Q&A: Is Bhutan for me?

dscn4925Thinking about a trip to Bhutan but unsure if it will be worth it? Getting to the last Shangri-La is admittedly pricey and, owing to the manner in which you have to pay, it can be a chore to arrange. However, you are guaranteed to come away with lasting memories from one of the world’s most unique and untouched cultures. I have put this Q&A together to better help people decide if a visit to the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon is truly for them.

Is it worth the payment? What do you get for your outlay?

Sure, a visit to Bhutan is very expensive but I would say, on the whole, the outlay is worth it. From the moment you enter Bhutan you will be aware that you are entering a totally unique country and culture. There are a number of beautiful sights within the country that you will find nowhere else and even the descent into the airport is an exceptional experience!

$250 per day may seem like an excessive sum to cough up but you must remember that pretty much everything involved in your visit is covered by this payment. That includes hotels, food, transport, guide, driver, entry to most attractions and a complementary bottle of water per day (if your guide remembers to get it for you, that is). When you think about it, that isn’t such a large amount when you consider no other country can offer the exact same experiences as Bhutan.

Flights into the country are not included in this payment, however, and these too can be costly. From what I witnessed, most flights are operating at or below 50% capacity so you are probably paying a premium to cover the many empty seats on the plane. A plus side to this is that you are probably going to be able to commandeer an entire row of seats to yourself and have a restful lie down if you so choose!

One thing I should mention – which we discovered mere days before we left for Bhutan – is that you are expected to tip your driver and guide for their services at the end of your tour. Prices bandied around the internet vary wildly but after a good deal of research and a lengthy discussion with each other, my travel companion and I decided on $20US per day for our guide and $10US per day for our driver. Your tour agency might be able to help you come up with a ballpark figure for tipping so, if you are worried, be sure to ask them what they recommend as reasonable before you leave.

How are the people? Are they all deliriously happy owing to Gross National Happiness?

Well, not really. Many of the people we met during our trip seemed very standoffish with us as foreigners. Even the servers and desk staff in some hotels we stayed at and cashiers in souvenir shops seemed unsure how to approach or handle us even considering this is their job! Certain staff in a few restaurants we visited (one in Paro in particular) were downright miserable. We didn’t see much happiness of joviality among the Bhutanese groups we encountered on the street either and the few people we acknowledged in passing made a habit of ignoring our greetings. That said, we did meet a few welcoming Bhutanese folk when our guide took us on a night out to meet his friends in Thimphu who provided us with stimulating and interesting conversation for a couple of hours at least.

Overall, outside of our driver, our guide and his friends and a few other guides we met on Tiger’s Nest and at the traditional farmhouse afterwards, I was a little disappointed with the attitudes of the locals considering all I’ve heard about Gross National Happiness. Still, I surmise it must be quite a shock for most Bhutanese to see foreigners in their country owing to the strict tourism laws, and maybe this played a part in their awkwardness around us.

Are souvenirs and drinks prohibitively expensive in Bhutan?

It depends on what you want to bring back. My friend and I picked up the typical tourist knicks knacks of magnets, key rings (mostly penis shaped from Punakha, I must admit), caps and t-shirts, all of which were very reasonably priced or downright cheap. Magnets and key rings came in at about £1-£2 and my friend’s cap, which seemed of very decent quality, was a steal at £3.

However, if you set your sights a little higher than these mass-produced trinkets, expect to pay substantially more. Bhutanese deity masks worn during religious festivals and dances were priced in the hundreds of pounds and antiques and traditional fabrics were often even more expensive.

If you wish to drink fruit juices and alcoholic beverages outside of breakfast times you will be required to pay for the privilege. Juices are priced seemingly at random, varying from 30 to 150 ngultrum (roughly 30p to £1.50) for the same drink from place to place – I guess it just depends on how unscrupulous your hotel or restaurant is. Beers are priced at around 200-250 ngultrum (roughly £2 to £2.50) across the board which is not too bad as long as you don’t expect Bhutanese booze to blow your socks off quality-wise. A bottle of Takin red wine set us back about 700 ngultrum from our very reasonably priced mini-bar (roughly £7) and was very sweet indeed.

How was the food?

Not always great but not always awful. Unless you ask for specific places your lunch and dinner destinations will be selected by your tour agency so this part of your journey can be a little hit or miss. We had a number of meals that fell way short of western standards but as the country is far less developed than say the US or UK this didn’t come as much of a shock to us. On the flipside, we also received a number of dishes that surprised us and that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Many of Bhutan’s dishes rely heavily on chillies and cheese so if you struggle with hot food or are lactose intolerant then you may have some problems. Many hotels try and cater towards your ethnic background so if you are from the US don’t be surprised to be served slightly different dishes to the Indian couple you are travelling with. My favourite traditional dishes were ema datshi (cheesy chillies) and kewa datshi (cheesy potatoes).

If you try Bhutanese food and really hate it, you could always research TripAdvisor and request a visit to a specific restaurant through your guide. There are a number of restaurants that specialise in foreign foods (especially in Thimphu) and we saw evidence of burger bars and Korean places on our drives around the capital.

In summary, if you don’t come to Bhutan expecting Michelin starred dishes then you should cope just fine!

Are the attractions interesting?

They certainly are. Although all the dzongs look pretty much the same and they can all blend into each other after a while, they all have their own unique back stories. If you get an enthusiastic guide like we did, you can spend hours at each landmark learning about their histories, how they were founded and why they are decorated the way they are.

As Buddhism is a complicated and intriguing religion, you can also spend a great deal of time delving into the depths of the Bhutanese people’s beliefs. I must admit to being overwhelmed at times by the tales our guide was telling us but they were interesting nonetheless. Particularly noteworthy is the main chamber used for worship at Punakha Dzong which has an array of fabulous frescoes along its walls telling the story of Buddha’s suffering and eventual rise to enlightenment – Jimmy whiled away a good hour or so here explaining to us every facet of the story.

If you are a giant immature kid like I am, you will likely find many reasons for mirth at the small town of Lobesa near the Divine Madman’s Temple in Punakha…

What are the must see places in Bhutan? Are there any hotels we should request to stay at?

Tiger’s Nest is, of course, a must see when in Bhutan and will likely be the main reason people decide to come here. The views of the monastery and the surrounding valleys on your way up the hike are truly amazing.

A visit to the Temple of the Divine Madman in Punakha is also recommended. The temple itself isn’t much to look at (although you might get a chance to see young Buddhist monks in training while you are there) but the bizarre way in which the homes are decorated and the souvenirs you can pick up nearby  make the visit worthwhile. The valley view you are treated to on your way back down from the temple is absolutely stunning and was my highlight of the entire trip to Bhutan. I really doubt if I will ever see such a beautiful landscape ever again.

Punakha Dzong is also a lovely spot to visit. Situated between two raging rivers it almost looks like an unwieldy white ship that has anchored itself in the most impressive spot possible. All the temples in Bhutan are designed in a very similar fashion owing to a royal decree in place to protect the country’s heritage so, once you’ve seen one dzong, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The unique location of this one, however, certainly makes it the standout fortress to visit.

As for hotels, every one you stay at is, by law, required to be three star rated. However, we spent our final two nights at the Tashi Namgay Resort in Paro which is rated four star and was by far and away the best resort we stopped at during our visit. Almost everyone who comes to Bhutan will be required to stay in Paro for at least one night so do yourself a favour and ask your tour agency to do their damnedest to get you in here.

Is it safe in Bhutan?

You bet. There wasn’t a single occasion I felt threatened in Bhutan and we spent one evening drunkenly stumbling around the streets of Thimphu well past midnight. You will spend nearly every waking minute with your guide who will look out for you and many Bhutanese people rely on the tourist industry for their living so they pay plenty of respect to foreigners who come into the country (even if they don’t wear a smile while doing it).

There are a great number of stray dogs who wander the streets of Bhutan’s towns but as they are treated fairly by the people who feed and water them regularly, you shouldn’t encounter any issues with these homeless pooches. Farther out into the countryside you will also come across wild cattle and horses often in the most unusual of spots. Pay careful attention when passing them by, especially at their hindquarters, to avoid surprising them and receiving a hoof to the forehead.

In all seriousness, the most danger you will probably face in the country are the winding roads that spin and weave their way up the mountainsides between towns. Most of them are unpaved, in exceptionally poor condition and landslides are not uncommon leaving a road trip through Bhutan feeling like a nightmare rollercoaster ride.

Which tour agency did you travel with? Would you recommend them?

I travelled with Bhutan Travelers. I would highly recommend them. Prior to my arrival in the country, Karma Tashi, the agency owner, was very informative and prompt in his responses to my many difficult and varied questions. He went out of his way to tailor an itinerary that covered all of my needs and was magnanimous enough to add an additional tourist to my trip at the very last minute without complaint.

The guide and driver the agency arranged for us were brilliant, too. Jimmy, our youthful guide, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his country and its heritage, he went out of his way to source supposedly illicit cigarettes for my chain-smoking travel companion and he was also humorous and charming when we spoke to him in the evenings when he was ‘off the clock’. We were thankful to have been allocated a guide who was of a similar age to ourselves and who shared the same interests as us; we felt this made it far easier to converse and connect with each other. Suba, our driver, was careful and considerate on the shabbily maintained ‘roads’ between our destinations which was a godsend as the conditions were often beyond terrible. The car in which we spent so much time was spacious and comfortable, so no complaints on that front.

There are only two small issues I would like to highlight. The first was that we were promised one bottle of water per tourist per day in our itinerary but we only received this service once, on our second day during the arduous drive to Punakha. The second was our wholly uneventful third day in which we only made one significant stop, to the less than impressive National Musuem. The early part of the day was spent driving from Punakha back to Paro and the evening lazing around in our hotel watching TV and twiddling our thumbs. We felt slightly short-changed for our $250 daily payment but at least the hotel we were placed in was luxurious and I guess a long evening of rest was beneficial before our hike to Tiger’s Nest the following day.

Despite these minor flaws, I would still recommend the agency, guide and driver wholeheartedly.

How do I get into the country?

Most people will choose to fly into Bhutan using either Drukair or Bhutan Airlines. Paro International Airport services a tiny number of flights each day and can only be accessed from a small number of foreign airports including, most notably, Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. If you choose to fly into the country your tour agency will assist you with booking flights if you so desire.

Bhutan can also be accessed by land from India via Phuentsholing in the southwest or Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar in the southeast. However, these points of entry are far less convenient than a direct flight to Thimphu and reaching the capital from them can take anywhere between six to ten hours and three days!

How long will it take to get up to Tiger’s Nest? Is it a difficult hike?

It took my small group a round trip of roughly six hours including an hour at the monastery and a forty minute stop for lunch at the tea house. This, however, was elongated by my travel partner who was horribly out of shape and totally unprepared for the hike – that said, he still made it to the top and back down. Eventually… If I had went for it alone, I sincerely think I could have made it to the summit in just over an hour or so.

The hike, for me, was an easy one but I had spent weeks preparing myself for the climb on the stepper machine at my local gym. I would definitely recommend some preparation for the hike, but people with a decent level of fitness should be able to make it to the top without much trouble. Be aware that if you attempt the hike on your first day or two in the country then it might be harder owing to the thinness of the oxygen in the air (which was noticeable even to me after four days acclimatising) as Bhutan is situated entirely on mountains some distance above sea level.

The difficulty of getting to Tiger’s Nest is well worth it. The views of the monastery itself and the surrounding views of the neighbouring valleys are outstanding and similar to no other area I have yet to visit.

I hope these questions and their subsequent answers have helped you edge closer to deciding if a visit to Bhutan is for you. If there are any additional questions you would like me to address, feel free to pop them in the comments below and I will try my best to answer them if I am able.

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