Bhutan - Land of the Thunder Dragon

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justin23

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I thought I'd do a trip report for my recent trip to Bhutan. So first things first, to visit Bhutan you need to go on a package as such. The package is a government mandated daily fee that includes 3* accommodation, guide, driver, vehicle, all meals, tea+coffee and some bottled water, entrance fees, plus the royalty payment for free health and education ($65). So for peak travel times its $250 a day and off peak its $200. There are some other modifications to the fee, like a single traveler is an extra $50 per day and for longer trips (longer than 12 days I believe) the fee is reduced by $20 a day. Also for better hotels there are surcharges, but I found the Bhutanese 3* hotels pretty good. Apparently there are some average ones though like anywhere. This all needs to be booked through an authorized tour operator or agent, who also lodge details to get the visa. However don't get the idea its another North Korea, all the tourism restrictions are in place to keep the riff raff out (and the Chinese it seems) :) Given I've been known to do a lot of backpacking the $250 a day is a hurdle, but I also felt there was value in what we got, I just normally wouldn't pay for a guide, driver and car!

So the Bhutan tourism website Tourism Council of Bhutan (Official Website) | Tourism Council of Bhutan (Official Website) lists all the approved tour operators and many such details. The common issue is how to choose and how to pay. I used a local agent in Australia, Bhutan & Beyond (www.bhutan.com.au). They do all the hard work in the booking and organizing the visa etc. Plus they also organised the flights. Like all agents there was some premium to using their services, but having met the owners who traveled over there around the same time, they are specialists in the region and were only to helpful in all the organising. I ended up doing an 7 night 8 day itinerary. Most itineraries are all well worn trails. There is always flexibility with what to do and see to some extent. Just about every operator aims to finish in Paro where the international airport is and where the major attraction, the Tigers nest Monastery is. The later being to gain some acclimatization as you are around 2500m in Paro and the capital Thimphu. The Tigers nest is above 3000m.

There are only 2 airlines as well. Druk Air and the newer Bhutan Airlines (aka Tashi Air). The common way is via BKK, but they have connections into India, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Singapore. I ended up flying Bhutan Airlines from BKK. I flew QF to BKK and stayed the night in the Novotel at BKK, which given the price I paid with a 40% discount I got in my email was good value and a nice hotel. The Bhutan flights all depart around 6:30 for both airlines and its only 1 flight daily.

So that is the logistics. I'll follow up with a few photos and details of the trip.
 

justin23

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So firstly a more detailed report is in my travel blog www.mytripjournal.com/JustininBhutan

My trip was arranged as 2 nights in Thimphu the capital, 2 nights in the Punakha valley and 3 nights back in the Paro Valley with a side trip to the Haa valley. Everything is kind of broken up into the valleys. The further East you head from the capital the worse the roads get and the longer the trip will take, although there are some domestic flights from Paro to Eastern Bhutan. Also it is recommended to visit when the festivals are on. However I missed the festivals but it meant everything was just a bit less crowded, although crowded in Bhutan applies to maybe 2 or 3 places when there are no festivals on!

First impressions of Bhutan involved the scenic beauty of the landscape and the architecture. Driving here is not in a rush with max speed limits of 50 km/h. You definitely see and feel the cultural aspects of Bhutan straight away. The men all still wear traditional dress for business, I didn't see a single person wearing a suit in Bhutan!

First day was just some highlights of the capital. My highlight was visiting the archery which is their national sport. They shoot at over 150m at a small wooden target. Hitting it is an achievement, this isn't easy olympic archery with a bigger closer target!

The second day we went to the end of the Thimphu valley and did a short hike up a hill to a monastery. Bhutanese easy hikes usually involve at least 1 hr of uphill walking. Other highlights in Thimphu were the newly constructed Giant Golden Buddha and the Dzong, which is a fortified monastery used to defend Bhutan. Its in the Thimphu Dzong, that i saw the Je Khenpo who is the head of buddism in Bhutan. He is the equivalent to the King and apparently very much loved by all! The Prime minister sits somewhere below those two. Actually another group I met got blessed by the Je Khenpo as they happened to be at the golden Buddha at the same time he was. Such is the nature of Bhutan, important people mix happily amongst the people without need for excessive security. I also had close encounters with the Queens sister and also spoke to a brother of the Queen who owned the company I was travelling with. He was actually hiding from the Queens sister, because he didn't have time to have a chat with her! My guides brother was a minister in the government! Its a small country of 700,000 people!

On the third day we drove over the Dochu La pass (which is like saying ATM machine as La means pass!). After seeing very few tourists for 2 days, they all seemed to congregate at the top of this pass @ around 3105m. However where they all went is a mystery as once I was in the Punakha valley I hardly saw another tourist, at least not a western tourist anyway. Punakha has numerous monastries and a beautiful big Dzong on the confluence of 2 rivers. We also went up high into the surrounding mountains to Talo, where the local monks were playing darts. Yes just like archery this was conducted over ~50m with bigger darts and a smaller target!

For the last few days we headed back to Paro. Ultimately to climb the tigers nest monastry. This isn't easy by and stretch of the imagination. The first leg is a steep 1 hr climb up to around 3000m from about 2500m. There is a restaurant with tea and a good view (when the clouds are not around as the day I was there) of the monastery perched in the cliff face. The second leg continues upwards to well above the height of the monastry to another lookout, and then its down and up about a thousand steps (apparently really ~700) The second part was hard but I think easier to maintain motivation! there is a waterfall on the way as well. Its definitely the highlight of Bhutan.

So a quick reflection on my time in Bhutan. I enjoyed it immensely. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok where I went afterwards, with touts hassling you for everything, I didn't get asked at anytime to buy anything in Bhutan. Even in souvenir stores they'd say hello, but were not over telling me this is nice and I'd like this. They let me browse until I had a question for them. I think there is a case to have buddhist burnout, just like you get from too many cathedrals or museums etc. I felt other than the outstanding scenery and the buddhist temples etc there was not much else. The shortest recommended itineraries are doing a 4n/5d trip which if that is all the time you had, you'd enjoy it. Apparently festival time is the best time though.

Oh forgot to mention the landing and takeoff at Paro. Highlights as well! The landing is actually 4 turns through the valley to eventually line up the runway as the mountains are too steep to descend safely. So the pilot literally flies at 100m off the ground through the valley making 4 turns and eventually landing. I believe the A319 has the largest engines available/possible. The takeoff, is just a very steep ascent. Looks far scarier from the ground.
 

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justin23

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Oh need one more post for a pic of the tigers nest monastery. The photos are not the best resolution, but they will do for posting on the web purposes! I have the higher res ones for my photobook when I get around to doing one for this trip.
 

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burmans

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Amazing photos...looking good
Yep, that looks amazing, thanks for the TR. Have heard about that airport, one of the most dangerous in the world I believe and I also believe occasionally flights have been known not to land totaly succesfully.
 

justin23

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Yep, that looks amazing, thanks for the TR. Have heard about that airport, one of the most dangerous in the world I believe and I also believe occasionally flights have been known not to land totaly succesfully.

Not sure about the danger in the airport. According to locals, only 8 pilots are licenced/capable of landing at Paro. Lukla in Nepal is pretty dangerous, but its the short runway and weather conditions there.
 

justin23

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A few more, including the monks playing darts, more of a throwing action!! Some prayer wheels and also the main street of Thimphu, which is a spread out capital city, but still quite small city.
 

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justin23

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Ok last lot of photos. I still haven't had much time to go through them all! Inside the Punakha Dzong, standard rice fields, Paro Dzong and 2 more of Tigers Nest monastry.
 

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justin23

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oh and it is a frequent flyer forum, so a photo of the Bhutan airlines plane ;-)
 

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burmans

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Not sure about the danger in the airport. According to locals, only 8 pilots are licenced/capable of landing at Paro. Lukla in Nepal is pretty dangerous, but its the short runway and weather conditions there.

You don't think the fact that only 8 pilots can land there might perhaps be related to the danger?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/art...rt-dangerous-pilots-qualified-land-there.html

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/b...y-is-short-with-little-space-on-either-side-1
 

justin23

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Its a difficult landing and i suspect lack of air traffic has led to the lack of major accidents. Not sure if there has been any to be honest. Thats what I was really getting at. Lots of dangerous things can be mitigated to make them fairly safe, which is what I was getting at.
I think its up there with the old HK airport landing as one of the more hair raising approaches!
 

boomy

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Thank you for the TR and amazing photos.
There is something very special about these untouched places. I hope it will keep it's authenticity and never become a tourist magnet. Not many places like that left unfortunately.
Another destination added to the bucket list.
 
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