Cantilever bridge near
the Paro Dzong
Recently, I organized a trip for nine agents to visit Nepal and Bhutan. I have always wanted to visit Bhutan as I had heard that it was the world’s last Shangri-la.
After our visit to Kathmandu and the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, our journey to Bhutan began with the flight on Druk Air from Kathmandu to the city of Paro. The flight afforded views of snow-capped mountain ranges, with eight of the 10 tallest peaks of the world, including Everest. We flew over lush green pine forests, with silvery-blue ribbons of meandering rivers and hillsides dotted with colorful homes.
Bhutan is a country of about 690,000 people in an area of around 18,400 square miles. The mainstay of their economy is agriculture and livestock, with tourism gaining ground. Their biggest export (to India) is hydroelectric power, which they harness from the gushing water of the bountiful Himalayas.
While undergoing some political changes, the people of Bhutan wonder whether the lures of modernity will affect the Gross National Happiness which is the measure that the king coined to monitor the nation’s well-being.
Arriving at the airport with its classic Bhutanese architecture and decorative wood carvings, we found the welcome smiles of the local people a sign of good things to come.
Our guide, Norbu, welcomed us and took us to the National Museum. We also visited the Paro Dzong (Fortress Monastery) and later drove to Thimphu, the capital city. The passing scenery was picture perfect, with terraced rice fields on the slopes of mountains.
Our hotel in Thimphu was the Druk Hotel, a simple property in the heart of town with a good view of the town square and the mountains. There are many modern hotels here, including Amankora. While the cost of a visitor’s tour is fixed by the government at $240 per person, per day which includes all transfers, tours, hotels, meals, guide fees, entrance fees and local taxes the newer, deluxe hotels are permitted to charge a supplement.
We also visited the town of Punakha, home to the impressive Punakha Dzong. This huge fortress was built in 1647 and served as the national capital until 1966. We observed dozens of young monks in their maroon robes running in for the midday meal of rice. The pungent smell of burning incense and the sound of temple bells added to the solemnity of the moment.
Mahayana Buddhism is supported by the government. Prayer wheels abound, and one can hear the rhythmic clang of the wheel striking the post. Everywhere visitors go, past villages and temples, colorful prayer flags flutter in the wind.
Bhutan’s national sport is archery, and we had the opportunity to observe a contest between two teams. Bhutan has a dress code which is enforced by the government. Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a gho, and the women wear a large rectangular cloth called a kira, thereby creating an ankle-length dress.
The well-preserved destination of Bhutan is gearing up for more travelers in the coming years. As for now, it certainly is the Shangri-la we had hoped to find.
Varini de Silva is a travel professional with Ceylon Express International in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Druk Air is Bhutan’s national carrier and the only airline that flies in or out of Bhutan. Flights must be booked through a tour operator, who will also be responsible for arranging visas.
Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited (BTCL) offers well-designed and researched programs for a diverse array of visitors while at the same time being conscious of preserving the pristine environment. Cultural programs may include trekking, international conferences, Buddhism, weaving, birds and nature.
Bhutan Travelers is a locally owned tour, travel and trekking company certified and registered by the Royal Government of Bhutan. One of the most experienced tour companies in Bhutan, Bhutan Travelers, offers personal services in planning and execution of every tour.
Where to Stay:
Druk Hotel in Thimphu
When to go:
Peak months are September, October, November, March, April and May. The Tshechus festivals (spring and fall seasons) mark the busiest times of year. Late September to late November is the ideal time for trekking. Getting wet is to be expected, but clients should avoid June-August, when the monsoon season saturates the kingdom. Snow may cause roads to close during the months of December-February.