Bhutan - Magical Himalayan Kingdom
When I heard the name Bhutan – it was always connected for me with the image of a hidden and mysterious country tucked away somewhere in the Himalayan mountains between India and China. And it's true that long time this country was shelling itself away from the rest of the world – it was only in 1999 when TV’s were introduced to the Bhutanese people. This predominantly Buddhist nation still seems to live in their own peaceful world, where the GNH = Gross National Happiness is more significant for the government than the GNP (Gross National Product). The country saw its first general elections in 2008, where Bhutan transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.
In the past years Bhutan or "The Land of the Thunder Dragon" did already its first steps towards a more developed and modern nation, but still you will find yourself in a fairy tale world when visiting this country. There are no traffic lights on the streets – well, there are almost no cars anyway, smoking and tobacco products are illegal, fishing and hunting are forbidden due to respect of nature and nationals are not allowed to climb high peaks in order not to disturb the spirits living over there. The national sport is archery and residents have to wear the traditional Bhutanese clothing while at work (gho robe for men and kira dress for ladies). Ask any local and they will speak very proud of their king and queen, who are dearly loved by their people and very humble.
Bhutan is magic – if you let the peace and spiritual atmosphere take over you. Majestic monasteries and massive fortresses (called Dzongs) are settled against the backdrop of a breathtaking dramatic landscape. South you will find lush green tropical forests, whereas going north you are climbing up higher and higher into the spectacular Himalayan mountains. Further you will experience a timeless Buddhist culture and welcoming, friendly people. Also for the most seasoned traveler Bhutan is an experience than no other and you will have one of the few opportunities left to explore an undiscovered destination.
So why I haven’t visited Bhutan before? Well, mainly because of the fear to fly there with some swanky little plane over the highest mountain range of the world – and that fear was not so baseless as you will see later. Second, trips to Bhutan don’t come cheap as the local government tries to protect their country from mass tourism – so to make it exclusive they made the entry rules pricey. Which might not be a bad decision considering all the beautiful and unspoiled nature that country has to offer.
How to travel to Bhutan?
To get a visa into Bhutan you need to contract a local tour agency. They will come up with a package for you including entry visa, accommodation, meals, guide and tours. These arrangements will cover the 250 USD minimum spend per day and person implemented by the government. For this package your accommodation will be in comfortable 4* properties, which are all from good standard and with local architecture. Lately they do have some luxury 5* properties around the capital area. If you wanna stay in one of these surcharges will apply.
The agency will then do the visa formalities for you as well. Be aware that if you travel as a group, it will be a group visa and everybody in the group has to be present at arrival.
They arranged for us a fantastic guide, Tshultrim or how we called him TT. Very knowledgeable, polite, funny and although a talented singer as you will see later :-)
The way to the Kingdom
Basically there are two main possibilities to enter Bhutan via plane – either through India or through Nepal. Our small travel group from Dubai took the second option as there are convenient and cheap flight connections with FlyDubai to Kathmandu (www.flydubai.com).
We also took advantage and had one overnight in Kathmandu with some sightseeing before our flight to Bhutan the next day.
For that night we stayed at the simple, but clean Holy Himalaya Hotel (www.holyhimalaya.com) which is right in the heart of the city.
For all arrangements in Nepal I can also recommend a very good friend, Madan Adhikari, and his long established tour agency:
The Holy Himalaya Hotel is located in a small street with many shops, bars and restaurants around. Recommended is a dinner in the nearby Gaia Restaurant (www.gaia-restaurant.com) with delicious Nepalese food that you can enjoy in a small courtyard. Afterwards a drink on the small rooftop at the Fusion Kitchen (www.kathmandukitchennyc.com) will put you to sleep easily. All the places are in the same street, so also easy reachable for ladies travelling alone, as nights in Kathmandu streets can mean pitch dark as they don’t have everywhere street lights in the city.
We didn’t had much time the next morning so we just did a quick tour.
But before – know that Kathmandu streets are wild, muddy and full of cars, motorcycles, people and animals plus pray that you won’t get an electric shock from some of the hundreds of wires tangling down.
The Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest unique structure Stupas in the word and an UNESCO World Heritage site. You can walk around the Stupa on a circle walk which is lined up with many shops, cafes and restaurants. If you climb the stairs of the temple opposite the Stupa you can make beautiful pictures over the whole area. Same fantastic view you will get from the rooftop terraces of some of the cafes around.
The shops around that area are all very touristic and therefore expansive. Nevertheless there are some interesting Mandala painting schools around – Mandalas are spiritual paintings in Buddhism and Hinduism culture. These stunning paintings can be really expansive if they are drawn by masters, but you can get some cheaper student versions and all depends a bit on your bargaining skills. In any case they are unique and a very special souvenir to bring back home.
Next stop was at the famous Pashupatinah Hindu Tempel. You can find here a big complex of temples, shrines and ashrams centered around the seat of Nepal’s national deity, Lord Pashupatinath. As around all Hindu temples you can find a colorful crowd of people plus stalls with items for offerings and other religious souvenirs.
The temple complex is located on the banks of the Bagmati River, which is also an important cremation site. First the bodies of the deceased get a washing ritual in the river before they are cremated and later their ashes are thrown into the river. I have to put a warning out here that this site is not for everybody as depending on how many bodies are getting cremated at that time, the smell can be intense. On our visit everything was quiet over there and only one washing ritual was performed – but on a previous visit to Kathamandu I were at the site in full operation and it took me some time to digest that– as this experience was kind of overwhelming for first-timers.
Usually a year after a person has died the family will return to this place to seek a priest sitting along the river to perform memorial prayers and rituals for the deceased.
The descend into Bhutan
So came the time for what I feared most on that trip – the flight to Bhutan. However the first surprise was a positive one, as the plane from Drukair (www.drukair.com.bt) was a modern Airbus and not a small flattering propeller airplane that I had in mind. Service on board was also very friendly and you even got a lunch box for a flight that doesn’t last an hour. But then came the scary part – the approach into Paro International airport – which is nothing for the faint-hearted. The plane is twisting itself down through the narrow valleys and I almost got a heart attack when the trees and rocks were only few meters away from the wings. Flights to Paro depend a lot on the weather, so you can expect flight delays or cancellations in case the conditions are bad. Further you can only reach Bhutan in daylight as there are no night flights in operation.
"Kuzu Zango La" - Welcome to the Kingdom of Bhutan
So thanks God we made it – Paro International Airport, well as a frequent traveler I would call it “cute”. You can just walk yourself from the plane to the terminal building, which is built in the local architecture. As there won’t be any other planes, immigration is quick and simple as well as the baggage collection.
First glance on the Kingdom
Our guide TT, welcomed us with a big smile and a scarf for welcome gift. He looked already exotic to me in his traditional clothing and taking in the fresh mountain air my head felt enlightened and slightly dizzy - so here we are now in the mystic Kingdom!
As it was time for lunch we drove right into Paro – you can’t actually call that a city, it is more a collection of traditionally built houses with lots of green and cows in between. Our first meal was delicious, super fresh with a choice of different meat and vegetable dishes – sharing style.
Afterwards we set off for our drive to the capital of Bhutan – Thimphu, which is the most peaceful capital I have ever seen with no crowds, nor traffic – all village style. The road to Thimphu was also very scenic through a deep valley with a gurgling river at its bottom.
Thimphu - the relaxed capital
In Thimphu we still had time for sightseeing and thus visited our first Dzong on that trip the Tashicho Dzong, home to the current king's throne, Buddhist Monastery, fortress and seat of the government all in one.
Some word to the Dzongs of Bhutan – all of them are spectacular in themselves, massive and with a stunning architecture. Yes, they are indeed all similar and you could say if you saw one you saw them all – but still every Dzong has its own character and as Bhutan is still spared from big tourist crowds you can find a very peaceful almost meditative atmosphere within them.
So TT got ready leading us into the Dzong with wrapping him up in a kind of shawl – which is mandatory for all locals before they are entering government buildings.
The Dzong had beautiful wood craft and we could wander around the huge courtyard and enter the praying hall (no pictures are allowed in there).
Visiting times of Dzong's are very restricted so that the monks are not disturbed during prayer times – when we left they just gathered for the evening prayers.
Afterwards we checked-in into our cosy Bhutan Suites Hotel (www.bhutansuites.com). The rooms were huge, even with a kitchenette. Staff was super friendly as actually everywhere you go in this country and we got a delicious Bhutanese dinner and tried out their local beer and you can even find a local wine – however that tasted super sweet more like a kind of fruit juice plus they have some funky looking local beer brands.
Next day started with a visit to the National Memorial Chorten – this beautiful Stupa is the religious landmark of the capital. We found ourselves in a lively atmosphere surrounded by people praying while walking clockwise around the Stupa.
Afterwards we drove a road high up to the so called Buddha Dordenma Statue (www.buddhadordenma.org) – which is the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world. The statue was built to celebrate the 60th birthday of the 4th king of Bhutan and the main statue was constructed and sponsored by a Singaporean. The statue is made of bronze, gilded in gold and houses hundreds of smaller Buddha statues inside. This site is a significant place of worship, meditation and prayer.
Impressive entrance gate to the temple terrace.
The statue is breathtaking same as the views over the surrounding mountain area. Bhutan at its best!
Also from up there you get a good view over Thimphu itself and you will see how tiny this capital is.
Next stop was at the Thimphu Minizoo to get a glance on the national animal called – Takin. This species can only be found in the Eastern Himalayas and is a gnu-goat mixture. In the mini-zoo they are behind a fence, but you can get a good glimpse on them within their national habitat.
After our local lunch we had some free time to roam around the mainly empty streets of Thimphu, but whenever you see locals they are keen to have a chat with you.
Back to Paro
Then we returned on the same road that we came the previous day to Paro, where we visited first the National Museum (www.nationalmuseum.gov.bt). Pictures are not allowed in the museum, but it gives you a good overview on the cultural heritage as well as local customs and clothing of Bhutan. One room is dedicated to the flora and fauna of Bhutan and it’s quite interesting which diversity you can find in that comparatively small country.
Outside area of the National Museum.
Afterwards we visited another picturesque Dzong which is located right under the National Museum – the Ringpung Dzong (www.paro.gov.bt).
We took then the foot path beside the monastery down and crossed an often pictured wooden cantilever bridge back to Paro city.
Is that the Bhutanese sense of humor on the wall of an art gallery? :-)
After some free time in the main street of Paro for souvenir shopping – they actually have quite a number of well equipped stores over there including Mandala art centers – we checked into our second hotel – the Tashi Namgay Resort (www.tashinamgayresort.com).
Although located directly across the airport, you don’t need to worry about any noise disturbances – as I said there are no night flights and only very few flights during day time. The hotel consists of various bungalow styled rooms scattered around a garden along the river bank. Rooms are in rustic interior and also very spacious. Food was excellent here as well, however the dining hall was much bigger than in the previous hotel and therefore felt less cozy. If you are staying longer you can enjoy treatments at their Spa or other activities as cycling or archery.
Hike to Tiger's Nest - The Highlight of our Trip
On the next day the highlight of our trip was awaiting us – the hike up Tiger’s Nest monastery. Some people of our group had already serious concerns the day before (yes, you John :-)), but I took that, well let’s say maybe a bit too lightly as I thought as a Bavarian girl from the Alps that will be just a walk in the park for me – so wrong. Of course I also didn’t take the option of renting a horse for the first part – hello pride!
So let me summarize that hike here already: it’s a hike through beautiful mountain terrain with a stunning monastery at the end, but it is NOT a walk in the park. The 2-3 hours walk up there are throughout steep and maybe what I have underestimated most was the altitude which makes breathing more difficult. So yes, I made it up there as the last of my group – shame on me!!! And although it was worth it, it’s enough to do it once :-)
So as mentioned from the starting point you have the possibility to climb on a horse, which will bring you up half the way. However the treks are steep and often slippery – so I am not sure if horses are always the best option.
The Trek starting point.
Once you climbed up the dense pine forest you will reach a plateau with a resting house, where coffee/tea and cookies will be served to revive your energy level.
From there you can also enjoy the first fantastic views onto the monastery which is clutching to the steep rock walls. Very impressive and you are just wondering where the hell is the way up to there???
The next part of the trek will take you through some forest that seems exotic with its fern covered trees plus lianas and prayer flags tangling down.
You will then suddenly reach a small terrace from which you have a breathtaking view onto the monastery and oh yes it seems so close, but still is miles away as you first have to descend into a valley, cross a waterfall and then climb up again. No pain, no gain must be the Mantra of the monks over here.
Well, you never walk alone :-)
As in all monasteries in Bhutan you have to put your shoes off and here you also need to leave your bag and mobile phones at the entrance – no pictures are allowed inside.
The Tiger’s Nest also known under Paro Taktsang (www.parotaktsang.org) is the most visited tourist site of Bhutan and became the cultural icon of the country. The monastery was built in 1692 at the site of a cave where Guru Padmasambhava has meditated for three years, three month, three days and three hours in the 8th century. In 1998 a fire burnt down the monastery completely as quick help was impossible to reach and was then rebuilt to its present glory. You are now 3120 meters above sea level and you can enjoy spectacular views over the Paro Valley. The complex consists of 4 main buildings each connected with stairs carved into the rocks. Nowadays only a few monks live permanently there. It’s a great place for some meditation and reflection (especially inside the meditation caves).
Unfortunately our group was not that much holistic, but more concerned to reach our lunch place, which our tour company organized en route on the way down. Food was as always delicious and fresh and tasted double good after that physical exercise.
Prayer flags on the way down – you will see them in all Buddhist countries. They symbolize protection from evil forces, positive energy, vitality and good luck. And they always give a good picture with all their colors! Further a picture from a memorial shrine en route.
So once down we enjoyed the rest of the day in the hotel and had our final dinner in town and as it was the final night we had to test the, well almost non-existent nightlife in Paro. You remember I told you that our guide TT was a very good singer – so where else he could have brought us than to a Karaoke Bar. Was a real fun night and together with his friends we tuned into local and international songs!
Bye Bye Bhutan
Next day was time to say goodbye and as the flight into Bhutan was fairly ok, the flight back was a nightmare. But before leaving a small tip: they are selling some great herbal tea at the airport in Paro - don't miss to get some! (www.bhutanherbaltea.com)
It all started well with final fantastic views onto Paro Valley and Mt. Everest popping out from the clouds.
But then came the descend into Kathmandu through thick clouds and strong winds. The airplane did several funky turns within the clouds which let you feel like you were in a roller-coaster. After an abandoned attempt to land with the landing gear already down, there was a frightening silence in the plane. Yeap, so my nightmare came true, maybe it was my fault then!! Thanks God the second attempt worked out and we landed safe back at Kathmandu airport.
As we had the whole afternoon free before our flight back to Dubai we decided to call my friend Madan from Champawati Tours (contact details as mentioned earlier) to send us a driver for some city discovery. Nice as he always is, he joined himself to show us around the famous Durbar Square (www.dbrevisited.weebly.com).
The whole square is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is a mixture of temples, palaces and courtyards. The architecture of the buildings is amazing or in some cases I have to say "was" – as unfortunately a couple of these unique structures have been destroyed during the 2015 earthquake. As I have visited the place on an earlier trip before, the scenery there now is heartbreaking. But strong efforts are done with international help to rebuilt all the temples, but of course the atmosphere will never be the same. Foreigners have to pay an entrance fee (around 9 USD) in order to get into Durbar Square. Here are some impressions of the life in and around of Durbar Square.
Below is inside the courtyard of the Kumari Temple. If you are lucky you can see the Kumari girl in one of these windows. So what is a Kumari you will ask then? The Kumari or Living Godness is the tradition to worship a young pre-pubescent girl of the divine female energy. A Kumari is the incarnation of the spirit Taleju, once the girl gets her first menstruation it is believed that the spirit will leave her body. Until that time she will stay in the temple and will be mainly worshipped for one day in the year, when a procession will carry her through the streets. For foreigners this culture is a bit hard to understand as this girl will live all her childhood away from her home and parents. Once she gets back it is believed that any man marrying her will be under a spell and will have an early death – so to be a Kumari can be a blessing (during her Godness time) as well as a punishment for that girl (afterwards). This time she didn’t show herself to us.
After your discovery tour through Durbar Square I would highly recommend to enjoy a local specialty called Momo’s on one of the rooftop restaurants. These kind of dumplings are sooooo yummy and you can get them fried or steamed and either with vegetarian or meat filling.
Yes and with Madan you will always see all sides of the city. Ladies leave your heels at home :-)
So another fantastic and purely magical trip came to an end. Bhutan was an unforgettable journey with amazing people on the way!
Le Shim Bay Jo Eh - Goodbye Bhutan!
This trip was arranged through Escape Travels (www.escape-travels.com).