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BHUTAN TRIPS, TOURS AND TREKS

Story and photos by

Isolated by some of the highest mountain ranges in the world and wedged between India and Tibet, the kingdom of Bhutan had neither roads nor contacts with the outside world before 1960. Even though expeditions of geologists, biologists and Tibetologists were gradually given permission to enter, by 1968 Bhutan remained the last unmapped country of Asia.

Monks at Tashichho Dzong
Monks at Tashichho Dzong
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tourists were only allowed to enter in 1974 — five years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. At that time, Bhutan was still partly governed by monks and ruled by a monarch who had never been photographed by the world's press.

Population and size

When Bhutan's king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, opened his country's doors to tourism, 160 foreigners entered and glimpsed a way of life that had not changed for centuries. In 2006, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated to allow his oldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, to become king.

Even today, many of Bhutan's population of 700,000 live in villages untouched by tourism. Bhutan is larger than Switzerland, but it has less than 11,000 visitors annually.

The few privileged tourists who do visit Bhutan are treated like royal guests. Bhutanese people, unspoiled by mobs of tourists, welcome visitors as guests, not as walking money-dispensers.

Visitors stay in clean and comfortable hotels, many of them beautifully decorated with Bhutanese carvings, paintings and handicrafts. The best hotel in Paro, the COMO Uma Paro, has a travel agency, which helps guests plan Bhutan tours and hire private cars with drivers.

How to get to Bhutan

Until 1982, the only way to enter Bhutan was by road from Bagdora, India. Druk Air, Bhutan's National Airline, flies to the Paro international airport from Kathmandu, Nepal, Bangkok, Thailand, Delhi, Bagdogra, Gaya (seasonal) and Calcutta (Kolkata), India, and Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh. Bhutan flights book up months in advance.

Thimphu Valley
Thimphu Valley
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You can also travel by road to Thimphu, Bhutan, from Phuntsholing (Phuentsholing), at the Bhutan/India border. The 175-kilometer drive takes six to seven hours.

The word Druk, meaning dragon, is the kingdom's real name. It was the British who called it Bhutan, the land of Bhots (Sanskrit for Tibetans) to whom the Bhutanese are closely related.

Trekking with yaks

Many tours to Bhutan include treks. On one trek, you cross a 17,160-foot (5,200-m) pass. On another, a mountaineering expedition, you climb a peak first climbed in 1982. Horses, and sometimes yaks, help carry gear and supplies.

On treks, you climb through forests of prayer flags, blowing in the wind. Hiking through lush valleys, dominated by snow-clad peaks, you'll see rice paddies terraced like steps into mountainsides. Fortress-like dzongs house ancient monasteries, where red-robed monks still perform Tibetan rituals.

You'll also encounter three-storey wooden farmhouses, traditionally built without nails and decorated with colorful designs. Animals live in stables on the first floor. Living quarters occupy the second floor, while food is stored under the open eaves of the top level.

Window and door frames feature elaborate carvings. Drying red peppers brighten wooden shingled roofs.

Thunder Dragon
Thunder Dragon
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Local life

Although Bhutanese like hot chilies, visitors' meals are mildly spiced, if at all. Food is plentiful, fresh and tasty. Clear mountain streams provide some of the best trout in the world, while vegetables grown at high altitudes are enormous.

The people of Bhutan wear national costumes. Men wear a kho, a knee-length robe, tied at the waist with a belt. The folds in front form a pouch, which is used as a pocket. Underneath, they wear vests with wide white cuffs. Even the king wears this costume.

Women wear an ankle-length robe, fastened at the waist with a belt, and at the shoulders with silver broaches. Exquisite necklaces of turquoise, coral and agate adorn their necks.

Bhutan's national language is Dzongkha, a Tibetan dialect. Bhutanese money is the ngultrum, which has the same value as the Indian rupee. You can exchange major currencies or travelers' checks for Bhutan's currency at banks, large hotels and Paro International Airport.

Archer wears Bhutanese costume (kho).
Archer wears Bhutanese costume (kho).
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Archery competitions

Archery is the national sport, so archery competitions are common. The talent of Bhutan's archers is legendary.

You'll watch with amazement as they shoot arrows from homemade bamboo bows, hitting a target more than 660 feet (200 m) away. Spectators, confident in the archer's marksmanship, gather around the target board waiting for bull's-eyes, seemingly oblivious to stray arrows.

Best time to visit Bhutan

Bhutan is located at the same latitude as Florida. On Bhutan vacations, visitors encounter elevations ranging from 7,000 to 12,000 feet (2,135 to 3,660 m).

Spring and fall are the best times to go to Bhutan. Days are warm, but nights can be very cool, especially in the higher altitudes. Heavy monsoon rains fall in July and August.

If you can, time your trip to coincide with one of Bhutan's many festivals. Tsechu festival is the largest religious festival in Bhutan. It celebrates the life of Tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, who spread Mahayana Buddhism across the Himalayas in the 8th century.

Thimphu Tshechu, in Bhutan's capital, is the most famous festival, drawing nearly 30,000 people, dressed in bright hand-woven clothing. It's held every September/October in Tashichho Dzong.

Tashichho Dzong, the "Fortress of Glorious Religion," houses Bhutan's government and more than 3,000 monks. (Bhutanese families traditionally send one son to a monastery for a Buddhist education.) Like all dzongs in Bhutan, it was built without drawn plans and without nails.

Masked dancers perform Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds. Thimphu Domche and Tshechu Festival. Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu.
Masked dancers perform Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds.
Thimphu Domche and Tshechu Festival. Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Masked dancers at Thimphu Tshechu

Monk dancers wear fearsome masks to remind spectators of the need for vigilance against demons. Their dances depict gods that people may encounter between death and rebirth. Costumes turn dancers into "lords of the cremation grounds."

Horns, drums and clashing cymbals accompany the masked dancers, as they twirl and leap in Tashichho Dzong's courtyard, symbolically stomping out evil spirits with exorcism rituals.

Taktsang Monastery, Tiger's Nest
Taktsang Monastery, Tiger's Nest
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hiking to Tiger's Nest

Tiger's Nest (Taktsang Monastery) clings dizzily to a ledge of a sheer 3,000-foot (910-m) cliff above the Paro Valley. Legend claims that Guru Padmasambhava meditated here for three months, after flying to the shrine on the back of a flying tiger. To reach Bhutan's most sacred pilgrimage site you must climb, by foot or on horseback, through a pine forest for about two hours.

Officials ask tourists not to give candies, money or gifts to children. You'll be tempted, because the kids are cute and friendly. The government noticed how this practice created begging children who pestered tourists in other countries. They want to prevent it from happening in Bhutan.

Shopping for souvenirs

It's illegal to export antiques from Bhutan. You can, however, bring back beautiful handicrafts like intricately carved and painted wooden masks and colorful, hand-woven bags and thangkas (prayer-scrolls).

Hand-embroidered bag
Hand-embroidered bag
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bhutan's renowned postage stamps depict a wide variety of topics, from butterflies to yeti (abominable snowmen). Some stamps are three-dimensional. Some older stamps were actually tiny metallic records that play the Bhutanese national anthem.

Bhutan visas

Travel to Bhutan isn't cheap. Besides the cost of getting there, visas (for everyone except citizens of India) cost $40.00 U.S. for 14 days.

In addition, a government of Bhutan minimum daily package of $200.00 to $250.00 U.S. per person per day covers meals, accommodations, transportation, sightseeing, entry fees and licensed guides. This policy limits the number of visitors to help control their impact on the environment and culture.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Bhutan Tourist Office: www.tourism.gov.bt

ElderTreks: www.eldertreks.com