Heavily forested and immensely beautiful, Bhutan is often described as the last surviving refuge of traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture. For a country that measure’s its success by a ‘happiness index’ rather than GDP, it practices a rather discriminatory tourism policy, limiting itself only to those who can afford to spend a minimum of $200 a day! In order to preserve both the environment and the culture, tourism in Bhutan is limited to a set number of visitors who must be on a pre-planned, pre-paid, guided package tour. The good news is that once you’ve booked your trip to Bhutan, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the amazing scenery. While some monasteries, temples and mountaintops are closed to tourists for cultural reasons, Bhutan has high peaks and sacred temples in abundance. Traditionally, Bhutan was known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’; today, it is known as a breath of fresh air. Thimphu not only lacks traffic jams, it is perhaps the only capital in the world without traffic lights!
Paro Valley: some of the most beautiful homes in Bhutan are found in this rich agricultural valley along with Bhutan’s most impressive fortress, the monastery of Traktang, and the ruins of Drukyul Dzong (an ancient fortified monastery).
Thimphu: soak up the secluded atmosphere of this quiet capital city known for its excellent handicraft stores, picturesque architecture and national dress.
Phajoding: at 10,000 feet, the views from this monastery are worth climbing for.
Bumthang: a valley with the highest concentration of important temples and monasteries in all of Bhutan. Just getting here will be enough to take your breath away.
Punakha: the ancient capital of Bhutan. The old fortress stands at the fork between two rivers and offers excellent opportunities for hiking.
Two days in the Paro Valley
One day in Phajoding
Two days in Punakha
Two days in Thimphu
Medical facilities are good, when they can be found. It is not advisable to drink untreated or unboiled water and you should avoid ice if you are not certain of its source. Follow the golden rule for eating while traveling: if you can’t boil it, peel it or cook it, don’t eat it.
Especially for those trekking in the mountains, altitude sickness is a risk. Although your guides should be very familiar with the condition and should know where to get help when it is required, you should familiarize yourself with the different varieties and symptoms of altitude sickness if you plan on tackling some of the higher peaks. Crime is virtually unheard of and don’t expect to see any beggars or homeless people on the streets, despite Bhutan being a relatively poor country.
While you can enter Bhutan by land through Phuentsholing on the southern border with India, it is mandatory that all visitors to Bhutan travel at least one-way by the national airline, Druk Air, besides you need a rear as tough as leather to survive the overland route. There are several flights a week to and from the following cities: New Delhi and Kolkata (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Bangkok (Thailand) and Katmandu (Nepal) but delays are frequent. Druk Air also has a one-hour scenic flight from Paro, showcasing Bhutan’s natural beauty from the air. Paro is Bhutan’s only airport. Buses and taxis generally take 90 minutes to make the trip from the city center.
Most likely any traveling you’ll be doing within the country will be with your tour operator. Roads in Bhutan are generally in good condition however traffic moves slowly, perhaps due to the large number of yaks, ponies and mules sharing the road.
There are four distinct seasons that are similar to those of Western Europe. Spring (April to mid-June) and fall (October and November) are the best times to visit since there is a low chance of rain. Days are normally warm and nights are cool. In the winter, the temperature is usually below freezing and it gets colder the higher you are in the mountains. Expect heavy rains between June and August when the monsoon rolls in.
Trekking: walking is the best and sometimes the only way to reach many of the smaller, more isolated Bhutanese villages. Organized treks in the Himalayas can take you up to 14,000 feet, if height is what you’re after.
Mountain biking: bikes are available for rent in Thimphu, and even if you don’t have the muscles to take on the Himalayas, biking is still a great way to get around Thimphu and the Paro Valley.
Bird-watching: there are over 320 varieties of birds in Bhutan including a few rare species.
Archery: witness the Bhutanese national sport complete with drunken rowdiness and saucy cheerleaders.
Shopping: Saturday and Sunday are the best days for markets, where you can find jewelry and local clothing. On weekdays, handicraft stores in the capital are a good bet for locally produced goods. Silversmiths and goldsmiths in the Thimphu Valley create unique designs and can even be made to order.
While trekking, you will most likely be far beyond the reach of any hotels or guesthouses and camping is your only option. That being said, most tour outfits know how to camp in style with comfortable dining tents and delicious meals.
Since most tours are package deals, restaurants are hard to find and most tourists eat at their hotels. Hotel food consists of mainly of vegetarian buffets and meals almost always include rice and chili, so if you don’t like it hot, you had better speak up before they start cooking. Watch how much local rice spirit you drink if you plan on doing any trekking the next day.
Bhutan recently outlawed the sale of tobacco products, and also banned smoking in public places, making Bhutan not only an excellent place to scale peaks, but also the perfect place to quit smoking.