Eight great things to experience while visiting Bhutan

Eight great things to experience while visiting Bhutan

The Good Life With IQ

If you want tips, tricks and insights on travelling, being vegetarian, sustainability and India, and from someone who’s been there and done that, then The Good Life With IQ is a good place to be! The inspiration for this blog was a trip to the Lakshadweep islands in early 2017. We had a really tough time trying to figure out how to plan our trip, and the fact that there wasn’t really much useful information on the net was really frustrating. When we got back, I decided to write a post on how we planned our Lakshadweep trip, so that other travellers could be spared our frustration. But once I got started, it was difficult to stop. And that's how The Good Life With IQ got where it is today.

Experience an awe-inspiring cliff-side monastery, blazingly fiery local food, incredible mountain views, and more in the remote but proud Himalayan country of Bhutan.

Our first real holiday together was in 2007: a trip to the secluded Himalayan nation of Bhutan on the northeast border of India (at the time, it was one of the last true monarchies in the world, but since then has switched to democracy—incredibly, on the orders of the king himself). We had heard a lot about Bhutan’s beautiful landscape and imposing Buddhist architecture, and decided we wanted to see for ourselves. We did, and we loved it—and still dream of going back for another visit.

So, based on what we saw during our trip, here are eight great things to experience while visiting Bhutan.

Also read: Eight things we learned in Ladakh, the highest desert in the world

#1 The adrenalin rush of the flight into Paro

Bhutan’s single airport has been built in the town of Paro, for the sole reason that it’s the only place that offered any sort of approach for an aircraft to land. That’s not saying much, though, because the plane still needs to do some serious weaving between mountains before suddenly straightening out and landing at the tiny airport. The last few minutes of the flight are quite intense, with the trees on the mountainsides looking close enough to touch every time the plane banks in either direction!

Bhutan - Paro approach

On approach to Paro airport

Bhutan - Paro airport

The view from the charming but scarily-located Paro airport

#2  The solid but intricately decorated architecture

Bhutanese buildings are squat and blockish, like a lot of Himalayan Buddhist architecture. This is offset, though, by lots of decorative flourishes like wooden latticework and hand-painted patterns and religious motifs. Overall, the effect is a little incongruous, but charming nevertheless.

Bhutan - Dochu La Chorten

The columns of Dochu La chorten

Bhutan - Decorated house

A painted house in Thimphu

Bhutan - House in the countryside

A traditional country cottage

Bhutan - Highway town

A town’s main street

Bhutan - Thimphu square prayer wheels

Prayer wheels in Thimphu’s  Clock Tower Square

Bhutan - Thimphu bridge exterior

A bridge over Thimphu’s Raidak river

Bhutan - Thimphu bridge interior

On the bridge

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# 3 The head-exploding spiciness of their national dish

Before we visited, we had heard a lot about the amount of chilli the Bhutanese use in their food. We weren’t too concerned, though, because we thought it couldn’t get much spicier than the food we were used to, living in India. We were extremely wrong. It turned out that their national dish ema datse (literally ‘chilli and cheese’) uses green chillies as a vegetable—and not the big mild ones, either! One bite was enough to convince us we needed a lot more practice before we could finish a bowl, even between the two of us.

Bhutan - Food

Trying ema datse (center left) for the first–and last–time, with brown rice (far left) and almost-as-fiery stir-fried pork (this was before we turned vegetarian).

#4 The profusion of furry doggies everywhere you look

I’ll admit, this may not be for everyone, but it was great for us dog lovers. Sadly, Bhutanese stray dogs are a lot like the people—quiet, dignified, and not very outgoing. None of them (the dogs, not the people) reacted to our friendly overtures beyond giving us a slightly disbelieving stare, so we learned to leave them alone and just admire them from afar.

Bhutan - Dochu La Doggie

At Dochu La on the way to Punakha

Bhutan - Takstang doggie 2

On the way up to Taktsang

Bhutan - Takstang doggie

Oblivious of our plight as we labour up towards Taktsang

Bhutan - Thimphu doggie

In Thimphu (no, he didn’t follow us from Dochu La)

Stray in Bhutan 1

Watchdog on the way to Taktsang

Strays in Bhutan

Rubbish makes a cozy bed in Thimphu

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#5 The imposing bulk of Punakha dzong

The dzongs of Bhutan are an interesting combination of military fortress, administrative center and Buddhist monastery, and use the traditional blockish Bhutanese building style—but on a massive scale! Each administrative district has one, and the dzong in the former capital town of Punakha is said to be the most imposing. We found that quite believable as we walked through the gates in the huge walls and along the various stone courtyards inside, with even the interior buildings towering intimidatingly overhead.

Bhutan - Punakha road view

On approach to Punakha dzong

Bhutan - Punakha interior 1

Under the outer walls

Bhutan - Punakha interior garden

A cottage in the garden

Bhutan - Punakha interior 3

A towering building inside the dzong

Bhutan - Punakha interior painting

A painting of a mythological figure

Bhutan - Punakha oil lamps

Yak butter lamps burn merrily

Bhutan - Punakha main hall entrance

The ornate entrance to the main hall

Bhutan - Punakha bridge

Damaged bridge across the river at Punakha

Bhutan - Punakha from across the river

The dzong from across the river

#6 The view from Chele La pass

The road from the town of Paro to the Haa valley leads up and over Chele La pass—supposedly at a height of almost 4000 meters above sea level. The views from the pass are breath-taking, and the flapping prayer flags just add to the atmosphere.

Bhutan - Chele La 5

The road up Chele La pass

Bhutan - Chele La 1

The blue mountains…

Bhutan - Chele La 2

Precarious perch

Bhutan - Chele La 3

The road back down

Bhutan - Chele La 4

The wind carries prayers to the gods

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#7 The incredible Taktsang monastery

Of all the things in Bhutan, this is what we most highly recommend: the trek up to the amazing hill-hugging Taktsang Lhakhang—the Tiger’s Nest monastery. The well-defined path up the mountain would, under ordinary circumstances, not be considered very difficult. The thin air at that altitude, though, can make even the fittest take it slow! We huffed and puffed our way up over three hours, stopping every ten minutes for a breather while our impassive guide looked on with a faint air of amusement. But it was all worth it in the end, as we finally drew level with the spectacular monastery, built right into the hillside and almost falling off the edge of the cliff!

Bhutan - Takstang first view

Our first good look

Bhutan - Takstang across the valley

Getting warmer: the view from the rest stop

Bhutan - Takstang 2

And finally, we’re almost there!

Bhutan - Takstang storehouse

A little storage hut next to the monastery

Bhutan - View from Takstang

The view from Taktsang

#8 The fading post-colonial glory of Calcutta

I’ll readily admit, this isn’t really part of a trip to Bhutan. But since your flight to or from Paro will probably be through Calcutta (now Kolkata), it might just be worth it to take a break here and explore what used to be the British Empire’s capital in India. Almost everywhere you go in Kolkata, fading remnants of the Empire’s presence are visible, from architectural landmarks like the Victoria Memorial to more subtle cultural influences like an enduring love for high tea.

Bhutan - Kolkata New Market

An angel decorates the facade of a shopping arcade in Kolkata’s New Market area

Bhutan - Old man in Kolkata

The old and the new are juxtaposed in this grainy picture

Top tips

  • Bhutan is fiercely protective of its culture and natural heritage, and makes international tourists pay for the privilege of being there. If you’re not an Indian or Bhutanese national, be prepared to pay a steep pre-determined all-inclusive daily fee for your time in the country.
  • Indian Rupees are widely accepted as currency, though you will probably receive change in Bhutanese Ngultrums (pronounced ‘nyultrum’).
  • The public restrooms outside Punakha dzong are neither very clean nor very well maintained (at least when we were there). Be prepared.
  • When at a restaurant, it’s probably better to stick to order something local or maybe Indian. The Bhutanese don’t seem to do international cuisine very well, even if it’s on the menu.
  • If you’re the active type, remember that the air can get very thin, and stay on the alert for signs of altitude sickness.

Also read: Eight things we learned in Ladakh, the highest desert in the world

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Bhutan - Girl in the window

Girl in a window

Bhutan - Haa river

The Haa river

Bhutan - Mountain traffic jam

Mountainside traffic jam caused by a landslide

Bhutan - View of Thimphu

View of Thimphu from the hillside

Bhutan - Chele La demon tree

Disturbing dead tree down from Chele La

Bhutan - Chele La stroll

A stroll through the trees

Bhutan - Bee on flower

A bee goes about its business in Thimphu

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