Our first taste of Bhutan was in Thimphu, perhaps deliberately planned that way by our tour company, as the capital has the most sights to see and is the most developed in terms of tourism. A perfect introduction to a uniquely special country.
Bhutan had been on the bucket list for many years, but took a while to tick off as it’s not a cheap place to travel to. Unless you’re Indian or a foreign resident you can’t travel independently in Bhutan, so everything has to be arranged through a travel company. Some UK operators offer tours but they just sub-contract to local agents, so I booked through a Bhutanese company, Windhorse. They have a European office and everything can be easily arranged via email with Bas, who is Dutch but has excellent written English.
You pay the travel company the daily rate for the number of days you’ll be in Bhutan. In high season its $250 per person per day which covers your hotels, meals, ground transportation, visa and a guide and driver. There’s a small charge on top if you want a private tour which my friend and I decided to do, so we could plan our own itinerary and travel at our own pace. The only extra money you need is for drinks, souvenirs and tips for your guide and driver. There’s more about the cost of drinks in the second part of this post.
The reason for the high cost is because $65 of the $250 goes to the government as a levy to invest in education, healthcare etc. Bhutan’s approach to tourism is ‘high value, low impact’. It’s very much in line with their famous Gross National Happiness philosophy . This places value on things like cultural heritage, health, education and ecological diversity. At least 60% of the country has to be maintained as forest by law.
Windhorse also arranged our flights into Bhutan from Bangkok. We decided to fly via there as wanted to tag a few days at a Thai beach resort onto the end of our trip. But you can also fly to Bhutan from New Delhi, Singapore and Kathmandu.
Paro is the only international airport in Bhutan and the landing is quite an experience. Only a handful of pilots can navigate their way down through the mountains – our first glimpse of the eastern Himalayas that Bhutan is nestled amongst. The chief pilot of Druk Air, the Royal Bhutanese airline is the King of Bhutan’s father-in-law. More on the royals later as they feature very prominently throughout the country.
At Paro we were met by our guide Kencho and driver Mr Dawa. Kencho was young, friendly and spoke perfect English, so we knew immediately that he would be a good person to spend the week with. Mr Dawa’s English was limited, but he smiled a lot and did an amazing job driving the roads that wind through Bhutan’s stunning mountain scenery – pack motion sickness tablets if you might find that a challenge. We took some with us but never needed them as the twists and turns meant speed was always restricted.
Thimphu is an hour or so from Paro and the altitude in this area is around 2,300m. High enough to feel the difference in available oxygen, but not so high that altitude sickness kicks in. Another reason it was a good place to start our Bhutan experience as some places we visited were much higher.
The Druk Hotel in Thimphu is a great place to stay, very central and surprisingly luxurious with all the in room amenities you might need. The restaurant serves good Indian food and the barman in the High Jinks bar mixes a mean martini – though not on a Tuesday as its national dry day.
As mentioned the capital has a wide variety of sights to see and we started at Buddha Dordenma, otherwise known as Big Buddha. It’s a huge statue with a temple at the base that features paintings telling the story of Buddha and others showing the God of Compassion. There’s a four headed Buddha, gold painted pillars carved with celestials and dragons and there are paintings on the ceilings too.
It’s high above the city so offers great views though it was pretty windy. That’s good news for the owners of the many prayer flags – the more they blow in the wind the better luck for the person who put them there. There’s another great viewpoint to take photos on the way back down. The city is a sea of square shaped colourful rooftops that somehow seem exactly right for the landscape and is fairly typical architecture in Bhutan.
Our next stop was at Simply Bhutan, a sort of museum for tourists designed to introduce you to Bhutanese culture. We drank butter tea which was surprisingly nice while watching a folk dancing display and also tried the local Ara wine.
There were photos of Bhutan’s five kings on display and we learned that a white purity scarf draped over top of portrait meant they were dead while under it meant they were still alive. Bhutan’s hereditary monarchy only started in 1907 and when the fourth king hit 50 in 2006 he decided to hand the reigns to his son. Fair enough really as his own father died when he was just 16 and after two years of his uncle acting as proxy he was crowned at 18 years old.
The Fourth King is credited with making many positive changes in Bhutan and is still widely revered. When he abdicated he announced Bhutan would become a democracy and the first elections took place soon after. The only thing we felt may not be regarded so well is that he chose to have four wives, all sisters and he married them all at the same time. They are now all referred to as the Queen Mother which can get a bit confusing!
The Fifth King probably still needs to prove himself to be as worthy as his father, but he does seem to have a sort of celebrity status. Photos of him, his wife and three-year-old son are everywhere. The couple were educated at Oxford University and hosted Prince William and Kate on their visit to Bhutan a couple of years ago.
Also at Simply Bhutan is the only person in Bhutan who can carve its his feet. Carving is one of the skills learned at the Thimphu Arts and Crafts College. This guy was born with cerebral palsy and abandoned by his parents, but he was found by the queen mother (not sure which one) and sent to the college to learn crafts. He also plays archery with his feet in the Paralympics.
I didn’t feel comfortable taking a photos of him, but below is my own attempt at archery, another activity that’s available at Simply Bhutan. The second photo is my victory dance when I finally hit the (very close) target! There’ll be more about archery when I write my Paro post as we saw proper archers in action there.
Our next visit was to Thimphu Fort, but it’s the home of the Government offices and as it was a working day we couldn’t get in for an hour, so we browsed the Norzim Lam Craft Stalls. The 79 stalls were paid for by one of the queen mothers and people on lower incomes can use them for free. There’s an array of woven, embroidered and carved items for sale that are cheaper than in the shops.
At the fort, Tashichhoe Dzong, the administrative section is not available for visiting but you can wander around the monastic quarter. There’s a large courtyard with some impressive buildings including an assembly hall where the monks gather to pray.
Multi-coloured temple decorations hang from the ceilings, there are three different types of these that we’d see a lot of over the next week. All three are always in evidence and always hung in pairs. The photo below is of the decorations just outside the temple as no photos are allowed inside any Bhutanese temples.
Inside the temple is a riot of colour. The pillars and walls are painted and thick red prayer mats are placed in neat rows. A large statue of the historical Buddha is in the middle sitting in a lotus flower with carved flowers around. To his left is Second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, who is the Buddha followed by the Bhutanese as is credited with founding Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. Mini Buddhas are in glass cabinets around the walls.
Also in the room are three thrones – for the current Fifth King, his father the Fourth King and the current Je Khenpo, also known as the Chief Abbot and responsible for all Government supported monks. We’d learned earlier that only these three wear a yellow scarf tied around them. Helpful intel when we came across the current King a few days later! Watch out for my post about Punakha for more on this. Not far from the dzong is the King’s residence as well as the impressive building that hosts the National Assembly.
Back at the Druk Hotel we had dinner and then decided to venture out to a nearby cafe bar Cloud 9 which has a small entrance in Clocktower Square (and is not to be confused with a karaoke bar of the same name!). It’s not exactly encouraged to go beyond the places that have been Government checked and approved, but this one was recommended by the Lonely Planet so we decided to risk it. We found lovely staff very keen to chat, great ice cream and wine by the glass (which was not available at the hotel.
They also had lots of cocktails on offer, but we decided to head back to the Druk bar for a martini as knew it would be closed the following day for National Dry Day. We also knew that the chances of getting good cocktails anywhere but Thimphu was unlikely! So we ended our first day in Bhutan sipping martinis in leather swingy armchairs at the implausibly named High Jinks bar.