The Good Life With IQ

Eight great things to experience while visiting Bhutan

Experience the awe-inspiring sight of the Tiger’s Nest monastery, some blazingly fiery local food, incredible views from Chele La pass, and more in this remote but proud Himalayan country that’s a hop across the border from India.
 

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

# 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

#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

#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

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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6 thoughts on “Eight great things to experience while visiting Bhutan”

  1. Hey,
    Such a fun read this! you do not mention anything about accommodation, do you have any recommendations.

    1. Thanks! Our accommodation was actually sponsored by the India army, so couldn’t really recommend that 😃 But we did stay at the Olathang hotel in Paro for a night, which was very nice. Food was average, though…

    1. Thanks, Bill! I love spicy food too, but draw the line at anything that involves using chillies as a substitute for beans 😉

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