Bhutan. The land of the thunder dragon. A tiny country nestled between China and India, directly atop the Himalayas. All of the research I did on the place before I headed there promised that the mountain views, rolling valleys and endless terraced rice fields would be spectacular. Boy did Bhutan deliver on this front, starting with arguably the most incredible airport descent on the globe.
Flying into the country via Drukair, Bhutan’s royal airline, was a fantastic precursor to the beauty that awaited us in the world’s last Shangri-La. If you are especially lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the Himalayas off in the distance, but unfortunately we arrived on a rather cloudy day. As we broke through the cloud layer, however, we were greeted by jagged peaks and rolling green slopes as far as the eye could see. Amidst the many valleys below us, small white specs identified domiciles and dzongs (temples) scattered within the wide expanses of forest and grasslands often at dizzyingly impossible altitudes and implausible locations. A few short videos of our arrival can be found here and here.
As we descended farther still, we began to fly between two tall mountainous outcrops. It is quite an experience to fly on a plane through an area that looks like only an insane pilot might try and manoeuvre through. Indeed, only a tiny handful of captains are qualified to land at Paro International Airport, testament to the difficulties of parking a plane on this amazingly placed yet hair-raisingly short runway. Soon afterwards, having safely landed in Paro, the few passengers aboard our flight breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanked their relevant deities and soon began to disembark.
Paro International is like no other airport I have ever seen. Security is minimal, the airport itself is tiny but beautifully decorated in traditional Bhutanese frescoes and visitors are allowed to stroll across the tarmac freely to photograph the plane, surrounding landscapes or the giant billboard displaying an image of the beloved King and Queen of Bhutan.
Once you enter the arrival lounge you can exchange your dollars (it is recommended that you take this currency type into the country) for ngultrum which is the currency of Bhutan before passing through customs. I would recommend this wholeheartedly as I didn’t see many other means of exchange during the rest of our visit apart from a couple of hotels.
Usually photography is prohibited in airport customs but in Bhutan this rule simply doesn’t apply. Many tourists, myself included, spent a few minutes snapping pictures of the unique architecture of the building before digging out our passports and visa forms. As few as two or three flights frequent the airport on certain days so don’t be surprised to find the terminal very sparsely staffed. If your plane is busy, expect to wait for a while before you can clear customs and collect your baggage – the officials here certainly don’t seem harried!
Outside we were collected by our guide, Jam Yang (or Jimmy for short), and our driver, Suba. Every tourist that enters Bhutan has to pay a daily fee ($200-$250 depending on season) to cover hotels, food, insurance, guide and transportation. This applies without exception. As you know nothing about your guide prior to arrival, I guess it is a bit of a lottery as to whether you get someone you connect with or not. Thankfully, our guide and driver were absolutely fantastic throughout the entire trip. Jimmy was knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic. He did everything he could to accommodate our every request, taking us to restaurants we wanted to visit and going out of his way to source us certain items, namely cigarettes for my travel companion, even though they are officially banned by tobacco laws throughout the country – not that many Bhutanese follow them, mind you! We were thankful we were assigned a younger guide as he was able to take us around Thimpu on our first night and allow us to meet his friends and experience a taste of what everyday Bhutanese get up to on their days off.
Suba was quiet, rarely conversing in English, but he was still an affable character and a considered and careful driver which was a godsend considering the state of some of Bhutan’s roads. If you decide to visit Bhutan I highly recommend that you ask your tour provider to search these two fellows out as they work fantastically well together as a team.
Having made our introductions and loaded our baggage into our comfortable Toyota roadster we set off on the hour or so drive towards our first destination of Thimpu. Our long awaited trip to Bhutan was finally underway and it promised to be amazing.