purpose. Stones heated over a fire are placed in one end of two side-by-side wooden tubs filled with water and herbs. David and I entered the larger side of the shed where we undressed and got in the tubs. Then, our host on the outside added more stones to the far end of the tub beyond a wooden privacy wall and barrier that kept us from actually touching the stones while allowing the water to flow underneath. Periodically, he’d call out to see if we wanted more stones to raise the heat. With herbal steam filling the room, we luxuriated in the water, letting the heat ease muscles tired from the day’s climb to Tiger’s Nest.

Heating stones for our bath
Behind the privacy wall to our tub shed where our host added the hot stones to heat our baths

After our baths, we shared dinner with our hosts in the main room of the farmhouse, sitting on rugs on the floor. We began our meal with Ara, a cloudy homemade alcoholic drink made from rice. Our host and his wife spoke good English and the evening progressed as if among old friends. Kezang knew the couple and ate with us as well, foregoing the traditional clothes he’d worn throughout our stay in favor of sweatpants which he said he preferred to wear at home. It was a delightful way to end our stay in Bhutan.

Bhutanese farmhouse dinner (with cat)

My final takeaway: All in all, we really enjoyed our visit to Bhutan and are very glad we added it to our itinerary, especially since we were “in the neighborhood.” There were downsides, though. The curated nature of the visit required by the Bhutanese government does give the whole experience more of an “in a bubble” feel than we would have liked. Much of the sights in Bhutan are relatively new, too, the country only recently progressed from dirt roads and oxcarts. The expense is a little out of proportion to what you get considering the extremely cheap costs of things locally, but the effect of this on keeping out party-seeking backpackers as have flooded places like Thailand and Cambodia is to be commended. It’s easy to understand how a country would want to avoid some of the abuses and culturally-jarring effects of mass tourism. We were somewhat surprised at how much we were comfortably able to do in such a short stay. Given that we weren’t interested in weeks-long trekking, we’re happy with the scope of our visit. The only thing we’d really want to go back to see might be Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of the “Divine Madman” in Punakha District, an area we didn’t visit, but it’s not really enough of a pull by itself to take us back to Bhutan. We’ve met people who’ve fallen in love with Bhutan and gone several times. I don’t think that will be us. We had a great time, but we’ll probably leave it at that.

______________________

Practical info:

I’ve copied below the original itinerary and quote as provided to me by kimkim and Pelden when I first booked this tour. As I mentioned above, a few things were tweaked or changed on arrival per suggestions by Kezang and our own interests and time constraints, but our actual tour was fairly close to this. The biggest change was swapping a “monk village” at Dodeydra Buddhist University for a bit shorter but very scenic mountain hike to Tango Buddhist University monastery, which we really enjoyed . Also, Pelden encouraged me to let him book our plane tickets due to language and technical issues. Although he indicated that he would book our plane tickets for us at the same cost I saw online, he did charge a fee for that service after the fact, something not huge in the scope of the price, but a little disturbing in principle.:

Brief itinerary

DayDateHighlights
Day 1Wednesday
Mar 13, 2019
Welcome to Bhutan
Day 2Thursday
Mar 14, 2019
Treasures of the capital city
Day 3Friday
Mar 15, 2019
Thimphu easy hike to monk village and to Paro
Day 4Saturday
Mar 16, 2019
Bhutan’s Ultimate Highlight for the end

Detailed itinerary

1Day 1 – Mar 13, 2019

Welcome to Bhutan

The flight into Bhutan takes you close to the great Himalayas; offering dazzling scenic views of world’s highest glacial peaks.Whereyou’ll be greeted by Mt.Everest and Mt.Kanchenjunga, and our very own Mt.Jomo lhari and Mt. Jichu Drakey. As you enter the Paro valley, you will pass forested hills with the slivery Pa chu (Paro river) meandering down the valley below the Paro Dzong (fortress) and Ta Dzong (watchtower) on the hill above the town.

Upon arrival you’ll be received by our friendly professional guide who will help you  settle into your comfortable vehicle, and then proceed to the capital city Thimphu. Enroute stop to visit the Tamchog Lhakang to take a short break and marvel at Bhutan’s fresh air and rich nature. Walk over the ancient heritage iron bridge reconstructed using original chain link from the famous Tibetan bridge builder TangThong Gyalpo back in the 15th century.

On arrival you will be taken to your hotel for a check-in and short rest.In the evening visit the Memorial Chorten Stupa which is a sacred shrine built in the memory of third king of Bhutan. You will enjoy welcome dinner at the best restaurant where you can enjoy authentic  Bhutanese cuisines. Overnight in the resort.

Drive time 1 hour.Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

2Day 2 – Mar 14, 2019

Treasures of the capital city

Let’s enjoy a nice hike and appreciated the bountiful nature of Bhutan. Drive to Kuensel Phodrang where the gigantic 169ft statue of Buddha Dordenma overlooks Thimphu valley. The interior of the statue’s temple is easily one of the most beautiful and unique with thousands of other statues inside. Enjoy a panoramic view of Thimphu city from there. Walk into Kuenselphodrang Nature Park to hoist some flags to send some prayers out in the world. Continue on a beautiful 2-hour easy walk towards motithang. End the hike with a visit to the beautiful Changangkha monastery.

Continue to the Takin Reserve Center in the evening to see the national animal of Bhutan – the Takin and stroll over to the viewpoint that offers great views of Thimphu city.  From here, continue to the colourful vegetable market where you’ll really experience local lifestyles where farmers from all around Bhutan will be seeling their produce. It is interesting to see what may seem to you as ‘weird vegetables and forest products’ that actually enriches the Bhutanese palate.

Continue to the Changlimithang Stadium to watch locals enjoying the national sport of Bhutan – Archery – which is played in a traditional style over a 120m long range and always filled with fun and festive moods.

In the evening we’ll have dinner at one of Thimphu’s best restaurants to enjoy authentic Bhutanese cuisines. Note: If you feel like, we can also explore a little but of Bhutan’s urban lifestyles by going to a Live music pub to sample some good craft beers from local breweries and enjoy the local music scene.Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

3Day 3 – Mar 15, 2019

Thimphu easy hike to monk village and to Paro

Visit the Institute of Traditional Medicine to talk to a practitioner here about Bhutanese traditional medical practices.

Drive to Dechenchholing and start the three hours Off-the-beaten track hike to Dodeydra Shedra. The hike is characterized by moderate ascents through Blue-pine forests.  A picnic lunch will be served on the way. After the lunch spot, hikers will be rewarded by stunning views of Thimphu city. Currently there are around 170 monks studying and living in Dodeydra Buddhist University, including His Eminence Gyalwang Lorepa and His eminence Yongzin Rinpoche. After a picnic lunch, continue to the temple located at an altitude of 2800m.   On the way back, the monks always engage in games like Football and Volleyball everyday as part of their physical education and guests who are interested can join the games and enjoy a game with the monks who are more than happy to welcome guests. 

Drive to Paro around 3 in the afternoon. Visit Kyichu Lhakhang – believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Bhutan built during the 08th century and then continue to the National Museum to see some of the most treasured collections of arts, artefacts, textiles, stamps, statues, etc. I think one musuem on your tour is recommended.

Let’s go have some craft beers in in the country’s first brew pub that opened recently.

Drive time 1 hour.Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Dochula pass4Day 4 – Mar 16, 2019

Bhutan’s Ultimate Highlight for the end

We’ve saved the best of Bhutan for the last. Today you’ll experience Bhutan’s most valued attractions, and perhaps one of the major highlights of your trip. An excursion to the famous Taktshang monastery –translated as- Tiger’s nest monastery is also a good way to acclimatise before you start trekking. A two hours hike would reward you with a spectacular temple clinging on a 1000 feet cliff. The temple was built in 1692 by a prominent historical figure named Gyaltse Tenzin Rabgye whose reincarnation is now a young teenager and already a prominent figure in the clergy. Your guide will complement the experience with its story. On the way back stopover at Satsam Chorten which offers you nice views of mount Jomolhari.

In the afternoon, visit a farmhouse to soak in a herbal hot-stone bath which is known to be therapeutic and helps ailments related to joints and muscle aches, besides simply soothing your mind and body. Perfect to unwind and goes well with the Red Panda local beer. Here you can also learn hot to play BHutan’s national game, the archery. This is a complimentary value-added experience from Bhutan Travel Club without any hidden costs.

Farewell dinner at a great restaurant and proceed to your resort for the night.Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner


Pricing details

Bhutan quick and easy$3,469.60
Service fee $173
Total$3,642.60 USD

Paid


Price includes

• Bhutan Tourism Royalty/Levy ($65 per day per person)
• Visa Fees ($40 per person)
• All necessary permit fees
• All transfers and sightseeing with entrance fees
• All meals and evening tea
• Drinking mineral water in the car
• All accommodations in 3-4 star hotels
• English-speaking tour leader and driver
• Excellent SUV vehicle
• Hot-stone bath (value-added with no extra cost)
• Airfare to Bhutan

Price excludes

• All personal expenses like laundry, telephone, tips, shopping expenses
• Spa Charges (except for the traditional hot-stone bath)
• Travel and Medical insurance

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