Monday, September 10, 2012

Bhutan August 2012: Part 1 – Introduction and Preparation

This post is the first in the travelog series for our recent trip to Bhutan. The Land of the Thunder Dragon. The Last Shangri-La. The Country Without Traffic Lights. The Land of Happiness (or, more accurately, The Country where they Measure Gross National Happiness).

Since lot of people have asked me about details like stay and booking, I'll start off with an introductory post that also tells you how to prepare for your trip to Bhutan. Also, taking into account feedback I got for my previous travelogs, I am including info about tour operators, prices, and the like.

Our itinerary

Well, I won't actually go about giving an overview of the country itself – wikitravel, wikipedia and the various tourist websites do far better a job of it than I could ever do! What I will do, is give an overview of our itinerary. Ours was a 7 days and 7 nights trip.

Day 1 (12 Aug):
  • Arrival in Bhutan at Paro airport (noon)
  • Drive to Chelela pass after lunch
  • Hike to Kili Nunnery on the way back
  • Cultural events and stay overnight at farmhouse

Day 2 (13 Aug):
  • Hike to legendary Taktsang monastery (Tiger's Nest)
  • Local Paro sight seeing (Dzong, Paro town)

Day 3 (14 Aug):
  • Drive to Thimpu
  • Sight-seeing at Thimpu (Stupa, Zoo, view-point of Parliament and King's Palace, nunnery, arts-and-crafts school, handicrafts emporium, shopping)

Day 4 (15 Aug):
  • Drive from Thimpu to Trongsa (8 hours) – via DochuLa pass

Day 5 (16 Aug):
  • Trongsa sight-seeing (Dzong, musuem)
  • Drive to Chamkar (Bumthang)
  • Sight-seeing in and around Chamkar (Dzong, Kurjay Lhakhang)

Day 6 (17 Aug):
  • Drive from Chamkar to Punakha (8 hours)

Day 7 (18th Aug):
  • Punakha Dzong
  • Trek to Chimi Lhakhang monastery
  • Drive to Thimpu
  • Shopping at Thimpu
  • Drive back to Paro

Day 8 (19th Aug):
  • Early morning departure from Bhutan (Paro airport)


This section is for those of you who are planning to visit Bhutan in the future. Hopefully these tips will help you prepare better.

Indians enjoy the privilege of being allowed to Bhutan on their own. Tourists from other countries MUST go through a tour operator though, and must be accompanied by guides. It is best to book your trip through one of the tour operators recognized by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

We had booked through Bhutan Mountain Holiday. This was recommended to us by friends who had a good experience with this company – and we came away impressed! More on that later.

We planned our trip through e-mail and a few phone calls. The Bhutanese are extremely polite, helpful and patient. While planning our trip, we must have exchanged 50+ mails; and changed our itinerary a few times – all without any problem whatsoever.

We asked for a cultural and nature trip. This meant we visited at least one monastery and Dzong (more about Dzongs in the upcoming posts) in every place we stayed! In hindsight, we should have asked for just a nature package since we would have experienced Bhutanese culture regardless! You should consider asking for a “nature” package, with Taktsang and Punakha Dzong as cultural additions.

Finally, keep in mind that road journeys in Bhutan are tiring. The entire country is mountainous, and barring a few 2-lane wide roads in the Paro-Thimpu region, roads elsewhere are narrow. Driving speed averages around 25 km per hour. We made the mistake of planning for 200 km drives – twice! Had we known in advance that it would take 8 hours, we might have planned slightly differently (probably Phobjikha valley instead of Bumthang).


Tour operators will tailor the package as per your requirements and hence the quotes you get will vary a lot. We had received quotes ranging from Rs.3500/- per head per day all the way to Rs.7500/- per head per day (the latter being for 2-star and 3-star accommodations). These prices are all-inclusive
  • food
  • stay
  • all local transport (exclusive vehicle just for you!)
  • guide and driver
  • all entry fees and such
You wouldn't need to spend a single rupee extra! In fact, the only additional money we spent was on souvenirs, tips and a local SIM card which we purchased for making calls back home. Bhutanese currency (Ngultrum) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and INR is accepted anywhere in Bhutan.

The price seems steep at first, but believe me it isn't. Bhutan has this concept of Low-volume, High-impact tourism. A lot of the money you pay goes towards improving the living standards of the local population (building roads, hospitals, schools etc). Also, for non-Indians, the Royal Government has stipulated a fee of USD250/- per head per day. When you take all this into account, the rates quoted for Indians is very very reasonable.

Also, if you are an Indian, remember to book your flight tickets through your operator as well. The Druk Air website only mentions the USD rates which apply to people from other countries – and it is very very expensive in comparison. We paid Rs.6250/- per ticket per direction for the Kolkatta-Paro flight.


A recap of what I mentioned in the paras above; plus some additional tips
  • Book through a recognized travel operator – one of those listed on the Tourism Council of Bhutan's website.
  • Book your flight ticket through your tour operator instead of through the Druk Air website.
  • Do NOT carry any 500-rupee notes (these will be confiscated). Cards are accepted at quite a lot of places – so there is really no need to carry too much cash.
  • Ask for a nature package since that will cover both nature and cultural aspects. If you are short on time – just visit Paro, Thimpu and Punakha. The must-visit spots are Tiger's Nest monastery and Punakha Dzong.
  • There are no public telephone booths in Bhutan! SIM cards cost less than 100 rupees though, and calls to India cost less than Rs.5/- per minute. So you can purchase a SIM card the day you arrive.
  • Do carry a few pieces of “conservative” clothing. In particular, entering some of the Dzongs requires you to have a collared T-shirt or top.

The next post in this series will be the actual start of the travelog.

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