Bhutan is awesome. There is no other place I have been that is like it. In fact, there is nothing really comparable to Bhutan in many ways. The country is so remote and isolated from the rest of the world that only a select few people actually get to visit the country. There is a tariff of $200 a day per person to visit and your visa and tour have to be set up well in advance. The country is so beautiful with rolling green hills and huge snow capped peaks surrounding the valleys that only a few people actually live within. The country is so clean and quiet that you’d never know you were in South Asia. The streets are clean and the air is even cleaner. It is a real bastion of light and calm in a volatile region surrounded by the goliaths of China and India on either side. Bhutan is one of the best places I have visited and I feel very privileged to be one of the few that have been there.
Bhutan has seen more changes in the past ten years than it has in its entire history. 1999 introduced the Internet and television to Bhutan but even with the influence of western television the Bhutanese have held on to their traditional values. The place looks like a fairy tale. All the houses are built in the traditional style that kind of resemble Swiss chalets but with a Buddhist touch. In fact much of the country reminds me of Switzerland from the landscape to the cleanliness to the breathtaking views and relaxed atmosphere. The quiet at night is deafening and almost scary to be honest (coming from New York City) but also completely peaceful. Again, Bhutan is awesome.
I arranged my tour a month or so ago while I was in the UK with a company called Blue Poppy Tours that I had been recommended on Thorn Tree. They were very good and I would totally recommend them. There are two partners, one in the UK, Choki, whom I emailed with who set up the tour while his partner in Bhutan, Karma, set up the flight with Drukair, the visa and paperwork plus the guide and driver in Bhutan. They did an excellent job. My guide was a very nice, albeit businesslike, woman and the driver was a laid back joke cracking Bhutanese man who drove very well and never even came close to crashing off the steep, high ledges they call highways.
The highlight of my three days in Bhutan was far and away the hike up to Taktshang Goemba, otherwise known as the Tigers Nest. It is simply one of the most awesome sights I have seen and the setting alone should make it more famous than it is but it is truly magical and mysterious.
The Tigers Nest is a monastery perched on the side of a sheer cliff about 1000 meters above the Paro Valley below. The only sounds are the sound of the waterfall accompanying the monastery and the chanting monks who pray in the nest. It is called the Tigers Nest because the Bhutanese believe that Guru Rinpoche flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress, a manifestation of his consort to subdue the local demon. He then meditated in the cave for three months. The site has suffered two fires, the most recent in 1998 and was finally completed and re-opened to tourists in 2005-that is the few that can make the hike.
The hike is a pretty arduous and steep hike up the mountain to the point where I took these pictures. Then you have to walk down about 400 steps-some stone and some mud and then cross the waterfall and then up another 300 steps to the Tigers Nest all surrounding a 1000 meter cliff gorge. It should take a person in decent shape about two hours one way. However, you are hiking up about 1000 meters in altitude from about 7500 feet up to about 11,500 feet so altitude could become a problem and either way it will slow your progress and make your heart race and you breathe heavy. I am a pretty good climber and was able to make it in a little over an hour but many people I passed did not make it and just viewed the monastery from the café about half way up. Many people who visit Bhutan are older because of the tariff per day so many people don’t end up actually making it into the Tigers Nest although they could ride horses if they chose to.
The Tigers Nest is a series of several very little temples where the monks pray. There are many different Buddha’s within the monastery and there are stories that go along with all of them that I cannot possibly remember them all but the monks and the disciples bring offerings of food and money to the Buddha. I was really fortunate to be there on a day where the monks were having a ritual day and chanting in the biggest of the rooms. I was able to sit in on it and it was truly mesmerizing to watch. I have seen many monks before in different parts of Asia but never sat in on a ceremony so it was really neat to see and honestly kind of mind-blowing as well.
After the hike we continued on the tour and went to the national museum of Bhutan which was the only part of the tour that I would say pass on. The best part of the museum is the building itself which is directly over the Paro Dzong. The Dzong is kind of like a mosque for Buddhists and has monks praying and learning and there is a large open area and you have to take your shoes off of course. They are very beautiful and the Paro Dzong is one of the largest in Bhutan.
After the Dzong we drove about 50km to the capital city of Thimpu. Thimpu is more of a big town as there are no cities in Bhutan. The Parliament and Kings Palace are in Thimpu and the city is very picturesque and has an amazing viewpoint that overlooks the whole city.
The King is worth noting as well because he is 29 years old, educated at Oxford, and was given power last year becoming the 5th King in Bhutan’s history after his father abdicated. The King is also very good looking according to my guide and some other tourists I came across and is apparently a very sought after bachelor in Bhutan. I’d imagine it must be good to be King of Bhutan at 29.
Anyway, all in all Bhutan is one of the best bang for your buck destinations on Earth and I am so happy I was able to get there. I only wish I had more time as I would’ve liked to have done a trek but for the price tag, you’re better off in neighboring Nepal, Tibet or India. However, the land of the thunder dragon is the type of place that will stay with me for years. The kind of place you wish every place could be like. It’s a place that hasn’t given in to the modern age and where gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. I hope everyone can get to Bhutan at some point because it is one of a kind. With regards to the hefty price tag, one of the Aussie tourists I met said it perfectly, “It keeps the riff raff out”. Kind of funny, especially coming from an Aussie but she was right at the same time and Bhutan has done just that and I hope it stays unique and doesn’t give up its identity.