The Land of the Thunder Dragon
Our itinerary: 2 nights in Thimphu, 2 nights in Punakha, 1 night at a home stay in Haa, 2 nights in Paro; travel blogs to be published this week
- Location: Bhutan is a small Himalayan nation surrounded by China to the north and India to the west, south, and east
- Gross National Happiness: A counterpoint to other nations’ Gross National Product; places measurable values on things such as health, education, conservationism, and cultural heritage
- Sports: It’s all about archery and darts, with incredibly small targets
- Currency: Ngultrum, rate tied to the Indian rupee
- Language: Dzongkha
- Population: ~750,000
- Government: Constitutional monarchy since 2008; The current king is His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 5th king of the Wangchuck Dynasty
- National dress: The go for men; the kira for women
- Religion: 75% practice Mahayana Buddhism; 25% practice Hinduism
- Tourism: Bhutan opened to tourists in 1974, and had 287 tourists visit that year; in 2015, there were around 36,000 non-SAARC tourists
- Tourist Fees: All tourists (except SAARC residents: Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians) must pay a set fee per person per day – this covers all accommodations, food, entry fees, and a personal guide and driver; part of this fee is a tourism royalty that goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and building of infrastructure
- Payment of Fees: This part is a little scary if you’re used to using your credit card for big charges! Payments are sent via wire transfer to the Bhutanese government, who hold the funds for you before remitting payment to the travel agency you’re working with; I called my bank, USAA, and they walked me through the whole transfer process. It’s a little depressing not to get the credit card points, of course.
You must work with a travel agency to book your visit to Bhutan. After much research, we went with Bhutan Travel Club, which was an excellent organization. The owner, Pelden, was extremely helpful and quick with his correspondence. We consistently had a very high level of service, and our guide Namgay and driver Lama were outstanding. I recommend this company 100% if you decide to visit Bhutan.
- Ladies especially: always carry tissue and handiwipes with you – most bathrooms will have toilet paper, but not all of them; be prepared for the occasional squat toilet in remote locations; as with most of Asia, don’t flush toilet paper down the toilets.
- Even in the better hotels, be quick with your showers; consider turning off the tap while lathering up; we never had hot water that lasted very long at any of our locations.
- There are stray dogs everywhere – in the streets, at the temples, on hiking trails… none of them are ever aggressive, nor do they beg at all, though they are very pleased to be given any food. Even though it would have taken up more space in my luggage, I wish I had brought a bag or two of dog treats, though they would have been gone within a day or two. We were lucky to have hotels a little outside of town, so we didn’t hear the dogs barking at night, but I’ve heard it’s a real problem in the towns. Bring earplugs just in case.
- Due to Buddhist beliefs, no animals are allowed to be butchered in Bhutan, though meat is imported from India and happily consumed. It is easy to eat vegetarian there if you are so inclined; the national dish is ema datshi, made from chili peppers and cheese. We had it with both dried red chilis (texture was rather tough) and with fresh green chilis (which we preferred). You should try salty butter tea at least once, but I think it is rather an acquired taste, as it is very rich.
- If you choose to try the traditional hot-stone bath, be aware that some of them are hotter than others. We had one lovely one and one that felt like boiling lava was being poured on our skin and left us looking sunburned for several hours.
- If you love your coffee, prepare to be disappointed. With one exception, the “milk coffee” we had – hot coffee + hot milk – was more like coffee-colored milk with a slight scent and taste of coffee. (The exception was at Bhutan Suites, where the coffee was so incredibly strong, our spoons practically stood up in the cup; also an actual coffee shop provided a nice latte.)
- Learn “Kuzo zangpo la” (hello) and “Kadrin chey la” (thank you). That’s a good general tip for all countries, but I think a lot of people don’t bother in Bhutan because they always have a guide with them to translate. I got some delighted smiles and outright laughs when I used those phrases, and Namgay assured me that it wasn’t because of my accent.
- The local beer Druk 11,000 is quite good and will set you back around 200 Ngultrum ($3) per large can in the hotels. The local rum is also quite good, reminiscent of India’s Old Monk rum. Domingos picked up a bottle of it in a small general store for $3!
- Wifi in the hotels was spotty; if you really need to stay connected, I think you can pick up a SIM card with data fairly cheaply.
I searched a lot for packing lists before I left and didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. That being said, here is what worked and didn’t work for me for a day and a half in Bangkok, and 7 days in Thimphu, Punakha, Haa, and Paro in February.
- 4 pairs Ex Officio underwear: So easy to wash these out in the sink and they dry in record time; would have been fine with just 3 pairs
- 1 sports bra (non-wired), 3 regular bras: Probably could have taken 2 regular bras and washed one out along the way
- 3 pairs Fox River sock liners, 2 pairs Smart Wool thick hiking socks, 2 pairs casual Smart Wool socks, 2 pairs plain black casual socks: Definitely didn’t need the black casual socks, but I wore them anyway; washed the liners and Smart Wool socks once
- 1 pair Winter Silks silk long underwear: Thin and lightweight, these were a great layer to have along
- 1 pair Under Armour thicker long underwear: Could have left these at home, though I ended up wearing them after the hot-stone baths
- 1 mid-length black skirt: For the day in Bangkok; also wore it over the long underwear after the baths (high fashion, here!)
- 2 pairs lightweight travel pants, both Columbia brand (one tan, one black): The tan pants got a little grungy from trail dust, but a swipe with a handiwipe really helped; I could have left the black ones at home, they were too thin and hung a little funny when I wore the silk long underwear under them (should have tried the combo out at home!)
- 1 pair fleece-lined yoga pants from Eddie Bauer: Really comfy for long days of travel
- Bamboo-cotton pajama bottoms and silk-cotton tee shirt: Perfect for sleeping in most nights
- Short-sleeved Ably shirt: *Fantastic* find; yes, these shirts are crazy expensive, but I wore mine for a hot day in Bangkok with a lot of walking, two strenuous hikes, and at least one other day of sightseeing, and it didn’t retain any body odor; we *will* be buying more of these
- 2 long-sleeved Uniqlo thin heat tech shirts, 1 Ex Officio long-sleeved shirt: Rotated through all of these, though I think I could have brought just 1 of the Uniqlo shirts and been fine
- 1 long-sleeved Uniqlo heat tech thick shirt with a fleece-like lining: This ended up being too warm to wear most of the time, and though I slept in it on two of the colder nights, I would have been fine leaving it at home
- 1 Terramar thick black pullover: Fantastic layer; wore it almost every day though it acquired a slight scent of incense by the end
- 1 Icebreaker light merino wool zip-up jacket: Another fantastic layer that I wore almost every day
- 1 North Face lightweight down jacket: Didn’t wear it a lot, but it packed up small in my suitcase when I didn’t want to carry it around, and there were a few days I was grateful for it
- Knit hat, gloves: Never wore the hat; wore the gloves once but really didn’t need them
- Buff: New favorite versatile accessory; incredibly lightweight, but good sun/wind/dust protection when needed; wore it around my neck, over my ears, and over my mouth at various times
- Silk-cotton scarf: Great for chilly mornings, nights, and travel; long and wide enough to use as a shawl when needed
- 1 microfiber hand towel: Dries fast; used repeatedly to roll up the washing and wring out extra water from it
- Flashlight: Never used; used the flashlight app on my phone a couple of times
- Various adapters: Unnecessary; all of the hotels had at least 2 outlets that took U.S. plugs, and although I used a European adapter the one night we were in a farmhouse home stay, I could have skipped a day of charging and been fine, since I had an external battery along
- Memory foam travel pillow: Essential for my quality of sleep when I travel
- Various toiletries: I won’t list them all, but I am a recent convert to solid shampoo and conditioner when traveling, and can’t recommend them highly enough