We finally set foot in the top destination of our dreams. But not after enduring 25 hours of flying time on four series of flights with layovers at three different airports in three countries over a period of three days. Traveling from bustling New York to remote and pristine Bhutan was a long, long trek indeed. Was it worth it? Absolutely and we’ll do it again in a heartbeat!
Why Bhutan? From everything that we had heard and read, Bhutan is no ordinary place. It sounded so magical, so mystical — like a Shangri-la.
Who wouldn’t be charmed by an idea of a small Buddhist Kingdom perched high in the Himalayas whose core philosophy is the enrichment of Gross National Happiness rather than gross national product?
Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a country so isolated that it didn’t formally open its door to tourism until 1974 and didn’t have televisions until the 1990’s?
Despite opening its doors to foreigners and being ranked one as one of the world’s top destinations, Bhutan remains not too accessible to most not only because of its remote location but also because of its strict but impressive preservation effort.
Low Volume, High Value Tourism. Bhutan’s priority remains the preservation of its culture and environment and is, therefore, careful not to allow tourism to negatively impact them. The aim of the government is to attract well-intentioned visitors by imposing a “minimum” tariff of US$250 per day per visitor. It may sound exorbitant but it covers visa, accommodation, food, transportation and guide. To insure that the minimum tariff is met, you must book a prepaid tour package with an accredited travel company. Independent travel is not allowed in Bhutan (except for the citizens of India who are exempt from minimum tariff rule).
Flights into Bhutan are also limited, so advance planning is essential. Currently, the only carrier that flies into the country is Druk Air, the national flag carrier of Bhutan. There are daily flights from Bangkok, Delhi, Calcutta and Kathmandu, and limited flights from Singapore.
We took our Druk Air flight from Bangkok – at 4:45 in the morning! After a 3-hour flight, we landed in Bhutan’s only international airport in Paro.
Landing in Paro looked so breathtaking with the view of the spectacular valley below and the majestic mountains that surround it. But it was daunting as well. The valley is deep and narrow and the mountains soar up to 18,000 feet, making it the world’s most difficult airport for landing and take off.
And due to this challenging geography, landing instruments cannot be used for landing in Paro; the pilots can only use visual landing rules. That being said, only a handful of pilots are qualified to fly in Bhutan. Thanks to their exceptional skills, our flight landed safely and very smoothly. (We guess that they also chant their Buddhist prayers while landing and taking off).
The airport in Paro is the most charming and most relaxed airport we have been to. Passengers were free to wander around the tarmac to take photos and to take in their breathtaking surrounding.
We were delighted to finally step on Bhutan’s soil and to be greeted by a big poster of the beloved King of Bhutan and his new bride. Their handsome faces followed us at every hotels, restaurants, temples and shops we visited. The Bhutanese adored them so and refer to them as the People’s King and Queen.
We were met at the airport by our excellent guide (from highly recommended Lingkor Tours and Treks) and we were whisked to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Typical of most places and vehicles in Bhutan, ours was adorned with prayer flags giving us some sense of bliss and comfort while on the road (which turned out to be treacherous in many parts).
The almost two-hour drive from Paro to Thimpu was very picturesque and tranquil. We drove through scenic mountains and valleys dotted with quaint villages, rice paddies and orchards.
One of the bucolic villages we passed by with typical Bhutanese homes.
We passed by adorable school boys on their way to school wearing “gho,” the traditional Bhutanese clothing for males.
And the school girls wear “kira,” the traditional clothing for females.
Passing by some more school children and a ruin.
A small open market along the road.
Rivers, soaring mountains and winding road.
One of the many temples dotting the mountains and valleys.
A traditional iron bridge spanning Paro River.
The lovely sights in on our drive from Paro to Thimpu was a just a small teaser to the beauty that unfolded to us during our 10 wonderful day of discovery in blissful Bhutan.
Nestled between Tibet and India, Bhutan is indeed a small gem worthy of discovery. We were enchanted by its pristine nature and dramatic landscape; its ancient temples, monasteries and fortresses; the richness of its Buddhist heritage; its delightful myths and legends; the vibrant spiritual festivals; the village life; the spectacular trails; the blissful sights of monks, prayer flags and prayer wheels; the fun archery competition; the majestic architectures and arts; and, most of all, its people. We found Bhutanese well-educated, very warm and friendly, fun-loving and so relaxed. We admire that they enthusiastically embrace global developments while firmly maintaining their unique cultural identity.
What was meant to be a very special fifth anniversary trip also turned out to be a beautiful pilgrimage of a lifetime. We look forward to sharing more of our Bhutan experiences with you in our next posts.
Some basic and fun facts about Bhutan:
• Locals call Bhutan Drukyul – ” Land of the Thunder Dragon.”
• The government of Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy.
• The population is about 700,000.
• The land area is about half the size of the state of Indiana.
• About 70% of the country is a forest reserve.
• The national language is called Dzongka and the alphabets are identical to Tibetan.
• English is widely spoken and is used as medium of instruction.
• The currency is Ngultrum (Nu for short). It is pegged to the Indian rupee.
• Archery is the national sport.
• Their rice is red.
• Super hot chillies are the main ingredients of their national dish called ema dashe.
• Sale of cigarettes is illegal.
• Bhutan is the first country to introduce the ban of plastic bags in 1999.
• There are no traffic lights throughout the country.
• If some countries use “evil eyes” to protect them from evils, Bhutanese use phallus images to ward them off. (More about this on a separate post!)