My wife and I had a spectacular time in Bhutan and highly recommend the country. I could write at length about the main tourist destinations and festivals but I see they are sufficiently covered in other trip reports. I’ll try to focus instead on some key points to benefit those considering a Bhutan trip and will also try to address some issues I’ve seen in other recent forum entries.
I’m 40 and my wife is a few years past her recurring 29th birthday. We met up in Bhutan with another Seattle couple (dear friends of ours) who are in the midst of a 'round the world trip. We landed in Paro where we were met by our fantastic guide Tashi Dorji and driver Kinsung from Rainbow Tours and Treks.
Over the next seven days we toured Thimphu, Wangdue, Punakha (including festival, saw Michael J. Fox as well), Trongsa (saw the King), Gangtey Goenpa (saw the Black-Necked Cranes) and then back to Paro via Thimphu. We saw many fantastic forts and monasteries, took innumerable great photos, chatted with several locals, visited a few markets and shops, did a hike or two and drank a great deal of tea. We learned as much as we could handle and then some about Bhutanese history and culture. It’s a truly unique and amazing country and people. Tourists are still relatively rare and a source of curiosity among the locals – we received countless smiles and waves during our tour.
Tashi, our guide and Kinsung, our driver, were fantastic. Tashi speaks at least five languages and his English was great (you try explaining Buddhism in a language you learned in school). He patiently explained (and re-explained) new concepts to us, modified our itinerary to meet our needs and made the new arrangements seamlessly. He was pleasantly engaging, but also knew when to back out to allow the four of us to chat among ourselves. He was prompt but never rushed us even though we were champion dawdlers. Kinsung was a courteous driver who always had a smile and clean van waiting for us.
My wife and I have been around the world and consider ourselves seasoned/hardened travelers, but both of us shed a few tears at the airport when we were confronted with our impending departure from this charmed country and with the fact that we wouldn’t be sharing our next day with Tashi. I’m still struggling to articulate what a momentous experience this was for us (as evidenced by this text…), but suffice it to say that I will never forget my time in Bhutan.
- Highly recommend the book, “Facts About Bhutan – The Land of the Thunder Dragon” by Lily Wangchuck (no relation to royal family). Published just a few months ago, it’s got beautiful photos and everything you’d want to know, or should know, about Bhutan including post-coronation coverage of the new king.
- It will be helpful to know about Guru Rimpoche, Zhabdrung and the Wangchuck dynasty prior to arrival as most of the sights you will see will in some way be related to those three (extra credit: The Divine Madman).
- We obviously recommend Rainbow Tours and consider ourselves very fortunate to have had such a great guide as that was a key factor in our Gross National Happiness with Bhutan.
- Those depressed by travel in "developing" countries will be cheered by visiting Bhutan. The people are generally poor, yes, but the happiness is palpable and it is refreshing to see any country as well-governed as this one is.
- Tourists are still relatively sparse here which results in many advantages for those who do visit. Bhutanese will engage with you and most will speak at least some English as it is mandatory in schools.
- Hotels were fine (I’d say the French equivalent of 3 stars in Thimphu, Trongsa and Gangtey Goenpa, 2 stars elsewhere but all were charming at the very least). We spent little time in the actual rooms so this was not too important to us. Employees were always extremely nice and helpful.
- We witnessed or heard of a couple of “bad tourist” incidents. One where a tourist smuggled a small camera inside Tiger’s Nest and got caught by a monk taking pictures and another where a tourist stood up for 10 minutes in the middle of a festival square where dancers were performing to video them (thankfully, neither were Americans). Needless to say, don’t do this.
- We loved the food, but it may have started to get repetitive had we been on a longer tour. We had no trouble ordering moderately-priced and good wine from Australia and South Africa with any of our dinners.
- All of your basic needs are addressed within the tours. We needed cash for things like tips, donations, some snacks and beer/wine. We saw only a couple of ATMs, none at the airport, and are not sure if we even could have successfully used them. We could only use Visa in some stores in Paro and Thimpu, and only for sums greater than ~$30-$40. All our hotels could cash AMEX traveler’s checks.
- Per the above, change your traveler’s checks at the airport in the baggage claim area as the rates aren’t too bad and you can ensure that you’ll have smaller denominations available right from the start of your trip.
- At no point did anyone approach us asking for money or candy/pens/paper.
- Tipping… This is always tricky (and pardon the tackiness for discussing this but this will hopefully help out fellow travelers). We tended to tip 100N ($2) for luggage and 100N-500N as a “donation” at the monasteries/forts/museums (tho in retrospect we should have given more). Guidelines I uncovered for tipping tour guides suggested $150 for the guide and $100 for the driver (tho this is ambiguous as it specifically pertained to “trekking” tours and seems pretty low given the value and effort they typically provide). We doubled this as our guide and driver were outstanding. On the flight out we sat next to a young Buhtanese with friends in the tourism industry and he validated that our guidelines were generally on target.
- The roads... To set your expectations, all of the roads are safe and the drivers are few and courteous. Most are typically one paved lane (you put two wheels on the side of the road when another car approaches) and they absolutely hug every single contour of every side of every hill, most of which are quite steep. We averaged 20-40km/hr on these roads and would recommend motion sickness medication for those who can get queasy. Would recommend against scheduling itineraries which require more than ~5-6 hours of travel time per any one day.
- The scenery is gorgeous, but the rice paddies and wheat fields were mostly brown during this time of year. Would be interesting to see the countryside in the fall which is the other prime tourist season.
- Most travelers should not hike to Tiger's Nest on the first day when they land in Paro due to the altitude and steep grade. Save it for your return to Paro on the day before you fly out after you’ve had some time to acclimate.
- Yes, most rural villagers dump their trash over the side of a hill in a designated spot. However, once you see how little flat land there is and how seriously impractical it would be to have any sort of garbage pick-up service you can understand why this is the case. The government has previously mandated (at least) pit toilets for all citizens, and I imagine in due time they will tackle garbage improvements as well.
- Bhutan is a photographer's paradise. Mountains, wildlife, waterfalls, monks (red robes contrasting against white walls), festivals (could not get enough of the masks), architecture, etc.
- Although no longer mandatory for every day, most Bhutanese wear their beautiful traditional and photogenic Goh or Kira attire, saving their best outfits for the festivals.
That’s about as short as I can make this trip report. Will be happy to answer any replies individually. Hope you can make it there!