Visiting Bhutan is expensive. Pretty much the only way to get there is a $250 per person/per night government-mandated tour. So we found the shortest tour we could find and paid up.
Flying from Nepal on Druk Air (Druk means “dragon”), we got an incredible view of Mt Everest along the way. We landed in Paro- only two airlines are allowed to fly into this tiny valley surrounded by mountains- and were met at the airport by our guide and driver, who would be with us for the trip. We got to sightseeing- first at Paro’s Rinpung Dzong (fortress), where our guide explained several of the paintings in the outer courtyard, such as the Four Friends, the Four Guardian Kings, and the Wheel of Life. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the temples (unlike Thailand, Myanmar, and some temples in Tibet).
Later in the day we drove from Paro to the capital city of Thimphu. Bhutan has a population of 700,000, of which almost half live in these two cities. There we saw the National Memorial Chorten and the Tashichho Temple, where both the king and the political assembly do their work. It was originally built in 1216.
The current ruling family of Bhutan is responsible for creating a series of indicators that measure Gross National Happiness- not only measuring economic growth, but also focusing on cultural heritage, sustainable environment, and good governance. Bhutan has universal health care and free education. Which they pay for with hydroelectric power, and tourism.
Bhutan is still very traditional. Anyone working for the government must wear the national dress (an ankle length kera dress for the women, with a jacket with turned back sleeves and a contrasting collar, and a gho for the men, which looks a bit like a comfortable bathrobe belted at the waist, with knee-high black socks). So, all tour guides, airport workers, hotel staff, and restaurant workers wore those. Bhutan did not open up to tv and internet until 1997. Students in Bhutan often attend university in India, and some look to Kuwait and the Middle East for jobs, as unemployment is high in Bhutan.
On day two we drove to Punakhah, where the winter palace is (it’s in a much warmer valley). We passed the 108 Chortens Memorial along the way, celebrating a victory over an insurrection in 2003. In Punakhah, we visited a fertility temple dedicated to the “Divine Madman”, a guru who sounds like quite the character. All the stories about him involved his…phallus, and all the handicrafts from that village reflect those legends.
That afternoon we visited the Winter Palace, where the first king was crowned, the first National Assembly took place, the current king had his wedding (he’s #5 in this family line of kings). The fortress is very beautiful, built in the “13 Arts and Crafts style”.
On day three we drove back to Thimphu, stopping at Buddha Point, a 52 meter high statue of Buddha, gilded in bronze, surrounded by 21 Boddhisattvas. It’s one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. We also watched an archery match, and visited the post office-where we had stamps made with our own photo of us at the Winter Palace. Later that night we got a view of the Rinpung, beautifully lit up at night, and visited a local bar with our guide and driver, where we tried a Bhutanese rice beer and a wheat beer.
On our last full day, we set out early to hike to the Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest. It was built in 1692, on a mountainside cliff 1200 meters high, by guru Rinpoche. He flew to Bhutan (from Tibet) on the back of a tiger and meditated in a cave high up on the mountain for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days in the 8th century, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. It was a tough hike, but beautiful views. It is considered the most holy site in Bhutan, the last Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world.
And that pretty much concluded our trip. The next morning we went to the airport, where we boarded our flight to Bangladesh. Overall, the tour of Bhutan was interesting, but odd- sort of a cross between the Tibet tour and the North Korea tour.
Flight to: $250
Per day cost: $250 each