As part of my three-week trip to the Himalayas, I also spent four nights in Bhutan. This Shangri-La of Central Asia is very different from Nepal on several fronts. Firstly, it costs 190 US$ to 280 US$ per day per person to enter the country (except for Indian citizens who are granted “freedom of movement”). These fees must be paid upfront, as a prerequisite to getting your entry visa. For this fee, you get a driver, guide (Sherpa), accommodations, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This serves to maintain Bhutan as a prestigious destination, compared to the more liberal approach of Nepal. Not everyone will be happy to be tethered to a guide for their entire journey, but you have the advantage of getting instant answers to all your questions.
My trip was organized by Firefox Tours, who were great in educating me about the region, best times to travel, and sites to visit. They prepared a detailed itinerary before arriving, and allowed flexible changes with my guide, Nima Wangchuk Sherpa, as needed.
Nima had decades of experience, stories, and cultural insights to share with me. He even led several exhibitions along the Snowman Trek, which is considered to be the most difficult in the world. While I struggled up several trekking paths during my stay, I don’t think I saw Nima sweat once. Ask for him by name if you want a humble and knowledgeable guide.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an “official” invitation to visit Bhutan. Availability is based on flight limitations and the traveler’s willingness to pay the daily rate. This approach has restricted visitation to only 70 thousand in 2018, compared to over a million to Nepal each year.
Bhutan is a beautiful and spiritual country. The Tiger’s Nest (locally called Paro Taktsang) is a must-see destination. Fore-warning that it requires a 90-minute to two-hour hike to get there. For the lazy, out-of-shape, or aging, you can ride a donkey for half the journey. Consider the trek a pilgrimage of sorts – it’s worth the effort.
By far the highlight of my trip was spending an evening at the Dodey Drak Monastery. This was a magical place. You feel its tranquility and harmony the moment you arrive. There are no roads to get there, so calculate a two-hour uphill trek through the mountains of Thimphu.
This particular monetary housed 180 student monks. They wake every morning at 04:30 to begin prayers at 05:00. Breakfast isn’t until 07:00. Throughout the day they learn the philosophy and rituals of Buddha. In the afternoon they debate religion and philosophy.
During my visit to the Dodey Drak Monastery, I was lucky enough to witness annual prayers that began the following morning, called Zhabdrung Kuchoe. This ceremony commemorates the anniversary of Bhutan’s great founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He came to Bhutan in 1616 and is honored for the unification of their country.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the temples, but I managed to get lots of photos of pilgrims arriving from Thimphu as they were arriving and leaving.
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