How to Visit Bhutan on a Shoestring
Bhutan is a fascinatingly preserved frontier of culture. Restricted and protected, it offers a superbly enlightening experience even for travelers with much experience in the Himalaya. Although it’s a notoriously expensive place to visit because you must book an approved tour, you do not need to spend much time (and therefore money) to gain a feel for the country and to experience its main attractions.
I recently spent a productive four days in Bhutan. My tight-packed itinerary necessitated a lot of time on the road, but this in itself was enjoyable, as the road was well-kept and scenic, passing through pristine pine forests and high passes. Here’s where I went:
- Day 1: Arrive Paro, drive to Haa Valley
- Day 2. Drive Haa Valley to Punakha (via Thimphu)
- Day 3: Drive Punakha to Paro (via Thimphu)
- Day 4: Paro
- Day 5: Fly back to Kathmandu (morning flight)
The flight from Kathmandu to Paro follows the line of the Himalaya. To enjoy the most dramatic views, sit on the left side of the plane (check in at the airport early, as there is usually no option to reserve seats). There is no mistaking Everest, as from this angle Everest really does tower above the surrounding mountains. You will also be able to pinpoint other famous mountains, such as Kachenjuga and Makalu.
Your cultural experience begins the moment your plane lands. The airport at Paro is like no other international airport, and not just because it welcomes just four international flights a day. Built in a traditional Bhutanese style, it is an impressive example of old-meets-new architecture. All tourists must be accompanied by a guide in Bhutan, and the traditionally dressed locals line up outside the arrivals hall to collect their guests: there are no taxi hustlers here! The first ‘shock’ is how peaceful and tranquil the airport is, and this feeling continues as you travel throughout Bhutan.
After stopping for lunch in Paro, you can begin your three-hour journey to Haa along the Bondey-Haa Highway, which is around 60km. Speed limits are low and other vehicles are rare, so you can sit back and enjoy a relaxed ride with beautiful scenery. Stop and marvel at the mountains from the 3,796 metre high Chelela Pass before you descend into Haa Valley. Hopefully you will arrive in Haa with enough daylight to enjoy a walk around the small town and river area. Haa enjoys natural protection as it is surrounded by mountains on all sides, which adds to the ‘hidden kingdom’ atmosphere.
In the morning, visit the White Temple and Black Temple, built around the 7th century. Bhutan’s religious sites provide a fascinating insight into how pre-Buddhist Bon animist beliefs and practices have been incorporated into everyday life. Ask your guide lots of questions and you will hear lots of stories.
This itinerary cuts other tourist activities around Haa, such as the Haa Dzong (a ‘dzong’ is a type of fortress, specific to Bhutan and parts of Tibet). Don’t despair, as you will visit the dzongs in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. After the Black and White temples, hunker down for a 180 km drive to Punakha, via Thimphu. Again, enjoy the journey through pine forests and tiny settlements. Stop for tea, chortens and mountain views at Dochula Pass, 3,100 metres, before you descend into Thimphu Valley. Thimphu is an unusual city, a mishmash of rapid construction interspersed with traditional styles. International brand imagery mingles with local hand-painted signs. Enjoy the mesmerising dance of Thimphu’s human traffic lights, directing vehicles at the country’s busiest intersection.
While in Thimphu, check out the Takin Preserve for a glimpse of Bhutan’s enigmatic national animal, a herbivorous creature that some say resembles a goat crossed with a cow and mingled with a moose and a buffalo. With the tail of a bear.
Many itineraries will also include a visit to the Great Buddha Dordenma statue. Built on the ruins of a former palace, the site offers fantastic views on Thimphu Valley. Try to schedule your visit at dawn (difficult on this brief itinerary) to see the enormous golden Buddha lit up by the sun’s first rays. The Buddha itself houses over 100,000 smaller Buddhas. You don’t have time to count them. Remember that you will pass through Thimphu again on your return from Punakha, so you can save the Thimphu Dzong for then as it tends to only open in the late afternoon.
The two highlights of the former capital, Punakha, are the beautiful dzong and the fertility temple. Punakha Dzong is picture-postcard perfect. A traditional bridge crossing a pristine glacial river abundant with fish will take you there, situated on a triangle of land rising from the confluence of two rivers. The vibrant colours of beautiful flowers contrast with the whitewashed walls. Dzongs are political and civil administrative centres and Pukakha Dzong still retains these functions, as well as being the winter residence for Bhutan’s royal family.
The fertility temple of Chimi Lhakhang was constructed after the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley, the ‘Divine Madman’, built a chorten on the site. If your trip in Bhutan was feeling slightly surreal up until this point, now it turns downright crazy. The whole settlement of Lobesa is decorated with phallic murals. While you will certainly have seen a few penises painted on walls and doorways by this point of your trip in Bhutan, nowhere are they as concentrated or as graphic as in the small town surrounding the fertility temple.
A short trek through rice fields leads you to a relatively unremarkable gompa. Let your guide’s storytelling enliven the surroundings. The quarter-meter-long phallus made of ivory wood is stored to the left of a the altar, and is supposedly used by the Lama to hit pilgrims on the head by way of greeting, or carried by women circumambulating the temple three times in the hope of being blessed by fertility. A scrap book kept in the temple stores evidence provided by pilgrims from around the world whose families were blessed, sometimes many times over, after visiting this wacky site.
After overnighting in Punakha you are ready to tackle the road back to Paro, via Thimphu. Enjoy comparing yesterday’s views at your second visit to Dochula Pass. Visit the Dzong in Thimpu. It’s the king’s summer residence, and slightly larger than its summer counterpart in Punakha. You may get lucky and see some locals practicing archery at the grounds in Thimpu, close to the central market.
A quick stop at the market at Thimpu is worthwhile. It’s colourful and orderly, and is a good place to buy some local honey–all the more authentic for being in an unlabelled rum bottle. The floor of local produce is dominated mostly by seasonal vegetables, cured meats and dried cheeses of varying degrees of hardness.
Relax in Paro in the evening, in the knowledge that you have no more long car journeys. It is likely your lodge will be on the hillside above Paro, giving you excellent views of the Paro Dzong, lit up on the opposite hillside. Treat yourself to some excellent, surprisingly affordable local red wine in preparation for the highlight of your trip the next day.
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery hardly needs an introduction: it is perhaps the most famous site in Bhutan. It’s a gentle (by Himalayan standards!) hike from the carpark to the start of the monastery complex. There is an option to take a horse to the halfway point. Make sure you are wearing thick socks for this trip as once you enter the temple complex, you will need to remove your shoes and the chill of the slate floor quickly becomes noticeable. Listen to your guide’s stories and ask questions about the representations of different bodhisattvas and gurus. Traditionally, eminent individuals would donate gemstones to be inlayed into statues and stonework–and visitors are heavily monitored both by your guide and by CCTV to ensure these stones remain where they should be!
Bhutan is definitely worth more time, but if you are on a limited budget and schedule, this four-day trip is a good option.
Article by Hannah Straw
Top image by avinash singh/Flickr