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.
#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!
On approach to 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.
The columns of Dochu La chorten
A painted house in Thimphu
A traditional country cottage
A town’s main street
Prayer wheels in Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square
A bridge over Thimphu’s Raidak river
On the bridge
# 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.
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.
At Dochu La on the way to Punakha
On the way up to Taktsang
Oblivious of our plight as we labour up towards Taktsang
In Thimphu (no, he didn’t follow us from Dochu La)
Watchdog on the way to Taktsang
Rubbish makes a cozy bed in Thimphu
#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.
On approach to Punakha dzong
Under the outer walls
A cottage in the garden
A towering building inside the dzong
A painting of a mythological figure
Yak butter lamps burn merrily
The ornate entrance to the main hall
Damaged bridge across the river at Punakha
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.
The road up Chele La pass
The blue mountains…
The road back down
The wind carries prayers to the gods
#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!
Our first good look
Getting warmer: the view from the rest stop
And finally, we’re almost there!
A little storage hut next to the monastery
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.
An angel decorates the facade of a shopping arcade in Kolkata’s New Market area
The old and the new are juxtaposed in this grainy picture
- 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.
Girl in a window
The Haa river
Mountainside traffic jam caused by a landslide
View of Thimphu from the hillside
Disturbing dead tree down from Chele La
A stroll through the trees
A bee goes about its business in Thimphu