Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Comments

  1. William says:

    Great pictures. I have always wanted to get there too but that pricetag is outrageous. Seems like you really liked it though so maybe I will suck it up and go next time I am in Asia. Safe travels.

  2. Why is it $200 a day? I don’t understand, don’t they fancy heaps of tourists who bring revenues? I assume that keeps all budget/backpackers out or is that what they are trying to do?

  3. Hey Jemma, good to see you on the board again. They are trying to keep it different from the rest of South Asia. They want a nigh class tourist who really wants to visit Bhutan as opposed to backpackers who tend to linger and look for bargains.

    The government has set the tariff at $200 and will be changing it up to $250 a day soon. The fee is all inclusive so if you think about it, you’re actually getting a pretty good deal. If you were to pay for a nights hotel in a nice resort plus all day driver, guide, food and entrance fees that would be well over 200 a day so I felt like I got a good deal or at least that’s what I told myself, haha. But really if you break it down its not a bad deal and as I said in the post, it is meant to keep the riff raff out that infests neighboring countries like Nepal and India.

    This also sets Bhutan apart as they are trying minimize western influences and keep their country pristine while creating an aura on mystery. I for one, think its great! Take care.

  4. Wow those are amazing pictures. I just googled the tigers nest and your pictures are as good as the pros. I would love to see that one day. I had never even heard of Bhutan! Safe travels.

  5. Beautiful! :) now I want to visit there…the pictures look really colorful..is it relaxing there?

  6. Richard M says:

    Hello Lee, your lovely post and brilliant pictures have sparked memories of my trip to Bhutan several years ago. It sounds like little has changed since my wife and I were there about 8 years ago.

    The Tigers Nest was closed when we were there and your pictures have made me want to go back to see it.

    I have not travelled as much as you but Bhutan is a very special place to me and its nice to hear that you be so travelled and much younger than me feel the same and can appreciate the uniqueness of the great land. I am enjoying reading more of your adventures and good luck on your journey.

  7. My wife and I are now planning to go to Bhutan over Christmas for one of the festivals. I was going to ask you which company you used but I see you already listed it.. several hundred tour companies to choose from makes it difficult to decide!

  8. Hey Jordan, Blue Poppy was very good and even allowed me after some pleading to pay in cash on arrival for the tour instead of a complicated wire transfer involving three banks and two or three currencies, I can’t exactly remember.

  9. Diane Hudock says:

    Hello.. Lee.

    I don’t know how many emails or contacts you’ve gotten like this, but I’m planning to go to Bhutan, to get to Taktshang temple.

    I did a google search (after a dream of this place, and not knowing it exists), and your photo came up with the temple. Let me know if you would like to have contact about this place you visited before I finally get there. I’m in Los Angeles.

    All the best.. at least after seeing your photo in Bhutan,

    Diane

  10. Lee, nice write-up on Bhutan. I’m here now and made the hike to Tiger’s Nest this morning. Flying to Dhaka tomorrow.

  11. like land of thunder dragon, paro dzong in tiger nest watching picture very nice. the men also nice. i am like bhutan most.

  12. Amazing shots! Never really located (or even thought of) Bhutan until now, when I’m in Kathmandu. So easy to get tours organized from here (compared to other countries in the world) but I can’t see the point in spending heaps of money only to enter a country where I won’t have any freedom whatsoever, until they’ve decided to open up their wardrobe just a pinky tiny bit more. So tempting I really wanna go!!

    • You have freedom, they just take you around all day and guide you and you’re stuck at the hotel but that’s cool bc there’s nothing to do at night anyway!

  13. Hi Lee,
    I’m a former Lonely Planet writer and have visited around 70 countries. I managed to get to Bhutan last year fulfilling a 30 year dream. It did not disappoint! It stands out as the most wonderful travel experience of my life – really quite and emotional experience in fact, considering it had been on my list for so long. You are right Lee – the Tiger’s Nest is a totally awesome sight, Gross National Happiness is a brilliant concept and the Bhutanese people are so proud of this invention.

    Your last comment about having freedom rings true to me. Although I had an itinerary on paper, I was able to make many changes just by asking while on the road – eg. I wanted to go on a local bus, so my driver stopped the car and my guide and I hopped on a bus; i wanted to see an archery competition and try using a bow and arrow – no issue; i saw a beautiful village from the road and asked if I could visit it – we stopped the car and walked across the field to get there. As much as anything, the guide is there to help you understand this extraordinary country and based on the very limited infrastructure, it is the right way for Bhutan to run its tourism industry. If they opened the floodgates, it would be a complete disaster. Currently only 500 tourists are allowed in every week (apart from Indian and Nepalese national on whom there are almost no restrictions).

    By the way, the daily tariff is now US$250 per person.

    • Thanks for the great comment Mark and I am so glad you go to Bhutan…it’s an amazing place and I don’t use that word lightly. I had heard they’d raised the tariff which I still think is a steal. You’d spend that in a nice place with a reasonable hotel and food/car anyway…just keeps backpackers out.

  14. Frida Simms says:

    Thanks for the great article about Bhutan.
    Going there next month. A dream come true for me.
    Keep the good work.

  15. I like that the $250 fee is all-inclusive. For some reason, I didn’t think it was. Tiger’s Nest looks phenomenal. This is definitely on my must-see list! It just looks so peaceful. Great site Lee!

  16. “In fact, there is nothing really comparable to Bhutan in many ways.”

    Man, I agree. Especially on the concept of Gross National Happiness and the fact that the constitution states that 60% of the total land area of the country should remain forested.

    I doubt any other country – drunk with the desire to achieve infinite modern development – would do that. :)

  17. Ann Muschett says:

    Hi Lee:

    I was trawling through photos of Bhutan and saw the picture of you standing in front of the Tiger’s Nest, wearing a t-shirt with a Jamaican flag. So awesome! I am from Jamaica and I’m taking my American husband to Bhutan in a month as a surprise. I loved hearing your impressions of Bhutan. It was a little scary deciding to take him there without consulting him, but our travel agent told us to go, basically for all the reasons you have listed. Thanks so much for giving me confidence! Seeing you wearing the t-shirt, and reading your terrific account of your time there makes me feel very good Karma!

    Take care, and happy travels, wherever you are!
    Annie

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