I found myself in the middle of a transport strike and political instability in Nepal and it was time to get out. So I googled ‘places near Nepal’ and that’s how I ended up in Bhutan, the land of the thunder dragon, a tiny nation nestled between powerhouses India and China.
Tourism in Bhutan
Bhutan doesn’t encourage independent tourism and it’s almost impossible to arrange (unless you have an Indian passport). Bhutan used to have strict restrictions on the number of tourists that could visit, and even though they have been slightly relaxed, the country is still very serious about ensuring tourism doesn’t affect its culture and environment.
Most people, like me, just sign up with a local tour company and let them do all the organising. The rate is set from about $250 a day (depending how many stars you want in your hotel), and that includes everything: accommodation, transport, a tour guide and driver and even food. I don’t think I pulled my purse out once in Bhutan. It’s probably the easiest trip I’ve ever done. I didn’t even choose the hotels I stayed at (it’s not encouraged). There’s also not much choice of airline; there’s only two, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. The flight into Bhutan is a little hairy and they don’t trust foreign pilots to make the landing safely (after one crashed). They also have to close the main highway whenever a plane is coming in to land, just in case the pilots get the runway and highway confused (yep, they run side by side).
Bhutan is truly one of the most mysterious and mystical places you could travel to. Because of government policies to protect the country’s heritage and environment, going there is like stepping back in time. There are no high rises and all the buildings are built in a traditional style (which is mandated).
People still wear traditional dress (the Goh for men or Kira for women) and spend their time on traditional pursuits such as archery, darts and javelin throwing.
Bhutan is famous for being the last country in the world to allow TV, which didn’t exist before 1999. There are not even any traffic lights in the towns, just a guy standing in a booth with a whistle directing traffic (a job they seem to take very seriously).
Bhutan only has a population of around 750,00 people, who are mainly Buddhist. Signs of their religious devotion are everywhere; from the enormous dzongs (temples), to a huge statue of Buddha, to the colourful prayer flags that are hung up all over the countryside. And what a countryside it is. Bhutan is covered by dense green forest, and not by accident. The government has a policy that more than 60% of the country must remain as forest, and logging is strictly controlled.
Bhutan’s main source of income (other than tourism) is to harness the power of its rivers and sell the electricity to neighbouring countries like India.
One of the most well known characteristics of Bhutan is that instead of focusing on economic success, they instead measure Gross National Happiness. Buddhist lessons of acceptance and gratitude are taught to children from a very young age, and they even have lessons in school on how to be happy. The nature of Bhutanese people is very gentle and warm, and yes, they genuinely do seem happy! But that’s not to say they don’t have any social issues like the rest of us.
Bhutan was previously ruled by a royal family, however, the previous king abdicated in favour of installing a democracy in 1998 and the first election was held in 2008. There is still a beloved royal family, but they are now more figureheads and the government is responsible for running the country. Social policies are given great importance, and the government looks after its people and environment by doing things like banning plastic bags and smoking and preserving the traditional ways of life.
Tiger’s Nest monastery
Tiger’s Nest or Paro Taktsang is by far the most iconic symbol of Bhutan. A stunning and imposing temple cut into the mountainside, it looks precariously perched on the rocky cliff high above the Paro valley. Legend has it that a famous Guru (Padmasambhava) flew over the mountains on a tigress’ back, and landed where the monastery now stands. He meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours in the caves to ward off an evil spirit before setting about introducing the local people to Buddhism.
The original monastery was built in the 1600s, but the buildings have had to be partly rebuilt several times after being damaged in a variety of ways, including burning down in 1998 (unfortunately this tends to happen when you consistently burn candles in wooden structures and many of Bhutan’s temples have suffered the same fate).
The hike up to Tiger’s Nest takes a couple of hours and it’s a breathtaking walk in more ways than one. Luckily I had been living at high altitude for several months before I attempted the climb to Tiger’s Nest (it’s about 3,120 metres), but I imagine if you’ve just arrived from a place that’s around sea level, acclimatising might be pretty tough. But whether you can breathe or not, the views will take your breath away anyway!
The monastery is built around nine sacred caves, some of which are closed to tourists and only opened on holy occasions. As with many of the dzongs in Bhutan, the smell of butter lamps and incense fills the temples. Many of the monastery’s buildings feature the cliff side as an interior wall, and there are large gold statues throughout. There is no photography allowed inside the monastery, so it’s a place you need to visit yourself to see! Every Bhutanese person is expected to make the trek up to Tiger’s Nest at least once in their lives.
There are dozens of these enormous temples throughout Bhutan, dating back as far as the 14th century. Most dzongs are surrounded by high, whitewashed stone walls and inner wooden sanctuaries. One of the most picturesque is the Punakha Dzong, which is built on the banks of the Sankosh river and is Bhutan’s second biggest and second oldest dzong, but it’s the grandest.
Like most dzongs, visitors are allowed inside the grounds and inside the main temple, but there are no photos allowed inside. The main temple features ornately carved gold columns, large gold statues, red wooden seats and hundreds of colourful prayer flags and murals.
The dzong can be accessed by a beautiful covered wooden bridge, which was completed in 2008 after the original bridge washed away in a flash flood.
Simtokha Dzong is the oldest dzong in Bhutan and was built in 1627. Legend has it the dzong was built in order to subdue an evil spirit that was harassing travelers in the region. It’s a fairly small dzong, but has some beautiful statues, mandalas and murals inside, which are thought to be the oldest in Bhutan.
Visiting dzongs does become a little like seeing dozens of cathedrals in Rome and they do all start to look alike after a while, but it was still an amazing experience to climb the stone steps, gaze at the intricate carvings and paintings and marvel at the architecture of these stunning buildings.
This enormous statue is over 50 metres high, and watches over Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. When I visited, they were still building the statue, which was finished in 2015. Apparently 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the Buddha.
The Buddha is made of bronze and gilded in gold and was built to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the world. And the view isn’t bad either…
Paro and Thimphu
These towns offer a fascinating glimpse into Bhutanese life. Bhutan’s only international airport is near Paro, so most people start their tour here. It’s Bhutan’s second largest city and is surrounded by greenery on all sides. In the town, the buildings are beautiful and all built in the traditional style, and some of the people walk the streets in traditional dress.
There are also more than 155 temples and monasteries in the area, some dating as far back as the 14th century, so it’s possible to spend a few days in Paro checking many of them out.
Thimphu is the capital and is home to about 100,000 people, including the royal family. It also features the impressive Tashichho Dzong, which stands above the city. The dzong is near the banks of the Wanchhu river and is the home of government, as well as the throne room and offices of the king.
Also in Thimphu is the National Memorial Chorten, which means ‘seat of faith’. When you visit, you’ll see Bhutanese people circumambulating the chorten, usually holding prayer beads and chanting.
On a clear day, this pass apparently offers amazing 360 degree panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain range, however that’s not quite what I got. What was spectacular though was the 108 chortens which have been built on the mountain pass.
While I mostly saw the Western part of Bhutan, I would absolutely go back. It’s a mystical, spectacular country with lovely, hospitable (and yes, happy) people. I travelled with Bhutan Majestic Travel, and would absolutely recommend them.
I'd also recommend always travelling with insurance. I personally use Australian based insurer Fastcover, and you can get a quote for a policy here: https://fastcover.com.au/ref?id=Wafaraway