MUST NEED TO HAVE ITEMS FOR BHUTAN TRAVEL
· Steripen – to purify water. When trekking this is especially important and you minimize your plastic waste.
· Hiking Boots are a must – Make sure you have broken in your hiking boots and that they are waterproof and lightweight.
· Layers – base layer, mid-layer, and outer waterproof/windproof layer for changes in weather and temperature: read our guide to winter layering.
· Hat – When you are above the clouds the sun is harsh, pack a peaked hat to protect from sunburn.
· Lip balm and sunscreen – as stated above, the UV rays are harsh above the clouds, be sure to protect your skin.
· Headlamp – You will be traveling to remote places, have a headlamp to get around at night hands-free. We like the rechargeable USB Headlamp by Black Diamond.
· Portable charger – You may go a few days without proper electricity for charging, bring a USB charger to keep your camera and cell phone batteries charged.
· Personal first aid kit – chances are you won’t be able to get a lot of medication or first aid in Bhutan, so have a full kit with you. Here’s our travel first aid kit list.
· Sleeping Bag – If trekking, pack your own sleeping bag that is at least -10 Celsius for optimal comfort and cleanliness.
· Gloves and Wool Hat – Temperatures fluctuate and gloves and hats are excellent for keeping warm and for sleeping in tents.
THINGS TO DO IN PARO – BHUTAN
Paro houses the only international airport in Bhutan, so unless you are coming from overland in Nepal or India, chances are you will arrive in Paro.
|The beautiful valley of Paro in Bhutan|
If you have a full day in town, top sites to visit are
· National Museum
· The Paro Dzong
· The Drukgyel Dzong.
Paro is mostly a jumping-off point for people venturing out to see other parts of Bhutan but there is one major attraction that nobody misses when they visit the country. People either do it on the first day they arrive in Bhutan or on the last day in the country. And that attraction is Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
1/ TIGER'S NEST MONASTERY – (TAKTSANG MONASTERY)
Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Taktsang Monastery is located just outside of Paro and is the most popular thing to do in the Bhutan period. It was blessed as one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites and is not to be missed.
Since so many people only spend 4 days in the country, this is popular because of how close it is to the airport and take just a couple of hours to climb.
|Tiger's Nest Monastery|
It is a 1000 meter elevation gain to an approximate height of 3000 meters. What makes this trek so spectacular is getting to see the incredible monastery that clings to the side of a cliff. When searching images for Bhutan, chances are you will find Tiger’s Nest Monastery in the first image. It is beautiful.
The monastery is working today and monks still live in the mountains. There are several viewpoints along the way including a lovely cafeteria where you can enjoy lunch or tea and take in the views.
No cameras are allowed in the monastery but it is worth exploring.
WHERE TO STAY IN PARO
Le-Meridian Paro Riverfront was exceptional and our favorite place to stay in Bhutan. It was a perfect retreat after trekking up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
With 5-star accommodation, luxury rooms, and a delicious buffet, we enjoyed every minute of our stay.
|Le-Meridian Paro riverfront|
There is a pool, spa, and gym as well. It offers outstanding views of the surrounding mountains and the river and has wonderful places to sit outside in solitude.
Note: On Sunday’s the hotel doesn’t serve alcohol in the main restaurants and lounge. You can order room service and use the minibar.
WHAT TO DO IN BHUTAN – THIMPHU
Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and there are many things to see and do in the city.
This is usually the next stop on Bhutan Tour. We actually left Paro as soon as we arrived in Bhutan from Thailand and drove directly to Thimphu leaving Tiger’s Nest Monastery for the end of our tour.
It is worth spending a day or two in the city checking out all the sites. And here are the highlights that we took part in during our three days in Thimphu.
2/ BUDDHA DORDENMA
Overlooking the city of Thimpu, Buddha Dordenma is an impressive sight. Finished in 2015 it was built for the prosperity of the nation
Standing at 51 meters tall, it is a popular pilgrimage for locals and a huge attraction for visitors.
Make sure to hike up behind Buddha for a look at it from above. There are tents and camps that locals use behind Buddha and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
3/ DECHEN PHRODRANG MONASTERY
|Dechen Phrodrang Monastery|
Dechen Phrodrang was the original dzong of the city.
Dzong’s were once fortresses in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet and Bhutan. They were turned into administrative buildings and house the administrative centers of Bhutan. Dechen Phrodrang Monastery was at one point, the administrative center of the country, but today it is a monastic school.
During our tour, we learned that many of the poor attend monasteries for studies as their food, education, and clothing costs are covered. Many boys stay in the system becoming teachers.
The boys are friendly and so far (due to the low tourist numbers in Bhutan) enjoy having their photos taken.
4/ CHANGLIMITHANG STADIUM AND ARCHERY GROUND
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport.
We split from our group while in Thimphu to see the sites ourselves and had a great time exploring on our own.
Archery was a must for us to see, so we made a point of heading to the National Stadium. There are usually competitions going on at the stadium and we missed one by a day but managed to still catch a group practicing.
Their skills are impressive. It was hard enough seeing the bullseye from where we sat let along hitting the target from hundreds of meters away.
You are free to watch without charge when they are practicing, just don’t disrupt their concentration.
5/ NATIONAL MEMORIAL CHORTEN
The National Memorial is clearly a hot spot on the Bhutan tour bus route judging by the number of people walking around the stupa during our time there. It seemed that waves of tourist came in and out of the chorten during our stop
The temple was built in 1974. The Chorten is popular in Bhutan because it was built to honor the King of Bhutan who is highly revered.
There are many dzongs to visit around Thimphu, and the Tashicho Dzong is the main administrative building used today. It’s massive and there are monks wandering the grounds.
You can watch the changing of the guards here as well. Unfortunately for us, I was snuggling with a cat beforehand and had a serious allergy attack.
My eye swelled up to the point that my guide wanted to take me to a hospital. The changing of the guard was only 20 minutes away, but instead, we chose to go back to the hotel so I could take some Benedryl.
There is also a textile museum and paper factory that can be visited in Bhutan that is supposed to be fascinating. But Dave and I didn’t blend well with our fellow journalists so we went off to explore the more adventurous side of Thimphu like the archery and monasteries, while they went the other way on the bus.
Remember, when on a tour, it’s your vacation, you don’t have to stick with the crowd, even if you feel pressured to. Group tours are good for helping to guide you, but you can still explore on your own.
WHERE TO EAT IN THIMPHU
7/ SIMPLY BHUTAN
Simply Bhutan is a fun little stop in Thimphu for lunch and to take a look at all things Bhutan.
It is a place to eat in Thimphu, but it is also a museum that gives you a taste of everything Bhutan including a taste of the local spirit, Arag. (a creamy spirit distilled from rice, wheat or maize)
You can try your hand at archery, see the phallic garden, and try on some traditional dress.
8/ SEASONS RESTAURANT
This little place feels like it could be anywhere in the world. They offer pizzas and pasta and although we didn’t order it, others tried the burgers and said they were great.
WHERE TO STAY IN THIMPHU
We stayed at the Le Meridien Thimphu. An SPG hotel, it was luxurious and central. We could walk to many of the popular eateries.
There is a swimming pool, spa, lounge, and restaurant.
Delicious buffet breakfast was served in the mornings and our room was well-appointed with modern amenities and the staff was beyond friendly. It was a wonderful experience.
THINGS TO DO IN PUNAKHA, BHUTAN
The next stop from Thimphu is usually the district of Phunaka.
Phunaka was once the capital of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is set within the Phunaka Valley where the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River) rivers meet.
There are plenty of things to do in Punakha and the tone is set immediately just a short drive outside of Thimphu when you reach your first viewpoint.
9/ DOCHULA PASS
Dochula Pass is a popular stop for tour buses driving between Thimpu and Punakha.
Set at 3100 meters in the mountains, there are 108 Chortens (shrines) overlooking the valley. Take your time to explore the monastery and surrounding pathways for different views.
There is also a botanical park nearby, a shop for snacks, tea, and souvenirs, and a temple. Most people don’t stay here for long, but we had two separate stops here and couldn’t get enough.
When the weather is clear, a stunning view of the high Himalayas opens up that can be seen over the valley.
10/ PHUNAKA DZONG
Phunaka Dzong is the most famous Dzong in Bhutan.
As you now know, Dzongs were fortresses in Bhutan that were changed over to administrative buildings. They were usually massive complexes with interior courtyards surrounded by exterior walls.
Besides being administrative offices they are also monks’ accommodation and when visiting a dzong, chances are you will have the opportunity to interact with local monks.
The Phunaka Dzong is the second oldest Dzong in Bhutan built in 1637 and is considered the country’s most majestic dzong. The King even had his wedding here in 2011.
Taking the wooden bridge across the river sets the tone for entering the dzong. You know you are going somewhere special. Monks still walk the grounds and you share your stroll with them going about their daily business.
Visitors are free to explore all the rooms in the dzong including the temple and courtyards. The main courtyard houses a massive Bodhi Tree (a very old and sacred fig tree) and offers a serene setting to take in the extraordinary structure.
Take your time and feel the energy and serenity of the dzong. It is worth spending a couple of hours enjoying the tranquility.
11/ SUSPENSION BRIDGE
Just a short walk from Phunaka Dzong is Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge.
The 160-meter long bridge spans the Po Chhu River connecting the town of Phunaka with Phunaka Dzong.
It’s a heavenly scene with prayer flags draped over the rails all the way along. Take a walk across and keep an eye out for people whitewater rafting below.
12/ KHAMSUM YULLEY NAMGYAL CHORTEN
Overlooking the Phunaka Valley, this Chorten (shrine) is spectacular. It’s a 45-minute hike through rice terraces and rice fields. It takes passed prayer wheels on a dirt trail that turns into a stone path.
The chorten was built by the Queen Mother as a dedication to the well being of the Kingdom.
Fun Fact: The 4 story building was built using measurements from the Holy scripture rather than engineering stats.
Once you reach the temple, it offers incredible views of the Phunaka Valley.
You cannot take photos or video inside the shrine due to the holy scriptures and paintings on the walls, but you are free to take out your cameras once you reach the top to take in the incredible views of the valley below.
13/ WHITEWATER RAFTING
It’s always fun to go whitewater rafting, and just outside Phunnaka is an easy class 2-3 whitewater rafting trip that takes you through the valley.
You’ll go under suspension bridges, see the surrounding mountains, dzongs, and chortens.
We recommend whitewater rafting during the day for a refreshing cool off. We boarded our raft near sunset and once that sun went down, that cold water created quite a chill.
14/ FERTILITY TEMPLEWalking to the fertility temple is the highlight of this trip. The village is lined with shops selling phallic symbols covered with paintings and art of giant cartoonlike penises.
Once you leave the village, the walk through the valley towards the temple is about 20 minutes (unless you are like us and take forever photographing and filming the incredible views)
The temple itself was surprising because once we arrived there, we saw no phallic symbols of the sort. We expected to see golden penis statues lining the yard, but was a proper temple. The temple was built in 1499 by the Divine Madman. Hew as called the diving madman because he practiced Buddhism differently than others and was considered eccentric.
Women come to the temple for blessings for their children and to help them conceive.
WHERE TO STAY IN PHUNAKA, BHUTAN
The Dhensa Boutique Resort was a wonderful break from traveling Bhutan. Bhutan is a physical destination with a lot of trekking and activity. Staying in a boutique resort gave us the energy to recharge.
They offer nightly shows highlighting Bhutan culture around the outdoor fireplaces as well.
15/ FESTIVALS – ROYAL HIGHLANDER FESTIVAL
Bhutan is known as the land of festivals and you cannot visit the country without attending one.
The most popular festivals take place in the main cities of Paro, Thimphu, and Phunaka.
But there are festivals wherever you go. Getting out of the main tourist towns can give you a more authentic experience.
We highly recommend checking with your tour company or with the government website to see if there is one near your route.
Then you attended the Royal Highlander Festival in the Himalayan village of Laya; one of the most remote villages in all of Bhutan. Located above 3000 meters, there are no cars in this village.
The King himself started this festival to promote the culture and highlander communities of the region and when we attended, we met the king! He made himself available to everyone going down the line saying hello.
16/ MEET THE LOCALS
What makes travel so special to Bhutan are the peoples.
Bhutan has a happiness index that has given it the distinction as the happiest country on earth. Because Bhutan has kept tourism to a minimum by imposing a $250 per day tariff, the people of the country aren’t jaded to tourists yet.
They are still excited to see you and enjoy talking about life in Bhutan and asking about your home country.
Many of our most memorable moments in Bhutan were when we stopped to say hello and have a conversation with the local residents.
They were eager to call us over and have a chat. It is as if the Bhutanese are there to make sure you are having the best time possible.
17/ TRY THE FOOD
Food travel is an important part of any cultural experience. Bhutanese food has a distinct flavor and you will have plenty of opportunities to taste.
POPULAR BHUTANESE FOOD TO TRY ARE
1. Momos – Dumplings that can be bought at any roadside stand, shack, or fine dining establishments.
2. Ema Datshi – a local curried stew mixed with cheese, potatoes, and onions.
3. Ara (Arag) fermented wheat, corn, or rice spirit creating a milky texture.
4. Kewa Datshi – Scalloped Potatoes, my favorite!
5. Zaow – This puffed rice is poured into milk and tastes a lot like a cereal I ate in my youth.
18/ TREKKING TO THE HIMALAYAS
And last, but not least, when visiting Bhutan, you must trek into the Himalayas.
I would have put this at the top of things to do in Bhutan, but it seemed like a cop-out. Everyone knows that when you go to the Himalayas, you must trek into the mountains!
Treks in Bhutan range from 2 days to 25 days. They can be fairly easy for the relatively fit, to the most grueling trek on earth.
If you have limited time, there are several day hikes that will give you a glimpse of what it is like to hike in the mighty Himalaya mountain range.
We had the opportunity to hike from Gaza to Laya. Laya is one of the most remote villages in Bhutan and the trek is a wonderful 2-day hike taking you above 4000 meters. In total it is four days return. Longer if you hike from Gaza village proper.
Bhutan is a magical destination that very few people on earth have the chance to visit. If you are looking for a dream trip to somewhere unique, you should put Bhutan at the top of your list!