Asia, bhutan, nature, transportation, Travel

Our life-changing trip to Bhutan: The experience and how to do it

The Tiger’s Nest by Elana E. Nichols

Sometimes Karma isn’t a witch, it’s a tour guide. In fact, a nice man named Karma was one of our tour guides on our all-inclusive trip to Bhutan, land of the peaceful dragon. Did you know that the kingdom of Bhutan measures success in gross national happiness instead of traditional wealth? Bhutan is a magical isolated place hidden among the Himalayas. Getting there is a bit complicated. But, trust me, going is worth every cent. In the following guide, I will grace you with the enlightening information on why Bhutan should be high on your list and how to pull off visiting.

One of the many holy bells. Elana E. Nichols

Why go to Bhutan?

From the exclusivity (I’m talking lack of those annoying tourists walking around with their mouths hanging open) to the culture and people to the unmatched, natural beauty, it is truly one of the most fantastic trips we have ever taken. For one thing, you really need to hike up to the Tiger’s Nest once in your life. It is such a journey for the eyes, mind, and soul. And yes, you will feel as glorious as Rocky when you reach the top, but the top is where the true journey of wonder begins. The food is amazing. The people are insanely welcoming. The traditional attire is bright and colorful, as are the personalities of those you will meet. I have to stop there, because I could write a novel on all the amazing reasons you should go.

Just look at this post office! Elana E. Nichols

How to visit

This is the tricky part. Bhutan isn’t just “open for business” like everywhere else. You need a special tourist visa to go. Beyond that, you cannot just get a visa and go. You also need to purchase a tour. For us, this was unusual. If you have read some of our other articles, you know we don’t do tours. We are thrifty and part of the thrill for us is getting lost and discovering our own new hidden jewels. However, Bhutan is a sacred place, and they want to keep it that way and retain its ancient charm. For that reason, you need a special tour in order to visit. In fact, they put a limit on how many foreigners can visit each day. Be careful when booking with a Bhutan tour company. They must be approved by the Tourism Secretariat. A full list can be found on the Bhutan Tourism Ministry Website. Keep in mind that there is a minimum amount that you are expected to spend every day. However, since the only way to truly visit is through a tour, it is easy to satisfy this obligation. We decided to go with Bhutan Travelers for our tour. They were a fair price and they were extremely awesome. Actually, they are part of the reason Bhutan was one of my favorite destinations. You get so much more out of the trip because they are so knowledgeable about everything. It is one thing to see a new place on your own, but when you have a local expert, you get to really learn about the culture. And yes, they even hike up to Tiger’s Nest with their guests, more on that later.

How to get there

If you are afraid of flying, this next part is going to be a challenge for you. Flying is the best way to get into Bhutan and you have to do so by landing at one of the most dangerous airports in the world in Paro. Why is this airport one of the most dangerous in the world? Namely, the craggy, mountainous landscape mixed with one of the shortest landing strips in one of the highest altitudes. In other words, nbd. However, I will tell you, despite visiting 79 countries with a slight fear of flying, I was able to do this scary flight, and I even filmed it! We flew there from Dhaka when we lived in Bangladesh. Honestly, I recommend pairing Bhutan with some other locations to get the most out of it that you can. You can always pair it with Nepal and/or India to really maximize your time in that part of the world. In fact, you must at least get to a nearby country to fly there. You will need to take Druk Air to fly into Bhutan. Our experience with them was very good, and you want pilots who are used to flying into that tricky airport.

What does a sample itinerary look like?

The great thing is that you can cater your Bhutan trip to your budget, to an extent. Remember, as a visitor you are expected to spend a minimum amount of money every day. If you are on a budget, the solution is a shorter trip! This is exactly what we decided to do. You can still experience a lot of wonder in a short amount of time. Our top priority was hiking up to the Tiger’s Nest, but we experienced other amazing things in our short visit too. At the time that we went, the minimum to spend while there, per person, was $180 per day. However, you also had your flights, visa, and other fees to consider. All in all, the trip is expensive, but so worth it! Being on a budget, we decided to make our journey only three days and two nights. That still set us back a chunk of money, but it really is a once in a lifetime experience. Here is our itinerary from our short trip there:

Flights: DrukAir from Dhaka to Paro, roundtrip

Day 1:

The journey began with a harrowing flight between peaks to land at Paro Airport. The left wing looked to be about a foot from one of the boulders on the side of the peak. Next, we were picked up by our lovely guides. They were dressed traditionally and full of positive energy and hospitality. They drove a 4WD vehicle and I was quite intrigued by the AstroTurf place mats for my feet in the back seat. They took us through some winding mountain roads to lunch where we were introduced to the restaurant manager who took extremely good care of us and fed us some amazing homemade Bhutan cuisine. We tried some red rice and momos- which are a lot like dumplings. Be sure to try the Buckwheat Pancakes too, they are awesome. After lunch, we were taken into town to explore. I ended up purchasing some handmade scarves after a nice lady made them made on the loom, right in front of me. It was super cool because proceeds from each purchase went towards helping the women in the community. We went in a natural museum and saw all kinds of natural homeopathic rituals. We saw Kichu Lhakhang, which is one of the oldest and most sacred temples. We walked around some waterways with the most beautiful woodwork I have ever seen on the bridges. We ended in Thuimpu where we stayed for the night at Hotel Druk.

Day 2:

We woke up early and headed to the base of the mountain to hike up to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery. This was, in my opinion, the most exciting day there. Our guides found a place to park and we started up the mountain. Karma encouraged me to take a donkey. He could tell that this was going to be a lot of effort for me, but I let him know that I preferred to walk. He shrugged, but understood. For one, I really did not feel confident on a donkey and did not want to fall to my death when I inevitably spooked my donkey on some cliff. It was a lot of hard work climbing 3,000 feet in a few hours, but I was able to do it!

On the way up, we passed rainbows of colorful prayer flags. We also came upon prayer bells and gongs. They were so beautiful and one included a prayer wheel that made beautiful music when spun. We stopped often as the air was definitely thinner as we were starting from an altitude of 7,000 and climbed 3,000 feet to reach the monastery at 10,000 feet. Admittedly, I was not in tip top physical shape, so it was a challenge for me. When we started getting closer to it, I had to take many breaks to catch my breath. I didn’t have the breath to, but I definitely chuckled when I saw some amazing people who were over the age of 60 whizzing by me as I sounded a lot like the wolf from Sword in the Stone.

When we reached the monastery, some magical snow balls fell from the sky to meet us. It was a welcome gift to mark our achievement. After we caught our breath and took several photos, we toured the grounds. There were monks all around, just living their lives on the grounds. There were beautiful, colorful rooms adorned in gold and other precious metals. Incense was burning everywhere and relaxing singing bowls abounded. We saw elderly people carrying heavy bricks and other items on their backs. I felt like we had been transported centuries back in time. After we spent about an hour there, it was time for the easy part: downhill. I say easy, but it was actually a bit more difficult not to lose my balance, especially on the steeper sections.

After we hiked, we were driven back to our hotel in Paro, Hotel Uma, where we were greeted with post hike massages. From there, we enjoyed a wonderful local dinner at the hotel and then tucked ourselves in for the night.

Day 3:

The last day was simple. We drove past some beautiful scenery on our way to the airport and bid this beautiful, magical land adieu.

All in all, I really do recommend adding this magical place to your future trip bucket list. Say “Kuzuzangpo” to Bhutan and it’s rich diversity and culture, you will be glad you did. Have you been to Bhutan? What was your experience? Leave a comment!

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