Flying into Paro, Bhutan, is an extraordinary experience.
On a clear day you have spectacular views of the snow-capped Himalayas including the iconic Mount Everest.
As you approach the airport, it’s slightly unnerving as the pilot navigates the aircraft between the peaks. You feel as though you can reach out and touch the mountains they’re so close. You can see the houses perched high on the hills, the rice and vegetable crops and the winding roads that crisscross the mountains.
It was certainly a foretaste of what was to come. As I hiked and biked my way across parts of Bhutan, I came to the painful conclusion that Bhutan is probably the steepest country in the world. There’s up and down and not much in between.
Guide to Bhutan: culture and Gross National Happiness
When I told people I was heading to Bhutan many asked ‘Where’s that?”
A tiny Himalayan nation bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and India, Bhutan certainly keeps a very low profile. It’s best known as the country where Gross National Happiness is the order of the day. Where compassion, not capitalism, reigns supreme.
It’s a charming, stunningly beautiful country with a population of about 750,000. Wherever we went with our guide and driver during our two-week holiday, we always ran into a friend, a cousin, brother, uncle or distant relative. It seems as though everyone knows everyone else!
The government is furiously protective of its people and culture, intent on maintaining a clear national identity. Bhutanese people are required to wear traditional dress – gho for the men and kira for the women – and all buildings must conform to traditional architecture with symbolic colourful paintings.
Gross National Happiness means that all major decisions consider not just the economic impact, but environmental, cultural and religious too.
Controlling the number of tourists who visit Bhutan is one example of this. The government maintains a high tariff, low tourist numbers policy which means it’s an expensive country to visit. It costs $USD250 per person per day to visit Bhutan and $65 of that goes to the royal family (the royal tax). The policy also stipulates that you must have a guide to travel through Bhutan.
What it means is that Bhutan is not overrun with backpackers. Instead a large chunk of the travellers are grey-haired retirees from the West (France, UK, US, Australia, Germany) and Indians who can visit much more cheaply, as they only have to pay the royal tax.
I hadn’t realised how significant the Indian influence is on Bhutan. While the Bhutanese grow their own rice and vegetables, most other food is imported from India as the Buddhism religion forbids Bhutanese from killing food sources such as chickens, cows, fish and pigs. Furniture, whitegoods and cars are also imported from India. Indeed, our guide described India as the ‘Mother of Bhutan’.
Bhutan obsessions: the royal family and religion
The Bhutanese are obsessed with two things – the royal family and Buddhism. Both infiltrate every aspect of Bhutanese life and culture. There are photos of the fourth and fifth kings throughout the major towns and in tiny villages everywhere. Many houses display a photo of the current (fifth) king and his wife. All houses have a shrine and prayer flags flutter all over the countryside.
Wherever you go in Bhutan the most iconic and impressive buildings are religious – the dzongs, temples and monasteries dominate the landscape. We could have visited dzongs from dawn till dusk if we desired!
Meeting the royal entourage
My favourite story from Bhutan involves badges of the fifth king and queen. My travel partner, JJ, was determined to buy a badge after spotting the locals wearing them. Kind of like the old badges of Prince Charles and Princess Diana from the 1980s.
Checking into our hotel in Punakha a party of four Bhutanese men in the traditional gho were also at reception. I noticed they were all wearing badges of the king and queen. One of the badges was a photo, the other an illustration. As I pointed them out to JJ, one gentleman quickly undid his badge and presented it to me. Another gentleman also whipped his badge off and handed it to JJ.
I was more than a little embarrassed that I’d been so indiscreet but the gentlemen were most insistent. Our guide then proudly explained to us that we were very honoured – the king was in town staying at his Punakha place and we’d just met the royal doctor (pretty handsome too) and a member of the royal family!
Getting out & about in Bhutan – dogs, cows and roads
Dogs, dogs and more dogs. More than anywhere I’ve ever visited, even Bali, Bhutan is crawling with stray dogs. They seem pretty gentle and generally leave you alone but the barking and howling at night definitely disturb your sleep. Take earplugs if you’re a light sleeper.
The dogs also wander across the road without a care in the world and can often be found in deep sleep smack bang in the middle of a busy road. The Bhutanese will always give way to the dogs as their religion forbids killing anything.
Same with the cows. They have right of way on the roads and somehow they just seem to pop up on the roadside in the middle of nowhere.
Speaking of roads, they’re mostly dreadful. Unpaved dirt and rock with ‘black top’ i.e. bitumen, only found on the most trafficked routes. Except the main east-west highway which is in the process of a major widening project and was in a dreadful condition – one-lane, narrow dirt road only, with trucks and building rubble everywhere, and sheer cliffs into oblivion on one side. Scary stuff.
Because Bhutan is so mountainous most roads are narrow and windy and zigag up and down the steep mountains. Our travel agent warned us that many travellers mistake motion sickness for altitude sickness so we came prepared with motion sickness medication. Our drive from Punakha to Phobjika Valley was a test of endurance and nothing short of punishing – the roads were so bad we barely reached 20 km/hour the whole way so the trip took forever.
Food and wine
You don’t come to Bhutan for the food. Unless you like rice, rice and more rice. With lots of vegetables. Local rice is red and local vegetables include lots of greens, potatoes and chillies. The Bhutanese LOVE chillies and their national dish is chilli cheese (ema datse).
While they aren’t allowed to kill any animals for their meat, they tend to murder the imported meat when they cook it. We had some pretty tough, chewy beef and dry-as-a-bone chicken.
We did try the local beer and wine. JJ preferred the Druk Lager over the Druk 11000 and the Red Panda wheat beer. The local white wine, Zumzim Peach wine, is incredibly sweet and more like a dessert wine while there are two reds, one called Takin which is actually like a port so quite heavy, the other a shiraz called Vintria.
Most hotels sell half bottles, 375ml, of the wines for about 400 Ngultrum (about $AUD8). You can buy it much cheaper in a supermarket or restaurant, at about 150 Ngultrum.
Guide to Bhutan: where to go and what to do
Tourists to Bhutan mostly go trekking and/or do cultural tours, visiting religious sites and watching major festivals. You can read about our amazing adventure mountain biking in Bhutan and we’ll post about our trek to Dagala Lakes soon. Below is a rundown of the best things to do and see in the major towns.
- Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the number one tourist destination in Bhutan. It’s the most famous monastery in the kingdom and a must-see for visitors. It’s built into a cliff face high in the mountains at an altitude of 3,000 metres and requires a tough trek to reach. Read 10 tips for visiting Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
- Rinpung Dzong* is a stunning fortress that overlooks the town of Paro. Its local name translates to Heap of jewels as it’s built on the rock cliff face. Make sure you visit Paro at night so you can see it all lit up with the round-shaped museum above it. It’s a spectacular sight. (*A dzong is the name for a building that houses both monks and government administration offices.)
- Paro main street is a charming street full of traditional architecture, handicraft stores and art galleries. These are mostly targeted at tourists but step back a street or two and you’ll find stores specifically for the locals.
- Good coffee – there are a few cafes on the main drag. Our favourite was Champaca Café which served great coffee and delicious cakes – try the coconut cheesecake. It was spotlessly clean and the most sophisticated of the cafes we visited. They sold their own beans and coffee paraphernalia.
- Good restaurant – we were very sick of the buffet meals being served at our hotels so went out to a local restaurant in Paro for a much-needed change. We stumbled upon ‘My Kind of Place’ and absolutely loved it. Karma, the host, was fabulous and the food was delicious – ‘shimtoto’ as they say in Bhutan.
Thimpu – the capital of Bhutan
Thimpu is the biggest city in Bhutan with a population of around 100,000. It’s famous for having no traffic lights, just a human directing traffic. Wander down the main street, Norzim Lam, where you’ll see the locals in action. Lots of general stores, restaurants tucked away upstairs and down side alleys and the street markets selling local handicrafts.
- National Textile Museum was my favourite place in Thimpu. The weavings are extraordinary and you can watch women weavers in action at the Weaving Centre next door. It can take up to a year or more to create an intricate silk-on-silk weaving. They’re absolutely stunning and if you want to buy a momento of your trip to Bhutan I’d highly recommend a weaving. There are plenty of places to buy one but be warned, they can cost as much as $USD2,000. I ended up buying one from the store at the museum as I felt confident it was a genuine Bhutanese weaving and not one imported from Nepal or India.
- Visit the Painting School – I was reluctant to go here but am glad we did. Watching the students learn the fine art of intricate Bhutanese painting, sculpture, embroidery and dressmaking was a great insight into the local culture. There’s a good handicrafts store next door as well.
- We found good coffee at Ga-wa, near the Clocktower.
- Motithang Takin Preserve – this wildlife preservation centre is a short drive from the town centre where you’ll come face to face with local wildlife such as the odd-looking Takin, the national animal, which is a kind of goat-antelope. You’ll also see barking deer, which are native to Asia.
Punakha is about 3 hours’ drive from Thimpu and definitely worth the effort. I wish we’d had more time there.
- Dochula Pass is on the way to Punakha from Thimpu. On a clear day you get a stunning view of the Bhutanese mountains including the famous Chomolhari, which is 7,513 metres high and Gangtar Punsum the highest mountain in Bhutan at 7,564 metres. It also has 108 stupas to commemorate the death of Bhutanese soldiers in the 2003 war against Indian insurgents. There’s a café there for a tea break or a bite of lunch.
- Punakha dzong is by far the most beautiful and spectacular dzong in the country, more so than the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro. It’s hard to describe how stunning it is, situated where the two rivers meet (known as the confluence in Bhutan). It’s absolutely worth a visit to Punakha just to see this.
- Whitewater rafting down the Father or Mother Rivers (the Father river has more aggressive rapids) is growing in popularity. We wished we had more time in Punakha to do this. It looked like fun though the waters are icy cold.
- Archery is the national sport in Bhutan and while there were no archery competitions during our visit our guide organised our own private archery experience. We tried a traditional bamboo bow and arrow and as a novice, I scared the life out of a sleeping dog when my arrow very narrowly missed him snoozing in the grass not far from the target.
The valley was a very long, slow drive from Punakha and I wouldn’t recommend the drive along the main East-West highway until the road upgrade is finished.
The main highlights of the Phobjika Valley are the black-necked crane information centre in Gangtey, dedicated to the protection of this endangered bird species that flies into the valley from Tibet for the winter. There are also a number of trekking routes in this region.
We had a wonderful farmstay in Gogona, and were the first-ever tourists to stay with this family in their very traditional home. We also stayed with a monk in his home in the tiny village of Khotoka. Both were fantastic, very authentic experiences.
At the farmstay the only way inside the house was up a very steep ladder. There were no table and chairs for dining, we all sat on the floor around the bukhari (pot belly stove) where all the cooking was done, and the toilet was a hole in the ground in the backyard.
When to go
We visited at the end of October and November. It’s colder at this time of year but the trade-off is that the skies are clearer and you enjoy much better views of the Himalayas and the beautiful Bhutanese landscape. We were blessed with stunning blue skies every day and only saw a few clouds the entire two weeks of our trip. It’s worth the pain of the chilly temperatures!