Travel Tips – Bhutan

Arriving in Bhutan you fly into what is known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.  It is absolutely thrilling descending from 28,000 feet and being surrounded by mountains.  You are not only surrounded, you are flying around and in-between them. Because there are so many mountains, to get low enough to hit the runway at 7,300 feet, you have to pitch and roll in-between the hills to get in the valley.  Even the Druk Air inflight magazine reminds you – “If you think we are flying too close to the mountains, do not be alarmed.  This is our normal procedure”. Once the pilot hits the last hard right bank, the nose of the plane drops sharply because you need to hit the first part of the notoriously short runway to ensure you stop before the runway ends at the Paro river on the other side.

That is when you can actually land at Paro.  Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon because of the violent storms which rip across this tiny Himalayan country and weather can keep you in or out of the country whenever mother nature demands.

Interesting Facts About Bhutan

  1. One of 43 land locked nations on earth – Bhutan is about half the size of Indiana
  2. 1/3 of Bhutans population is under the age of 15
  3. There is a constitutional obligation for 60% of the country to remain under forrest cover.  (Current stats have them at 70% or slightly higher based on info from my Guide.)
  4. The sale of tobacco is illegal in the country
  5. The highest peak of Bhutan is Gangkar Puensum at 24, 840 feet.  It is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.  (The people respect nature and gods presence in their mountains – you don’t stand on top of god in Bhutan.)
  6. If you kill an endangered Black Neck Crane, NO SOUP FOR YOU – Life in prison
  7. The first road was paved in 1962
  8. The first tourists arrived in 1974 – 287 total that year
  9. T.V. and Internet arrived in Bhutan in 1999
  10. Bhutanese men and women are required to appear in traditional dress while visiting government offices or during official and religious ceremonies.

The reality  of travel in Bhutan is there is only one way to do it.  The government dictates who gets in, how many can come in and that when you get here you have to have a guide.   You are either in a larger tour group or you setup your own tour, which is what I did.  Because the government dictates how tourism works – which is done to protect the culture and history of this beautiful country – the government also establishes what it costs to travel in Bhutan.

This concept is called low volume, high value tourism.

Currently, Bhutan averages between 30 to 50 thousand tourists a year.  The largest year was last year, 2011, when King 5 married and around 50 thousand people visited the country.  The current goal is to update a few hotels and some infrastructure to support up to 100,000 tourists a year beginning as early as 2014.

Essentially, whether you are in a large group, a couple or a solo traveler, you pay a minimum of 250 USD a day, per person to travel in Bhutan.  A solo traveler pays a supplement of 40 dollars a day.  (Thus, I paid 290 dollars a day for 10 days.)  For this large chunk of change you do get lodging, meals, a driver and a guide for each day you are in the country.  Not a bad deal but that is very rich for this part of the world. (In Nepal, you could probably do the same for 50 – 75 dollars a day with a little planning & negotiating.)  Even though you have a driver and guide, you still get free time to walk about on your own and explore, which is wonderful.  This gave me time to fall in a hole, gash my leg and experience Bhutanese Healthcare first hand.

I spent one hour in the ER, received 6 stitches, local anesthetic, cleaning of 4 other wounds, got a tetanus shot and received a weeks worth of antibiotic and a handful of Percocet. All at no charge. It wasn’t the USA level of care – I sat on a red plastic stool with my leg on the floor while the one guy there who knew how to stitch squatted by my wound and stitched my leg.  Not fancy but it worked.  (Link to FB for more pics – feel free to like this site while you are there and get these updated in more real time – hint.)

 

You also have to fly Druk Air – the national carrier of Bhutan – as they are the only air carrier which flys into the one international airport in the country in Paro. Overland travel is not permissible for anyone other than Indian passport holders. Having no price competition means Druk Air can charge you whatever they like.  Even to the point where after you spend 700 USD on a round trip ticket between Bangkok and Paro – you may be asked to pay a bit more at checkin if fares rose between the time your ticket was issued and you actually fly.  This did not happen to me but I have heard this can occur.

 

The only choice you really have for travel here is what tour company to select to help you plan an itinerary, book your tickets and hire your guide and driver.  That’s it.  You have about 700 official agencies from which to choose.  In the end, they all offer almost the exact same tours or treks, the only difference is going to be who has access to the best guides.  Which is also not as big of a deal as all guides are trained to the point I think they could recite more details about this country than lonely planet can put in a sensible guide book.  (They have to pass a government sponsored test and renew yearly with renewal fees.) They are all good, all speak english and they will help you do anything you like, as they love a good tip.

I booked with Bhutan Footprints only because I got tired of trying to decide which website I trusted more and they had a review on their site from some dude from my hometown of Kansas City, which was good enough for me.

Bhutan Footprints worked out perfectly with their founder even dropping by to meet me for lunch one day when we were in Timphu.

Because most agencies offer the same canned tours, it is a good idea to do some research and decide on a few things which you would really like to experience.  The good tour companies and guides will make anything happen. You can also tell them along the way and they will adjust to meet your requests as well.  I asked to see how the national dish of Chili Cheese was made and got to hang out with some cooks at a couple different hotels. This meant skipping a Dzong or two but that was a fine trade in my tour of Bhutan.

My ten days were spent in Western and Central Bhutan mainly, which is the most touristed part of the country.  The infrastructure is better and there is more to see and do.  You can go East for a more rustic tour, which is what I would like to do on a return trip and of course, there are multiple options for some serious trekking in Bhutan.

Essentially, you drive a lot and see a lot of ancient Buddhist sites, Dzongs/frotresses and monasteries.  The guides know this stuff so well you will be in the middle of taking beautiful pictures and suddenly the commentary goes from telling you about the Divine Madman and Guru Rinpoche to asking IF that statue is of Rinpoche or historical Buddha.  Its fun and hard to answer usually because you are so overwhelmed with information…but you can answer in funny idioms which can bring the conversation back to what “what you talkin bout” really means and catch your guide up on American slang.

My favorites and must dos were the Tigers Nest Monastery, Punakha, Bumthang – even though I fell in a hole there – Ura Valley and the Chelela Pass.  Chelela, starting at almost 4000 meters with the ability to walk up about another 500 or so is the perfect way to end the trip with a peaceful mountain meditation, surrounded by a bunch of 7000 meter peaks in the distance.

 

 

The lodging is adequate – somewhere between a motel 8 and hampton inn usually.  There is no central air or heat in the normal lodgings but they are all very comfortable and clean.  I know you can pay a supplement to stay in as nice of places as possible but I do not have experience with what costs those hotels may incur.

The food is pretty much the same every day and every meal but it is very good. Some days in some hotels the food leans a bit more to Bhutanese and others a bit more to Indian.  It is all very good and its possible to eat vegetarian at every meal – which is my diet of choice in Central Asia. The only real tip is to not expect a lot of variety.  Bhutan is certainly not a place where you can dine on Mexican, Italian, cheeseburgers or schnitzel anytime you like but the food they serve is excellent.

As mentioned in the facts, tobacco products are officially illegal in Bhutan. This law broke down quickly with all of the tobacco products being smuggled across the border with India so for the Bhutanese who chose to smoke, you have to get a license and can buy only at specific places at a premium price. Much how California or Colorado treat medical marijuana patients.  As a tourist, you can use tobacco products and bring them in to the country, however.  Bringing them in, be prepared to pay duty and tax and if you have an Indian Passport, I have heard the taxes are as high as 200%.

When you use tobacco products, the rule is you can do it in the privacy of your room.  You rarely see people chewing or smoking outside – especially the locals – so it seems like a good custom to respect.  Kind of makes you want to smoke when its a little naughty and so private and there is an ashtray and matches in every room…(I didn’t start smoking again, don’t worry. Too hard to buy secretly…)

In Bhutan, just be prepared to travel in a world developing a little more slowly than yours so come with a good sense of adventure and an open mind.

I said an open mind…Your guide will explain the importance and beauty of the phallus to you in Bhutanese culture, don’t worry.

This is the kind of thing that is refreshing about travel in Bhutan. Rather than leaving relaxed like you may a beach vacation, prepare to leave Bhutan with a sense of happiness, renewal and increased respect for others and nature.  – It really is an amazing experience – Bhutan is a wonderful Buddhist Kingdom worth the hefty price to visit.

(Sometimes, they even let you drive on the notorioulsy narrow and uneven mountain roads…)

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5 Responses to “Travel Tips – Bhutan”

  1. Mom
    October 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Another wonderful post GC! The airport sounds a bit scary. The country sounds so beautiful as do the people. I am glad you have been able to experience this wonderful country. Looking forward to hearing about Nepal and your adventures there. Love mom:)

  2. Dad
    October 24, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    What a great experience Bhutan was for you. This is such great information, (especially for anyone considering going there)….. it is unbelievable! I’m so proud of your organizational skills, initiative, determination and boundless passion for travel.

    I knew you would find several real jewels on your journey and it sounds like Bhutan was certainly one such jewel. I’m looking forward to hearing about your next jewel soon after you discover it too.

    Love you,
    ~Pops

  3. Rebecca Lessard
    October 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Looks like an awesome trip. Thanks for sharing. Be sure and take care of your leg. Fondly, Mike and Becky

    • October 28, 2012 at 10:38 am #

      Thanks Becky! The leg is doing well –

  4. Charlotte Johnson
    October 24, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    Very interesting country and customs. Airport sounds a little scary! I love reading your posts! Thank you for sharing your experiences. Love you much!!

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