I had heard a lot about Bhutan and its uniqueness by being the World’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom. After seeing the picture of Tiger’s Nest temple, I was sold. It instantly became a part of my bucket list. On my once in a year India trip, I told my parents that let’s take a trip to Bhutan. I love the fact that my parents are still so enthusiastic about travelling at this age, they agreed in a heartbeat. This kept me motivated at work and soon enough it was time ❤
There are a lot of things that I want to share about my travel experience. I would first like to start by saying that it’s so far my favourite country!
1) Booking your flight
September – Mid November is the peak travel season. When I was browsing through Sky Scanner, Expedia I couldn’t find any flights. I asked my father about it (assuming he would know being in Air India). He tried to find out and soon enough we discovered that you can book your tickets on their website https://www.drukair.com.bt/? or through travel agents. There is only one airline that flies to the country, Bhutan Airlines (They have their very own national carrier). The flights depart from Delhi, Kolkata and Nepal only. There are a couple of options here:
- You can book your tickets on their website https://www.drukair.com.bt/? You can also find important information on their flights and schedules here: http://www.bhutantravelbureau.com/getting-to-bhutan/
- Or, You can book your flight tickets through travel agents and decide where would you like to depart from. They will book your tickets accordingly.
- Or, you can book a tour through agencies like Thomas cook, Make my trip etc (I would personally not recommend this). However, they do all the bookings for you which include flight tickets, Hotel accommodation, Sightseeing, tour guide, driver, food( usually breakfast and dinner is included). The only downside is you would be travelling with a bunch of other people and travel agencies have their own timings and itinerary to cover, no flexibility.
- Or, you can book a private tour for yourself and family exclusively and they book your flight tickets, Hotel accommodation, Sightseeing, driver, food. The only downside is you don’t get a guide.
- Or, (I would recommend this option) Do your research and bookings prior to travelling and get a cab driver outside the Airport. You can negotiate the price with the drivers according to the number of days you wish to stay and they will drive you around. The drivers usually have information on guides and can hook you up with one if you ask for.
**** People also take road trips to Bhutan from Sikkim.You can only drive your own vehicle if you are on a road trip from some other state. I would personally not recommend driving by yourself. It could be a mood killer as the roads are not in great condition and navigating on your own and driving can be a pain as the network is not that great in some places either for GPS to work. Besides, you don’t want to miss out on the scenic views on your drive :D****
I went with the 4th option and booked my tickets through Thomas cook. They booked our tickets from Delhi to Bhutan round trip and we booked our own tickets from Mumbai – Delhi. I had done my research and checked out a lot of travel agencies and their itinerary to get a better idea on places to visit, to stay etc. So going with option 4 made a lot more sense.
I would definitely suggest booking flights at least 1 month in advance. The flight operates somewhat like this:
- If you are leaving from Delhi, the flight goes via Kathmandu. So for us, it was Mumbai- Delhi-Katmandu- Paro (yea it was a pretty long journey).
- Direct flights are from Kolkata to Paro
Important link: http://www.bhutantravelbureau.com/getting-to-bhutan/
Bhutan Airlines: Our flight was Airbus 319 which is a pretty small aircraft. The airline operates only to pick up and drop off passengers to and from Bhutan. You won’t see any other airline at Paro International Airport. It was amazing to see how the country operates right from booking the flight to flying there.
Important link: http://www.bhutantravelbureau.com/getting-to-bhutan/
2. Stay: There are a couple of Airbnb’s there and some are pretty cheap as well. I booked hotels in all the three major districts (Thimpu, Punakha and Paro). The hotel booking was inclusive of breakfast and dinner.
Hotel in Thimpu: Kisa, I really liked the location of this hotel. In the heart of the city, it’s a very convenient hotel. Main attractions such as Buddha viewpoint, Memorial Chorten, Handicraft market and the city skyline are all close by. The hotel has great food and good wifi.
Hotel in Punakha: Damchen Lodge, this hotel facing Punakha river and the beautiful rice paddies near fort Punakha had the most amazing view. You will find poor network in Punakha and wifi is only available in the hotel lobby. But I would say this is a good opportunity to disconnect and simply soak into nature.
Hotel in Paro: Village Lodge, this was my most favourite hotel in the entire trip. About half an hour drive from the city in the middle of Paro village, this lodge was perfect to experience the Bhutanese culture in its most authentic form. This lodge has decent wifi and delicious food. It would cost you around Rs.1300 per night.
3. Car/Guide: Like I mentioned above, you can get a car with a driver outside the airport or make a booking for either private tour or through travel agencies. We negotiated with the cab outside the airport and got a good deal ( Rs.125/day)
**** If your passport is expiring in less than 6 months from the day of arrival in Bhutan, they will not allow entry into the country no matter what****
**** They accept Indian/ Bhutanese currency****
Now, let’s start the fun part 😀
Day 1: Arriving at Bhutan
Our flight from Mumbai was at 7:30 am by Vistara Airline. I had never travelled by this airline before, good food and great service. We landed in Delhi around 10:00 am and our flight from Delhi was at 12:30 PM. It was a total of 4 hrs flight from Delhi to Bhutan with a 1 hr stop at Tribhuvan International Airport (Katmandu). We finally made it to Bhutan at 4:30 PM.
From Katmandu To Bhutan, you will get an incredible view of Himalayan range. We were lucky enough to catch a sight of Mt Everest. This itself was a mind-blowing experience. We could see the peak of Everest and couldn’t stop clicking pictures ( I would say hope to get a seat on the left side of the cockpit while flying from Nepal to Bhutan and if not then better make friends with people on the left :p)
As you approach Bhutan, the view just gets better. You can totally notice the difference in the colour of the sky which is more clear and blue. I have never seen a clear sky like this (except for maybe on some clear days in Seattle :p). As you land, you have a beautiful view of the landscape covered with rice paddies and surrounded by green Mountain ranges. It was definitely an amazing and the most scenic 1 and a half hour of flight.
The Airport is pretty small (as only Bhutan Airlines operates here) and there is hardly any line for immigration. We were done with immigration in few minutes. It was very easy to find a driver outside the airport. We negotiated for Rs 125 per day which was a pretty good deal (that’s around Rs 1000 for 6 days).
My plan was to drive to Thimpu and explore the capital first. So our first destination was Thimpu which is about 1 hr 30 mins away from Paro International Airport. The drive was filled with the views every traveller only dreams of. It’s absolutely impossible to not stop and take pictures. However, I would say keep driving as the sun sets early during this period (September-November) at around 6:00 PM. On your way, you pass the Chozum which is the confluence of Thimpu and Paro rivers. You will also see three Stupas: Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepalese adorning the Confluence. You cross the Chozum which is the point of entry in Thimpu. The drive from there is another half an hour to the main city. We were staying in the heart of the city. Thimpu city is busier and crowded in comparison with the other two cities (Punakha and Paro).
After we checked into the hotel, we were served with their welcome drink- Apple tea. I don’t really like tea nor am I a tea person but this tea was amazing :p We freshened up, had some dinner and got some rest to charge ourselves up to explore Thimpu :).
** I am not kidding when I say that Bhutanese people are very hospitable. Their breakfast, lunch and dinner are served as a three-course meal if you have booked the hotel package that is inclusive of the meal. It was overwhelming to have so many options especially for a foodie like me. I must have gained almost 5 pounds in my 6-day tour.**
Day 2: Exploring Thimpu
- Buddha Viewpoint
We started in the morning around 9:00 am after a delightful breakfast. Our first stop was Buddha Viewpoint. This humongous statue of Buddha Dordenma is visible from anywhere in Thimpu city. Sitting tall on the mountain this statue is 169ft tall and you have to take a fleet of stairs to get to the foot of the statue. There’s a temple inside the statue. This was the only place where entry was free of cost.
2. Memorial Chorten
Chorten is a local word for stupa. The entry fee for the temple is Rs 300 per person. I would say in order to experience and to know more about the temple and its history you should visit this place. Here we found out about stupas and three levels that lead to the path of enlightenment as per Buddhism.
3. Simply Bhutan performing arts
I would definitely recommend visiting this place to get a better insight into Bhutanese Culture. People here introduce you and embrace you in their culture. We were welcomed with a Bhutanese drink called ‘Arra’. You are supposed to have two shots of this drink failure to do so will lead to enmity with the person serving you the drink. I then tried their traditional dress :p. We were then served with some roasted rice, mixed with butter tea while enjoying their traditional dance.
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. So we got our hands on some archery and failed miserably :p. This whole experience cost us Rs 100 per person.
4. Takin natural preserve
Takin is Bhutan’s National animal. You will find more of these animals in North of Bhutan which is around 3 days of a drive. The natural preserve is not a zoo but a confined space for Takins. It was good to see this animal up close and personal.
5. Paper mill
Now I would only recommend this place for the gorgeous view I had of Thimpu skyline. This was among the touristy things to do that my parents were very interested in. So I booked it for them. However, I would totally thank them for this otherwise there was no way that I would have been able to get a gorgeous view of the skyline across Thimpu river. The drive to the mill is on an uphill slope which gives you a good elevation to take pictures from. From this point, you have a good view of Buddha statue as well. While my parents were checking out the mill, I was outside trying to get one perfect picture 😀
6. Zilukha Nunnery
The nunnery is a basically female monastery. The only extraordinary thing about this place was the view of Bhutan’s Government building. The view of the constituency and King’s Palace is amazing from here. Especially if you drive downhill from here, there is a lookout point where you can stop the car and click pictures. The constituency and the Palace are in the middle of rice paddies, surrounded by mountains. You can also see the Buddha statue on the right from here 😀 ( I was so obsessed with the architecture of this statue)
7. Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery
This monastery is on top of a hill that is accessible via stairs. The temple is at a very serene location and it’s very placid inside. However, the view of the city from here is very scenic. I like places with a great view of landscape or nature or skylines. I think that’s the reason I loved Bhutan a lot!
This was our last stop and we ended our day with much-needed dinner at the hotel.
Day 3: Drive to Punakha.
We left for Punakha around 8:00 am in the morning. I cannot stress enough on the fact that you have to take a drive from Thimpu to Punakha if you are in Bhutan. This was the most amazing and the most panoramic drive. Punakha is around 3 hrs away from Thimpu. You need to go through immigration on the way at Norzin Lam. You then cross Dochula Pass which is at 3,100 m elevation is always covered with clouds. On a bright sunny day or a good day for that matter, you can see Himalayan range from here. This place has a monastery and 108 stupas.
After our stop at Dochula Pass, we continued our drive to Punakha. Clear blue sky, rice fields, forests, waterfalls, rivers everything that makes up for a wonderful drive is what you will see on your way. As you enter the city you realise that this is just how the whole city is, simply beautiful. Our first stop here was Chimi Lhakhang Monastery.
- Chimi Lhakhang Monastery (Temple of fertility)
This monastery is located at 45 mins walk on top of a hill from Rinchenling Cafeteria. We stopped our car here at the hotel, ordered food and started walking. You have to walk through rice fields and through Punakha village, also called as Phallus village to get here. The monastery is also called as Temple of fertility. After a beautiful walk through the rice paddies and thousands of gorgeous views, we made it to the monastery. I would say, all the temples here were very soothing and calming. And the best part about visiting these temples is the experience and views that you come across on your way. Walking through the village, checking out how people stay here by working on the farm or selling handicrafts. It was an experience indeed. After our temple visit, we had some lunch at Rinchenling cafeteria. It usually takes around 30 mins for food prep in Bhutan so it made perfect sense to order our food first and then visit the temple. So the food was ready by the time we got back. The Cafeteria has an amazing view of the village and rice field.
2. Punakha Dzong ( Fort Punakha)
Our next stop was Fort Punakha. You pass Punakha valley to get to the fort from Chimi Lhakhang Monastery. The drive, needless to say, is picturesque. The Fort is beautiful architecture wise and location wise. The entry fee here is Rs. 300 per person. We also went river rafting on Punakha river ( it cost us Rs. 500 per person).
We then checked into our hotel which was right in front of the Punakha river and enjoyed our royal dinner :p
Day 4: Drive to Paro
I would say if I knew, I would have totally stayed in Punakha for all 6 days. That’s how beautiful it is. Just sit back and relax in nature. However, since I didn’t know about it our next plan was to drive to Paro. The drive from Paro is around 5 hrs from Punakha. On arrival in Paro, we stopped for lunch at Druk restaurant.
- Ta Dzong (National Museum)
I am not a big fan of museums and galleries and stuff. I only wanted to go here because of the beautiful view of Paro Skyline. I am not sure if Bhutan has a concept of a skyline, but in our terms, that’s the best word to describe the panoramic view of the landscape. While my parents were checking out the museum, I walked a little ahead at the edge of the museum and discovered a beautiful view of the skyline and the fort Rinpung Dzong.
2. Rinpung Dzong
This is another fort I would suggest visiting, for the location. You get a beautiful view of the skyline from here as well and there is a cafeteria near this fort where you can relax and get some coffee. The entry fee at this fort is Rs. 300 per person. We overdosed on temples, so we decided to pass on this one and just sit back and relax near the area.
3. Paro Handicraft market
I noticed that Paro was more expensive than Thimpu for handicraft shopping. We still went ahead and did some shopping :p
Day 5: Tiger’s Nest Taktsang Dzong
I am not a hiker, in fact, I hate hiking. Washington is hikers paradise and people are very into it. But for me, NO! I have no idea what got into me or how did I even agree to do this. I guess I was completely blinded by Bhutan’s beauty so far. I was all excited and had read up a lot about the hike to this fort. The hike is around 10km round trip and includes all sort of torture you go through while hiking (steep slopes, ascending and descending stairs, marshland covered with horse poop, you name it). You can also hike up to 2.5km on horses and that will cost you around Rs.600 per person (we bargained and got it reduced to Rs.400). After that its another 2.5Km. I would definitely recommend taking a horse ride half way up for people who are not hikers or over 40’s or lazy ones like me. Because even after the horse ride the experience was excruciatingly painful. It took us 3 hrs to get to the temple (including the horse ride). We were inside the temple for about an hour relaxing in the breeze and getting ourselves charged up for our hike down. It took us total 7 hrs with lots of stops and some food on our way back. I would say it was worth the pain because the temple was absolutely pristine with a waterfall in front of it which is refreshing as you walk in the heat all soaked in sweat.
If you are doing this hike, I would recommend devoting a whole day as its a long and strenuous one. So we kept this for our last day in Bhutan. By the end of it, we were physically drained with sore feet. A nice bubble bath and dinner later we passed out :p
Day 6: Flight back to Mumbai 😦
I was absolutely sad leaving Bhutan. There are very few countries/states that I remember having so much impact on me( Paris, New York, Dubai) and now Bhutan is one of them. Government service is their prime source of income with tourism being second. We had a TV only in Thimpu. People here always wear traditional attire. Definition of self-sufficiency and happiness here is much different than the rest of us. Bhutan is aloof from the rest of the World and is its own pure, selfless, tranquil World which follows simple living and philosophy of Gross National Happiness. It’s aptly called the Land of Happiness ❤
Some more from the trip!