The thunder kingdom of Bhutan is a unique place to visit. Open to the world only since 1998, it remains unspoiled and you get the feeling that it wants to remain just that, unspoiled for as long as it can.
Flying in to Paro airport was the start of our adventure. On a clear day, the views of the Himalayas and Mt Everest are just stunning. The flight lasts one hour and the views are spectacular throughout the short flight. I had read about Paro airport prior to our trip and I was excited to see just how they would make the landing to this small airport nestled in the valley. Only 35 pilots are qualified to land at this airport and no international airline other than Bhutan’s own two airlines are granted permission to land here as the pilots have to be skilled to make the sharp left hand turn on to the runway. Of course, the pilot landed the plane perfectly but it was exciting to see the route in between the pine trees nonetheless.
On arrival, we transferred to the coutnry’s capital Thimpu. A small town with no traffic lights and a policeman directing traffic on the one roundabout with hand signals. They tried traffic lights – once – but the local people decided they weren’t for them!! The hotel was perfectly located in the middle of town and already we felt as if we were in Bhutan as we could hear the cheers coming from the archery competition across the street. Each time a person scored the target from 140m away, the local men roared and danced and we could see the excitement from our hotel.
We took a short walk in the evening to see the one main street of Thimpu. Not a capital city like others in the world but then, Bhutan is a country like no other. With a population as small as Bhutan’s it doesn’t take us long to realise that everybody knows everybody. Even the King can be seen out and about trekking in the hills without security. His father, the abdicated king, is often seen riding his mountain bike in the hills around the capital.
The sights of Thimpu are not much but what it does have is interesting to see. The giant Buddha on the hill, the National library, the art school and some free time for souvenir shopping filled our day nicely. We stopped by the archery tournament so we could enjoy this popular Bhutanese pastime. But I think it was the Memorial Stupa that we loved the most. Mostly Tibetan people spinning their prayer wheels here but the atmosphere made us feel as if we were somewhere special.
The next day we headed for Punakha, a small city some 4 hours drive away on the other side of the mountain. The elevation in Punakha was lower and it was nice to feel the warmth of the sun. Thimpu, at 7000 ft was high and therefore cool in the evenings and mornings. Punakha on the other hand was much lower and warmer in temperature. The dress code in Bhutan is very strict. No leg to be shown at all (for men and women) in any government building and arms covered too unless you wear a collar and then short sleeves are permissible.
The Dzong (fortress) in Punakha was a real highlight. Surrounded by Jacaranda trees in full purple blossom surrounded the fortress. We were lucky with our visit as the royal family had just named their first born child and a collection of rare national relics were on display to commemorate the occasion and the Dzong was decorated in the yellow royal coloured ribbon making the place look even more amazing.
The hotel in Punakha was probably the more basic of the three hotels were used in Bhutan but I know for a fact that it was the best hotel in town. When the King’s younger brother is in town, he always chooses this hotel to stay in and we were fortunate to be having our breakfast on our first morning there with the Prime Minister. The hotel has a great location overlooking the river and a free afternoon here gave everybody a chance to explore this little town.
Our last place to visit on the tour was Paro and it was in Paro where we had the highlight of the tour – the Tiger’s Nest! We were back at an elevation of about 7000 ft in Paro but that was okay as it gave us a higher starting point for our trek to the summit of this stunning monastery.
If we had walked from the top to the bottom, it would have taken approximately 6 hours in total round trip. I said if, because we took the decision to take horses to the first level. You could say it was a bit of a cheat and you’d be right but then again, it gave us the best chance to access the summit – the beautiful monastery of the Tiger’s Nest.
The hike from the 1st level to the 2nd level was approximately a 45 minute climb. Steep but short. The guide, our Captain Motivator at the front of our small group, shouted how many minutes we still had left. We refrained from asking the question – are we nearly there yet – but I know we all wanted to know just how much further we had to climb. We were all sweating heavily and breathing became more difficult as we went higher. If I’m honest, I had expected the climb to be more difficult than it was. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy climb but if you have a good level of fitness and you go at your own pace, you’ll make it – just as we all did. And we had time….. time enough for everyone to make it to the top if they wanted to. The horses go up to the first stage but they come down alone, or in a group – just as you have to!
By the time we got to the second level – the place where Prince William & Kate had their photo taken on the bench looking across to the monastery is at the same level as the monastery itself. At this point, if you choose not to go to the third level, then the views are equally as amazing from here but from here you have a series of 800 steps to the actual monstery. Small, easy steps and no cameras are allowed at the monastery. The monastery is peaceful and beautiful and quite a different feel from others I have seen around the world. Split into 12 temples, we visited only 4 of the more important ones.
Was the climb worth it?? YES. Abosolutely and I would do it all over again. Maybe not tomorrow, but next week for sure!
So our visit to Bhutan took in all of the major sites, sounds and smells and we all felt very privileged to visit this little Himalayan kingdom in the infancy of tourism.
We all hoped by the end that Bhutan won’t be ruined by the mass tourism market but I really don’t think it ever will. The people are proud to be Bhutanese. They wear their national costume daily and are proud to do so. By 2017, they hope to be financially self sufficient when they start selling their biggest commodity – hydro electric power – to the Indian government.
I hope to visit Bhutan again some day and I will watch and wait and hope that this little country doesn’t change too much.