How We Spent Our Time In Bhutan

Introduction: Journey To Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, And Kuwait
Review: Air France Lounge San Francisco Airport
Review: Korean Air Business Class 747-8 San Francisco To Seoul
Review: Korean Air Business Class 777 Seoul To Kathmandu
Review: Hyatt Regency Kathmandu
Review: Kathmandu Airport Lounge
Review: Drukair Business Class A319 Kathmandu To Paro
Review: Le Meridien Thimphu
Review: Le Meridien Paro
Hiking To The Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan
How We Spent Our Time In Bhutan
Review: Drukair Economy ATR42 Paro To Dhaka
Review: Presidential Suite At The Le Meridien Dhaka
Review: Dhaka Airport Lounge
Review: Kuwait Airways Business Class A330 Dhaka To Kuwait
Review: Sheraton Kuwait
Review: Kuwait Airways Lounge Kuwait Airport
Review: Kuwait Airways Business Class 777 Kuwait To Shannon
Review: Kuwait Airways Business Class 777 Shannon To New York


My trip reports are typically exclusively focused on hotels and airlines, though I decided to write two installments about our time in Bhutan, given how much I enjoyed visiting the country. I don’t want to do a minute-by-minute recap of what we did, but ratherw share my overall impressions, what I’d do differently next time, etc.

I already wrote about our visit to the Tiger’s Nest in the previous installment, which is how we spent the last day of our trip.

During our trip I also wrote two installments about our time there, so check out those posts if you haven’t read them yet:

Bhutan’s tourist fee

Bhutan has a very high tourist fee, which initially made me reconsider visiting. For us the fee was $165 per person per night, plus a $40 one-time visa fee. This includes the following:

  • Roundtrip airport transfer
  • Daily sightseeing with an English-speaking guide
  • All applicable government taxes
  • All museum and monument fees
  • The $65 tourism royalty, which goes towards free education, healthcare, infrastructure, and more

So for the two of us staying for five nights, we paid a total of $1,730 between the $165 per person per day tourist fee, plus the one-time visa fee.

Bhutan-Tourist-Fee

That’s a lot of money, though at the same, in the end I saw the logic of this fee, and think it wasn’t that bad of a deal when you consider everything that’s included.

Our itinerary for Bhutan

When we arrived at Paro Airport we were greeted by Sonam and a driver, who would be spending the next five days showing us around the country. So with that fee you get a full time guide and driver, as well as a nice SUV, and they spend all day with you.

I was expecting we’d maybe discuss what we’d do when we got there, thought they already had an itinerary all mapped out for us, based on where we had booked hotels. For reference, here’s the itinerary they prepared for us:

Day 01 Arrival in Paro — Thimphu (1.5hr)
Early morning flight to Paro, Bhutan. The flight from Delhi/Kathmandu is considered as one of the most scenic flight offering the view of the world’s top 10 highest peaks. Upon your arrival in Paro airport our guide will be there to welcome you and transfer to Thimphu. After lunch visit the Memorial Chorten (temple) built in memory of the late 3rd King. This place now happens to be a get together point for the elderly people, who spend their whole day chanting prayers and meeting their friends. After 5PM, visit the fortress of Thimphu, Tashichho Dzong, which houses the throne of the king. Evening walk around the happening town, the largest and most crowded town in Bhutan.

Day o2 Thimphu
Morning visit the happening weekend market (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) where the locals from the surrounding villages come to sell their produce. They sell their goods and in return they buy their basic necessities. in olden days, bata system was practiced by everyone. Visit the traditional Hand Made Paper Mill. Visit the School of Arts and Crafts where students learn 13 different arts used predominantly in Bhutan. Visit Changangkha Lhakhang, the oldest temple in the galley offering a beautiful view of the valley. Drive to visit the largest and newly built statue of Buddha offering magnificent view of entire Thimphu valley. Later visit the National Library which houses the collection of Bhutanese rich religious texts and contemporary Buddhism teachings from master all around the world. Drive further up to visit the Dechenphodrang monastic school and meet the young monks. Later continue to Zilukha nunnery to meet the nuns and interact with them.

Day 03 Thimphu-Punakha-Thimphu (3hr one way)
Morning drive to Punakha crossing over Dochula pass. If the weather permits one can enjoy a spectacular breath taking view of the highest mountain peaks of Bhutan at a sight that stretches almost 180 degrees. Take a break and walk around the newly built 108 Stupas and continue to sub tropical valley of Punakha offering a different vegetation. En route just before arriving the hotel, take a nice hike through the paddy field and old village to visit Chimi Lakhang, the temple of fertility associated with religious art of phallus. Later after breakfast drive to Punakha Dzong (fortress), which houses the most elaborate temple in the country. This is a must see fortress in Bhutan and also a fine example of Bhutanese rich art and architecture.

Day 04 Thimphu-Paro (1.5hr)
Morning could go for walk right below your hotel and meet the school children who all walk for hours to reach their nearest school. Later after breakfast retract the drive back to Paro. Upon arrival in Paro, visit Paro Dzong (Fortress) on foot and continue walking through the oldest wooden bridge still in use. Continue further to stroll around the old Paro town and peep into some local handicrafts stores. Could get some opportunity to see the traditional game, Archery match.

Day 05 Paro
Morning drive to the base for the hike (3hr uphill) to Tiger’s Nest, the most revered temple in the country that literally hangs on the granite cliff overlooking the Paro valley. Most of the day will go on the hike. On the way back, if you have the energy and time visit the Kichu Lakhand, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan which marks the beginning of Buddhism in the country.

Bhutan

It seems that most people with a limited amount of time in Bhutan (let’s call it less than a week), split their time between Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha:

  • Paro is close to the airport, and also a good starting point for visiting the Tiger’s Nest
  • Thimphu is the biggest city in Bhutan, and there are lots of day trips you can make from there to cool sites
  • I’ve heard Punakha is gorgeous, and I really regret we didn’t plan on spending a night there

Punakha is apparently the most scenic part of the country, so if I were to plan a trip there again, I’d try to spend a night there.

However, we had booked three nights in Thimphu and two nights in Paro, so our plan was to do a day trip to Punakha. Unfortunately that was pretty ambitious, as it would involve driving three hours each way. In the end we didn’t make it to Punakha at all, because Bhutan had a massive snowstorm.

The snow we witnessed in Bhutan

Bhutan doesn’t get a lot of snow (at least outside the mountain peaks), and apparently the snow we saw was the first snowfall they had in about a year. It didn’t just snow a little, but rather for two days straight it snowed nonstop.

Bhutan-Snow

This hugely limited what we were able to do:

  • The first day of snowfall in the country is a holiday, so everything was closed
  • Due to the terrain in Bhutan, many roads and attractions were closed for a couple of days

For the first two days we were limited in what we could do. At the same time I’m happy we were here when it snowed, because it was such a cool thing to witness. All the locals were in the streets having snowball fights and building snowmen. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a group of people so happy. It was amazing to watch. I even got hit in the face by a snowball thrown by a nun. That was a first for me.

Bhutan

How did we spend our time in Bhutan?

There’s so much to love about Bhutan. The landscape is incredible. The country is immaculately clean. The people are so friendly. Everyone just seems happy. The country isn’t at all overcrowded with tourists, given how much they limit tourism.

Just being in Bhutan made me happy, between the incredible landscape, the fresh air, and the nature.

Bhutan-1

I knew that Bhutan was all about hiking, but wasn’t sure whether to expect casual hiking (aka brief walks) or more serious hiking that lasts several hours, requires proper footwear, etc. For the most part I found the former to be the case.

We’d get in a car and then drive somewhere for 15-45 minutes. In some cases we’d be we’d be able to drive right up to the attraction we were visiting, while in other cases we’d take an hour-long hike to get there.

Most of the places we visited were temples, monasteries, etc. (I don’t have many pictures of the insides, since photography is typically prohibited). One thing that makes Bhutan so special is that it’s not overrun by tourists, so you get some incredible access to things. Furthermore, since every visitor has a guide, there’s not as much concern about knowing the boundaries of what you can visit, since your guide will let you know when you can take pictures, when you have to take off your shoes, when it’s time to leave, etc.

Bhutan-2

We really felt like we were visiting “active” places, unlike many other destinations, where certain sites are clearly just intended for tourists, and haven’t been used in years.

By the way, I’ve become sort of obsessed with Bhutanese music, and have been playing it in the background since we visited. It’s great music to work to, and for me has replaced Etihad boarding music for those purposes. 😉

Bottom line

Bhutan is a very special place. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been, thanks to a combination of factors. The landscape is stunning, among the nicest I’ve ever seen. The country has such a peaceful spirit. The people are so nice. Best of all, you get the combination of that without the country being overrun by tourists, which otherwise often takes the charm out of places.

Bhutan-2

Going to the Tiger’s Nest and having the whole place to ourselves was surreal. Almost everywhere we went, we were the only tourists. That’s an experience that money can’t buy in other places.

Visiting Bhutan isn’t cheap, but if you can swing it, I highly recommend it. This is one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been.

Since I’ve done nothing but rave about Bhutan, there is one other somewhat undeveloped thought I still feel the need to share. Bhutan almost seems too perfect. In the same way, tourists visit North Korea and are made to believe that everything in the country is perfect (clearly it isn’t), Now let me be clear — I’m not attempting to suggest that Bhutan is anything like North Korea, but it does seem a bit too perfect. I’d love to dig below the surface and see what life is really like for the people. It’s said that locals are the happiest people on earth, etc. At the same time, that’s the big tourism draw of the country. Is that really the case, or are they just putting on a good act? There’s no doubt it’s an all around good place — everyone has free healthcare and education. But is it as good as it seems? In the back of my mind I wonder.

Again, if you have the opportunity, I can’t recommend a visit to Bhutan enough.

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About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. Sounds like an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing such great pictures and stories. I loved the Tiger’s Nest report as well. When people started posting about how wonderful Bhutan was, it initially confused me because my city has a large population of Bhutanese refugees. Turns out, the thousands of Bhutanese refugees in Nashville were ethnic Nepali who were ousted from Bhutan during an ethnic cleansing campaign in the 90s. Apparently, Nepal and Bhutan have a history….. So, you are correct. Like every country, there is a shadowy history. And, like every country, there is religious strife. Bhutan simply deported their religious minorities. That being said, the place does look incredible and being there for a snowfall does seem special as well.

  2. does the fee include hotel charge? this seems outlandish and only for the rich to go to this country, imagine if every country charged this fee of 165 us per person per day, how is a family of four supposed to go there? that is an extra 660 us dollars..

    thank you,

  3. Any reason in particular you chose that top picture? It appears to be an ejaculating penis on the wall….

  4. @ Ben — Thanks for the info. Bhutan is now back off of my list of places to go. Those fees are obscene.

  5. “But is it as good as it seems? In the back of my mind I wonder”
    Bhutan is infamous for the way it treats some of its own citizens – The Lhotshampa People – who have been kicked out of the country and are now refugees in other countries.

  6. Despite headline does not really provide a good answer on why such a high “tourism fee” aka tax on nonresident visitors is justified. That amount is more than I pay for lodging in many countries. I do not want or need a “guide” in most countries though there are s few exceptions (i.e. Normandy) where a guide will enhance the experience. Certainly don’t need one to explain every Temple and monastery.
    Yes it is nice that some form of education and healthcare is provided to the residents but this is also true in many places without a massive tourist tax. No wonder Nepal gets more tourists…

  7. Agree with what has been said about the ethnic cleansing. None of that is a secret and a very little research is needed to find out about it. Add to that the poor Indians who do the manual labor building roads, clearing landslides, etc. and I’d suggest not everyone is happy. Also lots of the places around the country have become imbalanced as the younger people have left the small villages for greater opportunities in Thimphu and Paro. I also saw plenty of trash piles on my trip. Solid waste is an issue that most developing countries struggle with.

    As I’ve said in other threads, the “tourist fee” most people pay also covers hotels and meals which makes it more worthwhile. You don’t have to stay at the Le Meridien. For a family of 4 it depends somewhat on the ages of the children. The Tourism Council of Bhutan explains the various fees as well as discounts on their website. http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan/discounts Children aged 5-12 get a 50% discount. Kids under 5 pay only a one time $40 visa fee and are otherwise free. Longer trips also cost less per day.

  8. Bhutan is the happiest country in the world. It’s also the Trumpiest: They got happy by expelling all the Moslems, all the refugees, and some of the ethnic minorities.

    Did you notice the monks and nuns in red, sometimes with little red hats? They’re just itching to embroider “Make Bhutan Great Again” with native local thread and organic dyes on those hats.

    @M

    It looks a lot like Utah’s West Desert, but the southern Utah desert is considered even more spectacular. Both voted for Trump.

  9. Really like the trip reports on the less written about places. Also loved Tiffany’s on Jordan.

  10. I’ll definitely need to visit Bhutan sometime next year. Apparently, at least according to my Bhutanese friends, I can visit as a “guest” which will get most of the daily rate knocked off. She didn’t quite explain it clearly but assured me I won’t be paying even close to the full $165 daily rate. I’ll probably be staying at in the house of one of my friends too, rather than a hotel. And they promised if I make it out there we will get to Punakha. And do lots of hiking, long hiking.

    Yeah they talk to me about their country, their politics and while they have their own share of problems and history, it’s contentment they have too. Being so isolated even from neighbors means they worry less about problems in the world, they have a simple life free of the rat race found in industrial societies. Most Bhutanese like it that way hence why they discourage tourism, some have said they wouldn’t mind seeing tourism abolished in Bhutan entirely.

    LOL about North Korea, none of the tourists I personally know who have been to North Korea were fooled for a split second by the façade the NK government tries. They said from the moment the plane touches down it’s perfectly obvious this is one destitute country. Indeed that’s why they had armed soldiers escorting the group, demanding to see cameras and cellphones and you risked your items being confiscated if they found too many “inappropriate” pictures. Tip, if you do ever for some unknown reason, decide to go, brink dirt cheap electronics you don’t care if they get taken.

  11. Why the big furry (?!), cumming penis? Surely you could’ve picked a more tasteful pic? Super distracting bro

  12. Apparently the drawings are quite common outside the big cities. There’s a religious significance behind it. A quick google search will tell you why.

  13. Next time you are in Bhutan you will be staying at the Amankora? That property looks gorgeous!

    Although the per night rate (cheap by Aman standards) is steep, but seems to be somewhat all-inclusive including some of the tourism fees.

  14. I assume the fee don’t include lodging, did you use points for hotel? Tell us how much to tip the guide & driver. Thank you

  15. Ben L, those penis paintings are everywhere, on just about every building in Bhutan. It’s a cultural thing. We went to Bhutan 5 years ago. My wife climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest, while I visited a temple that is normally not shown to tourists. There is really no independent tourist infrastructure. For example, you can’t just decide to go to a restaurant for a meal. The people are humble and welcoming. We sat in the same spot as those 5 monks in one of the pictures above and watched the Paro festival. The people around us kept offering us food and cheese rinds to chew on. Quite an amazing place.

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