News: Discovering Bhutan

Posted: 9 March 2018

Bhutan - The land of gross national happiness!

Day 1 - Arrive Kathmandu
It’s practical to stop en route to Bhutan as the flights to Paro are generally on separate tickets to your international flights and the flights into Bhutan can often be influenced by weather so breaking the journey is a sensible idea. I decided to have a night in Kathmandu as you can get a multiple entry visa on arrival for USD 25. I stayed in the charming Kantipur Temple House centrally located but down a quiet side street. The hotel is newish but has been designed in an older style. I enjoyed a sumptuous evening meal of traditional Nepali fare accompanied by music and traditional dancing in an immaculately renovated 150 year building a short ride from the hotel.

Day 2 - To Bhutan and Thimphu
Up early and back to the airport for the short flight to Paro. Fortunately the conditions this morning were clear and I was able to request a window seat on the left hand side of the plane meaning that I was able to enjoy quite astonishing views of the jagged peaks of the Himalayas including the fabled summit of Everest. I spent the entire flight transfixed. We angled in towards the runway at Paro after less than an hour of dreamy flying and Bhutan awaited!

I met my guide Dechen and we travelled along the Paro and Thimphu valleys and into Thimphu itself the capital of Bhutan but a city relatively small scale in size with a population of only 150,000. After freshening up after such a long journey including trials and tribulations escaping the late Siberian blast in the UK, we ventured down to the weekend market. The scene was a bustling hive of activity dotted with splashes of vibrant colours from the array of fruit and veg, not least the piles of ruby red chillis that seemed to be part of most stalls. Rather than being an ingredient in Bhutan they tend to be the focal point of the dish! It’s then a short stroll across a picturesque bridge over the river to more stalls of a handicraft focus.

We then spent a relaxing hour watching locals engage in their national sport at the Changlimithang Archery Ground. This was a real treat and apparently is taken very seriously by all that play. The target is 140m from the archer. I was utterly stunned at the accuracy they demonstrated from such a distance. I was struggling to see the target! Next was the impressively decorated and ornate National Memorial Chorten the focal point of worship to many Bhutanese. Remember to walk clockwise around the chorten! The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the streets of central Thimphu observing the mixture of monks and locals in traditional dress in contrast to the trendy looking younger generation wielding their iPhones.

Day 3 – The Thimphu Valley

My day starts at 8am with a visit to the enormous Buddha that looms over the Thimphu valley. Early morning is a lovely time to be at this lofty perch and the mist hanging to the slopes soon started to dissipate and the early morning rays lit up the Buddha. We then took a short walk to a magnificent vantage point with sweeping views down the valley.

Next stop was to a small animal sanctuary primarily notable for housing a number of Takin - the national animal of Bhutan - a curious large looking beast which my guide said is a cross between a cow and a goat although I struggled to see it! From this sanctuary we took a walk up to the radio tower and then along a  lovely leisurely trail that hugged the mountain side through cool pine forest with occasional glimpses of the valley below and the magnificent looking Dzong. A number of delightful Spotted Nutcatchers flitted playfully from pine to pine as we strolled. The walk ended at a monastic school where young monks engaged in an enthusiastic game of cricket with a plank of wood for a bat, a sheet of metal for wickets and rolled up socks for a ball! I always love how sport more often than not in any culture creates such joy. The day ends with a number of hotel inspections. There is no shortage of good options in Thimphu catering for all budgets.

Day 4 – Over the Dochu La to Punakha
The first hour of the day saw us leave the Thimphu valley and trundle up through the mountains towards the Dochu La pass. The road meandered ever higher through beautiful forest. I sat with the window open listening to the birds as we slowly gained height. Finally after a 45 minute ascent we reached the pass at 3100 meters. The air was fresh and the cafe at the top serves tea or coffee and one can sit outside on picnic benches taking in the views and listening to birdsong. On clear days usually in the autumn it is possible from here to see the Bhutanese Himalayas including the highest peak at 7500m. I was not so fortunate but I knew that in spring views can be obstructed by mist and cloud so I had low expectations. For those that have more time there is a nice hiking trail from the pass that makes for a nice day trip from Thimphu or en route to Punakha.

After a cuppa and some birdwatching we descended the mountain again through beautiful forest and stunning views of the valley and rice fields below. We drop around 2000m in less than an hour into the fertile and much warmer Punakha Valley. We take a pleasant stroll through rice fields and a small village to an important temple called Chimi Lhakang where the Divine Madman Drukpa Kunley subdued the Demoness of Dochu La. Today women travel from all over to this temple of fertility for a blessing hoping to conceive. The location is beautiful and tranquil and the temple itself stunning. Next stop was the Punakha Dzong dating from the 17th century, a jaw droppingly beautiful sight as it comes into focus as you travel up the valley. We crossed the atmospheric bridge over the mother river and climb the steps and into the Dzong itself. It’s a joy to wander the various courtyards and admire the intricacy of the structure. The 100 pillar assembly hall is particularly striking but no photography allowed inside.

Once we were done exploring the Dzong we headed out over to the Father River and crossed the bouncy suspension footbridge ....something I was more than a little nervous about! It’s great fun but not for those who suffer from vertigo. The views of the river and the valley were superb from the bridge. We then continued up the valley observing locals tending to their crops and immaculately turned out kids wandering home from school. The day finished with a brew in a local bar in town before heading back to the very nice and comfortable Hotel Lobesa with its superbly attentive staff.

Day 5 – Black Necked Cranes and the Phobjika Valley
The day started delightfully with a brew and a chance to grab the binoculars and admire the playful black bull bulls in a large spring flowering tree just across from my balcony. After breakfast we headed off up the valley for some rafting on the mother river. As the team set up the raft I crossed the river and took a narrow path up through fields of green vegetables to a small Chorten overlooking the valley. On my return the raft was ready to go, and after a safety briefing we were paddling. The mother river is a pleasant Grade 1 experience which is fantastic as it means you get plenty of time in between the small rapids to soak up the views and listen to the sounds of the river. It’s also a great excursion for admiring the birdlife which for us included brown dippers, ruddy shelduck, kingfishers, a blue whistling thrush and White capped redstart to name but a few.

Bhutan is reputably excellent as a bird watching destination. The county has such a focus on environmental protection, led by the King, and a high percentage of the country is forested. After an hour of gentle rafting we approached the Punakha Dzong, a fabulous way to view this impressive structure and as we bobbed past with monks looking on from the bridge. We said goodbye to our rafting team and on we went with our journey.

We left the Punakha valley and once again headed up into the mountains, this time up to 3200m before crossing a small pass and then down into the sweeping glacial expanse of the Phojikiba Valley. The scenery here is much different from Punakha and Thimphu but in its own way just as impressive. The air was cold and the odd snow flake carried in the wind. Occasional rays of sunlight pierced through the clouds to light up the valley. We visited the impressive Gangtey Goemba monastery and then took a lovely nature walk through whispering pines and eventually down onto the valley.

This area is most notable for its seasonal population of the migratory Black Necked Crane and legend has it when they arrive and leave the valley from Tibet, they circle the monastery 3 times. These impressive birds arrive in late October and stay until mid to late February. I consider myself lucky as a few individuals were still in the valley and I got a nice view with the binoculars. In November a festival is held in honour of the arrival of these revered birds in the courtyard of the Gangtey Goemba monastery, a particularly good time to be in the valley.

Day 6 – To Paro
Up early for what was an absolute belter of a morning. Azure blue sky matched perfectly against a crisp white frost on the ground. We first travelled up the valley to make the most of the sumptuous light. We popped into a nunnery with a great view of the valley and found some of the young nuns playing badminton. They were keen to give me a game and being a lover of all sports involving a racket I got involved. I never thought I’d be playing badminton with nuns at 3000m above sea level but that’s the joy of overseas travel! After a good knockabout we soaked up the clear morning vistas before heading back along the valley.

Our next port of all call was the excellent Black Necked Crane visitor centre. Bird enthusiasts and indeed those with a casual interest can enjoy an array of interesting information and a film about this majestic and vulnerable species which migrate here from Tibet each year to escape the cold. The centre also cares for an injured crane within the grounds so people can get to see a crane close up as well as through the high quality telescopes within the facility. It turned out there were many more cranes still in the valley - over a 100 in fact and today of all days many decided to take advantage of the excellent conditions and head back home. We had front row seats to an incredible show where the cranes circled the head of the valley accompanied by an almighty orchestra of noise as they set off on their way. I felt incredibly lucky to have witnessed it.

It was time to hit the road through the mountains towards Paro. This time as we reached the Dochu La pass the mystical peaks of the Himalayas were in full splendid view. We snaked down towards Paro passing trees bursting with vivid rhododendrons and magnolia. The road building programme is ongoing in Bhutan but I just didn’t care with scenery like this to dazzle. We arrived in Paro to be met by the dominating and impressive Dzong positively gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight before checking in to the atmospheric old Gangtey Palace Hotel. As I head down for dinner it’s impossible to not be impressed by the sight of the spectacularly illuminated Dzong, a fitting way to end a day full of highlights.

Day 7 – The Tiger’s Nest Monastery
An early start and we headed up the valley excited for the trek ahead to the Tiger Nest Monastery perilously perched some 900 meters above the valley floor. The trek took us up through beautiful pine forest with frequent tantalizing glimpses of the distant monastery as we gained altitude.

After a tough hour and a half or so we reached the cafeteria and recharged with a well earned coffee and drink of water. For those not wanting to do the whole climb then the views from the cafeteria to the monastery are excellent. Having come this far I wasn’t about to turn round and after another 45 minutes of ascent we reached an epic view point where it felt like you can literally reach out and touch the monastery. It’s a false dawn though as then come the steps. First steeply down hugging the cliff. At the bottom a beautiful waterfall added to the beauty. Then a final push up the steps to the Tiger’s nest monastery itself. What an exhilarating feeling it was at the top.

When you arrive you have to leave all photographic equipment and phones in lockers. What was great about this experience is that it is not just about a view. The monastery itself was incredibly beautiful and very atmospheric. It houses 7 monks at any one time, the temples intricate and peaceful. Remember to take your shoes off before entering! We also saw the cave where legend has it the Tigress (that gives the monastery its name) Guru Rinpoche flew to the site of the monastery and rested while he meditated for 3 months after subduing the local demon. We descended back to the valley exhilarated by the hike and the experience.

After a well earned lunch we visited the impressive Dzong where monks were practising traditional dancing in preparation for a forthcoming festival. Very interesting to witness. The final stop of the day was the museum containing excellent information on the cultural dances and masks of Bhutan and also great information on the flora and fauna present in the country.

Bhutan is a country worth visiting now whilst it remains relatively off the beaten track. It is a country where gross national happiness is seen to be more important than GDP and this is in-fact one of the mantras. It is a county where local tradition in the form of dozens of festivals is given huge weight of importance and where a local person may be joined by the King to enjoy the celebrations. It is also a country which is forward thinking in its relationship and balance with nature. Whether you are interested in traditional culture or diverse nature or wish to trek in the shadows of lofty peaks, Bhutan has something for most.

Mark Huggins travelled to Bhutan in March 2018.

Undiscovered Destinations offers small group tours to Bhutan featuring different festival experiences. For festival departures it is a good idea to book early as regional flights from Delhi, Calcutta and Kathmandu to Paro get booked up early. We can assist you with flight options.

We can also offer a range of private and tailor-made experiences in Bhutan.

The ideal time to visit Bhutan is either February - May or September - December. Autumn tends to have the clearest conditions and best time for hiking for views of the Himalayas.
Beautiful flowers such as rhododendron and magnolia burst into magnificent bloom in March and April. Spring is also great for bird watching and hiking. Winter is also good but conditions are cold in places and snowfall can occur. The only time to possibly avoid is the monsoon time of June - August inclusive.

Contact us if you wish to know more about any aspect of travelling to Bhutan.


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