I always thought of Bhutan as a mysterious land nested in the Himalayan mountains. With this picture in mind, my wife and I set out to find the last Shangri-La.
If you thought that visiting Bhutan is difficult because of limited visas and expensive daily rates, good news, it’s not all true. Only Drukair, the national carrier of Bhutan flies there and they have direct flights from Singapore at a minimum tariff of USD200/person/day. It’s this tariff apart from air ticket fare, airport taxes, etc. that does not exactly make Bhutan the cheapest of destinations. Read and understand more about the tariff at the bottom of this page.
The flight from Singapore stops over at Kolkata, India for an hour before continuing to Paro – overall about 6 hours. Landing at Paro airport is a frightening experience for those who are scared of flying as the plane weaves its way through the narrow valley before making the landing. Here is a Youtube video of a typical landing:
We opted for the standard 7 days cultural tour which covers most of Bhutan. Other tours usually include some form of mountain trekking that will appeal to those who are more adventurous. Bhutan is truly the place to find peace and tranquility. At an average altitude of 2,500m, the air is fresh and temperature’s cool at 24 degrees Celsius in the summers.
The pace of life here is slow and the people are relaxed and friendly. I can understand why this is called the happiest place on Earth (outside of Disneyland). However, how long this lasts is questionable as the country slowly opens up to the outside world and commercialization.
A typical Bhutanese meal which usually includes red rice, potatoes, chicken and their national specialty of chili cheese with vegetables. Bhutanese meals are generally spicy, so if you can’t take spicy food, you have to tell your guide so that he can arrange suitable food for you.
One of the places you will usually visit is the nature reserve where the national animal, the Takin is kept. It looks like a cross between a goat and a cow. There are local legends about how this animal came to be – best to hear it from the Bhutanese.
There is even a temple for fertility where couples can go to receive blessings if they are trying to have children. It’s a nice place with a huge Bodhi tree. We had to walk 2km from our lunch point to here and back.
Dzongs (fortresses) are common and there are several famous Dzongs to visit. Several hundred years old, these fortresses are now converted to government offices and monasteries. Prayer wheels are commonly seen everywhere. Basically you will see the influences of Hindusim and Tibetan Buddhism. Photo taking is not allowed inside the worship halls and your guide will tell you when not to take photos.
The only way to travel in Bhutan is by road. They are usually winding, narrow and bumpy in certain areas due to landslides. Traffic jams are common as the huge trucks try to squeeze their way through. A short journey usually takes longer because of these delays. Practice of Buddhism’s patience will get you through here.
Of course we had to eat with the local farmers. Here we are with our guide and driver. The farmer with his wife and son is preparing lunch. The food was delicious and really suited to our Singaporean tastes.
After the home cooked lunch, we set out on a short trek through the Gangtey Valley. We met an old farmer who was also going the same way and he offered to accompany us.
Finally after the trek, we arrived at our hotel. The only caveats: no TV, no internet, no electrical heating. There is only the wood burning fireplace. This is a good place to detox from our daily connected stresses.
We got back to Paro as the last stop. It had been a big round trip up until this point and this is the last Dzong to visit. As our guide knew that I was into photography, he arranged to come out here again at night for this night photo.
And this is the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery that was saved for the last. This attraction is left last as tourists need to acclimatize to the high altitude before attempting the climb. I think if you try to trek up on your first day, you will end up in hospital with altitude sickness. You start the climb at 2,600m and end up 3,500m above sea level.
Finally, after an oxygen deprived and exhausting trek, we got this vertigo inducing vantage point – as seen on Discovery Channel. It’s still not the end of the journey, yet. There is a further climb down and then up again to reach the monastery. Unfortunately, Photos are not allowed inside the Tiger’s Nest and you have to deposit your belongings at the entrance.
For our last 2 nights stay, we stayed at the Uma Paro Resort which was of course made famous when Hong Kong celebrities Tony Leung and Carina Lau held their wedding there. We booked the deluxe room which is an additional USD250/night, but we were in for a pleasant surprise when we checked in…
Travel Tips for Bhutan
Getting There: Many of us including me thought that going to Bhutan is a difficult trip with limited visas and high costs. But with the direct flights and official travel agent handling these in Singapore now, it’s become a simple affair – efficient and well organized. There are other flights from Bangkok and Nepal but then you have to factor in the costs and time of flying to these cities and accommodation to catch the connecting flight. Presently all flights to Bhutan take off early in the morning. The Bhutanese government does not allow individual travelers to visit unless you are an Indian or Bangladeshi passport holder. So for the rest of us we have to book through an appointed travel agent.
We made our booking through DrukAsia in Singapore (www.drukasia.com). Here’s the catch, you have to pay in full before the trip. And this is true for all the Bhutan travel agents and it seems to be the requirement of the Bhutan government. For those of us who are used to deposit payments, this can be hard to swallow.
For the flight, we took business class with Drukair (www.drukair.com.sg) since it is only SGD200 more compared to economy class. You get better leg room and food. Sorry, no in-flight entertainment though.
Seating advice: For the flight to Bhutan you should sit on the left side so that you can see the Himalayan range, and for flight back to Singapore, take the right side.
Costs: The daily tariff of USD200/person/day or more depending on seasons includes a 3 star hotel, guide, driver, transport and food. So actually if you consider this as a sort of packaged tour; it’s not that expensive after all.
Cost of the trip – SGD3,500/person but only because we took business class and stayed in Uma Paro. Otherwise it would be SGD3000 or less. Travelling in high season attracts a tariff of USD250/person/day and can significantly increase the cost of travel. Also, if you travel in a group of less than 3 persons, there is an additional surcharge of USD40/person/day. For staying at high end resorts like Uma Paro, you need to top up depending on the room rates, but you pay this top up when you book the trip.
We visited in August which is the low season because there are fewer festivals and it is the beginning of the raining season. We weren’t bothered too much by the rain since it only rained at night and during the day it was clear. There are fewer crowds during the low season and it made for a more pleasant experience for us.
Shopping: The usual handicrafts which are mostly related to Buddhism. These include trinkets, prayer flags, wood carvings and stone sculptures. We only brought with us USD100 for spending on souvenirs and topping up on beverages like Coca Cola and beers during meals. For specialty items like cordyceps which are super expensive in Singapore, you can buy them here. They cost like USD12/piece from the local traders.
Health and Safety: Travelling within Bhutan is done by roads only and these can be winding and bumpy due to the poor condition on some stretches caused by landslides. For those who get motion sickness, this can be a problem. Be sure to pop some motion sickness pills before you start the journey.
Altitude sickness was not a problem for us, but again this depends on individuals. There is altitude sickness medication available but you have to take it prior to the trip. The average altitude is 2,500m and we found ourselves easily breathless just from simple exertion like running or climbing the stairs.
Bhutan is generally very safe and we certainly felt no fear of crime in cities like Thimphu and Paro.
Clothes: Even in the summer, some light warm clothing will go long way, especially at night. You will need sunscreen all the way as the high altitude and thin air will expose you to more UV.
Money: For currency exchange you can do it at Paro airport when you land. There are no money changers around except for the banks. Bhutanese Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan and it is comparable/same as the Indian Rupee (INR) – at least at the time of this blog post!