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Wondering why the little nation of Bhutan was one of the international destinations on the New York Times’ list of must-visit places for 2023? SheBuysTravel checked out the Bhutan Travel experience in the fall of 2022, just as Bhutan reopened its pandemic-closed borders to visitors. We liked what we found so much that we’re going back again.
Time travel appealing to you? It’s not outlandish to mix up very old and very new in Bhutan.
Travel there in a robust way is kind of new—and very possible.
And it’s worth the effort to go so far. The Kingdom of Bhutan feels both ancient and emerging. It’s the size of Switzerland and located next door to India, Nepal and Tibet.
A weeklong Bhutan tour of this tiny country in Asia connected me to forward-looking people with firm roots in old, old traditions.
Meeting people in their homes and monks in their monasteries is only the beginning.
A five-star wellness retreat spa and hotel is just as accessible as a tent for trekkers in a Himalayan base camp.
“Happiest places on earth” ratings have put Bhutan on the top of the list many years and I wanted to find out why. And to feel why.
Hanging out with people proven to be happy seems like an outstanding travel goal.
I wanted to meet people who remember when their country got its first road in 1969, from Thimphu to Punakha. These are the people who used to walk 12 days to get somewhere! Now they drive it in four hours in mini pickup trucks.
I wanted to go to festivals where the stories told in dance and song shape the values families live by.
All that and more I did with the help of SheBuysTravel and MyBhutan.
A week surrounded me with so many happy and contented Bhutanese people that I shed my western world anxieties.
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Getting to Bhutan
Paro is the arrival/departure city with the only airport in this country. The airport is a magnificent work of art filled with works of art. For me, transformation started right there.
You’ll be on a tiny plane with Drukair or a large one with Bhutan Airlines, connecting from Bangkok, Thailand or New Delhi, India, probably with a quick stop to pick up other passengers.
I pretended I was on a flying tiger instead of a plane because that’s how Buddha arrived in the year 747. He introduced Buddhism meditating in a cave that is now a beloved hiking destination called Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
The airport architecture is handsome with carved pillars, typical of what’s seen on houses and businesses everywhere.
Paintings are huge murals outside and in, as well as gallery-sized art throughout the building.
Ddespite my arrival jet lag, the images enticed me. They really spoke to me by departure time with the understanding I had gained all week. Comfy alcove seating, like a living room, makes waiting for the flight easily bearable.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Allocate time arriving and departing to stroll the airport galleries and notice architectural features unlike any other place you’ve flown in and out of. Set the tone for a nation of stories and art instead of rushing out with your suitcase.
Bhutan Travel Must-Stop Spots
Go to France and plan to see Paris, right? Going to Bhutan is such a different experience, it’s hard to have just one destination in mind.
Here are the highlights:
Paro matters because of the airport. Consider acclimating with a visit to the National Museum of Bhutan.
I’m glad I read a book by the former queen about her 2006 walkabout in the country before I arrived. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck jump started my discoveries.
Elevation above sea level at a high-altitude 7,282 feet calls for some adjusting, as does recovery from jet lag, so gather perspective of history at the same time.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Drinking lots of water is one key to overcoming altitude sickness. Just remember that the tap water in Bhutan is not safe to drink. Buy bottled water.
Thimphu is the capital, and most likely the busiest place in Bhutan construction-wise. Admire the visions underway for future changes, and look beyond the obvious.
For instance, a shop of stunningly beautiful local textiles is wonderful, but even better is the adjoining room where the weavers are at work. English speakers are abundant in Bhutan, but these women from remote villages mostly smiled.
Punakha is a valley so beautiful it’s difficult to decide which way to look. At elevation 4,300 feet, it’s also an easier breathing place than the capital city at 7,710 feet above sea level.
Peer from mountains into valleys often to see a “dzong,” or fortress, because every district has one of these historic buildings, now in daily use.
The community of Haa at elevation 10,026 is simply a town of sidewalks, streets and businesses. I headed for the 200-meter mural, painted by dozens of artists from the contemporary art galley in Thimphu. Think 656 feet long, or more than two football fields!
Engage with faces of local people on the mural, and their beloved flowers and mountains and woods.
The mural is unusual, but public art abounds everywhere in Bhutan because of the architecture—and the rules governing roofs and windows and features in between.
There’s a word for that design above the windows and under the jutting-out roofline called rapsay. Phana is the design word, and I’m glad I asked.
The sense of unity I got from Bhutanese architecture everywhere was calming, kind of a peacefulness through enduring traditions.
The Himalayas are sacred to Buddhists and tour guides will share that respect. Go to Khatmandu for climbing the mountains of Nepal.
Go to Bhutan for walking, hiking and always simply gazing.
Need a frame of reference? Mount Everest is in Tibet, on the edge of Nepal. Bhutan shares the Himalayas with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Nepal.
I reached my greatest heights at Chele La Pass – 13,000 feet above sea level. Twice I was there—windy each time, deeply foggy once. Mostly, I was amazed to know I was up so high.
Prayer flags send forth messages in that wind, and long slender cloth flags to honor the dearly departed are eerie and engaging at the same time.
I lost my breath admiring bicycle riders, sometimes pedaling and sometimes walking with their bikes. Two were from the Czech Republic; they told me this is a much-desired route for long-distance bicyclists.
Bhutan Travel Lodging: A Grand Adventure in Variety
Yes, it’s hard to live out of a suitcase, sleeping in a different bed every night. But Bhutan is so lovely, and the views so dramatic, that moving around is a good choice.
Every place I stayed was clean, comfortable, spacious, appealing for another night or two.
Private bathrooms, often a hair dryer, always plenty of hot water.
Queen bed normal, or when I shared with a traveling companion, two twins.
Four-star ratings in Bhutan might be a bit more casual than in America, but definitely above average. The five stars at Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary definitely met high standards.
Here’s a peek at my one-night stands!
Norkhil Boutique Hotel & Spa in Thimphu
I arrived in country in the early evening so headed to dinner in the hotel before check-in; exquisite introduction to Bhutanese cuisine.
The chef recommended local catfish with curry sauce and I’m glad I listened. My dinner mate with MyBhutan travel suggested lentil soup with rice for my starter. Superb.
Norkhil Boutique Hotel & Spa sits atop a narrow busy street in this capital city, but my room was quiet, comfortable and included a “glass shower cubicle.” That’s the local jargon for a walk-in shower. Do not picture a cruise ship miniature; this shower cubicle was spacious.
I also had a balcony, so the next morning was my introduction to a long view of the mountains and a closer look into yards of neighboring homes or businesses.
Music different from my playlists filled the air – I assumed from speakers in those yards as local people launched their mornings.
The wall framing the Norkhil hotel’s dining room door grabbed my attention heading to breakfast; I had completely overlooked this wall of art in my travel haze the night before.
What a blend of art unfamiliar to me, created by Asha Karma Wongdi who pioneered contemporary art in Bhutan. His studio in Thimphu named VAST, I began to learn, led creation of the murals and architecture I so admired in the airport in Paro.
My travel mates and I did not experience the Norkhil steam or sauna rooms, nor receive a massage – but all are available here.
Drubchhu Resort in the Punakha Valley
Several days would be too few at Drubchhu Resort because every view is stunning. Looking up and out to the mountains, or down into the valley are equally exhilarating.
Rooms are in small buildings, and there are many of those, some requiring a stairway to the second floor. Staff appear without asking to help with luggage or any in-room needs.
The dining room is in a central building with check-in, one flight down. Drubchuu is a mountain and valley kind of place, so expect hills and stairs.
Big bonus to me was the art gallery near the dining room with handsome works by Yonten. Just one name. He paints in the ancient, meticulous thongka tradition also seen in Nepal, and presents auspicious Bhutanese themes including the Wheel of Life and the Four Friends.
Himalaya Keys Forest Resort in Paro
This collection of 12 comfortable cottages with baths is nestled in the woods and would lend itself to lingering if there weren’t so much to experience on the go in Bhutan.
Four stars is the rating for Himalaya Keys Forest Resort, and that includes a spa with traditional Bhutanese treatments, and western ones too.
The forest is mostly pines, there’s a mountain stream and a dining room with Bhutanese cuisine, along with Indian and continental.
I thought the walk to my cottage was a bit long, but staff took care of my suitcase, and the sidewalk was well-lit.
This five-star wellness resort named Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary offers the ease of staying in one place, yet exploring the region with depth.
Two traditional Bhutanese doctors lead the wellness opportunities, designing a guest’s treatments based on detailed analysis of one’s pulse – many minutes’ worth! Sometimes a tongue assessment takes place, and always careful listening and conversation.
That’s how each day’s spa experience in ancient practices is shaped, individually, with specific meaning.
Views of a monastery, swims in the infinity pool, four-course lunches and six-course dinners, the organic garden and nearby farm plus an abundance of terraces, patios and lounge chairs provide ample reasons to access the mind/body/spirit essence of Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary.
Himalaya Base Camp
Want to pretend you’re a real-deal trekker? A mountain climber? Trekking would be purely fiction in my case, but this was another astonishing Bhutan experience.
Our tents in the Himalayas had solar-powered lights – and comfy beds raised a bit off the ground with covers and pillows. It was icy cold that night and I slept in too many clothes to notice if the linens were luxurious or basic.
Bedside reading was provided too! And offered as a gift.
That copy of The Bhutanese Guide to Happiness is bedside now in my house.
Dinner and breakfast were chef-cooked, not freeze-dried camping fare, and served in a tent with table and low-slung chairs.
The toilet tent was easily accessible, private and functional; I did not try the shower tent.
Normal for Bhutan, a monastery was a short walk away, welcoming and replete with prayer wheels to spin, monks to smile with and little children being raised in the monastery.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Take a guided walk in the woods. Park Rangers are very new to Bhutan, modeled after America’s Yosemite National Park. The land and all it creatures are sacred here so listening carefully on a forest walk is special.
Festivals Mean Way More Than Just Fun
Festivals matter mightily in Bhutan, and people take to heart the stories presented in dance and music. At least 35 festivals are scheduled for 2023.
Tsechu is a word often associated with festival names, but not exclusively. They can fill sports stadiums and last for days, or be set up in a field in smaller communities and delight crowds who stand, or sit on the ground.
Monks are primarily the story-telling dancers, and their motions are complex and energetic. The hundreds of people I watched watching the performances were focused and intent, deeply engaged with the musical stories and motions.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Shape your trip around an opportunity to attend a Bhutanese festival. This is exotic and routine at the same time, and a close connection to the people.
Expect to see women in fine silk kiras and men in ghos. Everyone wears this traditional clothing all day, every day, but at the two festivals I attended, the fabrics seemed even finer and fancier.
A kira has two parts: a long skirt that wraps generously and cinches at the waist with a jacket of three-quarter sleeves with wide cuffs and broad lapels.
There seems to be no fashion rule about the top and bottom fabrics needing to match or color coordinate. End result all over the nation: always a plethora of colors.
The gho that men wear all the time, and boys of all ages wear to school, is a knee-length kimono with white cuffs. It folds in a way I could not figure out (even staring rudely) to create a pouch or big pocket.
I ordered a kira ahead of my trip but did not pay in the local currency called ngultrum. The $120 USD did not seem excessive for hand tailoring and sumptuous fabric. Can’t say I‘ve ever sent my personal measurements to a travel provider before!
My normal American travel pants and shirts with sleeves seemed fine in Bhutan, although the local women and girls certainly looked more interesting in their kiras.
Bathing can be rather public in Bhutan, or private too.
Ancient connections to hot springs with medicinal purposes fuel today’s abundance of hot stone baths everywhere. I tried two connected to private homes, and saw one inside the five-star Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary.
In their yard, family members heated stones in a fire and flooded water over them to gush into the wooden tub I was about to enter. My wooden-trough tub was one of two in a small wooden room with door and a bench for clothes and towels.
Marigolds floated in my water.
When the water cooled a bit, I just called out “more hot please” and in it poured.
Either soaking style is acceptable: naked, or bring a swimsuit.
Growing, Cooking, Sharing Foods
“Momo” is a good foods word to remember when exploring Bhutan, and so is “datshi.” The first is a meat dumpling and the last means cheese. Both were always suitable to even palates needing mild.
Red chilies need no reminder because they are highly visible—drying in abundance on roofs everywhere! “Ema Datshi” means chilies and cheese and that shows up most every meal.
I’m an adventurous eater so my recommendations might be too bold for cautious dining. However, many Bhutan meals are served buffet style so choices are easy to make.
Rice, pork and chicken appear often, and so do spinach, tomatoes, turnips, onions, green beans and radishes.
An exceptional way to learn about the foods of Bhutan is to visit the kitchen of Kesang Choedon in Thimphu, and her store and small restaurant in downtown called Chuniding Food.
Here’s why: She’s a scientist as well as a chef, who perfected freeze drying nutritious foods to supply children in remote village schools. When she cooks lunch in her open kitchen, she teaches about each ingredient and their role in Bhutanese diets.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Watch the movie “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” on Netflix. That helped me picture the schoolchildren Kesang Choedon is helping.
Measuring Happiness is Not Outlandish
Minister of Happiness is a specific and honored title in the Bhutanese government. This leader helps to assure that prosperity does not come at the expense of culture and tradition, and that development does not destroy the unique ways people live, even in remote villages.
Bhutan’s notion of this paradigm as an alternative for development was introduced to the United Nations in 1998. Measuring compassion, contentment and calmness matters every bit as much as measuring capital.
Maybe more, it felt to me on this trip.
GNH – Gross National Happiness – is the measurement. And five pillars guide the making of policies:
- Equitable socio-economic development
- Prosperity shared in every region of the country
- Conservation protection of pristine environments
- Cultural heritage preservation
- Good responsive governance in which the peope participate
The king, the parliament and the monasteries seem to work closely together to recognize auspicious moments and events to achieve these goals and to honor all sentient beings.
With at least 2,000 temples and monasteries throughout the country, and the government buildings in Thimphu, expecting auspicious moments and events is never outlandish in Bhutan.
Planning Bhutan Travel
Count on feeling welcomed by Bhutan because the hospitality is immense. So is advance planning to protect culture, maintain traditions and not overwhelm fragile places.
The sustainable development fee is one tool to achieve those goals. Translation? Visitors pay $200 per day to be there.
Such sustainability is a big reason I organized my trip with MyBhutan and SheBuysTravel. MyBhutan redirects travel proceeds to very specific projects for Bhutan such as archiving national relics—the tangible objects, reforesting ancient tree species and replacing fruit trees on monastic lands.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan is a national resource to consider too for tour operator information to visit Bhutan.
The tourist visa is $40 USD or 2500 Nu., the national currency. Tourist visas are obtained only through licensed tour operators. Vaccinations are recommended but not required.
ATMs and credit cards can be used in some cities — but keep in mind the charms of Bhutan abound in many other locations where you will need the local currency.