The Magical Kingdom of Bhutan
We have just had an amazing 10 days in The Land Of The Thunder Dragon, otherwise known as the Kingdom ofBhutan.
Phwooooaaaarrr!!! What an experience it was. Bhutan practice controlled tourism. This means that it is generally quite hard or quite expensive to be able to travel around the country. We were in the incredibly fortunate position of having a close friend work there, this means that we were able to go to the country as her guests and in doing so, save some significant cash.
I know that before I left for our trip, and also whilst planning, I had several questions about tourism in Bhutan.
What is controlled tourism?
My understanding of this prior to coming to Bhutan was that they only allowed a certain amount of people into the country at any time and that they ensured that all tourists had an authorised driver and guide to take them around the country. I was kind of right..... except that there is no limit to the number of people who are allowed into the country each year, they are however after "high value, low impact tourism". They are protecting the country from mass tourism and essentially ensuring that those who do visit are able to try get an authentic experience.
Each tourist must pay US$250/person/day. I know that this is a lot of money, hold up and read what this money goes towards. It actually isn't a bad deal at all :)
What does the tourist fee go towards?
When looking to come to a place like Bhutan, I know that learning about such a large fee to be in the country is enough to turn people away. It really is for a good cause though. This fee goes towards your accomodation, a driver and guide for the entire time you're in the country and most of your meals (those that aren't covered, aren't very expensive anyway). The final thing that your money will go towards is ensuring that all the citizens get access to free education and medical. Not bad right?!
THERE IS A RARE OPPORTUNITY TO PAY SLIGHTLY LESS!!!
As 2017 marks 15 years of diplomatic friendship between Bhutan and Australia, Australians who choose to travel to Bhutan between June-August during 2018 do not have to pay the US$250/person daily fee. This is apparently a 'one time special offer'. As a part of this offer, Australians will also get discounted flights, discounted hotel costs (with participating hotels) and there is more flexibility in the services that they use whilst in the country. The only compulsory fee is the US$65/day for the Government Sustainable Development Fee. This is a very rare opportunity.
If you are not an Australian citizen, I have heard that these offers come about now and then for other countries. The best thing to do would be to keep an eye out on their official website www.bhutan.travel
We were particularly lucky having a friend working in Bhutan. Our friend had been working within the Australian Volunteer Program and living in Bhutan for 18 months. She was able to have one guest per 6 month period that she was in the country. We came to the country literally for her last 10 days there. This meant that we did not have to pay the fee and we were able to stay at her place while in Thimpu, therefore saving costs significantly. We did still need to get a driver for when we were exploring the rest of the country (or the parts we were able to visit within our short time frame).
Is the cost worth it?
Before going to Bhutan, I would have said no, straight up. However, now I have been there, I truly believe that it is. The second you enter this country, you will see how well preserved their culture and their traditions are. It is unlike anywhere I have travelled to before. Most of the people in the country wear their national dress, for the males, this is a Go and for the females, a Kira. Even the international volunteers who live and work in the country wear the national dress. It really is beautiful. The buildings are absolutely spectacular. I couldn't take me eyes off them. There is such beautiful artwork on all of the houses, ornately painted and decorated. There are no big chain restaurants, no Starbucks, no Pizza Hut or Mcdonalds... it is fantastic!
So.... if you have managed to get past all of that and still want to go to Bhutan (highly recommended!!!), please read below for my tips;
What to eat.
If you make it to Bhutan, you need to try each of these at least once. You will generally be able to get Ema Datshi, Shamu Datshi, Kewa Datshi at most Bhutanese places as well as at home stays. They will all taste hugely different at each place that you try them. This is exactly why you should try them at every place you go.
Prior to your trip, start getting used to chilli as the Bhutanese use chilli on everything. If you are travelling with kids, it is likely that they will consist on a diet of omelette, rice and roti..... or maybe thats just my child. Momos were sometimes a hit too.
If you are staying in a homestay, definitely pay the extra for their home cooked meals. The breakfast will always be included but their dinners are so delicious. Often they will grow their own vegetables. So worth it.
What to do?
You will never get sick of the views and the temples. There are so many Dzongs, temples and monasteries to see. Every single one of them is worth it as they are so different. Depending on how long you are there and whether you are travelling with children, there are many many hikes that I hear are absolutely amazing. If you're into festivals, there are a few that would be worth while. In many cases, the festivals are in areas that foreigners aren't always able to visit so they are a great opportunity to get to see these areas.
There are so many highlights from our trip in Bhutan, particularly being able to have a small insight into the life of a local or resident chillip (foreigner) was definitely one. In Thimpu, I really enjoyed meeting Pema Tshering at Simply Bhutan. He is an amazing person who was born with cerebral palsy, amongst other congenital deformities. He has no use of his hands and yet has managed to represent Bhutan in archery in the paralympics AND he is a brilliant artist in both painting and carving. He always seems to have a smile on his face and is a true inspiration.
If you're driving from Thimpu to Punakha, you will need to stop by the Druk Wangyel 108 chortens, not only is it a lovely place to stop and admire the chortens, there is also a beautiful view (if the mountain mist doesn't affect it!). It is also worthwhile to either stop for a meal or spend a night at the Dochula Eco Resort, if you manage to avoid the fog the view is absolutely breathtaking. If the fog impedes your view, the food is tasty and the accommodations are beautiful.
In Punakha, I really loved going to a Buddhist nunnery. The view was brilliant and the Nuns were so lovely, especially with my daughter. Spending time with them was really a highlight. We sat and chat with them for quite some time. Such lovely girls. Additionally, the walk through the rice fields, a small town and up a hill to Chimi Lhakang. This temple is visited by people who are trying to conceive. After a little ceremony carrying a phallus around the temple and some blessings from the monks, many couples have reportedly conceived and then taken their child back to be named by the monks there.
*** a word of warning, you will see lots of phallic paintings throughout Bhutan, on buildings and walls, sculptures... everything. This actually began with the Chimi Lhakang temple which is built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley, otherwise known as The Divine Mad Man. He lived in the 15th-16th centuries***
In Paro, the highlight has to be the hike up to Taksang, nicknamed The Tigers Nest. This monastery is about 3100m above sea level. It is a decent hike. If you have a young one or want to try a new experience, there are horses which can take you part of the way up- if travelling with children, this isn't a bad option although if they are young, I would recommend to ride with them on the horse as it is steep and rocky, they will be more stable with you there. If you are travelling with little ones and you plan on doing this hike, their legs will get tired, I recommend bringing a carrier for them and I also recommend strength training if you're planning on carrying them for the journey like I did.
There are endless things to do in this country, it is such a unique and beautiful place to visit. If you have an opportunity to go, take it! Let me know if you end up going, or if you have been. I felt like our 10 days weren't nearly enough as I left with a list of things we didn't get to do. That is a good excuse to get back there though, right?! ;)