We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Seattle, WA
3 posts
2 reviews
Save Topic
Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

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.

Key Points:

Research:

- 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).

Tourism:

- 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.

Money:

- 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.

Travel:

- 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.

Trash:

- 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.

Photography:

- 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!

Penn Valley...
Level Contributor
139 posts
4 reviews
Save Reply
1. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

GREAT trip report! and you saw the king??? Wow. Now that's a sighting!

Now I'm really annoyed that we didn't see the cranes.

:-)

California
Level Contributor
40 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
2. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Thank you for the report. I'm going to order the book you mention. I'm reading Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey to Bhutan right now and loving it. I'm so excited about my trip in May.

Amsterdam, Holland
Destination Expert
for Bhutan
Level Contributor
3,083 posts
142 reviews
Save Reply
3. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Great report, with some very fine highlights. You saw the cranes, and the King too!!

Tipping is always a delicate question, maybe you can specify it per person and per day, as no all party's are the same size, and tours differ in length. This was one of the reasons for arguments in our group, and I'd like to know once exactly what others give, so to be on the right side.

As for money, best to take cash and change at the airport, and during the trip in banks or hotels, most people work only with cash, and a very few shops with Visa. No other credit card is accepted.

Glad you had such fantastic experiences.

MaineUSA
Level Contributor
842 posts
129 reviews
Save Reply
4. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Joe:

An excellent report and another that should be required reading for anyone interested in traveling to Bhutan. Also good to have another tour agency get the seal of approval so others have trusted ones with which to compare. Got a kick out of your Michael Fox - King "doubleheader"

Your comment about annoying tourists was interesting. Fortunately we didn't encounter any in Bhutan. However, a couple years ago while visiting the Deprung Monestary in Lhasa and watching the afternoon "debate session" with the monks, a woman actually walked into a group of debating monks and started taking pictures. As you said thankfully, she wasn't an American!!

Seattle, WA
3 posts
2 reviews
Save Reply
5. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Hey There:

Really appreciate the comments and feedback. Let me try to adress some of them here.

- King Sighting: Don't be too jealous. We saw the king from a great distance. We were at the Trongsa watchtower and he was in the fort below. The watchtower was all decorated with five-color flags because the king was potentially going to be there but we unfortunately watched him drive off to another destination. Was exciting seeing him even from a distance and we drilled Tashi for a crash course on what to do (and what NOT to do) if he came up to the watchtower.

- Michael J. Fox Sighting: We gave the man some peace and didn't approach him, but we saw him at the tea house at Dochula (at the pass between Thimphu and Punakha). Was the four of us, Tashi, two Germans, and his group of 5-6 people. Was a funny scene as we exited the tea house and one of his people was urgently talking on her cell phone saying something like, "If the king's people say no it means no. Do not force the issue". She was trying to be nice to whoever was on the other line to let him/her know that Michael does not overrule the king here. We saw him and his documentary film crew later in the day at the festival at Punakha. He's just published a new book and his documentary will air on 7 May on ABC in the states and will no doubt include footage of the Punakha festival (love the masks!). I'll be the western-looking guy in the blue and grey v-neck sweater in case there are any panning shots of the crowd.

- Black Crane Sighting: Again, don't be jealous. We only saw two and they could've been the last two of the season. Very impressive birds, quite large. Cute that there were only two, a couple, alone in that vast valley.

- Books: Glad you're enjoying Beyond the Sky and Earth. I found most of the books I looked into were of two categories: (1) Memoirs of time in Bhutan and (2) Facts and figures of Bhutan. As I recall your book is in (1) and my recommended book is clearly in (2) so it will be a good balance to have both. I love my book, but know that it's pretty heavy for its size (due to all the color photos), it can get pretty dry as it has a ton of what looks like UN-sponsored info (but you don't have to read all of that section), and there is a tiny bit of pro-king/government propaganda in it (but that didn't bother me given all the 4th and 5th kings have done I'm very much on their side). Still highly recommend it as it will provide everything you should know about Bhutan.

- Tipping: We're not sure what we gave our guide and driver was correct, and I don't have any specific guidelines depending on days or trek vs. cultural or size of group (but it sure would be nice if someone did). As one data point, our group of 4 on a 7-day cultural tour gave $300 to our guide and $200 to our driver (again, pardon the tackiness for disclosing). I certainly would not have given less given the quality of care we were under.

- Annoying Tourists: Loved your annoying tourist story in the comments. The guy taking pictures with the small camera was atrocious - there's more to him. He actually went through 3 guides in three days and he insisted on taking photos of a funeral procession, up close, just a few hours after getting busted at Tiger's Nest and then screamed at his guide who was telling him how extremely inappropriate that was. We got his blog URL and are exposing his behavior. One word: Karma.

Amsterdam, Holland
Destination Expert
for Bhutan
Level Contributor
3,083 posts
142 reviews
Save Reply
6. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Thanks for your feedback.

I was not jealous, I can be happy for someone without having to have the same. And I saw one of the queens very closeby on my second trip, in a fair in Thimphu. Even without the cranes, who I never saw, the visitors centre is very nice in Phobjikha.

The figures for tipping were as I saw somewhere: 5$ p.p.p.day for the guide and 3$ p.p.p.day for the driver/cook. And even this was considered too much by the Dutch people in our group, well, they are known for beeing very tight with money.

About books, they are rather cheap in Bhutan, and some have nice descriptions of life there.In addition to the books mentioned already, try: So close to heaven, by Barbara Crosette. I found it with Amazone, it describes both Buddhism and Bhutan, as well as some other countries in the area.

Another way of feeling Bhutan is reading the Kuenselonline, the newspaper which gives local new a few times a week. Interesting to see what's important over there.

Nelson, New Zealand
Level Contributor
38 posts
9 reviews
Save Reply
7. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Dear Joe,

thank you very much for your trip report. It brought back some lovely memories.

With regards to memorabilia about Bhutan, try to get the DVD and accompaning book Travellers and Magicians. It's Bhutans first movie and I am sure your guide might have told you about it. It was filmed by Khyentse Norbu, a monk who also filmed The Cup a movie about Tibeten monks playing soccer. You can get the DVD through the Khyentse foundation but do get the book as well since it is the scipt and has beautiful facts about Bhutan in there as well as recipes. Another fantastic book is the one of the photos of John Claude White. He was part of the Young Husband Mission into Lhasa but was also stationed in Sikkim around 1900 and explored all three countries and has a beautiful collection of photos from that time. You will find that it doesn't look much different then now! :-)

Hope you enjoy,

Anne

PS: Veyr sorry about my poor English.

Chicago
Level Contributor
64 posts
19 reviews
Save Reply
8. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Just wanted to thank you very much for your detailed post. We are planning a trip in November (probably with Rainbow). I had been searching for information on tipping practices, so I really appreciate you sharing the data from your trip.

Thanks!

Bhutan
12 posts
Save Reply
9. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

Dear Wolverine Joe,

As an insider i thank you for presenting the facts about Bhutan to the outside world and showcasing Bhutans profile through yout trip to Bhutan,This is the best compliment we can ever get from our visitors.

Rinzin

10. Re: Trip Report: 6-13 Mar 09 (Cultural) via Rainbow Tours

-:- Message from TripAdvisor staff -:-

This topic has been closed to new posts due to inactivity. We hope you'll join the conversation by posting to an open topic or starting a new one.

To review the TripAdvisor Forums Posting Guidelines, please follow this link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/pages/forums_posting_guidelines.html

We remove posts that do not follow our posting guidelines, and we reserve the right to remove any post for any reason.

Removed on: 25 February 2010, 05:18